Andrew, one of the respondents I quoted in my previous post (“Why the Pomo/Emergent Church is Extremely Dangerous”), gave a lengthy reply/defense in the comments to that post. I thought I would engage his comments in a separate post.
Clifton, I hope you don’t mind me posting a bit of a defence of the ‘Jesus is God’ discussion on Open Source Theology. I don’t want to address every point you have raised in your lengthy and detailed article, but I do want to make some general comments and respond to your criticism of my own relatively minor contribution to the discussion.
1. The ’emerging church’ tends to regard itself not as a clear fixed position but as a fluid, searching conversation. I realize that can sound slippery and evasive, but I would say that many, if not most, of the people who are engaged in this conversation are driven both by a need to to be honest about their state of belief and by a deep loyalty to the Jesus who is revealed in the scripture. The complexity and messiness of the conversation is explained by that tension. We are simply trying to understand things better. If we are going to confess before the world that Jesus is God, we want to know what we are saying – not as a matter of unthinking parroting of tradition, but in all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession. This is where many believers find themselves in this postmodern, post-Christendom moment, and we have to find some way of moving forward with integrity.
I am sympathetic to your comments here. I do, in fact, know something of what it means to be part of a delimited body of believers (one rather knows, I suspect, whether one’s church is an emergent congregation or not), but which body of believers have very few hard and fast confessional beliefs. My own background is the Restoration Movement churches (specifically, the instrument using “independent” Christian churches), and our identity was largely predicated upon a hermeneutic or an ecclesial method than it was on a confession. It seems to me that the em church believers are strikingly analogous to that.
Furthermore, I readily admit that I have no scientifically reliable data to prove my contention that the views expressed on the Open Source Theology blog are typical of em church believers. At best I can only offer my personal anecdotal evidence that my encounters with the writings, online and in print, of em church believers is wholly consistent with my contention (or vice versa). I would not be surprised if a person found such a contention question begging. In my defense, however, the counter-examples to my contention are much rarer, it seems to me.
In any case, the substance of your first point seems to me to be that em church believers are concerned to have and to do “authentic” theology. With this I have no quarrel, however strange at times the conclusions (even if provisional) of such theological wrestlings may seem to me. What I do strongly object to is the false dichotomy you have presented between either confession as “unthinking parroting of tradition” or “all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession.” Surely you can understand why I might object to what appears to me to be an unwarranted prejudicing of the issue in the favor of the em church apologetic.
I rather suppose this is precisely the problem I was trying to elucidate in my criticism: the failure to adequately come to grips with the actual life and thought of the Church through time and space. Or, to say it differently, the “richness, complexity and ambiguity” that you espouse as paradigmatic is not opposed to the simultaneous living of the tradition. To borrow Pelikan’s well-worn axiom: Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; Tradition is the living faith of the dead. I am becoming an Orthodox Christian precisely because the living faith of the Tradition, in all its richness, complexity and ambiguity, is not available to me anywhere else.
If we may take the Chalcedonian definition as a point in particular: What about Chalcedon is the “unthinking parroting of tradition”? By the same token, in what way does Chalcedon fail to manifest all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession.” And yet, what em church believer readily and wholeheartedly espouses Chalcedon? I don’t doubt that there are em churchers who do, after much throat clearing and footnotes perhaps. But what about ready and wholehearted affirmation of Chalcedon is in any way an “unthinking parroting of tradition”?
You go on:
2. The very diverse views expressed in the ‘Jesus is God’ post are not necessarily all consistent with any emerging ‘consensus’. It is an open conversation – that is simply the nature of the thing; we do not pretend to be in any sense normative or definitive for emerging theology.
It is this notion of “emergence” that at once prejudices the discussion in favor of the em church apologetic and simultaneously fails to account for any content to the term. What is an “emerging theology”? Whence it’s origins? If it arises from the “ruins” of the critique of modernist Christian theology, how can one know that one has truly sifted truth from error? If it is “emerging” from the surrounding culture, what does this say about em church ecclesiology? And correlatively, how does one know that it is Christian? Does it even matter that it is Christian?
Let’s grant the lack of a consensus. I happen to think this claim to a lack of consensus is a bit disingenuous, for I do happen to think there is broad consensus which privileges a so-called “postmodern” epistemology and anti-metaphysic, with the jargonish discourse to support such concepts, over any substantive truth claims (or metanarratives that purport to be objectively or absolutely true). But let us for now stipulate such an inchoate “theology.”
In what sense, one is pressed to ask, can em church believers speak in any meaningful way of the Gospel? Don’t mistake. I am not in any way opposed to the particularity of the Gospel which distinguishes between communities and (small t) traditions. But I fail to see how, if such a plurality of “gospels” fails to reach any sort of singular consensus St. Paul’s words in Galatians anathematizing those who preach a different gospel retain any meaning any longer. And if the gospel is inescapably plural, then I do not see how it can engender any ecclesial identity beyond the several individuals who happened to meet this past Sunday, which several individuals will differ from those who happen to meet next week, such that not even a local community retains any norming identity, and church just happens to be whatever it is now.
The above criticism notwithstanding, the intention stated in the following point is one I wholly affirm as well.
3. Any particular post should be understood in the context of the whole site (and for that matter of the whole emerging conversation). You could, for example, have a look at ‘The marks of a renewed theology’. I can’t really speak on behalf of the whole ’emerging community’, but for myself at least the intention is to be more, not less, biblical.
I would only press you on what it means for an emerging theology to be biblical. It is a polyvalent term that I’m not sure is adequately grounded in any meaningful or coherent context–for such an intention is predicated upon a particular hermeneutic. And I do not see that the (so-called) “postmodern” hermeneutic is, in any way, ecclesial, and therefore how it can in any meaningful way make an emergent theology biblical.
You next disagree with my contention of semantic or functional equivalence between “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is Lord.”
4. I would still disagree that ‘Jesus is God’ and ‘Jesus is Lord’ are semantically or functionally equivalent, but this requires a more careful response. The objection that Christians were pressured into confessing that ‘Caesar is Lord’ rather than ‘Caesar is God’ seems to me trivial given the pervasiveness of an ideology of imperial divinity. I could be completely wrong in suggesting that the cultic-political context was significant for the development of the slogan ‘Jesus is God’, but it surely makes good historical sense to suppose that something like this was in the background. And please notice that I did not say that it was ‘simply rhetorical context’ – you have added the word ‘simply’. We can recognize the rhetorical context without diminishing the theological significance of the statement.
I did misattribute the term “simply” to your contention, and for that I ask your pardon. It was, ironically, a rhetorical slip on my part.
It seems that my remarks on “Jesus is Lord” were abbreviated enough to fail to adequately convey what I mean. I meant, and mean, that the pneumatic expression “Jesus is Lord” is, in fact, in the biblical context, a real and absolute claim to divinity, even identity with God. This is abundantly clear when one takes into account that the Church’s Old Testament was the Septuagint, and the use of kurios in the ecclesial text and thus its usage in the New Testament.
I don’t deny that the demand to say “Caesar is Lord” was tantamount to a claim to divinity. In fact, that was precisely my point.
What I was objecting to was the notion that somehow “Jesus is God” is not a biblical proposition. In fact, it is.
5. As far as I can tell, you have misunderstood my point about opacity and transparency. I should have taken more trouble to explain. Apologies. At issue here is whether the different discourses we use to speak about Jesus are open to each other – so for example, can we see, beneath or behind the simple summary statements, something of the more complex narratives out of which they emerged and which they encapsulate. Equally, as we work through the difficult narrative or theological arguments, are we able to perceive the simple devotional or evangelistic statements that give practical and pastoral and prophetic force and clarity to our beliefs.
I grant that I very likely misunderstood your argument regarding opacity. But if so, I’m not sure that the above clarification really necessitates an alteration of my comments.
To say it another way, in light of your clarification: what sense does it make to say that a particular discourse or set of discourses is “opaque” to another discourse or set of discourses? Opacity is a metaphor, of course, describing the absence of a capacity for a set of terms in one located discourse to be meaningfully used (or transcribed, translated) into terms of another located discourse. You highlighted in the response I criticized in the previous post such discourses as historical, eschatological-apocalyptic, confessional-doxological, theological, mystical, and evangelistic. It’s not clear to me that it makes any sense to say that the historical discourse about theology or the Gospel is “opaque” to, say, the evangelistic discourse. After all, a discourse is merely a structured vocabularly oriented around formalized concepts. I’m not sure what sense it makes to say that concepts (or words) are opaque to one another, in part because I cannot make sense of what it might mean for a discourse to be hermetically sealed off from another discourse such that there was no possibility of transparency of any meaning between the two. For if such transparancy were, in fact, impossible, I’m not sure I could even conceive that such was impossible. In place of such a conception would be a cipher. Which is to reiterate in different words what I said before: if such things were, in fact, opaque, we could not know it.
Nor even if such claims to discursive opacity did make sense is it obvious that such claims are true. I can see how one might confess that these concepts and jargon speak to different things, but even evangelistic claims (Jesus is God) are grounded in historical discourse (Jesus was a man who lived in this place and time as attested to by these documents and witnesses, which documents and witnesses are variously supported by these archaeological finds).
6. I really don’t understand why critics of the emerging church feel that they have to adopt such a scornful, alarmist and judgmental tone of voice.
I readily grant that the title of my previous post is alarmist, and it does make a judgment (though whether that means it is judgmental might be a matter over which we could quibble). I do not think it or my post is scornful. In any case, I did not intend to scorn.
But that my post and its concomitant title make a judgement is inescapable, nor is it necessarily unChristian. We are called to test the spirits. Since the Holy Spirit is the one who gives it us to say that Jesus is Lord, and given that Jesus is Lord is an equivalent claim to confessing that Jesus is God, then to test the claims that question the meaning of that confession is wholly within my responsibilities as a Christian.
Further, if my judgment is right–and though I think that it is, I also grant it is not an infallible judgment–then any alarmist tone to my post is not only consonant with such judgment, it is necessary.
However, if my words conveyed any scorn, that I deeply regret, and for it I apologize and ask your forebearance.
Pray for me a sinner.