The Emergent/Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is eclectic and broad based, so is very difficult to label. Imagine it as a huge American-style multi-lane freeway; all lanes of traffic are heading in the same direction, towards the same destination, but some lanes of traffic are travelling faster than others. On the freeway of the ECM people like Rick Warren are probably best described as being generally in the slow lane most of the time, so he can keep saying he is an “evangelical” without most Christians batting an eyelid. However he does “flirt” (dice) with the middle lanes from time to time, and has even been spotted cruising in the outside fast lane, but he tends to do that mostly under the cover of darkness, so it is more difficult to catch his licence plate! Warren must have been driving in the outside fast lane with his headlights turned off when he had Leonard Sweet in the passenger seat for their 1994 joint audio teaching titled Tides of Change, because very few “evangelicals” seemed to notice, or even care.
ECM leader (and very obvious New Age heretic) Brian McLaren just spends all his time exceeding the speed limit in the outside lane with his hand on the horn, so no one can ignore him! Wherever the ECM is headed McLaren is leading the way and wants to get there first and make a name for himself in the process. Where is the ECM freeway headed? McLaren gives us the very clear answer to that question. The ECM freeway is headed off the God-given map. In his book Church on the Other Side McLaren explains the objective of the ECM:
We are “exploring off the map” – looking into mysterious territory beyond our familiar world on this side of the river, this side of the ocean, this side of the boundary between modern and postmodern worlds. We are looking into an exciting, unmapped world on the other side of all we know so far (pages 7-8).
In spite of this admission McLaren continues to be accepted by much of the “evangelical” world Rob Bell on the other hand weaves in and out of the middle lanes and the outside fast lane, so it has at times been difficult to keep up with him, or pin a precise label on him. Nevertheless, all lanes of the ECM freeway are headed in the same direction; some people will just arrive quicker than others at their destination.
In grasping the nature and language of the ECM it is helpful to have an understanding of epistemology, which is basically the study of truth and how we learn truth. The Oxford Dictionary describes Epistemology as:
The theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.
Throughout the history of man there have essentially been three major trends in Epistemology, which can be defined as:
All three are linked to a very general timeframe throughout human history.
A premodern epistemology assumes that God exists and knows everything. Therefore, truth begins with God because a premodern epistemology says our knowledge and ability to learn truth depends on divine revelation from God Himself.
Roughly speaking, premodern epistemology ended after the 16th Century, during the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement which emphasised reason and individualism over tradition. Rene Descartes (1596- 1650), the French philosopher, mathematician and writer, is generally regarded as being responsible for the shift to Modernism.
Modernism assumes that truth can be found through the senses of man. What we feel, see and measure becomes the focus of how truth is learned. As science seeks truth through what man can see by observation, it plays a much more important role in modernism than it did in the premodern era. While the existence of God is compatible with modernism, the focus of God being the source of truth moves to man being the source of truth. Modernism has really lasted up until just the last few decades, when postmodernism began to emerge.
Postmodernism is the buzzword of the ECM. It not only denies that absolute truth can be known, but also questions whether or not absolute truth is even desirable. For example, Brian McLaren says, “It’s not about truth; maybe there are no answers.” The end result of finding absolute truth becomes secondary to the journey of discovery; the journey becomes as important, if not more important, than the destination, with the destination often never being achieved or even desired. Truth becomes relative - experiential. For example, in his book, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations, Dan Kimball writes:
The basis of learning has shifted from logic and rational, systematic thought to the realm of experience. People increasingly long for the mystical and the spiritual rather than the evidential and facts-based faith of the modern soil (page 60).
This is a book in which Kimball promotes pagan meditative practices and calls for a return to what he describes as “Vintage Christianity”, which rather than meaning a return to the teachings and practices of the first century apostles, actually means a return to the occult practices of the Roman Catholic mystics and the practices of the pagan Eastern mystery religions from which the Roman Catholic mystics obtained their practices. Both Brian McLaren and Rick warren wrote gushing forwards for Kimball’s book. Warren wrote:
This book is a wonderful, detailed example of what a purpose- driven church can look like in a postmodern world. My friend Dan Kimball writes passionately, with a deep desire to reach the emerging generation and culture. While my book, The Purpose Driven Church, explained what the church is called to do, Dan’s book explains how to do it with the cultural creatives who think and feel in postmodern terms. You need to pay attention to him because times are changing (page 7).
The ECM is most definitely postmodern in its approach to Christian doctrine, language and spiritual experience. In his book A Is For Abductive: the Language of the Emerging Church, McLaren confirms the ECM view that we are living in a postmodern world, and describes it as:
... a broad, diverse, and often paradoxical emerging culture defined as having passed through modernity and being ready to move to something better beyond it (page 239).
Something better? The question is: better by whose standard?
Postmodernism denies that any story or written word has an absolute message, with the author’s original point or intent not being important; only what the reader takes out of it is important, meaning that the written word only has meaning in how the reader interprets it. For example, Brian McLaren argues that the key to interpreting the parables of Jesus is to use our imagination. This is unabashed Gnosticism and opens up the reader to any interpretation, no matter how unbiblical.
The attitude of, “This is what it means to me” becomes the issue instead of what the author intended. This is incredibly destructive and dangerous when the book in question is the Bible and the author God. This leads to the Bible being downgraded from being the Word of God to just a book containing the Word of God; something Spurgeon described as “the down-grade”. This is done implicitly by those in the slower inner lanes of the ECM freeway and explicitly by those speeding along in the outer fast lanes. This seemingly subtle shift in emphasis is seismic in implication and allows postmodernists (like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell et al) to claim that truth found in extra- biblical sources has equal authority with the Bible; they claim the church wrote the Bible, so the church can rewrite it; both these claims are of course Satanic lies.
In postmodernism, not only has the focus of truth moved from God to mankind, but has moved a step further from mankind to the individual; your truth may be truth to you, but may not be truth to me. This is a real problem when Jesus claimed to be the Truth (John 14:6). The Emergent attitude to absolute truth in the context of Christianity is typified by a chapter in Dan Kimball’s book, They Like Jesus But Not The Church, titled The Church Arrogantly Claims All Other Religions are wrong. There is a difference between arrogance and confidence and the true Christian church can say with all confidence that all other religions are wrong because Jesus says He is the only way; that is why the true church says the same.
In accordance with its postmodern view the ECM is about dialogue (conversation), rather than conclusion and certainty. Questions do not necessarily need answers. For example, in Adventures in Missing the Point by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, McLaren states:
Drop any affair you may have with certainty, proof, argument – and replace it with dialogue, conversation, intrigue, and search (page 84).
The Fuel in the Tank
The fuel in the tanks of all the various kinds of vehicles travelling the ECM freeway is something called deconstructionism. www.freedictionary.com describes this as:
A philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth; asserts that words can only refer to other words; and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings.
Deconstruction theory was developed by the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida (1930- 2004), a major figure in postmodern philosophy. In its simplest form deconstructionism is a postmodern method of questioning all objective meaning and authority, thus encouraging multiple readings and interpretations of a text.
Rather than drawing from the theological and intellectual roots of the first century apostles, the ECM draws from postmodern philosophers for its wisdom and methods of interpreting Scripture; men like Jaques Derrida, who is acknowledged by name by Tony Jones in his book The New Christians (on pages 41 and 43) as being an influence on Emergent thought, along with Richard Rorty (1931-2007) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984).
This postmodern method of interpretation is totally incompatible with the Word of God, because deconstructionism is about questioning everything to the point where no one can even know what the author intended and the meaning is left to the interpretation of the reader; it dismisses Authorial Intent and replaces it with Reader Response. This contradicts what the Bible says about itself being all inspired (authored) by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and not subject to private interpretation, but being the direct result of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). When Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16 that, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God”, the word “inspiration” used is translated from the Greek word theopneustos, meaning “God-breathed”. We should therefore take note of the author’s intent, rather than replace it with the reader’s own response.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 Paul commended the Thessalonians for receiving:
The word of God which you heard from us, you wel- comed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.
In Luke 1:1-4 we read how Luke wrote to his friend Theophilus that he “had perfect understanding of all things from the very first”, and that he wanted Theophilus to “know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.”
How very un-Emergent of Luke.
Deconstruction is so important to ECM thinking that Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet devote an entire chapter to it in their book A is For Abductive – the Language of the Emerging Church. They state that deconstruction is:
One of the most important philosophical/interpretive concepts of postmodernity.
They go on to say on page 88:
Traditional modern interpretation, then, is fond of finding the one “true” meaning in a text, while deconstructionists do not give any one reading privileged status, but rather are interested in hearing the interplay of many interpretations that arise from within many different interpretive communities.
As a further example, Doug Pagitt (another key ECM figure) writes in his book Church Re-Imagined:
At Solomon’s Porch [his fellowship], sermons are not primarily about my extracting truth from the Bible to apply to people’s lives. In many ways the sermon is less a lecture or motivational speech than it is an act of poetry – of putting words around people’s experiences to allow them to find deeper connection in their lives... So our sermons are not lessons that precisely define belief so much as they are stories that welcome our hopes and ideas and participation (page 166).
A is for What?
Christians need to have a proper hermeneutic (i.e. method of interpreting the Bible). Abductive reasoning was created by American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and was ironically first introduced using the term “guessing”. It is yet another example of how the ECM draws its wisdom and methods of interpreting Scripture from postmodern philosophers. Abductive reasoning is a method of reasoning in which one chooses the hypothesis that would, if true, best explain the relevant evidence. It is a method of interpretation that claims to do its best with the information at hand, but allows for a creative leap of imagination not warranted by the information available. Abductive reasoning is often used as a way of interpreting philosophy, which is fine, because philosophy is the subjective reasoning and imagination of fallible human beings, so the use of subjective fallible human reasoning and imagination to interpret subjective fallible human reasoning and imagination is perfectly acceptable; one can deconstruct human philosophy as much as one wants. But it does not provide a legitimate way of interpreting the objective truth of Scripture. The proper way of interpreting Scripture is not abductive, but inductive. This enables the reader to draw out of Scripture the objective truth the author intended to convey. Unlike abductive reasoning/deconstruction, the inductive method of interpretation maintains Authorial Intent (i.e. remains true to the authors intended meaning) and enables proper Exegesis of Scripture, whereas abductive reasoning/ deconstruction is Eisegesis, which reads into Scripture whatever the reader wants it to say (i.e. Reader Response).
ECM leaders would do well to take note of the following quote by evangelist George Whitefield (1714- 1770):
God has condescended to become an author, and yet people will not read His writings. There are very few that ever gave this Book of God, the grand charter of salvation, one fair reading through.
The ECM is guilty of not giving God’s Word a fair reading through; its leaders deny what the Bible says about itself. For example, in addition to the previously mentioned passages:
The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. You shall keep them, O Lord, You shall preserve them from this generation forever - Psalm 12:6-7.
For the word of the Lord is right, and all His work is done in truth - Psalm 33:4.
Forever, O Lord, your word is settled in heaven - Psalm 119:89.
The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever - Psalm 119:160.
Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar - Proverbs 30:5-6.
Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth - John 17:17.
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword... - Hebrews 4:12.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth - 2 Timothy 2:15.
Settled in heaven, pure, truth, right, quick, powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. Where is the uncertainty in that? Enough said.
The reality is that people who are not Christians can read and understand the Bible; there are many Bible theologians who are not born-again. The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian reading the Bible is that the Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who helps Christians to apply Scripture to their lives and be obedient to it. Abductive reasoning / deconstruction denies even the Christian reader this opportunity because it ultimately undermines God’s Authorial Intent and replaces it with Reader Response. How can God communicate with the believers who only hear their own voice?
Rick Warren reveals his postmodern Emergent credentials by employing a very subtle (yet no less dangerous) form of deconstruction in his teaching that most Christians are oblivious to. He does this not by directly questioning the meaning of Bible passages, or the author’s original intention, but by teaching from a multitude of different Bible paraphrases. Paraphrases are not translations, but are merely interpretations by the authors of what they think the original author meant, and in many cases what they think the Bible should say in order to fit in with their own theological position (Eugene Peterson’s The Message is a perfect example of this). Warren cleverly takes advantage of the deconstruction already performed on Scripture by the authors of the various paraphrases he uses in order to find an interpretation and meaning of a Bible passage that fits in with what he wants to say. The Purpose Driven Life is a perfect example of this, as Warren quotes from no less than 15 different Bible versions within his best-selling book.
Deconstruction of God’s Word leaves people:
Always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:7).
This is perfectly illustrated by a comment made by Rob Bell in a Christianity Today article entitled Five Streams of the Emerging Church (19/1/2007):
I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible, Kristen [his wife] says, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means.
Why then is he trying to teach others and why are people looking to him for answers he does not have? It is the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:13-14; Luke 6:39).
You see evidence of Robert Bell deconstructing the Word of God throughout his books, but that is not surprising when he teaches God Himself has given us authority to find our own interpretations. On page 50 of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, Bell makes an astonishing claim regarding what Jesus said in Matthew 16:19:
And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
What he is doing here is significant. He is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible. He is giving them permission to say, “Hey, we think we missed it before on that verse, and we’ve recently come to the conclusion that this is what it actually means.
Let us be absolutely clear in what Robert Bell is claiming Jesus is doing here. He is claiming that Jesus is giving His disciples (and also us present day Christians) permission to deconstruct the Word of God in order to find new interpretations. How very “Emergent” of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Or perhaps Bell is just wrong...
The rabbis of Jesus’ day “bound” and “loosed” (i.e. allowed and disallowed) certain activities, so Bell is correct when he writes in Velvet Elvis that Jesus was deliberately using every day language the disciples would be familiar with in order to help them grasp and understand the important spiritual truth He was telling them; Jesus did this a lot (for example, Jesus explained His Second Coming to His disciples in terms of a Jewish wedding ceremony – see John 14). However, that is the only thing Bell does get right. Apart from that everything he claimed Jesus is saying to His disciples is utterly false.
The words “bound” and “loosed” in the Greek verb form are in the perfect passive participle, providing a sense of something having happened. This is part of speech present in some languages (such as Latin and Greek), but not present in English. It is therefore difficult to render an accurate translation of Matthew 16:19 in most English translations of the Bible. A much more accurate translation of the Greek can be found in the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which reads:
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (emphasis added).
The Greek reads:
Contrary to Bell’s claim, in Matthew 16:19 Jesus is not giving His followers the authority to make new interpretations to the Bible. Jesus is saying that whatever the apostles bound and loosed on earth had already been established in Heaven. In other words Christians can only allow and forbid what has already been allowed and forbidden in Heaven by God. Our moral authority on earth is simply a reflection or echo of what God has already determined in Heaven; nothing more and nothing less. God has already determined an order in Heaven that we have been given authority to bring about on earth. We do not get to decide what is “bound” and “loosed”, God has already determined that. This is why Jesus taught us to pray:
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven - Matthew 6:10.
Not Alone – In Bad Company
Rob Bell is of course not alone in his abuse of Matthew 16:19 in order to justify an unbiblical teaching. Word of Faith proponents also misuse it by claiming that whatever we as believers declare on earth, God has to affirm and honour in Heaven; they use this passage like it is a God- given contract of authority so that whatever is declared on earth has to be honoured by God in Heaven. However, as we have seen, a correct interpretation of Matthew 16:19 says the exact opposite to what Word of Faith proponents and Robert Bell claim.
The Roman Catholic Church also misuses Matthew 16:19 in order to justify its fallacious claim that Jesus granted all authority to the bishops of Rome through the doctrine of Apostolic Succession from Peter up to the present-day Pope. It allows the Roman Catholic Church to claim that when a Pope speaks ex cathedra (i.e. those teachings defined by the Pope and declared to be infallible), he speaks with the authority given by God to bind and loose.
In addition to God supposedly giving the authority to bind and loose to the Popes through Apostolic Succession, the Roman Catholic Church also teaches that because the Church gave us the Scriptures (which it did not), so the Church has pre-eminence over the Scriptures, meaning that whatever the Roman Catholic Church says has at least equal authority with the Word of God. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
In reality, Rob Bell’s wrong interpretation of binding and loosing takes the Roman Catholic wrong interpretation a step even further, because whilst the Roman Catholic Church claims only the Pope has the authority to reinterpret Scripture, Bell claims every believer has that authority. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
About the Author
James (Jamie) Smith is a financial adviser who gives specialist advice to doctors and dentists based in Sheffield, England, where he was born in 1970. He was raised in a Christian family and became a believer in his childhood. Jamie is married to Emma. They have two young daughters, Holly and Heidi, and are members of a small independent evangelical church in Sheffield. Jamie writes on various matters of the Christian faith with the aim of encouraging and equipping fellow believers to “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 3) by being able “to give an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope within us” (1 Peter 3:15)
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