You’ve heard it before just like I have if you’ve ever had a conversation with someone about “emerging” forms of church; they’re relativistic, they’re heretical, they don’t know what they believe in, they never challenge one another, they’re pluralistic, etc etc. Tony Jones presented a paper at Wheaton College at a conference that, while pretentious in its vocabulary, holds the potential to be a groundbreaking investigation of what it means to be church, what the people of God believe, and how the people of God act. You may not be interested in this subject, but I’ll post what I think is the most important section of his paper precisely because his thoughts are so incisive. Here you go.
“If I may borrow from the syntax of the Savior, let me now circle back to the emergent church and attempt to solidify our approach to orthodoxy and answer the question; Whence hermeneutical authority?
You have heard it said that the emergent church values orthopraxy over orthodoxy, but I say to you, if orthodoxy is an event, then another veil has been torn. There is no difference between the two. Orthoparadoxy, as my friend Dwight Friesen calls it, is the dialectical tension in which these two poles stand. Let me put it more boldly: there is no orthodoxy without orthopraxy. It doesn’t exist. People may talk about it, but they also talk about unicorns.
You have heard it said that the emergent church is run by relativists, but I say to you that we are all relativists. We walk into the Christian bookstore and choose a Bible off the shelf, one that’s been translated by a particular group of people with a particular theological bias. You choose that Bible relative to all the other choices in front of you. And you make a relative choice about where you go to church, what college you attend, and whom you marry. Like the umpire who has to call out “Ball!” or “Strike!” a split second after the ball hits the catcher’s mitt, some calls are easy: right down the heart of the biblical plate. But others are tougher, painting the outside corner. We make the best call we can, and live with the consequences.
You have heard it said that emergent churches abandon individual salvation for the sake of communal life, but I say to you that our communities of faith are made up of individual rational actors who have chosen to enter communities of orthoparadoxy, communities where, together, we are figuring out exactly where the strike zone is.
You have heard it said that emergent churches disparage biblical models of pastoral leadership and opted for egalitarian communities, but I say to you that leadership comes in many forms. Some charge that by opening up the Bible, even opening up the sermon, for many voices (including the marginalized) to speak, we are in danger of heterodoxy because we have forsaken strong biblical teaching. But history is clear: the danger of heterodoxy, even of cults, is far more acute when biblical interpretation is solely the purview of on leader or an oligarchy. Let’s put it this way, Jim Jones and David Koresh weren’t asking people to talk openly during the sermon about what they agreed and disagreed with.
And you have heard it said that the emergent church doesn’t stand under the hermeneutical weight of church history, but I say to you that we are more true to the church fathers because they are part of our dialogue. No, they do not rule over us, but they do enter into our event of orthodoxy with an authoritative voice. Have you looked at Luther’s 95 Theses? They’re not about systematic theology, they’re about the very specific issues of his day. Have you read Augustine’s treatises? They are confronting the Pelagianism of his day. And Aquinas? The Islamic Aristotelianism of his day. This is orthodoxy: an ongoing conversation asking; who is God?, who are we?, and what’s the relationship between us?”
*Update* The links to the paper and the accompanying powerpoint presentation are here, in the post on the top of the page.