An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches.
By Ray S. Anderson. InterVarsity Press, 2006; 236 pages.
In the past ten to fifteen years a grassroots ecclesiological movement known as the Emerging Church has been gaining momentum in Evangelicalism. The advent of publications by Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and others has helped to cement an identity for this position at the popular level. However, more traditional evangelicals, especially those of mainline denominations, have criticized the movement for its lacking theological foundation. In an Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches, Ray S. Anderson attempts to construct a theology that can serve as a starting point for the movement and as a reply to those skeptical of its Biblical basis.
The thesis of the book, as Anderson defines it, is as follows:
The Christian community that emerged out of Antioch constitutes the original form and theology of the emerging church as contrasted with the believing community at Jerusalem. I will argue that the emerging churches in our present generation can find their ecclesial form and their core theology by tracing out the contours of the missionary church under Paul’s leadership based in Antioch. The difference is essentially a theological difference, not merely a geographical one.
One will notice that Anderson identifies the church of Antioch as the prototype of emerging churches today whereas the church in Jerusalem is the parallel of contemporary critics of the emerging movement. This distinction is important and is the framework for the rest of the book.
But why Antioch as opposed to Jerusalem?
Anderson identifies the emerging movement with Antioch because their theology was a “theology of revelation as led by Paul” rather than a theology defined by its historical continuity resulting in a “fortress mentality.” The robust experience of Paul with revelation (particularly in his conversion experience and evangelism in and around Antioch) informed his mission and sat in stark contrast to that of the Jerusalem church, where “every venture…even by an apostle, was tethered to home base by a theological bungee cord.” This stifled the community of Jerusalem’s ability to promote the gospel to the extent that Paul did. In contrast to present day Jerusalem churches, contemporary emerging churches follow an Antiochene model.
Emerging churches are in continuity with church tradition in the sense that Christ is their cornerstone (1 Peter 2:4), but are in discontinuity by the absence of any stress on “historical, religious or ethnic priority.” “The basis for this, as Paul argued, is revelation not merely religious tradition or historical precedent.” However, Anderson borrows Dan Kimball’s term “vintage theology” to characterize the theology of the emerging church as one that is defined not by riding the waves of culture towards the end of relevance, but by reintroducing a missionally driven paradigm demonstrated by the early Pauline community.
The emerging movement is one that embraces and seeks to live out the “spirit of Christ” as demonstrated in the early community of Antioch. This is interesting because as Anderson even acknowledges, “Pentecost occurred at Jerusalem not Antioch.” Yet, he rightly affirms that Paul’s emergent theology was revelational. Paul himself said in his letter to Galatia, “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). Emerging churches are, therefore, in this Pauline tradition of revelation that is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Conversely, despite Pentecost the Jerusalem community did not come to have a robust Holy Spirit driven theology (according to Anderson), but instead capitulated to the tradition of the twelve as a paradigm which stifled and drove their development as a faith community.
Because Antioch was sensitive to the Spirit through Paul’s guidance, Anderson points out that they were driven by what might be called eschatological teleology. The same spirit that led Paul now “comes to the church from the future, not the past.” Therefore, emerging churches are kingdom communities drawn by the Spirit to a particular destination instead of being driven by ecclesiological constructs and history. Emerging churches likewise can be identified as emphasizing the two emerging elements found in the book of Acts: kerygma and koinonia, the former being the “proclamation of the crucified and risen Messiah” and the latter being the “commonality of life in the Spirit.”
Crucial to Anderson’s proposed theological method for the emerging movement is a “two narratives” model. He states:
One narrative is the Scripture text…the other narrative is the work of God through the Holy Spirit….. By saying that the work of God interprets the Word of God, I am speaking of these two narratives, distinguished as a canonical and inspired text of Word of God and a noncanonical narrative of the contemporary work of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
This paradigm, which I think is helpful to some extent, is important for demonstrating the fact that God is in fact working in the contemporary emerging church as he did in the original emerging community of Antioch. Some might object that the narrative of the work of God through the Holy Spirit is too subjective and is thus a slippery slope. But Anderson goes to great length to show that Paul himself employed this model. The work of the Holy Spirit can be verified by a “biblical antecendent” (as Paul justified salvation to the Gentiles through Abraham’s being justified before the Law). This paradigm allows for what Anderson calls “eschatological preference; the work of Christ that comes out of the future into the present by the Holy Spirit.”
One of the most helpful distinctions in the book is that of ministry/mission. Anderson states:
mission, rather than ministry, expands God’s kingdom and renews the spiritual life of the church. Ministry expends Spirit in programs and body building; mission breathes in Spirit and promotes body movement. Ministry tends to become centripetal—drawing energy toward the center; mission tends to be centrifugal—impelling energy outward.
Thus, emerging communities are both inward serving and outward reaching. The missional nature of the church is not an addendum to its existence, but rather defines the very nature of the community as a social structure. To be emerging is to be missionally minded!
Anderson stresses certain concepts throughout the book that are biblical and are markers of a healthy church (i.e. being Spirit sensitive, missionally driven, etc.). However, he also commits some over-simplifications. Take for instance his following statement: “The gospel of the emerging church is vintage wine; it is the gospel of grace through Abraham. Older wineskins have carried it forward in history, but these are disposable when they have served their purpose.” In a basic sense, this statement stands. But it is not really as simple as Anderson paints it. Much of the theology of the church, that is, what the teachings of the Bible and early Christianity actually mean, developed later in and through an intricate nexus of ecclesiological wineskins. It is not as if one can say that the gospel in its fullest form was present in the earliest communities. Theology is developmental. This is seen most evidently through the development of the doctrine of the trinity climaxing in the Nicene Creed. Thus, these developments (especially the creeds) are essential to the life of the church today. They are vehicles, perhaps even wineskins, one might say, of the faith, which should never be discarded but should be knit into the liturgy of every community of believers due to their inherent historical and theological value.
Moreover, Paul is not only a theologian of revelation, but also of truth (an element often underscored in emerging communities). In 1 Timothy 3:15 Paul states, “God’s household, which is the church of the living God, [is] the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Revelation is obviously important. But in the current age one cannot shrink from proclaiming and promoting truth. In fact, divine revelation implies truth! Therefore, Thomas Oden writes, “As Christ is God personally with us, so is the church Christ personally with us, teaching his truth and transmitting his grace.” Anderson must be careful not to overstress revelation to the exclusion of truth. Incarnational living necessitates living out of truthful revelation!
While recounting the nature of his own church, Anderson states:
We are a church that recognizes the Bible as the Word of God and our final authority. There is no attempt to prove that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, it is simply used as having authority. If one were to question the preacher as to issues of redaction criticism (who really wrote some of the letters of Paul) and inerrancy (is every word true?) the response would probably be, ‘We are too busy here doing the Kingdom of God work to spend time on such issues.’”
I understand the underlying notion that many churches become so encumbered with these types of questions that they never do any real ministry. However, one does not need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The questions of inerrancy and redaction criticism are legitimate and crucial questions for this age. One might argue that being missional in this age requires a knowledge and an ability to respond thoughtfully and biblically to these issues! A tendency of avoidance towards these questions will, I think, inevitably lead towards the stifling of sincere inquirers of the faith who struggle with such intellectual issues. Thus, Anderson commits an egregious false-dichotomy. “Kingdom of God work” must include an answer to these questions, lest we degenerate into neo-fundamentalists!
Anderson’s text is valuable for my personal ministry in that it forces me to seriously consider evil present within social structures and ecclesiological constructs. Indeed, there are social structures that are inherently evil, and Christians should be at the front lines of the war against such systems of oppression. This might include promoting adoption and literacy, speaking out against instances of injustice (like in Darfur and Rwanda), doing everything possible to see that health care is more accessible to the general public, etc. Moreover, if oppressive constructs exist within the church, they should be modified or done away with altogether.
Second, the author’s distinction between mission and ministry is also helpful for me seeing that I have recently begun to be more involved in outreach in my church. Are we narcissistic in our methods? That is, are we seeking to do ministry that just builds up those already present in the church body without infusing love and grace to the community around the church? Anderson states, “For the church to be both incarnational and Pentecostal in its theology and praxis, it must recover the dynamic relation between its nature and mission.” In reflecting upon the nature of the church, one cannot deny the essential role of the Spirit-empowerd communal living of believers. This is crucial for myself other American Christians, especially since a propensity exists among us to be shaped by our culture into individualistic autonomists. Anderson’s text is a siren crying out to contemporary Christians to avoid such tendencies.
Finally, I appreciate Anderson’s insistence of the kingdom community being about the Living Christ and not only the Historical Jesus. It is one thing to talk about Napoleon as a historical figure. You can discuss what he did, said and accomplished. But it is another thing to talk about Jesus Christ who shows up at your church service in the power of the Holy Spirit. I might depart from some of Anderson’s conclusions regarding the value of disciplines such as redaction criticism and the like, but I am in full-hearted agreement with him that we must experience Christ, not just talk about him. As Ignatius said, “…wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”
Ray S. Anderson has composed a book that serves as a fresh theological foundation for the emerging movement. While I find much to disagree with, I also find many of his insights helpful and applicable to the contemporary situation. My hope is that as the movement matures it will begin to view elements within the historical church not only as pragmatic in some contexts, but as essential for guiding and anchoring the church in its future trajectory.