The Emergent Church: Emergence or Emergency? (2008)

The Emergent Church: Emergence or Emergency?
by Norman L. Geisler


The Background of Emergence Stated

There is one key influence on the Emergent Church movement—postmodernism.  While not all Emegents accept all premises of post-modernism, nonetheless, they all breathe the same air.  Post modernism embraces the following characteristics: 1) The “Death of God”—Atheism;  2) The death of objective truth—Relativism;  3) The death of exclusive truth—Pluralism;  4) Death of objective meaning—Conventionalism; 5) The death of thinking (logic)—Anti-Foundationalism;  6) The death of objective interpretation—Deconstructionism, and 7) the death of objective values—Subjectivism.

From post-modernism Emergents devise the following key ideas: They consider themselves: 1)Post-Protestant; 2)Post-Orthodox; 3)Post-Denominational; 4)Post-Doctrinal; 5) Post-Individual; 6) Post-Foundational; 7) Post-Creedal; 8)
Post-Rational, and 8)Post-Absolute.  It is noteworthy that “post” is a euphemism for “anti.”  So, in reality they are against all these things and more.

Brian McClaren, one of the leaders of the emergent church stressed the importance of the postmodernism influence upon the movement when he wrote, “But for me…opposing it [Postmodernism] is as futile as opposing the English language.  It’s here. It’s reality. It’s the future…. It’s the way my generation processes every other fact on the event horizon” (McLaren, The Church on the Other Side, 70).
“Postmodernism is the intellectual boundary between the old world and the other side.  Why is it so important? Because when your view of truth is changed, when your confidence in the human ability to know truth in any objective way is revolutionized, then everything changes. That includes theology…” (McLaren, COS, 69).


Basic Works by Emergents Listed
There is an ever increasing flow of emergent literature.  To date, it includes the following:

Brian McLaren, The Church on the Other Side
                            A Generous Orthodoxy
                            A New Kind of Christian
                            Everything Must Change
Stanley Grenz,  A Primer on Post-Modernism
                           Beyond Foundationalism
                          Revising Evangelical Theology
Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith
Doug Pagitt & Tony Jones, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope
Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from  the Emergent Frontier
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz
Steve Chalke and Allan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus
Dave Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical.
Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor, A Heretics Guide to Eternity
 See also:

Basic Beliefs of Emergents Examined
Of course, not all Emergents believe all the doctrines listed below, but some do, and most hold to many of them.  And since they associate with others in the movement that do, it is proper to list all of them.
McClaren insists that “Arguments that pit absolutism versus relativism, and objectivism versus subjectivism, prove meaningless or absurd to postmodern people” (McClaren, “The Broadened Gospel,” in “Emergent Evangelism,” Christianity Today 48 [Nov., 2004], 43).  This is a form of relativism.  Lets reduce the premise to its essence and analyze it by showing that it is self-refuting.
Relativism Stated: “We cannot know absolute truth.”
Relativism Refuted: We know that we cannot know absolute truth.


Anti-Exclusivism (Pluralism)
Pluralism is another characteristic of the emergent movement.  McClaren claims that “Missional Christian faith asserts that Jesus did not come to make some people saved and others condemned.  Jesus did not come to help some people be right while leaving everyone else to be wrong. Jesus did not come to create another exclusive religion” (McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 109).  In brief, —
1.         The Claim of Pluralism: “No view is  exclusively true.”
2.         The Self-Refutation: It claims that its view (that no view is exclusively true)   is exclusively true.


Foundationalism in the philosophical sense may be defined as the position that here are self-evident principles at the basis of all thought such as:
1. The Law of Identity (A is A).
2. The Law of Non-Contradiction (A is not non-A).
3. The Law of Excluded Middle (Either A or non-A).
4. The Laws of rational inference.


Inferences take several forms:

  1. The categorical form includes the following necessary inference:  a) All A is included in B; b) All B is included in C.  Hence, c) All A is included in C.
  2. Hypothetical inferences include the following: a) If all human beings are sinners, then John is a sinner; b) All human beings are sinners. c) Therefore, John is a sinner.
  3. Disjunctive inferences are like this: a) Either John is saved or he is lost. b) John is not saved. c) Therefore, John is lost.

One of the fore-fathers of the Emergent movement was Stanley Grenz who wrote a whole book against Foundationalism entitled: Beyond Foundationalism.  McClaren contents that:  “For modern Western Christians, words like authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute, and literal are crucial…. Hardly anyone knows …Rene Descartes, the Enlightenment, David Hume, and Foundationalism—which provides the context in which these words are so important.  Hardly anyone notices the irony of resorting to the authority of extra-biblical words and concepts to justify one’s belief in the Bible’s ultimate authority” (McLaren, GO, 164).

So, the claim and refutation of anti-foundationalism can be states like this:

1.         The Claim: “Opposites (e.g., A is non-A) can both be true.”
2.         The Self-Refutation: They hold that the opposite of this statement (that opposites can both be true) cannot be true.



Another characteristic is the denial that our statements about God are objectively true.  Grenz declared: “We ought to commend the postmodern questioning of the Enlightenment assumption that knowledge is objective and hence dispassionate” (Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, 166).
1.      The Claim of Anti-Objectivism: “There are no objectively true statements.”
2.      The Self-Refutation: It is an objectively true statement that there are no    objectively true statements.


Anti-Rationalism (Fideism)
Most emergents have a strong doze of fideism.  Grenz chided “Twentieth-century evangelicals [who] have devoted much energy to the task of demonstrating the credibility of the Christian faith…” (Grenz, Primer on Post-modernism, 160).
“Following the intellect can sometimes lead us away from the truth” (Grenz, PPM, 166).  One might add, that not following basic rational thought will lead you there a lot faster!
McClaren adds, “Because knowledge is a luxury beyond our means, faith is the best we can hope for.  What an opportunity! Faith hasn’t encountered openness like this in several hundred years” (McLaren, TheChurch on the Other Side, 173).
“Drop any affair you may have with certainty, proof, argument—and replace it with dialogue, conversation, intrigue, and search” (McLaren,Adventures in Missing the Point, 78).
Donald Miller confessed that  “My belief in Jesus did not seem rational or scientific, and yet there was nothing I could do to separate myself from this belief” (54).  He said, “My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect…. I don’t believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons. Who knows anything anyway?  If I walk away… I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons…” (103).
“There are many ideas within Christian spirituality that contradict the facts of reality as I understand them.  A statement like this offends some Christians because they believe if aspects of their faith do not obey the facts of reality, they are not true” (201).So the basic claim of anti-rationalism goes as follows:
1.         The Claim of Fideism: “There are no reasons for what we believe.”
2.         The Self-Refutation: There are good reasons for believing there are no good reasons for what we believe.

1.         The Claim of Fideism: “Knowledge is a luxury beyond our means.”
2.         The Self-Refutation: We have the luxury of knowing that we can’t have the luxury of knowing.


Anti-Objectivism (of Meaning)
Anti-Objectivism deals not only with truth (above) but with meaning (called conventionalism).  Emergent embrace both.  All meaning is culturally relative. There is no fixed meaning. Meaning is not objective.
1.         The Claim of Conventionalism: “There is no objective meaning.”
2.         The Self-Refutation: It is objectively meaningful to assert that there is no objective meaning.


Strangely, some emergents claim there is no objective world that can be known.  Rather, “the only ultimately valid ‘objectivity of the world’ is that of a future, eschatological world, and the ‘actual’ universe is the universe as it one day will be” (Grenz, Renewing the Center, 246).
1.         The Claim of Anti-Realism “There is no real world now that can be known.”
2.         The Self-Refutation: We know it is really true now (i.e., true in the real world now) that there is no real world now that can be known.


Not only can we not know absolute truth, but there is no certain knowledge of what we do claim to know, even of biblical truth.  McClaren insists:  “Well, I’m wondering, if you have an infallible text, but all your interpretations of it are admittedly fallible, then you at least have to always be open to being corrected about your interpretation, right?… So the authoritative text is never what I say about the text or even what I understand the text to say but rather what God means the text to say, right?” (McLaren, NKC, 50).
1.         The Claim of Anti-Infallibilism: “My understanding of the text is never the correct one.”
2.         The Self-Refutation: My understanding of the text is correct in saying that my understanding of the text is never correct.


Emergents, along with post-modern, opposed propositional truth, that is that true can be stated in propositions (declarative sentences) that are either true or false.  Grenz wrote: “Our understanding of the Christian faith must not remain fixated on the propositional approach that views Christian truth as nothing more than correct doctrine or doctrinal truth” (Grenz, PPM, 170).“Transformed in this manner into a book of doctrine, the Bible is easily robbed of its dynamic character” (Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, 114-115).
1.         The Claim of Anti-Propositionalism: “Our view of the Christian faith must not be fixed on propositional truth (doctrine).”
2.         The Self-Refutation: We must be fixed on the propositional truth that we should not be fixed on propositional truth.

1.         Another Claim of Anti-Propositionalism: “Doctrinal truth is not dynamic.”
2.         The Self-Refutation: It is a dynamic doctrinal truth (of the Emergent Church) that doctrinal truth is not dynamic.

They fail to recognize that doctrine is dynamic! Ideas Have Consequences!For example, Einstein’s idea that “energy equals mass times the speed of light squared”had consequences—the atomic bomb!  Likewise, Hitler’s idea (Nazism) led to the holocaust and the loss of multimillions of lives.


The emergent movement is post-orthodox.  Dwight J. Friesen suggests it should be called “orthoparadoxy.” He claims that “‘A thing is alive only when it contains contradictions in itself ….’ Just as he [Moltmann] highlights the necessity of contradictions for life, so I declare that embracing the complexities of contradictions, antinomies, and paradoxes of the human life is walking the way of Jesus” (in Pagitt ed., An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, 203).
“Jesus did not announce ideas or call people to certain beliefs as much as he invited people to follow him into a way of being in the world…. The theological method of orthoparadoxy surrenders the right to be right for the sake of movement toward being reconciled one with another, while simultaneously seeking to bring the fullness of conviction and belief to the other…. Current theological methods that often stress… orthodoxy/heresy, and the like set people up for constant battles to convince and convert the other to their way of believing and being in the world” (Friesen, in EMH, 205).
To summarize, —
1.         The Claim of Post-Orthodoxy: “We should not insist on being right about doctrine.”
2.         The Self-refutation: We insist on being  right in our doctrine that we should not insist on being right in our doctrine.


Anti-Condemnationism (Universalism)
Many emergents are not merely pluralist, but they are universalsts.  McClaren affirmed that:  “More important to me than the hell question, then, is the mission [in this world] question.” (McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 114).  Bell believes that Jesus reconciled “all things, everywhere” and that “Hell is full of forgiven people.” So, “Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making” (Bell, Velvet Elvis, 146).  “So it is a giant thing that God is doing here and not just the forgiveness of individuals.  It is the reconciliation of all things” (Bell in “Find the Big Jesus: An Interview with Rob Bell” in’s analyze the claim of universalism:
1.         The claim: “All persons (free agents) will be saved.”
2.         The Self-refutation: But this is self-defeating for it is claiming that: All persons (free agents) will be saved, even those who do not freely choose to be saved.

C. S. Lewis pinpointed the problem with universalism when he wrote: “When one says, ‘All will be saved,’ my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it?’  If I say, ‘Without their will,’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say, ‘With their will,’ my reason replies, ‘How, if they will not give in?’” (The Problem of Pain, 106-107).


Most emergent leaders are not inerrantist.  They believe that “Incompleteness and error are part of the reality of human beings” (McLaren,COS, 173).
“Our listening to God’s voice [in Scripture] does not need to be threatened by scientific research into Holy Scripture” (Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, 116).  “The Bible is revelation because it is the [errant] witness to and the [errant] record of the historical revelation of God” (Grenz, ibid., 133).
McClaren rejects the traditional view that: “The Bible is the ultimate authority…. There are no contradictions in it, and it is absolutely true and without errors in all it says.  Give up these assertions, and you’re on a slippery slope to losing your whole faith” (McLaren, GO, 133-134).  He adds, “Hardly anyone notices the irony of resorting to the authority of extra-biblical words and concepts to justify one’s belief in the Bible’s ultimate authority” (GO, 164).  In brief, the problem with the errantists view is this:
1.         The Claim of Errantists: “No extra-biblical words or ideas should be used to support the Bible.”
2.         The Self-refutation: It is a truth (of Post-Modernism) that no extra-biblical words or ideas (like Post-Modernism) should be used to support the Bible.
Yet this is self-defeating for If “No human writing is without error,” then emergent human writing is not without error when it claims that no human writing is without error.
Inerrancy is built on a solid foundation: 1) God cannot err.  2) The Bible is the Word of God.  3) Therefore, the Bible cannot error.  To deny this, one must deny either: a) “God cannot error,” or- b) “The Bible is the Word of God,” or-
c)  both a and b.
However, God cannot err: Jesus declared: “Your Word is truth.” (Jn. 17:17)
Paul said, “Let God be and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).  Indeed, “It is impossible for God to lie: (Heb. 6:18).  And he Bible is the Word of God “If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken.” (Jn.10:34-35)  “Laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the traditions of men…, making the word of God of no effect through your traditions.” (Mk. 7:8, 13)  “All scripture is given by inspiration of God….”(2 Tim. 3:16) “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect.”  (Rom. 9:6)  “’It is written’…by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4)
St. Augustine’s dictum is to the point: “If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either [1] the manuscript is faulty, or [2] the translation is wrong, or [3] you have not understood.”  (Augustine, Reply to Faustus 11.5)
Emerging Problems with the Emergent Church


Other Errors of the Emergent Movement
In addition to all the above self-defeating claims of emergence, there are some other crucial doctrinal and practical errors.  Here are some of them:


Steve Chalke speaks of the Cross as “a form of cosmic child abuse” which contradicts the Bible’s claim that “God is love” and ‘makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies” (Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus, 182-183).


“I asked him if he believed that the Trinity represented three separate persons who are also one” (Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz


Anti-depravity (Pelagianism)
Some (like Chalke and Tomlinson) reject depravity.  The former said, “Jesus believed in original goodness.” (The Lost Message of Jesus, 67).  The latter said it is “biblically questionable, extreme, and profoundly unhelpful” (The Post-Evangelical, 126).


Anti-Futurism (Amillennialism)

It has an overemphasis on the present spiritual kingdom to the neglect of Jesus’ future literal kingdom—an overrealized eschatology.


Anti-Capitalism (Socialism)

It has a social Gospel, not a spiritual Gospel with social implications.  It adopts the agenda of the political left.  Tony Jones said on David Chadwicks show that he and most of the Emergents he knew were voting for Barack Obama (6/22/08).




The Emergent movement is a broad tent which includes numerous heresies (see above), embracing Catholicism, and even pantheism (by some).  Spencer Burke said, “I am not sure I believe in God exclusively as a person anymore either…. I now incorporate a pantheistic view, which basically means that God is ‘in all,’ alongside my creedal view of God as Father, Son, and Spirit.” (A Heretics Guide to Eternity, 195).



Difficulties with the Emergent Movement
There are many difficulties with the Emergent movement.  Here are some of the main ones:
1. Its central claims are all self-defeating.
2. It stands on the pinnacle of its own absolute and relativizes everything else.
3. It is an unorthodox creedal attack on orthodox creeds.
4. It attacks modernism in the culture but is an example of postmodernism in the church.
5. In an attempt to reach the culture it capitulates to the culture.
6. In trying to be geared to the times, it is no longer anchored to the Rock.
7. It is not an emerging church; it is really a submerging church.


Answering an Anticipated Objection
Some emergents may wish to claim that:  No self-defeating truth claims are being made.  These are straw men set up by critics.  In response we would reply that: Either they are making such truth claims or they are not.   If they are, then they are self-defeating.  If they are not, then why are they writing books and attempting to convince people of the truth of these views, if not always by affirmation, at least by implication?  While directed to another view, C. S. Lewis made a insightful comment that applies here as well:
You can argue with a man who says, ‘Rice is unwholesome’: but you neither can nor need argue with a man who says, ‘Rice is unwholesome, but I’m not saying this is true.’  I feel that this surrender of the claim to truth has all the air of an expedient adopted at the last moment.  If [they]…do not claim to know any truths, ought they not to have warned us rather earlier of the fact? For really from all the books they have written…one would have got the idea that they were claiming to give a true account of things.  The fact surely is that they nearly always are claiming to do so.  The claim is surrendered only when the question discussed…is pressed; and when the crisis is over the claim is tacitly resumed” (Lewis, Miracles, 24).


To re-cast the Emergent Movement, using titles from its own books, it is not-“The Emergent Church” but “The Submergent Church.”  It is not “A Manifesto of Hope” but is “A Declaration of Disaster.” It is not “Refocusing the Faith” but “Distorting the Faith.”  It is not “Renewing the Center” but “Rejecting the Core.”  It is not “Repainting the Faith” but “Repudiating the Faith.” The Emergent movement is not “A Generous Orthodoxy” but “A Dangerous Unorthodoxy.”  It is not the “Church on the Other Side,” but it is on the “Other Side of the Church.”  It is not “A Primer on Post-Modernism”but “A Primer on the New Modernism.” It is not going to “Produce a New Kind of Christian” but a “New Kind of Non-Christian.”
In short, the Emergent Church is the New Liberalism  As Mark Driscol wrote: “The emergent church is the latest version of liberalism.  The only difference is that the old liberalism accommodated modernity and the new liberalism accommodates postmodernity” (Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformation REV, 21).  To put it to poetry:

The Emergent Church is built on sand
and will not stand.
Christ’s Church is build on Stone,
And it can not be overthrown.
(Matt. 16:16-18)


Works Evaluating The Emergents Movement
Several works are emerging on the Emergent Church.  The following is a select list containing valuable criticisms of the movment.
Adler, Mortimer. Truth in Religion.
Carson, D. A.  Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.
Carlson, Jason. “My Journey Into and Out Of the Emergent Church” (
*DeYoung, Kevin and Ted Kluck. Why We’re Not Emergent.
Driscoll, Mark. Confessions of a Reformation REV.
Howe, Thomas ed., Christian Apologetics Journal of Southern Evangelical Seminary (Spring, 2008,
Kimball, Dan. The Emerging Church.
Rofle, Kevin, Here We Stand.
Smith, R. Scott Truth and The New Kind of Christian.
Geisler, Norman.  “The Emergent Church” DVD (


Of course, not all emergent beliefs are bad.  De Young and Kluck summarize the situation well.  They “have many good deeds.  They want to be relevant.  They want to reach out.  They want to be authentic.  They want to include the marginalized.  They want to be kingdom disciples.  They want community and life transformation….”  However, “Emergent Christians need to catch Jesus’ broader vision for the church—His vision for a church that is intolerant of error, maintains moral boundaries, promotes doctrinal integrity, stands strong in times of trial, remains vibrant in times of prosperity, believes in certain judgment and certain reward, even as it engages the culture, reaches out, loves, and serves.  We need a church that reflects the Master’s vision—one that is deeply   theological, deeply ethical, deeply compassionate, and deeply doxological” (Why We’re Not Emergent, 247-248).


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