The Emergent Church: Theological Postmodernism

The Emergent Church: Theological Postmodernism

by Norman L. Geisler

March 2012

The Key Influence on Postmodernism

The post-modern movement finds its roots in Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God movement he spawned.  The whole post-modern movement can be cast in this context.  Nietzsche wrote: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.  How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” (“The Madman” in Gay Science, 125).  But once they pronounced that God is dead, then the rest of post-modernism follows logically.  For if there is no absolute Moral Law Giver, there can be no absolute moral law (subjectivism).  Likewise, if there is no absolute Mind, then there can be no absolute meaning (conventionalism) or absolute truth (relativism).  Further, if there is no objective meaning, then there cannot be an objective interpretation of a text.  Hence, deconstructionism follows.   So, the death of God leads to the death of every other area of  thought and life as follows:

  1. “Death of God”–Atheism
  2. Death of objective truth–Relativism
  3. Death of exclusive truth—Pluralism
  4. Death of objective meaning–Conventionalism
  5. Death of thinking (logic)—Anti-Foundationalism
  6. Death of objective interpretation–Deconstructionism 
  7. Death of objective values–Subjectivism

Key Influence of Postmodernism on Theology

Post-modernism in theology has been called Post-Protestant, Post-Orthodox, Post-Denominational, Post-Doctrinal, Post-Individual, Post-Foundational, Post-Creedal, Post-Rational, Post-Absolute.  Actually, “Post” = “Anti” since post-modernism is opposed to everything listed above which they see as part of the modern world.

The North American father of post-modernism in evangelical theology, 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 (COS), 70).   He added, “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).

Key Books by Post-Modern Theologians

Brian McLaren wrote The Church on the Other Side, A Generous Orthodoxy, and  A New Kind of Christian.  Stanley Grenz, the grand-father of the movement wrote:  A Primer on Post-Modernism, Beyond Foundationalism, Revisioning Evangelical Theology. Rob Bell hit the front page of Timemagazine recently with his denial of Hell in his book, Love Wins.  He also wrote Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith.  Doug Pagitt & Tony Jones penned, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope and Tony Jones wrote, The New Christians: Dispatches  from the Emergent Frontier.

Basic Beliefs of Post-Modernism

            There are many beliefs of post-modernist.  We will list the key views and show how they are making self-defeating claims.  This is what the apostle Paul urges us to do when he said “We destroy arguments and bring every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).


McLaren wrote: “Arguments that pit absolutism verses relativism, and objectivism versus subjectivisim, prove meaningless or absurd to postmodern people” (McClaren, “The Broadened Gospel,” (in “Emergent Evangelism,” Christianity Today [Nov., 2004], 43).

As we shall see, the root problem with post-modern thought is that it is self-defeating.  It cannot even state its view without contradicting itself.  For example,–

  1. Relativism Stated: “We cannot know absolute truth.”

2. Relativism Self-Refuted: We know that we cannot know absolute truth.



Another aspect of post-modern thought is its pluralism or anti-exclusivism. McClaren wrote: “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” (A Generous Orthodoxy, 109).

“But Christianity’s idea that other religions cannot be God’s carriers of [redemptive] grace and truth casts a large shadow over our Christian experiences (Samir Selmanovic, in Pagitt, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, 191). “Christianity is a non-god, and every non-god can be and idol” (192). “God cannot be hijacked by Christianity” (194). “If a relationship with a specific person, namely Christ, is the whole substance of a relationship with the God of the Bible, then the vast majority of people in world history are excluded from the possibility of a relationship with the God of the Bible…” (194). “To put it in different terms, there is no salvation outside of Christ, but there is salvation outside of Christianity” (19).  “Would a God who gives enough revelation for people to be judged but not enough revelation to be saved be a God worthy of worshiping? Never!” (195).

  1. The Anti-exclusivism claim: “It is wrong to make a claim that one view is exclusive truth as opposed to opposing views.”
  2. The Self-refutation: The anti-exclusivist claim is exclusively true as opposed to exclusivism.

Anti-exlusivism is just another term for pluralism. The problem is clear.  The claim that no view is exclusively true is an exclusivistic truth claim itself.

  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.


As Stanely Grenz noted in the title of his book Beyond Foundationalism, the post-modern movement is opposed to epistemological foundationalism.  That is, they are opposed to the view that there are self-evident principles at the basis of all thought.  “The theory that at the bottom of all human knowledge is a set of self-inferential or internally justified beliefs; in other words, the foundation is indubitable and requires no external justification. For the conservative, the sacred text of Christianity is indubitable, established by an internal and circular reasoning: ‘‘The Bible claims to be God’s truth, so therefore it’s true.’’ (Jones, The New Christian, 19).

The basic principles of foundationalism include the laws of logic, such as the following:

  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.

For example, it is a rational inference to conclude that:

  1. All A is included in B.
    2. All B is included in C.
    3. Hence, All A is included in C.

There are different kinds of rational inferences.  There is categorical inference (above).  And there is hypothetical inference (below):

  1.  If all human beings are sinners, then John is a sinner.
  2. All human beings are sinners.
  3. Therefore, John is a sinner.

There are also disjunctive inferences: Either a person is saved or else he is lost (but he cannot be both at the same time and in the same sense).  So, if he is not saved, then he must be lost.  Given these kinds of principles being the bedrock of foundationalism, it is difficult to see what one could have against these venerable laws of thought.

Nonetheless, Stanley Grenz wrote a whole book against Foundationalism titled: Beyond Foundationalism.  McLaren wrote: “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, Generous Orthodoxy 164).

To reduce their view to a simple proposition, they claim the following:

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

It must be false.  But if the opposite of true is false, then they are using a

foundational logical principle to deny foundational logical principles. This is self-defeating.


Another characteristic of post-modern thought is subjectivism.  Grenz wrote: “We ought to commend the postmodern questioning of the Enlightenment assumption that knowledge is objective and hence dispassionate” (Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, 166).  Put in simple form:

  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.

In short, their anti-objectivism makes an objective truth claim.  Hence, it is hanged on its

own epistemological gallows.  It self-destructs.


Another characteristic of post-modernism in theology is anti-rationalism.  It is a form of fideism that denies that reason has no place in matters of faith. Grenz chided “Twentieth-century evangelicals [who] have devoted much energy to the task of demonstrating the credibility of the Christian faith…” (Grenz,PPM, 160).  He added, “Following the intellect can sometimes lead us away from the truth” (Grenz, PPM, 166).  Of course, he seems blissfully unaware of the fact that not following basic rational thought will lead you there a lot faster!

McLaren, added: “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, COS, 173).  He urged: “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).  But here again we are faced with a self-defeating claim:

  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.

To state it another way, —

  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)

The term that describes anti-objectivism in meaning is Conventionalism.  It claims that all meaning is culturally relative. There is no fixed meaning. Meaning is not objective.  But here again we are faced with self-destructive claims:

  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.

The post-modern dilemma is painful.  It cannot even express its view without borrowing from its opposing view.  It literally has no ground of its own on which to stand.  It is living on borrowed capital.


According to post-modern theology, 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.

One cannot really know now that there is no real world now.  For “really” implies there is a reality to know.  And if there is a real world now, then one cannot deny it without implying it. 


Protestants believe the Bible is infallible (Matt. 5:17-18; John 10:35), but not any interpretation of it—like an alleged infallible Papal pronouncement.  However, lacking infallibility in all matters of Faith does not mean we lack certainty in some matters. The principle of perspicuity (clarity) affirms that the main teachings of Scripture are clear and we can be certain of them.  For in the Bible the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things. Of these we can have moral certainty.  Post-modern Christians challenge that one can have any certainty in our knowledge of the Bible.  McLaren put it this way: “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-Certainty: “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.

In short, the claim that one is certain that he can never be certain about anything the Bible teaches is a self-defeating claim.


It is an essential truth of evangelical Christianity that the Bible contains proposition truth claims.  That is, regardless of the literary form (story, parable, poetry, or proverbs), the Bible contains truth that can be stated in propositional form.  In short, the Bible contains doctrinal truths.  But Grenz and other post-modern theologians claim that: “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).  So, “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.

What the anti-propostionalist fails to see is that denying propositional truth is a propositional truth.  Denying doctrine is a doctrine. Denying creeds is a creedal statement.

Another post-modern claim connected to this is the following:

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

But doctrine is dynamic!  Ideas have consequences!  E = MC2 is a proposition that had dynamic consequences—it produced an atomic bomb.  Likewise, biblical truth has consequences.  The truth of the Gospel has consequence; it is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).  To deny the Gospel or its underpinning doctrines is to destroy the power of the Gospel.



Post-modern Christian Dwight J. Friesen speaks out against orthodoxy–the belief in orthodox doctrines of the Bible.  He wrote: “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). Therefore, “in orthoparadox theology propositions and truth claims are more important than ever but not as litmus tests of correct belief or practice; rather, truth claims become launching pads for differentiated relationship…. Orthoparadox theology is less concerned with creating ‘once for all’ doctrinal statements or dogmatic claims and is more interested in holding competing truth claims in right tension” (Friesen, in EMH, 209)

  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.

The creed on non-creedalism is itself a creed.  One cannot deny orthodox doctrine without believing that his doctrine (teaching) on this matter is orthodox.

Anti-Condemnationism (Universalism)

Much of post-modern theology embraces various forms of universalism—the belief that ultimately no one will be lost.  All will be eventually saved.  In short, there is no hell—at least no one with anyone in it.  McLaren tried to side-step the issue by claiming, “More important to me than the hell question, then, is the mission [in this world] question.” (McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 114).  Jesus reconciled “all things, everywhere.”  And “Hell is full of forgiven people.” Rob Bell wrote: “Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making” (Bell, Velvet Jesus, 146).  He added, “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  His recent book Love Wins claims that God will keep on loving everyone in this life and in the next until everyone accepts it.

  1. The Claim of Universalism: “All persons (free agents) will be saved.”
  2. The Self-refutation: All persons (free agents) will be saved, even those who do not freely chose to be saved.
  1. S. Lewis pinpointed problem with universalism:

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).

As C.S. Lewis put it elsewhere, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, `Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end. `Thy will be done.’  All that are in Hell, chose it.  Without that self-choice there could be no Hell” (The Great Divorcce, 69). Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Mt. 23:37).  Contrary to Rob Bell, it is because God is loving and man is free that there must be a hell.  God can’t force people into heaven anymore than we can force someone to love us.  Love always works persuasively but never coercively.



Another dimension to much of emergent thinking is anti-individualism or collectivism.  McLaren wrote: “He said he had been raised, as I had, to believe that the central story of the Bible was about saving individual souls.  The gospel, as he (and I) had understood it, was about getting individual souls to heaven…. First, it smacked of selfishness.  Would God want a heaven full of people who wanted to be ‘saved’ but didn’t want to be good?… Second, in a postmodern context, he said, the individualism of this approach sounded downright evil…” (McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, 62).

Unfortunately, it is self-defeating to claim God is interested in group but not in individuals.  For all groups are made up of individuals.  And while good wants us to belong to a body and to have unity in our community of believers, nonetheless, in the final analysis all salvation is individual.  God does not save people by groups or even families.  He saves them one by one, individual by individual.  This, of course, plays into the hands of ecumenism and the world-church movement which, as we know, is a characteristic of the end-times.  Salvation is only found in the whole, not in each person or part.  Indeed, the bible says, “Each one of us shall give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).

This anti-individualism is manifest in the post-denominationalism of the post-modoren chrch.  As Friesen put it, “Orthoparadox theology may be understood as supporting a form of ecumenism, which broadens the conversation beyond the church to include and engage cultural voices” (Friesen, inEMH, 209).  Of course, this post-denominationalism will lead ultimately to the super-denominationalism of the world church.  Tony Campolo tells how this union of seemingly opposed views may emerge. In his book Speaking My Mind he says: “A theology of mysticism provides some hope for common ground between Christianity and Islam. Both religions have within their histories examples of ecstatic union with God, which seem at odds with their own spiritual traditions but have much in common with each other. I do not know what to make of the Muslim mystics, especially those who have come to be known as the Sufis. What do they experience in their mystical experience? Could they have encountered the same God we do in our Christian mysticism?” (149,150)



Evangelical Christians affirm that the Bible is the inerrant (without error) Word of God.  Why?  Because the Bible is the Word of God, and God cannot error (Jn. 17:17; Heb. 6:18).  So, the Bible cannot err.

This historic and biblical position is opposed by the anti-inerrantism of postmodernism.  McLaren wrote: “Incompleteness and error are part of the reality of human beings” (McLaren, COS, 173).  Grenz added, “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).  He added, “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 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 claims that “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).

However, the anti-inerrancy view is also trapped in self-contradiction.  Consider the following:

  1. The Claim of Errantists: “No human writing is without error.”
  2. The Self-refutation: This claim (that no human writing is without error) is without error.

Like all the foregoing self-defeating claims of post-modernism, they set the trap and fall in it themselves.  Jesus declared: “Your Word is truth.” (Jn. 17:17).  He added elsewhere, “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).   Paul declared that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God….”(2 Tim. 3:16). The Scripture is the Word of God (Rom. 9:6) and God cannot err (Titus 1:2).  Jesus said, “’It is written’…by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4).  Since the Bible is the very words of God, then to attribute error to the Bible, is to attribute error to God.

This is not to say that there are no difficulties in the Bible.  There are.  But St. Augustine’s dictum put it well: “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

Post-modern theology is self-defeating. It stands on the pinnacle of its own absolute and relativizes everything else. It is an unorthodox creedal attack on orthodox creeds. It attacks modernism in the culture but is an example of postmodernism in the church.  In an attempt to reach the culture it capitulates to the culture.  In trying to be geared to the times, it is no longer anchored to the Rock. It is not an emerging church; it is really a submerging church.

As Mark Driscoll aptly put it, “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).

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

Answering a Final Objection

Some post-modernism try to avoid the painful logic of their own self-defeating statements by claiming that they are not making any truth claims.  Strange as this may seem, it does not solve their problem.  C. S. Lewis pinpointed the problem well when he wrote “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).  In short, either the post-modern is making truth claims or he is not.  If he is, then his views are self-defeating.  If he is not, then he is not even in the stadium.  He can’t play the “game” unless he is on the field.  By claiming that he is making no truth claim, then he has disqualified himself in the arena of truth.


Works Evaluating Post-Modern Theology

There are many works evaluating aspects of post-modernism.  The following works are highly recommended for further consideration.

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.”

Driscoll, Mark. Confessions of a Reformation REV.

Geisler, Norman.  DVD on Post-modernism (

Geisler, Norman.  Systematic Theology in One Volume. (link)

Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan Bolger.  Emerging Churches.

Howe, Thomas ed., Christian Apologetics Journal, volume 7, No. 1 (Spring, 2008,

Kimball, Dan. The Emerging Church.

Myron Penner ed., Christianity and the Postmodern Turn (pro and con)

Rofle, Kevin, Here We Stand.

Smith, R. Scott, Truth and The New Kind of Christian.

Robert Weber, Listening to the Beliefs of Emergent Churches (pro and con)


Copyright © 2012 Norman L. Geisler – All rights reserved