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During the mid-1990s, at the same time I founded Mars Hill Church in Seattle, I was part of what is now known as the emerging church in its embryonic days. Since that time I have been encouraged by the resurgent interest of doing missions in emerging American culture. I have also been greatly concerned by some of the aberrant theological concepts gaining popularity with some fellow emerging-type younger pastors.
This chapter is my attempt to address three of the hottest theological issues in our day and to correct emerging error with biblical orthodoxy. As a devoted biblicist I am seeking to be as faithful to Scripture as possible, which explains the many Scripture references in this chapter.
I will explore what is arguably most distinctive about Christianity, namely the nature of God's revelation, the nature of God, and the means by which God has chosen to save some sinners. The topics the publisher chose for this book are the essential elements of the Christian gospel according to the apostle Paul, who said that the second member of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, atones for our sins by his death and resurrection in fulfillment of the Scriptures.
As I studied these doctrines inpreparation for writing this chapter, God the Holy Spirit devastated me regarding the atoning death of Jesus. I spent many nights awake while my wife and children slept; as I visualized the agony of Jesus' death for my sins, tears soaked the pages of my Bible, the same one I was reading when saved in 1990. Before we begin, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read this chapter, and I apologize in advance for having to condense so much theology. As a pastor who deeply loves his people, I wish I had more space to tell you the stories of the thousands of lives God has tranformed through these great truths, but perhaps you will simply need to come and visit our church and meet them for yourself.
How Does God Speak? Scripture.
No one is born with a clear comprehension of who God is. So, in an effort to know about God, various philosophers and religious leaders have presented their speculations about God with seemingly endless and contradictory declarations.
But God has chosen to lift the fog of human speculation with divine revelation. Whereas speculation is the human attempt to comprehend God, revelation is God's communication to humanity with clarity that is otherwise impossible. The object of that revelation is the sixty-six books of Scripture.
What does Scripture say about Scripture?
Before arriving at a conclusive position about Scripture, it is fitting to first investigate what Scripture says about itself. If Scripture does not declare to be from God, without error, or helpful, then it is foolish to attribute something to Scripture that it does not claim for itself. The following list is a brief selection of some of the statements Scripture makes about itself:
Nothing to be taken from or added to (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6) Effective (Isa. 55:11) Pure (Ps. 12:6; 119:140) Perfect (Ps.19:7) Precious (Ps. 19:10) A life guide (Ps. 119:105) Soul food (Jer. 15:16) A fire that purifies and a hammer that breaks us (Jer. 23:29) True (Ps.119:160; John 17:17) Helpful (Prov. 6:23) Flawless (Prov. 30:5) To be obeyed (Luke 8:21; James 1:22) All we need to know God (Luke 16:29, 31) The standard by which all teaching is to be tested (Acts 17:11) Faith-building (Rom. 10:17) For everyone (Rom. 16:26) Sin-cleansing (Eph. 5:26; James 1:21) The sword for spiritual battle (Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12) The very words of God (1 Thess. 2:13) Divinely inspired (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19 - 21) Life-changing (Heb. 4:12) Life-giving (James 1:18) Spiritual nourishment (1 Peter 2:2)
Jesus is the key focus of Scripture and the most significant religious teacher in the history of the world. Therefore, it is also prudent to examine Jesus' view and use of Scripture along with the disciples', whom he trained as teachers.
Jesus summarized the Old Testament Scripture as existing in three parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. He accepted the Old Testament Canon as it exists today, without any modifications, and he came to fulfill it.
Jesus treated Old Testament narratives as straightforward facts: Genesis 1 and 2, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot, Isaac and Jacob, the manna, the wilderness serpent, Moses as lawgiver, false prophets, and Jonah. Regarding authorship, Jesus said Scripture was given by Moses, Isaiah, David, and Daniel.
In matters of controversy, Jesus used the Old Testament as his court of appeals. And in times of crisis, Jesus quoted Scripture. Jesus repeatedly taught that Old Testament prophecy had been fulfilled because it was true. Jesus taught that the Scriptures could not be broken. Jesus claimed that all Scripture, including the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, was fulfilled in him. Jesus also said the primary purpose of the Old Testament was to reveal himself.
Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would inspire the writing of the Gospels and Epistles. And he said that his people would recognize his teaching. This is possible because the Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of Scripture also teaches it to God's people in whom he dwells.
Following his return to heaven, Jesus' students wrote the remaining books of Scripture and likewise upheld Scripture as God's unique, perfect, authoritative, helpful, and powerful revelation to humanity. The New Testament writers claim that the Old Testament is sacred Scripture. Furthermore, New Testament authors quote the Old Testament roughly three hundred times.
Paul used Scripture and God's spoken word interchangeably. The New Testament teaches that what the Bible says is what God says. And Peter and Paul claimed that Scripture has dual authorship by both men and God.
Most New Testament writers were eyewitnesses of Jesus. Others received firsthand information from other reliable witnesses. Luke received his information from Paul and numerous eyewitnesses, Mark received his information from Peter, and James and Jude were closely associated with the apostles and were probably Jesus' brothers. Paul claimed that Jesus was speaking through him. Paul quotes Luke as Scripture. New Testament writers claimed that their writings were holy. They said that their writings were the very words of God. Peter called Paul's writings Scripture. Paul commanded that his letters be read in the churches and obeyed. And the early church treated the apostles' teaching as authoritative.
Also, at the time of its writing, upward of one-quarter of Scripture was prophetic in nature, promising future events hundreds, even a thousand, years in advance. These facts include Jesus' virgin mother, birth in Bethlehem, flight to Egypt, entrance into the temple that was destroyed in AD 70, betrayal for thirty pieces of silver, clothing divided by the casting of lots, crucifixion, death and burial in a rich man's tomb, and resurrection from death.
The Bible is clearly a book of history and not just philosophy, because it continually promises concrete historical events that, in time, come to pass exactly as promised. These fulfillments of prophetic promises show the divine inspiration of Scripture and prove that a sovereign God rules over human history and brings events to pass as he ordains them. Consequently, we can trust the internal consistency of the Bible to be a chorus of faithful witnesses who sing together in harmony. Nonetheless, not everyone accepts the teachings of Scripture.
I'm not sure where I fit into this discussion. For a number of years now, I've lived with the tension of not feeling completely comfortable in any of the Christian camps or subcultures. Brought up in a highly liturgical, strongly Reformed mainline tradition, I left the church faithless (not their fault I'm sure - I just was not one of the elect ... yet). I found faith in a parachurch small group because they accepted and loved me despite my hedonistic lifestyle and badgering skeptical questions. Church attendance came more from obligation than vision.
While working in an extremely modern-style college ministry in the nineties, our lack of success in trying to reach the first postmodern generation caused me to question our methods. Something visceral was missing - those who prayed to accept Christ didn't join us in following him. I attended what Robert Webber calls the representative traditional evangelical seminary (Trinity University) while working at a representative pragmatic modern church (Willow Creek Community Church). At the church, I was working to start Axis, a church within a church for the emerging generation.
In 1999, my family left Chicago to start a church in Austin to reach this emerging, postmodern, post-Christian world, and yet, I have not fully fit into the emerging camp either. But even though I'm not sure where I fit, I am confident of what I've seen. I have watched God raise up a healing body out of a very broken, postmodern generation that is seemingly far from God. It's this awesome work of God, seeking and saving and restoring all kinds of people into a community of Christ followers, that has had the most profound impact on me. I feel indebted and shaped by all of the faith communities with whom I've interacted, and yet I've witnessed God's most powerful work among this community of the newly redeemed. This is the eclectic background from which I write about pastoral theology in the emerging church.
As I pondered what to write, I remembered the very disturbing incident involving Peter in Matthew 16. Having just won the praise of Jesus for a God-inspired proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, Peter gets rebuked for being the voice of Satan. I pray I will not fall into the same deception. A very real temptation exists to carve out an identity by differentiating myself from what is traditional or pragmatic or modern. Jesus rebuked Peter, saying, "You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns" (v. 23). I think this is a valid warning for the emerging church that is shaping theology in our postmodern world.
We must be very wary of reinventing theology for the sake of being the new, "new thing," which is very much a trend of the cultural flow in which we swim. Case in point, when I first started ministering to this emerging generation, it had no label. In the mid-nineties, "Gen X ministry" became the vogue buzzword. Come the new millennium, you were late-nineties if you were talking about Gen X anything; you had to be doing "postmodern ministry." A few years later, the term "postmodern" feels old, and the new "new thing" is the "emerging" or "emergent" church. I think it's a legitimate concern that we have these labels and buzzwords since we can get swept along in our over-marketed, overly trendy cultural flow.
For this reason, I believe we must firmly anchor any emerging theology in the revealed Scriptures, and we must subject our interpretations to a broader community, including traditional and pragmatic communities on whose shoulders we stand, and from whom our faith was passed down. Having said this, the church must wrestle theologically with the questions of the emerging global culture. If not, we will further retreat into isolationism and obscurity and miss the amazing opportunity God has given us to minister to people longing for what the body of Christ has to offer.
Honestly, I'm not that interested in internal church debates about who has the right or wrong form of theology or Christian practice if the outcome doesn't impact a hurting, broken world. Jesus came to seek and save what was lost, to restore all things. So I write mainly from a concern that his church be his body, on his mission, in his world. How does our theology help or hinder us in accurately re-presenting Jesus to our world?
The Questions of a Global Village
Last summer, our family did our own version of National Lampoon's Vacation. We took our kids across 4,300 miles of pavement to see the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park. I found myself awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of God's creation, something I had expected. However, I had not anticipated the global intersection we would cross.
As I walked with my daughter onto the scenic precipice jutting over the Grand Canyon, I began to notice all the languages people were speaking: German, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Hindi, and Slavic languages I couldn't recognize. We began to count distinct languages and country dialects, and we tallied up representatives from over twenty countries that crossed our path that day. In Yosemite, we sat next to French winery owners at dinner, and we stood in line behind Romanian visitors to go rafting. I found myself awestruck by the global intersection happening around God's natural revelation.
As we reflect on theology in the twenty-first century, the church in America must consider the unique intersection and opportunity to which we have come in our travels. Though nothing about the human predicament is new, we do find ourselves in a world unlike any other before us. We must grapple with questions raised by a global village. The questions come as a result of worldwide communications, global travel, and the media shrink-wrapping and exporting an increasingly common global culture (MTV beams into 140 countries). We find ourselves at a global intersection around God's special revelation: "How do we accurately re-present Jesus to a global diversity of religious cultures?"
Historically, theological refinement has come about by wrestling with God's revealed Word in light of the questions of the world. Starting with Acts 15, the church had to grapple with the theological questions posed by a formerly pagan, Gentile world, while holding to the revealed Scriptures. "Does God demand circumcision for salvation?" "Do Gentiles have to abide by our Jewish kosher laws?" The questions of a world intersecting with the message of Christ forced their theological reflection.
Theologically, the emerging church must wrestle with what the Scriptures say God has revealed about the uniqueness of Jesus in relation to the world's religions. Why must we wrestle with this question? Because instead of helping people find their way home to Jesus as the only one who can save, we often put up barriers to belief by the way we communicate what Scripture reveals.
We need to weigh heavily the conclusion of the first-century Jerusalem Council, when Jesus' half-brother James declared, "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." How can the emerging church honor Jesus, stay true to Scripture, and best answer the burning questions of our global culture? I believe our answer must be both incarnational and propositional.
Theology of the World's Religions
There is a Jain parable of an elephant and four blind men that describes a common view of the world's religions in our global village. Four blind men happened upon an elephant one day. One of them felt its trunk and said, "An elephant is like a hose." Another felt its side and said, "No, an elephant is like a wall." The third blind man put his arms around its leg and declared, "An elephant is like a tree." Finally the fourth blind man grabbed its tail and insisted, "No, an elephant is like a snake."
Excerpted from LISTENING TO THE BELIEFS OF EMERGING CHURCHES Copyright © 2007 by Robert Webber. Excerpted by permission.
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