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An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches: A Review

In his contribution to the ever-expanding plethora of books on the emerging church, Ray Anderson seeks offer something of a unique contribution to churches that fall within the general umbrella of this contemporary movement. The book, in essence is an attempt at giving the emerging church a systematic theology, or at least the building blocks of a systematic theology. While to some this very idea may sound like a contradiction in terms (‘What has the emerging church to do with anything systematic?’), Anderson believes that there is a properly theological rationale and foundation for the contemporary emerging church movement, which he locates in the “original” emerging churches in the time of the Apostles. This claim forms the center of Anderson’s argument and is the constant reference point throughout the book.

The basic argument advanced by Anderson involves the way in which the early churches in Jerusalem and Antioch serve as foils for one another. In Anderson’s reading of the narratives of the early church in the book of Acts, the Jerusalem church represents a church that originated out of the past and was in the process of fading. Having a solid tradition and heritage in the Twelve disciples and in their continuity with Judaism, the Jerusalem church was a prime manifestation of an established church with ingrained historical traditions, customs and sensibilities (see pp. 13-15; 22-34). The church at Antioch, by contrast had no tangible or historical link to the tradition of the Twelve, or to the Jerusalem church as a whole, rather their existence was predicated on an entirely new act of the Spirit of Christ through the work of the Apostle Paul. Paul, unlike the Twelve, very likely had no experience of Christ in his earthly life, but instead received his commission and apostleship from the ascended, eschatological Christ. While the Jerusalem church originated out of the past and was fading, the church at Antioch was born from the future and was thus emerging. Thus, in Anderson’s view the Jerusalem church was founded upon “religion” while the emerging church at Antioch was founded on “revelation” (p. 25). And ultimately, as Anderson narrates, it was the emerging church of Antioch, rather than the fading church of Jerusalem that was destined to carry on God’s mission of spreading the gospel and bearing witness to the kingdom of God in that time.

This contrast between Antioch and Jerusalem, according to Anderson sheds a good bit of light on how we should understand the reality of the contemporary emerging church movement within evangelical Protestantism. In contrast to the old-guard “Jerusalem” churches, which stand in a secure position anchored by history and tradition, the emerging church today should, like its Antiochene forebears, “lift anchor, raise the sale and test the wind of the Spirit in order to move toward that which lies ahead of us” (p. 202). Anderson’s narrative of the Jerusalem church versus the Antiochene church is an exhilarating narrative that encourages the emerging churches of the contemporary time to lay aside the weights of history and tradition that cling so closely and run, with vigorous enthusiasm the race set before us into the eschatological future (see pp. 203-204).

Anderson fleshes this basic argument out in a series of chapters in which he seeks to distillate the difference between the fading Jerusalem churches and the emerging Antiochene churches. He explores the “Christ of Pentecost” in contrast with the “Christ of Christology” as the foundation for the emerging churches (pp. 44-56). He follows that discussion with an analysis of the relationship between the Spirit of Christ and Christian spirituality, arguing that the church at Antioch represents a prime example of a church that, unlike the Jerusalem church had no “long line of continuity with their ethnic and religious tradition”, and thus was held together instead by the Holy Spirit (p. 69). He then goes on to discuss the ways in which many of the contemporary incarnations of the fading Jerusalem church elevate “polity” above the gospel, whereas for the emerging Antiochene churches, it is above all the gospel that matters, with polity being only the outward shell that serves the constant rediscovering of the ever-new gospel of Christ (see pp. 84-92).

Anderson then moves into another series of discussions focusing on the distinction between embodying the kingdom in communal life and building the kingdom as an institution (pp. 91-101). Incidentally, this chapter offers one of the best discussions in the entire book, in which Anderson explore the nature of creation as sacramental and how that relates to the material-spiritual existence of humanity (see pp. 104-111). Next, Anderson moves into a discussion of Scripture and the ongoing work of the Spirit in the church and world. Here he argues for a way of “reading” the contemporary works of God in such a way that they, in effect become a parallel “text” to the canonical narrative of Scripture, which serves a hermeneutical role in the reading of the Bible (see pp. 123-125). Anderson then moves into two more chapters, the first dealing with the ethical orientation of church as a community that is shaped by the practice of the love of ones neighbor and the second exploring the contrast between striving after the gifts of the Spirit and a community which is built up by all of its members in the communion of the Spirit (see pp. 168-171). Anderson then moves on to a discussion of the relationship between “ministry” and “mission”, arguing for the primacy of the latter. The church has its being because of the fact of God’s mission to the world in the Son and Spirit in which the church, by its very nature participates (p 186).

Finally, Anderson concludes his book with a chapter that wraps up his argument in contrasting, yet again, the bold and missional Antiochene church of the future with the arcane and religious Jerusalem church of the past (pp. 202-205). While acknowledging that there is something desirable about having an anchor to the past, Anderson submits that “anchors, like tradition, only serve to hold us in place” (p. 202). The emerging church of the future, as Anderson sees it, does not look to the past in seeking to find continuity with the historical Jesus and the Apostles (this is the way of the Jerusalem church), rather, they look to the eschatological future, seeking to encounter the ascended and enthroned Christ who is to come. He notes the trend among some Christians to seek to re-appropriate the traditions and history of the Church and argues that such folk need to remember Jesus’ command to “Remember Lot’s wife” and to avoid seeking security and stability. “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:32-33). Anderson points to both of these Scriptures to discourage Christians today from looking to the past for continuity with the church of Christ, insisting that “When the church inhales too much of the incense of its ancestors, it tends to become either droopy or dopey” (p. 203). The solution rather is to turn towards the future, looking to the true Apostle, Jesus Christ himself (Hebrews 3:1). Thereby the church will turn away from itself, from fixation on its past and its own traditions and instead come to glory in participating in the mission of Christ to the world, sharing the love of God with the broken, living wildly, dangerously in the very form of Spirit-driven love that animated Jesus and the emerging church at Antioch.

So goes Anderson’s narrative. And a compelling narrative it is! One is drawn to his radical sounding calls for us to turn away from the dead traditions and security of the past and look toward the eschatological future into which Jesus is leading his church in anticipation of his parousia. However, one must ask whether or not Anderson’s narrative, particularly his way of deploying his binary opposition of Jerusalem and Antioch is to be accepted as it stands. This is to be questioned on at least two levels. First, are Anderson’s narrative and proposals truly appropriate to what the emerging church movement is in our contemporary setting? Secondly, and most centrally, is the ecclesial vision of Anderson’s book theologically viable?

The first question is something of a pragmatic one, and indeed, Anderson himself may give hints towards the importance of asking this question when he comments on his own manuscript saying “I fear that An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches is half-destroyed; I have not had the luxury of passing it through the sieve of time” (pp. 212-213). On one level Anderson should not be faulted for this, for indeed this book is early in the game and the fruit of the emerging churches remains to be seen. That will ultimately determine, at least to a degree what importance Anderson’s theological offering to the emerging churches will have. However, while allowing time to be the ultimate judge of such things, it seems that there are number of crucial elements in the contemporary emerging churches that Anderson does not acknowledge and which his theology runs quite counter to. The most central issue in Anderson’s reading of the emerging churches of today lies in his antagonism towards church history and tradition. This is nothing new; in fact it is as old as Protestantism itself. While acknowledging the variegated nature of the emerging churches, one of the central features of many, or even most such congregations lies, not in their wishes to cut ties with the past as we sail into the future, but rather to discover a renewed sense of historical connection to church throughout the ages. As the work of Robert Webber emphasizes, the road towards the church’s future, in the minds of many emerging Christian, lies not in the abandonment of the past, but rather in its embrace.

One wonders, then, if this element of Anderson’s theology is indeed derivative of his engagement with “emergent theology”. Is it not more plausible to hear in Anderson’s denigrations of history and tradition the standard battle cry of evangelical Protestantism? Anderson’s constant dichotomies between the historical and the eschatological reality of the church (see pp. 126-127, for example) are nothing new. They are simply standard conservative evangelical Protestant answers to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. None of this speaks to whether or not Anderson’s contentions are valid or not, that is another question. However, it should cause one to question whether or not his proposal is truly an “emergent theology”. The ahistorical and anti-traditional nature of Anderson’s argument hardly seems characteristic of the emerging churches he is writing for. Rather it seems to be a leftover from historical American evangelicalism. As such, we are left to wonder how much of an “emergent theology” we really have here.

The second question that should be put to Anderson’s account is closely related to the first, but it moves from the descriptive into the normative. Whether or not Anderson’s theology is truly “emergent” is ultimately of much less importance than whether or not it biblical and true. And here there are a host of questions that emerge. Does Anderson’s central heuristic, namely the contrast of Jerusalem and Antioch really work? Can we really swallow his assertion that the only real Christological material in the New Testament came from Paul (and thus from Antioch) while those members of the Jerusalem church who were with Jesus in his life contributed next to nothing to Christology (see p. 50ff). Swept from theological significance is John’s radical Logos-Christology, the Alpha and the Omega of the Apocalypse, the great High Priest of Hebrews, and Jesus’ farewell discourses in the gospel of John (I defy anyone to locate a more richly trinitarian and Christological section of Scripture than John 13-17!). One must wonder if Anderson is working a little too hard to make his line of demarcation between Antioch and Jerusalem fit.

Likewise, we must wonder about his constant separation of the eschatological from the historical. What basis is there for such a dichotomy? Why must the presence of the future come to us in an ahistorical form? Why would historical continuity and tradition necessarily be a stifling weight which holds us back from the eschatological future? Does not the eschatological meal, the Lord’s Supper center precisely on remembrance? Is not the call to remember the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles central to the New Testament (cf. Heb. 13:7; 2 Pet. 3:2; Jude 17)? A consistent theme throughout the Scriptures is that of the central importance of the people of God being a people of memory. It is forgetfulness, rather than historical attachment that throughout the Scriptures drives the people of God into idolatry. On this point, one is compelled to question Anderson’s ahistoricism simply on the grounds that it seems to lead to the very fragmentation and amnesia that characterizes the modern predicament. His insistence that we cut anchors and sail for open waters free of history and tradition threatens to leave us adrift and tossed about by every wind of doctrine.

Moreover, it would be remiss not to question Anderson’s construal of attachment to history and tradition as a craving for security (see p. 202-203). While his rhetoric of breaking with tradition and history sounds like the path of vulnerable discipleship, is it not, in fact just the opposite? Do we not rather simply retreat into our own autonomy from history and outside constraints?  Certainly, Anderson would suggest that we provide a check on such autonomy through the local community, however here again we are driven to wonder if his theology is, in fact, informed by the actual reality of today’s emerging churches, which by and large tend to be just as autonomous, homogenous, and niche-group oriented as any church to emerge from the church growth movement of the 80′s and 90′s.  One wonders how Anderson’s free-floating, ahistorical emerging church could provide a check on autonomy run wild in any meaningful sense.

 Would it not be more threateningly unfamiliar to explore what it means to be part of a people that have a mysterious, complex, and highly checkered history, than for us to simply cut anchor and declare to the saints of the past “I have no need of you”? While Anderson portrays his ahistoricism as the bold journey of discipleship, we must wonder, is it, in fact, nothing more than a very Protestant revulsion to any sort of tangible authority?

Finally, one must comment on the overall lack of substantial theological insight throughout the volume. While, there are some notable exceptions, such as Anderson’s discussion of the sacramentality of material life and work and the tragic dimension of ethical decision making (see pp. 103-109; 155-157), on the whole there just isn’t much in this volume in terms of substantial theology. Most of the chapters can simply be reduced to coffee-shop theological platitudes, such as “We need community instead of institutionalism!” or “We need the right gospel, not the right church polity!”  Contrasts between “christ” and “christology” and “spirit” and “spirituality” may fill pages, but it doesn’t really provide anything in the way of helpful theological engagement with Christian theology and contemporary church practice.  Platitudes and rhetorical formulae such as those are neither interesting nor helpful. Anderson is certainly a great theologian, and I came to the book expecting far more from a theologian as knowledgable of Barth and Torrance as he.  One wonders if this book may have been assembled much too hastily.

Nevertheless, this book is still helpful, if for nothing else for Anderson’s excellent discussions of the sacramentality of material creation and the tragic nature of ethics.  One should not be led to think from my criticsms that I find more in this book to dispute with than to affirm, nothing could be further from the truth.  Nevertheless, I think we must continue to await a serious and comprehensive theological contribution from the emerging churches in the west today.

4 Comments

  1. Aric Clark wrote:

    Great review Halden! I feel like I’ve practically read the book.

    Making an analogy between tradition and a ball-and-chain is an old tactic that just doesn’t work. First, we all come out of a tradition whether we like it or not. And second, some of the most dynamic churches are located in the most tradition-centric branches of our faith. In general I think we protestants live in degrees of poverty directly in relation to the degree we reject tradition.

    Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  2. Excellent review! I am not surprised by the problems with this book, but I am definitely sad that this is the most theological anyone within the emerging church movement has been.

    Having not read the book myself, I am surprised that Anderson employs a crude division between the past and the future, between history and eschatology. This betrays a rather simplistic eschatology, one that is seemingly unaware of, say, Wolfhart Pannenberg’s work, to name just one of many.

    In my series on Problems in Ecclesiology Today, I wrote a post about the emerging church. I said that, to use the metaphor of a family, if traditional churches are like children raised by their parents and then relinquished upon adulthood, these new churches are like children whose parents die upon their birth, leaving them orphans in the world. What makes Anderson’s book more disturbing is that he seems to think these children should rejoice at the death of their parents, and that they should only look ahead to their own children — to the future, not to the past. This is quite unsettling, to say the least.

    I think you are right to question whether this book represents the “emerging” churches, but I actually think the “emerging” church movement is not as distinct from traditional evangelicalism as you think it is. I don’t think these churches are really drawing upon the past in any substantial way. I think they are just as disconnected from tradition as their evangelical forebears are. In that sense, at least, Anderson may be closer to the reality than you or I might wish that he were.

    Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 9:11 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I agree with you, David about the emerging churches vis a vis tradition, history, etc. I think the difference between such churches and Anderson is the way in which they style themselves as if they are somehow reclaiming the Tradition, when in fact they are just practicing a crude eclecticism.

    Emerging churches are ahistorical with the illusion of historical consciousness. Anderson is ahistorical and he knows it. So perhaps he is just exemplifying the logical outcome of emerging churches, which is, as you say no different from classic evangelicalism.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  4. adamsteward wrote:

    Great review, Halden. As much as it detests the label, my church might as well be called emergent. I love my church and have no substantial beefs with it, but one loving criticism that needs to be made is with the “crude eclecticism” that you identify. We use the church calendar, but only when it’s interesting. We have candles, but really no substantial theological contribution from church history. But to give us some credit, we don’t harp on situatedness within the ongoing narrative as much as many, and so it’s not so hypocritical with us. Just fashionable.

    Have you read Ben Myers’ review of the book? He actually seems to like it quite a bit.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 9:53 am | Permalink

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