The debate on the emergent church at the recent Christian Book Expo has been fluttering about the blogosphere. If you haven’t watched it, you really should. It’s long, about 90 minutes, but rich with telling moments and important observations. The debate is between five men. Kevin DeYoung holds out courageously for orthodoxy in the face of problematic emergent teachings. Tony Jones purveys those problematic teachings. Scot McKnight is a more doctrinally sound representative of the emerging camp but is unwilling to make a break with radicals like Tony Jones and Brian McLaren. Alex and Brett Harris (functioning as a single unit) represent the new generation of youth and try to find some middle ground between DeYoung and McKnight. Given that one of the stated purposes of the emergent conversation is to address the challenges of being Christian in this brave new world, it is ironic and telling that the two older men are (basically) the ones promoting emergent and the three younger men are the ones (basically) stressing the need to hold an orthodox position and cut ties with those who don’t.
This will not be a general blow-by-blow of the debate. There are other good posts which serve that purpose better than I could do. I write chiefly to point out an important fact that this debate brings out and emphasizes.
In their closing statements, most of the participants explain what they think the gospel means:
- Kevin DeYoung emphasizes that it is about what God has done for us rather than what we need to do for God: that Jesus died, that his death was for our sins, and that he rose again from the dead; that without the work of Christ we are still in our sins and face eternal punishment.
- Tony Jones, in the middle of the debate and again at the end, locates the gospel in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20: God is reconciling the world to himself in Christ, and so we are to be ambassadors of God. Reconciliation with God is made possible in some way (he doesn’t at all explain how) by the death and resurrection of Christ. The theme of reconciliation is clearly the heart of the gospel for him as he presents it.
- McKnight holds that the gospel is a matter of the Triune God working through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit to restore cracked icons (his term) to union with God and others for the sake of the world. He explains earlier that he believes in substitutionary atonement, so we know that is part of McKnight’s faith even though he leaves it out of his gospel presentation at the end.
All three views can be clearly substantiated from the Bible, but they each have a distinct emphasis and focus. Tony Jones’ view in particular is missing significant portions of the biblical gospel. Yes, God is reconciling us to himself through Christ; but how? Why stop at 2 Cor 5:20 and not include 5:21—God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God? Why leave out great exchange of our sin for Christ’s righteousness? Why leave out the atonement for sin and the imputation of Christ’s obedience? Whether Tony Jones would affirm those things in the abstract I don’t know; but it is clear that he does not affirm them as central to the gospel. He states his version of the gospel publicly, twice, and it has the character of a formula that he uses regularly—not just a one-time formulation for this debate—and it is completely silent with respect to the atonement and other key aspects of our salvation. I will come back to this strange silence in a minute, along with its broader significance to the debate at large.
The Harris twins behave with refreshing graciousness and humility throughout the debate, readily conceding their youth and inexperience relative to the pastors and scholars represented. Yet, in many ways, they are the most important contributors. They serve as the voice of the new youth, and repeatedly make excellent points about the struggles and hopes of their generation. For modern young people, postmodernism is not an abstract and nuanced philosophy but a real confusion about the truth that hurts their faith directly. While humility is good, humility that ends up rejecting the possibility of orthodox truth has gone too far, and is not actually helping those confused kids. Somewhat in response to this, many in the rising generation do not see why they have to choose between orthodox doctrine and serious Christian living, which is the dichotomy that the emergent conversation sometimes seems to make. The Harris perspective is refreshing and helps to frame the whole debate.
Like the Harrises, Scot McKnight expresses concern for the youth and college students he works with who struggle with their faith. He rightly hates the fact that there is no statistical correlation between young people growing up in a conservative church and becoming believers themselves. But he draws a strange conclusion from this. He implies that the problem is that knowledge of the Bible growing up doesn’t make much of a difference for whether a kid comes to faith. Alex Harris corrects his reasoning: the real issue is that even kids growing up in conservative churches are biblically illiterate; the problem is that they are not getting the knowledge they need in their churches, and the solution is not to subsequently disregard that knowledge. The discrepancy here between McKnight, who claims to speak for the new generation, and the Harrises, who actually represent it, is an important one.
The cumulative effect of these exchanges, to which Kevin DeYoung also contributes helpfully, is to highlight the fact that while we do need to speak faithfully and clearly to the new generation, removing or squishifying biblical truth is not the way to do it. This brings us back to Tony Jones’ alarming silence with regard to crucial portions of the gospel. Yes, our world tends to handle truth differently now and ask different questions than other generations did. And yes, it is in this context that we need to reach the new generation. But DeYoung and the Harris twins rightly remind us that the way to reach this generation is to hold to the truth more fully, and not less. Preaching the full truth of the gospel will lead to and inspire and encourage faithful Christian living, but trying to promote discipleship and community without the full truth of the gospel will backfire.
The prominent leaders of the emergent movement, like Tony Jones, have consistently downplayed, distorted, and diminished the biblical gospel. An attempt to be humble about what we can know has led to a general silence about the gospel that is killing the new generation. A young believer who does not know what makes Christianity different from the world will not be able to resist the world when it tempts him. When strange philosophies and pagan ideologies speak out, he will not know what to say in response. The more doctrinally solid members of the movement, like Scot McKnight, are commendable for not going to the same extremes but have compounded the problem by refusing to separate from the radicals. Simply saying “We’re not all like that!”—as he does over and over in this debate—will not suffice here. McKnight and others claim with their words to value the great truths of the faith but proclaim by their actions that truth matters less than retaining community and conversation with the radicals. This will only confuse young people further.
The world is challenging the church. How shall the church respond? With silence, implies the emergent movement. Not silence in general, of course. Many voices in the movement, including Tony Jones, speak quite loudly, in a fearless and articulate way. The problem is that they alter the gospel in order to do so. They offer bold speech about certain aspects of Christian living and even some of the secondary details of the atonement; but they offer only a grim silence with regard to the sharp truths of the gospel and the fundamental opposition between the things of God and the things of Satan in the world. Even those who hold to a stronger gospel will still squish it around a bit (see Scot McKnight here—he believes in substitutionary atonement but leaves it quite out of his actual gospel summary) and give full faith and credit to those who distort it with such loud voices.
Tony Jones has a gospel, but it is soft, inoffensive, and incomplete. The gospel involves and enables reconciliation between God and man—gloriously so!—but it cannot be reduced to reconciliation as he does several times in this debate. The result when you do make that reduction is that remaining in community and in conversation becomes, at least in practice, more important than speaking out about the truth and perhaps causing division or offense.
Alex Harris says something very different in his closing remarks (I paraphrase very slightly) “Proclamation of the truth of God’s Word to the new generation is the solution to the statistics [of youth leaving the faith] and to the confusion that a lot of young people feel.” We must reach this generation, but gagging and curtailing and reducing the gospel is not the way to do it. We must not be silent about the heart of God’s work in the world, but rather we must speak out about it. We must not reconcile ourselves to the lies the world tells, but rather we must speak out against them. The new generation needs role models, as McKnight says, but it needs even more to learn how to understand and communicate the gospel for itself. This insight moves us past the perils of the emergent conversation and shows us the way forward.
One of the beauties of watching this debate is seeing how some younger ministers and leaders have learned to speak. DeYoung and the Harris twins are willing to speak out about the gospel and the distinctiveness of Christianity, and to do so with full and articulate voice. Sitting on either side of Tony Jones and Scot McKnight, they provide tangible proof that one can speak up about unpopular truths without having to distort them in order to do it.
In a time when more and more voices are being raised against the authority of Scripture, the uniqueness of Christ, and the power of the Gospel, the faithful need to learn to stand up against the crowd; to resist the twin temptations to cower in fear or to join in the distortion ourselves. Boldness and clarity of speech on behalf of the gospel are what we need now, more than ever.
Speaking truth is of the essence. Silence is not a virtue.