Surrender is not an Option: An Evaluation of Emergent Epistemology

Surrender is not an Option: An Evaluation of Emergent Epistemology

By David Kowalski

Changing Epistemology

Although some sociologists may have overstated the cultural changes of the late twentieth century with Toffleresque superlatives, [1] as we have moved into what is being called the postmodern era, significant, societal changes have occurred to which the church must wisely respond. The change which most characterizes postmodernism is a shift in epistemology. [2]

Epistemological foundationalism and reliabilism have given way to non-foundational, cultural relativism. Consequently, although postmoderns allow us each to have our own “truth”, morals, and spirituality; they do not tolerate any claims to beliefs and practices based on ahistorical, cross-cultural, universal absolutes. The increasing postmodern tendency toward subjectivity over rationality causes them, as Gene Veith observes, to formulate their beliefs and practices according to what they like as opposed to what they find reasonable.[3]

Postmodernism thus perfectly fits Paul’s prophetic description in 2 Tim 4:3: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.”[4]

The Church’s Challenge

The greatest challenge for the church in this environment is to decide what to do with the less pleasant elements of dogma such as sin and judgment that are unpopular with postmoderns. The latest, “cutting-edge” approach would have us declare that we have revisited the scriptures and no longer hold these unpopular beliefs as dogma. Old-fashioned conservatives may retain the right to believe what they will, but “humility” forbids allowing them to proclaim their unpopular beliefs as universal absolutes. Thus, dogmatism becomes the chief sin in postmodern Christianity. One is a proud, wrong, angry persecutor if they say others are wrong or sinful (unless they are a postmodern correcting a proud, wrong, angry “modern”).[5]

Is it responsible to set our sails to catch the latest secular philosophical wind or should we navigate against the winds of postmodern epistemology that are hostile to Christian faith (Eph 4:14-15)?

Emergents believe that for the church to be relevant we must adopt the postmodern paradigm and think as postmoderns do. Romans 12:2, however, warns all generations of believers, commanding us “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” To fit the postmodern mold, theologians such as Stanley Grenz and John Franke have insisted that Christian theology be postfoundational and not be viewed as a bounded set.[7]

As a necessary correlative, this position reflects postmodernism’s rejection of the referential theory of language and the correspondence theory of truth as outmoded remnants of the old paradigm of modernism. Even the most ingenious efforts to construct such a theology ultimately succumb to some form of skepticism or relativism, both of which are inimical to biblical, Christian faith. With no foundation, faith becomes no more than an opinion; with no boundaries for orthodoxy it is impossible to say with certainty what is or is not Christian ideology; and without the referential and correspondence theories there can be no absolutes. With these hermeneutical guidelines removed, Scripture can have endless “private” meanings (see 2 Pe 1:20).

Postmodern epistemology does not recognize a discernable, objective meaning to any biblical text, so what a text “means” to one reader it may not “mean” to another. Emergent leader Tony Jones urges Christians to take just such an approach to Scripture, claiming “We must stop looking for some objective Truth that is available when we delve into the text of the Bible.”[8] Nevertheless, emergents do occasionally use Bible texts to support their arguments. They differ from Evangelicals, however, by using postmodern culture as the Procrustean bed for their understanding of Scripture.

The Correspondence and Referential Theories

Though emergents seem eager to purge every vestige of modern thinking from the minds of Christians, not every detail of “modernist” thinking is antithetical to biblical teaching, so we must evaluate the intellectual legitimacy of the correspondence and referential theories as well as the extent to which they harmonize with Scripture before dismissing them for purely sociological reasons.[9]

Douglas Groothuis describes the correspondence theory of truth as the assumption that “A belief or statement is true only if it matches with, reflects, or corresponds to the reality to which it refers. For a statement to be true it must be factual. Facts determine the truth or falsity of a belief or statement.” For Groothuis, this theory harmonizes with the presuppositions he finds in Scripture: “The Bible does not relate a technical view of truth, but it does implicitly and consistently advance the correspondence view in both testaments.”[10]

In the referential theory of language, words refer to rather than create reality and the communicator’s intent is considered the proper meaning of the communication. Language is not viewed as an ambiguous event open to individualized “meanings.” Justin Taylor finds the referential theory of language similarly presumed in Scripture:

Nothing could be clearer from the New Testament, it seems to me, than the idea that God has given us universally true doctrinal revelation that can be understood, shared, defended and contextualized. ‘The faith’ has been once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). We are to guard the ‘good deposit’ entrusted to us (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14), instructing in ‘sound doctrine’ and rebuking contrary doctrine (Titus 1:9; 2:1). False doctrine is associated with conceit and ignorance (1 Tim 6:3-4), and we are commanded not to be tossed to and fro by its winds (Eph. 4:14).[11]

Although many aspects of modernism cannot blend with Christian faith and have therefore been rejected by Evangelicals, the correspondence theory of truth and referential theory of language harmonize with the presuppositions of Scripture. God has given us unqualified, objective, eternal truth in the Bible. His Word is truth (Joh 17:17). While Christians may adjust methodology to reach any given culture most effectively; theology, spirituality, and morality must remain loyal to the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints (Jude 3).

Emergent Accommodation to Postmodernism

The nature of postmodern epistemology is so contrary to the absolute and exclusive claims of Scripture that a theology which is faithful to Scripture can no more develop from postmodern epistemology than an apple tree can grow from an acorn. Nevertheless, the prospect of radically revising Christianity in a way that will be popular with postmoderns is such an inviting one that many believers welcome this “revolution” in the church without duly considering the perils of this cultural accommodation. Brian McLaren goes so far as to castigate believers who refuse to embrace a culturally relative epistemology: “The problem with the critics [conservative Evangelicals] here is that they think they have a superior, timeless gospel that floats above any culture whether modern or postmodern.”[12]

Instead of seeing themselves as submerging into the world these visionaries believe they are part of a movement in which the church is “emerging” to be more “relevant.” The excitement has spread (largely over the internet) and a growing number of people are embracing the teachings of the emerging church movement, a somewhat diverse group within Christianity which has popularized postmodern theology with all of its implications for doctrines and practices. They refer to themselves as a “conversation” (a more postmodern term that implies less substance and more fluidity) but corporately exhibit the proper characteristics to be considered a movement. Recognized leaders within this movement which seeks to create “a new kind of Christian” include Brian McLaren,[13] Tony Jones, and Dan Kimball. Evangelical leaders who have opposed this movement include D. A. Carson, Millard Erickson, David Wells, Carl Henry, Chuck Smith,[14] and Charles Colson.[15]

Although the Bible teaches that faith involves “assurance” and “conviction” (Heb 11:1), emergents argue to the contrary that certainty in faith is unachievable.[16] Emergent bloggers unblushingly voice doubts about doctrines such as the deity of Christ and they seriously question any moral standards that postmoderns dislike. These blogs provide a “safe place” for even the most bizarre and heretical ideas to be treated respectfully as long as they do not sound “modern.” Most of the bloggers have followed the lead of prominent emergent authors who reject the church’s dogmatism on issues such as the blood atonement,[17] hell,[18] the sovereignty of God,[19] and the sinfulness of homosexuality.[20] Brian McLaren, for example, admits that he does not even know why Jesus died on the cross.[21]

In this environment that forbids certainty of the unpleasant, one is not supposed to declare that the world is in darkness (Act 26:15-20, 1 Pe 2:8) or that the church is to be the light in that darkness (Mat 5:13-16, Eph 5:3-13). Rather than call sinners to repentance (Act 2:38) and unbelievers to faith (Act 16:30-32) emergents “humbly” engage them in “conversation,” even to the extent of the kind of interfaith dialogue long advocated by religious pluralists such as John Hick.[23] Brian McLaren is among those who vigorously advocate this approach:

I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move on … To help Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else experience life to the full in the way of Jesus (while learning it better myself), I would gladly become one of them (whoever they are, to whatever degree I can, to embrace them, to join them, to enter into their world without judgment but with saving love as mine has been entered by the Lord.[24]

In a strange but predictable philosophical twist, emergents do, however, express certainty regarding elements that distinguish them as a movement. Most emergents, for example, seem convinced that although one can only be saved by Christ, it is not necessary to believe in Christ to be saved by him. Emergents never express or entertain doubts about the just nature of the social causes they advance (try arguing on an emergent blog that maximizing corporate profits is more important than preserving the environment!) and they seem absolutely certain that there can be no absolute certainty in orthodox faith.

Some emergents label Evangelicals who refuse to compromise on essential biblical doctrines and morals as “spiritual McCarthyists.” Donald Miller similarly vilifies “modern” Evangelicals as too morally rigid, saying “The problem with the Christian community was that we had ethics, we had rules and laws and principles to judge each other against.”[25] Emergents are not shy, however, about exhorting others to behave as they want them to. The emphasis of emergent exhortations just happens to be the environmental and social causes that are popular with postmoderns, and the emergent views of “missional” living[26] and establishing God’s kingdom focus mainly on making the world a better place for people of all beliefs.[27] Regardless of how others label us, Evangelicals must be unashamedly countercultural when the Bible’s message and standards do not suit worldly culture. As Francis Schaeffer said, “The culture is to be constantly judged by the Bible, rather than the Bible being bent to conform to the surrounding culture.”

After much experience I have found that the “safe place” of emergent conversation can be frustrating for conservative Evangelicals whom emergents seem to see as their only real enemies. While emergents courteously speak about and dialogue with people whose beliefs and morals are contrary to Scripture, discussion about or dialogue with Evangelicals often results in mocking and name calling by at least some emergents on their blogs. Also, emergents’ apparent disregard for conventional principles of logic and language frequently makes communication with them perplexing for “moderns” who try to reason with them. After exchanging several emails regarding biblical inerrancy with a prominent and very educated emergent leader, I finally realized the futility of my efforts since this emergent would consistently and grossly misrepresent the conservative view of inerrancy (in spite of my repeated attempts to explain this position to him), and would make rambling statements that had no relation to the issues at hand.

Responding to Emergent Strategies

The most common strategy emergents use to promote their beliefs is a combination of the straw man and false dilemma fallacies. After misrepresenting the Evangelical position on a given topic they will present their own view (which they may cosmetically change for the moment[29]) as the only alternative. For example, emergents present their relativism as the only alternative to their misrepresentation of epistemological foundationalism which they say requires “bombproof certainty” (a position no contemporary foundationalists hold). Regarding this false antithesis D. A. Carson says “In effect the antithesis demands that we be God, with all of God’s omniscience, or else forever be condemned to knowing nothing objective for sure.”[30] Regarding evangelism emergents speak as though we must choose between befriending others into joining (their choice) and persuading others into believing, when in fact one may do both since they are not mutually exclusive or contradictory.

Though many emergent positions are openly liberal and antinomian, emergents detest such labels and use three main arguments in defending against them. First, they frequently dismiss lengthy and thoughtful critiques of their movement by scholars such as D. A. Carson by saying their critics do not understand them, although they neglect to say exactly how these critics have misunderstood. Additionally, emergents (especially bloggers) often bombard their critics with the intellectually cheap ammunition of ad hominems which label Evangelicals who disagree with them as stodgy, unenlightened buffoons.[31] Both of these defenses eliminate the need for “modern” exegesis or reason for emergents to answer those who disagree with them.

The third defense offered by emergents is a bit more involved. Many of them argue that critiques of the doctrines and practices of the movement as a whole tend to unfairly associate the entire movement with the moral and theological deviations of the “emergent stream” characterized by Brian McLaren and emergentvillage. There is some truth to this assertion. Some theological conservatives such as Mark Driscoll (who calls the “generous orthodoxy”[32] of the “emergent stream” “the latest version of liberalism”[33]) and the Acts 29 network consider themselves to be a part of the Emerging Church movement because they embrace new methods, utilize new technologies, are culturally liberal,[34] prefer decentralized organization, and revert to a more eclectic, premodern spirituality. Such individuals insist they are “emerging but not emergent.” Consequently, we must not be too hasty in assuming that a particular “emerging” believer embraces heresy or antinomianism.[36]

Nevertheless, I believe it is at least as legitimate to speak of a theology of the emerging church movement as it is to speak of a theology of the diverse Neo-Orthodox movement. Movements always contain diverse elements yet maintain certain distinctive, unifying features which create their identity. Theology based on postmodern epistemology is a distinctive element of the emerging church movement and theological conservatives who do not yield to this epistemology appear to be enough of a minority within the movement to consider them anomalies, somewhat like liberation theologians who embrace free market capitalism or Word-Faith teachers who consider the “little gods” teaching to be heresy. I have repeatedly encountered emergents who point to conservatives such as Driscoll as a reason that no overall critique of emergent theology is possible. However, further investigation has nearly always revealed that these very emergents embrace most of the controversial positions advocated by emergentvillage. Thus, although we must patiently allow individual “emerging believers” to explain specifically what they believe, the “diversity” argument for not critiquing emergent theology as a whole is somewhat like insisting that one cannot discuss the general characteristics of automobiles due to the differences between various models and the fact that some models are quite unique.

Additionally, nearly all the leading figures both for and against this movement use the terms emerging and emergent as synonyms. As a result, the minority who insist they are “emerging but not emergent” are using language in a way that violates standard lexicography. Usage determines meaning, and as long as leading advocates such as Brian McLaren and leading critics such as D. A. Carson use the terms synonymously, those who do not follow suit are not observing commonly accepted modes of communication. I dialogued at length with one theologically conservative “emerging but not emergent” believer who finally concluded that labeling himself an orthodox emerging believer was an oxymoron and said he would drop the terms “emerging” and “emergent” altogether from his self-description. I have also dialogued with one theologically liberal emergent who insisted that Mark Driscoll is not a legitimate part of the movement due to his harsh criticisms of the liberal, antinomian majority.


There is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9-10). Neither postmodernism nor the emerging church movement is quite as revolutionary as is often claimed. Rather than a complete rebellion against modernism, what we call postmodernism could more accurately be seen as the culmination of elements that which developed within modernism (this is why I prefer Thomas Oden’s label “ultramodernism” to describe this era). The Enlightenment asserted the autonomy of man, saying that human reason was authoritative over divine revelation. While many commentators suggest that postmodernism’s focus on community makes mankind less autonomous, I believe postmodern epistemology makes people ultimately more autonomous. In this ultramodernism not even reason has authority over individual likes or dislikes. Mankind has at last found its complete triumph over external authority. This essential philosophical continuity between modernism and postmodernism helps to explain why it is hard to find anything in emergent teachings that cannot be found in the writings of earlier liberal and neo-liberal theologians, as well as those of “modern” religious pluralists. The capitulation of these earlier scholars to modernism parallels the surrender of emergent theologians to the zenith of mankind’s rebellion in the ultramodern era. We must be cautious about joining the emergent “revolution,” and heed Colin Brown’s warning concerning those “who feel obliged to capitulate to the most fashionable ideas of the moment, and reinterpret Christianity accordingly.”[37]

While most leading Evangelical scholars have strongly opposed the many unscriptural teachings found in the emerging church movement, some popular Evangelical leaders have openly befriended the movement and some Christian magazines have spoken favorably of certain emergent books. This phenomenon may pass with time. David Smith observes that when the theology of hope first appeared in the 1960’s “Many conservatives early in the movement’s life saw the theologians of hope as fellow travelers”[38] due to certain outward similarities to Evangelicalism. As conservatives became more familiar with the substance of this movement’s teachings they realized their first impression had been wrong. Perhaps as more Evangelicals become familiar with all of the teachings of the emerging church movement and consider the serious implications of their theology of surrender they will choose to disagree with the sociologically based theology, morality, and spirituality which the epistemology of this movement has birthed. J. P. Moreland expresses the sentiments of the aliens and strangers (1Pe 2:11) who are unashamed of the gospel in this postmodern era:

Faced with such opposition and the pressure it brings, postmodernism is a form of intellectual pacifism that, at the end of the day, recommends backgammon while the barbarians are at the gate. It is the easy, cowardly way out that removes the pressure to engage alternative conceptual schemes, to be different, to risk ridicule, to take a stand outside the gate. But it is precisely as disciples of Christ, even more, as officers in his army, that the pacifist way out is simply not an option. However comforting it may be, postmodernism is the cure that kills the patient, the military strategy that concedes defeat before the first shot is fired, the ideology that undermines its own claim to allegiance. And it is an immoral, coward’s way out that is not worthy of a movement born out of the martyrs’ blood.[39]

“Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong.” (1 Co 16:13)


    1. See, for example, Leonard Sweet, Soul Tsunami (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 158. Sweet predicted that “By the time you read this book there may be only one bank left in the world.” [Back]






































Other articles by David Kowalski posted at Apologetics Index include:

Postmodernism and the Emerging Church Movement posted at Apologetics Index.

What to tell one of Jehovah’s Witnesses concerning the Trinity


© Copyright 2007 by David Kowalkski. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission.

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