D. A. Carson Slams the Emergent Church

Carson, D. A. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. 250pp. $14.99.

If you were wondering whether D. A. Carson had an opinion on the so-called “emergent church” movement, wonder no more. In his new book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications, Carson delivers a biblical and theological wallop against a movement that he argues has been animated by the values of postmodernity. Carson saves what is perhaps his severest denunciation for the very last page of the book, and it packs quite a rhetorical punch against emergent thought: “Damn all the false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ” (p. 234).

The book does not begin with the same stark censure that it ends with, but rather builds to its acerbic conclusion. The early chapters of the book are largely taken up with a description of the emergent church movement, while the latter chapters build into a crescendo of rather pointed critiques of the same. In chapter one, Carson gives a brief profile of the emergent movement. In chapter two, Carson outlines the emergent church’s “strengths in reading the times” (p. 45). In chapter three, Carson discusses what he sees as weaknesses in the emerging church’s analysis of contemporary culture. In chapter four, Carson evaluates “postmodernism’s contributions and challenges” (p. 87) in what is principally a rehashing of material from his earlier work The Gagging of God. In chapter five, Carson argues that the emergent church has not adequately critiqued postmodernism. In chapter six, Carson points out weaknesses in the movement by critiquing two significant books, one written by a prominent American leader in the movement (Brian McLaren) and one by a British leader (Steve Chalke). In chapter seven, Carson evaluates the emergent movement in light of the scriptures (p. 188). In chapter eight, the concluding chapter, Carson offers a “meditation” on the relationship of objective truth and subjective experience in the life of the Christian.

If The Gagging of God is Carson’s critique of the ideology of postmodernism, then Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church is his critique of the practice of postmodernism as it is being carried out in emergent church. Thus, those who disliked Carson’s earlier analysis of postmodernity in The Gagging of God might still be dissatisfied with Becoming Conversant inasmuch as it builds upon the former work (click here for one such critique).

That being said, there is much more to commend in this little book than there is to critique. Carson tackles the difficult task of describing a movement that is far from monolithic. Yet he is able to capture some characteristics which appear to be common among those in the movement. One characteristic that reoccurs in the writings of emergent writers is a “manipulative antithesis” (p. 104) that is often used to force modernists into the epistemological mold of postmodernity: “This antithesis is rarely argued in the literature, but it is almost everywhere assumed by postmodern writers . . . In effect, the antithesis demands that we be God, with all of God’s omniscience, or else be forever condemned to knowing nothing objective for sure” (p. 105). In other words, postmodern theologians and their emergent offspring often allege that if we cannot know anything omnisciently, then it is not possible to know objective truth at all. Carson shows throughout this book that this is in fact a false antithesis that is not born out by reason or scripture. He counters that “critical realism” offers a way for us to acknowledge that while we cannot know anything omnisciently, we can know some things adequately (p. 110).

Carson’s training is that of a New Testament scholar, and more than anything else he brings the scripture to bear upon the ideology of the emergent church (and make no mistake, there is an ideology to postmodernism!). Though he provides scriptural reflections throughout, chapters six and seven in particular contain important material on what the Bible claims about the nature of truth—claims which often stand in stark contrast to that painted by emergent writers. The contrast is often so pronounced that Carson concludes that two of the most significant emergent ministers, “both [Steve] Chalke and [Brian] McLaren have largely abandoned the Gospel” (p. 186).

This book is short, but its length should not be mistaken for a lack of biblical depth and theological insight. It is not only a handy primer on the emergent church, its leaders, and its literature; but it is also a faithful critique of a movement that, taken to seed, undermines evangelical faith.

See my previous post: “Mohler Blasts McLaren and the ‘Emergent’ Church.”

10 Responses to D. A. Carson Slams the Emergent Church

  1. Wooderson May 26, 2005 at 10:38 am #

    Came here from the Touchstone Mere Comments site. They’ve described you as a “polymath.” No pressure.

    Questions:

    1. Is the “emergent church” anything more than the latest fad sweeping through the fad-swept Evangelical landscape?

    2. If the answer to question 1 is yes, why do serious individuals like you or Dr. Mohler bother? Can’t we just wait a few years for it to run its course rather than expend precious energy battling it? See: John Wimber

    3. And isn’t “battling” the “emergent church” like trying to hit a ghost? What’s the point of asking serious questions of a movement that, by its own admission, is either unable or unwilling to provide serious answers (indeed, its very badge of honour is its smug condescension towards those who believe real answers actually exist)?

    4. Which leads to the obvious question: What is the sound of one hand clapping, Mr. Polymath?

    5. How long until those non-negotiable things – trinitarianism, say, or the incarnation – become negotiable for emergent church leaders? You know: if we can’t be sure about sexuality, how can we be sure about the divinity of Christ?

    6. Is evangelicalism’s ability to spawn, breed and nurture movements like the “emergent church” – and, my bet, its ability to absorb it into its mix in the long term – signs of evangelicalism’s strength or weakness? Or neither?

  2. Denny Burk May 26, 2005 at 12:36 pm #

    Dear Mr. Wooderson,

    Thank you for your comments.

    In answer to number 1, my response is a resounding yes. This movement will no doubt end up on the ash-heap of forgotten movements. It won’t be too long before this movement is as passe as the “seeker-friendly” movement.

    In answer to number 2, because we want to maintain a faithful witness in the meantime. Eschatological hope should never be used as a pretext for skirting the Lord’s command to “take every thought captive.”

    Thanks,
    Mr. Polymath
    (but feel free to call me Denny)

  3. Tim Bednar May 26, 2005 at 8:50 pm #

    The problem with Carson and a lot of the critiques of the emerging church (i.e. Emergent is a Zondervan publishing brand–not the name of this so called movement) always qualify themselves saying that the movement (I prefer phenomenon) is far from monolithic.

    DA Carson essentially set up a straw man and proceeded to knock him down. I’m part of the emerging church, and I see little in Carson’s critique in me. I tend to be more radical than most and probably more “dangerous” than the sort of mainstream, boiled down version he seemed to define.

    FYI: This is no more a fad than megachurches and the troubling theology that spawned them…

  4. Tim Bednar May 26, 2005 at 8:52 pm #

    I got here from the Touchstone blog entry too…

  5. Ben Parsons May 26, 2005 at 9:43 pm #

    I think the difficulty that some have with understanding this phenomenon (yes phenomenon) is telling. It demonstrates that there are actually two worldviews at work here- the modern and the postmodern. They both are significant and “real”. I don’t think a worldview can be “moral”, blessed, or more/less spiritual than another. Worldviews just are.
    The difficulty that a Christian with a modern worldview has with the postmodern one in itself shows that this “emerging church” or whatever you want to call it is significant, real, and will last, evolve, and continue to influence society. If it is a fad, then why do the arguments against it seem to be spoken in another language? It already is a culture, a worldview, a movement.
    Also- I find it ironic that the “emerging church” is to blame for “dividing brothers and sisters in Christ” [Carson] when we have the modernist’s insistance on “absolute truth” resulting in the present land of a million denominations.
    Can we not take what is good from both of these and move forward?
    Modernist– “no.”
    Postmodernist– “maybe.”

  6. Anonymous May 28, 2005 at 7:03 pm #

    Ben:

    You are creating a false dichotomy, a typical PoMo trick. It’s not just a choice between modernity and postmodernity. It’s a choice between a biblically informed worldview and others that are not.

    There is some good in the emergent movement, but the EC’s inability to look objectively at its weaknesses and accept valid criticisms denotes arrogance and self-importance.

  7. Kc May 28, 2005 at 7:37 pm #

    Just a note of congratulations. I was “proud” in the southern sense to hear the kind words for you from Touchstone.

  8. Joel May 29, 2005 at 9:07 pm #

    Found your blog via incoming hits to my site. 🙂 I’ve not read Carson on the emergent church and, very likely, there are things to criticize in his perspective. But I did hear him address the topic informally at a PCRT conference recently and he seemed fairly balanced and recognized the difficulty of making generalizations. FWIW

  9. Jeremy Pierce June 5, 2005 at 9:31 pm #

    Carson’s book is really about the epistemology of Brian McLaren. When taken as that, most of the criticism of Carson simply don’t apply. He’s not talking about sociological, missiological, or other issues. He’s concerned with McLaren’s statements that at least seem on the face of it to go very strongly against historic Christian belief, criticizing the ancient faith by pretending that it’s modern. Other people who call themselves emergent or emerging (both terms are used by people other than Zondervan) may not do what McLaren does, though many do.

  10. Anonymous March 15, 2006 at 11:35 pm #

    What if the Emergent Church crowd could re-write some of the “meanie” parts of the Bible? What would it look like? The following is an account from the story of Elijah & the prophets of Baal. Much of the narrative is from actual things Brian McLaren has written in his books (McLaren is one of the main advocates of the “emergents”).

    To read the rest, go to:
    http://www.thekingdomcome.com

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