Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Colin Adams
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  • Thursday, May 03, 2007

    The Emergent Culture and The Enduring Gospel

    Want a FASCINATING read? Want insight and ability to not only follow but impact the future? Take the few moments necessary to read and compare the following two articles: Atheism in the Third Millnnium and Emerging Church - Distinctive Teachings and Goals (note: must scroll down until you see bulleted information)

    Two discoveries emerge as important:
    1. The Commonalities and Distinctions between the Emergent Church and Emergent Atheists
    2. The Common Battlefield resulting from these Commonalities for the Future

    In this post, I'll seek to make sense of this fascinating field, and provide reasons the church (if grounded and faithful) possesses not only the solutions to be relevant but to win the battle for the emergent (postmodern) generation and beyond.

    By way of outline, I'll speak to:
    I. THE QUEST (The commonalities and distinctions between the emergent church and atheist proponents)
    II. THE TEST (The problems associated with both the emergent church and atheist proponents)
    III. THE BEST (The reasons the church will win the battle)

    There are many things common to both the emergent church and atheist proponents.

    At the same time, because of not only the difference in their beliefs but differences in the development and maturity level of their respective belief systems and communities, there are also differences found among them in regard to their positions, goals, and modes of operation.

    1. Both view the world as radically changing and the need to radically change with it. Both are conscious of both the time and progress in which they live.

    2. Both view themselves not only in light of but with a responsibility and desire to emerge from the generation that proceeds them. Both are cognizant that people will abandon their former positions and leaders in search of that which is fulfilling and satisfying.

    3. Both, while valuing to some degree previous positions, advances and leaders, both value free thought in the sense they express the freedom, need and responsibility to reexamine the past and present and to reinvent so as to more productively engage in and shape the future.

    4. Both to some degreee or another deny absolute truth and treat propositional truth as relative.

    5. Both express a strong desire for community and believe that truth is culturally relative.

    6. Both emphasize consideration and the importance of cross-cultural communication, and seek to understand and overcome barriers to cross-cultural communication.

    7. While atheist proponents perhaps claim to be more dogmatic, both seek to present themselves (and convince others) of their openness to ideas and truth (freethought, questioning).

    8. While both acknowledge morality and standards have their place and want to diassociate from the absolute stands on issues of the past, neither has arrived at what those standards are but rather show more concern with how others perceive both them and their process determining morality.

    9. Both seek to distance themselves somewhat from the dogmatic discussions of the past to engage in more conversation and dialogue between people of all beliefs. (Note: a premium is placed on genuineness and openness, and exclusivism is looked down on)

    10. Both express a high emphasis and appreciation on experience and social action, as well as culture (the arts, literature, etc). Both articulate the need to think about, bring about and participate in those things that result in experience.

    11. Both emphasize the present as opposed to the living with a view toward the future. (However, at the same time, both seek to base their present living by first asking the question of what the future of their belief system and world be.)

    12. Both view making the world a better place (people are free, end poverty, clean environment, etc.)

    13. Both seek to live in the present and affect the future through community.

    14. Both possess a great appreciation for stories/narrative, celebrations, and symbols (related to their beliefs).

    15. Both seek to set their lifestyle (not so much specifically their beliefs) as as not only being better than what others have, but as what they have to offer. (It is no longer the person who is better than the other, but the lifestyle).

    16. Both value the attributes of truth (though they deny absolutes, even though they claim them), honesty, humaneness, and morality (though they don't define it).

    17. Both seek to be consistent in applying their beliefs to life.

    18. Both seek to participate in that which is significant (because it is lasting).

    19. Both emphasize the need and work toward achieving common ground among their respective groups.

    20. Difference lies in the fact that though emergent Christians, though they may not fully recognize it, stand on a well established past, which has advanced far beyond the development of atheism; while atheism discusses greater formation and development but beyond some common beliefs doesn't the same foundation of unity, community, communication and support.

    21. Difference lies in that while the emergent church is seeking to set aside dogmatism, atheist are not ashamed of their dogmatism when it comes to their atheology.

    22. Difference lies in that while the emergent church is more focused more on how to affect people and the world today, atheists communicate that even if by "luck and with commitment" they might rival religion "in the next thousand years."


    On one level, we must acknowledge that emergent believers and atheists are no different than generations before them in the fact that they seek to address and respond to issues of their day, issues different from those who went before them. In this light, it's interesting to see that the goals and methodologies of both have perhaps more to do with cultural effects and ideas (of emergence) introduced and applied within their respective contexts than with issues specific to each respective belief and community.

    Of greatest interest is that both (while to a great degree) seek to distance themselves from objective truth (acknowledge it has a place, while denying it's vital, or particularly useful or personally or culturally important), and at the same time both emphasize relational truth and cultural truth..

    While I submit that ALL THREE ASPECTS of TRUTH are VITAL AND IMPORTANT, here's the test:

    1. Can one truly have relational and cultural truth apart from objective truth?

    While it's true that one can focus on objective truth alone and result in dead othodoxy, at the same time, one who looks to relational truth apart from orthodoxy results in mere sentimentalism (as one put it, they (the friends) will both hold hands together as they walk into the fire!). At the same time, if one looks primarily to experience or culture apart from orthodoxy, can they really attain and enjoy true and deep relationship while remaining so disparate. And even if the emergent generation seeks to include or combine both relational and cultural truth apart from objective truth, do they not still seek to sit on a three legged stool which is missing a leg? While it's true that the church of the former generation may have sought to sit on a one legged stool (objective truth), that does not mean that a stool with just the other two legs is any better, or will prove more successful or satisfying.

    2. Can one have really attain community and find fulfillment in culture by seeking those them (as the ultimate goal)?

    I submit that just as when one seeks peace apart from Christ will never find it (but the one who finds Christ will experience that peace), and just as when one seeks truth apart from Christ but is left with uncertainty (while the one who finds and rests in Christ knows that certainty), in the same way those who seek community, and culture, and dialogue, and lasting influence and significance apart from Christ will never find what they are looking for either, regardles of whether they seek it as an individual or a community of common ideas and belief (whether Christian or Atheist)


    It is in view of both the situation and the significant weaknesses associated with each group (the emergent church and the atheist proponents), that I submit to you that the victory will lie with the true church, just as the Scripture states.

    My basis for stating this is that while the emergent culture makes a significant contribution by drawing attention the needs and to what's lacking today as result of generations prior (both from the Christian and Atheist emphases and influences); the true and full solution is found in both Christ and the Church, in whom are found not only relational and culturally relative truth, but objective truth.

    While the world is looking to truth, effectiveness, relationship, and lasting significance apart from Christ, it can ultimately be found only in Christ, for He, not other things found in creation, embodies, proves, and is able to provide all these things, all of them being found and emmanating from him.

    While community may be found in many things and while many types of community may be found (there was community in communism, neonazism, in the debased gangs within prison populations, etc.); what's important is not just that one forms and finds community, but that there is something outside of that community that lifts it above itself and provides life and significance beyond itself, something that only Jesus Christ can do.

    While one may seek to affect culture and life, how can one really and effectively do that when one denies not only objective truth but common truth and value in reality and life? Though it may be attempted, it can't be done. (Not even if one borrows or independently corresponds to the truth and values found in Christ but apart from him.

    The church, (not specifically referring to the emergent church, but to the larger, historic, whole church), not only possesses the truth, the community, and the elements essential to cultural enrichment and enjoyment, but possesses it not for the sake of remaining exclusive, but for offering it to others through respectful dialogue and conversation, but offers it not through the wisdom, experience, or relationship found exclusively in or common to humanity, but through the person and proclamation of Jesus Christ, who is himself truth that is objective, relational and relevant, and who can provide this all to individuals, communities and to the world.

    It will be the demise of the emergent church, if they fail to look beyond the previous generation and seek only relational and cultural truth, while denying the objective truth upon which their foundation and heritage stands. Likewise, it will continue to be the demise of the atheist proponents and connections if they too seek only relational and cultural truth while denying the objective reality and foundation upon which the others rest and find fulfillment.

    I set before you JESUS CHRIST, who was and is and is to come, who not only holds and portrays truth, honor, humaneness, and morality in himself, but promises and provides it to the world. If there is one model of cross-cultural communication and communion (through unity and community), it's found in HIM!

    Emergent generation, community and proponents, as the Scripture teaches, there's nothing new under the sun. There's a different day, and different issues, and different strategies toward solutions, but there's only one solution that will ultimately work. Question it, discuss it, even seek to deny it, but this is one objective truth that cannot be denied without significant and long lasting consequence.


    Puritan Lad said...

    Yikes. I didn't realize that the movement was this bad.

    The problem is that, without absolute truth and doctrinal distinctives, you cannot have a church. In reading the entire list, it appears that this movement is built on the attempt to combine forces against the church of Jesus Christ.

    I have the optimistic view that this movement will backfire and force some of our more "seeker-sensitive" churches to re-examine their poor commitment to sound doctrine and strong, expository preaching. In the end, this could be the best thing that has happened to the true church of Jesus Christ since the Reformation.

    Swordbearer said...

    I've been pleased to see a movement among many who have gone down the road abandoning emphasis on objective truth to return with great zeal, appreciation, and public witness. I'm not sure how many will wise up and recognize the emptiness and powerlessness that that road results in, but I agree with you that "In the end, this could be the best thing that has happened to the true church of Jesus Christ since the Reformation." When the church wises up to the fact that it's witness must include objective and applied truth, personal and community fulfillment and relationship based on Christ, and applied truth in the church and both in and across culture, what a heyday it will be as a result of both revival and reformation!

    Swordbearer said...

    Some may have not seen the Christianity Today Article "Young, Restless, Reformed" back in Sept, 06. (

    August said...

    This post demonstrates again what I come across in many debates: atheists try to debunk the "Christianity" that is set forth in the pop-culture. That is why we get the Dawkins', Hitchens' and Harris' out there arguing aganst a weak and relativist God, using the supposedly neutral ground determined by a largely secular humanist society.

    I also blogged on partial Christianity vs universal Christianity recently, and it is noticable that partial Christianity indeed shares much with the arguments we see from the atheist camp. For example, sceince is a non-religious activitiy, it is religiously neutral, although atheists claim that "it shrinks the number of places where God can hide". For partial Christianity, that rings true, for it becomes easy to declare just one more theory or moral dilemma to be "religiously" neutral.

    For us on the reformed side, the starting point is much different to both the atheist and emergent church. We see God's sovereignity as non-negotiable, for all that is.

    jazzycat said...

    Good post. You are becoming a de-facto Zorro of the truth........
    Christians must develop their values and world-view from Scripture. It seems that many in the Emergent village movement begin with a liberal secular world-view and conform, manipulate, and ignore Scripture to fit this view. This gives them the wiggle room to affirm unbiblical principles (example: homosexuality) and deny or ignore biblical principles (example: John 14:6, wrath, judgment).