Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle has become something of a flashpoint in the emerging church conversation because he’s been so adamant about not being an emerging church revisionist (using Ed Stetzer’s term for emergers who wish to modify, or at least discuss modifying, long-held theological beliefs such as substitutionary atonement and the nature of hell). The claim of some that Driscoll isn’t “emerging” based on some of his traditionalist theological beliefs has led to a discusson on the faithmaps discussion group as to whether or not there are emerging church shibboleths.
In contrast, emergent‘s National Coordinator, Tony Jones, in a piece critical of Stetzer’s taxonomy and Driscoll’s differentiation of “evangelical emergers” from “liberal emergents”, has written passionately that emergent welcomes their inerrantists, complimentarians as well as their “Bush-loving neocons.”
One thing that the various categorization schemes out there (and I offered one myself a while back) do reveal is that folks have different resonances with the emerging church conversation (here’s mine). Some really are just trying to communicate better to postmoderns. Others want to do that and they also want to radically change how church is done. And others really do believe the time has come to tweak the church’s theology.
With due respect to Stetzer (for I do find his categories helpful), I think that one of the things that hindered his nomenclature from being more favorably viewed was when he seemed to lump all of the revisionists together and basically dismisses all of their theological speculations with the comment that “their prescriptions fail to take into account the full teaching of the Word of God.” Then he writes, “Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself” as if these matters were of equal importance. He seems to reject any degree of revisionism out of hand.
However, even so Reformed and conservative a leading light as the great exegete John Murray once commented,
“However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality. There is the danger of a stagnant traditionalism and we must be alert to this danger, on the one hand, as to that of discarding our historical moorings, on the other.”
Murray continues, “When any generation is content to rely upon its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already under way and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation…. A theology that does not build on the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by history. A theology that relies on the past evades the demands of the present“(emphasis mine, from his article “Systematic Theology” – see Looking Beyond the Facade of Modernity, Part 2).
Those critiques of Stetzer’s comments aside , I’ll nevertheless suggest that categorization can be helpful as a discussion tool as long as we don’t collapse folks down to their category. They help us to see the different ways in which we are interested in the emerging church conversation.
And perhaps the one legitimate shibboleth for emergers is a dissatisfaction with the status quo.