A plea for the emerging church, emergent and her critics:
The late S Lewis Johnson is one of my heroes. From 1950 until 1977 he was first a professor of New Testament Theology and then of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. When I was in seminary, I used to order the free tapes Believers Bible Chapel provided of his teaching and sermons. And then one of the happiest discoveries I experienced in the last year was when I realized that his church had uploaded hundreds of his talks to the web for free download.
Dr. Johnson passed on 28 Jan 2004 at the age of 88 but he’s still teaching.
I mentioned a few days ago that I’ve been studying eschatology and, as a consequence, am also studying dispensationalism, covenant theology, new covenant theology, and progressive dispensationalism. And so tonight while cooking for my girls, I began listening on my Nano to Dr. Johnson’s 37 lecture series entitled The Divine Purpose. In the series Dr. Johnson, a dispensationalist, devotes a significant amount of time to Covenant Theology.
Toward the beginning of his first lecture, he makes these comments:
“Now I hope you won’t mind that when I talk about Covenant Theology, I’m going to try to present it as faithfully to its proponents as I can. And when I talk about Dispensational Theology I’ll try to present it as faithfully to the viewpoints of its proponents as I can. That won’t necessarily mean that I agree with everything of either one of these theologies, of course. But I will try to be as honest as I can and presenting [sic] the viewpoint in as strong a way as possible. And if some of you are partisans for one view or the other, you may get upset when I present … the other person’s viewpoint – and I hope you realize that what I’m trying to do is to do what any person should do in discussing an issue. He should present all of the viewpoints in as positive a way as possible, in a way in which proponents would present it (emphasis mine).”
For many years I’ve taught conflict resolution in my corporate environment and have done some conflict mediation as well. I’ve detailed my approach here, but the heart of my method is essentially what Dr. Johnson expressed above. Before I begin a moderation, I stress to the participants that what we are about to do will be very, very difficult. During the moderation, I have each participant listen to his or her opposite and then summarize the viewpoint of the other person. The sessions cannot continue until each person not only certifies that the other person has successfully summarized the position they do not hold, but that they have also successfully detailed the reasons for the position that they do not believe. Only when each side can articulate their opposite’s position and reasons for that position to the satisfaction of the other party can we move forward to solutions.
It has been my experience that this process sometimes brings out an unrealized complexity to an issue that the participants had previously believed was a simple binary proposition. Presuppositions are unearthed and creative solutions can be crafted.
This is what I long to see happen between the emerging church, emergent, and her critics. I believe that I see movements in these directions and the desire for these types of interactions to occur on both sides of the discussion.
But it seems all too easy for discussions like these to quickly debilitate into two-dimensions. They can cascade down into caricature with the requisite cartoon figures and the attendant ad hominems and accompanying impugnations.
And it’s understandable. Such devolutions seem to be the norm. This kind of discussion and work is extremely difficult. It’s time-consuming and inconvenient. It’s trying. It requires imagination, confidence, and humility. It requires a tremendous amount of character.
Understanding the other calls for imagination, because we have to provisionally assume the other may be correct – or at least partially correct – if we are to truly listen. We may have to hold our convictions in abeyance as we hypothetically consider the position of the other.
Coming to agreement requires confidence, because our self-worth cannot rest on our being merely right.
Finding Christ’s mind demands humility, because we don’t like changing our minds and acknowledging that the other has a good point. Our certainty is such a warm comforting blanket that we hesitate to toss aside.
What’s needed most of all is love – love for the other, love for God, and love for the truth – the three in balance.
But it’s hard. In fact, these kinds of conversations are so difficult that often the only way that we can even begin is by crying out to God that His Spirit would empower us to proceed.
God help us.
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