From Think on These Things; used with permission.
Emergent spokesman Brian McLaren calls for the evangelical community to get over its love affair with certainty. He writes, “Drop any affair you may have with certainty, proof, argument—and replace it with dialogue, conversation, intrigue, and search.”1 Are we to take McLaren seriously? If so, then the best way to get over our love affair with certainty, according to McLaren, would be to replace it with uncertainty, or more commonly, mystery. It is definitely in vogue at this point in church history to make the rather “certain” claim that we cannot be certain about anything. Of course, the irony of such certainty about uncertainty is obvious. But much like impossible political promises, when statements are left unanalyzed and unchallenged they tend to be uncritically absorbed by the minds of some people, often resulting in great harm.
It is important then that we give careful thought to the recent love affair with uncertainty. What are its origins? Is it really something new? Does it line up with the claims of Scripture? How should the people of God respond?
Inroads of Uncertainty
There is little doubt that those espousing an “uncertain” or mystery brand of Christianity, as found in the Emergent church and similar groups, are merely lip-synching postmodern philosophy which has permeated much of the Western world. Postmodernism,2 which is still taking form, and simultaneously has grown tiresome, is best known for its uncertainty. Knowable absolute and universal truth is denied, even despised, in the postmodern system. Christian thinker Os Guinness offers the following definition of postmodernism:
Postmodernism is a movement and a mood as much as a clear set of ideas, so it often feels as if it is everywhere and nowhere. Doubtless, this means it is blamed for too much as well as too little. There are, of course, telltale fingerprints that postmodernism leaves on all it touches—the rejection of truth and objective standards of right and wrong, the leveling of authorities, the elevation of the autonomous self as the soul arbiter of life and reality, the equalizing of cultures, the promotion of image over character, the glorifying of power …3
As postmodernism has encroached on our society it is becoming more and more common to see its views reflected in many realms of evangelicalism. For example, theologian Donald Bloesch writes, “Scripture is authoritative by virtue of its relation to the living Word, not by virtue of its truthfulness as such.”4 And, “The knowledge of faith is not an empirical objectifying knowledge but a knowledge of which we are lifted above reason and sense into communion with the living God.”5 In a rather convoluted manner
Bloesch is challenging a rationalistic approach to Scripture, which teaches that the Bible provides propositional truth and a common sense approach to the understanding of life, and replacing it with a postmodern, mystical understanding. Others have been clearer; for example Brian McLaren believes conservatives have entirely missed the Bible’s purpose and message and therefore, “Hardly anyone in conservative churches actually encounters the Bible any more.”6 As a result, those of a postmodern bent, we are told, “find the doctrines and principles [drawn from Scripture] as interesting as grass clippings.”7 This is because conservatives, according to McLaren, “Have conquered the text, captured the meaning, removed all mystery, stuffed it and preserved it for posterity, like a taxidermist with a deer head.”8 But even McLaren’s friend and cohort, Tony Campolo sees the danger of this mystical approach to the Scriptures. In response to the thoughts of McLaren as quoted above, Campolo writes,
Most biblical scholars would contend that the apostle Paul’s theological propositions have largely defined traditional Christianity… Brian may have bought into postmodern thinking just a little too much for me. As I see it, Jacques Derrida, the famous postmodern deconstructionist philosopher, and his followers contend that the text of Scripture has no single interpretation; instead the Bible should be read as though it was a Rorschach test. They tell us to see in the text whatever meaning we want to impose on it. They tell us that no single interpretation should be considered objectively valid. The text, say these postmodernists, has a life of its own—and once it is written, the reader provides the meaning. To me, that approach to the Bible has inherent dangers.9
Campolo, certainly no conservative, nevertheless is correct. Once we decide that the Bible is primarily the means of a mystical encounter with God rather than God’s truth revealed to man which is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16b-17), the purpose of God’s revelation changes. Scripture can be twisted to mean anything we want it to mean; the meaning of the revelation is not important, what matters is our supposed encounter with God. There is no question that we encounter God in the Bible, for as Jesus said, He came to “explain” God to us (John 1:18), and Hebrews 1:2 tells us that God has spoken to us “in His Son.” My contention is that we encounter God in the truth that He reveals. John said that his greatest joy was knowing that his “children [were] walking in the truth” (3 John 4). The Bible offers more than truth claims and propositions, but it does not offer less.
The Product of Uncertainty
A medical physician friend of mine compares this postmodern/mystical approach to the AIDS virus. He told me, “Postmodernism attacks true Christianity’s defense system, the truth (including God’s Word), denying it exists or at least that it can be known with any degree of certainty. Like the AIDS virus, which leaves the body subject to all manner of infections and malignancies, postmodernism leaves Christianity with all manner of heresies if not apostasy.”10
This disease of uncertainty has produced a very ill patient. A recent report entitled, “Crisis in America ’s Churches: Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low”11 reveals a startling picture of the evangelical church. Below are some of the findings by George Barna and other researchers as documented in this report:
- The most widely known Bible verse among adult and teen believers is “God helps those who help themselves”—which is not in the Bible.
- Less than one out of every ten believers possesses a biblical worldview as the basis for his or her decision-making or behavior.
- When given thirteen basic teachings from the Bible, only 1% of adult believers firmly embrace all thirteen as being biblical perspectives.
- Of Baptists (of all kinds) only 34% believe Satan is real, 57% believe that good works earn heaven, 45% do not believe that Jesus was sinless and 34% do not believe the Bible is totally accurate.
- Only 32% of “born-again” Christians believes in the existence of absolute moral truth.
Commenting on such beliefs Professor Gary Burge of Wheaton College believes such theological and biblical illiteracy is the result of:
- The failure of the church to transmit what it believes to the next generation. One of the reasons for this is an overemphasis on personal experience to the exclusion of serious Christian education.
- Many churches have abandoned serious Bible exposition and theological teaching. Exegesis is becoming a “lost art” in the pulpit.
- Today there is a tremendous influence of nonbiblical philosophies and worldviews on churchgoers.
- Christians have accepted and combined so many ideas from other worldviews and religions that they have created their own faith system. The average born-again, baptized, churchgoing person has embraced elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, Unitarianism and Christian Science—without any idea he has just created his own faith.
It seems to me that those cheerleading for a Christianity devoid of propositional truth and centered around an experiential encounter with Christ should be quite pleased—they have gotten what they want. Scripture is basically ignored by the average believer who now measures his Christian life by how he feels and what experiences he has encountered. On the other hand, I am convinced that our Lord is not so pleased. He designed and commissioned His church to be the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), but the church is rapidly becoming a place without truth. David Wells informs us, “Theology does not fare well in the culture because it is not believed, it does not fare well in the church because it is not wanted.”12 He goes on to warn, “A church that neither is interested in theology nor has the capacity to think theologically is a church that will be rapidly submerged beneath the wave of modernity [or swallowed up by its culture].”13
The roots of this weakened form of Christianity can be found long before the influence of postmodern philosophy. In an oft’ quoted observation, Michael Saward, surveying the evangelical scene in the 1980s, could say,
This is the disturbing legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. A generation brought up on guitars, choruses, and home group discussions. Educated, as one of them put it to me, not to use words with precision because the image is dominant, not the word. Equipped not to handle doctrine but rather to “share.” A compassionate, caring generation, suspicious of definition and labels, uneasy at, and sometimes incapable of, being asked to wrestle with sustained didactic exposition of theology. Excellent when it came to providing religious music, drama, and art. Not so good when asked to preach and teach the Faith.14
(Tomorrow: Where to from here?)
1 Brian D. McLaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2003), p. 84.
2 For more on postmodernism see my book “This Little Church Stayed Home,” (Darlington, England : Evangelical Press, 2006): pp. 21-54.
3 Os Guinness, Time for Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 52.
4 Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2001), p. 275.
5 Ibid., p. 268.
6 Brian D. McLaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point, p .78.
7 Ibid., p. 77.
8 Ibid., p. 79.
9 Ibid., p. 89.
10 Personal letter from Dr. James Blankenship.
11 Michael J. Vlach, “Crisis in America ’s Churches: Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low,” http://www.theologicalstudies.org/page/page/1573625.htm.
12 As quoted in Gary L. W. Johnson & Ronald N. Gleason, Reforming or Conforming? “Church and Community or Community and Church?” (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), p. 174.
14 As quoted in Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust: 2000), p. 254.
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute and MBS and ThD degrees from Cambridge Graduate School. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.