A Challenge to both Emergents and Conservatives: Read the Church Fathers

A lot of emergent-minded people have been comparing the emergent movement to the Protestant Reformation, when theology changed and the world of Christendom was split. To be honest, I think they have a point; they are a lot like the Protestant Reformation. But that’s not a good thing.

One of the biggest flaws in the Reformation was that when it split from Catholicism it did two things: first, it threw the baby out with the bathwater and secondly it held onto some false mentalities. On the first point the Reformation eradicated a respect for Mary, the importance of a church hierarchy, the importance of tradition, and so on. They looked at the excesses of the Roman church and rather than fighting to pull those excesses back they just got rid of the entire thing. On the second point the Protestants continued their view of the Church and State being equal, of approaching doctrinal issues through the same lenses as the Roman church, and so on. Rather than “Reforming” the church, they simply separated, but kept some beliefs while eradicating some important ones.

In much the same way, the emergent movement was one that began as an outcry against the decadence of the evangelical church in America, but in the end it has cut away too much while maintaining too much.

On the first point, we see emergent denying the exclusivity of Christ, the eternal nature of Hell, and on the more extreme ends they mythologize the Resurrection, deny (or flirt with the denial) of the Trinity, and some even deny a resurrection of the dead. All of this stems from the abuses of these beliefs by the evangelical community.

Many of them grew up not only being taught that non-Christians were going to Hell, but so were all Catholics, Lutherans, Southern Baptists, and so on. They were taught that anyone who wasn’t a part of their denomination or even their specific church would one day face the fires of Hell.

Others grew up under the Left Behind series where every sermon was about how Jesus was going to come to earth, give us swords, kill all the heathens, and then take us up to Heaven forever. Yet others were never taught the importance of the Incarnation or the Trinity, that these beliefs were just theological musings that had no real impact on how we lived.

From this many people in the emergent church reacted negatively and rather than examining the beliefs, they simply threw them out. I’ve run into too many emergent who think that any teachings on the end times or the resurrection are necessarily wrong because it’s a “pie-in-the-sky” theology. They think that if we focus on the resurrection or make it a vital belief that we’ll stop caring about the poor here; their objection is based purely on experience.

On the second point, however, we see that the emergent community has kept too much from their evangelical backgrounds. Most notably is their reliance upon politics. Whereas the Republican party got into bed with conservative evangelicals, the Democratic party is doing the exact same thing with emergent-minded people. Look at how many emergent evangelicals got involved in the Obama campaign or still support him to this day. Thus, as much as they criticized and mocked the religious right, the fact is they’re using the same tactics as the religious right; the only difference between the “new Christians” and the religious right is in terms of beliefs, but the methods are the same.

The other major issue that the emergent movement adopted was the illicit use of the “either/or” dichotomy. I say “illicit” because for both conservative evangelicals and emergent evangelicals there’s generally little justification of using an “either/or” dichotomy, or a “one is more important than the other.”

Among evangelicals the atonement debate serves as the perfect example. Evangelicals will try to say that it’s either substitutionary atonement or no atonement at all, or they’ll say that substitutionary atonement is more important than all other theories. But from a Biblical reading there’s no reason we can’t say that it’s both substitutionary atonement and other theories of atonement, that none are complete without the others. Rather, it’s a false dilemma that we create.

Yet, the emergent movement has taken this dichotomy with them. This is best seen in the current debate over the resurrection. Peter Rollins, when asked if he denies the resurrection, said he denies the resurrection anytime he oppresses someone and affirms the resurrection when he helps them. But this is an “either/or” dichotomy, or a “more important” dichotomy. Many emergent are taking this idea and running with it; they’re saying it’s more important to live in the resurrection than to believe in the historical resurrection. After all, the resurrection is far more than a philosophical abstract or a question of history.

While such an idea might sound spiritual, it’s actually simplistic and ignorant. I’m not saying that to insult the people who believe it, but merely to point out why it’s dangerous to adopt an either/or dichotomy when there’s no need for it. The fact is that the resurrection of Christ (and our future resurrection) is a major issue of “both/and.” We must believe that the resurrection took place in space and time, but this should also influence how we live. If we deny the resurrection took place in space and time, then it has no more meaning to us than one of Aesop’s fables or a bedtime story; if it doesn’t move me to live a certain way, then what of it?

But we see this “either/or” dichotomy rampant throughout emergent ideology and emergent discussions. The problem is if you challenge them then they refer to their past experience as a conservative evangelical and say haughtily, “I’ve already heard this.” Yet again we see a similarity between the Reformation and the emergent movement; an unwillingness to sit and listen to the ones they’re protesting.

The ultimate problem in the emergent movement is the same problem that existed in the Reformation; a rejection of what we see practiced without looking to the ideal. Christianity is an idealistic religion, there’s no getting around that. It sets the ideal and then commands us to live it. Unfortunately, being human, we never obtain the ideal. What is even more unfortunate is that too many people look to the failures and reject the ideal based upon the failures.

G.K. Chesterton famously wrote in his book What’s Wrong With the World, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried…Men have not got tired of Christianity; they have never found enough Christianity to get tired of.” Though this was written a century ago it is actually more true today than it was back then. The biggest flaw in the emergent movement is they’re trying to reinvent Christianity because they’ve seen the abuses of conservative evangelicals, when what they should be doing is seeking out historic Christianity and then pursuing the ideal.

The criticisms of conservative evangelicals are oftentimes accurate, but the solutions are just as misguided as what they criticize. The reason is they aren’t seeking out the ideal or have given up hope of the ideal or, worse, have changed the ideal. The same was true in the Protestant Reformation; Martin Luther saw the excesses of the Catholic church and rather than seeking the ideal and encouraging others to do so, he simply jettisoned certain beliefs as a reaction to the over indulgence (though some beliefs did need to be jettisoned, just like some conservative evangelical beliefs need to be jettisoned).

Therefore, I’m issuing a challenge to both conservative evangelicals and emergent evangelicals:

For the next year, read nothing but the Church Fathers and the Bible. And do not deconstruct it or try to make it applicable to our “modern knowledge.” Approach it with the idea that you could be wrong (whether you’re conservative or emergent). Approach it trying to read it through their mindset, knowing that while you can’t do that exactly, do the best you can.

The purpose of this challenge is to help us realize the ideal and, more importantly, to realize that Christianity hasn’t always been practiced as it is today. After reading the fathers you may still remain solid in your beliefs, or your beliefs could change completely. Either way, it is desperately needed. Thus, here are the books I propose you read over the next year (each title links to the site where the book is sold). The books are ordered in what I see as a level of difficulty, but you can read them in any order:

Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers

On the Unity of Christ by St. Cyril of Alexandria

On Wealth and Poverty by St. John Chrysostom

On the Holy Spirit by St. Basil the Great

On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ by St. Maximus the Confessor

On Social Justice by St. Basil the Great

On the Incomprehensible Nature of God by St. John Chrysostom

On Marriage and Family Life by St. John Chrysostom

An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus

This isn’t many. For some this is about 1-2 months worth of reading. For others, this will push their reading limits. But read what these ancient writers have to say and then evaluate Christianity. Most notably, see how they don’t approach it with an “either/or” dichotomy, see how they don’t place doctrine above practice or practice above doctrine. Look at how, for them, it’s all one in the same. That if you believe right you will live right and if you want to live right you will believe right.

Are you willing to take the challenge?


2 thoughts on “A Challenge to both Emergents and Conservatives: Read the Church Fathers

  1. Joel,

    Your worldview is so intensley and obviously Catholic. You seem to think you are an open minded observer of the fray between evangelicals and emergents. But your observation is skewed by assumptions of your faith. And it is through that lens that you have mede the judgements you have expressed.
    Some viewpoints are so dynamically at odds with others that there is no midway. No place to meet. EITHER one is truth and other false OR vis versa. You make vast assumptions without knowledge. There was nothing reactionary about Martin Luther and he never had a goal of leaving the Church. The seperation was forced upon him. As far as the things you say were a “baby with the bathwater” when it comes to reformation….. Can you point to any evidence that the early church (pre 270ad) acknowledged any official recognition of Mary being of special class, much less venerated? Mary was blessed indeed. And apparently well behaved. But she was blessed not bless-ed. She was not, is not a distinctly “other”. She was human. She was conceived from male sperm and female egg. She inherited the sin nature we all have. She posessed nothing sacred of her own right. Church heirarchy? Can you find evidence in the bible to support the massive monarchial machine that is the Holy Roman Catholic Church? Peter as first Pope? Infallibility of Pope? Pope in Christs “Seat” until he returns? Can you justify the view of Tradition = Church = Scripture, each bearing equal authority according to Catholic dogma?
    I’m conservative evangelical and either you are right on doctrine concerning these matters or I am. There is no place in the middle. The same is true with emergents when they go so far as to question trinity, the substitutionary atonement, etc. etc. We are dealing with holy eternal truths here. We are not dealing with issues of the pendulim’s swing. On many issues, the rods or strings and bobs aren’t connected to the same bearings. There can only be one bearing to a pendulim. I’m afraid your view is looking at completely different pendulims operating in distinctly different locations. / The “early church father’s” I’m encouraged to read appear to be all post Council of Nicea. That leaves 300 plus years of earlier churcfathers. I challenge you to the same challenge. Find out as much as you can about the earlier fathers without YOUR deconstruction, and the bible.
    Harsh maybe. But I don’t know how to make that graceful in this short reply. All that I can say is I wish you well, I wish you truth and I ask God to bless you and yours.

    1. Before I respond to any of this, have you ever read the Council of Nicaea? For whatever reason, one that I’ll never properly understand, the Council is viewed as a whipping boy for many people, but it only codified what was already believed. Primarily, it was a response to the Arian heresy.

      I would highly suggest you re-read the article. I pointed out that Luther (along with other Reformers) jettisoned ideas that shouldn’t have been jettisoned. Certainly others should have been eradicated – such as the idea of a supreme Pope or the intrinsic sacredness of Mary or Mary not having original sin (all things I deny: I’m not Roman Catholic) – but other ideas are worth looking into. For instance, the idea of having Bishops (something Clement of Rome writing in 96AD supported) or that the wine and bread are the literal blood and body of Christ (something Ignatius, writing around 110AD, so emphatically believed that he condemned those who denied it).

      The reason I encouraged people to read the post-Nicaean Fathers is simple: They’re more organized in their writing. With Clement, Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and others you’re dealing with more pastoral writings (the exception being Justin Martyr, but his logos theory could confuse some new Christians into believing that the Word is not co-eternal with the Father).

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