A young friend, who reads my material regularly and has established a personal relationship with me via the Internet, informed me yesterday of an emergent site where there is an interesting discussion going on re: John MacArthur’s book, The Truth War. Since I am the subject of a great deal of John’s criticism in chapter one of this book my friend thought I would enjoy reading this online debate. I did find it helpful, even though I agree with neither John nor everything that I read on this emergent site.

This site is a blog called Vanguard Church. When I visited the site I found the dialog interesting and useful. If this debate interests you too check it out yourself. Listening to the dialog in this manner can contribute to removing erroneous understanding.

It is imperative that anyone who seeks to enter this whole "emergent church" conversation realizes that there is a very wide gulf between various types of emergent writers and leaders. One emergent leader put it this way, in a private conversation. There are three ways of thinking about Christ, tradition and the Church.

1. A boundary-set way of thinking

2. A center-set way of thinking

3. A relationship-set way of thinking

Emergent writers represent all three of these if I understand the movement correctly. The boundary-set approach highly values putting up boundaries (fences or walls), believing that these will keep people within the important truths needed to preserve and protect biblical Christianity. Fundamentalism is a radical example of this kind of thinking. Softer versions have fewer boundaries but they still insist that some issues are essential to keeping certain people and ideas out of the Church; e.g., a strong complimentarian view of the role of women, a very tightly defined view of inerrancy, specific views of eschatology, tightly defined views about the nature of God at certain points (precise definitions of impassibility come to mind), etc.

Center-set thinkers, of which I consider myself to be one, are content with less. We believe that Christ is really and truly the center of theology and the life of faith. The earliest creeds of the Church help push us into the center and also keep us focused on Christ as Lord over all. Truth is not just what we discover in the present age and collective experience with one another but rather a historical process that values the early church and classical theology very deeply, the reformers and renewalists down through the ages who have applied biblical truths in specific historic contexts, the insights of skilled exegetes and commentators in our own time, etc.

A great center-set analogy is offered by two leaders in the emergent world who live in Australia. They speak of digging deeper wells so that the water will be cleaner and purer. These wells draw the animals back again and again to the center. Australian ranchers cannot put up boundaries on large open lands, in the huge open spaces they face, but they can dig deeper wells that will keep the animals (always) within a day’s journey of the central well. That analogy will stay with me for a long time because I like it a great deal. The center in my heart and mind is the living Christ, the divine Logos. Boundaries often take people away from Christ, putting the stress in their lives and churches upon various and sundry issues that have little, or nothing at all, to do with the real center of living faith.

Relationship-set thinkers believe that truth is revealed in relationships where power is minimalized. The stress is on community, which is in itself biblical. But here the whole group gets to contribute to the corporate understanding of the truth in a kind of democractic (no votes are taken from what I can tell) process. This concept gets a lot closer to the ideals of postmodernism and is about much more than the methods of preaching and worshiping that are debated endlessly. There is something to commend this view since power plays have been a part of Church history. But this view of how the creeds were composed and acepted virtually ignores the role of the Spirit in history while it argues for the Spirit’s vital role in the present in a local church group. (There is also an odd sectarian feel about this thinking, at least in the way I heard it explained.) And the approach has nothing to govern its ultimate conclusions about what is the vital center since in the end truth is what our group makes of it as we grow and listen together. It ends up sounding a lot like early Quakerism, at least to my mind, but I am still willing to keep thinking about this conclusion.

John MacArthur is very clearly a boundary-set thinker. His lifetime of work demonstrates this quite clearly. I belie ve that he would agree with me if he were given these three categories. He would insist that we must have very clear and strong boundaries or people will not remain strongly committed to the gospel for long. In his theological system boundaries are made a vital part of the center. Without them there can really be no center, or so it would seem.

In contrast, I am a center-set thinker, believing in catholicty and central truth claims that are historically rooted in the Bible’s witness to Christ (kerygma) and in the earliest creeds and markers that point us to the Christ who is both divine and human. The Trinitarian foundation of all this is vital to this center as well. This is why I think the recovery of a strong Trinitarianism among evangelicals bodes well for the future. For my thought process we need to allow a wider latitude of views while we seek to remain focused upon Christ alone. We need a Trinitarian renewal in every possible way. This means, as my late friend Bob Webber always put it, "The future will always go through the past." Relationship-set thinkers do not seem to grasp this point adequately, at least as I listen to them and read their material.

Some of my emergent friends feel that even my views will fail me in the end because they do not address this tendency to "power plays" that will always exist in the human heart. Preachers will use their power to control churches, creeds will become "paper popes" to condemn and hinder the ongoing work of the Spirit, and groups will condemn other groups so long as they believe that they are closest to the (perfect) center. I do not agree, so long as the center is really the center. This is why we need to go through the past before we can understand the present, something often missing in emergent conversations. I reject strict subscriptionism to certain creedal conclusions, especially those parts of more recent creeds that are not central to gospel faith. But I also reject the spirit and practice of anti-creedalism as well.

These categories are not entirely new to me but I do find them helpful. I wish people on all sides would seek to listen better as we pursue richer understanding of what it is some people are really trying to say. Doesn’t charity demand as much?

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  1. George C October 24, 2007 at 11:39 pm

    Another interesting and thoughtful blog. Thanks.
    I think that I am more of a center-set thinker in many ways, but I have a difficulty with what at times appears to be an undue respect given to creeds. I am not directing this at you specificly because I don’t think I have enough of a grasp on your view to really categorize it, but there are definitely people who do fall into this category.
    I am curious if you can give an explanation of how you do look at the creeds. The point that you make about the relational group’s “view of how the creeds were composed and accepted virtually ignores the role of the Spirit in history while it argues for the Spirit’s vital role in the present in a local church group.” is a great one, but doesn’t this work the other way around?
    Many sincere Christians can be ignorant or mistaken on various points and because of this these points have to be examined with a healthy amount of suspicion. Should this not also be the case for the creeds?
    In my opinion the New Testament gets credibility because of the “uniqueness” of the relationship of the writers with Jesus and their relationships with each other. Can we trust the writers of the creeds with anything near the same credibility without running into questions along the lines of papal succession?
    Hope this makes sense.
    You also might find this interesting: http://mere-musings.blogspot.com/2007/06/frame-on-subscriptionism.html

  2. Martin Downes October 26, 2007 at 2:26 am

    Is it not the case that center-set thinkers are in fact boundary-set thinkers who want to put the boundaries in a different place? The ecumenical creeds after all, establish Trinitarian and christological boundaries. It seems slightly disengenous to contrast the first two categories of thinking. Would it not be better to refer to a spectrum of boundary thinkers with maximal and minimal constructions of those boundaries?
    I also wondered how many boundary thinkers would disagree with your comment about “We believe that Christ is really and truly the center of theology and the life of faith.” My guess is that none would.

  3. John H. Armstrong October 27, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    Both Martin and George have done us a good service by their comments. A few short responses:
    1. The N. T. (really the whole Canon) does get priority over all tradition, including that of the early Church. The issue here is using tradition without undermining the authority of Scripture, which is a very large issue.
    2. I agree that many boundary-set thinkers would agree with the basic premise of center-set thinkers but they always tend to move in a direction that brings the boundaries toward the middle or one that makes their particular boundary issues the middle in real practice.

  4. andrew October 28, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    good thinking, john. nice post.

  5. cavman October 29, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    Even wells need walls of some sort, lest all kinds of things fall in and pollute the water source.
    We are to contend for the faith once handed down.
    That said, I suspect I would not agree with MacArthur very much. He’s too rigid in my mind.

  6. thegroundworks January 23, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Helpful in understanding the Emerging Church. Thankfully very balanced and fair approach…much appreciated.

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