“Living the Life of Jesus,” the Emerging Church, and Redemptive History

In preparation for a two-day class I am part of teaching next week, I have been doing a lot of reading on the emerging church and the emergent conversation/movement. One of the many books I have read is Emerging Churches, by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger. Using extensive interviews with over 50 leaders within this movement, Gibbs and Bolger attempt to provide a picture of the main values and identifying marks that distinguish it. For those with little or no firsthand exposure to the emerging church, this provides an insider’s look.

The margins of my copy of the book are filled with comments; today I will address only one. There is a lot of talk about living the life of Jesus as an extension of the kingdom. But there is no reflection on whether the life of Jesus is in any sense unique within redemptive history? Of course Christians are to imitate Jesus, but is there no distinction between Jesus and his followers? Furthermore, for all the talk of living the life of Jesus, I do not see much discussion of the cross. The fact that in the four gospels each of them spend the most time describing the events of the week before the crucifixion and the events following his resurrection should serve as a clear indication that everything else in Jesus’ life must be understood through the lens of the cross and the empty tomb. Without the centrality of the cross, the remainder of Jesus’ life and actions simply cannot be understood rightly; at least that is what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us.

So on the one hand we must remember that within redemptive history Jesus is unique. No one, not even the apostles, “lived the life of Jesus” as the one who perfectly obeys the Father and redeems his people through the cross. I fear that those whom I have read in the emergent movement miss this. But on the other hand we must remember that when Jesus does speak of following him (is this the equivalent to “living the life of Jesus”?) he speaks of the cross, because the cross defines everything he is and does. That too is missing in what I am reading.

So what are your thoughts? Have I been unfair to the emerging church folks when I say this? Before you answer, please know that I am aware of the “five streams” of the movement that Scot MicKnight identifies. I am also aware that Mark Driscoll is an exception to this criticism, but I see Driscoll continually distancing himself from the emerging movement. Besides, one exception does not invalidate the larger observation of the entire movement.

13 thoughts on ““Living the Life of Jesus,” the Emerging Church, and Redemptive History”

  1. Hey Matt!

    You are not being unfair. It has always struck me as odd that there was little talk of the uniqueness of Christ and his life and mission on earth.

    On the cross issue, I do think it depends from church to church on this one. In fact on Sunday I was at an emerging church here in Philly and there was a time after the “sermon” for the members of the group to talk about what’s going on in their lives. Someone spoke up and mentioned the cross and following Christ in sacrifitial love every day. As you said, one example does not negate your point, but I do think it depends from church to church. I do know that many seem to equate “following Jesus” with “helping the poor.” Certainly this is a major aspect of Jesus’ life on earth and what we should be doing, but it is not everything.

    Just my thoughts….wish I could be there for the class.

    For His Glory!

  2. Thanks for this Matt.

    I will say this: I’ve written one book on Jesus and his Death and another on atonement theory is coming out in a month. I’m not only part of the emerging movement, but I was recruited for an emergent village series to write on the cross.

    Brian McLaren has written on the cross, and seems to be taking now a Girardian line of thinking on the cross.

    Grenz and Franke and Shults and Volf are each, to one degree or another, emerging theologians — and plenty of cross in their writings. Dan Kimball doesn’t shy away from the cross.

    So, I want to ask: Who are you talking about?

    Some in the emerging movement or as a whole?

    Scot McKnight

  3. Thanks for the contribution, Dr. McKnight. What exactly do you mean when you say that McLaren and the rest have written on the “cross”? If you mean that they have written about living a life modeled on the cross, I’ve certainly seen what some of them have said on this.

    But is there a place where McLaren (or the others you mention) writes or speaks at length on the atonement? He always seems so elusive on this question, and I honestly just want to know exactly where he comes down on the issue and whether he creates a “canon within a canon” in his application of Scripture to the question (as those outside the emerging movement so often seem to be accused of).

    Thanks again for your input, and my apologies, Matt, for not commenting on your post qua post, but instead shamelessly (ab)using your blog as a way to get at Dr. McKnight!

  4. Scot,

    Thanks for stopping by. Your question is fair, and if my post implied that ALL in the emergent conversation miss the mark on this, that was a failure on my part to communicate clearly. I have not had an opportunity to read your book on Jesus and his death, and look forward to your forthcoming work on atonement theory.

    As you well know, reading even a fraction of the material out there is a significant challenge. My comment was not intended as a definitive statement that none of the emerging movement voices speak of the cross (its centrality to the NT is such that it can hardly be avoided). Perhaps I could have been more careful and targeted in my post.

    So let me give one example. In his book, “An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches,” Ray Anderson barely mentions the cross in his chapter on Christology. In fact, he makes the puzzling statement, “Pentecost is the beginning point for a theology of Jesus Christ because the Holy Spirit reveals to us the inner life of God as the Father of Jesus and of Jesus as the Son of the Father” (48). Pentecost? I just find it discouraging that in a whole chapter on Christology that the cross is barely mentioned.

    I know Anderson does not speak for everyone in the emerging movement, but this is a troubling omission. And I do not find Anderson to be unique in this omission of the cross. Or perhaps it is better to speak of pushing the cross to the side at best of the discussion of who Jesus is and what he did.

    Hope this helps clarify my thoughts. I am still sorting through this web. You are a welcome visitor.

    P.S. If you don’t mind, perhaps a short explanation of a Girardian view of the atonement would help. I assume you are not referring to the former Cubs catcher, former Marlins manager, and current commentator Joe Girardi đŸ™‚ (I figured you would appreciate the reference being a Cubs fan and all).

  5. i don’t think you’ve been unfair. you stated you weren’t posting about everyone in the whole movement.

    however, i do think this is a concern. i regularly get the comment that i have just not read enough to know the movement. i read more and check things out, and i keep getting comments that it’s not enough.

    when we’re talking about the cross, we shouldn’t have to read a lot. and in my opinion simply using the word cross, speaking of the cross, or even acknowledging Christ died on the cross for us does not make a lot of sense unless you explain why.

    i’m not going to say they don’t talk about the cross, but i would say it’s fair to claim they don’t talk enough about it.

  6. Thanks brothers.

    I did not read Anderson’s book carefully, but it is an attempt to show how emerging churches in the NT worked things out.

    You are right, I’m sure: some minimize the cross. And it needs to be a warning. I just think we need to be careful when talking about “the emerging movement/church” and then summarize it all in some kind of theological point. It just doesn’t work — yet. Perhaps in five or ten years this will all be clear. I feel the way we did at the beginning of the Jesus movement in the late 60s and early 70s. They were wild at times; they settled down into something like the Calvary Church movement!

    Girard sees a scapegoat mechanism at work in history and societies; rivalries crush scapegoats to deal with their tensions; the tension is gone. Jesus identifies with the scapegoat; God indentifies with the victim; scapegoat mechanism is ended in Jesus’ cross. There’s something here; Brian seems to be close to this in his Secret Message. It is not enough, though.

  7. Matt,

    Having lived through the interesting days of the early-mid 1970s, I think Scot is onto something. If someone were to try to write a summary of the theology of the “Jesus Movement” they would have been very hard pressed to find a consensus at the time. There was no doubt that God was moving; there was also no doubt that the enemy was moving, too.

    I suspect that when we look back on the “Emerging/Emergent movement” in 10-15 years, we will see some of the same phenomena which we now recognize from the “Jesus Movement.”

    What do you think?

  8. I agree that we need to be careful in the way that we speak of the emerging/emergent movement, because theologically speaking it is not monolithic. But I do think it is necessary to raise appropriate concerns at the theological direction that many in the movement are headed. And I must confess that I do not see many (there are some) who are willing to publicly come out and say of other emergents: “Nope, too far, that is not faithful to the Scriptures” and then distance themselves from those in error.

    As for the comparison to the Jesus movement, a similar outcome may play itself out for emergents. But in the mean time I think it is necessary to raise theological concerns when the gospel itself is at stake, and given what I have read from at least some in the emergent movement the gospel itself is at stake.

    Lord willing I will post again on this subject, probably to my own peril đŸ™‚

  9. This is so typical of every conversation on the emerging church. An observation is made and right out of the box, someone points out that they are not all the same.

    We get the fact that they are not all the same. Dr. Harmon is, however, raising a very serious issue about some of them and what appears to be a stream in that movement. It needs to be addressed.

  10. I don’t think Scot (or myself, I hope) said not to criticize; I think it was more of a warning about using as broad a brush as Matt was doing—something I am very guilty of myself. It is necessary to be wary and discerning of the theology of all movements, especially our own traditions!

    I fail to see how the emergent/emerging is more guilty of watering down the cross than a seeker church; in fact, I suspect they are less guilty. For example, I know of a seeker church that has a big US flag in front of their church, but not a single cross in the building. They even use the lack of a cross as a selling point! Now that is hard for me to swallow as good theology.


  11. In my experience (and I consider myself emerging-friendly, but not emerging/gent), perhaps part of what Matt is observing has to do with multiple theories of atonement. I know of one emerging church in particular that prides itself on not limiting itself to “merely” a substitutionary view. While many in the EC are not likely theologically astute enough (not a jab, it’s just my considered opinion) to articulate, for example, theosis, I find most are open to other atonement theories. Maybe this is one cause of the phenomenon Matt’s observed?

    Also, in the interest of fairness, I’m not sure Gibbs and Bolger represent the street version of emerging terribly well (at least not the American variety). It’s my hope that the Kimballs, Driscolls, and McKnights of the world will win the day in their insistence on both orthopraxis and orthodoxy.


  12. Regarding Brian McLaren and his taking “a Girardian line of thinking” on the cross. Brian McLaren doesn’t believe that the Bible is the inerrant an authoritative Word of God, so why would you expect him to have any understanding on the central and most important event in the bible and in human history – the cross of Jesus Christ.

  13. Here is a quote by Brian Mclaren regarding the cross and Hell. Make up your own minds..
    “[T]his is one of the huge problems with the traditional understanding of hell, because if the Cross is in line with Jesus’ teaching, then I won’t say the only and I certainly won’t say … or even the primary or a primary meaning of the Cross … is that the Kingdom of God doesn’t come like the kingdoms of this world by inflicting violence and coercing people. But that the kingdom of God comes thru suffering and willing voluntary sacrifice right? But in an ironic way the doctrine of hell basically says no, that’s not really true. At the end God get’s his way thru coercion and violence and intimidation and uh domination just like every other kingdom does. The Cross isn’t the center then, the Cross is almost a distraction and false advertising for God.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *