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John MacArthur Attacks the Emergent Church For Questioning the Clarity of the Scriptures

I listened to John MacArthur on the Emergent Church today. Masters Seminary (whose motto is "We Train Men as if Lives Depended on It!") is doing a 5 week series of critique on the Emergent Church. You can find the series of lectures to listen to here.

The first talk was given by MacArthur who explained that the problem with the Emergent Church is that they question the perpescuity (or clarity or intelligibility) of Scripture. I think that is actually a good insight which I hadn't considered. And yet I would put a positive spin on it: that many emergent church folks are taking a fresh look at the Scriptures to make sure the texts actually mean what we think they mean before we construct doctrines with them.

The perpescuity of Scripture is a good solid reformed doctrine. The doctrine of the perpescuity of the Scriptures means "that the basic message of Scripture has been clearly revealed so that everyone can understand it" (Don Stewart of the Blue Letter Bible - italics mine). It does not mean that every issue is clear. The ideas is that the major tenets can be discerned by common people from the Scriptures without some other authority to interpret them. As far as I understand it was articulated by the Reformers in reaction to those who argued only priests or popes could understand Scripture.

It is possible to use this doctrine to squelch conversation about Scripture - "It is clear and there is nothing more to say!" The Bereans were praised for checking the Scriptures to see if what their leaders were saying was actually true.

Acts 17:11 (English Standard Version)
11Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

It seems to me that this is basically what the emergent conversation is all about or at least what I hope it is about. The emergent writers I'm enjoying listening to are asking these type of questions. What have we missed? What did our parents' generation misread? How are we to behave toward our government as Christians? How are we to treat the poor? How do we structure our worship services? How do we use technology? What is preaching? How can we look at all these issues freshly from a biblical perspective?

I agree with MacArthur that the Scriptures need to be the source and fuel and foundation for the church. I can see how the fact the talk by some of embracing those who do homosexual acts into leadership, the non-existence of hell, and ecumenical discussions with Jews could make him concerned about the movement's biblical foundations. However, I'm hopeful that the Emergent church conversation is essentially a "back to the Bible" discussion. For example, I have been inspired by Rob Bell to look at the Bible with a deep hunger to understand its cultural context so to understand it better - (though Bell does not necessarily consider himself part of the Emergent movement).

I agree with Brian McLaren that the Emergent Church movement is basically a "conversation." I'm simplifying here but most participating are youngish pastors in their 20's, 30's, and 40's. who have been leading youth groups for 10 years and are now filling positions of local church leadership and are asking - "what will we do differently? What will we emphasize?"

In contrast to MacArthur's declaration that the meaning of Scripture is obvious, I appreciate the point by Richard Hays and Ellen Davis that understanding Scripture may not be so easy. Often we are greatly helped by thorough study of the cultural background of a text and its literary cues to understand its meaning. Hays and Davis write this:

The bad news is that, like every other true art, reading scripture is a difficult thing to do well. Strangely, we do not often mention this difficulty in church, in sermons or in teaching. Our attitude seems to be that interpreting scripture is a cut-and-dried kind of thing. In most liberal churches, the issue hardly seems worth discussing. Even in more Bible-oriented churches, there is little acknowledgment of the fact that making good sense of the Bible and applying that sense wisely to our lives is hard to do. The disciplines of attentiveness to the word do not come easily to us, accustomed as we are to user-friendly interfaces and instant gratification. (It is worth noting that recognition of the difficulty of interpretation is one of the huge differences between Jews and modern Christians; Jews have always revered the reading of scripture as the greatest and most difficult of all art forms. (From Learning to Read the Bible Again - article available online).

This does not mean we don't read Scripture but rather we attack it with hunger to understand it. (See especially the writings by Craig Keener who is deeply passionate about the backgrounds of the New Testament). It also means listening for God's voice as we read. Eugene Peterson's question has been on my heart for the last few years as I read Scripture: "Am I looking for something or listening for a voice?" (See especially his book Working the Angles). What might God be saying to me through this passage? 

MacArthur's Concern Regarding Tom Wright and Why Emergent Folks Actually Like Tom Wright
MacArthur is concerned that many Emergent people are reading Tom Wright and praising him. He is concerned that N.T. Wright's view of the atonement is not orthodox. First of all, since about 1999, Michael Bird says that Wright has been much more careful about making sure to make clear that he believes the justification is about taking care of sin. Second, I don't know of anyone who likes Wright because of his unorthodox view of the atonement! They (we) like him because he is an incredible apologist for the Resurrection. They like him because he makes the Bible come alive because of his deep immersion in the Scriptures. I first became aware of Wright in a 1999 Christianity Today article available here (sorry not free) that talked about how he had personally taped himself reading the OT in English and the NT in Greek and that he listened to these audio tapes all the time. (See my post that includes Greek audio resources here). They like him because he is passionate about ministry - seeing the poor cared for, preaching, worship, and church planting. They like him because he stood up in the Jesus Seminar and said "no" and yet is still a widely respected scholar by his peers. They like him for his insight about the 5 act play in The New Testament and the People of God - that we know the end of the story (eschatology) and the previous acts (witness of the New Testament) but we must live in such a way that our actions are fitting between the times. Hopefully, none of us are swallowing everything Wright has to say whole. For example, many scholars believe he is seeing the New Exodus in too much of the New Testament. (Listen to James Dunn and Wright discuss the issue here). But they also agree that it is the New Exodus is an underlying theme at least.

MacArthur's Tone vs. McLaren's Tone
A couple other comments about MacArthur's lecture. I suppose if you are sure you are right and concerned that others are being led astray, you have the tone that he had. He is matter of fact and self-assured. Part of the reason for this is that he was preaching to the choir - speaking at Masters Seminary to people who have come there because they want to learn from him. But I can't help but appreciate Brian McLaren's tone in his lecture at Princeton Seminary. He was self-effacing about his own heritage (Brethren), delicate in his criticisms, inspiring, humble and gracious. No doubt MacArthur would say McLaren is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

MacArthur's Understanding of Emerging Churches
I agree with the comments here by Andrew Jones that the books McLaren referenced did not seem to be foundational emergent church works. MacArthur says he has read Praise Habit: Finding God in Sunsets and Sushi by David Crowder (a worship leader) and Faith of My Fathers by Chris Seay (Crowder's pastor). He also mentions a review by John Franke of McLaren's book A Generous Orthodoxy. MacArthur makes Franke sound like a huge critic when in fact he wrote the foreword to the book and is a supporter of McLaren I believe! I think if he would have read Eddie Gibbs's Emerging Churches, or Robert Webber's The Younger Evangelicals, or even McLaren's The Church on the Other Side, I think I would feel like he understood the movement a bit better.

Who MacArthur Tears Down and Who MacArthur Loves
Finally, what I was also interested in was MacArthur's explicit criticisms of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels. He said we shouldn't call seeker churches "churches" because they neglect Scripture. He also explained how he had received a distubing email from David Wells informing him that Walt Kaiser had stepped down as president of Gordon-Conwell and that they had hired a "seeker" proponent as his replacement. See Gordon Conwell's announcement from 1/23/2006 here and more announcements about significant promotions in the evangelical world at Christianity Today's website here. MacArthur also mentioned his opposition to Jack Rogers at Fuller Seminary in the 70's over inerrancy and his opposition to the charismatic movement in the 80's.

MacArthur also talked about having a monthly conference call with some other like-minded theologians and pastors: Don Carson, Phil Ryken, John Piper, David Wells, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, and Mark Dever. He also talked about being with Kent Hughes and Wayne Grudem the week before and that they had said everything that could be said about the subject at hand. It is just interesting to learn MacArthur's circles.