what are the weaknesses of emergent?

I will be gone next week to the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Rhode Island, so I may not be able to get to this blog after Monday (if I don’t take my computer then I can stuff more books in my carry-on without paying extra to check a bag).  Here is an abbreviated synopsis of the paper which I will read there–feel free to comment on it or share your own views on what makes you think twice about what you hear from Emergent circles.

Dick Morris popularized the concept of “triangulation,” by which he advised the Clinton administration to co-opt the strengths of both Republicans and Democrats and forge a third way which transcended both.  A similar movement is afoot theologically among younger, postmodern Christians.  They hope to avoid the liberal-conservative controversies of the modern period by creating a new way which transcends both right and left. 

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren recalled being introduced to a youth workers’ convention, where, upon asking how many people considered themselves to be liberal or conservative, the speaker [Mark Ostreicher] asked “And how many of you wish there could be a third alternative, something beyond the confining boxes of liberal and conservative?”  McLaren wrote that “the room erupted with applause and cheers.  Then Mark very kindly said that I was a pilgrim in search of that third alternative.”[1] 

While I applaud this goal, I fear that McLaren and many in the Emergent community are constructing a third way which lists perilously close to the liberal side.  I am not saying that this group, which I call “postmodern innovators,” is entirely liberal in the classical sense.  Like other postmoderns, most do not deny the miraculous or the supernatural.[2]  So most have not crossed the line into full blown theological liberalism, but they seem to edge closer by the year. 


One person who possessed first-hand knowledge of modern liberalism was J. Gresham Machen.  In his 1923 classic, Christianity and Liberalism, Machen said that his liberal interlocutors believed the following:


1. Living like Jesus is more important than believing in him.  Machen wrote that the liberals in his day insisted that “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine,” and that conservatives should focus on “the weightier matters of the law” (Christian ethics) rather than use the “trifling matters” of doctrine to divide the church.[3] 

Machen responded that doctrines such as Christ’s “vicarious atonement for sin” are not “trifling” and that Christ is not merely “an example for faith” but is “primarily the object of faith.”  He explained:  “The religion of Paul did not consist in having faith in God like the faith which Jesus had in God; it consisted rather in having faith in Jesus.  …The plain fact is that imitation of Jesus, important though it was for Paul, was swallowed up by something far more important still.  Not the example of Jesus, but the redeeming work of Jesus, was the primary thing for Paul.”[4]


2. People are basically good and free from original sin (For instance, see Doug Pagitt and Spencer Burke).[5]  Machen observed that the defining belief of modernity was its “supreme confidence in human goodness.”  He wrote that “according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin.  At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.”  This absence of sin led Machen to wryly observe that the liberal church “is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task—she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance.”  Machen countered that the gospel must begin with sin, for “Without the consciousness of sin, the whole gospel will seem to be an idle tale.”[6]


3. Penal substitution is unnecessary because a loving God would forgive without demanding a sacrifice.  Machen wrote that “Modern liberal teachers…speak with horror of the doctrine of an ‘alienated’ or an ‘angry’ God,” for this implies that God is “waiting coldly until a price be paid before He grants salvation.”  Liberals deny that “one person” may “suffer for the sins of another,” and “persist in speaking of the sacrifice of Christ as though it were a sacrifice made by some other than God.”  They insist that a loving God would forgive without penalty.[7] 


4. Christians and non-Christians may unite around their common journey with God.  Machen agreed that “The Christian man can accept all that the modern liberal means by the brotherhood of man.  But the Christian knows also of a relationship far more intimate than that general relationship of man to man, and it is for this more intimate relationship that he reserves the term ‘brother.’  The true brotherhood, according to Christian teaching, is the brotherhood of the redeemed.”[8]


5. Salvation includes many who do not believe in Jesus.  Machen said that liberals in his day wanted “a salvation which will save all men everywhere, whether they have heard of Jesus or not, and whatever may be the type of life to which they have been reared.”  He replied that such openness would remove the offense of the gospel and change its historic meaning.  He wrote:  “What struck the early observers of Christianity most forcibly was not merely that salvation was offered by means of the Christian gospel, but that all other means were resolutely rejected.  The early Christian missionaries demanded an absolutely exclusive devotion to Christ.  …Salvation, in other words, was not merely through Christ, but it was only through Christ.”[9]


6. This life matters at the exclusion of the afterlife.  Machen said that liberals in his day believed that concern for the next life is “a form of selfishness.”  Consequently, “the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world.  This world is really the centre of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.”[10]

Machen agreed that our Christian faith must change the way we live here and now, but he insisted that “there can be no applied Christianity unless there be ‘a Christianity to apply.’  That is where the Christian man differs from the modern liberal.  The liberal believes that applied Christianity is all there is of Christianity, Christianity being merely a way of life; the Christian man believes that applied Christianity is the result of an initial act of God.”[11]

Since these beliefs are widely held or at least tolerated by the leaders of Emergent (I document this in Don’t Stop Believing), I suspect that Machen would conclude that their “third way” sounds too much like the old way to be a genuinely new way.  If we want authentic triangulation, it seems that we must emphasize the best of both worlds:  social ethics like the liberals and the specific, historic doctrines of the faith with the conservatives.  In Don’t Stop Believing, I show how this genuine third way makes sense of the contested issues of our day and strengthens the church for its mission in the world. 

[1] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 131.  Cf. p. 140 and McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, ix-x; Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2000), 325-31; Franke, The Character of Theology, 38-40 and “Generous Orthodoxy and a Changing World,” in A Generous Orthodoxy, 10-11; and Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism, 1.

[2] I say “most” postmodern innovators because, in addition to private conversations with other postmodern innovators which I will not divulge, Spencer Burke is a self-professed panentheist, which would logically diminish the deity of Jesus and his power to work miracles.  See Caputo, Revelation, 22 and What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 104-12; Burke, A Heretic’s Guide, 195.

[3] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923; reprinted Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1994), 19, 160.

[4] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 160, 81 (first emphasis is mine, second is Machen’s).

[5] Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2008), 120-70 and Spencer Burke, A Heretics Guide to Eternity (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2006), 64.

[6] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 64, 66, 68 (emphasis mine).

[7] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 125, 129-32.

[8] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 157-58.

[9] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 122-23.

[10] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 147-48, 149.

[11] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 155.






10 responses to “what are the weaknesses of emergent?”

  1. You are correct in stating that those are the weaknesses of some within Emergent. But here is where it is important to distinguish the diversity within the movement (which I think you do in your book, if I remember right…)

    1. The larger movement, emerging, includes Dan Kimball, John Burke, Mark Driscoll and others who would certainly not believe these things.

    2. Even Emergent Village includes those who do not believe such things, such as Scot McKnight.

    3. Many of the theologians they rely upon do not believe these things (Grenz, Wright, Olson…I’m not sure about Franke).

    So it is important to not that you are referring to the most visible leaders for Emergent in publishing and speaking: Tony Jones, Spencer Burke, and Doug Pagitt.

  2. mikewittmer


    I agree with your points, and as you suggest, they are the reason why in my book I call this group “postmodern innovators,” so as to avoid questions about labels and who is in what group. I define postmodern innovators in the book as the left wing of the emerging, postconservative group, so I do not mean to connote the entire breadth of the emerging church.

    I would add, however, that I tried to be careful in this post by saying that these views are either “held or tolerated” by those in Emergent. My point being that to the extent that someone participates in Christian fellowship with people who hold these views, to that extent they don’t think they are that important. I’m guessing that the rumblings about McKnight and Kimball starting a new group is because on some level they don’t believe they can continue to tolerate some of these views.

  3. Brian McLaughlin

    I think you are right on all points. But let me push back a little just for fun and education. There are a lot more people tolerating similar beliefs than just emerging/Emergent, right? I think of John Stott who denies hell but is a rock-solid evangelical. I also think of John Sanders who holds to a pretty inclusive view of salvation but remains with ETS. I imagine I could find more who aren’t as passionate about penal substitution as some of us are.

    Is this tolerance something going on in all of evangelicalism, not just emerging/Emergent? Isn’t this what is leading Carson et al to more definitively define evangelicalism. is that necessary?

  4. mikewittmer


    Wow, this is fun! For the record, Carson doesn’t deny hell. He just thinks that people will be annihilated shortly after they get there. Is Sanders still in ETS? I forget now what happened with the open theism question, but he may no longer be.

    Either way, you raise a good point. What I call postmodern innovators are not the only ones who talk this way–and why I include Stott and Sanders in my endnotes for the chapters on hell and inclusivism, respectively. On the other hand, Sanders and maybe even Stott may be influenced in part by the postmodern mood.

    I believe that the softening views on hell, salvation, Scripture, revelation, and penal substitution are influenced in part by our postmodern culture. I don’t mean that no one ever denied penal substitution or inerrancy or everlasting punishment before the onset of postmodernity, but just that these denials seem to be more widespread now among evangelicals. People who denied these things in the 1920s and 30s were considered liberals. Now some of them are showing up in our camp. Hence to need to define what evangelicalism means. This is a conversation that we need to have. I hope that my book and your work as a pastor and aspiring author can contribute to it.

  5. Doc-

    I don’t think any of us want to paint all emergent types with all six broad strokes listed above… but if someone held all those views, I don’t know how they could be seen as doing anything but denying the Gospel.

    As to the question at hand… if someone on the street asked me what I disliked about emergent, I’d give them a copy of your book.

    And Brian,
    Two things:
    1. Do I know you? Your name is very familiar to me.
    2. You definitely can’t include Driscoll in the Emergent camp anymore. He’s renounced it entirely. Also, McKnight moves in overlapping circles, but he’s also careful not to become part of the emergent church proper.

  6. mikewittmer


    Of course not everyone who calls himself emergent would believe all six (which again is why I use the term “postmodern innovator” in my book), but I think that they are more common than you might think. Indeed, all except #2 are clearly and directly found in the writings of Brian McLaren, and that one is expressly stated in books that he either enthusiastically endorsed or wrote the foreword to (e.g., Pagitt and Burke).

    You may know Brian because you may have been in class with him at GRTS. He is now one of three copastors at Grand Ledge Baptist Church.

    And just so we’re clear, you’re not saying that my book is what you don’t like about emergent, but that it documents some of the things that you find disturbing. Right?

  7. tsfgodguy

    I think this is a great and insightful post when you limit it to those who call themselves “Emergent” or leading “Emergent Village”. Very well put together…….

  8. Since others have commented on your views, I will share a couple of my views that are like a piece of undigested meat that gets caught in my throat…

    1. uncritical tolerance of heresy, while at the same time disdainful intolerance of Calvinism. One example of this comes from this article. Check out both this blog article and the responses. The author takes a view of God that even Boyd and other Open Theists would not go, and one of the responders commends him for stretching the readers and then goes on the attack against “Classical Deterministic” view.


    2. Romantic view of the Poor. I believe this takes place for a number of reasons. As I mentioned earlier, many emergents follow the Shane Claibornes in espousing the sacramental view of the poor, which believes that the poor are somehow mysteriously Jesus in disguise. The sin nature of the poor is left out of the equation when we approach the poor sacramentally.

    Also, I think emergents are overreacting to the overstatement that the poor are poor due to their own bad choices. Yes there are many times that the poor have been oppressed and emergents are right to embrace those social-economic reasons for poverty. But there are also moral causes as well. Christians need to embrace a both/and view of poverty and have a realistic view of sin as affecting both the rich and poor, the oppressed and oppressor.

    The McClarens, Pagitts, Claibornes, and etc… can talk about the kingdom of God and social justice all they want to but if they don’t embrace a more realistic view of humankind’s sin nature, their approach to solving the world’s problems will be quite surfacy.

  9. It may be just because you singled #2 out (or because I tend to view the world through an Augustinian lens), but it seems to me that all the others flow directly OUT OF #2.

    If Pelagianism is the American religion, none of this should surprise us… 😦

  10. Mike, in Talking Points (Mar 30, 2009) you critique Emergent’s inclusive understanding of hell based on what you call an “optimistic anthropology” and base this firstly on a denial of the “traditional belief in original sin” which you say is the doctrine that “because of Adam’s sin, we all are born polluted and guilty”.

    Aside from the absurdity of guilt without action (i.e. in newborns) it seems clear that this is a loose interpretation of Paul’s words in Rom 5:12. Here, death (not guilt) entered because of Adam’s sin and death came to all men because all men sinned. In case we think Paul understands “death” to be a synonym for “guilt” or “sin” he tells us: “there is no transgression where there is no law” and, later, “once I was alive apart from law”.

    What you call the traditional belief is therefore unbiblical in terms of the the object (it’s not guilt but death) and the reason (our sins, not Adams) for this object (death).

    As far as I can see the real problem is Emergent dropping the innovation of Total Depravity which travels under the guise of Original Sin in Reformed circles.

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