the vital spot

A self-described emergent Christian wrote a guest editorial in today’s Grand Rapids Press about me and a certain retired pastor.  I won’t respond to it because a) I said I wouldn’t; b) there is nothing to comment on, as there is no issue or controversy between us; and c) I don’t trust people not to misconstrue my words.  For the record, I have never said, nor do I believe, that it is wrong to vote for Obama or have a beer.  Indeed, I am cheering and praying for Obama to succeed, because if he doesn’t, we’re all going to need a cold one.


But the editorial does make a point that drives to the heart of the debate between emergent and traditional Christians.  The author puts his finger precisely on the reason I wrote Don’t Stop Believing.  I feel like Luther, who told Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will, “You and you alone have seen the question on which everything hinges, and have aimed at the vital spot….”


I don’t want to prejudice your comments with my analysis, so I’ll simply cite what the author wrote and await your response.  He said:


Right now, Christianity is seen as a set of beliefs.  Believe the right stuff, and you are Christian.  Step in this box with its bounded sides, and you are “in.”  Step out of line, and you may be outside of the realm of what we consider ‘orthodox’ or right belief.  We live and work out of a bounded set constraint.


But there is another way.


A centered set paradigm places Jesus at the center and asks that we move toward him.


Your path may be different than my journey; your conclusions of what may be the best way to go may differ from mine, but that is really not a problem because I know you are headed toward God.  I don’t assume you have to have the same set of beliefs as me to trust that you believe in Jesus.


Add yours →

  1. Mike,

    I read the guest editorial online. I found it mostly perplexing, and two questions came to mind:

    1. how did the writer of the editorial get from matters like beer-drinking to matters of essential ‘orthodoxy’?

    2. how does his ‘center set paradigm’ work with a passage like 1 John 4:1-3 where what a person believes about the person and work of Christ reveals whether that person is animated by either the Spirit of God or the spirit of antichrist (and whether they are ‘from the world’ or ‘from God’)?

    I don’t see how John’s perspective squares with that of the editorialist when he writes, “I don’t assume you have to have the same set of beliefs as me to trust that you believe in Jesus.”

    Doug Phillips

  2. Why don’t you link to the article? I’d like to read the whole piece.

    My guess is that you’re really gonna hate this

  3. I read the editorial in the paper tonight when I got home. Apparently the writer had some type of inside information in regard to “the controversy”. Having read what was in the paper about Ed Dobson’s journey, seeing him on television, having read Dr. Stowells response, and having read the discussion on this blog, I saw no controversy. I am quite sure there was discussion on campus about this issue in light of school lifestyle policy but between the “big three” I saw no controversy. This whole article is vaccuous and specious.

    The editorial writer needs to do better than trying to create a controversy that doesn’t exist to justify a theology that doesn’t save. When action is elevated above content future actions are doomed. With no basis in knowable revelation, the “aught” is removed from action. This whole theology sounds very familiar to me. Wasn’t it Genesis where I read, “Has God really said…?”

  4. Mike, It’s the false dichotomy you addressed in DSB, and which was further addressed in Trevor Wax’s interview with Tim Stoner.

    I don’t have to choose between a belief set and “moving towards Jesus”. How do I know the Jesus I must move towards? And yes we MUST indeed move towrd Him, in becoming more like Him. But the Jesus we must move towards is not a Jesus we imagine in our consciousness, but Jesus as He is objectively presented in the Gospel accounts. (I know I just used a “trigger” word post- modernity takes issue with.)

    My question for our Emergent friends is who is the “Jesus” you are moving towards. How do you put content and context to who this “Jesus” is? How do you know the “Jesus” your are moving towards is the Jesus you should be moving towards? For that matter, how do you even know you should be moving towards “Jesus” at all? You can’t even speak of these things at all without context and content, and as soon as you have context and content, guess what? You have a box!

    It’s not “either/or”. It is “both/and”. I need a belief set to know who the Jesus is that I desperatly need to be moving towards. And the box is not my making. God has spoken in time and history and He has spoken objectively aboout what reality is. We did not draw the box. He did. We can only recognize what He has already drawn. Speaking of the ancient church, that is what the Apostle’s Creed is all about; recognizing the box God Himself drew.

    As far as the editorial itself, I’m left scratching my head wondering why it was even written. From previous articles and pronouncements the matter was settled among the relevent parties involved. Why bring it up again in this manner? I also found the on-line comments to that editorial really revealing…


  5. I’m a big fan of “centered set” thinking. I agree that we (evangelicals) too often create artificial hoops and hurdles (or at least place these in lives of people at times when God isn’t).

    I think back to my own “conversion” experience. At that time I had little correct doctrine and practice. Now I have a little more and tomorrow hopefully even more.

    However, I have never, as some emergents have, taken this thinking as an excuse for false doctrine or practice. The key to the centered set is consistent movement toward the center, i.e., Christ-likeness.

    Sadly, I find some of my emergent friends have lost the point of consistent growth and/or have redefined “Christ-likeness”.

  6. to zoecarnate…here is the article

    to Bill N…The Jesus I believe in is the One revealed through the testimony of the writers of the New Testament. My ‘beliefs’ about what I read and study there may or may not differ from yours.

    to Mike:

    I hope this doesn’t disappoint but the article is not about you really. It is more about how groups tend to put their leaders in tenuous places. I do believe (and always have) that you have no angst against either of the other two men and vice versa. The situation being in the news and response letters on the website simply lends to an illustration about this type of thing.

    We saw a similar type situation develop recently in the Obama-Wright controversy. It forced the men to part ways when the heat was turned up. It made me kind of sad. I think Obama wanted it to go away because Wright was a longtime friend. He was desiring to extend a measure of graciousness based on long term relationship. The crowds wouldn’t allow that.

    Since we are coming off of MLK day perhaps a quote will help us along:

    “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

    My point in placing this quote here at this juncture has to do with the comment regarding how individuals extend grace far better than groups. Groups push relentlessly.

    I am sure this isn’t the end of this and am glad to learn from you and your friends. God’s peace.

    Mike, have you been able to read Tickle’s fascinating book ‘The Great Emergence’. I mentioned it once before. She helps make an important clarification between ’emergent’ and the wider shift of ’emerging’ or ’emergence’. It might be interesting to you.

  7. Did anyone else catch the irony of the last line?

    “I don’t assume you have to have the same set of beliefs as me to trust that you believe in Jesus.”

    In other words, he’s saying that he doesn’t believe we all have to believe the same thing in order to believe that we all believe in Jesus!

    The message behind the irony is that we can’t escape beliefs no matter how hard we try. When it comes right down to it we’re putting our trust in something. You can say that beliefs are secondary to action, but actions still have to be grounded in something.

    Even the fact that the writer suggests we place Jesus in the center and move toward him necessitates that we start with a particular kind of belief in Jesus. After all, who would put Jesus in the center if they only view him as a good man, or worse, as not having existed at all!?

    The only kind of person in their right mind who would place Jesus in the center of their paradigm is someone who believes that He is God in the flesh. You can strip the word “belief” from it, but you can’t take away the fact that you’re putting your trust in something based on your knowledge of it.

    Equally ironic is that he starts off saying that right now Christianity is seen as a set of beliefs. If he’d read “Don’t Stop Believing” he would know that you aren’t saying that Christianity should ONLY be about beliefs, but rather that we can’t forget about beliefs as we pursue action.

  8. Brian McLaughlin January 26, 2009 — 9:53 am

    The funny thing about the video zoecarnate links to is that Richard Rohr says Christianity as a belief system has had no impact on western culture.

    Christianity has had no impact on western culture. Hmmmm….

  9. Whether or not two people can come up with differing “beliefs” about Jesus when they read God’s word, misses the point. Are there any beliefs that MUST be held to? Any at all? If so, you have created your box.

    The point is that God has revealed Himself in a certain way. His revelation tells us where the center is and how to move towards it. If we are not guided by revelaton, which leads us to find truth (and beliefs), we are left with no center point at all. Or, we can say that everyone can make up any Jesus they want and move towards Him. If this is true, wouldn’t it actually be possible to move further away from the revealed Jesus as we seek the one we “believe” to be true in our minds.

    It is not up to us to decide who Jesus is and how to move towards Him. He has revealed Himself to us and given us instruction on these things. It is up to us to seek and understand what He has said so we can be sure we are indeed moving towards Him and not away from Him. This necessarily requires a pursuit of truth and belief. I want to be in the box.

  10. Daryl,

    I read your article in the paper and didn’t even e-mail Mike.

    We live in a country with a wide gate, and its citizens have the freedom to believe (or not believe) anything from a to z. Each belief system has its own doctrine and source.

    Similar to the Wright/Piper thread, it would be refreshing to see references to the Word of God to provide credibility for your position.

  11. Daryl:

    I am relieved that your editorial wasn’t about me really. In that case, I wish you had left me out of it, as it appears to many of us that you were attempting to create a controversy where none existed. And coming from a movement which is known for valuing relationships, we do expect more, really.

    I don’t have much to add to the fine responses already given, so I’ll let it go at that. I have read Tickle’s book, and if you do your part to keep me out of the news, I will blog about it shortly.

  12. Steve,

    One thing that drive so many of us ’emergents’ crazy is that somehow we are branded as: not being about the things of Jesus. In actuallity, we are very much about the things of Jesus.

    In his article, Daryl knew what words he was choosing; he knows the biblical text. He loves the biblical text.

    Too many critics quickly thing emergent=Derida. That’s a false assumption. We believe; we have belief. But we hold our beliefs a bit differently. There is now flexibility.

    As Pete Rollins suggests, we know about God and we know much of God, but we don’t know all of God.

    So, we recognize that our beliefs in God are incomplete and not all-knowing. This doesn’t mean we think less of God nor make God smaller in our lives. Contrary. We leave open space for God to reveal himself in greater ways and to move us toward him.

    When we don’t allow for our beliefs to be changed, we don’t allow for life transformation to take place.

    Related note: If you would like to know more about Daryl and his friends who are crazy in love with Jesus Christ, join us on any Wednesday night at Founders sometime after 9 p.m. for some conversation.

  13. Randy:

    Could you define what you mean by “the things of Jesus”? What are these “things”?

    And could you cite where Peter Rollins says that “we know much of God”?

  14. …path…journey…box…mumblemumble

  15. Randy:

    It strikes me that you say ‘This doesn’t mean we think less of God nor make God smaller in our lives. Contrary. We leave open space for God to reveal himself in greater ways and to move us toward him.’…because I was just describing how some ‘systems of belief’ have actually made God small in a recent entry.

    I too, believe we need to embrace the spacious God. The God that is emphasized in the Liturgical, Conservative, Social Justice, and Renewalists traditions are all descriptive of the One God.

    And He is so much more than we will ever know.


    I will not the write press about you…and well…maybe you won’t answer the phone when they call–LOL. Anyway I am eager to hear your perspective on Tickle.

  16. First, a question: who in all the history of Christendom has claimed to be “all-knowing” when it comes to their knowledge of God?

    Secondly, in the introduction to his book, “What Is Faith?” J. Gresham Machen (writing in the 1920’s) comments on the prevailing disdain for “the intellectual aspect of the religious life.” In words that seem extremely relevant to the postmodern mood today, he goes on to say…

    “…Indeed nothing makes a man more unpopular in the controversies of the present day than an insistence upon definition of terms. Anything, it seems, may be forgiven more readily than that.

    “Men discourse very eloquently today upon such subjects as God, religion, Christianity, atonement, redemption, faith; but they are greatly incensed when they are asked to tell in simple language what they mean by these terms.

    “They do not like to have the flow of their eloquence checked by so vulgar a thing as a definition….”

    — “What Is Faith?” by J. Gresham Machen (Banner of Truth Trust 1991, pp.13-14)

  17. “They do not like to have the flow of their eloquence checked by so vulgar a thing as a definition….”

    And Romans 16:17,18 comes to mind.

  18. You nailed it, Doug. It seems nearly impossible to have a conversation when one participant refuses to answer simple and direct questions. And without clear and precise definition, it seems that no one understands what is being said. But then maybe that’s the point.

  19. Mike: I am easy to find…my website and e-mail is, of course, in your hands through this medium. I live in your city so send me an e-mail and we can meet. As a friend I would welcome the dialogue. I am, naturally, not eager for an ‘inquisition’ (who is) but am open to exchange of ideas.

    Doug: I notice you are from Lansing so I understand if it would be difficult for you to be with us. Should you like to join us I would be glad.

    God’s peace to you both as you journey in Him.

  20. “As Pete Rollins suggests, we know about God and we know much of God, but we don’t know all of God. ”

    Randy, I can accept and agree with this statement taking it at face value. The question that remains is are there things we do know of God that we can know with an unchanging, unwavering certainty that such “God facts” remain true in all times and in all cultures? Is there a box of “God facts” that God Himself has drawn that all, in all times and in all cultures, must believe and accept in order to know God rightly and savingly(sp)? If Jesus is in that box, then what are the facts about Jesus we need to know in order to really know Him? Yes, to know someone involves more then just knowing facts about that person, but at the same time without some basic facts about that person, I can’t really start knowing him or her.

    I am freely willing to confess that even after several thousand years in glory, we will still have to say we don’t know all of God and as finite beings never will know all of God. What I resist is a notion that what I do know of God I can not know with unwavering certainty. There are many lesser points of theology I am willing to hold with a loose hand. But I also see some core fundamental issues that I need to hold with a tight fist if I am to trruly be in the faith. (ie- the Apostle’s Creed.)

    Is it asking to much to ask of our Emergent friends that they clearly define those things they would hold to with a tight fist? Is it so wicked a sin to insist on and ask for clear and percise definitions? What is truth?


  21. Randy,

    Forgive me if I branded emergents as not being about the things of Jesus. I certainly do not think that I did nor was I trying to. In fact, I didn’t brand emergents as anything, I never even mentioned the word, I just interacted with some of Daryl’s text.

    I’m also not trying to say you don’t believe in anything. In fact, the point of my post was that we all have to believe something.

    Admittedly I didn’t read Daryl’s full article, i was going from what Mike posted. And from what was posted it appeared that Daryl was pressing specific beliefs to the side. He’s saying that as long as we all just believe in Jesus (seemingly in some sort of general way) then that’s enough.

    I’m suggesting that merely choosing to place Jesus as the center of our belief system makes certain implications about who we think Jesus is. Would we place Jesus in the center if believed him to be some crazy fool or if we didn’t think he existed at all? I doubt it. And I doubt many people would make him the center if they felt he was just another really good man.

    As Christians, emergent or traditional conservative, when we talk about placing Jesus in the center we’re most likely talking about a very specific Jesus, aren’t we? Aren’t we talking about the Son of God? And doesn’t it matter who that Jesus is we’re putting our faith in?

    We can’t merely say, “Let’s put Jesus in the center and if we’re all moving toward him and simply believing in him SOMEHOW then that’s enough,” because we can’t put him there without assuming or believing something about who he is.

    And of course, if we’re believing some specific things about Jesus, namely that he is who Scripture claims him to be, then shouldn’t we also place in the center the truths of his teaching? Shouldn’t we get specific there too? Can I say that I believe in Jesus and that he’s the center I’m moving toward and at the same time say I don’t believe I have to love my neighbor?

    So, Randy, I’m not suggesting you or any other emergents don’t believe anything. And in many ways I’m probably not that far removed from your way of thinking and believing. What I am suggesting is that there are some specific things we need to agree on, believe and start from. If we differ from there, so be it.

  22. Daryl:

    That would be fine. I’m extremely busy this semester, but I could meet during my office hours. Contact the seminary and they can set up an appointment. I look forward to meeting you.

  23. Hello Daryl,

    As you mentioned, it would probably be tough to make a personal visit work from Lansing, but thanks for the invitation. I will say I have often found that written interaction via a blog like Mike’s can also help to clarify understandings and sharpen ideas, including, sometimes, elucidating differences.

    I’m well aware that much that goes on in the blogosphere doesn’t rise to the level of constructive, cordial discussion and debate, but I am also confident that such worthwhile written (typed!) interaction is certainly possible.

    In fact for me trying to put my ideas to ‘paper’ helps me refine and clarify what I’m trying to communicate.

    Come to think of it, I’m guessing you share at least some of these perspectives on writing as a worthwhile way of presenting ideas in a public forum, since you wrote the guest editorial for the GR Press, triggering this discussion thread.


  24. Mike: I look forward to meeting with you as well ( we already know each other) but do understand your demanding schedule at this time. When things lighten up a bit and you have space shoot me an e-mail (this forum medium is not the best way to make this type of get together) and we can have lunch. I would rather take some time to discuss than rush.

    Doug: I agree with you. Writing does help us express ideas. Sometimes, however, we miss one another’s thinking when we don’t have presence, eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart conversation. So much can be taken wrongly when we write.

    Peace to you both.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: