Yesterday I had the privilege of being a respondent on the “Exploring the Emerging Church” panel at Calvin’s Symposium on Worship. The presenters were three emergent leaders: Jason Clark, a Vineyard pastor in England; Peter Rollins, the leader of an emergent gathering (Ikon) in Ireland; and Kevin Corcoran, a philosophy professor at Calvin College. These three are writing a book on Emergent together with Scot McKnight, who was unable to attend the symposium. The respondents were me, Lori Wilson (an emergent leader in West Michigan), and James Smith, another philosophy professor at Calvin.
Personal highlights for me was finally meeting Jamie Smith, who is a leading scholar in postmodern and worldview issues, and Peter Rollins, who despite holding what nearly everyone on the panel said were extreme views, is an extremely likeable and charismatic person. His fast talking, funny, Irish lilt had the room in the palm of his hand, and I could easily imagine myself spending an entire evening chatting him up over a can of Diet Coke.
I liked Pete so much that once I even came to his defense (which shocked him and me). I said that his apophatic theology, while wrong, is a common mistake made by others who so emphasize God’s transcendence that they leave revelation in doubt (see Cornelius Van Til’s unfortunate comments in his debate with Gordon Clark).
The job of the respondents was to ask any question we wanted, as long as we were prepared to answer the question ourselves after the panel took a shot. I said that I wholeheartedly embraced emergent’s emphasis on community, friendship, and social ethics, but I wondered if beliefs also played a role in following Jesus. I prefaced my question by saying that beliefs must be embodied in practice, so I wasn’t asking about beliefs by themselves, but I wondered whether there were any beliefs that were necessary to follow Jesus. If so, what are they? And if not, why not?
Jason, Pete, and Kevin each took about 5 minutes to respond. Each essentially repeated the preface to my question, saying that beliefs must be embodied in practice and could not be divided from practice, but none actually attempted to answer it. Then it was time for lunch.
After lunch the panel took questions from the floor and discussed various aspects of emergent worship, and then, with only a half hour left in our session, a gentleman from the floor stood up and asked if I was satisfied with the earlier response to my question. I admitted that I was not, and that while the afternoon’s discussion was interesting, it was merely window dressing unless my question was answered. So I asked it again.
The panel wanted me to answer it, but I replied that the ground rules were that they go first. They asked again, I deferred, and so they took another stab. Jason said that his church recites the Apostles Creed. I asked if any or all of it was essential for Christian belief, and he didn’t say. Pete said that once we say that Christianity is about belief then we inevitably separate beliefs from practice. So in the interest of uniting belief and practice, he would not say what Christians must believe. This fit with his earlier comment that he “was not interested in what we believe but in how we believe what we believe.”
Kevin said that he didn’t like my question because it assumed that salvation is punctiliar and that people believe at a particular point in time. Instead, he preferred to think of belief as a process.
Now it was my turn. I agreed with Kevin that salvation is a journey, but that there is a moment in time when we pass from death to life, from darkness into light. Scripture calls that moment regeneration, and according to John 3, the Holy Spirit uses truth to do that job. I cited John 3:16, 18, and 36 to the effect that we must believe in the Son to be saved; Romans 10:13-15 that we can only be saved if we know and believe the gospel; and the conversion story of the Philippian jailer to show that the answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” is “believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:30-31).
So I said that at minimum we must believe that we are sinners and that the Lord Jesus saves us from our sin, as well as we should not reject such Christian staples as the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Jesus (see the Athanasian Creed), and we should also believe the biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption and Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and return.
The resurrection of Jesus was a recurring theme, for Pete said that “first and foremost” the resurrection is about what has transpired in his heart and only secondarily the historical question of whether Jesus arose from the dead. So long as Pete is not “denying the resurrection” by “turning his back on the poor,” he isn’t interested in whether the tomb is empty. When I shared this with my nine year old son at dinner, he said that Pete’s view can’t work, because how can the resurrection of Jesus change you if it didn’t really happen? I gave him a high five.
Another surprise was Kevin’s self-described “controversial” belief that “Christians, Muslims, and Jews worship the same God.” He said that while salvation comes exclusively through Jesus, “it sounds crazy” to him that “God would only make himself available to Christians.”
Back to my story. Jamie jumped in and said that I was expressing a “Baptist, conversionist view” which was not the Reformed understanding of regeneration, in which God may regenerate unknowing infants. He said that our Christian beliefs arise after regeneration rather than are the cause of it.
I didn’t reply then, but I had about a 10 minute conversation with Jamie immediately after our session ended. I don’t think it’s right to divulge our private conversation over the web (not because of what was said, but just to respect his privacy), but for my part I agreed that regeneration precedes faith but that God normally uses truth to produce said regeneration and faith (and I have quotes from Luther and Calvin to that effect).
Or if regeneration is problematic, I asked Jamie to consider conversion. Faith in Christ requires that we first know something about him, for how can we trust what we don’t know? [I checked Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics this morning, and he agrees that “logically speaking historical knowledge precedes faith” (4:97)]. Jamie had to run to another seminar, so we agreed to stay in touch and talk further about this.
As I was leaving, Jason thanked me for my question and agreed that beliefs are important for following Christ. Jason did strike me as the most evangelical of the three panelists, so I believe that he meant it, though I’m still perplexed that after two tries, my question remains unanswered.