my question answered

Yesterday Kevin Corcoran, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, kindly responded to my previous post about my unanswered question at the Symposium of Worship’s Emergent panel.  I think that his long and thoughtful response deserves its own page rather than to be buried in the comments section, so I am reposting it here, along with his initial interchange with Bill N. and Doug Phillips.

I am busy for the next few days in Ohio, but I will try to jump in as I am able.  I’m glad that we can finally have this conversation, and thankful to Kevin for joining it.  Here is Kevin’s post:

Hi Mike,

As one member of the panel at Thursday’s Worship Symposium I was hoping I might address your question again. For it seems to me that your question did get answered by each of the panelists but not in such a way as you are prepared to accept.

Before I address your question (and a couple of the comments you make in this post) let me first say how much I appreciated your presence on the panel and the hospitality you showed to each of us. It was a delight to share the table with you.

Okay, the question is whether there were/are any beliefs that were/are necessary to follow Jesus. If so, what are they? And if not, why not?

My resistance to the question as it was posed on Thursday is that there are assumptions built into the question that I have serious reservations about and I felt I had little time to unpack those reservations. Here I have both the time and the space for unpacking. So, first my answer and then some explanation. My answer is, no; there are no beliefs necessary to follow Jesus.

Now the explanation and the reservations. The privileging of belief, especially of the sort you mention here in the post, e.g., belief THAT we are sinners and THAT the Lord Jesus saves us from our sin, as well as THAT God is a Trinity of persons, THAT Jesus was both human and divine, etc, represents an overly intellectualized and overly cognitive view of belief. It seems abundantly clear to me that someone could possess all of the BELIEFS THAT that you mention and fail to be a Christian. After all, even the demons believe in that sense. God, I take it, is not interested in belief of this sort. God is interested, one might say, in the total reorientation and rearrangement of our lives, our loves, our desires our entire way of being in the world.

Second, nearly all of the beliefs on your list were ones that the first followers of Jesus never held. Jesus called them, “Come, follow me.” And some did. And those that did did so without believing THAT Jesus saves us from sin, THAT God is a Trinity, THAT Jesus was both human and divine, etc. They didn’t believe those things BEFORE answering the call and, in the case of the first disciples anyway, it’s not likely that they ever believed those things since those “beliefs” weren’t even codified until hundreds of year AFTER people were already following Jesus.

Third, and following on this point, I told the story on Thursday about the guy who told Pascal that he really wanted to become a Christian and and that Pascal’s response was not to tell him what to believe; rather, he told him to “go to Mass and take the Eucharist.” The point Pascal was making was that engaging in Christian practices can and sometimes does lead to belief. If the question is, does belief lead to following Jesus or does following Jesus lead to belief, I think we should say that beliefs of the sort you refer to DO NOT always lead to following Jesus and that following Jesus sometimes does lead to belief.

I suppose the main point is that all of the beliefs you cite were the result of the retroactive reflections of those whose lives had FIRST been transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ that radically transformed their lives. The radically altered life produced the beliefs; the beliefs did not produce the radically altered life.

Now, you say in your post that all of the things we discussed at the Symposium and with which you agreed in large measure were “merely window dressing unless my question was answered.” I suppose one might consider them window dressing only if one has a highly intellectualized and overly cognitive view of faith. Absent that view what we were discussing was the very substance of faith.

You also say in your post that you agree with me that salvation is a journey, but you want to insist that there is a moment in time when we pass from death to life, from darkness into light. I don’t deny that. What I deny is that that momentous, life-altering event is the result of belief. Rather, I would suggest that beliefs of the sort you cite are the result of that momentous, life-altering event.






9 responses to “my question answered”

  1. Bill N.


    It appears to me that two things are being confused here; faith as the active laying a hold of and relying on the person of Jesus, or if you will, coming to Christ, and faith as the understanding of who Christ is and what it means to come to him. I’ m not aware of anyone who has ever said that you have to have a perfect understanding of the meaning and purpose of the person and life of Christ (the faith) before you can come to him (faith). Faith in Scriptures has the meaning of both the things to be believed, as well as the relying on and trusting in. Once again it is not “either/or”, but “both/and”. To move towards Jesus as emergents describe it still demands that one have some rudimentary comprehinsion of some basic “Jesus facts”.

    Having come to Christ, or if you will, having started the journey, the question remains what is there about this Jesus and his life that makes my coming to him so important and meaningful? What is there about this Jesus that I should want to come to him, or to use other words, “to move towards him”? Am I to leave that question unasked? Yet as soon as I ask it and seek answers, I run into “Jesus facts” (the faith); things about him that that make “moving towards him” (faith) meaningful. And I might also add, coming to that understanding of “Jesus facts” is a vital component of “the journey” of “moving towards Jesus”.

    I find myself scratching my head when I sense that for whatever reasons, our emergent friends will not or can not articulate “Jesus facts”. I’m left with the question of who is this Jesus you talk about? Why should I want to “move towards him? If there are no “Jesus facts” to explain who and why, then why spend my time even thinking about it?
    I’m sorry to have to tell you that as I listen to “emergent speak”, I don’t hear to many cogent answers to those questions.


    Bill N.

  2. mikewittmer


    I think someone has in fact said (or at least has come very close to saying) that you have to have an understanding of the meaning and purpose of the person and life of Christ in order to be a Christ follower. At least what Mike says in this post sounds an awful lot like that.

    I consider myself a friend of emergent, and insofar as I understand you, I think what I said is in basic agreement. No one on the panel would deny any of what you refer to as “Jesus facts.” As I said at the conference, I have staked my life on the claim that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self. And in terms of emergents’ unwillingness or inability to state what you refer to as “Jesus facts,” I am both willing and able to state that I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen and all the rest of the content of the Apostle’s Creed. The issue (or one of the issues) is not whether emerging types deny or are unwilling or unable to say that they believe in “Jesus facts;” the question is where to place them, their role and relevance in the Christian’s life. The question is whether being a Christian is fundamentally and primarily about beliefs in such facts. Maybe the way to put it is this: Do beliefs in “Jesus facts” bring about Christian transformation or does Christian transformation bring about belief in “Jesus facts?”

    At the most basic level it seems clear to me that God is most interested in the total reorganization and reconfiguration of human life, of reorienting the human will, human heart, human desires and loves. God is interested in our moral and existential transformation. This of course is in no way incompatible with concrete Christian beliefs of the sort you’re interested in. But the goal is transformed lives, not belief in “Jesus facts.”

    I’d go even further, in fact, and say that one cannot have a life-transformational encounter with the risen Christ if historically and factually Jesus the Christ was not raised. So at the level of ontic reality, the facts come first, i.e., they’re first in the order of being–no resurrection of Jesus means no transformational encounter with a resurrrected Jesus. But at the level of lived experience, encounter with the living Christ comes first and belief in the relevant “facts” often comes after.

    The questions you pose are not necessarily to go unasked. But participants in emerging take them to be of the sort to discuss over a beer, and then only occasionally. They are much more interested in their becoming Christians and in confronting all the deceptions and features of human existence that stand in the way of complete transformation. They want to see themselves and the world change. That’s of first existential priority. And I’m with them.

    Is that a coherent if not cogent answer to your questions? You may not agree with with everything I’ve said, but that’s a different matter.



  3. doug phillips

    Dear Kevin C.,

    How does your view square with a passage like 1 Cor. 15:1-4ff. where Paul says that persons are “saved” in connection with their believing/receiving “good news” and a “message” with a specific content, including certain ‘Jesus facts’ – that he died (event) for our sins (theological belief regarding that event), and was buried, and raised on the third day?

    Paul specifically says, “by this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to [=believe, cp.v.11] the message that I proclaimed to you.”

    Or what about 1 John 4 where John insists that whether or not one believes a “Jesus fact” (that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh) determines whether or not one is “from/of God” and whether or not one is animated, so to speak by the Spirit of God or the spirit of antichrist? (vv.1-3ff.)

    Maybe most striking of all is the case of Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11. He is described as “a devout man who feared God…and gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly…” (10:2). According to your categories it seems to me that he would qualify as a person well down the road of ‘transformation.’

    Nevertheless, the account concerning him turns on his need of hearing from Peter a “message by which you…will be saved” (11:14) Whatever else might be said of Cornelius, he is not “saved” until he hears and “believes” the gospel message (filled with Jesus facts) from the proclamation of Peter. (Cp. Rom.10:14-15)

    So many more passages could be added, including Paul’s paradigmatic statement in Rom.1:16 that the “gospel” (good news about the person and work of Christ, a specific message with a specific content, e.g., 1:3) is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”

    I cannot see how your view fits with the exegesis of specific passages like these.

    Doug Phillips

  4. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for the response and the opportunity to clarify a couple of points. First, I whole-heartedly and unreservedly affirm 1 Cor. 15.1-4 and believe that salvation is wrought in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Nothing I’ve said is any way inconsistent with that or fails to square w/that. Hear me: The good news has content and its content, in a nut shell, is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self (through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus).

    In terms of 1 Jn 4 I would just say, again, I affirm that Christ came in the flesh and that is the source of my hope. No one on our panel would deny it.

    You are indeed correct to say that according to me one can be on the road to transformation prior to belief. (I pray my kids are on the road even though beliefs about the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ are cognitively inaccessible to them.) Likewise, and sadly, one can believe all the relevant claims about Jesus–that he is the incarnation of God, that he suffered, died, was buried and rose again–without being on the road to transformation. And this, too, is perfectly consistent with all of the biblical verses you reference.

    Now, a couple of points of clarity. I am not denying that the content of the Christian story is of essential relevance. What I’m denying is that highly reflective, overly cerebral beliefs ABOUT that content is causally responsible for or must come before or is necessary for God’s radical, transformational work in a human life, for one’s life to begin to be radically transformed by the living Christ. If it were necessary it would rule out God’s working in the lives of young children and some mentally retarded adults (as Jamie Smith pointed out at the Symposium). Likewise, an individual could be brought up in a Christian home such that from the time of his or her chlldhood s/he assents to all the relevant claims about Jesus without his or her life ever being the location of radical transformation.

    Finally, I would just point out that practices, rituals, sacraments, feasts and fasts, etc. for 1500 years of Christian history served as the primary means for the redirection and reorientation of our desires, our loves and lives, for our spiritual formation as icons of God and followers of Jesus whose end is communion with God and others. It is only since the reformation that the pendulum has swung away from the embodied practices of concrete communities as central to spiritual formation and toward the atomistic, disembodied and cerebral-centered. I suggest it’s time for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction once again.

    Finally, given the choice between settling all the theological facts/debating at the level of rarefied reflection and being the location of transformation, becoming an agent of reconciliation and hope for the world, I’d choose the latter. Hands down. And I’d do that because when God came close God incarnated God’s self in a story, a history, in flesh and bones, in the rough and tumble of a life that changed the world and demanded a response and not as a disembodied proposition with respect to which one might take up the stance of a disinterested observer. I myself want first and foremost to be caught up in God’s program of universal love and reconciliation in and for the world and not (not first and foremost) to have all the right “beliefs.”


  5. I had posted this response on the previous post before I realized Mike had moved the conversation to a new post.


    I’m not sure you understood my statement correctly. Do we need to have some rudimentary knowledge about Jesus in order to believe in him? Yes… Do we have to have complete knowledge of Jesus and the meaning of his life to believe in him? No… It is my sense, right or wrong, that traditional evangelicalism at large is being accused by emergents of affirming the second statement when we are really affirming the first statement. I will be among the first to admit that historically, evangelicalism at large has emphasised faith as facts over faith as a way of living, but at the same time neither can we emphasise faith living to the point we minimize faith facts. My whole point is that it is “both/and”.

    I do appreciate your own personal affirmation of the basic truths of Scripture as they are reflected in the Apostolic Creed.


  6. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your reply (and for not insisting that there be a pint of Guinness between us before the conversation can continue 🙂 For me it’d be a Mountain Dew anyway.

    Let me take another stab at what I’m trying to communicate:

    In your earlier post you said “there are no beliefs necessary to following Jesus.” But in your recent post it seems you’ve ‘switched fields’ at least a little by putting it this way: “What I’m denying is that highly reflective, overly cerebral beliefs ABOUT that content is causally responsible for or must come before or is necessary for God’s radical, transformational work in a human life, for one’s life to begin to be radically transformed by the living Christ.” Isn’t there a considerable amout of territory between ‘no beliefs’ and ‘highly reflective, overly cerebral beliefs’? (I think it’s important to keep in mind that Mike’s thesis, argued in his book, is not either belief or praxis/transformation, but both.)

    We would probably have to try to clarify some terms too, for me “salvation” in its broad, Biblical sense would include the “transformation” that you emphasize. (I’d say ‘salvation’ is more than that transformation, — e.g., forensic justification – but it most definitely involves and requires such transformation.)

    In my understanding, the “belief/faith” in relation to a particular content (the Gospel message about the person and work of Christ) is the catalyst for salvation and so my point in citing 1 Cor. 15:1ff. was not at all to call into question whether you believed in Christ’s death, etc., but to highlight that for Paul, “believing/receiving/persevering in” that “message/News/body of Jesus facts” was indeed the ‘cause’ of their being saved.

    And again, that’s true of Cornelius too, according to Acts 10 and 11 and the specific verses I referred to. Granted that God was providentially at work in Cornelius’s life in ways that prepared for saving grace, the passage definitely says that his “salvation” did not happen until he heard and responded to the preaching/message of Peter. (Acts 11:14).

    And again, perhaps I put it poorly, but you also missed the point of my reference to 1 John4:1ff. It wasn’t at all to suggest that you or any of the other panelists deny the teaching concerning Jesus that is taught there. My point is that John says if anyone does
    deny or disbelieve the “Jesus facts” affirmed by John, they are not ‘of God’ and are animated by the spirit of antichrist, not the Spirit of Christ. Given that, how could you simultaneously claim that such a person is in the process of being transformed by God? In other words, it seems the passage is clear that certain beliefs are essential to authentic encounter with God, and disbelief regarding certain realities Jesus and his saving work are fatal to a person’s claim to being savingly related to God.

    As to your point about what happened for 1500 years of Christian history, I’m no expert, but I think you’ve overstated the case, and understated how importantly the Church during that period took the matter of right belief (in fact considering such orthodox belief essential for salvation). Why else would the Church have worked so hard to hammer out in arduous detail (sometimes related to a word choice) the ecumenical, catholic creeds?

    Just as importantly, consider the emphasis upon sound doctrine and faithful proclamation of the Gospel (coupled with lives that adorn the Gospel) that dominates the pages of the Pastoral Epistles; whatever the place for “practices, rituals, sacraments, feasts and festivals” Paul’s solemn charge to Timothy seems highly relevant: “Preach the Word/proclaim the message” – proclamation that is to be combined with patient “careful instruction” in a climate where neither are popular or naturally appealing (even, apparently, among the professing people of God).

    Finally, you end with, “given the choice between settling all the theological facts….” etc. Again, that is several paces away from the original question Mike proposed: are there ANY beliefs necessary to following Jesus. And I have to say that I think the language of the paragraph is straw man-like (e.g., “a disembodied proposition with respect to which one might take up the stance of a disinterested observer”). I’m sure you’ll agree that’s not remotely what Mike affirms in his book, nor was such a view what led him to pose the question he posed during the symposium.

    Again, “both..and..” – as Paul puts it, “Watch your life and doctrine [both] closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save [including transform] both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim.4:16).

    Doug Phillips

  7. Layman Speaks


    Thankyou for your transparent exchange here. I appreciate your willingness to interact and hopefully bring a measure of understanding.

    I must say that as I read the exchange between yourself and Bill and Doug I am somewhat perplexed. I am working on a lesson for a group that I teach at our church and this week I will begin a discussion of Jesus prayer in John 17. As I re-read the prayer this evening I thought of you when I read verse 3 where Jesus said to His Father “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” As I pondered this for a few moments my mind went to John 3:16 “….whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Then Romans 10:14 came to mind “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?”

    Please help me here Kevin, what is it that people need to hear so that they may believe?

  8. Yooper

    Faith without works is dead (James 2:20), however, it is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6).

    We may be discouraged by the perceived lack of “fruit” by those who profess belief. The answer, however, is not to discourage or mock belief, or turn to the writings/philosophy of man over the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12).

    When God initiated His work of salvation in my life, I literally had no knowledge of Him, and was void of a conscience. I did, however, understand that this life is temporary – having lost my father to cancer at the age of 8. On my journey, God lead me to a small U.P. Church and His Word (John 5:24, 20:31, 17:17). I’m a pretty simple fellow, and God and His Word have not failed me; I definitely could not have made it through the valleys (especially when my adopted father was electrocuted) without either. It is an awesome experience to be on the receiving end of the Spirit’s work of conviction of sin and the comfort He provides as a result of a believing faith in Jesus Christ. This is not a decision to be put off.

  9. […] February 1, 2009 – Question “answered” […]

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