two views of the emerging church
by Kevin Hester and Kevin Riggs
Find out more about Free Will Baptists at www.nafwb.org.
Recent years have seen explosive growth within one segment of the evangelical church. The segment, often referred to as the Emerging or Emergent Church, originated as a protest to the seeker-sensitive, consumer-oriented churches of the 1980s and 1990s. In light of the phenomenal growth of this movement, the editors of ONE Magazine have compiled a seies of articles that will take a closer look at the Emerging Church. This series of articles will continue through the August-September issue.
ARTICLE ONE: WHAT IS TRUTH?
by Kevin L. Hester, Ph.D.
When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” he echoed a question that had dogged humanity since Eden.  Twenty centuries later, humanity is still asking the same question. It is one of the basic questions of human nature, what F. Leroy Forlines refers to as one of the “inescapable questions of life.”  And the answer to the question forms the foundation of one’s worldview. Over the past quarter century, however, the popular answer to the question has changed and with it the dominant worldview. Modernism, which asserts that absolutes can only be found through observation, has slowly given way to postmodernism. Postmodernism rejects absolutes entirely—the concept that objective truth does not exist. “Truth” is not discovered but rather formed in communities as a means of discourse.
As a result, society has undergone a shift in the way people understand truth. Although subtle societal change is normal and expected, some implications of the postmodern understanding of truth are disturbing. How should the Church respond? Some evangelicals argue that the church should embrace postmodernity in order to fulfill the great commission.  Others vehemently argue that to do so would be to forfeit the gospel itself.  Like most battles in the “culture war,” the answer to this question is more difficult than it may appear on the surface. As a historical theologian, I believe we can answer this question only when we understand how the two views of truth came about.
The History of Truth
In the years before Pilate, humanity sought for truth. Two different schools of thought were prevalent in the ancient world. The Jewish tradition saw truth as hoqhma, the wisdom of God bound in the nature of God Himself. Truth was found in acknowledging God and a desire for right living. This response is demonstrated by The Preacher’s statement in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” 
Around the same time, however, Greek philosophers argued that truth was most appropriately found in understanding the nature of the world. They believed that observation and logical deduction leads to the discovery of truth. 
Early church theologians Jerome and Augustine merged the two schools of thought. They asserted that God Himself was truth—a truth made known in the person and work of Jesus. Their training in classical Greek, however, brought them to realize that truth could be found in other ways. They admitted that even pagans could understand some aspects of truth through observation and reason. Augustine argued that no matter how truth is discovered, all truth is God’s truth. 
Following in their footsteps, Thomas Aquinas argued for two books of truth. The book of nature could be glimpsed through observation and reason. The book of revelation (which he viewed as higher and more authoritative) contained truth available only through God’s special revelation.  Such division laid the groundwork for the medieval understanding of theology as the pinnacle of all arts, the surest means of discovering truth.  This understanding of truth continued through the Protestant reformers and can be found in the writings of Luther and Calvin among others. 
Truth in Flux
With the rise of the Enlightenment and the birth of science, things began to change. The two books of Aquinas were radically divided into truth that could be discovered through observation (science) and beliefs available through revelation (theology).  In time, however, observation came to be seen as the only means of sure truth. This movement was promoted by the thought of philosophers David Hume  and Immanuel Kant.
Kant further divided science and philosophy into different schools of thought.  Science continued to base itself on the belief that observation was the only means to truth. Spurred on by greater and greater advances in discovery and technique, Empiricism  became the basis for Modernism. As more problems were solved, Modernism became optimistic that all challenges facing human civilization could be rectified by science, that the world was steadily progressing toward utopia. 
While science marched onward, philosophy struggled to respond. An early attempt to answer Kant’s critique of reason was Existentialism. Existentialism capitulated to Kant, arguing that meaning and truth could only be found through a “leap of faith.”  Others said that if we can examine aspects of truth over a long period of time in a particular culture we ought to be able to accurately examine certain truth claims.  When this task proved too difficult Nihilism argued a position of absolute skepticism. 
Philosophy ultimately concluded that “truth” was a human construction, learned in community and determined by individual will.  Rather than truth being defined by agreement with reality (objective truth), truth was defined by individual understanding. It was therefore malleable and indeterminate beyond the personal sphere. Individual beliefs were no longer based on earlier more basic concepts (foundationalism) but seen as a complex web of independent but connected ideas. Systemic inconsistency was no longer an indication of error but an enigma to be celebrated. 
As the Modernist utopia crumbled in a 20th century pockmarked by world wars, genocide, AIDS, and terrorism, people realized its utter failure to fulfill its promises. They became disenchanted with Modernism’s claims, yet when they turned to philosophy they literally found nothing. Truth had been diminished to the simple perception of the knower. Enter postmodern thinking.
Post-moderns live in a broken world awash in a sea of “truths.”  They search for meaning and significance, doubting all previous hierarchies of power and knowledge but finding only the Existentialism and Nihilism from which postmodernism sprang. The blessing of postmodernism, if there is one, is that people are ready—now more than ever—to hear the Christian answer to the question, “what is truth?” Post-moderns do not have the same prejudices as their modernist parents. They are looking for community, authenticity, and transcendence. If the Church can present Christianity in this way, postmoderns will come to see Jesus as the only “way, TRUTH, and life.” 
Dr. Kevin Hester teaches in the Biblical and Ministry Studies
Department at Free Will Baptist Bible College.
1 John 18:38. The philosophical term for this question is “epistemology” which includes the discussion of whether or not truth exists and if so, whether, and how it may be found.
2 F. Leroy Forlines, Quest for Truth (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 1. For another excellent discussion of basic questions in worldview building see James Sire, The Universe Next Door (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
3 This group includes persons identifying themselves with the emerging or the Emergent church. For a more detailed introduction see Rev. Dr. Kevin Riggs’ accompanying article. For the fullest articulation of ideas related to the Emergent church see Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco: Jossy Bass, 2001).
4 I hope in my future article to more fully explore this question. This article will serve as a starting point to establish the cultural context of the Church’s needed response to postmodernism. For one of the most ardent critiques of the Emergent church see D. A. Carson Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).
6 This observation is largely drawn from the work of Aristotle. Unfortunately a full and nuanced discussion of various philosophical schools such as Platonism and Atomism cannot be recounted here owing to space constraints. I have focused on Aristotle because of his influence on Medieval Christianity through the work of Thomas Aquinas. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that each philosophical school, like Judaism, had a strong ethical component and was very interested in the ramifications of the understanding of truth for behavior.
7 Augustine. On Christian Doctrine XL.60-61. Augustine refers to Christians learning truth from non-Christian sources as “spoiling the Egyptians.”
8 Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae Book 1, Question 1, Article 1.
9 For such an understanding see Bonaventure, The Reduction of all Arts to Theology.
10 Opponents of the Emergent church movement believe that this methodology is the only appropriate course of action for the Church. They are not opposed to contextualizing the Gospel within postmodernism but argue vehemently against giving up a basic assertion of foundationalism and objective truth.
11 Notice that the parallel here is not complete. It is not truth through observation and truth through revelation as in Thomas. Instead it is truth through observation and belief through reason. Already there was significant skepticism arising as to whether anything could be objectively known about the metaphysical world. Emphasis mine.
12 Hume, though a skeptic was also an empiricist. He did not believe we could gain objective truth by reason alone. He did however feel that certain “habits of thought” could allow for some knowledge about the world to filter through our experience. See his Enquiries Concerning Human Nature. (esp. XII.3.)
13 Kant’s thought divided all possible “knowledge” into two realms: the phenomenal world of sense experience and the noumenal world of faith. See his The Critique of Pure Reason.
14 Empiricism is the belief that scientific observation is the surest means of obtaining truth.
15 As evidence of this development and important for its broader introduction to society see the evolutionary thought of Charles Darwin as presented in his Origin of the Species, 1859.
16 For a Christian attempt at Existentialism See Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.
17 This philosophical position is usually called logical positivism and can be seen in the work of philosophers like Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein. The truth claims that could be analyzed were limited to those which could be empirically investigated thus the system is sometimes known as empirical positivism.
18 Nihilism teaches that nothing can be known, therefore denying truth’s very existence.
19 This conclusion was the result of the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the linguistic analysis of Jacques Derrida who made the argument that all things were constructed by our language. This argument is found throughout his many works and all of them make for extremely difficult reading. For one of the most pointed examples of this thought see his On Grammatology. It is this argument that forms the basis of several Emergent church leaders such as Brian McLaren and Tony Jones.
20 These concepts in various manifestations have formed the background of the worldview now known as postmodernism.
21 Postmodernism is the term often applied to the period of time in which we are living. Although often designated a worldview it is in my opinion more of a negative critique of modernism than a positive philosophical construction. Its many varieties are held together by several tendencies and one core belief; that there is no such thing as objective truth.
22 John 14:6. Emphasis mine.