There is a movement within Christendom that is called the “Emerging Church Movement.” This movement has both positive and negative aspects in its nature. Before this is discussed in more detail, however, there must be some defining of terms and concepts.
First the article will discuss the definition and concept of hermeneutics. Second, the article will discuss the definition and concept of post-modernism. Last, this article will discuss how the previously mentioned concepts relate to the emerging church movement.
Defining the Word and Concept that is Hermeneutics
Hermeneutics, in its most simple definition, can be defined as a principle of interpretation. Everything that one thinks requires interpretation. This is so whether the individual consciously understands this concept or not. Interpretation is the space between information and understanding.Whether or not the information is wrong, right, art, literature, or anything else is irrelevant. Even wrong (false) information would need to be interpreted to see if it really is wrong. The information would still need to be processed in order to be understood. The process (or “principle”) by which one understands the information is a hermeneutic. What this hermeneutic is, and the consistency therein determines the validity of said hermeneutic. In a more specific sense, applying hermeneutics is basically asking, “What does this mean?”
Defining the Word and Concept that is Post-Modernism
To define post-modernism one must first define its ancestors. Every culture has a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis when it comes to its world view (philosophy). They all have different ways of discerning truth.
First, there was classic philosophy. Classical was a theological philosophy. Whatever the divine or superior being says was unquestionably truth. Sometimes this divine being was the emperor, sometimes the being was a council, but most of the time, in a religious context, he was a god. More specifically, the divine being was the Christian God in the “modernism” time period. However, the issue was that alleged authorities claimed to know the “truth” and society was not welcomed to challenge said truth. This was so for social, economic, religious, and government interests.
Second, there was the modernism philosophy. Modernism was more of a physiological philosophy. Whatever matter, time, and space suggested was unquestionably truth. Questioning authority is not only accepted but encouraged in the cultural scene. However, with the religious atmosphere, there seemed to be a disconnect. Divine authority was supreme, but there were several different opinions about what was divinely authorized. There was a greater knowledge of different truths because of the freedom to think and challenge, but there was also more division. People believed in absolute truth, but they disagreed about what was absolute. This was true in every aspect of life, but especially in the religious world. People used information in time and space to discern truth.
Finally, here is the post-modern philosophy. Post-modernism is a relativistic philosophy. Whatever the individual says is truth in their own minds is truth for them. Truth is subjective. There is no absolute and objective truth. While this sounds like “freedom” it is actually bondage. The only “truth” one is allowed to question is his own perceptions of what truth means to him. It is a breeding ground for political correctness, ignorance, and inconsistency. Interpretation, according to post-modernist, is interpreter dependent as opposed to information and author dependent. This is an extreme position away from the modern outlook. In the religious world, one cannot know anything for sure.
Post-modernism pleas for peace and unity through tolerance. Modernism pleas for unity through uniformity. Classicism pleas for unity through blind obedience. All of these philosophies have two things in common. First, all three claim to be the avenue of interpretation by which relationships can stand firm (whatever type of those relationships may be). Second, all three claim to be the avenue of interpretation by which some form of truth can be found. The fact of the matter is that all three of these lack something that is needed, but the weakest of the three is post-modernism. It seems to be more of an excuse than a philosophy of interpretation.
Hermeneutics, Post-modernism, and the Emerging Church Movement
The Emerging Church Movement is an ideology that prides itself in progressiveness. It loves being called liberal (after all, liberal simply means free). Its a compliment to tell them that they are not formal. In the post-modern eyes of an emerging church member, progression, liberalism, and informality are Christ-likeness. Tradition, conservatism, and formality are all evil and binding. Unity by tolerance and relationship is the goal of the emerging church. Tradition scares people away and makes them a slave to the law. Freedom is the goal.
1. The Good
There are some valid and important points in the post-modern church. First, progression is not necessarily a bad thing. “Progress” is the root word of progression. It implies that there are positive moves in a positive direction; a restoration movement if you will. A lot of people see “progression” as liberal because they think that it implies that the “liberal” is saying that God’s church needs perfecting. And that is what they are saying. God and His message are unchanging. However, the church needs help. God’s church is made up of ignorant and weak people. By definition, the church is the people. Ignorant and weak people make ignorant and weak mistakes. Progression will always be needed on an individual level, and, by definition, progression will always be needed on a church level. Christians can always grow in knowledge, resources, and strengths.
Second, liberalism is not necessarily a bad thing. Liberal means to be free. It implies that whatever chains that were bound to the individual were broken. Conservative Christians look at liberalism as false because they believe that it suggests that the liberal individual is saying that God has no “legal” authority. God’s word promises freedom to those who are in Christ. However, this is untrue. The new testament is not meant to be a law book. In fact, the only times that “law is mentioned” in the epistles as something that Christians are to do is the law of Christ, the royal law, and the law of liberty. All three of the previously mentioned laws revolve around the context of love and freedom in grace and by the Spirit. This love and freedom is motivation to become like Christ as opposed to fulfilling perfect law keeping. Christians should embrace the freedom they have in Christ in the appropriate way.
Last, informality is not necessarily a bad thing. It means to break out of the box of being strictly structured. “Conservatives” aren’t necessarily conservative. More often than not, they are traditionalists. People are scared that a lack of formality will lead to leaving the structure that God demands. While this can happen, God does not demand the Christian to be overly formal. One can structure their doctrine in such a way that it becomes law based as opposed to grace based. One can structure their worship services in such a way that it becomes vain and unrepeatable to contemporary culture. One can structure outreach and evangelism in such a way that it becomes an event rather than a lifestyle. Post-modern churches plea that Christendom realizes that godly grace is the center of Christianity, godly community is the center of worship, and godly love is the center of outreach and evangelism. Christians should not depend upon formality more than they depend upon God. They should depend on relationships based off of the Character of Christ.
2. The Bad
There are also some concerns that should be pointed out about the post-modern church. First, Progression, in the wrong context, can be a bad thing. If one is defining progression as finding ways for God’s wisdom to fit into contemporary culture, then the individual is correct only in part. Instead, one should lead the contemporary culture to fit into God’s wisdom. In the churches of Christ, there are few congregations that disrespect God’s due reverence and awe in such a progressive way as this. However, there are some who strive to be progressive in the correct sense of the word.
Second, liberalism, in the wrong context, can be a bad thing. If one is defining liberalism as making light of God’s scriptural authority, then the individual is sadly mistaken. Instead, one should conserve the text out of respect for the wisdom of God, and be liberal in the grace of Jesus. In the churches of Christ, most people who are labeled as liberal may have subjective liberal views, but they are not truly liberal as a whole. Most everyone is guilty of being overly liberal/progressive or overly conservative (I prefer traditional) subconsciously about different issues. There are many who strive to be liberal in the correct sense of the word.
Last, informality, in the wrong context, can be a bad thing. One should look at the fact that although the Christian is no longer under a legal law, he is under obligation to conform to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:28-29; 1 Cor. 3:16-18). Conforming to an image of something (or someone) implies a structure/pattern/relationship. Jesus shows the Christian the appropriate way to worship, interpret, and live. One cannot be a Christian without some type of structure and formality. However, binding structure where there is none is not only burdensome, but it is also sinful (Rom. 14, 1 Cor. 8-10). There are many who strive to be informal in the correct sense of the word in order to relate to the culture in an appropriate and positive way.
Post-moderns want valid and scriptural things. Traditionalists want valid and scriptural things. However, they both are lacking to some degree. This is to be expected because they are both human.
In summary, when it comes to the post-moderns and hermeneutics, there are a few closing thoughts to consider. First, Everything requires a hermeneutic. Second, being able to use a hermeneutic means that one is also able to process the information at hand. If one processes the information, then they are admitting the fact that there is truth to be communicated. Third, if there is truth to be communicated, then relativistic post-modernism does not work. Fourth, One cannot consistently say that Jesus is the absolute Lord while saying there is no absolute pattern. Jesus is the pattern. The conservative and post-modern should learn that there is a middle ground. Jesus is our pattern and Jesus is relational. A true definition of who Jesus is, is truly the best hermeneutic. The Christian is to have His mind (Phil. 2). If one has His mind, one also looks at things the way God looks at things. -Jesse
Suggested Series Before This Article: INTERPRETATION AND THE PROGRESS OF THE CHURCH Part 1
Suggested Series After This Article: A Review of “The Jesus Proposal” By Rubel Shelly and John O. York Ch. 1