I’ve never regretted seminary. It formed me in ways that I can’t yet articulate, and it gave me friends that I will hopefully walk with for a lifetime. In talking with a few friends about the state of the place, I keep hearing a word that gives me both hope and cause for concern—the boogey-man in the closet, the rider on the horizon: the emerging church.
My alma mater seminary has apparently received an influx of young, emerging-thinking theologians. For those of you not familiar with the term, we’re talking about a nexus of churches and communities of faith that are re-conceiving the question of faith and culture, having declared some of the old models corrupt and parts of modernity dead and dying. While there’s some truth to the claims of the emerging ideology, as a theologian-in-training, I have some concerns with the approach that some of the movement has taken.
Many emerging churches rightfully state that hermeneutics are essential and that for the Church to be faithful and communicate the Gospel here and now, we have to know how to read not only Scripture, but culture. On this count, I couldn’t agree more. There is no place from which one can stand outside culture, from which one can throw stones at all presuppositions. For the Church to be the Church; it has to be hermeneutical, i.e. reading the world through certain lenses formed by Scripture and the Spirit.
But to clarify, there’s hermeneutics and then … there’s hermeneutics. (Hermeneutics is a term that describes the study of interoperations and theories surrounding the understanding of scripture.) The Church has always done hermeneutics. The patristic period was all over the map, making bold moves with its interpretations that eventually settled into a few general ways of reading Scripture, consummate with a regula fide—a rule of faith—the way of reading Scripture that no one ever really articulates, but that the churches know by virtue of their common life in the Spirit. This common life of the Spirit assumes that those living the life of the Church in practice and fidelity are in position to do hermeneutics right, as part of a living, breathing organism animated by the Spirit of God.
But here’s the kicker: To do this, to practice this kind of hermeneutic, you have to know your own history. Augustine, one of the early masters of these practices in reading Scripture, constantly refers to what has come before him in the tradition, not to subvert it or call his moves something new or innovative, but to show that reading Scripture in conversation with the larger Church leads to fresh readings of Scripture that are always in line with what the Church has always said. In reading Scripture with the Church, one finds both consistency and fresh wind.
My concern with some emerging methodologies is that they lung after the latter while often forgetting to do the former—going after innovation and cultural relevance while not taking the hard time to know its own history. In describing Alyosha’s decision to become a monk in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky writes that "many would gladly give up their lives and more, but few would give up years of their fertile youth to hard study." In this, I hear a damning critique of those who would want to engage the culture of the world without knowing the Church’s own voice. Instead of delving into the depths and riches of theology’s own history, we are tempted to settle for slipshod caricature and cheap paradigms which can be easily tossed aside.
But theology is harder than this. The Church’s history is richer than this. And for a theologian to attempt to say anything new without first knowing what has already been said, and finding our resources there, is to risk repeating old, boring heresies and succumbing to a cultural laziness which is already too prevalent. This is not a condemnation of engaging culture, progressive thinking or emerging churches, but rather a reminder to look at where we we’ve been so we can find where we are going.