Last winter, I was one of the plenary speakers at the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference. I was asked to present the emergent perspective on the relationship between the corpus of patristic literature (the “Church Fathers” and the early councils) and the present church. I gave it the old college try, and was greeted with mixed reviews. Some reported their own ambivalence and the feelings of “disaster” among the theological intelligentsia. I was even emailed by one MDiv student that his professor mocked me in class the next week. Nice. Two other influential persons sent me long emails detailing their disappointments with my paper. Several Wheaton students approached me after the talk to thank me for it and express their agreements. So, it was a mixed response.
Yesterday, I received a call from the Wheaton folks informing me that, against the objections of InterVarsity Press, my paper will not be included in a forthcoming book on the conference. When I asked if it was my scholarship that was in question, or that I was “off message,” I was told, “The latter.” I was then told that parts of my presentation were “provocative but less than helpful.” Ultimately, I was told, I did not treat the Fathers and the Councils as normative to the life of the church today. I argued that we’re in conversation with the Fathers today, just as they were in conversation with one another in their day. I also posited that the victory of one theological position over another was as much a matter of politics and context as a matter of divine providence. Finally, the lack of marginalized voices in all of the ancient (and medieval and modern) theological debates should give us all pause.
Does that mean that the Councils and creeds and Fathers lack authority today? I hope not. But I hope that they will have a more credible authority if we understand all of the vicissitudes of their times. As in our day, they had pressures on them from all sides, and, while I in no way think this precludes God’s Spirit from guiding the process, it was not a unanimous and clean decision on, say, the dual-nature of Christ.
Finally, this: In the last four or five decades, with the maturation of evangelicalism, several schools of thought on the appropriattion of ancient sources have developed. Most evangelical church historians could draw you a diagram of these schools and tell you the various leaders of the schools, as well as telling you into which one they fall.
Emergent, on the other hand, is less than ten years old. As such, we are making our first forays into these hallowed grounds. We’re in process. In other words, my paper was in no way a final statement on the authority of the Councils, but a first attempt at a faithful articulation of the emerging position.
What I find a bit troubling, however, is the mixed messages that we’re receiving. On the one hand, emergent is accused of not being theologically rigorous enough. But then we’re excluded from a book like this on account of our preliminary conclusions. Had my essay been included in the book, I assume it would have come under some sharp critique, and, as a result, I would have become a better theologian.
Instead, I will avail myself of the new media and post it here. Read it and decide for yourself. Please note that these are my notes for the presentation — they have not been edited for a scholarly book. I was asked to present in such a way that would be approachable by undergrads, pastors, and professors, so I attempted some humor and lightheartedness. And you’ll want to scroll along with the powerpoint presentation, too, since that was essential to my paper.
Lemme know what you think…
Get the paper here (PDF)