Some professing Christians, particularly of the liberal variety, claim that little (or no) delving into doctrine is worthwhile for the world. After all, they claim, God is so mysterious and lofty that we can’t possibly know Him fully. And it could be arrogant to say we “know” something for sure about Him.
But I doubt people who prefer the label “emergent” have come up with that view on their own. Haven’t we already heard this attitude in other believers too? Yes, some doctrine squabbling is nitpicking. But some believers seem to think it’s all worthless nitpicking, or arrogance.
Author Brian McLaren seems to think so, too. Lest this seem like another contemporary McLaren pick-on, this actually comes from D.A. Carson’s older book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.1 After spending a few chapters in a deep yet readable compare/contrast of “premodernism,” “modernism,” and “postmodernism” frames of thought, Carson moves to evaluating what he terms the false antitheses (either it’s this, or it’s this!) common to “emergent” profess-ors.
First, Carson quotes more of McLaren’s book The Church on the Other Side.2
When we “do theology,” we are clay pots pondering the potters, kids pondering their father, ants discussing the elephant. At some level of profundity and accuracy, we are bound to be inadequate or incomplete all the time, in almost anything we say or think, considering our human limitations, including language, and God’s infinite greatness.
Our words will seek to be servants of mystery, not removers of it as they were in the old world. They will convey a message that is clear yet mysterious, simple yet mysterious, substantial yet mysterious. My faith developed in the old world of many words, in a naive confidence in the power of many words, as if the mysteries of faith could be captured like fine-print conditions in a legal document and reduced to safe equations. Mysteries, however, cannot be captured so precisely. Freeze-dried coffee, butterflies on pins, and frogs in formaldehyde all lose something in our attempts at capturing, defining, preserving, and rendering them less jumpy, flighty, or fluid. In the new world, we will understand this a little better.
Here it is again: the absolute antithesis. Either we can know God exhaustively, or we are restricted to the mysterious. Of course it is always true that we cannot know God exhaustively: we are not omniscient. God is infinitely greater than we are. Moreover, the best of the modernist theologians were among the most adamant on this point. It did not take postmodernism to discover that God is infinitely greater than we and in that sense forever remains mysterious.
But although the comparison of elephant and ants is helpful at one level, it overlooks the fact that in this case the ants have been made in the image of the elephant, and this elephant has not only communicated with the ants in ant-language, but has also, in the person of his Son, become an “ant” while remaining an “elephant.” If the ants were left on their own to figure out what the elephant knows and thinks and feels, “mystery” would be too weak a word. Yet in the case of the revealing elephant with whom we have to do, he has told us ants what he is like, what he thinks, what he feels, what he has done, and what he is going to do—not exhaustively, of course, but truly.
True, we must never think we have domesticated God, making him a specimen, a frog in a bottle of formaldehyde. But which of the great modern theologians ever thought of God in those terms?3 On the other hand, if this God has disclosed a great deal about himself, is it not appropriate to talk about and think and write and sing about the attributes that he himself has chosen to disclose in the language of the ants? Is this reducing God to a frog in formaldehyde? Surely not: it is merely the mark of faithfulness to the self-disclosure of this gracious God.
Because we are small and sinful, we will sometimes misunderstand and distort what he has disclosed. Sadly, we will sometimes be tempted to pretend that we know more about him than we actually do.
But when he has disclosed so much, it scarcely honors him to say, “Ah! He is so big, everything is so mysterious, that I cannot say a single true thing about him.” Only if “true” demands omniscient truth (that antithesis again!) is that a responsible position. Otherwise, it is merely a new idolatry: we refuse to take God at his word and prefer to worship the dogmatic not-knowing of hard postmodernism.
- Zondervan, 2005. ↩
- I’ve broken a few of the long paragraphs into shorter ones, I hope for slightly easier reading on a screen. ↩
- As Carson points out elsewhere, many emergents make the very “modernistic” mistake of oversimplifying history, seen exclusively through the interpretative lens of their cultural assumptions. ↩