The debate between the traditional and the “emerging” church has been raging for well over a decade now. Is the emerging church with its postmodern leanings destroying biblical Christianity? Is the traditional church nothing but a dead and useless institution held captive by modernism and the Enlightenment?
While some people have managed to get a good handle on the questions surrounding the debate, I suspect most are just confused by it. There are a great many Christians who want both strong biblical theology and authentic community, and feel like they’re being asked to choose between one or the other. That’s why Jim Belcher wrote Deep Church.
In this book, Belcher offers those caught in the middle a “third way,” one that he believes overcomes the divide between the traditional and emerging church by embracing what he calls “the Great Tradition,” the historic orthodoxy found in the early church creeds.
As a critique of the emerging church/traditional church debate, Deep Church is extremely thoughtful—perhaps the most generous that I’ve read so far. Belcher worked very hard to understand the major arguments coming out of the emerging church—and in particular the Revisionist stream, leaders of which look to men like Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren. His assessments of their positions and his concerns are portrayed with a great deal of humility and he works very hard to avoid creating straw men, and he calls for the same in all participants. Belcher writes,
It seems that every time someone criticizes the emerging church, they pick the worst-case scenario or the most extreme statements. No traditional church thinking, says a Calvinist, wants his or her theology reduced, for example, to the burning of the heretic Servetus or the claim that John Calvin was a theocrat and that thus all Reformed churches are sectarian and legalistic… The same bone can be picked with the emerging church. They too need to recognize the vast differences in the traditional church. liking everyone in the traditional church with the worst case of fundamentalism, sectarianism, foundationalism and irrelevance is simply not fair. Doing this can be just as sectarian and divisive as the worst kind of fundamentalism (p. 49).
I really appreciated Belcher’s addressing of the difference between the traditional and emerging church definition of the term “postmodern.” Belcher wrote his dissertation on the issue of postmodernism. After studying everything he could get his hands on, he learned that “the vast majority of scholars, secular or Christian, were using the term postmodern as synonymous with radical modernity” (p. 73). He continues,
It pushes individualism to the extreme. Each individual, now cut off from the larger tradition and community, invents him- or herself anew each day. Truth becomes whatever brings comfort or helps the person cope with life. Thus all truth is relative to each person… As a solution to modernism, postmodernism is a cure that would kill the patient even faster (p. 74).
In short, postmodernism, properly defined is actually hypermodernism. But as Belcher read, he realized that the two camps aren’t talking about the same thing at all, even though they’re using the same term. To many in the emerging church, postmodernism isn’t a radical continuation of modernism, but rather is discontinuous with the Enlightenment. “They see postmodernism as the end of modernism’s quest to remake the world in the image of Enlightenment reason, which brought us Marxism, communism, fascism and even capitalism” (p. 75). But in the end, Belcher still finds this interpretation of postmodernism and its application to be unhelpful. It’s great for deconstruction, but terrible for reconstruction.
His idea is for a postfoundational view of truth, that (theoretically) has no philosophical foundation upholding its view of knowing, but is upheld by the belief that there is “an objective reality outside of us, that we can have some knowledge of it and that everything is not relative to our condition or community” (p. 84). It’s built on a foundation of faith in the truth of revelation rather than human reason, is characterized by a “proper confidence,” that is humble because it’s keenly aware that any knowledge we have of Truth is by grace alone, but spurs people to boldly serve others for the common good. This is a humility and confidence I think we would all be well served to cultivate.
Additionally, Belcher’s commitment to the institutional and organic expressions of the Church are encouraging and inspiring. He rightly realizes that the Church cannot be either institution or organism. It is always to be both. Sunday morning gatherings are about the church as institution, worshiping together and exhorting & equipping believers to do the work of the ministry. The church as organism is about believers being trained to be “secret agents” in the world who are creating and renewing culture for the glory of God. The secret agent analogy is very appropriate, and, I believe, successfully does justice to the dual nature of the Church.
Although a number of others have made this critique, I believe it bears repeating. Within the larger discussion in chapter 6, “Deep Gospel,” Belcher positively exhorts the necessity of contending for penal substitutionary atonement, but it’s strangely missing from the definistion of the gospel provided.
The gospel is at the center of all we do. The “gospel” is the good news that through Jesus, the Messiah, the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. Through the Savior God has established his reign. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and beings to work through us. We witness this radical new way of living by our renewed lives, beautiful community, social justice, and cultural transformation. This good news brings new life. The gospel motivates, guides, and empowers every aspect of our living and worship (pp. 120-121).
The issue in the paragraph above isn’t so much with what is said, it’s what’s not. This statement would be made far more powerful were it acknowledging Christ’s atoning death.
Additionally, while I was reading, I frequently had to ask myself if I was understanding Belcher’s position on Tradition correctly. I sometimes got the impression that Tradition was being put in authority over Scripture, but I suspect I was interpreting incorrectly. If I had to guess, I would lean toward the latter.
Deep Church offers a third way between the traditional and emerging church and provides useful answers to those caught in the middle of the debate. Belcher’s love for the Church and his pastoral heart shine through, as does his commitment to sound doctrine rooted in historic orthodoxy. Read this book, ask questions and be blessed by a deeper faith and view of the church.
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.