Jim Belcher Responds to Critics of "Deep Church"
One of the important books for evangelicalism in 2009 is Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional by Jim Belcher (see my review here).
Last week, Greg Gilbert, associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, posted a review of Deep Church that criticized the book for attempting to work with people who do not affirm the gospel. I wrote Jim and asked if he would like to answer a few questions in response to this criticism of his book.
Jim Belcher: Let me just say I am grateful to Greg for reviewing my book and making his differences clear. That is how we learn from each other.
I am also grateful to you, Trevin, for letting me respond to Greg’s review on your blog. I hope I can respond clearly but kindly.
Trevin Wax: Greg Gilbert believes that a “third way” that brings together Emerging and Traditionalists will not work. In my reading of your book, I didn’t get the impression that you were trying to bring together the hard left wing of Emergent with the strong traditionalist. You are not envisioning Brian McLaren and John MacArthur coming together. Instead, you are hoping that traditionalists will listen and learn from the Emerging critique and that the evangelical wing of the Emerging side will stay grounded in orthodoxy. Am I missing your point here?
Jim Belcher: No, I don’t thinking you are missing my point. One of the things I was trying to do was call a time-out to the rhetorical shouting match (as Rich Mouw says in the foreword) so that both sides can hear each other.
I think Christian love and civility calls us to be good listeners first, even when we disagree. It also calls us to represent the others argument in a way that they would recognize.
One of the things that surprised me about Greg’s review is that he keeps talking about “Emergent” or the “emergent church”. I spent a whole chapter defining the emerging church and make the point that the Emergent Village is only one of three groups in the camp. I am not sure how he missed this point.
I further make the point that one can’t describe the whole emerging movement by the thoughts of the Emergent Village. Sometimes they are in agreement with the broader movement but sometimes they are not.
When I interact with Brian McLaren’s views on the gospel or any of the thinkers I look at, I make it clear that each one of them does not necessarily speak for the whole movement. There are plenty of emerging thinkers who would not hold the same views as Brian. And vice versa. So to paint the whole movement with one thinker’s views is simply not fair. I tried to make this clear.
Trevin Wax: Greg writes: “When Belcher says he’s writing for ‘the majority’ who ‘want to learn from both sides,’ where exactly does that leave those of us in both the emergent and traditional camps who think there are really some serious issues at stake?” I’m perplexed by this statement. I want to learn from both sides, and yet I agree with Greg that there are serious issues at stake. Is it necessarily at odds to have firm convictions on the gospel and yet still think we can take something away from the Emerging critique?
Jim Belcher: This is a false choice. I agree there are serious issues at stake. That is the reason I wrote the book and spent so much time and effort delving into these issues. They are important issues for the church. I hope this comes across in my book.
But why should the weightyness of the issues mean that we can’t learn from others we disagree with? Or that we can be civil?
Why does the importance of an issue mean that we don’t have to listen well or that we can be dismissive in how we interact with those we disagree with? I really believe we can interact with convicted civility, meaning that we can be both civil and convicted at the same time. That is the approach I tried to take in the book.
Trevin Wax: Gilbert says: “It’s also worth pointing out that Belcher’s idea of a “new ecumenism” on the basis of the ancient creeds is not going to work, either. The creeds are not Scripture, and they are not heaven-sent, inspired, once-for-all standards of what it means to be a Christian.”
Jim Belcher: This is a fairly standard response from those in the free-church tradition towards the Great Tradition. The Anabaptists first made this argument at the time of the Reformation. Greg is not saying anything that those in the Lutheran and Reformed camps didn’t hear in the 16th Century.
I would never say the Great Tradition precludes the primacy of Scriptural authority. As D.H. Williams says, for the church fathers “Scripture was the authoritative anchor of tradition’s content, and tradition stood as the primary interpreter of Scripture.” I think that is right.
I think the reformers would have agreed. The Magisterial Reformers (like Calvin and Luther) did not think of sola scriptura as something that could be properly understood apart from the church or the foundational tradition of the church.
Listen to Calvin appeal to the Great Tradition as he counters the Roman Catholic Cardinal Sadoleto:
“You teach that all which has been approved for fifteen hundred years or more, by the uniform consent of the faithful, is, by our headstrong rashness, torn up and destroyed….You know…that our agreement with antiquity [the Great Tradition] is far closer than yours, but that all we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the church.”
And Luther contended that Rome had abandoned the ancient faith in its preference for canonical law:
“The present position of the church in the papacy is woefully at variance (as is evident) with the ways of the councils and the Father.”
Or Melanchthon, Luther’s disciple, wrote in the conclusion to part I of the Augsburg Confession (1530):
“This is the sum of doctrine…nothing which is discrepant with Scripture or with the church catholic or even with the Roman church as far as that church is known from the writings of the Fathers.”
What he was saying is that the problem is not the church Fathers but the “traditions” that have crept into church that are not in accord with the Great Tradition or the Scriptures.
So when Greg says that he is “amazed that Belcher—as a PCA minister who is presumably well-versed in what was at stake in the Reformation—would think that affirming the ancient creeds would be a sufficient ground for ecclesiastical unity” I contend that I am standing right in line with what the reformers believed about the Great Tradition.
He, as a Baptist, really can’t say this. His position, historically, is much closer to the traditional church argument that I describe in the book. His next statement, “I’m sure the pope will be delighted to hear that!” just does not understand the argument the Reformers were making in regard to the church Fathers. The point they were making was that Rome had no longer held to this Tradition but had added much teaching that went against the church Fathers or what was called the “rule of faith.”
The whole point of the Reformation was not to break away from the Roman church but to reform it so that it stayed faithful to the Scriptures as described in the Great Tradition. It was an attempt to purify the Roman church, not reject the church Fathers. In other words, the Reformers rejected Roman “traditions”, with a small “t”, and wanted to return to the Great Tradition, big “T’.
Trevin Wax: It seems that Greg is putting forth the idea that to be within the Great Tradition is necessarily opposed to being Reformational. Is that the case?
Jim Belcher: The argument that somehow if I contend, like the Reformers did, for the recovery of the Great Tradition that somehow this means I am devaluing the atonement or the gospel is just not accurate. Or that I somehow don’t think it is as important as some of the issues tackled in the creeds of the fourth and fifth century is not true.
There is no doubt that the Reformation made some great gains in our understanding of the gospel and atonement. But we need to remember that they did not come up with these out of whole cloth or by just reading the Bible in isolation. They always read the Bible in community, the community of the Great Tradition. And this is what they were calling Rome back to, especially with the doctrine of justification.
This is a fairly common historical misunderstanding that somehow the church until the Reformation was in the dark about justification by faith and the doctrines of grace and that only at the time of the Reformation was this doctrine discovered. This is not true. Both Luther and Calvin relied heavily on Augustine, one of the church Fathers, for their views on justification. And many other church Fathers discussed justification. As Tom Oden contends justification by faith was not a new teaching invented by the Reformers.
Along with the Scriptures, justification finds its roots in the early church and patristic Fathers, says Oden. So to say that the Great Tradition somehow devalues or does not have the resources to articulate the gospel is just not true.
Does this mean that the understanding that the Reformation brought to this doctrine is not important? I would say no; it is important. But this does not mean that the Great Tradition does not have the resources for Christian unity. I think it does. That is why the Reformers appealed to it along with the Scriptures.
Trevin Wax: Greg asks: “Just how important to you is this gospel that Jim Belcher himself says the emergent church does not affirm? And then later he states, “The emergent church does not affirm the gospel. They don’t hold to penal substitutionary atonement.”
Jim Belcher: Nowhere in my book do I say that the entire emerging church rejects the gospel or penal atonement. Or that every one in the Emergent Village (I never use the phrase “Emergent church”) rejects the atonement. I don’t even say Brian McLaren says this. When I asked him in person if he believed in penal atonement he said that he did. So I take him at his word.
Does this mean that there are some in the emerging church who do reject penal atonement? There may be, but this in no way represents the entire movement. There is a huge segment of the emerging church that is solidly and historically evangelical on this point.
Are there some that are guilty of gospel reductionism? Certainly, and I want to call them back to a non-reduced gospel.
But I also make the case in the book that there are people in the traditional camp, and even the reformed camp, who are also guilty of gospel reductionism as well. That is why I lay out a third way as gently but as confidently as I can.
I hope that for those who have not read Deep Church that they will take the time to read it.