Reforming or Conforming?
- Thursday, November 06, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church by Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason, editors (Crossway).
By Gary L. W. Johnson
Evangelicalism, in the assessment of Carl Raschle, is in a state of crisis because it is being confronted with “an intellectual challenge of a magnitude it has never before confronted.”1 And just what is this foreboding thing? Simply put (but difficult to define precisely) it is “postmodernity.” Raschle, as the title of his book makes clear, contends that the church at large must embrace this state of affairs.
But this kind of “Chicken Little” response to the changing tides engulfing our culture is nothing new. A similar alarm was sounded at the turn of the eighteenth century by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Sinclair Ferguson recently observed along these lines that, “in his own way, Schleiermacher had patented and branded a ‘seeker sensitive’ theology that (he certainly believed) made the gospel relevant to his contemporaries—‘the cultured despisers of religion’ who, under the spell of the Enlightenment had given up on the possibility that Christian doctrine could be true. For them the knowledge of God was no longer attainable. Kant’s critique of reason had limited it to the knowledge of the phenomenal realm; access to the noumenal was barred. Schleiermacher, refusing to believe that all was lost, turned things on their head, stressing that the essence of true Christian faith was the feeling or sense of absolute dependence upon God.”2 Despite the rasping protests of some post-conservatives, the parallels between what Schleiermacher was attempting to do in the early decades of the nineteenth century and the proposals of this group of evangelicals that fondly refers to themselves as “emergents” or “post-conservatives,” are striking.3
In a provocative essay that attempts to sanitize Schleiermacher for contemporary evangelicals, Nicola Hoggard Creegan rightly observes that Schleiermacher is the one voice from the past that speaks directly to our postmodern situation.4 How so? B. A. Gerrish pinpoints with this observation the similarities between the late Stanley Grenz and Schleiermacher:
“Grenz does not seem to recognize, or perhaps he prefers not to say, that his theological program for the twenty-first century is pretty much the program that the supposed arch-liberal Friedrich Schleiermacher proposed for the nineteenth century. Differences there may be. But the threefold emphasis on experience, community, and context was precisely Schleiermacher’s contribution to evangelical dogmatics. Successive waves of neoorthodox and postmodernist attacks on him have submerged his contribution beneath an ocean of misunderstandings. He never renounced his evangelical-pietistic experience: rather, his theology at its center was reflection upon this experience from within the believing community in its new situation. He was certain that his experience must point to something constant since the time of the apostles, yet always to be conveyed in language that is historically conditioned. No less a critic of his doctrines than Karl Barth correctly perceived in Schleiermacher’s faith ‘a personal relationship with Jesus that may well be called “love.”’”5
In both cases the attempt to contextualize the Christian faith in terms of the contemporary culture produces a syncretic grid that, in our times, in turn gives ultimate priority to our postmodern matrix.
Gerrish’s mentioning of Karl Barth is also significant, because there are those in the postmodern camp who claim Barth as their own. But, despite our own reservations about Barth, we think he would be flabbergasted by the attempt to enlist him as a spokesman for this crowd.
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