Deep Church addresses deep problems within evangelicalism
The 18th Century’s Scottish grown Common Sense philosophy has left a hefty footprint upon American life. Although this philosophical movement may be unfamiliar, it has nonetheless held a vice-like grip on Americans during the past two centuries. The basic idea emphasized a bold confidence in the individual’s perceptive powers. It was believed people possessed an innate ability to accurately interpret the world without the aid of God’s revelation. This universal, human knack for discerning the world was a God-given gift, common to all. Common Sense philosophy emboldened confidence in human reason among Americans. Individual Christians, armed with this philosophy, approached their Bibles and spiritual matters with the belief that on their own, they could decipher the truth of God. In American theology, this was strikingly evident in the thinking of the famous minister Charles G. Finney. During the 19th Century, Finney had this to say regarding revivals: “The connection between the right use of means for a revival and a revival is as philosophically . . . sure as between the right use of means to raise grain and a crop of wheat. I believe, in fact, it is more certain, and there are fewer instances of failure.” Put simply, Finney believed the formula for a successful revival was as simple as getting a wheat crop; provide proper soil, sunlight and water, and success will follow. Mark A. Noll explains Finney’s logic by saying, “Since God had established reliable laws in the natural world and since humans were created with the ability to discern those laws, it was obvious that the spiritual world worked on the same basis.”
Such unflinching confidence in human reason was bound up in what is known as the Enlightenment. In many ways, the Age of the Enlightenment sought to replace divine revelation with human reason as the primary source for all authority. Fast-forward to the modern day, and Enlightenment ideas still dominate much of the thinking of today’s church. This has become a cause for frustration for those in the emerging church movement (ECM). This movement believes that the Enlightenment understanding of truth and the way truth is accessed has many faulty foundations. Examining Finney’s optimism regarding how to create a successful revival demonstrates remarkable trust in the human ability to understand God’s way of working. Such trust and optimism in the individual—which can still be detected in evangelicalism today—is derived more from the Enlightenment trust in the individual than a truly biblical understanding of the individual. This is because the Enlightenment view of the individual (which Finney adopted) fails to see how the individual’s mind is filled with biases, faulty assumptions and, to put it in theological terms, sin.
The Enlightenment, Evangelicals and the Emergents
Essentially, many in the ECM believe that the human mind is so corrupted by sin that it cannot base truth on human reason alone. If evangelicals, as the ECM believes, have embraced a faulty and sweeping mis-understanding of the human mind, then serious changes are in order. Accordingly, the ECM is re-examining Christian doctrine once held as non-negotiable to verify if these doctrines upheld as traditional boundaries of Christian orthodoxy are indeed true. This has caused no small stir among many evangelical circles.
One might wonder what difference it makes if Christians have indeed embraced Enlightenment views of the individual. For the ECM, these Enlightenment ideas have manifested themselves in devastating ways within evangelicalism, producing an arrogance that many believe often marks evangelical preaching, teaching and discourse. To remedy these problems, many Emergents have themselves made revisions on how individuals interpret truth and the very idea of truth itself. And for many within evangelicalism at large, these revisions have gone too far.
Enter Jim Belcher’s Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. Belcher’s book seeks to remedy the problems that concern the ECM in a way that remains faithful to the Gospel and the early Church tradition (specifically, the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian creeds). Belcher believes this third way, the way of the “Deep Church,” avoids the pitfalls of both traditional evangelicalism and the ECM.
Early in the book, Belcher recognizes the diversity and breadth of the movement. One distinction that has been made in an effort to clarify the conversation is that between “Emergents” and those who are “emerging.” The Emerging movement refers to the efforts of some younger evangelicals with no formal organization that seeks to find better ways to minister to people who might possess a worldview that has been described by some as postmodern. In contrast, “Emergents” often refers to a more organized movement. For example, the Emergent Village is a formal organization formerly led in the United States by Tony Jones. The Emergent Village has made fundamental changes in evangelical doctrine, leading many to believe this group has leaped beyond the bounds of orthodoxy.
Epistemology—Thinking About Thinking
In chapter four, “Deep Truth,” Belcher takes readers into the epistemological arena by addressing a protest common among Emergents, namely, the church’s long captivity to Enlightenment rationalism. Epistemology is the formal study of knowledge and the ways people come to learn what they know. Put simply, it is thinking about how people think.
The ECM challenges evangelicalism’s commitment to the Enlightenment notion that the individual has the ability to ascertain and interpret reality with absolute certitude (what has been called foundationalism). This, the ECM believes, is suggestive of evangelicalism’s tendency to absorb beliefs that are not truly biblical. Many in the ECM readily embrace the critique of Enlightenment thinking (a critique rooted in postmodern philosophy).
The answer(s) that many in the ECM propose has proven to be more problematic. Those in the ECM (again, taking cues from postmodern thought) typically resolve these problems by denying objective reality. In other words, some (not all) in the ECM, recognizing the mind’s inability to attain truth, make an enormous step by claiming that no truth exists.
Belcher contends that the ECM is correct to challenge various Enlightenment notions that have often led to doctrinal arrogance. However, the challenges must be followed with prescription, one rooted in Holy Scripture and Christian tradition. Belcher believes many in the ECM have failed to do this. Belcher’s third way calls for the deep church to be epistemologically postfoundational. This means Christians should recognize the intellect’s entanglement in sin and therefore its inability to attain undeniable certainty, especially toward the mysteries of God’s eternal decree.
Belcher goes on to state that it would be incorrect to conclude that simply because humans have difficulty grasping truth, that no truth exists. Through an interesting exchange with Nicholas Wolterstorff (retired professor of philosophical theology at Yale University), Belcher realizes that the Christian’s confidence that objective reality exists should be derived from divine revelation, not human reason. In practice, this sparks a humble confidence that is anchored not in the individual—as it was in the Enlightenment model—but in Christ.
Salvation—Are You Sure?
There were many changes in American theology during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. One of those shifts related to salvation itself. The Puritans (as an example) understood salvation more in terms of a process rather than a moment. If one were to ask a 17th Century Puritan when they were saved, they’d probably receive a blank stare. The stress for Puritans was on salvation as a process. Pastors, family and the church aided this salvation process. This salvation model typical among the Puritans was also skeptical about gaining immediate assurance in salvation. As time ensued, and as Enlightenment thinking penetrated society, individuals began to desire more certainty regarding salvation, and they wanted it quick. A new emphasis on the born-again experience soon followed. The born-again experience’s entry found support in the Great Awakening of the 18th Century. This more evangelical salvation model satisfied previous anxieties by providing a definite moment when one was saved.
The born-again experience also provided a new objective for the many pastors and leaders wanting to win the country for Christ: get the people saved. It was clear; it was simple. And in an effort to reach the multitudes of unsaved Americans, some preachers tended to rely on charisma and a simplified Gospel that would resonate especially with the people of the American frontier. Preaching became less cerebral, more emotional. Here existed the ingredients for the growth of a stunted Gospel. Busily doing the admirable task of proclaiming the Gospel to astounding numbers of people, many pastors tended to neglect exploring the depths of that Gospel.
There were other factors contributing to a diminished Gospel. For example, as the sciences (particularly Darwinism and higher criticism) began challenging Protestantism, many Christians were tempted to opt for a privatized version of the faith, one focusing solely on experience. While protecting the faith from the scrutiny of science, such a move intensified the privatization of the Gospel. In other words, the Gospel’s effects were only considered as they related to the individual Christian (hence “privatized”). Compounding matters was the Social Gospel that the modernists embraced. Social Gospel advocates focused their efforts upon social ills to the exclusion of traditional Christian doctrine and the faithful preaching of the Word of God. In an effort to distance themselves from the modernists and their Social Gospel, conservative Protestants tended to abandon many of the social implications of the Gospel.
The evolution of the Gospel is another aspect of evangelicalism that bothers the emerging movement, a topic Belcher addresses in chapter six, “Deep Gospel.” Emergents believe the good news of Jesus’ kingdom has not been stressed enough. While evangelicals have focused on the Gospel as a message for the individual, they have failed to act out the Gospel’s social implications. On the other side, traditional evangelicalism claims that emergents have simply revived the Social Gospel which neglects penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that Christ bore the penalty of sinners on the cross) and, consequently, leads to a works-based model of the Christian life. Belcher believes the deep Gospel emerges from penal substitutionary atonement and is the foundation for the coming kingdom of God, thereby unifying the two alternatives.
The Path Forward
Belcher closes the chapter by explaining four words that characterize his church: Gospel, community, mission, and shalom. These four words, Belcher believes, provide the balance for maintaining the Gospel’s individual and social implications, thereby remedying the complaints of each side. The Gospel is central to their church’s work and identity. As they are affected by the Gospel, Belcher’s church has the strength to care for their community. Then, their church’s acts of love should spread beyond their community and into the world. This is their mission. And, finally, as the Gospel affects the church individually and corporately, as well as impact the surrounding culture, shalom begins to take root in the world.
Belcher’s Deep Church could become a defining work that helps many to understand the theological issues of the day with greater clarity. Not everyone will agree with Belcher’s ecclesiological prescription, but most will agree that he provides a refreshing sharpness and focus to complex and often muddled issues. Moreover, the book should carry a particular importance for Southern Baptists. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. recently said Southern Baptists need to move from a programmatic identity to a theological identity. Belcher’s book would be—at the very least—a well-researched, engagingly written and thoughtful guide for such an endeavor.