Review: Deep Church: A Third Way beyond Emerging and Traditional

We live in a time of foment. There is not much that is settled and predictable in western culture today. Consensus has evaporated on almost every front; W.B. Yeats, it would seem, was right: The center cannot hold. The Church is not only not immune to this foment, it seems to be responsible, in part, for exacerbating it. Reflecting (instead of challenging) the wider culture’s disarray, the Church is enduring yet another identity crisis, unsure of how to understand itself, both in relation to its own truth-claims and in relation to the wider culture.

One particular expression of this “psychological” (adolescent?) dilemma is the conflict between self-identified “emergents” and “traditionalists” within the visible Church. An extensive body of literature has grown in response to this debate. Pastor and author, Jim Belcher is one of the more recent contributors to that ever-expanding corpus with his book titled, Deep Church: A Third Way beyond Emerging and Traditional [Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009].

Belcher relates that he responded to God’s call to ministry at a time when many of his generation (so-called Gen Xers) were casting about, seeking a place to stand with both confidence and humility, and from which to speak about Christ and His claims to Lordship to their peers. Leaders of this generation, like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, began to speak of a new, emerging paradigm for understanding the gospel altogether.

Belcher is a personal friend to many of these leaders, yet finds himself in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing with many of their perspectives. In seeking to provide an overarching context for his book, then, Belcher writes that “as much as I feel like an insider to the conversation, I also feel at times like an outsider because of some reservations I have with aspects of the emerging conversation.” Belcher continues, “My mentor at Fuller Seminary, President Richard Mouw, taught me to call these ‘Calvinistic misgivings’” [Belcher, Deep Church, 28].

Mouw’s observation is a telling one. In the chapters that follow, Belcher writes very diplomatically regarding his criticisms. Nevertheless, he comes round to an inescapably Calvinistic perspective on what it means to “do church.” He might be pained to admit it, but his conclusions, though mild by comparison, are nevertheless consistent with those of R. Scott Clark in his book, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2008].

In contrast to Belcher, Clark seems at times to go out of his way to be combative. He relishes a good debate and wants to draw his readers into that debate. He is needlessly picky about certain historically Calvinistic distinctives such as exclusive, non-instrumental psalmody and restoring a second service on Sunday evening. In spite of this tendency, he expresses hope that he will find ways to persuade others of the timeless character of Reformed spirituality, rooted as it is in sound doctrine. Clark’s study is historical, which is fitting for a church historian like Clark.

Belcher, by contrast, aims at a much more irenic dialogue, rooted in contemporary discussions of practical theology, which is also fitting for a pastor who must engage in practicalities. Yet, despite the differences in their sitz im leben and styles, their conclusions are, broadly speaking, remarkably similar. The reason for such similarities is due, I suspect, to the fact that they each share, in varying strengths, the same “Calvinistic misgivings.”

Belcher gives the emerging/emergent representatives their voice. He is both accurate and charitable in his summary. However, before engaging those emerging positions, Belcher begins by offering an autobiographical narrative which seeks to explain his connection with the emerging/emergent party—a very postmodern approach, by the way. Only then does he offer a brief overview of the emerging/emergent positions. In his third chapter, he provides a map of how he intends to answer those positions in the remainder of his book. He enumerates seven emerging objections to traditional evangelicalism, each of which becomes the focus of a succeeding chapter. Those objections are: Captivity to Enlightenment Rationalism; a narrow view of salvation; belief before belonging; uncontextualized worship; ineffective preaching; weak ecclesiology; and tribalism. Within each of those seven chapters, Belcher explains in greater detail the nature of the emerging/emergent objection, together with the traditionalist response. In keeping with his aim to arrive at a “third way,” akin to C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” Belcher then concludes each chapter with how that third way would look in practice.

Belcher should be commended for raising a voice of calm and charity in the midst of much hype. His obvious affection for his erstwhile colleagues is attractive in its own right. If more of our debates were characterized by Belcher’s tone and rhetoric, there would likely be more light than heat. However, that commitment to charity may have led Belcher to some unfortunate oversights in his critique. As already acknowledged, Belcher (in contrast to Clark) writes as a practitioner, not as a historian. Nevertheless, there are two related shortcomings in Belcher’s work that he might have been avoided if he had been more forthright in confronting the emerging/emergent advocates from a historical point-of-view.

First, while he attempts to lead the emerging/emergent thinkers to see and consider the contributions of the ancient church, he deals a glancing blow. He should have pointedly confronted, per C.S. Lewis, the evident chronological snobbery which underlies the emerging/emergent perspective, i.e., that very modern trait which assumes that what is latest is what is best; or worse, the conceit that “we” are the first to have conceived of a notion, whatever it may be. In the end, he gives the emerging/emergent advocates a pass on their chronological snobbery. Their urgent desire to be “relevant” (in contrast to their perception of traditionalists as irrelevant) actually serves to makes them superficial, and in some instances just silly, in their practices. Such superficiality is hardly the stuff of authenticity. It becomes as artificial as the Willow Creek movement ever was.

Secondly, in failing thus to speak to their shortsightedness, Belcher fails in any substantial sense to connect the current debate with its counterparts in the past. The life of the Church is littered with arguments similar to the one currently under consideration.

Had Belcher examined church history more closely, he might have adjusted his perspective. The Hegelian dialectic which Belcher seems to want to resolve into a third way has never been resolvable. While Belcher acknowledges the positive influence of such leading Reformed lights as Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, he seems to have missed their astute assertion that Christianity is a perpetual antithesis to any sub-Christian thesis whether in the Church or in the wider culture. Not that we must be contrarian or antagonistic in temperament, but we must be honest about the irreconcilable nature of the debate.

That debate manifests in church history as theological contention: It is Trinitarian Theism v. Simplistic Monotheism, Polytheism, or Pantheism; Athanasianism v. Arianism; Augustinianism v. Pelagianism; Reformation v. Romanism (including its Humanist/Renaissance variation); Early Fundamentalism v. Modernism/Liberalism. In short, the arguments between the emerging/emergent and traditionalist voices are not new! There is no third way.

There is only the age-old argument between relying on the sovereign grace of a holy God for our salvation (both as to justification and to sanctification), or relying on the supposition that mankind has an innate ability to choose eternal truth and eternal good when offered that choice by a well-meaning (but ultimately impotent) God. The emerging/emergent position, even by Belcher’s estimation, seems to veer into the latter category. Consequently, he cannot avoid finding himself on one side of the debate. He does not succeed in creating a third alternative, as he hoped to do. He does speak the Calvinistic position with greater charity and concern for the current generation. Still, he finds himself caught in the either/or of church history.

When understood in this historical context, the objections to tradition raised by McLaren, Bell, and company, lose their novelty—because they are NOT new. Nothing is new under the sun. Talk of the need to do theology “in community” can simply become a euphemism for relativising what is eternal and absolute; talk of the need to be “missional” can become a euphemism for a merely “social gospel.” Belcher is drawn to the apparent authenticity of the emerging/emergent style of Christianity. He strongly advocates for churches to build community intentionally. He strongly advocates for those communities to become “missional” in their efforts to engage in mercy ministries. Yet, Belcher stands on one side of meaning, whereas the emerging/emergent advocates stand on the other. Belcher repudiates a merely social gospel; he understands that to belong requires, at some point, as self-conscious and intentional commitment to the exclusivity of Christ as Lord.

However much he may wish to express those truths more consistently and authentically, nevertheless, he seeks to express those truths. And therein lies his point of departure from the emerging/emergent camp. He is offering nothing novel here; nor, happily, is he offering anything relativistic or merely social. He is re-presenting the gospel; that by repentance and faith in Christ alone, we are reconciled to God and to each other. No third way. Christ’s mission is all-encompassing and succinct: Love God and love neighbor, going to all, teaching all, and baptizing all who come to faith in Him to observe all He has commanded. Such a mission will inevitably have political implications; simultaneously, such a mission will inevitably be expressed as mercy.

Pharisees and Libertines alike will respond with antagonism to this gospel and its mission, because they neither one rely on God’s grace as ultimate, but on their own self-defined efforts, resting on the assumption that they can respond adequately in God’s sight. As sinners, we inevitably depart to the left or right; and that instinct to veer away from the center is why the gospel that Christ saves sinners, just like us, is the Church’s essential tether which guarantees ongoing growth in faith and hope and love. Such a perspective is neither emergent nor traditional—it is simply biblical and it is the only alternative to any other corrupting influence.

Thus far, I have been rather pointed in my assessment. Let me be clear: I do not mean to belittle Jim Belcher or to attack his position. I am arguing for simple clarity. Belcher’s concern to acknowledge some validity to the emerging/emergent objections is justified. Were traditional churches not characteristically given to Pharisaical/moralistic self-righteousness, then the current debate might well lose much of its energy. Even Clark concedes as much. There is much need for repentance, especially on the part of leaders in the traditional Church who forget that each generation must appropriate the gospel and apply it to their day.

To that end, I sincerely respect Jim Belcher for wanting to express historic Reformed and Augustinian sensibilities in relevant and winsome ways. In many respects, I wish I could have written this book myself! My greatest complaint is simply that Belcher should “come clean” in acknowledging that his third way is not really a third way. Instead, it is but the biblical way made intelligible (and, one prays, palatable?) to a new generation. Praise God! Go Belcher! Clark and the folks at the White Horse Inn might want to take a cue from Belcher in seeking not to polarize but to persuade. Still, in the end, Belcher and Clark are really in the same camp. Regardless of their respective styles and emphases, Clark and Belcher both share a sincere passion that springs from the same Calvinistic source. And that passion is to regain the ear of both the wider Church and the wider culture with the profound insights gathered and articulated by the Calvinistic stream.

It appears, then, that there is a renewal among Calvinists. In this time of foment, and though we represent a small part of the wider body of Christ, Calvinists are seeking to reclaim and give voice to what is transcendent and deeply spiritual. We are beginning to cry out again to the wider world—not merely nitpicking each other. If we are to regain a center that can hold, we will do so through the efforts of men like Jim Belcher and Scott Clark. With respect to style, I admit to being more attracted to Belcher’s than Clark’s (though those who know me would no doubt say that mine is closer to Clark’s).

Still, Belcher’s conclusions are ones I can readily embrace. Indeed, who can argue with a desire to develop honest, loving, forgiving relationships in the Church? Would anyone argue against the Church being known by our love (in word and deed) for Christ, each other, and our neighbors? Would anyone argue with the attempt to reintroduce timeless, biblical forms of worship, which are deeply spiritual, to a new generation? Would anyone assert that we should not pursue truth and peace and justice in our respective vocations? Would anyone dispute that we should go out of our way to make guests and visitors feel welcome in our congregations, not targeted? Would anyone resist engaging such aims now, not merely as the result of a strategic plan, but as the result of hearts being transformed by God’s grace? Obviously, no one can or would—not really; to do so would only be pedantry. In short, Belcher’s aims can be summed up very “Calvinistically:” Glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
David Wallover, pastor of Harvest Presbyterian Church in Medina, Ohio.