Philosophical Underpinings of the Emerging Church

In the Spring of 1994, I took a philosophy class titled, “Interpretation and Translation” in which I was exposed to a theory known as “Reader-Response Criticism.” This theory suggests that the meaning of any particular text is not so much what the author originally intended as much as what the reader personally experiences when reading it. This theory proposes that there is no one particular meaning outside of the context of the reader. The text could potentially have as many meanings as those capable of reading it. As a result, there are no right or wrong meanings; there are only subjectively understood meanings.

Such a method of reading applied to the Bible would produce any number of “legitimate” teachings. According to this theory, the important thing is not the intentionality of the author, but rather, the understanding of the reader. Consequently, the reader’s understanding becomes the ultimate legitimate “truth,” and it ceases to be of interest to talk about “right” or “wrong” interpretations. The only thing that would matter would be to discuss the various interpretations.

This approach to understanding literature is but one facet in a larger cultural movement that re-centers the search for truth upon the truth-seeker as opposed to the truth-Teacher. It reflects a fundamental choice as to whether we are going to think anthropocentrically (man centered) or theocentrically (God centered). Anthropocentric thinking has been (and is) presented to our culture in the postmodern philosophy of existentialism.

The fundamental tenet of existentialism has been expressed in the formula, “existence precedes essence.” 1 Basically, this means that the personal experiences of the subject (i.e. one’s existence) define reality (and all of reality’s accoutrements such as purpose, meaning, truth, etc.). The concept that reality can or should be defined in terms of absolutes (essences) is shelved. Postmodern philosophies tend to reject any epistemology that is not based solely on the individual subject.

Consequently, postmodern thinking is not concerned with the absolute truth or falsity of propositions; truth becomes a relative term that makes sense only in the context of one’s personal experiences. Paramount, rather, is the individual’s expression of those experiences. This expression takes the form of a narrative or conversation as an individual allows his personal experience to refine his sense of truth. 2 Hence, truth is anthropocentric.

Christologically, postmodernism prefers to focus on how the resurrection narrative affects one’s personal experience. This emphasis is also anthropocentric because it seeks to explore how one reacts subjectively to the resurrection narrative without presumption of any truth claims posited in the gospel accounts. Such thinking reflects the “existence precedes essence” doctrine of existentialism.

As “Reader-Response Criticism” was being touted secularly, a parallel postmodern theological movement emerged as well. Today, this movement is known as the Emerging Church. 3

The Emerging Church’s self-proclaimed effort is to engage the postmodern culture with the Gospel. This is laudable. However, it proposes to do this through postmodern methods and presumptions. The movement is extremely nebulous, and includes both individuals who have embraced the core tenets of postmodern thought, as well as individuals who are simply seeking to engage a postmodern culture with the Gospel in a postmodern way.

The method that the Emerging Church uses to do this involves: (1) a surface acceptance of pluralism; (2) engaging the postmodern individual in an open-ended conversational manner; (3) an avoidance of dogmatic assertions that are seen as a consequence of failed rationalistic methods (philosophical modernism); and (4) an effort to affect the postmodern individual through authentic personal behavior or example. Some consequences of practicing this method are: (1) more open forms of worship, (2) communalism; (3) ecumenism; and (4) concern for social justice. 4

The approach that the Emerging Church uses is appealing, especially to a postmodern culture. For the Christian, however, it is dishonest. How so? Eventually one’s commitment to absolute truth is going to surface into the “conversation” and the appearance of a pluralistic acceptance of all opinions is going to be exposed as a deception. At this point, one will be unable to avoid dogmatic assertions, and one’s behavior will be judged as inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. The individual employing the Emerging Church’s methods will then be forced to evaluate himself. Since he will come to the conclusion that he has been dishonest or inauthentic, he will ultimately decide to accept the methods of the Emerging Church as fundamentally true in order to be more consistent in his approach. Having accepted these methods, he will embrace a wholesale abandonment of absolute truth and the adoption of postmodern philosophy. This becomes painfully obvious when we contrast the basic tenets of Christianity with the Emerging Church’s methods.

The fundamental claims of Christianity are that Jesus of Nazareth died, was buried, and rose again to a new life. 5 To suggest, as postmodern philosophy does, that there are no absolute truths (or in a softer form, no “systems of truths”) reduces the New Testament’s claim to nothing more than how one personally feels about the subject, and makes out the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection to be sophisticated liars.

This is a problem for the Emerging Church movement, as Scot McKnight, a self proclaimed member of that movement, says in Christianity Today. “Unless you proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, there is no good news at all—and if there is no Good News, then there is no Christianity, emerging or evangelical.” 6 Put another way, postmodernity’s rejection of absolute truth systems entails the rejection of the Gospel as an absolute truth system. This is the fundamental failure of the Emerging Church.

This highlights the choice that the Emerging Church must make between anthropocentric and theocentric thinking. To reject the Gospel as an absolute truth system causes one’s fundamental focus to be upon man instead of upon God. Emerging Church theology reflects this shift in thinking by focusing upon the gospel accounts as solutions to social problems (man vs. man) instead of theological problems (man vs. God). This focus upon the man vs. man conflict is fundamentally anthropocentric and existentialist in flavor.

Some of the specific terminology used in the movement also reflects its acceptance of existentialist thought. For example, the term “authentic” is employed to describe personal worship practices. Practices that are inclusive of individual participation—such as personal testimonies, liturgical reading responses, sharing meals, lighting candles, and prayer—are termed “authentic” inasmuch as they are perceived as involving the subject in the worship experience. Being “authentic” is defined, in fact, in a way that is consistent, not with objective truth, but with one’s personal feelings. Dogmatic propositional presentations of the Gospel message are considered “inauthentic” because they deny the personal feelings of the individual. 7

The application of these terms, authentic and inauthentic, were employed in existentialist thinking by Martin Heidegger. He suggested that authentic existence consisted in of one’s individual and personal acceptance of his unique, subjective, and independent existence from societal norms and standards blithely accepted by the masses. 8

The Emerging Church seeks to use that same concept, but in a theological way—namely, to suggest that one’s religious experience must be personal and subjective in order to reflect something meaningful. One’s personal involvement in spirituality is not encouraged because it is fundamentally necessary as a tenet of truth, but personal involvement infuses the subject with his own truth. In this way, then, the movement would have individuals disengage from the formal and dogmatic religion of the masses that currently presents itself in the form of evangelical Christianity. 9

The Emerging Church easily attracts individuals who are disenchanted with religious formalism. The problem is that it throws out the proverbial baby with the bath water. Instead of seeking to personally involve them based upon absolute standards of truth (the Gospel), the movement replaces absolute standards of truth with a subjectivist standard where truth only has meaning in relationship to the individual’s personal experience.

In contrast, while true faith approaches God based upon God’s absolute truth, it also must be done with a sincerity of spirit that is truly authentic (John 4:24). In such a model, however, authenticity comes not from one’s personal involvement independent of any normative teaching, but rather, in conjunction with it. One is truly authentic when one sincerely believes the truths that are taught in the Gospel and behaves accordingly. A mere personal subjective acceptance of the Gospel is neither sincere nor authentic because it denies (or at best ignores) the very claim the Gospel makes regarding the historical truthfulness of Jesus’ resurrection.

More questions need to be answered regarding the Emerging Church. Why is it critical of formal religion? What aspects reflect sound theological practices in contrast to denominational Christianity? How does the Emerging Church’s ecclesiology differ from the New Testament teaching of the church? This brief overview really has only served to introduce the concept of the movement, its self-professed relationship to postmodern philosophy, its ties with existentialism, and its anthropocentric nature.

The Emerging Church movement presents spiritual danger because of its de-historicizing of the gospel, making spirituality a wholly subjective matter, and relegating truth to each individual’s discretion. Its effect upon these foundational matters will reverberate with harmful consequences in other areas of Christian doctrine as well. We ought to reject any system (and this movement is a system, regardless of its proposed rejection of theological systems) that rejects the concept of absolute truth.


1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism trans. Carol Macomber, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 22. An online English translation is available at .

2. See for example, Eckhard Tolle, A New Earth (London: Penguin, 2005), p.71, “There is only one absolute Truth, and all other truths emanate from it…. The Truth is inseparable from who you are. Yes, you are the Truth.”

3. Carson, D. A., Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005.

4. Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” Christianity Today, 11 February 2007. Available online at . Accessed on July 8th, 2008.

5. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.

6. Scot McKnight, “Five Streams,” 2005.

7. McLaren, Brian, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), pp. 107, 151.

8. Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press: 1996), pp. 169-170.

9. This is typical Kierkegaardian existentialist theology, his primary thesis being “Truth is subjectivity.” Kierkegaard, Soren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, trans. Hong, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1992.

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