Toward Understanding College Christians

0183788600.jpg The college students Kathleen and I met when we were invited by Dartmouth College’s Tucker Foundation to show my film, A New Life, were delightfully passionate, thoughtful, kind, and seeking the Lord. But they seemed different from other Christians we have known. Reading Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008) by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck may help explain how and why.

Many of the Dartmouth students were members of the campus Navigators and Campus Crusade. Kluck and DeYoung note that Campus Crusade has been quite fond of “Emergent” writers:

“Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell especially have been big influences, especially in the Campus Crusade group,’ he says.”I think a lot of it has to do with the ‘we just want Jesus’ mentality. People who think more theologically seem to college students to be narrow-minded or judgmental. They see ‘I just want Jesus’ as kind of an oppositional view to the theological camp. But to know the Lord is to know Him through propositions,’ he continues. ‘Being in a relationship—and people who like the emergent movement like to focus on the relationship  aspect of Jesus—but to be in a relationship with someone, it’s imperative that you know specific things and true things about the person you’re in the relationship with.” (99)

So what is “Emergent” and how is it different from other Christian perspectives I’ve encountered. DeYoung and Kluck are masterful guides in answering these questions. Under general headings, I’ve shared some passages I just had to underline. (There are many, many more)


D.A. Carson: “Postmodernism turns to the ‘I’ where premodernism commonly began with God.” (94)


This word is often used by Emergent Christians. (And not exactly as John Bunyan used it with Pilgrim’s Progress.)

“Because the journey is an experience more than a destination, the Christian life requires less doctrinal reflection and more personal introspection. The postmodern infatuation with journey feeds on and into a preoccupation with our own stories. If my grandparents’ generation could be a little stoic and not terribly reflective, my generation is introspective at a level somewhere between self-absorption and narcissism. We are so in-tuned with our dysfunctions, hurts, and idiosyncrasies that it often prevents us from growing up, because maturity is tantamount to hypocrisy in a world that prizes brokenness more than health.” (34)


“The mantra ‘God is too big to understand and the truth too mysterious to know with certainty’ is not just confused humility. It has dangerous pastoral implications. Humility, as Chesterton warned, was not meant to be moved to the organ of conviction. Uncertainty in light of our human limitations is a virtue. Uncertainty in light of God’s Word is not.” (44)


“Personal faith in Christ, for it to be genuine and saving, must have propositional content. We must believe that Jesus is the One (“I am he”). We must believe He is from above (8:23), the light of the world (v. 12), and sent from the Father (v. 16). We may think we have a wonderful relationship with Jesus, and we may even love Him, but unless we believe He is the Christ, the Son of God, we will not have life in His name (20:31).” (74)

Open-Ended Bible:

“In his classic work defending authorial intent in the text, E. D. Hirsch points out, ‘Certainty is not the same thing as validity, and knowledge of ambiguity is not necessarily ambiguous knowledge.’ In other words, just because you are sure about something doesn’t make you right, and just because you know you could be wrong doesn’t mean you are. To be sure, words and sentences and paragraphs are sometimes ambiguous and open to different understandings, which is why humans disagree on so many things (although words are still the most precise means of communicating ideas that we have). But this doesn’t mean that one understanding is not the right one or at least better than the others. Nor does this mean that we can’t plausibly determine which is the correct understanding, even if we can’t determine the meaning of a text with complete omniscience.” (83)

Inoffensive Gospel:

“I have no doubt that non-Christians find some of the emergent literature very appealing. The literature often describes who they already are — non-dogmatic, ambiguously spiritual postmoderns interested in making the world a better place. But where is there mention of the hard edges of Christian faith – God’s holiness, divine judgment, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, human depravity, the necessity of new birth?

“Where is the offense in the gospel? J. Gresham Machen observed seventy-five years ago ‘this curious fact — when men talk thus about propagating Christianity without defending it, the thing that we are propagating is pretty sure not to be Christianity at all. They are propagating an anti-intellectualistic, nondoctrinal Modernism; and the reason why it requires no defense is simply that it is so completely in accord with the current of the age.’ Nobody objects to a nondoctrinal Christianity because there is nothing to object to.

“’All we need is Jesus,” many emerging Christians cry, ‘not these fancy theologies and doctrinal formulations.” Thus Erwin McManus writes, ‘The power of the gospel is the result of a person—Jesus Christ—not a message. The gospel is an event to be proclaimed, not a doctrine to be preserved.’ Granted, this sounds good, and McManus may mean something good by it. But the argument is overstated. How is the gospel event we proclaim different than a message? And how is a message about Jesus—say, who He is and what He did on earth—different than doctrine? We can tell people about Jesus every day until He returns again, but without some doctrinal content filling up what we mean by Jesus and why He matters, we are just shouting slogans, not proclaiming any kind of intelligible gospel.” (107-108)

The Mars Hill Huh?

“Emergent leaders like to point out Paul’s accommodating missional strategy among the Athenians at Mars Hill….It sounds cool to say that God is present and absent, nowhere and now here, but once the ‘tension’ and ‘complexity’ of these epigrams wear off, you’re left wondering, ‘Uh?’ Maybe that’s the point. New life will emerge from the ‘Uh?’ But this is so unlike Paul’s actual sermon at Mars Hill. After Paul did his cultural engagement thing, he proclaimed the gospel in no uncertain terms. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17:30-31).” (109)

Orthodoxy as Orthopraxy

“This emphasis on right living over against right belief is nothing new. It is, in fact, quintessentially modern. Adolf Harnack, the brilliant and popular promoter of Protestant liberalism, said the same thing at the turn of the last century: ‘True faith in Jesus is not a matter of creedal orthodoxy but of doing as he did.’ There are only two problems with this liberal/emergent view of orthodoxy. One, it isn’t true. And two, it isn’t helpful.” (111-112)

“As soon as you say Jesus died and rose again for your sins according to the Scriptures, you have doctrine. You have a message about what happened in history and what it means. That’s theology. There is no gospel without it.

“Besides being untrue, orthodoxy as orthopraxy is monumentally unhelpful. It sounds wonderful at first. Jesus is the best way to live. Where’s the harm in that? After all, it is true that Jesus taught good ethics and set a good moral example. But if orthodoxy means I live the right way, the way of Jesus, I have no hope. Where do I turn after I’ve screwed up the beatitudes for the fiftieth time? Where do I find peace when I realize I fail the Sermon on the Mount daily? What do I tell the Devil when he reminds me that I don’t do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with my God (see Mic. 6:8) as l should?

“And what about my family and friends? What comfort do I give a loved one dying with cancer and feels no assurance of salvation because she hasn’t loved God or her neighbor enough? I hope I can read Ephesians 2 and tell her that though she was dead in her trespasses and sins, by nature an object of wrath, now she has been made alive together with Christ and that by grace alone her sins have been forgiven, not according to works lest anyone should boast. (113)

“If the good news is an invitation to a Jesus way of life and not information about somebody who accomplished something on my behalf. I’m sunk. This is law and no gospel.” (114)

No Boundaries

“Is there anyone who says ‘I love Jesus and am trying to follow Him’ whom we would not call brother or sister?

“Jones, it seems, would say no. But what about Mormons? Arians? Hardcore Pelagians? Those who disbelieve in the resurrection? Those who love Jesus while also worshiping Krishna, Shiva, and Vishnu? Those who deny the personhood of God?

“Christianity cannot and does not exist without boundaries. Being a Christian in any biblical sense requires that we not only say yes to many things, but that we also are willing to say no to a number of beliefs and behaviors.” (118)

“I keep wondering, am I missing something here? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes; we do see through a glass dimly; we do not fully understand God; we don’t know God as God knows Himself; our words can’t capture the essence of God. God is greater than we can conceive—but what about the 1,189 chapters in the Bible? Don’t they tell us lots of things about God that we :are supposed to do more with than doubt and not understand? Aren’t the Scriptures written so that we might believe and be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see and even proclaim this faith to others?

“It’s hard for me to believe that the apostles went off into the world telling people about the God they couldn’t speak of and inviting the people to journey with them as they grew in their mutual un/knowing about the God they disbelieved in. The book of Acts paints the complete opposite picture. Peter preached an exegetical sermon at Pentecost. Peter and John thunder ‘let it be known’ as they herald the gospel message. Stephen rebukes the people from their own history. Philip explains what a text means to the Ethiopian eunuch. Paul reasons in the synagogues. He lectures in the hall of Tyrannus. He tries to persuade Felix. He makes known the true God in the face of Christ that the Athenians only worshiped as unknown.

“God  is love – that’s all we know and everything else is unknown and therefore can only be un/known by the fact that God is love. But what love means is by no means clear without knowledge of what God is like.” (124-125)
Too Much Already, Not Enough Not Yet

“What the emergent manifesto suffers from is an imbalance of too much ‘already’ and not enough ‘not yet.’ The fancy term is ‘over-realized eschatology’. That is, emergent leaders are hoping for heaven on earth before Jesus returns to earth to bring the new heaven and new earth. Emergent leaders dare us to imagine a world without poverty and war and injustice. That’s good. We need to be stirred to have faith in the God of the impossible. But we should not expect something God has not promised, especially when He has promised the opposite. Jesus said the poor would always be with us (John 12:8) and wars and rumors of war would continue to the very end(Matt. 24:6). This doesn’t mean we are pro-poverty warmongers. But it does mean that wars won’t go away just because we follow the secret message of Jesus.” (187)

“The problem is not in working toward the elimination of injustice, though the specific activities lumped under ‘justice’ are often debatable. The problem is in thinking that this is the main business of the church as church. But when the church s business is mainly political and its unifying creeds are political instead of doctrinal, the church and state overlap until the church becomes redundant.” (190)

A Theraputic God of Self-Esteem

“The main problem in the universe, according to many emergent writers, seems to be human suffering and brokenness. Make no mistake, suffering and brokenness are a result of the fall, but the main problem that needs to be dealt with is human sin and rebellion. Where sin is the main problem we need a crucified Substitute. Where pain and brokenness are the main problems, we need to learn to love ourselves. God is no longer a holy God angry with sin, who, in His great mercy, sent His Son to die on our behalf so that divine justice might be satisfied. God becomes a vulnerable lover who opens Himself up to hurt and rejection in order to be with us because we are worth dying for.

“I have no doubt that this message will find a receptive audience, but it is not the message the apostles proclaimed and for which they died. Christians don’t get killed for telling people that God believes in them and suffers like them and can heal their brokenness. They get killed for calling sinners to repentance and proclaiming faith in the crucified Son of God as the only means by which we who were enemies might be reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10).” (194-195)

Epilogue: To Today’s Revelation Churches

Mr. DeYoung and Mr. Kluck conclude their book with an application of Christ’s letters in the Book of Revelation to the church today:

“I realized a number of years ago that it didn’t matter if I was against all the things I should be against, if I wasn’t for anything. That’s the Lord’s point to Ephesus. ‘You hate what I hate. That’s good. But you do not love what I love.’ I can tell in my own spirit when I am arguing a point to be right and when I am arguing a point out of love. Hopefully, this book is the latter. There is a big difference between the two. Do I want to be right because ‘I know this is right, moron, and why can’t you see it?’ Or am I arguing my point because ‘I love you and I know this will be good for you and honor Christ.” (243-244)

“Most Christians and most churches go liberal for one of two reasons. Either they are disillusioned conservatives who have seen nothing but legalistic, angry fundamentalism, or they are passionate social activists who, in their desire to love everyone, end up rejecting nothing. Thyatira’s problem was the opposite of Ephesus. I fear that emerging Christians are in danger of repeating Thyatira’s error: they love what Jesus loves but do not hate what Jesus hates.” (247)

The authors are kind-hearted, intelligent and witty; the kind of writers you wish lived just down the street so you could maybe hang out with them. The book is more than a critique of the Emergent Church; it is a wonderful affirmation of the traditional Christian faith for the 21st century.

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