Spencer Burke, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity, and Early Fallout

11:09 pm | Emergent Church

When Scot McKnight visited Spencer Burke back in July, Spencer gave Scot a copy of his new book, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity in bound proofs to read and review. Spencer Burke, as most readers here know, is the leading voice behing TheOoze, a website that for years has been at the cutting edge of the emerging conversation. In an earlier post, I commented that I had hope that Spencer Burke would be serious about bridging the gap between the emerging church and the mainstream of Evangelicalism, since he seemed to be leaning more toward a “post-emerging church.” Sadly, my comments were little more than wishful thinking, as Scot McKnight’s review of the manuscript has shown.

Scot McKnight’s review of A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity in four parts is available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. It is worth noting that Scot does not give this book a ringing endorsement. If anything, there are a number of things that concern him.

Although the book has not yet been published, a sneak peek can be found on TheOoze, Who Wants to be a Heretic? There is an unfortunate reference to the apocryphal account of Galileo, but I found this comment by one of the readers much more troubling: “I feel like we’re moving from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end… it’s easy and safe to stay where you can stand, but we’re not actually swimming and going anywhere until we get into the deep end and risk drowning…” This is how emerging folks are responding to Burke, as if he were Friedrich Schleiermacher?

This prompted Phil Johnson to post Why “the Emerging Conversation” is Going Nowhere.

The main problem with the dominant Emerging approach to dialogue, debate, Christian fellowship, and truth itself is this: the ground rules for the conversation apparently rule out ever identifying any ideas as heresy (except in the way Spencer Burke employs the term: either in jest, or with a tone of smug arrogance.)

The problem is obvious in Scot McKnight’s review of Burke’s book. McKnight recognizes several serious errors underlying Burke’s universalism. But he can’t seem to bring himself to recognize that Burke’s views are not even legitimately Christian ideas.

In fact, McKnight’s review commences with this: “To begin with, I simply don’t like that he chooses the term heretic to describe himself.” McKnight then argues that in order to qualify as a heretic, a person would have to deny the ancient ecumenical creeds. “And it can almost be reduced to the doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit),” McKnight says.

But even on that count, McKnight is forced to give a less-than-ringing endorsement to Spencer Burke: “As I read this book, I’m not sure that he has denied the Trinity. . . “

Roger Overton posted his comments on a number of problems that he found with Phil’s post:

As much as I tend agree with Phil Johnson, I think there are a number of problems with this post. The foundational problem is that he uses emerging and emergent interchangeably. This mix up leads to another problem- he broad brushes those who claim both labels as heretics.

Phil posted a coda to his original post discussing Roger’s point further:

Apparently, some in the American evangelical mainstream would like to cede the expression “Emergent” to McLaren’s universalist/Socinian/liberal wing of the “missional” movement, and reserve the word “Emerging” for people who are more or less evangelical. (As if it were suddenly possible to make such a neat dichotomy in a movement that has always been deliberately amorphous.)

There’s more I could say about this, but here’s the point: It seems to me there’s a heavy dose of “spin” in Mark Driscoll’s taxonomy of Emerging Christianity, and it’s a serious mistake for critics of the movement to adopt Mark Driscoll’s or Ed Stetzer’s perspectives on this issue blithely or uncritically as if these guys have given us the definitive and canonical insiders’ explanation of how the movement breaks down.

It’s an even greater mistake to imagine that the movement as a whole might ever go in the direction Driscoll is leading.

Roger posted Another Response to Phil Johnson, with plenty of followup discussion in the comments there. Some concerns about Marc Driscoll’s views on the atonment prompted a post by Roger, What is Marc Driscoll’s View of Atonement? My friend David M. over at Thomist Tacos for the Soul posted his thoughts about this.

Michael Beasley speaks on behalf of postemergents like myself in his post This is an Emergency:

For myself, I look at it all as a spiritually dangerous emergency.

Sadly, at the center of the Emergent Church movement are some rather disturbing doctrines that are being swirled about. For many within the EC movement, the doctrines of justification by faith, the atonement of Christ, the virgin birth and eternal hell are now open for discussion, debate and even denial. The unofficial leaders of the movement are doing precious little to stem this tide of doctrinal error, and why should they? After all, Brian McLaren cannot deny universalism nor is he sure that homosexuality is a sin; and N.T. Wright offers a version of justification that comports more with the Roman Catholic doctrine of infused righteousness, rather than the Biblical teaching of imputed righteousness. The leaders of the EC movement are not neophites - many of them are well read and highly educated men who have a higher accountability in view of their training and ministry responsibilities.

But then there is, of course, this added factor of those who have become disenchanted with the EC movement’s doctrinal corruptions, and are therefore advocating a different strain of the EC movement - enter the Emerging Movement. Yes, there’s the Emergent Church movement, as well as the Emerging Church movement. Those who are within the Emerging Movement consider themselves as being a part of the larger “Emergent Conversation” (theological fellowship and dialogue of the Emergent Church movement), but who wish to redirect this “conversation” back to a Scriptural platform. I guess that you could say that the Emerging movement wishes to maintain a bridge of dialogue with the broader Emergent movement…

But as some say, the problem with a bridge is that it facilitates two-way traffic.

What is most unsettling to me is this presumption of influence, along with an apparent denial that there is a doctrinal emergency at hand (emergency, as in 911). A great deal of doctrinal heresy is readily brewing at the center of the Emergent Movement, and there are those who want to engage in …a conversation over this?

A conversation????

I have to say that this whole series of posts has been both the cause of much joy and much grief. On the one hand, I am very grateful for Phil Johnson standing up and posting on this issue. But on the other hand, that the emerging conversation has reached this point where flirting with universalism cannot be categorically denounced has left me in deep grieving that we as Christians have willing strayed so far so quickly and for so little.

The emerging church could be a powerful breeze of fresh air that could bring new life into Evangelicalism in the United States. But unfortunately instead of fresh air there is heavy theological pollution coming from the emerging manufacturing centers. The worst polluter by far is Brian McLaren - but to think that he is the only offender is to ignore the problem. Spencer Burke has demonstrated himself to be a very capable manufacturer of theological pollution as well. Indeed, we could make a virtual who’s who list of influential voices in the emerging conversation and how each have contributed to a theologically toxic atmosphere.

Only Marc Driscoll seems to be searching for fresh air. It is an inconvenient truth that theological speculation - not passionate Christ-centered Orthodoxy - is the source of division in the body of Christ. Orthodoxy is a source of unity in the midst of theological speculations that sow division in the body.

Sadly, many in the emerging conversation have accepted the notion that orthodoxy rather than heresy is the source of division in the body. This is the unfortunate effect of theological naivety on the part of so many young emergents. By making Christianity so open to theological speculation, we are merely modeling our churches after Unitarian Universalist fellowships. We may decide, with some reluctance, to hold onto the ancient creeds and affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as the only test for orthodoxy. By doing so, we are merely Trinitarian Universalists. Any doctrinal speculation is allowed so long as it is baptized in Trinitarian language and symbols. Although it may be generous, this type of emerging theology is not Christian Orthodoxy.




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spencer burke

Comment on August 13, 2006 @ 8:43 pm

I hope you take the opportunity to read the book for yourself and post your thoughts.

I do like your metaphor of a 2 way road for conversation. But that will mean there will be constant opposing traffic offering alternative routes to the same destination.

I am sure you would agree with Colson that books like “Mere Christianity” are great sources for dialogue and yet I don’t think you would have considered C.S. Lewis’ positions on heaven, hell and universalism as the litmus test for approved authors for your children.

I know and respect the road map of evangelicalism, and I want to travel together down the road of faith. I believe your children do too. The question I would pose is; when will you let them drive, how much freedom will you let them have in choosing the route, will they feel your support or see you as a back seat driver?

I am very interested in the 2 way exchange, I hope we can find ways to dialogue. As a student, pastor, missionary and Elder in the evangelical church I feel as if I have read and learned from the “approved list”. Now I invite you to read my thoughts in “A Heretic’s Guide To Eternity” and we can have some common ground for this 2 way journey…


Comment on August 13, 2006 @ 9:57 pm

The metaphor of a two-way conversation is not mine, but rather Michael Beasley’s. I did send an email to Spencer Burke on July 19, but have not received a response back. If the emerging conversation is reduced to a series of emerging monologues where dissent is neither tolerated nor allowed, then we should drop all pretense of conversation.

Also, for what it’s worth, I don’t have any children. I’m one of those younger evangelicals that Rob Webber likes to talk so much about, except that I don’t fall neatly into his categories. Three or four years ago, I would have happily recommended people visit TheOoze and glean ministry ideas there. But things in my life have changed pretty radically, and I cannot identify with the emerging conversation in the same way I might have so willingly in the past. I know that it might be difficult - if not impossible - to accept that someone could have a legitimately different perspective and have legitimate concerns about the directions that people like Spencer Burke would like to take Christianity in.

But, to use Spencer’s analogy, now is the time when we, the younger evangelicals, are being handed the keys, given the chance to choose the route, with our spiritual elders waving us on. Are we going to drive off the road, careening off a cliff and into a crevasse? Or are we going to drive straight and true? I can’t speak for all the younger evangelicals, but I know what route I intend on following, even when people keep insisting that we take ill-advised detours.

Zane Anderson

Comment on August 14, 2006 @ 11:21 pm

Spencer Burke is to be commended for replying. Brian McLaren seldom does despite his emphasis on the conversation.

Godspeed, brother.

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