Erasmus or Tyndale?: A Factual Parable on the Emergent Church
Mention the term ‘emergent church’ to most laypersons and their eyes glaze over. Yet, mention the term ‘emergent church’ to the pastor/minister/theologian and his/her eyes will glow with either adulation or infuriation. Some perceive this new movement as the best thing that has ever happened to the church, a kind of necessary reformation. Others perceive this new movement as an affront to the gospel itself. But, more on this subject in a moment. What are we to do with the emergence of the emergent church? How are we to understand this movement? I believe that a historical illustration is in order.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and William Tyndale (1494-1536) were contemporaries of the Reformation era. Both were brilliant scholars, Erasmus producing the magnificent Greek New Testament (still in use today) and Tyndale, the first to translate the Greek New Testament into English. In fact, roughly ninety percent of what we read in our modern English translations of the Bible owes itself to Tyndale’s lyrical and accurate translation. Erasmus’ contribution to the Greek language is inestimable. Both loved Scripture, both were committed churchmen and both were skilled linguists.
But this is where the similarities end. Erasmus was a committed Roman Catholic and a semi-Pelagian, believing that while God’s grace is necessary for salvation, it is not sufficient alone for salvation – human effort and God’s grace save a person. Further, he believed in the two-fold doctrine of spiritual authority that was affirmed by the Catholic Church – Scripture and tradition served as co-equal authorities, with tradition trumping Scripture when the two were in dispute. Erasmus tended to hold to a malleable core of doctrinal beliefs with the edges smoothed out to avoid controversy.
Tyndale, on the other hand, was committed to the doctrines of grace, i.e. the authority of Scripture as the sole arbiter of faith and practice and salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Tyndale believed truth could be and ought to be clearly understood by exegeting Scripture for the common layperson. In fact, the very reason he labored to produce an English translation of the Bible was to liberate it from its ‘Latin bondage’ in the Roman Catholic Church. Tyndale believed that the common man, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, could understand and apply Scripture for himself.
Tyndale was committed to sound doctrine from a biblically informed position. When he wrote Obedience of a Christian Man he was clearly committed to a Christian orthodoxy with clear statements of belief with well-defined borders. On the other hand, Erasmus was rather tenuous and vague in his doctrinal commitments, other than his commitment to the Roman Catholic Church. When he wrote Enchiridion he developed what some have called his philosophia Christi (the philosophy of Christ). Tyndale was an orthodox, biblical theologian; Erasmus was a Christian humanist.
While Tyndale appears to have been committed to (Jude 3) ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints,’ Erasmus’ view of doctrine was more nebulous and nuanced. He viewed himself as a Christian humanist and feared taking clear, concise, definitive biblical positions on important subjects such as the authority of Scripture, the centrality of Christ alone for salvation and the explicit manner in which Scripture speaks to doctrinal issues. Because of his doctrinal ambiguity Erasmus was criticized by both his Roman Catholic friends and his Lutheran, reformed foes.
Why this comparison between Erasmus and Tyndale in relation to the emergent church movement? Let me explain. The emergent church is a ‘newly forming’ movement that is interested in recovering the essence of Christianity apart from the trappings of the traditional church. Though difficult to define, emergent church constituents describe their movement in terms of flow, conversation, process, discussion, a borderless theology concerned with engaging the post-modern, post-Christian mind that is uninterested in polemics, apologetics, structure, reason and rationality. They would say that the emergent church movement has a ‘godlike’ core of beliefs but no parameters or borders. In essence, theology is always open to being reshaped by the contours of the human experience. Objective truth is out, subjective experience is in.
And this is where Tyndale and Erasmus can help us. Traditional orthodoxy is Tyndale; nuanced Christianity is Erasmus. Tyndale represents substantive truth; Erasmus represents emergent church thought where there is a core of loosely affirmed beliefs, but no borders or boundaries. Both Tyndale and Erasmus were progressives in that they desired to see reform in the church. Tyndale believed reform emerged from an orthodox Christian perspective. Erasmus believed reform was possible by taking the edges off doctrinal positions and by emphasizing the moral teachings of Jesus.
The emergent church movement is correct in that it has uncovered an already existing disgust with the church. And let’s face it: there is plenty with which to be disillusioned in the modern-day church. Denominational structures leave much to be desired. Organization and form squeeze the life out of many Christians. Further, what generation has not criticized the previous generation for her faults and foibles? There are always issues with ‘orthopraxy.’ But the question remains – how do we reform and transform the church? Do we downplay Christian orthodoxy or do we alter our orthopraxy? Do we take the nebulous position of Erasmus? Or, do we lead a reformation by reaffirming truth in the face of a post-Christian, post-literate, post-structuralism posture?
The emergent church movement has chosen the Erasmean model by contesting more than the practices of the church. Emergent church adherents seek to redefine the theological middle to sound more palatable to the sophisticated, anti-rational, post-literate, modern-day person. As a result, Christianity is deconstructed into a conversation that is on-going, but never-ending.
To illustrate, some time ago I was scheduled to fly into Chicago. Because of in-climate weather we circled the airport for three hours. We could see the airport, but we never landed. This is what emergent church adherents suggest. They love to talk around the issues, developing the nuances of Christian belief, all the time hopefully bringing non-adherents into the conversation, into the journey. They just don’t want to land the plane. They don’t want to cut off the conversation. They refuse to ‘nail it down.’ Such would be premature because it’s not the destination but the journey that counts. In essence, the Christian life is not about a commitment to the singularity of Jesus Christ, to Scriptural commitments, it’s about a nebulous Christian philosophy that is nothing more than a moral philosophy of life. It is Erasmus’ ‘philosophia Christi’ redux.
Brian McLaren (A Generous Orthodoxy) and Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz) serve as the unofficial gurus of this movement. McLaren writes with a flow that is meant to appeal to the post-modern, post-Christian mind. The sub-title of his book explains it all: A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional + Evangelical + Post/Protestant + Liberal/Conservative + Mystical/Poetic + Biblical + Charisamtic/Contemplative + Fundamentalist/Calvinist + Anabaptist/Anglican + Methodist + Catholic + Green + Incarnational + Depressed-Yet-Hopeful + Emergent + Unfinished Christian. McLaren wants to be all things to all people to the detriment of clear, concise, biblical teaching.
And reading Miller is like reading the Christian version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is a ‘stream of consciousness’ book that takes the reader on a journey of Christian discovery. This book is hot on High School and college campuses. The sense of this book fits perfectly with allowing the contours of subjective experience to dictate the nature and scope of Christian belief.
So what does all this mean for the present-day church? What contribution do Erasmus and Tyndale make to the desire to reform the church? First, let’s agree that the church needs not just a revival, but a reform. Emergent and orthodox adherents agree on this point. Christian commitment ebbs low. And the intentional engagement of secular society has been squelched by the church’s insular position within a cloistered system of denominational structuralism. But how do we reform the church? This is where emergent and orthodox adherents part company.
If we take the position of Erasmus, and therefore the emergent church, we are deciding to downplay Christian orthodoxy. This position ends up taking the ‘middle of the road’ attitude. Rather than clarify Christian commitment, emergent church advocates say they have discovered something new and fresh in allowing the contours of human experience to dictate the nature and scope of Christian belief. The danger in this is that subjective experience mitigates objective truth.
If we take the method of Tyndale, who was equally concerned for the reform of the church of his day, we are deciding to affirm anew and afresh the great Christian truths of Scripture. Rather than allow subjective experience dictate truth, Christian truth is restated in clear, fresh and biblical terms that are concise and understandable. Reforming the church with Tyndale’s method assumes that the mind desires truth that makes sense.
What is interesting is that while both McLaren and Miller would argue that the post-rationalism of the day rejects classic apologetics and propositional statements of truth, both wrote books using rational sentences they hoped would make sense to the mind. The anti-rational, anti-propositional used reason and propositional statements to argue their point. What irony.
Maybe the problem is that rather than being too rational, we haven’t been clear enough. There is something about the power of clarified truth. Reform in the church will take place when we do as Tyndale did – we take that which has been in bondage in the cloistered walls of the church (the gospel) and translate it in clear terms in the market place. We do not need a new gospel, but a clarified gospel to emerge in the church. This was Tyndale’s method, this was the Apostle Paul’s method (Acts 17:16-34) and it must be our method of reform. Reformation will be costly because the true gospel is (1 Cor. 1:18) ‘foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it id the power of God.’ Tyndale liberated Scripture from its ‘Latin bondage’ but it cost him his life. A Tyndalian Reformation will cost us, as well. But it will be worth it.
It’s time for the gospel to emerge once again in the church. Let the gospel in its purity, simplicity and power first grasp the church and the church will emerge within culture as a force for God’s glory.