Ray Anderson: An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches

Anderson, Ray S.  An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).  220 pgs.

One of the most common objections to the “emerging church” movement is that it lacks any substantial theological outlook.  Emergent church leaders often fall prey to the cirticism that “eventually have to move past deconstruction.”  This work by Ray Anderson attempts to meet this need.  Anderson knows that his work won’t be definitive for the emerging church, since it is still in the process of coming into being, but hopes that his work can be a part of the “ongoing conversation.”

Anderson’s approach is to look to the scriptures to for a theology that is emergent, which he defines, following Dan Kimball, as a theology that has changed from its predecessor.  Anderson is seeking to discern what the scriptures say about a new movement in the church, and what we can take from that today.  However, Anderson’s approach isn’t to merely look for abstract principles from scripture, but to view the scriptures narratively, seeking to discern what is going on as the church changes.

It is here that Anderson’s basic thesis comes into view:

“The Christian community that emerged out of Antioch constitutes the original form and theology of the emerging church as contrasted with the believing community (20).” 

The rest of the book seeks to read the book of Acts and Galatians, among others, to discern key differences between the two churches and what we can learn from them to apply to what we see happening today.  While Anderson’s approach is provocative, it occasionally falls short of its goal.  It does seem that other reviews have rightly criticized Anderson’s strained views of the two churches.  Jerusalem is often painted with too negative a brush, and i’m skeptical that all of the contrasts between Antioch and Jerusalem were that polarized.  Anderson freely admits that at points he has outran the evidence and “caricatured the Jerusalem church.”  Furthermore, in certain chapters it seems that Anderson abandons this method all together, hardly referencing either church.  Anderson tells the reader upfront that this is an exercise in “creative narrative theology,” so don’t come expecting a purely biblical theological approach.  How can such a method be successful?  In Anderson own words:

It may appear that i’m overgeneralizing at points and overstating certain assumptions to make my point.  However, i believe that a fair reading of the New Testament documents will support my basic thesis (25).

The occasional over-reaching aside, this book is packed with great insights that should be taken seriously by all, not just emeging church leaders.  What follows are several of his main theses.  Italics indicate the implications of what Anderson is saying.

  1. The church at Antioch was based on a theology of revelation, given directly to Paul by Christ Himself, while Jerusalem was too rooted in the past, and developed a fortress mentality based on its location and it’s continuity with Judaism.  The emerging church is a move of God that doesn’t overly rely on heirarchical structures or continuity with tradition.  Christ is the “cornerstone of continuity” for the church (28-30). 
  2. Following on chapter 1 above, Anderson argues, following Karl Barth that “all ecclesiology is grounded, critically limited, but also positively determined by Christology.”  Anderson writes that “the Christ of the emerging church at Antioch is, in Paul’s experience, a Christ who emerges in the present out of the future (57).”  The emerging church is rightfully concerned with the contemporary presence of the historical Christ in their midst.  We all must learn to take this insight seriously, or we will fall into the criticism Anderson has for the Jerusalem church in chapter 1.  Incidentally, in this chapter Anderson relates the Son to the Spirit quite a bit, and here is a post i did on his views. 
  3. In chapter 3 Anderson writes on the relationship between spirituality and the Spirit.  Anderson’s basic point is that not all spirituality is of the Spirit, and that since the Spirit is the presence of the historical Christ here and now, all such spiritual exercises or experiences without “relation to Jesus Christ is liable to be only a human form of spirituality (70).”  Anderson’s point here is that we shouldn’t kill ourselves trying to be “spirit-filled” Christians, but to allow the Spirit who is inside us already to produce His fruit.  Spiritual growth occurs only when we surrender to the Spirit who causes the growth (see 75-76). 
  4. Regarding church polity, Anderson argues that the acceptance of the emerging church in the long run will depend more on the type of polity it embraces, or the lack there of.  Anderson believes that ultimately it isn’t about the right polity but the right gospel.  Right polity will follow right gospel, not the other way around.  Keep the Gospel pure, and don’t make relevance god (85-86)
  5. The emerging church must focus on Kingdom living, not what Anderson calls “Kingdom building.”  The church shouldn’t exist for its own improvement.  Rather, the church “finds it’s being in its Kingdom mission, under the guidance and the power of the Spirit (99).”  The church is the divine reign’s “sign, foretaste, agent, and instrument (99).”  “The ministry of the church should always be undstood as being grounded in the mission of God in Christ to reconcile to Himself.  When mission leads, ministry follows (185). 
  6. “It’s about the final century, not the first century.  When Christ returns to bring to consummation his apostolic work now taking place by the gift of the Holy Spirit, it will be the final century.  An emergent theology looks toward the ‘final century’ in which Christ can be expected to return, as normative and apostolic (211).”  Anderson advocates a Trinitarian, eschatologically focused theology.  Such a focus may move us into new and uncharted terrain, and can be frightening.  Like Anderson points out, we need to feel the pull of the future so that fascination with what has been does not become an altar at which we worship (202). 

There are numerous other thoughts in this book, but this review is getting lengthy.  In sum, this book Anderson advocates a theological vision rooted in the past and present redemptive actions of the Triune God with an eye toward the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises.  His ecclesiology is Christologically-grounded and Kingdom-centered.  This is Anderson’s view of the theology that the emerging church should embrace.  It is a breath-taking vision, one that makes one wonder if new movements of God would be needed if never lost this focus. 

For those looking for another great (and more concise!) review, click here.    




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