My friend Kevin Griggs told me that I just had to read Jim Belcher’s book, Deep Church, primarily because of Belcher’s appeal to elements of Tom Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy programme as a potential “third way” between the quagmire that emergent and traditional churches have found themselves in. It’s a quagmire in communication and in understanding, and Belcher believes it is fixable (possibly).
The book has gotten a good bit of press in American evangelicalism. I gather most of the press has been positive, though there has been some negative push-back as well, maybe most notably from Greg Gilbert at 9Marks. The 9Marks review is notable because Belcher is himself a reformed pastor of a PCA church who openly espouses a deep conviction on penal substitutionary atonement. Gilbert feels, however, that Belcher has sold too much of the store in seeking a third way. Others are applauding the work as a wonderful example of seasoned, careful irenicism whose proposals need to be carefully considered.
Well, I have to admit that I approached the book reluctantly and almost purely because of a trusted friend’s recommendation, but what I found there was very interesting, thought-provoking, and (largely) compelling.
On the positive side, Belcher helpfully defines terminology which is thrown about way too loosely in the squabbles between the emergents and their detractors. For instance, he helpfully draws a distinction between “emerging” and “emergent,” and he does so in an effort to show that the camp is not monolithic. This was particularly helpful to me. I think Belcher reasonably demonstrates that the movement is not populated by an army of Brian McLaren clones (thankfully), and that not recognizing this fact greatly hinders progress in dialogue.
Furthermore, Belcher fairly critiques the emergent views on various issues as well as the traditional objections to the emergent positions. In this, he has achieved a level of neutrality that is commendable and rare. His handling of these respective positions really does calm the waters a good bit, particularly his discussion of foundationalism, relativism, and espistemological humility. At the least he demonstrates that not all emergents are hardcore relativists who do not believe that truth is knowable.
Finally, his proposed “third way” is, I think, fairly reasonable, though moreso in some areas than in others. Regardless, none of Belcher’s proposals will fail to challenge and stimulate the reader to think carefully about the crucial issues at hand.
On the negative side, however, I do think Greg Gilbert raises some fundamental questions in his review of the book that need answering, particularly in his query concerning how exactly a “third way” can be reached with some in the emergent camp that, by Belcher’s own admission, are soft on the atonement. (This is not to say, by the way, that I find Gilbert’s review convincing overall. For instance, I did not see the arrogance in Belcher’s book that Gilbert saw there. Quite the contrary. Furthermore, Gilbert did not seem to respect the nuanced position concerning the ecumenical creeds that Belcher, following Oden, is employing.)
In all, a very interesting book that is well worth reading and pondering. Check out Deep Church.