The Great Emergence: How did it come to be?
So last week we discovered some things that we may or may not have been aware of. The history of Christianity has gone through a number of shifts, disruptions and restorations. Each upheaval was characterized by changes happening in the political, social and cultural landscape. The church’s response to such changes led to the disruption and the consequent shifts that led the church to a place where stability was once again achieved and the believers could feel secure that they had found the path that God had called them to take and could depend on the principles that they had discovered to guide them. It is easy to look back on history and see what was the root cause of disruptions suffered by others and even easier to understand the situation they faced and even their inability to see what needed to be changed; but it is difficult to see the root cause of our own disruption and not so easy to understand our own situation and be able to see what needs to change.
Today we will look at some of the events that led to the Great Reformation of the 16th century and some of the events that have brought us to our own disruption. We know for a fact that when a significant event is marked as the beginning of a new era in history that that event is probably the culmination of a number of events. Case in point is Luther’s theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle in 1517. What Luther put in writing were things that had been gnawing at the fabric of Christianity since 1378. From 1378 to 1418 the Italian and French princes each elected a pope. Each declared the other illegitimate and war ensued. To add to the mix there was a third pope elected by another group. The result was chaos within Western Europe – not only religiously but culturally, politically and socially. No longer could the church see clearly where the authority from God lay. If the church leadership could not be seen as authority, where could the church find its authority to centre itself and guide itself in faith?
The answer given to the question of authority was answered in the principle: Sola scriptura, scriptura sola; only the Scripture and the Scriptures only. Tied to this was the principle that all of us are priests. No longer need a person confess to a priest but confession would be directly between the people and God – the priesthood of all believers.
But to achieve these great principles would require the people to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves. The introduction of the printing press by Gutenberg enabled the dream of Wycliffe and others to come true. Literacy was no longer restricted to the elite in society or those to whom the church deigned to grant it. And while it would take centuries to achieve the literacy they hoped for, the gate had been open and people could read for themselves the words of Scripture. And we know what that caused – differences of interpretation.
But along with this came changes in the ways that society in general was organized. It was at this time that movement of people from the country to the towns began. Cash began to be used as the basis of power, individualism was born, capitalism and the middle class emerged and the nuclear family made its first appearance. What was happening was a whole shift in the way the world was viewed and in the way in which life was being lived.
At this same time, there were other major changes occurring. In 1514, Copernicus – a clergyman as well as an astronomer – first declared that the sun – not the earth – was the centre of the universe. He was followed by Columbus who did not fall off the edge of the earth. These things raised questions about the accepted belief in the cosmology of the church. If the earth is round, where is heaven and where is hell? Is God upstairs or where is he? Had the church gotten it wrong? Holes had appeared in the covering and the mesh of the cable and it opened the gate to questioning everything the church had ever held as absolute truth. This led the Reformers to not only form the principles that have been handed down generation to generation within the Protestant tradition of the faith but also to seek for how to interpret all matters related to the faith and so reframe and reconceptualise the Christian message and story and find again a consensus that all could accept.
The freedom to think, to question that came with the Reformation in the church would lead to a whole new way of examining the world in which we live. The mid 1800s saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and it became the tipping point that sent the world careening off into new cultural, social, political and theological territory. This can be seen as the point where the Great Emergence can be recognized and this is the time in which we are now living. But we need to recognize that it was not just in the secular society that major changes and shifts in thinking were happening. The rise of critical scholarship and biblical criticism as well as liberal theology happened at this time and by the beginning of the 20th century, there was even more diverse ways of looking at the Scriptures. The re-examination of the Scriptures in their historical and cultural setting led to people questioning the principle of Scripture alone and the inerrancy of Scripture. The flood of change was such that it prompted a meeting of Conservative Protestants who issued their own statement of 5 solas or principles necessary to claim true Christian belief: the inerrancy of the Scripture; the divinity of Jesus Christ; the historicity of the Virgin birth; the substitutionary nature of the Atonement ( in other word, that Jesus paid the price for our sin); and the physical, corporeal return of Jesus, the Christ. They would become known as the “Fundamentals”. And so the term fundamentalism was born. Later were added two more principles: the obligation to evangelize and belief in Jesus as a personal saviour. These principles form the core of evangelical Christianity.
I have just scratched the surface of many of the challenges and changes that have come as a result of the Reformation of the 16th century and the questions about life in general and faith in particular that have been the subject of much debate over the last 500 years. But do not despair. The challenges that have come to us in this time are cause not to be afraid but rather to take hold of the questions that have come and seek for the wisdom of God to discover the answers.
For us in the church today we will need to recognize that the society around us and even within us is composed of people who are the products of this time. The people who are coming to our churches now do not come with the same history, tradition and understanding of the world especially as it relates to God and faith. The cable will hold but we need to face the tears in the mesh and the covering and not just patch them in hopes they will hold but mend them in such a way that the cable will maintain its strength and so lead us forward to be bearers of a truth that will resonate with the minds and hearts of the people of this time and space.
Next week, where is this Great Emergence going?