“There are,” a professor once remarked to me, “two types of people in the world: uniters and dividers.”
Deep Church is a thoughtful, generous, and insightful response to the polarizing dichotomies that characterized the conversation about the emerging church. Though Belcher writes with a light touch, it is a serious book that I hope is the final word in a contentious and divisive conversation.
Belcher doesn’t try to placate everyone, but rather offers serious and substantial disagreements where he feels appropriate, but in an irenic, respectful, and understanding tone. While Deep Church functions as a sort of olive branch to both sides, Belcher’s argument isn’t simply that everyone should just get along, but that the Great Tradition—“deep church”—provides the grounds for Christian unity and disagreement.
Belcher’s book has been discussed by nearly everyone else, so I won’t rehearse the bulk of his arguments here (most recently, Ben Simpson has done an admirable job of highlighting many of the main themes). But in light of the ongoing theme of Christendom here at Mere-O, I will point out Belcher’s approach to “deep culture,” which he thankfully puts after his chapter on “deep ecclesiology.” Writes Belcher:
This is our goal at Redeemer Presybyterian Church. We believe we are to be a distinctive counterculture and should live an alternate way. At times we need to be critical toward the surrounding culture. But this countercultural attitude must not calcify. A posture of negativity can lead us to be insular and tribal. Critique—though necessary to keep us from being pushed into the world’s mold—is secondary to our posture of culture makers. We should be known as those who create culture for thecommon good, for all people and not just fellow believers, culture that makes life better, whole, for the entire city.
Belcher grounds his approach to culture in the Kuyperian notion of ‘common grace,’ which he contends allows for real communication between us and the world. I could be suffering from confirmation bias, of course, but it’s precisely this approach that makes me cheer.
Belcher’s book is a fresh of breath air. In fact, it’s not overstating my case to say that this is a vitally important book that strikes almost all the right notes. It is almost the exact book I would have written for its attempt at taking the critiques of the emergent/ing church seriously, while pointing to a robust, creedal, historically grounded orthodoxy as the appropriate remedy. Dare I say that Deep Church does for books what Mere-O has weakly tried to do for blogs? Yes. Yes I dare.
Fawning praise aside, I do have some reservations about Belcher’s book. Allow me to highlight them here.
Reservation #1: Common Grace and Epistemology
First, Belcher adopts the notion of “common grace” with respect to culture, but not epistemology. Belcher describes foundationalism as the “view that knowledge can be based on self-evident truths that don’t need any backing from religion or any other external authority, that is, knowledge has “invincible certainty.”’
Belcher rejects the unassailable nature of foundations, but it’s not clear who he is actually disagreeing with on this point. There are no classical foundationalists anymore. Belcher wants to adopt “post-foundationalism,” which he argues is based on belief, not reason, and that belief is specifically inspired by the Holy Spirit. But to be consistent with his theory of culture (which itself depends upon an epistemology), Belcher should have deployed the doctrine of common grace at this point. Had he done so, he might come up with a more sympathetic account of modified foundationalism and its relationship to “deep truth.” Foundationalism isn’t dead. It’s simply grown up.
Reservation #2: Deep Ecclesiology and the Doctrine of God
Second, Belcher unfortunately focuses his chapter on “deep ecclesiology” on the nature of church government and structure. Belcher turns to the “Great Tradition” to attempt to solve the standstill between the traditionalists and emerging church. Writes Belcher: “Without the Great Tradition teaching us about the inherited forms of church structure and government, we will continue to talk past one another.” Belcher articulates his third way, or “deep ecclesiology,” this way: Bible + Tradition + Mission = Deep Ecclesiology.
I suspect Belcher’s formulation here has to do with the polemical context he is working out of, but that is one of the dangers of using such a context as the starting point for ecclesiology. What’s missing in Belcher’s formula is, of course, God. To be fair, Belcher makes it abundantly clear elsewhere that the Gospel is the center of his church’s life. Their four commitments are—in this order—Gospel, Community, Mission, Shalom. But His absence in the formula for “deep ecclesiology” is significant, and indicative of Belcher’s starting point, which is the visible structure of the church. I might commend to the reader instead a helpful set of essays on this theme by John Webster.
Reservation #3: The Absent Trinitarian Basis
This worry points to the most significant shortcoming of Deep Church. While Belcher points to the relationship between different theories of the atonement and “deep church,” he left out a clear and clear articulation of how Trinitarian theology and the disagreements therein informs his understanding of the people of God and their life in the world. Its absence left me with the impression that the Gospel and the Great Tradition can be attained properly without referencing or articulating the nature of God’s inner life—a common problem within both traditionalist and emergent approaches to church, I fear. While Belcher talks much about Jesus, his references to the Spirit are few (15, actually, and only one substantive “usage) and he has almost no substantive references to God the Father.
But on this point again, I suspect that Belcher’s audience hindered his approach. For the most part, Trinitarianism seems is deployed only to point out that God is on a mission to help the world, an emphasis which is problematic insofar as it obscures the inner processions of the Divine life. But those distinctions have–if, again, John Webster is right–important ramifications for ecclesiology, and unfortunately Belcher’s book does not take them up. What we have, then, is a church centered around a Gospel, but the Trinitarian basis of the Gospel is obscured.
But critiques such as these are largely invitations to write subsequent books, which I sincerely hope Belcher will do. And it is my hope that he moves beyond the confines of the conversation he has inherited. Few books deserve to be listened to as closely as Belcher’s and despite these reservations, it is still an excellent work that demands careful attention and deserves the many awards it has received.