July 26, 2013

Tony Jones, the Emergent Puritan

In the world of emergence Christianity, few boast the intellectual pedigree of Tony Jones. He holds degrees from Dartmouth, Fuller, and Princeton Theological Seminary. Moreover, he’s served as adjunct professor at several seminaries, including—oddly enough—the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary.

Recently, he addressed a blog post to feminist evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans. She resents being called a heretic by much of the Christian blogosphere. Jones advises an acceptance of the label, since it is a technical term. In a moment of jaw-dropping honesty, he admits to tritheism (with his social trinity views) and tells Evans that she is probably an Arian. When one trespasses dogmatic tenets from the early Ecumenical Councils, he has stepped into heresy.

Jones doesn’t find this a problem for two reasons. First, Greek philosophy was involved in the reasoning and formulation of Christian dogma. Perhaps this is my classical education speaking, but tracing error or doctrinal grievances to core dogma on the grounds of Greekness seems to be a rather troubling position. If liberal arts learning and classical philosophy were so bad, why did the early fathers deftly employ it to understand the faith and why did the apostles themselves inhabit it? Did God in His omniscience ruin the Church by planting it into a Greco-Roman context? Just because something originates from a particular culture does not mean it’s erroneous.

Second, Jones asserts that, because the East and West faced schism in 1054 and since the Reformers left Rome, there is no real authority to legitimately enforce orthodoxy and punish heresy. This argument is patently absurd since any Communion—apostolic or otherwise—can point to the teachings of the undivided Church and act appropriately. For communions with apostolic succession, bishops still have the right and power to loose and bind. Heresy and schism carry dangerous spiritual consequences that will/should be addressed by Christ’s stewards on earth. More difficult, from which source would one form Christianity if he could not trust the institution that established the biblical canon and the means by which to interpret it? Jones & Co. will have to be working against nearly all of church history, since this is the way the Church has carried on for centuries, and how the now-largest communions in the world behave today.

This whole instance points to a wider insight regarding Tony Jones’s role in the emerging church movement. Here, he comforts and cajoles Evans to open her arms and embrace her inner heretic. Earlier, he chided Franky Schaeffer for the latter’s Eastern Orthodoxy, which suffers from “theological baggage,” “homophobia,” and “an all-male priesthood.” He also expressed a resentment toward Evangelical Left leaders like Rob Bell and Jim Wallis who came out for same-sex marriage “after the tipping point,” whereas Jones supported marriage redefinition earlier, only to get blacklisted from speaking engagements and book deals. In the same video, he seemed to be struggling with it, but also realized he needed to repent of any bitterness on his part, citing the parable of the wages.

Tony Jones is no inquisitor. He acts more like a congressional whip than anything else. However, unlike a political figure, he seems more earnest. He really believes what he teaches and, I think, really wants others to do so as well.  He’s not just pushing a party line passed down from on high. He wants an emergence theology, pure and undefiled from privilege, perceived injustice, cowardice, consumerism, and heavy authority. In short, Tony Jones is a puritan.

Sure, he often casts aspersions at his Reformed upbringing and Calvinism in the American evangelical heritage. Nevertheless, some habits really do die hard. Emergents must support feminism, fair-trade, self-definition, politically correct language, same-sex marriage, and a whole host of other socio-politico-economic stances. If recent experience has taught anything, stepping out of the progressivist bounds will probably receive his stiff warning and censure.

Ironically, Jones shines as a luminary in a movement led and populated by people fleeing the judgmentalism and pettiness of the evangelical subculture. Perhaps his high standards will drive away emerging adherents. Then again, maybe we just have another generation of legalists on our hands.

2 Responses to Tony Jones, the Emergent Puritan

  1. Pudentiana says:

    A wonderful and cogent observation.
    Don’t be surprised about Jones’ association with Fuller. It is rife with emergents and also magicians like Wagner. Lots of fun out on the Left coast. Great and entertaining writing Herr Gingerich.

  2. Chris P says:

    Thank you Bart, this is a useful and helpful set of observations about a phenomena that is difficult to define and analyse as it is so multi-faceted and complex.

    I do believe one useful approach (there are many I am sure) is to deconstruct the deconstructers: what I mean by this is an examination and critique of the way Tony Jones and thinkers like him treat the concept of ‘truth’ for example:


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