Book Review: The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle


This is one of those books that I read because I thought I needed to, not so much because I wanted to. 

The published premise of the book is this: “Every five hundred years, the church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.”  By this, she means that about every five hundred years, there a a great shift in church history.  In 451, the Council of Chalcedon lead to the Oriental Church splitting off from the rest of Christendom, being the first “rummage sale”.  In 1054, when representatives of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other was the second.  The third was in 1517, when a German monk nailed a 95 Thesis to a Wittenberg church door, bringing the Protestant Reformation.  According to Tickle, we are living in the fourth such “rummage sale” and she is labeling it “The Great Emergence”.

Tickle gives a broad view of the history of each of these major splits in church history.  She ties in certain shifts in cultural thinking, as well as advancements in technology as contributing factors in each of these events.

But this is not what the book is about.  The real point of the book shows up first on page 45, half way down the page.  She poses the question, “Where now is the authority?”  From there, Tickle spends the rest of the book deconstructing the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  From pages 151and152 under the heading  “Networked Authority”

The new Christianity of the Great Emergence must deliver some authority base or delivery system and/or governing agency of its own.  It must formulate – and soon – something other than Luther’s Sola Scriptura which, although used so well by he Great Reformation originally, is not seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient, even after it is, as here, spruced up and re-couched in more current sensibilities.

Simply put, Sola Scriptura is a Latin term literally meaning “only the Scripture”.  As a doctrine, So0la Scriptura simply means that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice.  While creeds, confessions, and catechism have their place, and are very useful in their places, ultimately Scripture alone is the definitive place we can go for the final word on matters of faith and practice.  There is no further appeal beyond Sacred Scripture. 

Tickle seems to see the role of the church to respond and change to the whims of culture. From page 162

Regardless of what its theology eventually matures into, however, there is no question that the Great Emergence is the configuration of Christianity which is in its ascendency. It is just as certain that both the Roman and Protestant communions in North America will have to readjust themselves to accommodate the stresses of such massive changes in the culture and in the Church.  (emphasis mine)

The combination of “Networked Authority”, where the Church derives its authority not from one infallible source, but from multiple fallible sources, and a Church that changes to the whims of culture is deadly.  The church will suffer until it regains its anchor.

A couple of interesting bits that help make the Emerging mess a little easier to understand.  Tickle views the current makeup of the Emerging church to be about 1/4 Roman Catholic, blended with Anabaptism, Charasmaticism, and Quakerism.  This is helpful in understand the historical makeup of the Emergent movement.

“Networked Authority” is dangerous, in a bad way. It allows me to find a group of people who will enable my sin, especially if they deal with the same sins I deal with.  It leaves no definitive, final authority that we can all point to and clearly see the will of God for His people.

I am not going to say not to read the book.  Read it.  It is helpful if you want to understand the makeup of the Emergent Church, and where it is most likely going.  Just don’t expect where it goes to be where Scripture would call us to go.