Book Review: The Great Emergence

February 2, 2009

Raimund S. reviews “The Great Emergence,” by Phyllis Tickle. What do you think of Tickle’s thesis? Share your thoughts in the comments.

“The Great Emergence” by Phyllis Tickle

By now most have come across books, sermons, or water-cooler talk about post-modernism or that truth is relative, that we cannot really know anything for certain.

Phyllis Tickle along with many others believes that beneath all this is a major shift in Christianity. She begins by illustrating from church history that the church has gone through a major revamp, or rummage sale as she calls it, about every 500 years. 1500 years ago it was the church moving into monasteries in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, initiated by Gregory the Great. About 500 years later in 1054 AD it was the Great schism, the split between the Eastern and Western church. 500 years after the Great Reformation occurred, usually dated at 1517 AD when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church doors in Wittenberg.

Tickle identifies a shift in authority as the underlying principle in all these movements. In the first major shift authority moved from the Apostolic Church to the monasteries. After the schism it moved to the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church and the pope as its head. In the Great Reformation authority shifted from the church to the priesthood of all believers and Sola Scriptura, the Bible only as our source of authority.

Tickle attempts to take the learnings from these shifts and apply them to our times. She writes that the authority of Sola Scriptura is now outdated. In an attempt to find what is emerging as the new source of authority Tickle proposes a concept of networked authority. A new center is forming called the emerging church. This emerging church borrows something from all the different branches of Christianity which developed in the last 100 years like Pentecostalism, Liturgicals, Social Justice Christians and the Orthodox. By borrowing from all these a new Christian center is forming which is now emerging as the new authority in Christianity. An authority not based on a particular doctrine or hierarchy of persons, but based on a common consensus of the network of the majority of Christians. Phyllis shows how a global community connected through technological advances like the Internet makes this new kind of networked authority an actual possibility.

I think this book is a worthwhile read for everyone interested in understanding what is going on in our times. Tickle presents many of the recent secular and religious trends which were influential in shaping the present Christian situation. The book is also a 50,000 foot view of Christian history. At 150 pages is it is also a quick read.

One personal word of observation is that even though a new center of authority based on a common consensus among the majority of Christians might be emerging it doesn’t mean that we as individuals or as a church have to conform with this new authority. The greatest benefits to the church and society have often come from those who were willing to make the sacrifice of stepping outside the center mainstream and move along the edges. If we stick to the evangelical tradition of Sola Scriptura as an absolute source of authority we might very well wake up one day and realize that we are now not only on the edges of secular society but also on the edges of Christianity itself. I hope you will read this book and come to your own conclusions on these issues.


11 Responses to “Book Review: The Great Emergence”

  1. Sola Scriptura has baked into it’s very existence a tendency to fly apart. This is evidenced by the simple fact that fallible people cannot come up with a infallible interpretation of an infallible writing. We humans are the weak link in that chain. Where you have two or more fallible people, the law of averages says you will have more than one opinion given enough time.

    The idea of networked authority, in practice had a good run with the Anglicans and it didn’t work. And they revel in “diversity”! 2008 marks the year that the glue that bound the different ideologies was not meant to last for more than, say, 500 years, just as Tickle suggests.

    I collect articles and reviews about Sola Scriptura at my Catholic news website, and referenced this article for consideration. We Catholics fully understand the impossible nature of Sola Scriptura, and so we share a common understanding with our emerging brothers and sisters. One baptism, one faith, one Lord, and full unity someday!

  2. Chae Says:

    It’s exactly for the reasons that Tickle cites (ie that the history shows that there are shifts in thinking), we have to keep coming back to the scriptures as the ultimate authority as God’s Word, not to the words of a network of Christians. Sola Scriptura. Sola Gratia. Sola Christus, Sola Fide, Sola Gloria.

  3. However the “keep coming back” part is really just postmodernism, the pagan view of cyclical history, and a guise for relativism. Permanent structures = permanent authority. Temporary structures = temporary authority. Taking a long view of history – why bother? It’s reinventing the wheel that will only fly apart. It can do no other when you go back to “only” the Word. People and their ideas come and go, as Tickle correctly asserts. No big mystery there. But no “new” authority will have any legs that walk but a few feet on sands of time. Meanwhile, the old authority remains constant, building on the foundation laid once. Only shifts in the understanding of outsiders of the “old” authority are what is happening today. When we are all one, one day, it will be under the banner of “old” and not “new”.

  4. I was going to add that for this very reason, Jesus established the Church, and not a set of writings, which is fact. If the guide and pillar of the Church was Scripture only, then that means that until 385AD, no one knew for sure what they doing since the cannon was open and no one acted with certainty. This is obviously not the case, since the church grew from about 20,000 in 100AD to 20 milliion by 300, before the Edict of Milan, with no formal cannon. During this time of unprecedented growth, the Church appealed to Tradition, since that’s all it had as a matter of fact. There is a paradigm shift waiting for anyone who ponders what this means.

  5. Edward Kim (Pastor, New Hope Fellowship) Says:

    Mr. Bonneville,

    You obviously come from an extremely well informed position about complex matters. We will, of course, not resolve the ancient Catholic/ Protestant dispute over sola scriptura. However, I would point out the irony in making this argument against it, “fallible people cannot come up with a infallible interpretation of an infallible writing.” That was part of Luther’s argument FOR sola scriptura, AGAINST the authority of Church Tradition. If the writings are infallible and the people fallible. Ought the authority not rest with the Writings? Yes, there will be widely divergent and flawed interpretations. But, if “we humans are the weak link” then why put the power there (whether in “old” tradition or “new” network). Before the canon was, there was Scripture. We’ve had our innumerable imperfect debates over them. (Here is one tiny one more). And yet, “The grass withers and flowers fade, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40.8).

  6. dbonneville Says:

    But Luther was wrong, obviously. Look around! The Church was in fact right in the deposit of faith, and is protected from being wrong on matters of faith and morals by the Holy Spirit. Of course we can’t resolve this in a blog – but it’s a nice idea. But the argument stands that if the Church that produced the Bible is fallible, then the Bible is fallible. This can’t be. Therefore the Church is infallible. There is no way to avoid this conclusion, ultimately. Gentle showers or a waterfall all cut through the rock given enough time. Sola Scriptura is liberty from Tradition, but Tradition and the Church predate the Bible in all ways. The Bible is fruit of Tradition, and that is matter of history not opinion.

    But when you say, “before the canon was, there was Scripture”. Regarding the NT, that is a myth of the first degree, if that is what you mean. That is not a fact. In a sense, there was the seed of Scripture. There were letters people really thought were Scripture. There were letters people really thought were not, at the same time. This debate took a long, long time to work out. It was the collective mind, the “borg” as it were, of the Church, the collective discernment of hundreds of years to discover this. And if by that statement you are referring to the OT, as Paul does to Timothy (“you know the Scriptures…”), then that falls easily because the the OT canon was not formally declared until well after Paul wrote those words. The OT canon was largely settled but not officially closed. In Paul’s day, guess what, the OT canon was a matter of Jewish Tradition. The early Fathers so regarded that Tradition that when they took the decision of the Jews to close the canon as binding. Go figure. Yes, Tradition defines Scripture.

    Try it this way maybe:

    A man said there was gold in mine. He had a little bit to prove it. He got others to believe him and they mined for years, bringing out little treasures here and there, with the occasional big strike. Through generations father to son, mine shaft accidents, deaths, leadership troubles, a few dead ends, these men faithful to the original miner worked. Hard, imperfect, but fruitful work. One day, 400 years into the work of the mine, they hit a mother load. They work really hard to bring it out the gold. And they do. But the next year, someone showed up and said “Your hard work doesn’t count and wasn’t necessary. The gold was always there. You are just saying it’s yours because you happened to be here when it came out. Besides, you bickered and made mistakes in the last 400 years.” He took a pile and walked off.

    The Protestant churches are like this, many unwittingly so. They walk off with the booty, utterly ignorant of history, intentionally or not. Most, not. They have the Bible. They claim it as theirs. Who’s to say it’s not theirs, in a sense? The Catholic Church says, well, yes, it belongs to all believers of course. But to say “there was always Scripture” just isn’t true. There was not some magical thread of Scripture that somehow weaved it’s way through the process of canon discernment that was like the gold down in the shaft the whole time. It was a human process, bathed in the authority of Apostolic Tradition. The canon was not the canon in the conscience of the Church until it was canonized as such and became such. This was a long, winding, uncertain, difficult, laborious, expensive, trying, difficult process. It was entirely human yet guided by the Spirit. God left that task to his Church, obviously. If Jesus wanted us to have a book right off, he would have made certain we had it. But he didn’t, which is history. He left a Church, and that Church produced a book and closed it. The emerging church movement, unwittingly, is trying to reinvent the wheel, or perhaps go back to the womb and be reborn. But time in linear, not cyclical, and that is not possible. Whatever the emerging movement does, or any other Protestant church, is like sand castles at low tide. Sola Scriptura just flushes itself away. That which can remain will, by virtue of the will of it’s Maker.

    If the Bible was produced by fallible people, how can we know we can’t open the canon again? Did they close it by mistake? You could be like Episcopal Bishop Spong and say “the Church wrote the Bible. The Church can rewrite the Bible”. Spong isn’t exactly a believer, in the believing sense. But he faithfully, as well as all liberal mainline churches do, take the idea of Sola Scriptura to it’s final conclusion. They know where it goes, and they are boldy taking it there in our day. Give them a point for understanding the genius of Protestantism. It just means that the Bible means whatever you want it to mean from age to age.

    But I’m not worried about people or churches like that. Everything built on Sola Scriptura has a way of completely disintegrating every so often.

    Well you can guess my conclusion, and I know yours. I bid you peace and success in growing your ministry, as we both wait in joyful hope for the coming of the Lord, where all these confusions will just melt away, finally!



  7. Edward Kim (Pastor, New Hope Fellowship) Says:


    I appreciate your study and passion for truth. I would admonish you though that the sharp edges of your discourse are not necessary. My brother, you do not face either ignorance or arrogance here. You have made your examination of canon history and concluded that the Church gave birth to the Bible. I have made my own and concluded the Scriptures gave birth to the Church. Let us continue to accord each other love and respect, even in strong disagreement.

    The words of God through prophets and apostles, and the Son of God, came prior to canon recognition. I’m sure we agree on that point and that is all I meant. (I do understand however that you would take issue with my using the word “recognition.”) From there, I’m afraid a point by point exchange would take us far afield from the purposes of this forum. Our desire for this blog is for the body’s edification and encouragement rather than academic debate. That of course has a critical place, but it is not the goal here.

    Thank you for your irenic blessing; we bid you the same. We, along with you, long for His coming. For, “though we see him not, we love Him.”

    God’s love to you always,


  8. Pamela Says:

    I’m not sure I understand your point. I can see that the Church clearly was based on the foundation of the Apostles. Yet, it was not the Apostles that set the cannon but rather through the great Councils of the Church, the greatest minds of the early church fathers assembled as a collection of apostalic bishops. Under the headship of the Bishop of Rome, that sealed the deal. Great controversy existed and there was great confusion over which books to EXCLUDE. To me, it seems as though it was the heirachy of the Church that finally brought peace to the Church. The purpose was not just to get an official cannon but to stop heresy. How did an illiterate believer escape the heresy of the day? He could not, as today, go to his Scripture and “determine” what the Scripture meant to him. No, the Church was clearly established and was their protector. The actual Scriptures were in the hands of the Church leaders.

    It is interesting to note that Martin Luther actually wanted to change the Cannon of Scripture to ExCLUDE certain books (James, as an example).

    Having read many of the writings, it is clear to me that they certainly were well established and in control despite the fact that they were “underground” and percuted during much of their formative years (before the Cannon).

    As I see the it, the point for discussion is whether the various splits to the Church were necessary or benificial. Sola Scriptura is to me tangential. If you are Protestant, It justifies the schism from the Catholic Church. If you are Catholic, it seems a silly a

  9. Raimund Says:

    One important point Tickle makes in her book is that authority has switched over time from the apostles to the councils, to the church hierarchy, to Sola Scriptura and that each change of authority was in synch with changes in the surrounding culture. A main point of her’s for example is that the switch to Sola Scriptura as the source of authority was preceeded by the technological invention of Gutenberg’s printing press and by a more literate population in general.

    Today, through the recent technological inventions of the Internet, Television, Radio, etc. we can listen to anyone from around the world for instructions on how to live and what is right or wrong.

    For example after writing this response nothing prevents me from going to U-Tube or and listen to literally thousands of different messages and people for instruction.

    The implication of Tickle’s thesis is that the discussion of the Church vs. Sola Scriptura is a mute point. It’s a thing of the past and we are moving into a new era of Christianity alltogether.

    We are no longer limited to the interpretation of our local Protestant pastor or Roman Catholic priest. This new freedom we now have in the search for truth will certainly reshape Christianity and other religions in a major way.

  10. Pamela Says:


    But is that change a change for the better. I actually know someone that actually believes that it ok to meditate and read Scripture alone every Sunday morning at his kitchen table (what I call Schismism). Now, these days, it seems anything goes. Is this the direction our Lord planned? Just who is right? And, more importantly how do we faithfully ascertain the truth?

  11. Raimund Says:

    I agree that change is needed badly for Christianity. We have grown too comfortable in the West and have lost the connection with reality.

    A movement where church and scriptural authority is denied will not be the center of Christianity for long though because this would mean that Christianity has been replaced with human interpreters as God.

    Whatever forms Christianity will take in the future, the Bible and the Church will continue to be the authority in all of it.

    Tickle’s personal background seems to be liberal Episcopalian and she might not agree with me on this point though.

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