David Fitch / Geoff Holsclaw – Prodigal Christianity [Feature Review]

May 24, 2013 — 67 Comments


Page 2: David Fitch / Geoff Holsclaw – Prodigal Christianity


A good portion of Prodigal Christianity is devoted to outlining the ways Neo-Reformed and Emergent theologies fail. The problem, though, is that Fitch and Holsclaw caricature their dialogue partners. That Brian McLaren would find real disagreement with their proposal that participation in the kingdom of God requires theologically-informed discernment seems, at best, unlikely. For that matter, can anyone really imagine that Tony Jones or Doug Pagitt would disagree that “missio Dei . . . points us squarely into the middle of this world where God is, discerning where God is working, knowing that what God has done in the past continues into the present—not as something that we must do but as something God is always already doing” (29–30)? Well, apparently Fitch and Holsclaw do, according to whom Emergents have a Christology that tends to reduce Jesus to a “model” we must follow in order to be faithful, which further leads to a reduction of the Gospel to the work of our hands:

McLaren makes the kingdom of God central to the gospel. He helps us all gain a deeper understanding of what God is doing in Jesus Christ. But there’s a subtle danger here as well: McLaren is prone to reducing the kingdom of God to the practice of following Jesus as our model. Whenever we do this, we open ourselves up to making God’s mission into something we must do. Even if we seek the Spirit to “help” us in the same way Jesus did, the Spirit can become something we do (or access) as well. And so if we’re not careful, building the kingdom of God, bringing peace and renewal, and overcoming sin becomes our task, our job, and our mission. The kingdom is no longer the gospel; it is a new legalism. (87).


In all honesty, I am not certain if McClaren actually thinks this or not. I do, however, know that Fitch and Holsclaw’s work in Prodigal Christianity often has a tendency to reduce the power of the gospel and make the kingdom’s power contingent on the work of our hands. I do not, however, believe this is an intentional move on the part of the authors; at points they are quite explicit that the kingdom’s coming is solely the work of God (e.g., 28–29). Yet they repeatedly use language that undermines this key theological truth. Here are but a few examples, (all emphases added):

“The book challenges us to inhabit the world differently than we do now, build relationships differently, and allow God, through Jesus Christ by the Spirit, to bring the kingdom in over the long term until Christ comes again” (xvi). “Sadly [proclaiming the gospel] becomes more about us and our beliefs (the truth) and less about entering into the other person’s life and allowing God to work” (52). “[C]onversations must touch the ground in concrete actions and decisions if the kingdom of God is to break in” (56–57). In the same way that Jesus’s incarnation both proclaimed and made present the kingdom of God, so too the church proclaims and makes present the in-breaking of his kingdom” (104). “And when we gather to submit these places and problems to his kingdom, then indeed, his kingdom breaks in” (112). “In these ways, we open a clearing for Christ’s power to break in” (120). “When we enter the world to be with people, the kingdom breaks in” (143).


I imagine that Fitch and Holsclaw might object on the basis that I am taking their words out of context (perhaps an objection a few of their interlocutors would wish to have sustained as well). Perhaps they would counter that their language points, not to our own agency, but to our participation in the missio Dei as the extension of the incarnation (chapter 3; a missio-christological-ecclesiological claim that is arguably the theological cornerstone of the book). As they put it, “Followers of Jesus are making the kingdom of God present as a continuation of his life, as an extension of the incarnation” (41). They employ a simple formula: Jesus is the incarnated (enfleshed) presence of the God who is always sending and receiving in mission; the church is the Body of Jesus (those sent in mission in his name); ergo, we are extending the incarnation. There’s just one small problem with this formula: the church is not Jesus. Though there are certainly clear passages of the New Testament that stress the “incorporation” of believers into Christ, there is quite a bit more emphasis on how Jesus is uniquely Lord, one distinct from those whom follow. Losing sight of this distinction leads to the kinds of linguistic contradictions highlighted above.

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  • Robb


  • erbks

    I’ve been out in the woods all weekend and see that the conversation has exploded in many different directions while I was away…

    First, an editorial note and then a few comments in response…

    As is true of all of our reviews, they do not represent an official position of the ERB. (And as you will see momentarily, I have my own questions about parts of Christian’s review). Secondly, I probably was not as attentive in editing this review as I should have been. Believe it or not, I toned down some of the the snark in the editing process, but in retrospect probably should have done more toning down, especially in the latter parts of the review.

    As to the 3 concerns Christian raises, I’m going to ignore the first one (“fails to offer an account that substantially differs from those against whom they measure themselves”), as it has been hashed out enough in the comments here. On the second concern (The Christ/Church distinction), I’m inclined to agree with Josh Brockway’s assessment below and say that Christian is making much ado about nothing. To put it differently, I don’t know that in this age we will ever have certainty about in distinguishing the works of God and the works of humanity. We seek to follow God in the way of Christ, but more often than not go awry, and yet God still works amidst all our mess… There’s something to be said for being attentive to the leading of the Spirit in the midst of our churches communities and following it courageously together, and doing all this with an epistemic humility that doesn’t try to say such and such is the work of God or the work of humanity.

    The third point, however, is one in which I think Christian has some traction. I have read PC, and could admittedly stand to read the related parts more carefully again, but my impression was for all the talk of mutual transformation, F&H’s account was short on the ways that they had been transformed by engagement with those of different economic situations or sexual identities. Here I’d like to engage Zach’s thought point that:

    “My point is, how does the latter not become even *more* unilateral (as in, changing toward JESUS)?”

    To frame a question this way, requires that we have a clear and unqualified understanding of who Jesus is. The problem, once again, is epistemology; we have a reasonable intuition of who Jesus is, but we are ever prone to re-cast Jesus into our own image, particularly as people of privilege in Western Culture. So, yes Zach, we should be moving unilaterally toward Jesus, but that journey is a lot more tenuous than we might imagine, as our conceptions of Jesus are not static and indeed *should be* changing as we are mutually transformed by God with the diverse others in our church communities. And I tend to agree with Christian that despite the language of mutuality, we didn’t get a very robust picture of how that mutuality gets worked out at Life on the Vine or other churches. (I can offer stacks upon stacks of stories, for instance, of how we here at Englewood Christian Church are being mutually transformed by extending hospitality to people of all kinds of economic/ethnic status…)

    Chris Smith,
    Editor Englewood Review of Books

  • Christian Amondson

    Hey Gents (seriously, where are the women on this thread?),

    First, I want to say that it seems an apology is in order for the snarkiness of the review. Which I would appreciate my editor making in the previous comment ; )

    Seriously, though, I will say that my level of frustration with the book was personal, and that spilled over into the review. It was personal because I only read the book because during a FB discussion with Geoff a few months back, rather than telling me what he thought about how the term “missional” could be salvaged, he just kept saying to read his book, because in that book they do just that and do it with an Anabaptist twist.

    So I read the book, and really didn’t feel that they did what Geoff said they did. Further, I thought they made a lot of really audacious claims in the book, that set it up for failure (imo). I get that most folks who have read the book read it because they already kinda agreed with what they were about to read. Most of the commentors here seem to be part of that group (the missional alliance). So it’s not surprising that people would not share my take on the book, or would not be convinced of my arguments. (But, this is not an excuse for letting the personal determine the writing style. I can own this… sorry.)

    That being said, and in the interest of furthering the discussion (hopefully not just being excessively defensive), I’m still not sure we are on the same page about what it was I was attempting in the review, so I’ll offer just a quick recap:

    1. I was not offering an alterative vision, but merely trying to measure the content of the book against its own claims.

    2. This took three forms

    a. They do what they claim Emergent folks do, confuse the work of the kingdom with the work of our hands (due to the particular grammar they employ)

    b. This happens, I argue, because they are not nuanced enough with their notion of extending the incarnation, and fail to allow for the meaningful differentiation between Jesus and the church.

    c. This becomes problematic, because they position themselves as Jesus, whom the lost need to enter into, but call this a mutual transformation.

    What I’m sensing from the comments is that 1) no one agrees with point A; no one agrees with point B (that is, no one thinks we can or
    ought to try to make such a differentiation; and that 3) according to Zach, we all already are unilateral in having people come into Jesus, so I’m creating a false dichotomy.

    I hope I am getting this straight. Please correct me if I’m wrong on these points.

    In response, I’d just want to say that (maybe it’s just me) it is I can’t tell the difference between what they ascribe to McLaren and how they, at times, talk about the kingdom. And I’ve yet to see anyone account for language such as “allowing” the kingdom to come, which seems to move beyond a participation into people being a necessary cause for the kingdom’s efficacy. In short, I see the authors as talking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue, at times taking pains to articulate how the kingdom is clearly God’s action, but then at times using language that undermines that.

    I’m also sensing that people think this is much ado about nothing. I guess to that I would just say we’ll need to agree to disagree. As I do think care with our words on these matters matters. Just as, though we do participate in Christ and his life, it is important to note attend to the ways that we are still following him and are not Jesus himself. I know this is a super thorny issue, and I am very OK if some of us come down in different places. But this is a very catholic/Anglican perspective, which in this context seems to be being passed of as Anabaptist and Wesleyan. So I’m still confused about that. Perhaps a conversation on Josh Brockway’s FB page would help tease this all out, the what is “really” anabaptist question.

    Finally, I appreciate Chris’s validation about the lack of mutuality (and the ways he is parsing out distinctions between Jesus and the culture of a particular church… even though it is much ado about nothing : ). The best way to this to be address, it seems to me, would be for someone who disagrees with this to demonstrate how in the book an example is shown where real mutual transformation occurs. So far there has been no response to this challenge.

  • I commented early on, and now have read through the entire thread (although I’m not clear why I did that).I have no horse in this race, but given my own work, one thing stands out for me. Until we give up fighting over all the intra-“Christian” (I don’t even like that word any more, as I don’t think it conveys any content at all) labeling (Catholic/Protestant, Evangelical/emergent/missional/anabaptist) labeling, we are no better than the so-called “church fathers,” whom I’ve largely come to despise for how they shifted the foundation from discipleship to doctrine. We are in the middle of the greatest crisis in human history (climate change); what do we want to tell our children and grandchildren we were doing while the ice caps were melting? I pray it’s not arguing among ourselves about labels and categories.

  • Christian Amondson

    My sense of it is that the sexuality discussion is sort of a shell game. To my mind, mutual transformation would mean that each party is wiling to take a risk in moving forward together: into Jesus. In this case, as Chris noted, each party would need to be truly open to being transformed by the other. And there is no indication in the book that the authors are open to being changed in their understanding of how homosexuality should fit within “normative Christian life and practice.”

    Rather than sam-sex issues, they focus their mutual transformation on things that everyone agrees are in need of re-ordering, like how we objectify others and watch porn. They also feel that we can be friends and focus on how our identity shouldn’t be fundamentally shaped by our sexuality. This is true to an extend, but would be much more convincing if this were stated by someone who is homosexual, who’s sexuality is actually called into question. It’s hard to see this as truly mutual when the one’s advocating such a position are risking nothing of their sexual identity as heterosexual males in this process.

    If that is not the case, I’d very eager to hear from someone how so. And I am open to having miscast the book.

    But, in short, it comes down to what you are willing to risk. And, make no mistake, as with both matters of sexuality and class differences, taking the risk of being truly changed by the other is, well, very risky. It can “ruin” your life as you know it. Especially when you’re not the marginal one.

    And, I should add, I’m probably not any better at taking such risks. But I would hope that I would own that and therefore not claim that I’m all about mutual transformation.

  • Robb

    That makes sense. Thanks for clarifying!

  • David Fitch

    This discussion has been good. Although I think Christian’s
    review is a gloss and misses the main argument of the book, the ensuing discussion has nonetheless been productive. I disagree with Wes that we should not clarify these discusssions internally. To my mind, these discussions are immensely important to discern the future in the Spirit.

    I think Christian’s reactions are not uncommon, so they are valuable. For instance, to say the words “extend the incarnation” raises all sorts of colonialist red-flags for people like Christian and many former evangelicals and/or other people with negative reactions to a past experience of church. Yet this way of understanding the church is hardly new and I began to stake out what this might mean in my book The End of Evangelicalism? which ER Books also reviewed. I believe Christian did some work on that book as he works for its publisher? Of course I was not merely taking a received theology of the church ala deLubac, VonBalthasar, Robt Jenson etc. I was using Neo-Anabaptist work to significantly revise its categories. And that’s what we’re doing in Prodigal Christianity albeit in more popular form. I would have hoped Christian would have given his criticism a little more consideration before pronouncing, as if we would assent to this statement, “the church is not Jesus.” Nonetheless, this reaction is not isolated and it is important. So I hope to engage his criticism of the church “extending the incarnation” in depth over the next couple weeks on my blog andelsewhere. I would welcome a chance to publish a response in ERB.

    As far as Chris Smith’s response to this review, I
    appreciate those words from the editor and agree with it for the most part. His criticism that “F&H’s account was short on the ways that they had been transformed by engagement with those of different economic situations or sexual identities” is accurate. There are reasons for that. I was mainly responsible for the last three chapters and I must admit that we had little room for stories. I was plugging in too much stuff. Furthermore, to be frank, there were few stories we could use in the “prodigal relationships” that did not infringe on the privacy of people’s lives. It was a difficult line to walk. Nonethelessin that chapter, I tried to give ( a rather safe) account of an e-mail relationship where I concluded “This man’s journey illustrates how if we listen to our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, we might discover the truly good things (i..e the depth of human friendship) going on there. It suggests that if we listen… we might see things missing in our own lives.” Admittedly, this falls short of a more personal account. And I think we either told stories too quickly or with not enough nuance in the otherchapters. Admittedly Geoff and I could have gone further in making more explicit the posture of receiving that is so necessary in being present in the “prodigal space.” This is another reminder of the work needed to be done to enter a space humbly vulnerably and receptively. Again, I hope to review some of the issues from this review in the weeks ahead on my blog and perhaps elsewhere. Again thanks to ERB for reviewing our book!

  • Christian Amondson

    Hey David, serious question here: is there a point at which the church is NOT extending the incarnation? For example, are churches that are given to an “atteactional” programmatic church still extending the incarnation through their programming?

    Or, if a church stands in condemnation of some group of people, is that still an extension of the incarnation?

    In other words, are there times and places to differentiate the work of our hands from the work of the Spirit?

    I ask because the sense I’ve gotten from most commentators and from what I read in your new comment is that any efforts to tease out the difference is a waste if time: much ado about nothing.

  • brockcassian

    I don’t wish to speak for Dave, or even imply a Prodigal position. However this question made me think of two things. First it strikes me as similar to the first reformers’ question of where the true church resided historically (that is within and through time).

    The second, was a post from our NuDunkers round of posts some weeks back. There Dana Cassell pointed to a piece not commented on much here- discernment. Here is her post- http://well-yah.blogspot.com/2013/04/prodigal-christianity-nudunker-review.html?m=1

    I think she nails it- dealing with an ecclesiology based on participation in the incarnation depends significantly on discerning what God is up to and where. There is a practical logic at work in such discernment that defies objective criteria- in one case hospitality might be the most appropriate response while in a whole other setting it is the last.

    (Much more here and I’ll have to post a lecture on the practical logic of the ascetic of early Christianity 🙂 )


  • David Fitch

    There is so much to be written on this issue and your question is an important one. The issue of discernment is a theme throughout the NT and the life of the church. Yoder calls it the “hermeneutic of community.” Things that are easily discerned would be whenever there is coercion, hubris or “usurping,” there is no Kingdom. Other things are not as easily discerned as God leads into new territory. Here we must be patient often knowing the Kingdom only through its fruits. The practices of chapter 7 in PC are guiding markers that make space for the Kingdom. They are ways which guide us to where Jesus promises to be present. Yet even Jesus says after the 70 return, when they see that “even the demons obey us in your name,” rejoice not in that, but rejoince”that your names are written in the book of life” signifying that it is our participation in the Kingdom as children of God we should rejoice in, that we are being used by God, not the results.

  • Christian Amondson

    One of the questions in the review was about the use of language like you just now use: “make space for the Kingdom.” Does this not give the work of our hands too much credit for the efficacy of the kingdom? At one point in the book you make clear that we need to do less and try to just pay attention. This at least implies that the kingdom is at work without regard for any kind of space we clear or any ways in which we do things that could “allow” it to manifest.

    There seems to be a subtle but important grammatical difference between discerning, attending, and even participating to “allow” and “making room for” the kingdom to work in the world around us (even through us).

    And the language you use seems similar to the kinds of accusations you and Geoff level against McLaren.

    So I’d be up for hearing more about why you use this language and how that doesn’t cross into the “work of our hands” which you posit as a bad thing in the book.

  • David Fitch

    I see how you could interpret it that way. Perhaps you are uncomfortable with any human response at all to the Kingdom? and cannot distinguish between a posture of submission to God, His authority and reign, and the attempt to control and dictate it. The actions of say Matt 18:15-20 that Christ invokes us to take are really acts of submission and response, not control or determine. In so doing Jesus promises his presence shall be there, what is bound on earth shall bebound in heaven etc.. Kingdom authority/His presence becomes manifest. This pattern is evident in numerous places in the “sending” say of Luke 10. I see some overlap between myself/Geoff .. and Brian… but some significant differences. Hope this helps.

  • Christian Amondson

    I’m not uncomfortable with those things, just not clear how you can say McLaren veers into the work of his hands, when you’re language seems to point to the same.

  • Christian Amondson

    So you have no problem saying that we can “allow” the kingdom to come?

    And this somehow is not the work of our hands?

    If so, then what exactly is the work of our hands?

  • Josh Davis

    I’ve read through these comment threads, and I want to make a couple of comments, with the caveat that I too have not yet read the book (and probably won’t). My comments, like Dan Imburgia’s, are surely motivated in part by loyalty to Christian–that is, the fact that he’s my friend, which I don’t think is incidental to his critique here. I’ll say more about that momentarily. I just want to highlight two points that I think the comments are consistently evading and actually obscuring.

    The first is that Christian’s critique–snarky as it is!–is at root theological. The most vapid aspect of Emergent Evangelicalism has been the half-assed sleight of hand with which it signed up for the postmodern embrace of infinite linguistic and cultural construction. Our cultural context, so the story goes, is not concerned about “abstract concepts” or “theology.” We are tired of these things and want “concrete” transformation of people’s lives, etc. One of the most important things I understand Christian to be pointing to in this review is the notion that this neglect of theology is actually allowing the “postmodern turn” to become a tool for reinforcing its own uninterrogated cultural assumptions–which are not surprisingly bourgeois, puritanical, white, and heterosexist (and as patriarchal as all those things are). The juxtaposition between “conservative” (Neo-Calvinism) and “liberal” (Emergent) that this book stages is thus not a theological but a cultural battle, one internal to and conditioned by these wider, uncriticized cultural assumptions. That critique of the cultural influence is really at the margins of Christian’s review, though he does points to its perpetuation of the destructive consequences for the LGBTQ community in particular. At its heart is Christian’s conviction that the perpetuation of these assumptions is the result of a theological error, an error in which Jesus of Nazareth is conflated with the Church. He has noted in the comments that he does not reject the idea that the Church is a participation in Christ’s life, and in this sense is a continuation of the incarnation, but he believes that the author’s do not allow that distinction to do its important critical work with regard to these cultural assumptions that inform the work. And that carries profound political, social, and psychological implications for people–which (I take Christian’s point to be) it is in our historical and cultural location it is ecclesially irresponsible to neglect.

    No one has responded to this theological claim. It is an important one. Maybe it is wrong, maybe it is not. But it is not in any way irrelevant–especially for the stated goals and concerns of the book. The responses given here so far have just been a form of “gaslighting”: “Whoah, man, chill. You’re majorly overreacting.” That’s what refusing to deal with the theological substance allows. So part of taking Christian seriously as a dialogue partner means addressing that claim directly.

    Second, Christian also notes–in what is a truly damning charge if it is true–that this failure to be critical means that “evangelization,” “mission,” “friendship,” and “mutuality” are not at all what they claim to be. They are actually, concretely, materially (and not just “conceptually) forms of “making you like me,” which is domination, suppression, subsumption–what he prefers to link to imperialism. I understand Christian to be pressing the authors to take the real-world, concrete consequences of this kind of unintentional perpetuation of a dominant set of cultural assumptions with the utmost of seriousness. A church, he says, that is truly “missional,” truly committed to friendship will not have at its heart this kind of implicit and unrecognized domination. A true friend, he reminds us, does not conceal a dagger beneath his cloak by which he leads you where he wants you. She makes you more who yourself, finds her own life embellished by the flourishing of your life, and celebrates what you share with you.

    And speaking as his friend: snarky as he may be, Christian himself is a model of the excellence of friendship. We will all be better for listening more closely with him.

  • Josh Davis

    sorry for typos. i’d fix, but can’t edit the comment.

  • brockcassian

    I was working on my dissertation this evening and came across this in the works of the 4th century monk John Cassian and it made me think of the conversation here- especially the critique of too closely linking of the Church and Christ (that the church extends the incarnation simply by being the church).

    “If the Kingdom of God is within us, and the Kingdom of God is itself righteousness and peace and joy, then whoever abides in these things is undoubtedly in the Kingdom of God. And on the contrary, those who are involved in unrighteousness and discord and sadness that produces death are dwelling in the kingdom of the devil and in hell and in death.” Conferences 1.13.3 (Translated by Boniface Ramsey)

    All of this is to say I am with the monk here- careful attention to distinguish is not the necessary theological move. Rather, the church participates in the incarnation, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, even making present the kingdom of God insofar as it produces the fruit of righteousness, peace, joy and life. And, as he says, the contrary is true- the church ceases to participate in the incarnation insofar as it creates strife, contention, alienation, sadness, and death.

    From here, I think the friendship critique is mute in light of this understanding of the community and incarnation. Friendship, as it contributes to the life, joy, righteousness, and joy is a site for the in breaking of the kingdom. Its not a matter of friendship for the luring into conversion but a vision of relationship and mutuality as part of the incarnational way of life. If I “friend” someone just so they will attend my congregation or contribute to my cause- that is using others for my gain. In Jesus, bringing life and joy to his disciples (even longing to celebrate the Passover meal with them as friends, even family) was not a matter of using them, but taking part in the in breaking of the Kingdom of God together.

    Of course this does not address the sense that Prodigal describes friendship or “extending the incarnation” in these negative ways but rather to point to a more missional understanding of incarnation, ecclesiology, and friendship.