Christianity Today has a helpful series of exchanges between Collin Hansen, author of Young, Restless and Reformed  and Tony Jones, author of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. The tone of the exchange is friendly and Hansen is doing a good job extracting the real differences between young evangelicals on the Reformed front versus younger evangelicals in the Emergent camp. Jones seems content to talk more about friendship than anything else.

I think Hansen overstates things in his assumption that the difference between young Reformed believers and Emergent believers isn’t primarily theology, but epistemology. There is a growing amount of substantial evidence that would lead one to the conclusion that theology is a key difference between these two streams of spirituality (I hesitate to use the term Christian faith because there is enough about the Emergent conversation and their understanding of the gospel that the term Christian may too broad and perhaps compromising).

But Hansen makes a key distinction about epistemology that I found helpful.

Where we probably differ is not so much on theology, but on epistemology. That is, it seems the difference between the people you profile in Young, Restless, Reformed seem pretty darn sure that they’ve got the gospel right, whereas the Emergents that I hang out with are less sure of their right-ness. In fact, they’re less sure that we, as finite human beings, can get anything all that right.

Here’s another way I’d explain the differences. An American Christian today is beset by globalization, pluralism, and postmodernism (three terms that I use interchangeably). In other words, the world is a confusing mess. I think that conservative, evangelical, Reformed theology offers sure answers spoken in tones of certainty by authority figures. Emergent Christianity, for better and worse, offers more ambiguous answers (and even more questions!) in tones of less certainty — but, hopefully, at least with what Lesslie Newbigin called “proper confidence.”