Postmodernism and Evangelical Thought (4): A Wise and Selective Appropriation

After surveying many of the key figures and concepts that make up postmodern thought, the question becomes: Is postmodernism salubrious or toxic for evangelical theology?

The answer, not surprisingly, differs depending on who is speaking.  In what follows, I will list three postures to take towards postmodernism.  In today’s evangelicalism, some like Stanley Grenz, John Franke, and Roger Olson have gladly appropriated postmodern thought, others like Douglas Geivett and Scott Smith have rejected it. Still others, most sensibly, have selectively and wisely incorporated some but not all aspects of postmodernism.  We will consider these in turn as they explain how postmodernism has impacted evangelical theology.

Evangelicals Assimilating Postmodern Hermeneutics

Two concrete expressions of “evangelical theology” that have assimilated postmodernism are postfoundationalism and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement (TIS).

Postfoundationalism. On the first, postfoundationalists (like Grenz, Franke, and Olson) argue that strict inerrantists and those who make the Bible first order for determining doctrine are too influenced by Enlightenment rationalism. They compare conservative biblicism to Descartes, saying that both seek to find an absolutely certain foundation, and thus by association, biblicists like Charles Hodge are wrong.  Postmodernism proves it!

In Grenz and Franke’s view, such a ‘storehouse of facts’ approach to Scripture makes too much of rational knowledge and absolute truth. What is needed instead is a more coherentist model, one that conjoins Scripture, tradition, and community.   In this dialogical network, Christians are able to discern what the Bible means.  In this way, postfoundationalists have ascribed postmodernism epistemology to argue their case, and what postmodernist philosophers have argued against modernism, these leftist evangelicals have used against biblicists who are stuck with Enlightenment presuppositions—so they say.

The problem is that the kind of foundationalism that Descartes held was based on his own subjective knowledge and it sought absolute certainty from a fallible source.  The kind of foundationalism (if it could even be called that) that conservative evangelicals employ is radically different.  It is based on God’s revelation, not subjective reason.  It does not require absolute knowledge or certainty of all things, but rather it requires a real knowledge of the One who knows all things.  Postfoundationalists fail to make a distinction between the anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions of someone like Descartes and the theistic reality (which they even affirm) that God exists and that he has spoken.

The Theological Interpretation of Scripture. The other concrete example of a group who has appropriated postmodern thought is the TIS movement.  In the case of TIS, postmodern hermeneutics are a regular—but not a monolithic—feature of this school of thought.  For instance, the role of the reader is greatly emphasized.  Different readers in different places are going to find different meanings in the text of Scripture, and this should be encouraged.

Many in TIS blur the lines between meaning and application, so that the texts has many meanings.  For some this may mean intertextuality and the fact that Psalm 2 has a near and far referent, but for others it is letting the biased reading of black, liberation, or feminist theologies have a place at the table to bring their experience and reading to shed light on the meaning.

Additionally, TIS advocates want to learn from interpreters from across the ages, thus they are explicit in seeking to take in the best from pre-modern, modern, and post-modern thought.  Ironically, this is very postmodern, where diversity and pluralism are cobelligerents in the cause for local theologies.  Accordingly, they seek to appropriate the allegorical insights of the early church fathers and the historical critical tools of the modern age.

In response, there is a sense in which appropriating truth from each of these eras is good. However, nothing in this approach improves upon reading the Bible on its own terms as the various horizons to discern the progressive revelation of God in redemptive history and inspired revelation. More on this below.

Evangelicals Rejecting Postmodernism as Incompatible with Biblical Christianity 

While some ‘evangelicals’ totally endorse a postmodern hermeneutic, others wholeheartedly oppose it.  Douglas Geivett is one of those.  In his chapter on postmodernism, Geivett disavows the union of posmodernism with true biblical interpretation.  Though a philosopher, he does not see how Christian theology is compatible with the epistemological commitments of postmodernism.  He argues that postmodernism’s incredulity towards the meta-narrative is antithetical to the Bible with its universal truths and its world-explaining meta-narrative.

Moreover, because postmodernism restrains all meaning to language, he believes it is possible for some (or many) to enter into the Christian narrative and yet not really believe in the reality to which the story tells, if postmodernism is true.  Therefore, he denies postmodernism because it is all myth and no metaphysics.   In its purest form, it fails to answer the metaphysical truth question.

Geivett’s concerns are commendable, and compared to the broad appropriation employed by the postfoundationalists, his approach looks better.  Postmodernism does fail to address the objective world; if words are the creation of communities and have no metaphysical or meta-narrative import, than what good are they?  They may be pragmatic or functional, but there is no way the Bible which speaks of cosmological gravitas can have any abiding weight.  Thus, some other way is needed, which leads us to a selective appropriation of postmodernism’s hermeneutical insights.

A Wise and Selective Appropriation of Postmodernism

Richard Lints, Michael Horton, and Kevin Vanhoozer have all advocated a chastened form of postmodernism, a selective use of some of its principles and a rejection of others.  For instance, some of the valuable insights that have come about through the linguistic turn in the last century, include the philosophical development of speech-acts (see the work of John Searle, J. L. Austen).  This research, which sought to explain how to doing things with words, is helpful for conceptualizing and speaking about what the word of God is and what it does.  It has given great aid to describing the fact that the effectual call, for instance, has both illocutionary content and perlocutionary force.  This sort of discussion is a result of postmodernism’s attention to the use of words, but it must be appropriated and used properly.  In contradistinction with Derrida, attention to language cannot itself become the idol we serve.

On this critical appropriation, Kevin Vanhoozer has offered some helpful caveats to appropriating postmodern hermeneutics.

  • First, postmodernism has taught us to recognize the situatedness of the reader. While the reader does not make meaning; the reader does come to the text with lens that shape the way we read the Bible.
  • Second, postmodernism has argued that we ought to be critical of –isms because they usually purport the views of a certain localized community.
  • Third, when we read the Bible as evangelicals we must not ‘correlate’ our theology with postmodernism, (a la Paul Tillich).  While we may employ some of the language tools of postmodern thought, we must not let it set the agenda.
  • Fourth, when we come to the Scripture we must remember the storyline of the Bible (Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation).  We are storied creatures, and narratives create meaning.  The only way we will rightly understand the meaning of any particular in the Bible is to set it in its epochal and canonical context.
  • Fifth, we must keep Christ at the center.  Postmodernism, by itself, is a non-realistic view of the world, that could as with someone like Nietzsche result in nihilism.  Our anchor and foundation is the chief cornerstone Jesus Christ.  He is our fixed point of reference, and so long as we have him as our lodestar, we can come to know true meaning because all truth in Scripture and in the world is related to him (John 1:1-3, 14; Eph 1:10).

In this way, PM has some helpful correctives to make against modernism and it has some helpful tools for us to use in discerning the meaning of words.  Nevertheless, it should be remembered that there is nothing good in postmodernism that was not first in the Bible.  A scrupulous reading of Scripture at the textual, epochal, and canonical levels will supply the reader all he needs to make sense of God, his Word, and his world.  Postmodern thought, has simply picked up a couple of those nuggets and given us some language to speak about God’s word.

Tomorrow, I will finish this series with a concluding post script.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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