During his interrogation of Jesus, Pilate asked, “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?” (John 18:35). Understanding the political motivation behind Pilate’s question, Jesus insisted that His kingdom was not a physical, worldly domain that would be advanced by military might. Pilate then asked: “ ‘Are You a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’ Pilate said to Him, ‘What is the truth?’ ” (John 18:37-38).
Today, many react as skeptically to the concept of “truth” as did Pilate. In Western culture, epistemology (the area of study that deals with the nature of knowledge and how it is established) has undergone some radical changes over the last few decades. There is a growing consensus that objective, universal truth is an archaic concept that no longer is relevant. Scholars who have analyzed this trend suggest that currently we are experiencing an intellectual shift from “modernism” to “postmodernism.” This transition to a postmodern way of thinking, which embraces a radically different way of pursuing knowledge, is “new” only from a historical perspective, since it became a recognized phenomenon in the 1970s (Grenz, 1994, 30:26). In order to appreciate more fully this development, an understanding of the two terms “modernism” and “postmodernism” is necessary.
The period commonly styled “modern” had its roots deeply embedded in the soils of the Renaissance. This era can be characterized by Francis Bacon’s (A.D. 1561-1626) conviction that humans could exercise “power over nature by means of the discovery of nature’s secrets” (Grenz, 1994, 30:25). The subsequent intellectual movement of the Enlightenment (A.D. 1600-1700) built upon the foundation laid by the Renaissance, and placed even greater emphasis on humanity’s role in understanding reality. Prior to this movement, the Bible generally was held aloft as the universal authority in all fields of knowledge. However, by the close of the seventeenth century, science, history, and philosophy became detached from biblical authority and the traditionally recognized experts in these fields (Krentz, 1975, p. 10). Hence, the Enlightenment spawned a new perspective regarding the relationship between humankind’s reasoning ability and God’s revelation—it both elevated human reason above, and freed it from, God’s written revelation (see Marty, 1994). Modernism is an extension of this movement, placing implicit—and inordinate—faith in the rational capabilities of the human being.
Stanley Grenz has cataloged several assumptions that form the foundation of the modern intellectual superstructure. “Specifically,” Grenz has written, “the modern mind assumes that knowledge is certain, objective, and good, and that such knowledge is obtainable, at least theoretically” (30:25). While some aspects of these modern assumptions have merit, it is important here to make this clarification. “Objective” knowledge to the modern mind is that which it alone determines to be true by sense perception and reason. Thus, in modern epistemology, knowledge is not revealed to humankind; it is determined by humankind. The importance of this distinction is that truth no longer is centered in God, but rather is centered in humankind.
Modern thinkers also assumed that the human observer could be completely free from all historical or cultural influences as he or she pursued knowledge. Thus, knowledge gained in such a clinical manner would be both reasonably certain and universally applicable. Modernism’s implicit faith in humanity’s reasoning capabilities, with its presumed ability to gain increased control over nature, impinged upon, and inevitably expunged the need for, a transcendent God.
Modernism further dismissed the need for God’s written revelation, the Bible, since reason alone was sufficient to determine ultimate reality. In light of these assumptions, the person who epitomizes the modern era is the naturalistic scientist, whose research allegedly is totally objective, and uninfluenced by mythical (or religious) beliefs. “Objectivity” in science becomes synonymous with “naturalism,” which assumes that our world is a closed system of natural causes and effects. As a result, the modern world view prohibits anything beyond nature to exist or to exert any influence upon it (see Johnson, 1991, p. 114). There simply is no room for a transcendent God.
A final assumption made by the modern mind is the belief that the quality of life can be improved through technology. This idea influenced the general perception of how knowledge was obtained. Since technology is the result of applied human knowledge of nature, empirical science came to be considered as the exclusive, or at least the most reliable, source of knowledge (Johnson, p. 114). This produced the optimistic illusion that empirical science, coupled with continued education, somehow would “eventually free us from our vulnerability to nature, as well as from all social bondage” (Grenz, 30:25).
Though voices were raised against the modernistic world view through the centuries, the frontal assault against it began in the 1970s. The optimism undergirding modernism proved to be an illusion. Improved technology did not produce the anticipated advancement in society toward a global utopia. On the contrary, it became increasingly apparent that our world, despite the technological explosion and increased emphasis on education, was degenerating. For the first time in many years, people of the emerging generation were pessimistic that they could solve the planet’s problems or that they would be better off economically than their parents (Grenz, 30:27).
A postmodern approach to reality began to develop from this new perspective. As the term suggests, “postmodernism” is a reaction to “modernism,” and has challenged the central assumptions of modern epistemology (see DeYoung and Hurty, 1995, pp. 241-259). Consider two postmodern developments that strike at the foundation of the modern world view.
While modern thinkers believe in objective knowledge that the human mind can discover, postmodernists have adopted a more relativistic approach to truth. Postmodern thinkers argue that one’s socio-economic, ethnic, gender, and educational statuses exert such a dominating influence on his or her interpretation of the world that there can be no abstract, universal statement of truth that applies in every circumstance, or to everyone (Russell, 1993, p. 32; cf. Dembski, 1994, 31:1). Such a concept of truth reflects the postmodern idea of pluralism (see Brueggemann, 1993, pp. 8-9).
Pluralism is a philosophical ideology that not only recognizes the diversity of our multi-cultural world, but affirms that such plurality is inherently good. This is both an important distinction and a serious development, since such an approach has broad religious implications. For instance, philosophical pluralism rejects the idea that any “particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another...” (Carson, 1996, p. 19). As a result, every religious system is viewed as one of many equally valid alternatives.
An unsavory implication of this position is that Christianity no longer can assert legitimately its exclusive claim of salvation, since salvation can be found among non-Christian belief systems as well. Letty Russell, a postmodern feminist theologian, has argued that though “there are plenty of persons and churches still laying claim to God’s preference for their form of Christianity, the discovery of the whole inhabited world and the many faiths of that world has made the claim to salvation for only a few seem less and less credible” (1993, p. 120). To clarify the extent of her ecumenism, Russell quoted favorably Hans Küng’s observation that while “salvation is inside the Church, salvation is open to all, not just to schismatics, heretics and Jews, but to non-Christians too and even to atheists if they are in good faith” (1993, p. 120).
Radical Hermeneutics and Deconstructionism
Closely associated with the pluralistic thrust of postmodernism is the concept of deconstructionism. At the risk of oversimplification, deconstructionism basically has to do with the relationship between language and meaning. For postmodern interpreters, words, phrases, and sentences (the stuff of language) do not reveal meaning, since that would imply an objective, transcendent perspective of truth. Rather, language constructs meaning. To put it another way, language does not describe reality; it creates reality. Since, it is argued further, language is a product of society, all statements about reality are colored, and inevitably warped, by cultural conditioning (see Leffel, 1996a). An implication of this position is that language can “convey only the illusion of truth” though in reality it is “a cover for the power relationships that constitute the culture” (Veith, 1994, p. 54).
Working from this assumption, the deconstructionist is not concerned with discovering the intention of an author’s words, since the idea of “authorial intent” is rejected (see Adam, 1995, p. 20). He or she believes that an author’s expressions, while on the surface saying one thing, implicitly support power structures that benefit the author’s own vested interests. It is the deconstructionist’s purpose, therefore, to expose the power relationships that underlie the text.
To illustrate this process, consider a deconstructionist interpretation of the classical words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (see Veith, 1994, p. 55). The deconstructionist would argue that, while the text appears to promote social equality, the language excludes women (all men are created equal). Further, since Thomas Jefferson, the author, owned slaves, these words ground only the wealthy, white male’s privileged status in God Himself, while they tacitly deny women, the poor, and minorities the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Hence, for all their apparently noble intent, these words actually buttressed the existing power structures that benefited the author.
Deconstructionists also employ such a “suspicious” interpretive method to biblical texts, with similar results. Feminist theologians, who have been influenced by postmodern deconstructionism, read the Bible with the assumption that it is a “monument of patriarchal oppression” (Chopp, 1992, p. 43). Their purpose is to expose and condemn those expressions where God is used to condone patriarchal power structures, while affirming and proclaiming those discourses in the Bible that speak of liberation for the oppressed. Thus, oftentimes the deconstructionist’s interpretation discloses the social conflicts that allegedly are hidden beneath the text. From this interpretive perspective, the book of Job, for example, only on the surface addresses the theological problem of why the godly suffer. A deconstructionist probe beneath this superficial reading of Job reveals that the book really is about a “class struggle” between the oppressors and those who are oppressed, i.e, the rich and the poor. Accordingly, it turns out that Job is an attempt to “allow the oppressors [i.e., the rich—GKB] to deny their responsibility and to enable the oppressed [i.e., the poor—GKB] to forget their suffering” (Clines, 1994, 11:35).
This postmodern approach to biblical interpretation denies, not merely that human reasoning is capable of fully understanding a text, but that there is any inherent meaning for the reader to discover in a text. As Stanley Grenz has observed, a text’s meaning emerges “only as the interpreter enters into dialogue with the text” (1994, 30:26). The meaning of a biblical text, therefore, is created when the interpreter interfaces his or her contemporary situation with the text. Out of such an interactive process, the relevant message of the text (which is very different from the elusive original intent) emerges. Hence, though some interpretations might be considered more persuasive than others, there can be, and are, as many different—and legitimate—meanings of a text as there are readers of it.
POSTMODERNISM: A CRITIQUE
Although I plan to address the problems associated with postmodernism, I first must acknowledge its positive contributions. Postmodernists have exposed (correctly) the vulnerabilities of modern thought patterns. They have pointed out that the “objective scientist” is subject to the same bias as the oft’-caricatured “naive religionist.” Postmodernists, for example, have argued that scientists, though claiming to be objective, can be susceptible to configuring their experiments in such a way that they discover the data they expected to find (Adam, 1995, p. 13). While their point is not that all scientists are dishonest, and consciously protecting their own vested interests at all costs, postmodernists do suggest that human nature, being what it is, can make total objectivity a very optimistic and elusive goal. Further, postmodernists point out that naturalistic scientists work from certain assumptions that can, and inevitably will, skew their interpretation of the data. In these connections, postmodernists have provided a legitimate (and much-needed) critique of modernity.
Despite its positive critiques of modernism, which was hostile in many ways to Christianity, postmodern thought, as we have seen, is not totally friendly to historical Christianity. At this point, it might be helpful to understand the different challenges that modernism has posed, and that postmodernism poses, to Christianity. On the one hand, modernists, consistent with their belief that empirical knowledge is objective, would argue that Christianity simply is not true. On the other hand, postmodernists reject the claims of Christianity, not because they are false, but “because they purport to be true” (Veith, 1994, p. 19, emp. in orig.). In a postmodern world dominated by philosophical pluralism, there is no tolerance for exclusive truth claims about right and wrong, since no “objective truth” exists by which such determinations can be made. Therefore, traditional Christianity is “false” precisely because it makes such absolute claims to truth.
Since many theologians and sociologists have written the obituary of modernism, and heralded the birth and maturation of postmodernism, Christians need to be prepared to deal with the challenges (and opportunities) of this new world view. Space constrictions, and the inherent conceptual difficulties of this developing paradigm, prohibit an exhaustive critique of postmodern epistemology in this article. However, the following are broad principles that demonstrate its most obvious vulnerabilities.
First, the pluralistic stance of postmodern epistemology is inconsistent with the biblical world view. The Bible presents Christianity, not merely as one among many conflicting, equally valid alternatives, but as the only true religion. Among other similar statements that could be referenced, Jesus and Peter made exclusive claims about truth. In His response to Thomas’ confusion regarding His imminent departure, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Echoing these sentiments, Peter said to the religious rulers of the Jews, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
On at least two levels, such biblical teaching conflicts with the radical pluralism of postmodernism. (1) These statements imply that the biblical writers, and early Christians, believed in the concept of objective, transcendent truth. This was Jesus’ point to skeptical Pilate. In His incarnate state, Jesus was the embodiment of eternal truth—truth that was not merely the linguistic construction of the dominate culture. (2) Such biblical teaching does not present Jesus as one among many, equally valid means of salvation. Rather, Jesus is the truth, and is the only One Who legitimately can offer salvation. As unpopular as it might be in postmodern thought, Christianity does make exclusive truth claims. Thus, at these foundational levels of thought, the biblical and postmodern world views are incompatible.
Second, the postmodern assertion that “there is no absolute, objective truth” is intrinsically contradictory, and self-defeating. It is a statement put forward as being objectively true and universally applicable—something that it argues is impossible. Such a statement also militates against the idea that all statements (linguistic constructions) of reality are incurably warped by cultural conditioning. After all, are not these postmodern propositions also linguistic expressions of reality? To be consistent, postmodernists must admit that their own statements of reality also are mere arbitrary social constructions. As such, they, too, are culturally conditioned, and offer no compelling reason to accept the theory. If, however, postmodernists can demonstrate that their world view is true, they will have defeated its main thesis (i.e., there is no objective truth), for, to do so would be to establish at least one objective truth—namely that postmodernism is true. From these considerations, postmodernism “either denies the plausibility of its own position or it presumes the reliability of reason and the objectivity of truth” (Leffel, 1996b, p. 53). In either case, it is self-defeating.
To extricate themselves from these apparent contradictions, some postmodern thinkers have argued against the legitimacy of logical principles that guide the reasoning process. Yet, such a move only sharpens the horns of their dilemma, for to deny the validity of reason, reason itself must be employed. Such an attempt ends up being an argument that no argument is sound, or proof that no proof exists, which is nonsense.
Finally, certain aspects of postmodernism not only are fraught with analytical discrepancies, but also prove to be inconsistent from a practical standpoint. In other words, postmodernists often are guilty of practicing that which they deny. For example, consider the concept of deconstruction mentioned earlier. From this hermeneutical perspective, the meaning of a written text (biblical or otherwise) has nothing to do with what the author of the text intended to convey. The interpreter has the liberty to create a meaning that grows out of his or her peculiar life situation. Ultimately, the determining criterion of “correct” interpretation is whether it is meaningful to the interpreter.
However, deconstructionists expect their readers to comprehend, at least to a limited degree, their communicative intentions (whether written or oral). To illustrate this point, D.A. Carson described his encounter with a deconstructionist that exposed her own practical inconsistency (1996, pp. 102-103). This doctoral student protested Carson’s point that “true knowledge actually is possible, even to finite, culture-bound creatures.” She insisted that the ambiguities, and “social nature,” of language, together with our rational limitations, prevent our reaching such an optimistic goal. After further, non-productive conversation, Carson then said, “Ah, now I think I see what your are saying. You are using delicious irony to affirm the objectivity of truth.” The student emphatically responded, “That is exactly what I am not saying.” As Carson continued to place his intentionally skewed interpretation on the student’s words, she became increasingly irritated that he would so misrepresent her speech. After she exploded over his persistent misinterpretation of her position, Carson said, “You are a deconstructionist, but you expect me to interpret your words aright.” His point was well made. Postmodern deconstructionists expect their communicative intentions to be represented fairly. Shouldn’t the same benevolence be given to all communicators—even biblical writers?
The extent to which postmodern epistemology generally will become accepted is difficult to determine at this point. However, the shift from modernism to postmodernism is real, presenting both new threats and new opportunities to Christianity. Just as early Christians proclaimed the finality of Jesus Christ in their own pluralistic world (see Acts 17:21), we now have the awesome privilege and responsibility to hold aloft God’s Truth amidst the philosophical turmoil of our society. In so doing, Christians need to guard against fully embracing either modernism or postmodernism, while at the same time learning from both. In addition, we must be careful that our zealous—and legitimate—critique of various features of postmodernism does not unwittingly buttress the destructive elements of modernism. As we go about the task of living out our Christian confession in these dangerous, yet promising, times, we should do so with the humble realization that humankind is incapable of directing its own steps out of the confusion (Jeremiah 10:23), and with the promise that God’s Word has lightened, and will continue to lighten, our darkened paths (Psalm 119:105).
Adam, A.K.M. (1995), What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress).
Brueggemann, Walter (1993), Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress).
Carson, D.A. (1996), The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Chopp, Rebecca S. (1992), The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (New York: Crossroad).
Clines, David J.A. (1995), “Deconstructing the Book of Job,” Bible Review, 11:30-35,43-44, April.
Dembski, William A. (1994), “The Fallacy of Contextualism, Part I,” Bible-Science News, 31:1-3.
DeYoung, James and Sarah Hurty (1995), Beyond the Obvious: Discover the Deeper Meaning of Scripture (Gresham, OR: Vision House).
Grenz, Stanley (1994), “Star Trek and the Next Generation: Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology,” Crux, 30:24-32.
Johnson, Phillip E. (1991), Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity).
Krentz, Edgar (1975), The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress).
Leffel, Jim (1996a), “Our New Challenge: Postmodernism,” The Death of Truth, ed. Dennis McCallum (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany), pp. 31-44.
Leffel, Jim (1996b), “Postmodernism and the ‘Myth of Progress’: Two Visions,” The Death of Truth, ed. Dennis McCallum (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany), pp. 45-57.
Marty, Martin E. (1994), “Literalism vs. Everything Else,” Bible Review, 10:38-43,50, April.
Russell, Letty M. (1993), Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox).
Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. (1994), Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway).