Archive for the ‘Postmodernism’ Category

Blog Post of the Year (or Maybe Decade)!

November 24, 2009

This poster from Despair.com accurately communicates the general worthlessness of 99% of the blogosphere.  And yet, every once in a while in this sea of insignificance you come across an island with a buried treasure.

Thanks to Justin Taylor’s link, I found one today.  Kevin DeYoung’s post about the “New Gospel” (written in response to this letter to unbelievers by Shane Claiborne) is the most significant blog post I have read in a long time, perhaps ever.  Do not miss it.

Every generation faces challenges to the true gospel.  Every alternative gospel that arises contains some elements of truth and therefore possesses some measure of plausibility.  In our day the most popular alternative gospel is the one that accomodates itself to the prevailing climate of postmodern uncertainty.  This “new gospel” is not entirely wrong.  In fact, it gets many things right, even offering a much-needed corrective to older emphases and formulations.  And therein lies its chief danger: it represents an ever-so-subtle denial of truths that belong to the very essence of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Read Shane Claiborne’s letter.  And then read Kevin DeYoung’s post.  The latter will likely be the most significant thing you will read today.

Postmodern Irony

November 8, 2009

So I heard about John Franke’s new book, Manifold Witness, a book whose thesis is apparently that truth is inherently plural and that this is a profoundly Christian way of thinking.  Doug Wilson has begun reviewing the book here.  Wilson quotes from Brian McLaren’s foreword:

That for human beings, truth is inherently plural. John asserts this, not because it is fashionable (it’s the very opposite among his guild in the theological academy), but rather because he believes it is true, and is willing to suffer the scorn of some of his peers for this truth as he sees it. He asserts the plurality of truth, not as a capitulation to non- or anti- Christian thought, but rather as an expression of profoundly Christian thought — and specifically, of emergent, missional, and trinitarian Christian thought. In so doing, he gently implies that the dominant alternative view — that white, modernist, Western Christian scholars and institutions have a monopoly on truth — is actually a capitulation to modes of thought and power that have betrayed the life and gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. xii).

Aside from the fact that McLaren has the audacity to claim that Franke’s postmodern muddle is not fashionable in the academy (the academy is the engine that drives it!), does anyone else notice the profound irony in what McLaren says here?  Allow me to paraphrase:

John Franke advocates a pluralist view of truth, thereby denying a singular view of truth, because he is deeply convinced that his view is singularly true.  Anyone (probably a white male) who disagrees with him is hopelessly lost in falsehood, because the singular truth that Franke proclaims about truth being manifold can make no room for competing views of truth.  All truth is manifold, except of course, for the absolute, singular truth that truth itself is manifold.  Of that, I am absolutely certain, and anyone who looks at it differently is captive to modernist presuppositions and is, therefore, promoting falsehood.  John Franke is so certain of the absolute truth of his view that truth is manifold that he will gladly become a martyr for the cause. 

It looks like Manifold Witness is going to be another journey into self-contradictory postmodern quicksand, as if we haven’t had enough of that lately.

Bold Statement

October 4, 2009

In the context of his review of Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church, Kevin DeYoung makes this bold statement:

I don’t think there is a single insight from the emergent church that cannot be gleaned from the best of the evangelical, and specifically the Reformed, tradition. We don’t need a third way between emergent and traditional. We need a revitalized, reformed evangelical church.

If this is the case, then it would mean that the primary value of the (artist formerly known as the) emerging conversation is not what it offers to the church.  Rather, its primary value is what it reminds the church: that there is a richness in the roots of evangelicalism that we ignore (and have ignored) to our peril.  If the (artist formerly known as the) emerging conversation plays any role in sending us back to our roots, then we owe it a debt of gratitude. 

What do you, O plenteous multitude of readers, think of DeYoung’s claim?

Is Doubt Good or Bad?

March 23, 2009

One of the clearest signs that times have changed is the way doubt is hailed as a virtue these days.  Those who doubt whether the Christian faith is true are praised for their authenticity and sincerity.  In some paradoxical manner, their faith is seen to be more genuine than that of the brother who never doubts. 

Charles Spurgeon would not have agreed.  This is what he said in a sermon in 1872 [HT: Pyromaniacs]:

“Too many in the church of God regard unbelief as if it were a calamity commanding sympathy, rather than a fault demanding censure as well. . . . Doubts are among the worst enemies of your souls. Do not entertain them. Do not treat them as though they were poor forlorn travelers to be hospitably entertained, but as rogues and vagabonds to be chased from thy door. Fight them, slay them, and pray God to help thee to kill them, and bury them, and not even to leave a bone or a piece of a bone of a doubt above ground. Doubting and unbelief are to be abhorred, and to be confessed with tears as sins before God. We need pardon for doubting as much as for blasphemy. We ought no more to excuse doubting than lying, for doubting slanders God and makes him a liar.”

I have concerns about this postmodern trend toward the romanticizing of doubt.  I know the sinful heart.  I have one.  I know the human tendency toward a rationalization of sin.  I know the danger of calling what is good evil and what is evil good.  I myself have doubts from time to time.  But I don’t think I have ever celebrated that.  I see no evidence from Scripture that it is something to celebrate, and much evidence that it is something to lament.

I think this new faith in doubt stems from a bent towards rebellion.  We all have images in our heads of fundamentalist parents and preachers who indoctrinate children and tolerate no dissent.  Many former fundamentalists grew up in small churches where seminaries were viewed with suspicion, where honest questions were taboo, where the honest questions that were posed were given shallow answers, where people didn’t want to be bothered with the facts because they had already made up their minds, thank you. 

It is no surprise that those kinds of churches churned out a number of people who never made the faith their own.  Often times these kinds of churches produced shallow automatons who knew everything by rote, not heartfelt believers who had come to love what they had been taught.  I will stand with the postmoderns in condemnation of this way of handling the faith. 

But the solution to this kind of shallow, unquestioning faith is not doubt.  That’s like fighting cancer with AIDS.  Doubt can only be celebrated as a virtue in a society where the individual’s self-discovery takes precedence over the richness of the community.  Doubt of the truth is inherently rebellious, and as such only a rebellious age would baptize it and bless it. 

I say this as one who struggles with doubt myself.  And, I agree with those who celebrate doubt that if one has doubts, it is much better to be open about them than to deny them.  But that goes for any sin.  The grieved, repentant sinner is in a better position than the hypocrite who doesn’t recognize his own sin.  But the one who celebrates his sin is in the worst position of all.

Open Theism and the Nature of Truth: An Unsolved Problem

March 6, 2009

Open theism, the view of God that claims that he does not know many things about the future (primarily the future choices of free agents), faces a number of theological problems.  One problem that it faces that I have not seen explored anywhere in print is the problem of its ramifications for the nature of truth itself. 

What is truth, in its absolute sense?  I would expect that almost all Christians would agree that absolute truth corresponds to what God knows.  Our grasp of the truth is limited by our finitude, by our perspective, and by sin, and there have been endless debates about whether and to what degree truth can be known by human beings.  But for Christians, there does not seem to be much of a debate about God’s knowledge of the truth.  He has a “God’s eye” viewpoint on everything, and thus truth is nothing other than what he knows.  We have genuine knowledge only when what we know corresponds (not perfectly, though partially) to what he already knows.

Open theism runs into a massive problem here because the God of open theism cannot see everything at once.  He does not know how the future will unfold.  Open theists are careful to argue that he knows everything about the past and the present, but this is a hollow claim, because every event of the past and of the present cannot be known exhaustively unless it is known in relation to everything else, including the future.  God cannot have exhaustive knowledge of World War II, for example, because the full ramifications of that event have not yet played out before him, nor will they until the end of history.  Thus, not only is God’s knowledge of the future severely limited, so is his knowledge of the past and of the present.

And this deals a huge blow to the idea of truth itself.  In the open theist world, not even God has a “God’s eye” viewpoint, and thus there is absolutely no objective perspective on anything.  There is no such thing as absolute truth, for nothing can be known in the fullness of its relation to everything else.  The problem of perspectivalism that postmodernism has raised for us, leading to skepticism about knowledge itself, is now not just a problem for us; it’s a problem for God too, for even God is limited by his own perspective!  The logical outcome of open theism is nothing other than the denial of truth itself. 

Steve Wellum, a theology professor at Southern Seminary, told a story one day in class about how, when he was doing his doctoral work at Trinity, he took a trip up to Canada to interview Clark Pinnock about this very question.  He said Dr. Pinnock had never considered this issue before and had no answer for it.  As far as I have read, neither Dr. Pinnock nor any other open theist has addressed this problem.  It remains an unsolved issue for them.

World Religions, The Great Commission, and Baptism

January 10, 2008

What role to the various non-Christian religions of the world play in God’s redemptive purpose, or do they have a role to play at all?  This question has become more acute as the world has grown smaller and the (formerly?) Christian West has come into significant contact with vast multitudes of religious people who are not Christians.  How should Christians appraise this situation, and what does that mean for our approach to missions?

At least three approaches to the various religions of the world have been influential at various times, and they are as follows:

1. The Historic, Orthodox View: The church has long affirmed Cyprian’s axiom, “Outside the church there is no salvation.”  Of course, there have been significant differences over how to define the word “church,” but the basic idea that has been dominant throughout church history has been that, apart from faith in Jesus Christ, no one can be saved.  This means that adherents to non-Christian religions, no matter how sincere they may be, are lost and under the wrath of God without Christ.  Certainly, there have been notable exceptions to this doctrine, but it has been the majority view for 2,000 years. 

2. The Liberal View: Liberalism sought to define all religious expressions in terms of a universal human experience.  For a classical liberal, then, all religions are merely variegated expressions of the same experiential core.  What matters is not the set of beliefs you profess, the rituals, or the way of life that you follow.  Those will vary from culture to culture.  What matters is the common experience that underlies these various expressions.  Liberals seek to build unity among world religions by claiming that they are all, at their core, really the same thing (often with the assumption that Christianity is the highest expression of the universal religious experience, but not different in kind from the other religions of the world). 

3. The Postliberal View: This view has blossomed in the last few decades, and it represents a reaction to the liberal view, but not a return to orthodoxy.  According to postliberals, there is no universal religious experience.  To make that claim is to reduce the various religions of the world to something that they are not and to subsume them under one’s own version of liberal Christianity.  Religions often contradict each other in terms of what they affirm and the ways of life that they produce, so they cannot be mere outward expressions of the same thing.  Instead, postliberals argue that religions are like languages.  We are born into them, and over time we learn them and assimilate to their rules.  For example, I was born in an environment where English was spoken, and over time, by hearing, imitating, and a little formal study, I became proficient in the way the English language works.  I live, move, and have my being in the English language.  My thought processes are shaped by language (is there any thought that ever occurs to you that is not embedded in linguistic patterns?).  In the same way, I was born into a Baptist tradition.  Over time, I learned by experience the Baptist way of life.  Now, I live and move and have my being in this particular religious tradition.  I have learned the way Baptist religion “works,” and I have assimilated myself to its language, rituals, and traditions.  According to postliberals, these things give rise to religious experiences, not the other way around.  I have religious experiences because I am part of a Baptist tradition.  I do not express some universal, prelinguistic, undefined religious experience through my Baptist religion.  Therefore, it is simply illegitimate to claim that my religious experiences and those of a Buddhist represent the same thing in different forms.  Instead, we should view religions more like games that we play according to different rules.  Just as it is illegitimate to say, “Touchdown!” after shooting a free throw in basketball, so is it illegitimate to subsume Buddhist religious experience under my understanding of the Christian religion, as classical liberals have done. 

The postliberal approach to religions has given rise to a new kind of missiology where dialogue has become more popular than conversion.  George Lindbeck has argued that various religions have the potential to express various aspects of God’s redemptive purpose for this world.  While we should not subsume non-Christian religions under our own (as Karl Rahner did by calling adherents of other faiths “anonymous Christians”), Lindbeck has argued that we should recognize that non-Christian religions may each bring something unique to the table, and that these unique features may represent positive aspects of God’s redemptive purpose.

It looks as though Brian McLaren has been influenced by Lindbeck.  In his book A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren argues that the church’s mission may include encouraging Muslims that we encounter to be better Muslims, Buddhists to be better Buddhists, etc.  In other words, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and all the various religions of the world have a legitimate place in the renewal of creation that has come about in Christ, and as the church we should encourage adherents to those religions to walk in the way of Jesus while remaining within their own faiths.  McLaren has been called a postconservative, but his approach to missions seems to be very postliberal (though I wonder how much distance there really is between postconservatism and postliberalism). 

My contention is that the Great Commission kicks this postliberal idea (and the classically liberal idea) in the teeth.  Jesus commanded us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)  Granted, one could argue that making “disciples” does not necessarily mean making “Christians,” and that we could fulfill Jesus’ command without calling for conversions to the Christian faith.  Aside from the fact that such an idea has no basis in the context of Matthew, it falls to pieces as soon as we get to the next phrase.  Let me quote the verse in full:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” 

To make disciples, then, evidently includes “baptizing them” in the name of our Triune God.  Baptism is the sacrament that brings a person into the church.  It initiates one into the Christian faith and marks that person out forever as one united to this particular group, confessing this particular faith, and repudiating one’s connection to anything that would contradict it.  That’s why baptism is so revolutionary in some parts of the world.  To be baptized is to take a major plunge (pun intended) into a new way of life, to take on a new identity, to be defined forever after as a disciple of Jesus Christ, yes, even a Christian (as opposed to a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu).

The missiologies of Lindbeck and McLaren logically entail a denial of the importance of baptism.  McLaren in particular seeks to fulfill the main verb of Jesus’ command (“make disciples”) without fulfilling one of the participles attached to it (“baptizing them”).  It seems that the wording of the Great Commission becomes extremely relevant to current debates over missiology. From the beginning, Jesus has given us the command to convert people, to bring them out of whatever religious commitments they may hold, and initiate them into the church through baptism.  This is an integral component of making disciples, and if we are not doing it, then we are not making disciples. 

So where does this leave other religions?  What role do they have to play in God’s world?  I won’t claim that there is no good in them at all.  Many religions play an important role in shaping communities and societies according to moral standards (although, it must be admitted by all, many religions contribute to the destruction of communities and societies).  As such, many aspects of various world religions are reflections of God’s common grace and of the universal sense of divinity that has been hardwired into us by our Creator.  But I see no biblical evidence that they have any saving value.  In fact, I see positive evidence that they do not.  In Scripture, pagan idolatry is universally condemned.  Paul’s contention that humanity suppresses the truth of general revelation and perversely worships the creature rather than the Creator appears to be a universal indictment of humanity apart from special revelation (Romans 1:18-32).  The fact that the exalted Christ sent Paul to the Gentiles “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18) implies that the nations of the world currently lie under darkness, under the grip of Satan, and under the penalty of unforgiven sin.  This speaks strongly against the idea that vast multitudes of people are finding redemption through their non-Christian ways of worship. 

Our approach to other religions, then, may legitimately include an element of dialogue, for dialogue connects us as human beings to one another.  But our goal must always be conversion, because without faith in Christ, expressed through the taking on of a new identity in his church, there is no salvation.  For 2,000 years this has been the majority view, and we affirm it–whether we realize it or not–every time we stir the waters of baptism.       

A Stingy Orthodoxy

November 26, 2007

I hate the show The Bachelor, for many reasons, but here’s one: whenever the bachelor begins to spend serious, one-on-one time with his pool of potential partners, all they ever talk about is how they feel a connection to each other.  They seek to build a relationship on the idea of relationship.  It’s not surprising that matches made on that show rarely last.  Relationships are not built on the idea of relationship.  You cannot establish a connection to someone by sitting around talking about the connection you have.  I fear a similar mistake has been made in the church. 

Protestant liberalism has left an enduring legacy in the West: empty churches and rising secularization.  Because of its diffuse beliefs and abandonment of Christian orthodoxy, liberalism could not sustain vibrant churches (see Steve Bruce’s God Is Dead: Secularization in the West for further discussion).  Community cannot thrive without a shared commitment to something that transcends itself.  Liberalism offered nothing transcendent.  I fear that postmodern accomodation of the faith has made the same mistake by seeking to build community, not on something that transcends the community, but on the idea of community itself.

If this continues, I suspect the end result will be the same: empty churches and furthering secularization.  A generous orthodoxy will not sustain communities of believers.  Communities do not draw life from the idea of community.  They draw it from shared stories with shared interpretations. 

Yes, the postconservative movement rightly focuses on the shared narratives of communities, but they fall short on the “shared interpretations” part.  If we can’t agree on what the death of Christ actually accomplished, for example, then we really can’t agree on the same story.  It is not enough to say, “Jesus died and rose again.”  Unless we define who Jesus is, who God is, who we are, what the death and resurrection of Jesus means, and why it happened, then we are really not telling the same story.  Our beliefs are diffuse, just like they were in Protestant liberalism.  Diffuse beliefs cannot sustain close communities.  A faith accomodated to postmodernism can tell stories all day long (I once heard this referred to as “narrative therapy”), but without solid doctrinal consensus, stories are blind.  And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a ditch.

I don’t sense that the postconservative movement is really seeking to stay true to the historic faith of the church, no matter how much it tips its hat to tradition.  The heart of the Christian faith has been redefined by this “generous orthodoxy.”  Simple, straight talk about the human condition, the role and necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, and the final separation of the righteous and the wicked, cannot be pursued in this new postmodern climate.  Clarity on these and other issues is often deliberately avoided (see the preface to Brian MacLaren’s book that inspired the title of this post and note how he [ironically] clarifies his intent to be unclear!).  Without clarity, there is no shared story, and without a shared story, there is no real community. 

What I am saying is that doctrine is at the heart of the church’s cohesion.  When doctrinal fidelity slips, when commitment to orthodoxy loosens, when beliefs become diffuse, the church loses that which holds it together.  Doctrine divides, yes.  It divides Baptists from Methodists, Presbyterians from Catholics, Episcopalians from Pentecostals.  But doctrine also unites, defines, and gives identity and meaning by telling us what the story we hold dear actually means.  Without a strong commitment to the historic faith of the church, rooted in a commitment to the infallible authority of the inerrant Scriptures, our legacy will be the same as that of Protestant liberalism.

I don’t believe in a generous orthodoxy.  In fact, I see that phrase as a contradiction in terms.  By definition, orthodoxy must be stingy (better words for that are “firm,” “solid,” “enduring”).  There is life after the final rose.  I doubt that postconservative theology can offer enough to make the connection last.