On the issue of certainty, for instance, your friend’s postmodern view of God is actually every bit as inflexible as the allegedly Modern view it rejects. The dogmatism in your friend’s faith is quiet, veiled, but it’s still there. And that’s quite typical of Postmodernism. It preaches our inability to attain philosophical certainty while sneaking its own certainties in the back door.
[Parts one and two of this series]
The day after your long and sometimes troubling conversation with your friend, you decide to seek counsel from the teacher of the theology class you’re taking together. You knock on his office door and he greets you warmly. He takes several books and a loose pile of papers off a chair. You sit, impressed at the library surrounding and towering over you.
The professor notices your looking around, glad that you apparently appreciate his collection. “Some of these books are centuries old” he says with a wistful smile, and then he chuckles. “Sometimes I think that my truest friends are dead people!”
Slightly unnerved, you ignore the disturbing ways that statement could be understood, focusing instead on the reason for your visit. You tell the professor about your friend, including as many details as you can remember of the Emergence Theology (ET) which has so captivated him. “Ah,” the professor begins. “So that explains the asterisks on the Apostle’s Creed.”
You relate in particular your friend’s resounding rejection of Sola Scriptura as essentially idolatrous, a byproduct of the Modern era Rationalism which threatened to suffocate the supernatural dynamic of the faith.
“Wait a minute” the professor interrupts, suddenly very serious. “Rationalism did have a virtual stranglehold on the church in that era, but Sola Scriptura is what prevented the church’s suffocation. You see, Rationalism is the exaltation of autonomous human reason, in this case over Scripture. It desires to make Scripture the servant of man’s arbitrary attitudes about what truth claims are rationally acceptable. At that time, doctrines such as the resurrection and the virgin birth were increasingly offending people’s ‘enlightened’ sensibilities. Because such teachings did not appeal to Modern man’s philosophical palate, they were rejected out of hand as impossible to be historically true. So, Rationalism undermined the church’s extant understanding that Scripture is true in everything that it asserts. Sola Scriptura is not the result of Rationalism; Sola Scriptura demands the rejection of Rationalism!”
“Think about it…” he leans in and speaks in a lower voice, unnerving you again. “Your friend’s view…his, well, agnosticism is what it really is…Your friends agnosticism about the supernatural aspects of Christianity is more akin to Rationalism than anything you seem to believe.”
You ask him why, especially considering that your friend’s faith is self-consciously postmodern, and Postmodernism rejects Rationalism. “Why?” he asks, his voice rising as he leans back. “Because like Rationalism, your friend’s faith demands autonomous authority in deciding which biblical assertions are acceptable! Sure, as a good postmodern faith, it will welcome input from various communities of thought, even other faiths probably. Whether exercised by an individual person or a community, the principle of autonomous authority remains. At some point, some standard will triumph over all the others assembled to counsel it. For your friend, that standard is no longer Scripture. Postmodernism’s disdain for certainty facilitates your friends removal of Scripture from its particular place of authority in his life.”
“Postmodernism is at times quite helpful to us. It reminds us of the philosophical baggage we all have as we interpret life. It reminds us of our need to be self-aware and honest. However, it’s precisely on that point where Postmodernism can be very harmful. Postmodernism, and therefore any theology infused with it, is often insufficiently self-critical. It fails to subject itself to the standards by which it deconstructs other ideas. On the issue of certainty, for instance, your friend’s postmodern view of God is actually every bit as inflexible as the allegedly Modern view it rejects. The dogmatism in your friend’s faith is quiet, veiled, but it’s still there. And that’s quite typical of Postmodernism. It preaches our inability to attain philosophical certainty while sneaking its own certainties in the back door. Think about it…” He leans in again. You’re getting used to it now.
“His doubts regarding your faith must be based on a certainty he’s attained regarding his own. He seems quite certain about what God and the Bible are NOT, but that certainty presupposes a standard, an idea of God by which he determines which descriptions are worthy to apply to God. Your friend has not abandoned certainty in his understanding of God; he has simply switched the content of his certainty. He calls you to abandon your certainty, but he refuses to abandon his own. He’s either genuinely ignorant of this double standard or ingeniously disingenuous in hiding it!”
This time you lean in, unnerving the professor, who sits back. You insist that your friend is quite sincere, that he truly believes his approach to be humble. Your friend claims to honor God by refusing to reduce Him to the categories of hyper-detailed church confessions, by being honest enough to admit the inability of even biblical language to adequately describe God.
“Do remember,” the professor responds, eyeing you nervously. “Not even the most creedal Calvinist thinks that we can understand God exhaustively, or that human words, even Spirit- inspired words, describe God in a manner comprehensive of His glorious totality. John Calvin taught that Scripture is basically God’s baby talk to His children.” (See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, section 9).
“Scripture accommodates our creaturely limits!” The professor looks to the ceiling, tears forming in his eyes. “Isn’t it beautiful? God tenderly crafts the majestic words of holy writ, so that they speak to His beloved children, so that they may know Him – not exhaustively, but truly. Now, when you speak to children, do you lie to them simply because they are children?”
You tell him that you do not lie to children for any reason. “Good” he says, nodding curtly. “Nor should you. Nor does God. Scripture is accurate in all that it asserts. Scripture’s very purpose, though its truth be fathomless, is to make God known to us. God wants His children to know with certainty who He is, what He’s like, and what He’s done for them in Jesus Christ.”
“You see, that’s the tragedy of agnosticism, and the trickery of Postmodernism. Agnosticism declares a distance between us and God, but that distance has been closed by Christ! Postmodernism is smilingly subversive as, under the guise of humility, it dogmatically chastises certainty. Think of it…” The expected lean comes.
“Postmodernism laments the limits of language, but you have to use language to lament language’s limits! Presumably, the postmodernist wants us to understand quite clearly what he says, and presumably, he thinks we can; otherwise, why say it? As such, Emergent teachers publish profusely, and they even chastise their critics for not understanding them, all the while citing Scripture to substantiate their theological claims! Emergence theology denies to others what it claims for itself: the right and ability to speak authoritatively and accurately about God and His Word.”
“Now, I do agree with one major point in Emergence theology. Jesus was no modernist – amen! But are we really to believe that He was a postmodernist? Ha!” The professor shakes his head, smiling. “So it’s not the idea of reading the Bible through the lens of extra-biblical philosophy that really offends Emergent leaders, because they do it, too – just with a different philosophy. Nor is it the idea of philosophical certainty that truly offends them, because they are quite certain about who God is and what Christianity should be.”
“The Emergent idea that we cannot truly talk about God, but only our perceptions of Him, is in fact a statement about God. Really, it’s an accusation! Such a statement accuses God of inability or inactivity in revealing Himself to us in a way that we can understand Him. The statement assumes a standard by which the Bible is weighed as God’s Word and found wanting. The Emergent emphasis on God’s un-knowability, while it sounds humble, in reality simply serves to justify the rejection of doctrine Emergents dislike. Your friend wants to have it both ways in His walk with the Lord – he wants a humble, loving, active faith but ALSO definitional sovereignty over all its details.”
“So the real question” the professor says, looking at you intently, “is what biblical teachings your friend is trying to avoid. As well-intentioned and sincere as your friend may be, he’s playing with the stuff idols are made of.”
Feeling a bit queasy, you tell the professor that you’re meeting with your friend again soon. He promises to pray. You look again at the professor’s “dead friends.” He says kindly and knowingly, “Yes. They went through the same struggles in their own times. Old issues, new labels. The Word of the Lord remains.” You thank him and exit his office, more confident in your ability to address your doubting friend but more concerned about the dogma beneath his doubts.
Rut Etheridge is Chaplain of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Penn. This article first appeared on Gentle Reformation and is used with permission. [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]