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Even as recently as the late 1980s, the larger part of American culture appealed (more or less) to history and tradition when seeking to understand and explain itself. Then the prevailing winds of society began to shift in the mid '80s and into the early '90s. Today those winds continue to batter all ties to accepted societal traditions and cultural moorings in an attempt to sweep them from our self understanding. However, this relatively recent trend is really nothing new at all. This concept can be seen as far back as 1050 B.C. in the tiny nation of ancient Israel. The Book of Judges 21:25 informs us that "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes," (KJV). Even a cursory historical study of this fledgling nation would show that little or no consideration was given to her past dealings with God and His covenantal relationship with them. So without an historically informed leader, "every man did that which was right in his own eyes." Of course, that was not "postmodernism," but the prevailing spirit of what we presently call postmodernism could already be seen at work in the world.
Neither postmodernism, nor "modernism," (its predecessor) should be relegated to the concepts of religion or theology alone. Both systems of thought have had a profound impact on the way individuals and society view the arts and sciences, healthcare, education, and history, as well. To understand theological postmodernism one needs to first understand the basic tenets of modernism since it is the precursor to this relatively new worldview.
For the sake of this concise article there are three basic elements that define theological modernism to make it what it is. As one traverses these three elements, he or she moves steadily down the slippery slope of skepticism to the present day conclusion of wholesale unbelief we now regard as theological postmodernism.
Theological modernism refers to a major shift in thinking that first occurred in the late nineteenth century. It began primarily in Germany, spread to the rest of Europe and England, and eventually to the United States. There are three basic elements to consider when defining this type of modernism and its huge impact on religion and the Bible.
The first element of theological modernism was the desire to adapt religious ideas to modern culture and modes of thinking. Theological modernists insisted the world had changed since the time Christianity was founded so that biblical terminology and creeds had become incomprehensible to the people of their day. Although some modernists began with an inherited orthodoxy of Jesus Christ, all modernists sought to rethink and communicate the Christian faith in terms which could be understood by their contemporary audience. This idea in itself is commendable to a certain degree, but it opened the door to a second, more dangerous element of modernism—the questioning (and subsequent rejection of) established truth and absolutes.
The second element of theological modernism was the assertion that one's mind must be open to new facts and truth, regardless of where these may originate. No questions are closed or settled and religion must not protect itself from critical examination. Again, this idea in itself was not evil, but mixed with skepticism and applied to the Bible, the Scriptures then, became the work of mere human writers who were limited by their times and incomplete knowledge of the world around them. The Bible was no longer regarded by most modernists as a supernatural or infallible record of divine revelation and thus could not possess absolute authority. The Scriptures were no longer viewed as the words of God, but those of uninspired men promoting their own particular brand of religion and moral ethics. This new thinking opened the door to a third, even more insidious, element of modernism—the rejection of religious and/or spiritual authority without any observable proof.
The third element of theological modernism was its rejection of religious belief based on authority alone. According to this assertion all religious beliefs must pass the tests of reason and experience in order to be valid. Without observable, validated "proof" heaven and hell could not exist, the miracles recorded in Scripture never truly happened, and Jesus could not possibly be the historical figure the Bible recorded Him to be. At this point the stage was set for the the only "logical" conclusion—the leap to wholesale unbelief we now refer to as postmodernism.
The postmodern worldview incorporates all the early elements of modernism but follows the argument of skepticism still further down the slippery slope toward a "logical" conclusion of wholesale unbelief.
The two key terms for defining the postmodern worldview are relativity and tolerance. According to the postmodern worldview, absolute truth does not exist. All truth is relative; everything is situational and subjective. Unwitting subscribers to the postmodern mindset as those who matter-of-factly reply to any truth or concept they don't like with the words, "that's just your interpretation."
Writer, Os Guinness, captures the essence of postmodernism in the following passage of his book, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds... "There is no truth, only truths. There are no principles, only preferences. There is no grand reason, only reasons. There is no privileged civilization (or culture, beliefs, norms and styles), only a multiplicity of cultures, beliefs, periods, and styles. There is no universal justice, only interests and the competition of interest groups. There is no grand narrative of human progress, only countless stories of where people and their cultures are now. There is no simple reality or any grand objectivity of universal, detached knowledge, only a ceaseless representation of everything in terms of everything else."
Like modernism, postmodernism still rejects authority in virtually all it's forms. Since postmodernism asserts that all truth is relative, everyone's ideas and actions, no matter how different from one's own, must be accepted. All opinions are equally valid, all sources are equally credible, and every voice merits a hearing. To the postmodern thinker tolerance for everyone's view is all important—with one notable exception. To the postmodern thinker, one who believes he or she is right, especially in regard to his or her religion is to be regarded as dangerous and unenlightened. The whole mantra of tolerance and acceptance goes right out the window as soon as one must interact with a person who believes in absolute truth—like a Christian who believes the Bible is the word of God containing truth and wisdom which does not change over the course of time or circumstance!
Postmodernism is the dominant worldview in most secular colleges and universities today. It has become especially prevalent among our teens and the relatively new Internet culture of our era. The postmodern mindset has even made inroads into many Christian colleges, seminaries, and, sadly enough, the Church itself. But don't lose heart, all is not lost!
The postmodern worldview is contradictory to itself and duplicitous to the core! To argue there are no absolutes is a self-contradictory position. If the argument is true, then the statement ("there are no absolutes") is false. If the argument it is not true, then the whole postmodern position is false! Furthermore, to insist that all people must tolerate everyone else's "truth" and then refuse to tolerate those who don’t adhere to the postmodern worldview, is blatant hypocrisy!
To those who believe the Bible is the Word of God, containing heavenly wisdom and absolute truth, let us be reminded of this: "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient." (Eph.5:6). May we also endeavor at all times to "...set apart Christ as Lord" and "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1Peter 3:15-16).
And, finally, let us not forget the words of 1Peter 1:24-25, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever."
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, Ed., Baker Book House, © 1984