Conciliation and Capitulation to Culture
David Wells captures the problem of postmodernism thought breaking into fragments as over against overarching meaning: “The single universe of meaning has dissolved, and the single field of discourse that flowed from it has dissipated.” Meaning has moved from metanarrative to narratives, from universal meaning to finite perspectives of the individual.
Rejecting the Core of Certainty—Absolutes
Brian McLaren, caught in the jaws of postmodernism, rejects absolutes because he deems the postmodern evaluation of the possibility of an absolute too overwhelming and persuasive to allow absolute truth to stand. He rejects at the same time the absolutism of philosophical pluralism and relativism, as well as the absolutes of evangelicalism. He cannot accept philosophical pluralism and be true to Scripture. Because he cannot accept absolutes in evangelicalism, he supposes that evangelicals need a measure of relativism that corrects rigidities in the movement. We, therefore, need to live with a fragmented world of evangelicalism where we accept radical differences among us. D. A. Carson shows the fallacy of McLaren’s fragmented view of pluralism:
If absolutism is not the answer and absolute relativism is not the answer, what is the Christian way ahead? Here McLaren finds himself heavily indebted to the short work by Jonathan Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntyre’s After Virtue. This is surely what we want: we want to learn to live faithfully in a fragmented world. Absolutism plays by one set of rules. Real pluralism is like a large field where many games are being played, each game observing its own rules. This sort of pluralism is coherent. But we live in a fragmented world: we are playing golf with a baseball, baseball with a soccer ball, and so forth. This is not real pluralism; it is fragmented existence.32
Postconservatives hold that no evangelical lives in truly coherent truth because there is no coherent argument for postmoderns. We live in fragmentation, so the direction for evangelicals should be “transforming mission.” This transforming mission accepts coexistence with different faiths and dialogues with them in the presence of God. Our story might not be the true story, so openness to dialogue and living with paradox will enable us to grow in our understanding of varying viewpoints.
McLaren’s overwhelming criticism in his books is against modernism, not postmodernism. Postmodernism is the presuppositional matrix from which his theology flows. Carson asks a devastating question:
Is there at least some danger that what is being advocated is not so much a new kind of Christian in a new Emergent Church, but a church that is so submerging itself in the culture that it risks hopeless compromise? Even to ask the question will strike some as impertinence at best, or a tired appeal to the old-fashioned at worst. I mean it to be neither. Most movements have both good and bad in them, and in the book from which this article is taken I highlight some of the things I find encouraging and helpful in the Emergent Church movement. I find that I am more critical of the movement because my “take” on contemporary culture is a bit removed from theirs, partly because the solutions I think are required are somewhat different from theirs, partly because I worry about (unwitting) drift from Scripture, and partly because this movement feels like an exercise in pendulum swinging, where the law of unintended consequences can do a lot of damage before the pendulum comes to rest. 33
The Vital Issue of Certainty—Epistemology
The issue of certainty hinges on the subject of epistemology (how we know that what we know is true). This is the central issue in the debate between evangelicals and postevangelicals. The book Stories of Emergence, by Mike Yaconelli (editor), has the subtitle “Moving from Absolute to Authentic,” betraying a false antithesis between holding absolutes and being authentic. The real issue is the battle over certainty. Hidden presuppositions lie beneath all beliefs.
McLaren wants believers today to be “a new kind of Christian,” that is, a postmodern Christian; he wants to dismantle certainties that control much of the church today. He qualifies this attack on certainty by rejecting philosophical pluralism that also rejects the idea that any particular viewpoint can explain reality. On the other hand, if evangelicals perceive they have the answer, he maintains, they must account for the range of differences among evangelicals.
McLaren also qualifies relativism by rejecting philosophical relativism that denies absolutes and claims that truth is relative to culture and individual groups who embrace particular beliefs. He does not seem to associate relativism with postmodernism but thinks of it as an extreme conclusion of postmodernism. Yet he claims that evangelicals have differences that are relative to groups within evangelicalism.
Postevangelicals equate evangelical thought with modernism. They associate modernism with rationalism, absolutism, linear thinking, and mind over emotions. Modernism is inflexible, controlling, and arrogant. This new kind of Christian associates postmodernism with what is more flexible in belief, more connected with tradition, and is not concerned about being right or wrong in truth. Postevangelical postconservatives view modernism with scorn because it concentrates on truth and error while postmodernism centers on relationships and integrity.
The emergent church grew out of postmodern thinking. Though not everyone in this movement holds to pure postmodern thought, they nevertheless associate closely with a movement that undermines the essence of evangelicalism. Many in the more moderate emerging church simply want to form churches that reach postmoderns. It is important to distinguish postconservatives from those who attempt to reach postmoderns. True biblical viewpoint has unity of truth, not fragmented beliefs.
Undermining Certainty by Preference for Perspective
Brian McLaren refuses to identify with particulars of Scripture because of his postmodern appetite for preference and perspective. This is the new norm— preference rather than certain truth. In other words, he attempts to draw people to Christianity by undermining the essence of biblical truth in lieu of the perspective. This mentality buys into the next great philosophical thought despite the existence of eternal truth revealed in propositional form in Scripture among other methods such as general revelation.
McLaren is more concerned about what liberals and postmoderns think of him than he is concerned with how the Word evaluates his positions or how evangelicals might assess his viewpoints. Although he might not be rationalistic in the philosophical sense, his system is full of rationalism and justifications based on the bias of postmodernism (i.e., the belief system of postmodernism).
In another book, A is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church, Leonard Sweet, Brian D. McLaren, and Jerry Haselmayer give their dialectical system for finding truth. They promote abductive reasoning as that as that which seizes people
by the imagination and transports them from their current world to another world, where they can gain new perspective. Abductive reasoning has powerful implications for preaching—and all communication, really! To go Abductive, get rid of your inductive/deductive outlines and points and make your sermons pointless! In other words, don’t build your sermons around analysis, but instead, build them around Abductive experience.34 (p. 31, italics mine)
Carson exposes manipulative machinations of postconservative postmoderns by this statement:
Many postmoderns channel the discussion into a manipulative antithesis. The antithesis is this: Either we human beings can know something absolutely, perfectly, exhaustively—one might say omnisciently—or we human beings can at best glimpse some small perspective on something or other without any mechanism for discovering whether our perspective is an important part of the whole, a distorted view of the whole, or a skewed view of the whole, and so forth—precisely because we have no way of knowing what the whole is. The antithesis is designed to drive everyone into a postmodern view to truth. . . . The antithesis demands that we be committed perspectivalists—i.e., those who say that human “knowledge” is never more than the perspective of some finite individual group, without any means of grasping any perspective’s relative importance, since none of us can compare our perspective with ultimate reality.35
Perspectivism lays the basis for the postmodern view on the failure to reach certainty. It is true that finite humans will always have an incomplete perspective rather than a complete understanding; however, it is not necessary to have exhaustive knowledge in order to have true knowledge. It is possible to have objective knowledge, propositional knowledge with logical consistency. Biblical truth is more than a mere paradigm, even a reigning paradigm. It is universal truth for all people of all time and is not subject to paradigm shift.
Authority as Communal
Robert E. Webber has an ecclesial (church) understanding of the Bible as over against individual understanding. But this belief—that the individual cannot perceive truth accurately—is an abandonment of God’s ability to effectively communicate his truth. Evangelicals believe that interpretation of Scripture can transcend issues of time or culture. To put it another way, evangelicals believe in the perspicuity of Scripture. As over against Webber’s ecclesial and consensual approximation method, evangelicals believe each person is able to understand God’s Word. Ecclesial rejection of the individual believer’s ability to know truth as it is produces despair, lack of confidence, and unassertiveness in one’s convictions about what one believes. This is an issue of certitude. It delimits God’s Word as authoritative and renders inoperative doctrine and systematic theology.
Authority for postconservatives is communal and disparages the individual’s autonomy in reaching truth. This corporate concept of authority rests in the presupposition of democratic community, as if the community had more authority than an individual. It is a subjective approach to truth and is the result of abandoning the propositional approach to truth. If we bypass the objective Word and logic, then all that is left is corporate and personal experience. There would be no warrant to determine whether feelings are valid or not. By ruling out objective content, all that is left is subjective sentiment. Somehow, postconservatives know through feeling.36 Feeling leads invariably to a subjective and fluid definition of truth. Consensus is arbitrary belief in pre-Constantinian ideas and deconstruction of evangelicalism in lieu of reconstruction of an ancient future faith. It is a new construction of faith built on past traditions, and it is important for these people to hold to ambiguity, mystery, and multi-dimensional faith and worship.37 To do this, they must enter into a narrative way of thinking and present the gospel in narrative form. This is dialectical assumption. The church fathers are not as sure or stable as the Scripture. If authority does not rest on propositional truth statements, then we will have an uncertain message. In-house authority will produce ambivalent opinionism peculiar to the “in” group, resulting in a religious malaise inviting skepticism at its root. It cannot make for committed Christians but cowardly, wobbly believers without something solid upon which they rest their case.
Dialectical thought and dialogue process result in assimilation of God’s Word with human thought, producing an uncertainty about what the Bible teaches. This viewpoint believes that we cannot know truths of Scripture without contaminating meaning with some perspective or reference from our experience. By approaching Scripture from a multiple-meaning viewpoint (polyvalent), we put ourselves at the mercy of a plurality of viewpoints. There is no doubt that an interpreter of Scripture must be careful not to bring personal experience or opinions into the Word of God (interpolation). However, it is patently obvious that it is possible to divorce oneself from personal bias, prejudice, and culture preconditions to interpret Scripture. We do not have to constantly dialogue with other traditions to come to truth (although it is wise to seek wisdom from others).
There is a correlation between postmodernism and eclecticism (which is the rejection of the possibility of a single meaning or order). Postmodernism cannot escape the dilemma of modernity’s rationalism.
Brian McLaren has a problem with holding to a metanarrative when the essence of postmodernism is denial of the metanarrative (universal truth that applies to all people of all time); however, he resists using the term “metanarrative.”38 He would rather talk about a “larger narrative,” the “story of emergence,” because he wants to avoid truth except as it emerges from community.39 For him, ethics comes before doctrine, which is the exact opposite of how the Bible presents the sequence. Compare the argument of Romans (the first eleven chapters present doctrine, chapters 12 through 16 application of doctrine); the same is true with Ephesians and Colossians (Ephesians chapters 1 through 3 are doctrine and 4 through 6 application; Colossians chapters 1and 2 doctrine, chapters 3 and 4 application). Doctrine according to McLaren is “a practice of the church—a practice of reflecting, discussing, articulating, critiquing, rethinking, rearticulating, and so on.”40 This, again, is dialectical process. McLaren writes,
Orthodoxy isn’t a destination. It is a way—a way on which one journeys, and on which one progresses, even if one never (in this life) arrives. Paul put it this way: “Not that I have already obtained all this. . . I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it (Philippians 3:12–13).”41
McLaren’s use of the latter verse shows a misunderstanding of the passage, a passage dealing with maturity based on the content of God’s Word. McLaren blindly accepts the dialectical and instrumental approach to truth and puts an
interpolation on the passage.
To McLaren, there is no clear set of laws for determining universal knowledge. Premodern narrative knowledge has conventions about who may tell the story. This is a tautology; that is, it legitimizes itself. By contrast, modernity separates narrative and autonomous vindication of knowledge. This is blind faith in autonomous objectivity. For example, philosophy or science must verify its claims by objective examination. Self-assertion of authority became no longer valid under modernity. Postmoderns now view philosophy and science as having narratives of their own. This is a new authoritarianism based on a metanarrative (ironically) of postmodernism. Thus, we are left with a plurality of narratives of postmodernism—with fragmented knowledge and no hope ofuniversal truth. Cynicism becomes the name of the game.
We conclude from this that neither modernists nor postmoderns have a universal place to stand. The biblical Christian has a transcendent place to stand and a universal basis as a foundation for truth. There is no other way than for God to reveal himself in an a priori manner. Human beings are finite and can never find infinite truth finitely. Postmodernism finds itself caught in modernism’s essential presupposition—autonomous man has the answer for humanity. Postevangelical postmoderns appeal to the very viewpoint they reject. This dialectical labyrinth is at the heart of the problem. Postevangelicals have a metanarrative universal of another kind—a veiled absolute of fragmented “truths.” This is an attempt to relativize the straightforwardness of Scripture.
Perspective on Truth versus Universal All-Encompassing Truth
It is one thing to state that we all carry assumptions from our culture and experience and that we are all perspectivalists, but it is another thing to say we cannot justify one perspective over another.
Another fallacy in McLaren’s postmodern thinking is that “there is no such thing as interreligious dialogue in general, rather there is dialogue between this Christian individual or community and that Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu individual or community.”42 In other words, there is narrative dialogue but not metanarrative dialogue. Dialectical dialogue “prepares one for the next” dialogue but with no certainty, no finality.43
McLaren constantly confuses true biblical love and humility with his view of tolerance. He gives birth to false humility when it comes to truth, for he constantly confuses truth with pragmatism.44 A generously orthodox Christian, he says, does not “claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall” but rather chooses “to be in a loving (ethical) community of people who are seeking the truth (doctrine) on the road of mission . . . and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus.”45 He has little to say to the non-Christian; he does not know what he believes for sure because he is always on a quest for truth, lacking a biblical view of truth, love, or humility. His definition of humility eviscerates the biblical idea of humility; he confuses biblical humility with humility toward certainty. He would rather pursue truth than find it.46
It appears that McLaren has not sorted out the influence that William James’s instrumentalism has had on his own views: “Orthodoxy will mean not merely correct conclusions but right processes to keep on reaching new and better conclusions, not just correct ends but right means and attitudes to keep on discovering them, not just straight answers but a straight path to the next question that will keep on leading to better answers.”47 Again, this is essential instrumentalism and dialectical process. Is this orthodoxy? How can one live a confident Christian life based on mere possibilities? McLaren even puts Jesus into this realm.48 His views are very close to liberal progressive thinking.
Exhaustive Truth versus Some Truth
McLaren sets up another straw man by implying that evangelicals believe they can come to absolute truth exhaustively.49 It is one thing to know some absolutes and it is another to know all reality absolutely. The Bible everywhere presumes we can know truth. This is not to say there is no progress of doctrine; there is progress in doctrine, but that is not his point. McLaren warns at the end of his book A Generous Orthodoxy that we “shall always be discontented with our portraits of orthodoxy, but we must never, in frustration, throw the Subject of our portrait out the window.”50 Why not? Why hold to the person if the content of the person is in doubt?
Perspective versus Objective Truth
Grenz and John R. Franke do not view Scripture as authoritative in itself. For them, Scripture is not objective apart from the faith of the church and means of the Holy Spirit; it is the vehicle through which the Holy Spirit speaks. The Bible is not authoritative in itself but because of the community experiencing power and truth of the Spirit through its writings. The community preceded Scriptural texts, so there is an authority anterior to Scripture, although to them the message of the Bible is the “norming norm.” They are afraid to establish a one-to-one correspondence between the message and the text. They see the Word of God and the words of Scripture as two different things. The meaning of a text to them does not necessarily tie into the biblical author’s intention in writing a book of the Bible. The text takes on a life of its own. According to these people, the factor that keeps them from falling into subjectivism rests on the community. Their view of Scripture does not justify what the Bible says of itself. They move ultimate authority from Scripture to the community and the experience of the individual. The Bible, for them, is not a self-authenticating text.
However, the Bible affirms for itself authority in the text because the Spirit inspired it, whether or not it is experienced by the reader. Note Stephen Wellum’s summary of the communal approach to Scripture: “In the end, I am convinced that their proposal leaves us with a hermeneutical subjectivism that will not sufficiently ground a normative evangelical theology in a pluralistic and postmodern world.”51
Emergent Vacuum of Truth
A Generous Orthodoxy creates a massive vacuum of belief. It is a mixture of pragmatic liberalism and diluted, eviscerated evangelicalism. The book is an attempt to placate the unregenerate, degenerate minds of fallen man (1 Corinthians 2:14), but the entire construct of the book looks nothing like how the Bible presents itself.
Brian McLaren is a founder of the U.S. emergent movement. This movement is integral or integrative in its thinking. In other words, it is dialectical in belief system and modus operandi. He claims that emergent thinking is an “unspoken assumption behind all my previous books.”52 He says that Christianity is not the kingdom of God, but ultimate reality is the kingdom of God.53 Christianity is here to lead people to the kingdom of God, “calling them from smaller rings, smaller Kingdoms.”54 Christians need to emerge out of denominational and doctrinal rings of confinement. But McLaren presumes that no one has come to truth with any certainty and that we are on an instrumental road through the dialectical process of discovering this kingdom. How does he “know” that this kingdom exists? He uses propositions and presuppositions to come to this deduction! Yet, on the other hand, he avoids much of biblical revelation about the kingdom.
McLaren seems to recognize the implication of his emergent philosophy when he says,
Perhaps this sounds to you like heresy, not orthodoxy. Perhaps . . . this seems to present you with only two options: a nonemergent gospel that is definite, clear, sure, and certain, or a ‘radically indeterminate,’ anything goes that means anything and is worth nothing [gospel] . . . like a heterodox compromise with pluralistic relativism.55
He denies pluralistic relativism because it does not accept universals, but he still maintains the need to negate absolutes or anyone who claims to have the “final orthodoxy nailed down.”56 McLaren wants to deny relativism, which deems one idea as good as another idea. He probably wants to assert that Christianity is more viable than other systems. However, this premise places the choice of truth upon the judgment of the individual’s construct of belief for determining truth.
Modern thought has its own presupposition that limits certainty to the empirical and the scientific method. Postmoderns rightly attack this presupposition. However, by denying any indubitable foundation for truth, postconservatives bite the hand that feeds them. By this, they lose a universal claim to truth and live in fragments of truth. They find themselves in the same predicament as secular postmoderns, with little authority to help people with no hope.
McLaren defines emergent Christians as postliberal and postconservative.57 This viewpoint supposedly holds the “balance” because this theory “sees beyond pluralistic relativism and ‘exclusivism/absolutism.’”58 He wants to move beyond mutually exclusive truth. (His assumptions indicate that he has a problem with such statements as Acts 4:12 and John 14:6.) Somehow, by a massive logical leap, by inferential logic, by a leap in the dark from subjectivism, by dialectical thinking, he asserts that he has found the truth of something “above and beyond”—“the way of Jesus, which is the way of love and the way of embrace.”59 This is his kingdom of God. He says that this is the “more narrative approach to theology.”60 “Rather than trying to capture timeless truth in objective statements systematized in analytical outlines and recorded in books and institutionalized in schools and denominations, narrative theology embraces, preserves, and reflects on the stories of people and communities involved in the romance of God—always beginning with and always returning to the treasury of stories in Scripture. . . .”61 “These stories (narratives) seek to understand the “larger narrative” (the story of emergence) that these individual stories constitute.”62 Narratives, then, lead us to a kind of metanarrative, but evidently he cannot concede that we do indeed arrive at a metanarrative (a word he intentionally avoids).
Postconservative theology begins with “ethics,” not doctrine,63 but how does one resolve which ethic or virtue is right? McLaren’s answer is that we develop it in “community.” Community is more essential than good theology and scholarship or logic!64 This is obvious because he violates logic, scholarship, and theology throughout his works. According to him, doctrine is a “practice of the church—a practice of reflecting, discussing, articulating, critiquing, rethinking, rearticulating, and so on.”65 McLaren’s thesis is again both dialectical and instrumentalist, a “dynamic cycle that spirals upward.”66 For him, orthodoxy is not a destination but “a way” on which one journeys. He supports this thinking with a patently false interpretation and implication of Philippians 3:12–13. The issue in this passage is maturity of the believer, not some postmodern philosophical system based on instrumentalism and dialectical thought.
McLaren thinks that evangelicalism is the “historical accumulation of precedents”; in other words, the progress of dogma needs to be negated.67 All that we need is a “right attitude toward Jesus.”68 If this is not minimalist, what is? Scriptures are full of propositions and didactic truth (as well as narratives). The progress of revelation is abundantly clear in Scripture, and development of doctrine in history (progress of dogma—such as the development of the doctrine of justification in the Reformation) holds the great value of teaching us from past doctrinal issues.
Capitulation to Culture Undermines Unity of Understanding
Pluralism fractures truth and unity of understanding. In other words, it tears down the essential idea that the Bible is a revelation of truth from God that communicates absolutes and clarity. Instead, a pluralistic culture breaks down into small segments of knowing, for no one knows any universals. We are left with only fraternities living in isolation from one another without truth to connect them to a universal. All we know is our own ideas of private experience; no one can claim to speak for God. Pluralism marginalizes God; only the self, standing apart from truth, remains.
The loss of theology or doctrine means the loss of knowing God and his values. Our society has shifted from knowing God to knowing self as the vital focal point of faith. This creates a loss of conviction about transcendent things. Focus on self puts the highest priority on expediency and subjectivity. Preaching becomes centrally psychological, therapeutic, and sociological and results in unadulterated pragmatism. Secularism sets the standard for what is proper belief. This is capitulation of gigantic proportion by postconservatives. Evangelicalism is losing its soul because its convictions are on the outer edge of its (no longer biblical) belief systems. David Wells warns us about this problem:
The stakes are high: the anti-theological mood that now grips the evangelical world is changing its internal configuration, its effectiveness, and its relation to the past. It is severing the link to historical, Protestant orthodoxy. It is emancipating contemporary evangelicals to form casual alliances at will with a multitude of substitutes for this orthodoxy.69
Scripture warns that there will come a time when believers will no longer tolerate “sound doctrine.” Biblical Christianity is truth oriented. That is why exhortations warn us about protecting doctrine and living the Christian life based on doctrine:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Timothy 4:3–4)
The Bible calls for faith based on doctrine or propositions
For fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine. (1 Timothy 1:10, italics mine)
If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed. But reject profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness. (1 Timothy 4:6–7, italics mine)
Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 1:13, italics mine)
Holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. (Titus 1:9, italics mine)
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3, italics mine)
Paul and Jude brooked no compromise in the face of a culture that was more pluralistic than ours is. Compromise always dilutes belief and conviction. They did not view Christianity as one perspective among many or as one possible
interpretation of God; they viewed it as absolute truth.
Loss of Theological Soul
Evangelicals are now uncritical of culture because they have lost their theological bearings and doctrinal soul. Living the Christian life is no longer the application of truth to experience. The new focus is to find success, to function in society, and to seek self-fulfillment. Pop psychology is the new remedy for evangelical wholeness. Contemporary practicality has displaced application of doctrinal principles to life. Seminaries accommodate their curriculum to this new demand for church ministry. They shift from a doctrinal focus to training seminary students for successful careers in ministry. Denominations care little for maintaining their doctrinal distinctives. They accept the reality that churches no longer want pastors who teach the Word of God but who can meet the psychological needs of their members.
Pastors who declare the mind of God to the minds of man are now obsolete in favor of pastors who orient to practical interests. Churches want pastors who are leaders and meet psychological needs. There is little call for pastors who
preach the truth. This is nothing more than wide-ranging capitulation to culture.
Capitulation to culture occurred at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Liberals saw themselves as preserving the faith from modernity. Postevangelicals today see themselves as preserving evangelicalism from postmodernism. Both end with the same result—departure from the truth. Both have the same cause—doctrine falling into disrepute. To put it another way, loss of truth spells loss of the essence of Christianity. As Wells says, “It is this weakness, this loss of nerve that led Peter Berger to scoff that theologians today are so afraid of being pushed into the ditch by modernity that they have decided to fall into it of their own accord.”70
Modern society decided that a person defines what to believe, rejecting external authority because authority resides within. This is the essence of the battle— doctrine versus inner self-consciousness. At the end of the nineteenth century, the liberal rallying cry was “life, not doctrine,” and that is the rallying call of evangelicals today. Today’s postevangelical thinking finds itself deeply rooted in this relativizing process. Private belief without doctrinal distinctive is acceptable to a culture of pluralism. This is why postconservative evangelicals despise doctrine and certainty. They love belief but deride doctrine.
Out of pluralism and the philosophy that the individual person is the authority comes the viewpoint that no authority has ultimate truth. All viewpoints about life are interpretations of reality. This philosophy itself became the unexamined
and unchallenged belief system of pluralistic society. It became essential secular fundamentalism.
Secular fundamentalism defines the cultural sentiment of our day. Postevangelicals take their cue from this sentiment. The last thing they want is to lose face with culture, so they undermine their own convictions about truth. They do not want the world to see them as narrow minded or as those who challenge customary beliefs of society. They fear to stand apart from society, so they emasculate doctrine. Again, Wells explains:
That this emasculation has taken place among the evangelicals is, on the face of it, most surprising. After all, they have steadfastly resisted until relatively recently every attempt to ease the difficulty implicit in believing in truth in the modern world. . . . They staunchly opposed the Modernist effort to surrender doctrine in favor of “life,” as if religious consciousness could be a substitute for biblical truth. And it is as doctrinal people that they have defined themselves through much of the twentieth century. But this identity is now rapidly dissipating.71
Doctrine served evangelicals in maintaining the integrity of their convictions. Evangelicals used doctrine to establish standards for belief and ethics in the previous century. This affected how evangelicals functioned within society, and they held culture at arm’s length to protect these values. Worldliness was a rejection of the biblical values society currently held, so evangelicals recognized that the standard for measuring values was the inerrant, inspired Bible that spoke authoritatively to these values. David Wells distinguishes between the values of fundamentalism and evangelicalism: “The great sin in Fundamentalism is to compromise; the great sin in evangelicalism is to be narrow.”72 This change in attitude brought evangelicals into the mainstream of religious acceptance in North America. Wells maintains the point that when this happened, their ability to distinguish themselves from the world diminished.
For no sooner had the evangelicals begun to think like the status quo than their theological and moral distinctives began to evaporate like the morning midst. In entering the mainstream of American cultural life, they were brought face to face with the great shaping forces of modern life, and one of the immediate casualties was their sense of truth in both private and public life. Almost immediately, their capacity to think theologically about themselves and their world also disappeared.73
North Americans viewed evangelicals as having a certain kind of religious experience separate from their belief. Evangelicals came to terms with pluralism’s lack of interest in truth and came to believe that the movement does not need a doctrinal view of life. Wells makes the further point that evangelicals believe they need only experience, not doctrine.
Evangelicals today only have to believe that God can work dramatically within the narrow fissure of internal experience; they have lost interest (or perhaps they can no longer sustain interest) in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers, and even in those doctrines that articulate Christ’s death such as justification, redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. It is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people. For both Liberals and evangelicals, the search for “essence” has been a tactical retreat.74
Unwitting Contextualization of Truth
Postconservatives shape their theology and viewpoints from the prevailing demands of a psychology of conformity taken from a society that operates upon a presupposition of the self. Individualism has turned into a movement accountable only to the self, where all of life is psychologized in a shift from the objective to the subjective. No meaning exists beyond the self—a philosophy called solipsism—and objectivity is totally lost, with only private meaning remaining. This flies in the face of objective biblical viewpoint.
Postconservatives fail to recognize this shift from the objective view of truth to the subjective viewpoint, or perspective view of life, producing pervasive relativism that holds all ideas provisional. There are no objective grounds for coming to truth; thus there is no certainty, so life in postmodern North America becomes banal. We went through this once before with theological liberalism when that movement did not want to distinguish between belief and unbelief. Christianity, it held, was not about truth but about intuition and feeling, which has become the religion of “spirituality” of our day. Liberals traded in orthodox Christianity for a bowl of modernism’s porridge. They got a spot at the table of acceptance in modern society, but they lost their message and eventually dissolved from within by the end of the twentieth century. Evangelicals today are adapting their theology for a place of approval and acceptance, but they do not realize how much truth they have sold for a new porridge of subjective spirituality, nor how conviction about truth is on the wane among the general evangelical population. This new kind of evangelicalism is about system and style, and has very little to do with truth. We live in a day of spirituality without doctrine or truth. There are very few theologically shaped movements among evangelicals today.
Cultural nihilism is the psychological and philosophical popularization of postmodernism, and it maintains that life is made up of private preferences and perceptions. The nihilistic world, devoid of meaning, is indifferent toward convictions beyond the self. Movement occurs without a destination, leaving mankind with fragments of meaning but no whole. Uncertainty pervades everything with this assumption. Values are little more than preference.
The Word of God views the self as totally depraved and incapable of coming to truth autonomously. People need the Holy Spirit to “convict” them of the objective “truth” of the Word of God. Postevangelicals fail to recognize the depravity of human perspective without objective truth. Their thinking precludes accountability to an outside source of authority.
The 1960s brought a sense of despair, and that generation turned to the subjective self in search of hope. People began to search for transcendence in the mysticism of Eastern religions and in drugs. Self-consciousness did not produce the results for which they had hoped. There was a loss of what is normative. External objectivity buckled under the weight of the presupposition of the self as ultimate authority. North American culture now determines good and evil by the prevailing viewpoint at a given time and place. The culture defines what is right simply by definition from the winds of opinion. There is little or no conviction because there is nothing outside of self.
Evangelicalism previously held that orientation to life came as a by-product of applying the principles of Scripture to experience. Now evangelicals accept the idea that orientation comes from self-actualization or self-fulfillment. Effectiveness of personal experience ratifies fulfillment. This is the viewpoint of autonomy, which sets itself apart from the Word of God. The issue for postmoderns is not whether there is any objectivity in the experience but simply whether it appeals to the person. Accommodation to culture always results in disillusionment down the road, for unbiblical Christianity is always an illusion.
A postmodern view of Christianity will disappoint just as the liberal view did a century ago. Postconservatism no doubt will produce a robust following, but like all false teaching before it, it will end in despair. Just as liberalism ended in collapse, so will this form of evangelicalism. Liberalism based its belief system primarily on a form of experience, just as postevangelicalism has. Experience without truth is vacuous and will have the same ending. The therapeutic model
of experience without truth will cut the heart out of evangelicalism because of its premise that the self is autonomous. It is therapy without theology, but biblical Christianity rests on truth.
Genuine Christianity includes experience, but not experience autonomous from the Word of God. In this view, experience is subject to the norms of the Word of God. This requires an understanding of the principles of the Word of God and of how to apply those principles to experience. However, many evangelicals do not take this direction; they head pell-mell toward the cliff of inane subjective Christianity.
Listen to Wells:
Popular evangelical faith has developed a bias against theology (not to mention against the intellect), and what is more, it has elevated the bias to the level of a virtue, defending it as vigorously as democracy. In the presence of this bias, the leader is reduced to serving as a cautious pollster.75
There is great incredulity toward evangelical certainty, but if evangelicals do not have certainty, they have no message. Either evangelicals simply have a belief that they call their “story,” or they have a message that is certain and sure. Christianity rests on an indubitable first principle from which we can deduce the universal, absolute truth of God’s mind. The Bible is a deduction from God’s fixed principles. The Word is not derived from, or logically posterior to, sense experience. It transcends our experience. The Bible offers apodictic knowledge, certain knowledge, albeit not exhaustive universal knowledge. Insofar as God has spoken, it is objectively true and certain.
Pluralism Undermines Certainty
Christianity is fixed, absolute truth that does not adapt its message to culture, although it does adjust to culture in method. Cultural pluralism will not allow such exclusive truth, so some in the evangelical church adapt their message to the current condition. Postconservatism no longer defines itself doctrinally but rather stylistically, methodologically, and culturally. Doctrine is dying among and is no longer the center of evangelical belief, but is cast to the outer periphery of evangelical practice. Although evangelicals today hold to basic evangelical beliefs, those beliefs are now at the margins of their commitments. They relegate doctrine to the remote borders of evangelical life. Doctrine no longer defines what it means to be an evangelical. Secularism pours into this vacuum of evangelical conviction the normative assumptions of exclusion of religion. Something other than doctrine becomes the center of evangelical life. The practical displaces doctrine. This will take the passion and heart out of the evangelical movement. Wells says, “The most obvious consequence of this unabashed desertion of the cognitive substance of faith is one that few have pondered, at least out loud. It is the disappearance of conviction.”76
Postmodern evangelicals reject the ways of knowing from the Enlightenment but put priority on a system called deconstruction, a skeptical system that attempts to show inconsistences in postulates. Deconstruction accompanies postmodernism and seeks to take apart rational and objective ideas of modernism. By this, they deny objective truth and even the ability to know truth itself. However, the problem is that deconstructionism deconstructs itself!
Evangelical Daniel Taylor, in The Myth of Certainty, claims that evangelicals who assert certainty do so because they are insecure.77 Taylor ultimately retreats to reliance on faith without factuality. Luke, on the other hand, appealed to evidence by “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). Taylor is unaware of his dependence on the presupposition of philosophical pluralism.
Pluralism’s Correlation to Tolerance
Postevangelicals have changed the meaning of tolerance from the concept of charity toward people in a social sense to the acceptance of ideas in the philosophical sense, declaring most ideas equal in worth and validity. They hold not only to moral equivalence but to truth equivalence, and they view any criticism of others as narrow minded. The upshot of this distorted form of tolerance is reduced capacity to critique the most blatantly false religious beliefs. It leaves them vulnerable to pluralistic winds that blow nowhere, and with little conviction to convert those who embrace false doctrine. Religious pluralism elevates truth-equivalence above arriving at exclusive truth.
Postevangelicals portray evangelicals, with their intolerance to other ideas, as the quaint residue of a long-gone era. They see evangelicals as closed-minded and narrow bigots. D. A. Carson describes the new open-mindedness, which
no longer means that you may or may not have strong views yet remain committed to listening honestly to countervailing arguments. Rather, it means you are dogmatically committed to the view that all convictions [that hold] that any view whatsoever is wrong are improper and narrow-minded. In other words, open-mindedness has come to be identified not with the means of rational discourse, but with certain conclusions.78
Serious cracks in the evangelical worldview are beginning to emerge—cracks not of method but of message. This manifests itself in a social discourse that gives priority and protocol to unbiblical trends and snuggles up to the prevailing worldviews. But Christians must not inductively derive doctrine from social environments; rather, our doctrine is deductively obtained from the Word of God. Postevangelical postmoderns claim that a biblically deductive approach to worldview is a closed loop of bias toward the Word of God. This, to them, violates the principle of “provisionally coming to truth.” They view propositions as telling people what to think and not subjecting oneself to checks and balances, and they regard those who assert truth as defensive in their mindset and lacking in intellectual integrity on both the individual and institutional level. The resulting deductive or propositional approach encourages intellectual dishonesty because it flounders in the compartmentalized thinking of a closed loop of truth.
Personal View of Revelation
There is a tendency among postevangelicals to believe in personal revelation as over against propositional revelation. Bernard Ramm, Baptist theologian and apologist, switched from a propositional view of truth to a personal view of
truth after studying with Karl Barth (neo-orthodox and existential theologian). To Ramm, it is God who is infallible, not the human document of the Bible. The Bible is merely a witness to revelation.
Stanley Grenz suggests a closer relationship between inspiration and illumination. He sees a tie between community and how the Bible was produced. God did not write Scripture through individual Bible authors such as Paul; rather, the Bible was produced by the church community along with Paul. According to Millard J. Erickson, Grenz makes “no distinction between the norm and source of theology; the terms are, in fact, used interchangeably. This, however, seems to confuse two types of authority; or two roles of authorities, of originating or supplying the content of a theology and of interpreting, evaluating, or judging such content.”79 Grenz believes the debate between liberals and fundamentalists in the early twentieth century hardened the issue of inerrancy of Scripture so that evangelicals became card-carrying inerrantists. His view is that evangelicals need to return to a more personal relationship to the God of the nineteenth century, an experiential piety.
False Dichotomy: A Person and not a Proposition
The assertion that God is not a proposition but a person is a false dichotomy, for faith always rests on biblical content. How can someone trust in a God whom one knows nothing about? There can be no confidence in God’s trustworthiness and fidelity without first knowing the content that he is credible, immutable, and faithful to his promises. Faith does not seek understanding without having understanding first. There is no rejoicing in his presence without knowing that his presence is worthy of joy. In other words, Christianity does not rest on experience. There is no heart belief without head belief. Emotions follow belief, they do not lead belief. Experience is not the ultimate presupposition of Christian belief, for Christianity is more than personal encounter; it is an engagement with God’s truth about himself. It is no leap of faith into the dark, into propositionless content, but rather trust in God’s propositional content about himself. There is no irrationalism in biblical belief. Biblical belief rests on the internal consistency of the Bible, the reliability of its historicity, and the validity of its truth claims. All belief systems rest on presuppositions, but not all presuppositions are equally probable.
The essence of neo-orthodoxy is that truth is not propositional but personal, and that we do not find truth in objective statements but in a personal encounter with God. Neo-orthodoxy was existential theology, and emergents mimic neoorthodoxy. But propositions compel belief, and that is the emergent problem. Some ideas have to be true and others false. Emergents want to accommodate many ideas pluralistically, and propositions do not allow them to do it. Propositions do not lend themselves to synthesis but to certainty. But emergent preclude certainty by their acceptance of the presupposition of postmodernism. Their alternative is to turn to mystical experiences. It is too bad for them that we have to face right-brain issues in the Bible! Francis Schaeffer was correct; the neo-orthodox of his day had to “escape from reason.” The postconservative of our day places his faith in faith of whatever preferences he may hold, a faith that ends in mystical morass because it is alienated from the objective content of God’s Word. Jesus apart from the Word of God is an alien Jesus. In the next chapter, we examine the nature of deductive, conclusive truth and how we can know it.
Not Limiting Revelation to the Original Intent of the Text
Clark Pinnock buys into the view that revelation is not limited to the original intent of the text but that new revelation can arise out of an interaction between the text and the Spirit. He contends that God did not close the canon in the theological sense but that we can achieve a revelation beyond Scripture itself. The core of Christianity is the salvation story, not the safeguarding of the text and meaning of Scripture. The Christian community brings tradition ahead and can move revelation forward. We can add personal experiences to tradition and make it relevant to a person’s life. Reason is the result of a faith search. The task of theology is not to establish propositions but to tell the salvation story, Pinnock maintains.
These postconservatives want to dislodge evangelicals from thinking propositionally about the Word of God. They desire to “deconstruct” the Bible into doctrinal mush without conviction about sure truths. They contend that those who believe doctrines such as the virgin birth are believing in a “fall-back position” of the truthfulness of the Word of God. They want to abandon this mentality because they do not believe we can dogmatically establish the truthfulness of statements of Scripture. They see the problem as the expectations we bring to the text (interpolation) and not interpretation itself, and they caution that we need to be wary of treating the text of the Bible as a privileged text and, instead, treat it with more “contingency.” These postevangelical, postconservative postmoderns believe that we need to move away from doctrinal commitments to historical belief in Christianity, which in their viewpoint is to say very little, by the way. After all, what do we know about Jesus except through the Bible? Nevertheless, according to them, the evangelical is the one who lives in a glass house of bias. They view the evangelical notion of salvation as “myth” embodied in elaborate propositions.
Postevangelicals believe that evangelicals adopted the philosophy of modernism. Through this grid, evangelicals deciphered propositions that came from our cultural environment since the Age of Enlightenment. According to postevangelicals, evangelicals explain the world by naturalistic assumptions. For this reason, postconservatives need to “deconstruct” doctrines that rose out of doctrinal battles. They view the Bible as having little certainty and possessing errancy.
According to these people, we need to buy into the “narrative theology” of continuing interpretation that has few fixed conclusions. We must reinvent the Bible for our postmodern generation. We should take the didactic, doctrinal passages of Scripture with a grain of salt because the global, literary, and narrative passages appeal to postmoderns. Postconservatives tend to equate propositional statements of Scripture as “proof-texting.” The worst error, they would say, is to believe what we have been told. We need to reject all those years of progress of doctrine where scholars worked long and hard to carefully conclude truth of Scripture. This is the only way to rediscover the truth of Scripture in a postmodern culture. We need to reject the propositional model because it is inflexible.
The postevangelical postmodern approach to Christianity is a house of cards that destabilizes essential tenets of evangelical faith. Postevangelicalism, finding its roots in current postmodern skepticism toward objective truth, has difficulty in coming to exclusive claims of Christ and Christianity. The horrible thought that Christianity is superior to other religions is foreboding to a pluralistic mindset. The assumption of both philosophical and religious pluralism preys on the postevangelicals’ minds and controls their viewpoints.
Minimizing Certainty by Hermeneutics
According to McLaren, the fact that Bible requires interpretation introduces huge doubt into the attempt to find certainty about what God said. Thus, interpretation creates a “problem” for certainty.80 However, God clearly expects the Bible to be understood with perspicuity (1 Corinthians 2; 2 Peter 1).
Postmodern presumption is the assumption of pluralism. No other ideology has the right to pronounce itself right except pluralism. This is unadulterated presumption, for no claim can be true except the claim that pluralism is true. Those who hold any truth hold it arbitrarily. They construct it arbitrarily; consequently they must deconstruct it by the assumptions of pluralism.
Most people do not understand how they came to believe in pluralism, but it is a commonly held belief on the streets of North America and Europe. This culture precludes absolutes and final truth. It is a society without conviction. No wonder relativism is the norm of culture; we live in a culture of consensus. All so-called truth is subjective and individualistic. By absorbing and declaring it true, postevangelicals capitulate to culture. They are awash in radical subjectivism and antipathy toward certainty. This timid approach toward truth does not assert itself above other claims about reality. It tries to include as many people
in the kingdom with as broad a swath as possible. Some go so far as to believe that other religions can save people eternally.
Unbelievers of the mid-twentieth century rejected Christianity because it was unbelievable, but today they reject it because it claims exclusive truth. True evangelicals hold to truth that stands in accord with the law of non-contradiction; that is, if Christianity is true, then other claims about God are false. This does not imply that religions of the world have no truth whatsoever. Judaism holds to one God and that is a truth. There is no religious parity if the Bible is true; otherwise, there could be no heresy. Warping of the Bible by postevangelicals creates a softening of conviction about what they believe, as we will see in the next chapter.
Adding to doctrinal aberrance, postconservatives have entered into the fallacy of accommodating truth to culture by imbibing postmodernism as an interpreting principle of Christianity. Deconstruction was originally a method of literary criticism. Today deconstructionists say we must deconstruct all assertions of belief. We cannot know objective reality and there is no transcendent meaning. The universe is closed to outside influence such as the Word of God, so all reality is subjective. Reality, such as it is, comes to us only through language.
The objective of postconservatives is not to find the original meaning of the author but the subjective interpretation of the reader. They deeply resent “totalizing” or coming to a universal truth, because they judge that holding to a universal creates power-lust and dominance over other groups.
The task of deconstruction is to expose contradictions and reveal the hidden meaning behind beliefs. Deconstruction tries to expose social or personal motivation behind those who claim to arrive at truth. We live in a day wherein postconservatives seek to “deconstruct” what evangelicals previously believed. They want to redesign, redefine, and reconstruct evangelical doctrine just as the liberals did before them. They move our belief-system from the objective Word of God into a mishmash of countervailing opinions, undermining the inerrancy of Scripture and the omniscience of God himself. This is a great danger to biblical Christianity, and few recognize this seismic shift right under our noses. Once this shift takes place, evangelical values and morality will take on very a different picture. Evangelicals have already caved in to unbiblical egalitarianism, but this is just the beginning of this evangelical disaster.
Postconservatives attempt to deconstruct the propositional approach to Christianity by evangelicals of the twentieth century. They assert that these evangelicals bought into assumptions of modernism that claim to come to conclusions about truth. They say there is arrogance and moral superiority in making exclusive claims of certainty.
Evangelicals of the twentieth century rejected the subjective experientialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The liberal position was a presupposition based on the self’s ability to come to truth autonomously.
Today’s postconservatives follow closely on the heels of that view.
Postmodern philosophers take a “linguistic turn” when they declare that we cannot come to know the real world as such. The only way we can come to perspectives on truth is through our communities. We cannot know the essence of language because that would mean we could know something as it actually is. No, all we can know are languages being used in particular times and places. According to postmodern philosophy, our talk about reality shapes reality for us. There is no universal truth, objective truth, or meaning that corresponds to facts. All perspectives are embedded in the community’s viewpoint. Even though evangelicals claim that Jesus is the exclusive way to God, there is no way to prove it.
Postconservatives claim to be evangelicals not because of propositions from God’s Word but because their community shapes their thinking. This raises the question as to why their community is the right community. Objective reality is unknowable to them. Christianity is functional rather than propositional. For them, a doctrine is true because of what it does (it forms a way of life), not because of what it says, not because of a correspondence between the doctrine or proposition and reality. All this boils down to the presupposition that the self is the source and arbiter of truth. This approach starts with the self rather than with the deductive presupposition that God spoke in his Word. It all rests on the ineffable experience of the self as a particular linguistic member of a believing community. This new form of modernism rests on the self rather than the God who has spoken.
Deconstructionists view all interpretations of Scripture as subjective. We get the answer from the Bible that we ask of it. There is no objective answer in Scripture. Absolute and objective truth is a polemic people use with those who agree with them. Above all, they desire ambiguity and not clarity of position or certainty. This is postmodern interpretation (hermeneutics). It is a usurpation of the authority of both the Holy Spirit and the original human writer of Scripture. The postmodern brings meaning to the text. The reader then becomes the author of the meaning of the Bible.
Churches use this process (often unintentionally) in their small groups. Rather than teach a passage didactically, they dialogue by thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The group comes to consensus about the meaning of the text. The new synthesis is the formulation for belief.
McLaren believes that although Protestants “transferred the fulcrum or center of authority from the church to the Bible . . . the Bible requires human interpretation, which was a problem.” He sees the issue as knowing “nothing of the Bible without my own involvement via interpretation” (italics mine).81 He thinks that appeal to principles of hermeneutics is an appeal to authority.82 He characterizes evangelicals as afraid to ask whether authority rests in the Bible or the church, which is ridiculous; this, along with his other statements, makes me think that he is uninformed about evangelical scholarship or that he intentionally falsifies that scholarship.
Once again McLaren characterizes evangelicalism as something it is not. He says that conservative biblical interpretation justified dubious causes such as “slavery, male chauvinism, horrific treatment of aboriginal peoples, identifying the mentally ill as witches.”83 What evangelical scholarship holds this today? This is clear characterization and a straw man. The reason McLaren can do this is that he overlaps generalized Protestantism of centuries ago with evangelicals of today.84
Another characterization by him is that evangelicals are involved in “namecalling,” as if the issue were not content but simple, shrill distortions of other positions. McLaren’s lack of fairness is staggering. He does this under an organizational assumption of Christianity.85
Does the Bible put an end to further investigation or is it a platform for constant uncertainty? Every system ends its search in its first principle. If God has a final answer, then the search must stop somewhere; if there is no final answer, there is no basis to establish an objection. The dialectical process of McLaren never ends, so dialecticism can never decide. This is chaotic skepticism. This dialectic of change and continuity leans on a flawed method, for the Bible presents itself propositionally, l logically. There is such a thing as real apostasy and heresy. There is no way to determine what is true from what is false apart from propositions of Scripture.
It is also the view of William James, a pragmatist philosopher, that knowledge is an instrumental process, not a conclusion; as well, personal will and interest are primary. For him, truth is only the expedient in our way of thinking. Ideas do not produce objects but prepare the way for them. This unadulterated pragmatism, a philosophy of pure experience, is devoid of conclusions about truth. Thinking must of necessity reject all transcendent truth and find experience organized by means of conjunctive relations that are a matter of direct experience as the things themselves. There is much of William James in McLaren.
Orthodoxy is more than process and pursuit of truth;86 it is conclusion about truth. If everything is process, then everything is a possibility and not finality. The book of Romans specifically argues that God is absolutely righteous and requires human beings to be declared as absolutely righteous as he is righteous by faith alone in Christ alone. This belief requires conclusion. This is why McLaren does not like propositions—because there are conclusions from propositions. Jesus scorched the Pharisees with his words, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me” (John 8:44–45, italics mine). Jesus did this because they would not come to a correct conclusion about truth. The opposite is a lie of the devil. Jesus made a claim of mutually exclusive truth (cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12—two other mutually exclusive claims for truth).
Achilles’ Heel—Accommodation to Prevailing Worldview
If anyone interprets Scripture through culture, it is the postevangelical postmoderns. They charge that evangelicals formulated doctrines from the philosophy and science of modernism; however, the truth is that most evangelicals stood apart from modernism as critics of the assumptions of modernism. They tookthe good of modernism, such as logic and true science, but rejected the methodology as an ultimate presupposition for finding truth. Yet the postevangelical postmoderns buy into postmodernism both as a method and as truth. This is their Achilles’ heel, for they accommodate truth to the prevailing worldview.
Postevangelicals are so afraid that postmoderns might view Christianity as unreasonable from within the premise of postmodernism that they are willing to go AWOL from doctrinal truth. They reject the thought that most of the Bible is
self-evident because they fear ridicule from postmodern thought. They want to run from the idea that Christianity is a struggle between truth and error because they must view truth from a collection of perspectives. Their idea is that the evangelical doctrinal viewpoint is leaky, as if interpretation of Scripture is without scholarship and rational care.
Priority on Experience
Another fallacy among postevangelicals is their attempt to reduce Christianity to religious experience devoid of substantial truth. The other day I heard an evangelical pastor say that we need to reduce Christianity down to the “smallest orthodox box possible.” He is afraid of orthodoxy because the more creedal we are, the less acceptable we are to people in postmodernism. The postevangelicals must open the loop of truth and reject the closed loop of evangelicalism. The main issue in opening the “loop” is to reject the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. By doing this, they lose their identity with any sense of being evangelical.
Postevangelicals want evangelicals to buy into both a new way of looking at truth and a new way of coming to truth. These people no longer hold to an inerrant Bible based upon corresponding facts.87 Neither do they any longer hold to absolute truth, but rather to truth in process that is provisionally believed.88 Truth is in chaotic, constant revision. This results in aversion to conclusion and conviction. There is then nothing self-evident about the Bible. It is just a collection of incoherent miscellaneous texts.
Postevangelicals create their own gods of subjectivism and relativism from culture. They abandon objective, propositional truth—absolute truth. Truth to them is personal. Each person has personal truth, and they do not believe in universal truths. Truth is what one’s group believes. They have lost a sense of certainty about their beliefs. R. Albert Mohler calls this a “promise of polymorphous perversity.”89 This results in cultural accommodation to the gods of this world.
Note David F. Wells’s explanation of the change to a theology of experience
beginning in the 1960s:
It was these experiences that became the organizing centers in these new theologies, none of them making any pretension to having universal truth. They did not believe that there is such a thing. They were, therefore, expressions of our multiculturalism, and the intellectual currency in which they traded was pluralism.90
Planting Seeds of One’s Own Destruction
Postmodern evangelicals are planting seeds for their own destruction. Spirituality without propositions from the Word will iroduce Christian living without mooring. Everyone will do what is right in their own eyes by claiming, “I prefer to believe this truth.” Truth, then, is not truth but personal preference. They believe what they prefer to believe.
How can evangelicals proclaim the gospel to people to whom the knowability of truth is not possible? This is a crisis of certainty in evangelism. The postevangelical postmodern believes that one can reach others only by the relative truth limited to oneself and others in one’s community. One must abandon pursuit of universal truth that is true for all people in all time and in all places.
Postevangelicals use deconstructionism to strip texts of inherent meaning. Language is nothing but a social construct of personal perspective. Each interpreter is free to fashion meaning according to personal preference. This strips Scripture of authority and places the interpreter above the text. The interpreter does not get God’s message but a personal message from the text.
The rejection of the knowability of God is a way to reject universal truth and norms. People do not like to “retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:28). Urge for sexual freedom and perversion correlates closely with rejection of truth (John 3:19; Romans 1). Rational arguments will not reach people who have a proclivity to reject truth. Only the convincing work of the Holy Spirit will penetrate their bias (1 Corinthians 2:4).
Covert Claim of Rejecting Certainty
Postevangelicals who use postmodern methodology buy into pluralistic doctrine that denies others what they claim for themselves. Rejection of certainty covertly claims to know something (i.e., that you cannot know). This is an unadulterated assumption—a presupposition—about how to know. In other words, it is an act of faith. The contention that one cannot know something is an assertion incapable of proof. A more honest affirmation by the postevangelical would be that he does not believe that anyone can know truth and that he might be wrong in that belief. Postevangelical rejection of certainty is a perversion of belief. Instead of buying into postmodernism, evangelicals would do much better to use the method of the apostle Paul in dealing with the question of truth, which we will discuss later (1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16).
Neither Modernism nor Postmodernism
The question of certainty asks, How you can know that what you know is true? In turn, we could ask the postmodern, How can you be certain that you cannot be certain?
As modernism did not defeat Christianity, neither will postmodernism. A Christian who accepts a modernist or postmodern view of truth as the basic methodology for reaching postmoderns will undermine the truth of the Word and thus not effectively reach postmoderns. Christians cannot both accept and deny special revelation as theory laden.
Postmodernism is a wonderful opportunity for evangelism because it is self-vanquishing and challenges common sense. We will develop this more in the chapter “Reaching Those Without a Place to Stand.”
Postmodernism is an indication of the bankruptcy of modernism. Postevangelicalism is an indication of the bankruptcy of present-day evangelicalism. Present-day postevangelicals are faddists who seek the novelty of cultural trends. By taking this approach, they must deny truth claims. Christian media types have great difficulty on television when the hosts asks them, “Is Jesus the only way to heaven?” and “Will Muslims or Jews not make it to heaven?” Their approach allows for no narrow gate of faith alone in Christ alone. Some of the proponents of postmodernism within “evangelicalism” are Thomas Oden, Stanley Grenz (deceased), James McClendon, Nancey Murphy, Clark Pinnock (deceased), and Robert Webber (deceased).
Postmodernism rests on the theory of probability and a posteriori approach to truth. It also rejects the correspondent view of truth. Evangelicals who abandon objective truth abandon authoritative truth. Modernism made mankind the end of mankind, whereas postmodernism seeks to dismantle the absolute nature of God. This affects everything an evangelical believes, especially revelation and certainty. Approximate knowledge of God produces a probable notion of truth. This is why postevangelicals want to renew evangelical theology.91 Perpetual renewing or revisoning of Christianity weakens the authority of Scripture as factually true and its ability to reach all people of all time in all cultures. Postconservatives negate propositions of Scripture for accommodation to custom. Their theology rests on the imagination.
Radical postmoderns hold that we do all our knowing from a particular perspective and that each perspective is equally true. They do not find meaning objectively in the original intention of the writer or speaker but in the hearer’s perspective of it. This might arise out of a worldview of sociology. Because we find competing ethnic and cultural perspectives in close proximity, we must reduce perspectives to the lowest common denominator for the purposes of harmony. Evangelical postmoderns want to address this issue, but in doing so they fail miserably. David Wells makes the point that individualized, private faith loses it power:
As the nostrums of the therapeutic age supplant confession, and as preaching is psychologized, the meaning of Christian faith becomes privatized. At a single stroke, confession is eviscerated and reflection reduced mainly to thought about one’s self.92
Wells’s point is that truth adapted to culture does not transcend the individual. The modern pagan finds truth in private experience. The Christian view of truth requires us to believe in truth as absolute and not found essentially in experience, so truth transcends privatized experience. The Bible is not true simply for individuals or true for our time; it is true for all people universally and for all time.93 The Bible stands in antithesis to the prevailing relativism of our culture. If something is true, then its opposite is false. No one can claim truth without antithesis.
Many postmoderns are afraid to assert a final or universal truth that stands in antithesis to prevailing ideas because they accept the idea that there is nothing but perspectives on truth—no one has final certainty about truth. This theory is
blind to its own postmodern system for determining what is true. The idea that all theories are social constructions bites its own hand in that postmodernism is a social construction.94 This is a vicious cycle of irrationality in its system of approaching reality. The theory by definition precludes mutually exclusive approaches to reality and thus presumes to know something about reality. All of this ties to the postmodern viewpoint on truth.
The perspective theory, when applied to morals, quickly breaks down. Does a pedophile have equivalent right to a preference to molest children as does the parent who wants to protect a child? Moral equivalence cannot stand the tests of society. In reading A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, we find many politically left opinions about how we should view the world. Why should social justice be any kind of norm over any other norm if they are all perspectives? His view originates from the desire for autonomy. There are no absolutes because there is no absolute truth. Because postevangelicals have no absolutes, they cannot truly make the claim that “racism is evil.” This is why certain postevangelicals wobble on issues like homosexuality.
Those who hold to truth orientation do not deny that interpreters of reality have their perspective. Culture and experience do influence our perspective or viewpoint, but it is possible to know some things truly, as we will see in later chapters.
Sufficiency of Scripture
Bold confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture and competence of interpretation of Scripture will allow us to formulate principles for living the Christian life. This will preclude unhealthy skepticism toward Scripture.
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them Your servant is warned, And in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:7–11)
God’s communication of objective, propositional truth indicates his transcendent ability to communicate himself to people. If God cannot effectively communicate himself to man, then no one can have certainty of the truth of Jesus or of salvation but only an approximate understanding. If the Holy Spirit can communicate across time and culture, the Word will give conviction and certainty. Satan veils truth (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6). If we abandon the ability to know with certainty, then we are left to our own inventions and autonomy from God. Postevangelicals make a paradigm shift away from evangelicalism by accepting this view. There is little hope of the non-Christian coming to knowledge of the truth autonomous from God’s revelation.
Postevangelicals want to believe in the ancient creeds and Jesus. What is there basis for doing so? They criticize evangelicals for asserting justification by faith alone, but why should anyone believe in Jesus at all? What is the verification for that? All they have in the end is a preference for believing in Jesus. What they argue against is a degree of subjective confidence that Jesus is Lord, but why should anyone hold to that minimalist belief? There is no way to find Jesus except through extant statements in Scripture. There is little ground in postmodernism for passionate conviction, as over against the powerful propositions in extant, explicit statements of Scripture. If asked to suffer martyrdom, there is little conviction in subjective preference to do so because there is little certainty that one is right about what one believes. All the postconservative postmodern can do is live in a selected fraternity with little authority to speak outside the fraternity.