In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty and Alice share this playful exchange:
“And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
While Carroll wrote long before the rise of postmodernism, his fictional dialogue anticipated the hermeneutical chaos raised in postmodern thinking. We see Alice’s confusion and Humpty Dumpty’s disdain. Alice can’t quite wrap her mind around what Humpty Dumpty is saying; meanwhile Humpty Dumpty appears to enjoy the confusion his semantic wordplay is causing. This is the same kind of confusion postmoderns champion. Carroll’s fantasy has become reality. Postmodernism raises fundamental questions about the validity of communication. Questions such as, where does meaning originate? Who (or what) controls meaning? How do we know what truth is? Is truth objective and knowable? Is communication even possible?
The purpose of this article is to help believers better understand postmodernism and how postmodern thinking has affected the interpretation of the Bible. After exploring the historical roots of postmodernism, we will discuss what postmodern hermeneutics looks like and how it has crept into Christianity. Finally, I will offer some guidance for how followers of Christ should respond to postmodernism.
The Rise of Postmodernism
In order to understand postmodernism, it is helpful to survey its historical background. Scholars basically divide Western thought into three basic eras: premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism. In the premodern worldview, there was a basic belief in God. The Bible was accepted as true and trustworthy and therefore authoritative. Truth was thought to exist “from above,” as revealed by God. It was objective and knowable. In the area of hermeneutics there was a variety of approaches toward the Bible. Most premodern theologians, however, shared a common understanding that the meaning of the text could be uncovered and understood. There was confidence that God’s authorial intent in Scripture could be discovered though the study of God’s Word.
The Enlightenment marked the beginning of the modern era in Western thought. With the rise of reason in religion and philosophy, rationalism became the accepted authority. The supernaturalism of the Bible came under attack as theologians began to doubt the miraculous. The miracles of the Bible were accounted for or explained away through natural means. Truth was still thought to be objective and knowable, but instead of coming from God it was found in the material world. Truth was thought to be discovered primarily through rational and empirical means—the scientific method. Generally, modernists believed they could investigate and gather data objectively without bias. Hermeneutically, modernism asserted that the meaning of a text can be discovered primarily through historical reconstruction. Kevin Vanhoozer affirms, “While modern historical critics may not view the authors of the Bible as inspired, the original meaning remains the object of interpretation for them as well.”1 In relation to the Bible, this led to the historical critical method.2 Historical criticism led to entrenched skepticism and anti-supernaturalism about the Bible’s historicity. Historical critics demanded that biblical miracles must be interpreted with the experience of today. In other words, since modernists did not see or experience miracles, they believed that miracles simply are not possible. Vanhoozer summarizes the similarity between the premodern and the modern eras: “the pursuit of premodernity and modernity alike shared a similar aim in interpretation: to recover the meaning of the text, understood in terms of the intention of the author… . In short, the author’s intention is the object of traditional interpretation, the longed-for ‘home of meaning’ where the author’s will, words, and world coincide.”3
Many believe that postmodernism, which arose in the second half of the twentieth century, is the logical outcome of modernism:4
“Postmodernism is a reaction (or perhaps more appropriately, a disillusioned response) to modernism’s failed promise of using human reason alone to better mankind and make the world a better place.”5
Postmodernism finds its roots in existential philosophy as expressed in especially the writings of Martin Heidegger. One of its defining goals is the disavowal of objective truth.6 For postmoderns, truth is not something to be found or discovered. This type of pursuit is impossible for a couple of reasons. First, truth cannot be discovered because every interpreter is laden with pre understanding and biases that prevent him from seeing outside his own situation. Second, postmoderns reject the existence of universal metanarratives to explain the world—absolute truths do not exist in postmodern thinking.7 Instead, postmodernism sees truth as relative and subjective. Each interpreter creates his or her own truth. What is true for one may not be true for another. The ultimate authority is not found in God (premodernism), the world (modernism), but the individual. D. A. Carson states this well: “Postmodernism is an outlook that depends not a little on what are perceived to be the fundamental limitations on the power of interpretation: that is, since interpretation can never be more than my interpretation or our interpretation, no purely objective stance is possible.”8 Truth is merely how each individual perceives it.
The ramifications of postmodernism have been catastrophic not only in hermeneutics but across society. Morally, people have abandoned absolutes and opted for radical relativism. Right is now wrong, and wrong is right. Culturally, society has plunged headlong into radical pluralism.9 It is no longer acceptable to hold exclusive beliefs. In fact, one is expected to approve others’ beliefs. Tolerance is now society’s greatest virtue. In relation to religion, postmodernism leads ultimately to universalism. Hermeneutically, it has led to the abandonment of truth and the absence of meaning. As an absolute, postmodernism espouses the untenable conundrum that no one can claim the truth. Carson asserts, “Philosophical pluralism has generated many approaches in support of one stance: namely, that any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong.”10 Abdu Murray claims that the culture is now post-truth.11 The Oxford Dictionary, which selected “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year, defines it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”12 Murray explains that in post-truth thinking facts are subordinated to preferences.
(Next: The Hermeutics of Postmodernism).
1 Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 47.
2 See Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology: Reflections of a Bultmannian Turned Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2001).
3 Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text, 74.
4 Robert McQuilkin and Bradford Mullen, “The Impact of Postmodern Thinking on Evangelical Hermeneutics,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 40 (1997): 69–71. Michael Adeyemi Adegbola, “Evangelical Critique of the Influence of Postmodern Worldview on Biblical Hermeneutics, Christian Theology and the Emerging Church Movement (ECM),” Ogbomoso Journal of Theology 20 (2015): 67–69.
5 Yam Adu-Gyamfi, “Adverse Effects of Postmodernism on Interpretation of the Bible,” Ogbomoso Journal of Theology 20 (2015): 1. See Kevin Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity: A Report on Knowledge (of God),” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. K. Vanhoozer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 6–9.
6 Abdu Murray, Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), 14.
7 Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity,” 9–10.
8 D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, 15th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 57.
9 Carson, The Gagging of God, 13–54.
10 Carson, The Gagging of God, 19.
11 Murray, Saving Truth, 12–15.
12 Amy B. Wang, “‘Post-Truth’ Named 2016 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries,” Washington Post, November 16, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-nam….