Biblical Hermeneutics and Postmodernism, Part 2

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The Hermeneutics of Postmodernism

The hermeneutics of postmodernism are very diverse and difficult to understand.13 Written communication has three components: the author, the text, and the reader. As already noted, premodern and modern interpreters tried to uncover the intention of the author as expressed in the text. What is consistent in postmodern approaches of interpretation is that the author no longer controls the meaning of the text. Authorial intention is irrelevant in postmodern interpretation. Further, the text itself does not control meaning. The text is devoid of meaning altogether. In postmodern thinking, the reader not only controls the meaning but actually creates it. The text is merely an opportunity to explore the reader’s own perspectives. Vanhoozer explains: “Postmodernity is the triumph of situatedness—in race, gender, class—over detached objectivity… . Postmoderns typically think of interpretation as a political act, a means of colonizing and capturing texts and whole fields of discourse.”14

The autonomy of the reader is seen in the field of poststructuralism, for example. Poststructuralists see a text as a web of signs with infinite possible meanings—a playground for playing semantic games. Language is open-ended and detached from historical references. Another common postmodern approach is reader-response, as promoted by Stanley Fish.15 Fish argues that since it is impossible to recover the authorial intent, interpretive communities should read texts for their own benefit. So interpretive communities should legitimately read their own meanings into texts. Perhaps the most radical school of thought within postmodernism is deconstruction. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida, also known as the father of philosophic postmodernism, developed deconstruction to free the reader from philosophic restraints to find meaning.16 Following Friedrich Nietzsche, he attacked Western philosophy and especially traditional views on epistemology—the theory of knowledge and truth. In order to better grasp postmodernism, one must begin to wade into the quagmire of epistemology, metaphysics, and theories of truth.17 Adu-Gyamfi summarizes this well: “Postmodernism permits the reader unlimited freedom in reading, complete autonomy, the liberty or license to interpret the text without restraint. Once the text is empty of any objective content, it is open to any number of readings. So the postmodern reader, critical and creative, takes on an unprecedented significance by subjectively constructing meaning.”18

Postmodernism and Christianity

Postmodern theology is very diverse and varied.19 Many of its forms are extensions of liberal theology within a postmodern worldview. What postmodern theologians share is a rejection of any kind of universal metanarratives, or absolute truths. Consequently, they resist systematic approaches to theology and the Bible. For postmodern theologians, theological systems exclude and marginalize to make things fit the system, and therefore, repress ideas and other interpreters. Instead they use the Bible to affirm their own situation or cause.20 Interpreting the Bible is about contextualizing it for their respective context.

Some evangelicals have also ventured into postmodernism in an attempt for relevancy. Here are a couple of examples. First, the Emergent Church movement sprang up rapidly in the mid-2000s with national figures such as Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Mark Driscoll. While emergent church leaders promised relevancy, the movement ultimately has proved to erode theological and moral foundations within Christianity.21 Second, and more substantial, is postconservative theology as represented by Stanley Grenz, Roger Olson, and Nancey Murphy. Osborne characterizes their approach as follows: “They believe the emphasis must shift from battles over the Bible, theological details and liberalism to a new constructive theology that is more open to innovation and movement… . Postconservatives have abandoned foundationalism and believe that the spiritual experience of the church community should take priority over propositional truth—a relational theology.”22 They also take a much softer approach toward dialogue with nonconservatives.

Conclusion: A Call for Vigilance

Christians need to understand what postmodernism is and how it affects hermeneutics. Postmodernism undercuts the very possibility of interpreting and applying the Bible. Throughout church history, followers of Christ have believed that the Bible is God’s Word—God’s revealed truth about Himself and His works in written form. Postmodernism destroys the concept of objective truth and undermines the interpretive process. The church needs vigilance to promote a high view of Scripture and to handle the Word of God correctly.

Furthermore, believers need to understand postmodernism so that they are better equipped to reach people who are entrenched in a postmodern worldview. Postmodern thinking has greatly affected our culture. Relativism, skepticism, and pluralism are common. Christians need to know how to answer postmoderns’ questions and provide a reasonable defense for their faith. The church needs vigilance to share and defend the faith.

Finally, the church needs vigilance to prepare the next generation to face the challenges of postmodernism. Equipping youth with a biblical worldview is essential if they are to avoid the moral and philosophical relativism in our culture. High school and college students are abandoning the church in alarming numbers. Pastors and parents need to equip youth for the postmodern world they will encounter.

Reposted with permission from Faith Pulpit. First appeared in FrontLine magazine, January/February 2020. Photo: Max Kleinen.

Notes

13 These titles provide helpful summaries of postmodernism’s hermeneutics: Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. and expanded 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 465–520; and John S. Feinberg, No One like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 95–109.

14 Kevin Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 48 (2005): 92.

15 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

16 Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 482.

17 See David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003).

18 Adu-Gyamfi, “Adverse Effects of Postmodernism,” 7–8.

19 Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity,” 19–20.

20 Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity,” 16.

21 See, for example, Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), and Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).

22 Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 402.

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There are 2 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Good article, but noticably dated.

Rob Bell, McClaren, etc., would no longer be considered "emergent."  I don't know if the Emergent Church really exists in its true form today.  It has submerged, and I can't say I miss it.

"The Midrash Detective"

JBL's picture

I'm skeptical of the thesis claimed here that post-modernism represents a new, more severe threat to Biblical hermeneutical fidelity than prior eras of Western secular philosophical thought.

Regardless of the prevailing secular philosophy of the day, man has always rejected, ridiculed, and ignored the absolute truth of God's word.  The framework that he uses to reject Biblical truth changes, but the end result is the same: skepticism of God's word and its place as the arbiter of supreme truth.

  • Pre-Modernism:    There are so many gods, how do we know that Jehovah is the true God?
  • Modernism:           How can we trust the claims of Bible if they are not verifiable or observable?
  • Post-Modernism:   If there is no absolute truth, how can we accept any source that claims it holds                                         absolute truth?

In short, all secular worldviews are in diametric opposition to the Biblical worldview, and one is not better than another in terms of being closer to Biblical truth.  Furthermore, false teachers and interpreters have always been around regardless of the time period.  The New Testament apostolic authors, all of whom lived in the pre-modern era, have written extensively about the this threat and how it would come both from inside and outside the church.

What post-modernism has changed is the willingness of secular societies to embrace the moral and cultural ethos of any faith-based religion.  From this standpoint, I would agree that religion has much lower potential to influence the world in the post-modern era than the pre-modern era.  Is it therefore not a stretch to attribute the political hand-wringing of American Christianity over the past 60 years to this observation?

It is also unclear to me why Christians should expect anything other than complete alienation to this world and the world's political systems in the sense that it should find neither spiritual or physical comfort nor philosophical refuge in either of them.  

John B. Lee

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