Postmodern theology denotes that branch of contemporary Christian thought which appropriates postmodernism’s theoretical assumptions and critical methodologies to articulate varying theological perspectives within the frameworks of liberal and orthodox theologies.
Western culture has been in the grip of a postmodern movement and mood since the 1960s. Today, it influences disciplines as diverse as mathematics and literature. This article surveys the impact of postmodernism on the field of theology in three sections. The first consists of a broad overview of philosophical and theological postmodernism. The next division explores some of the common features of postmodern theology vis-à-vis five biblical doctrines: Scripture, God, human beings, Christ, and the Church. The final section offers a succinct reflection on postmodern theology.
An Overview of Philosophical and Theological Postmodernism
Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) famously defined postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.”1 Lyotard elaborated that postmodernism harbors a lingering suspicion of all grandnarratives (the overarching stories that explain everything else). Thus, postmodernism epitomizes a critical reaction against modernism and its Enlightenment presuppositions: the autonomy and sufficiency of human reason, the certainty and objectivity of knowledge, as well as the supremacy of science. More particularly, postmodernism disavows modernism’s commitment to certainty, unity, master-story, and truth; instead, it celebrates distrust, ambiguity, multiplicity, stories, and truths.2
The transition from the modern to the postmodern emerged gradually with contributions from several sources. Best and Kellner trace the “postmodern turn” in their etiology of postmodernism to the cultural upheavals in 1960s France.3 Other factors, for instance, Heidegger’s investigations into metaphysics and Wittgenstein’s studies in linguistics, promoted the rise of postmodernism. Scholars, however, designate the existentialist Fredrick Nietzsche (1844–1900) as the “patron saint” of postmodernism. He strenuously opposed modernism and claimed, for example, that language cannot convey ultimate reality: “there are no facts,” he announced, “only interpretations.”
Nietzsche’s hermeneutic of suspicion resurfaced in the subsequent works of leading French theorists, among whom were Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Jacques Derrida (1930–2004). Foucault assaulted the Enlightenment’s belief in the objectivity of knowledge, contending that bodies of knowledge are not autonomous structures, but linked to systems of social control. Therefore, unmasking the power behind texts—rather than seeking objective truth—is the purview of hermeneutics. For his part, Derrida (the “father of deconstructionism”) attempted to displace logocentrism (the metaphysical assumptions inherent in texts). He dismissed the notion that words convey meaning and coined the term differance to indicate that words differ from and defer to other words. In sum, Derrida rejected the belief in foundational truth and the possibility of objective interpretation and located meaning in the dialogue between interpreter and text.
Derrida’s deconstructionism influences many disciplines, and not least theology. The earliest thinkers to discover “attractive tools” in postmodernism for the theological task were “death of God” theologians. Carl A. Raschke published The Alchemy of the Word, and Thomas J. J. Altizer, et al., Deconstruction and Theology in the 1970s and 80s. But Mark C. Taylor’s Erring: A Postmodern A/Theology, made the first explicit reference to postmodern theology in its title. Today, many theologians embrace postmodernism. They, of course, are not all deconstructive theologians. David Ray Griffin enumerates four varieties of postmodern theology: deconstructive (or eliminative), constructive (or revisionary), liberationist, and conservative (or restorationist).4 Kevin Vanhoozer lists seven variants: Anglo-American postmodernity, postliberal theology, postmetaphysical theology, deconstructive theology, reconstructive theology, feminist theology, and radical orthodoxy.5
Postmodern theologians (like erstwhile “death of God” theologians) do not advocate completely novel convictions but frequently re-dress bygone liberal positions in new garb. Consider, for example, reconstructive theologians: they communicate a nuanced version of Alfred North Whitehead’s process theology. Likewise, postmodern feminist theologians are the successors of the feminist movement of a previous generation. Even the widely known—and highly creative—radical orthodoxy of John Milbank’s Cambridge School (with Graham Ward, Gerard Loughlin, and Catherine Pickstock), orients itself within the theological matrix of patristic theology.
The postmodern theological trajectories outlined above suggest they are not homogeneous but encompass differing—even conflicting—outlooks. Why, then, postmodern theology and not postmodern theologies? The former implies that these ostensibly diverging views share a family resemblance: a common opposition to modern theology and its quest for certainty. This article cannot present a detailed portrait of postmodern theology; alternatively, it concentrates on some of its common features vis-à-vis five major biblical doctrines: Scripture, God, human beings, Christ, and the Church.
Some Common Features of Postmodern Theology
The Doctrine of Scripture
First, evangelicalism as a matter of course affirms that Scripture is the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God. Theological postmodernism, however, expresses profound skepticism regarding the inspiration of Scripture and its entailments. Further, postmodern theologians observe that culturally-conditioned interpreters, laden with presuppositions and biases, cannot interpret texts objectively. Since each text contains layers of meaning and no single reality, they caution that the hermeneutical task requires epistemic humility. Moreover, they counsel readers to seek spiritual insights from texts, not objective truth. In order to profit from biblical narratives (some posit that outside of narratives there is only “white noise”), postmodern theologians propose abandoning the well-worn, historical-critical tools of modernism. In their place, they commend reading Scripture through new, multi-dimensional lenses. This entails engaging in open-ended conversation with the biblical material, applying a hermeneutic of suspicion to deconstruct inherent power structures in texts, and listening to “voices from the margins” (feminist, postcolonial, psychoanalytic, etc.).
The Doctrine of God
Second, postmodern theology subjects the doctrine of God to extensive reinterpretation. Deconstructive theologian Jean-Luc Marion dismisses ontotheology (the theology of being), while, paradoxically, assuming the existence of God. He decries ontotheology because he believes the language of being limits the divine. As a result, he labels the infinite, invisible, and immutable God of classical theism a conceptual idol.6 How then should one conceive of God? As love and superabundant gift.7 Marion qualifies, however, that although God gifts himself freely, human beings cannot dominate the gift. John Caputo agrees with Marion’s anti-metaphysical conception of God and also adopts Emmanuel Levinas’ language of excess to describe him. He employs the term impossible for God and concludes that while individuals may experience the divine, they cannot know him: “We do not know what we believe or to whom we are praying.”8
Less radical theologians react warily to ontotheology but appear more surefooted in discourses on the relational nature of God. They describe the triune relationship as a social trinity (a non-hierarchical, co-equal, and reciprocal community). These thinkers also downplay divine transcendence, while emphasizing divine immanence. For them, the weak and vulnerable God exists in a dynamic, mutually dependent, and pantheistic relationship with creation.
The Doctrine of Human Identity
Third, theological postmodernism exhibits keen interest in human identity. It repudiates the fixed, centered, and stable Cartesian self, construing it as a social construct within a web of relationships. Additionally, it deems the relational self as a narrative self, a living text, outfitted with its own linguistic and grammatical identity.9 The view that personhood inheres chiefly in social relationships seemingly severs human identity from its basic covenantal relationship with God. But not all postmodern theologians divorce human beings from the Creator. Stanley Grenz, for instance, rightly appreciates that male and female are created in the image of God (imago Dei)10—a concept that continues to vex biblical interpreters. Grenz, however, perceives the image of God (although not exclusively) in communal terms: “The image of God,” he remarks, “does not lie in the individual per se, but in the relationality of persons in community.”11 In sum, postmodern theology situates human identity in social relationships and this reality informs ethical obligations to the marginalized “other.”
The Doctrine of Christ
Fourth, postmodern theology contributes significantly to the ongoing Christological conversation. To illustrate, in Desire, Gift, and Recognition, Jan-Olav Hendriksen highlights the changing grammar theologians currently adopt to describe Christ. Hendriksen appropriates prominent tropes from postmodern writers (especially Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion) to present Christ afresh. More importantly, these theologians comprehend Christ’s divinity symbolically, not essentially. This view of Christ’s person is distinctly from below, and not from above. Thus, the Chalcedonian formulation of Jesus’ two natures (perfect God and perfect man united in one person) bears no relation to the postmodern Jesus who concretely manifests the weakness of God.
But theological postmodernism makes an even greater impression on the doctrine of the atonement. A number of scholars evince grave dissatisfaction with the historic and predominant model of penal substitution. Joel Green and Mark Baker, in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, contend for other valid models of the atonement. The main drawback of penal substitution is it unacceptably associates God with violence. These scholars would sooner discern God working non-violently through the cross. Enter René Girard. He brands the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death as a misreading of the gospels. Christ did not propitiate the wrath of God, says Girard; he died a non-sacrificial death, “directed toward nonviolence, and no more effective form of action could be imagined.”12 Girard finds concord for non-violent atonement in J. Denny Weaver, who rejects penal substitution on the grounds that it amounts to divine child abuse.13 Weaver proposes that “Narrative Christus Victor” (“Christ as Victor”) best makes sense of the death of Christ. In the end, postmodern theories of the cross fall into one of two main categories: Christus Victor or the moral influence view. These theories of the atonement appear eminently acceptable in a postmodern context because they avoid all kinds of perceived evils—from the scandal of particularity (why Jesus and no one else) to Lessing’s ugly ditch (the unbridgeable chasm between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason).
The Doctrine of the Church
Fifth, driven largely by the concern to contextualize the Christian message, postmodern theologians invite the Church to reevaluate its beliefs and practices. On one hand, they urge a shift from the modernistic fixation with propositional truths, and on the other hand, they advise the Church to prioritize the communal, practical, and ecumenical aspects of the Christian faith. Accordingly, these theologians stress the concrete and local nature of the Church over against its invisible and universal character. Others underscore that the life of faith manifests itself in “lived experience.”14 Kathleen Norris captures the present elevation of Christian experience over truth: “We go to Church in order to sing, and theology is secondary.”15 Though more tempered, Grenz also advocates a move from propositional truth toward practice.16 The experiential life which postmodern theologians envision entails three key themes: “an embrace of mystery, an emphasis on journey, and a stress on conversation and dialogue.”17 It also involves varied religious expressions, notably, Milbank’s Roman Catholic sacramentalism (Eucharist and transubstantiation). Furthermore, these theologians argue that the Church’s tendency to retreat into narrow denominational factions hinders its theological agenda. Hence, without dissolving all distinctions—after all, the Church is a “truth-seeking” community—Christians should exercise a “generous orthodoxy” that advances beyond the polarity of liberals and conservatives.18 The emerging (emergent) Church with its stress on participation, experience, non-denominationalism, and eclecticism, now displays the face of the postmodern Church.
Finally, postmodern theology applies the hermeneutic of suspicion to Scripture and consequently challenges its inspiration and coherence, endorses an unknowable God, disavows the uniqueness of Jesus’ person and work, and presumes that the Church’s survival depends upon its ability to contextualize Christian dogma and praxis. These approaches to essential Christian doctrines may placate a postmodern audience, but they contradict the biblical message and render the good news of Jesus Christ no news at all. Contrastingly, evangelicals acknowledge both the impossibility of knowing God exhaustively and the possibility of knowing him genuinely through the Word (“the norming norm of theology”) and, climatically, in the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ. He, according to Scripture, is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and apart from him there is no Savior (cf. Acts 4:12). Moreover, the Church (the theater of the Holy Spirit) owes both its origin and existence to the Spirit’s power. Postmodern theologians will demur that such a schema of salvation constitutes the grandest grand-narrative of all. Yet deconstruct postmodern theology itself, and its totalizing claims expose a hitherto concealed metanarrative. The difference, therefore, between biblical and postmodern metanarratives amounts to this: one is truly grand; the other, prosaic.
General Works on Postmodernism
- Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Turn. New York: Guilford, 1997.
- Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1984.
General Works on Postmodern Theology
- Griffin, David Ray, William A. Beardslee, and Joe Holland, eds. Varieties of Postmodern Theology. New York: State University of New York Press, Albany, 1989.
- Macquarrie, John. “Postmodernism in Philosophy of Religion and Theology.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 50 (2001): 9–16.
- Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
- Ward, Graham. The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
Radical Postmodern Theology
- Caputo, John D. On Religion. London: Routledge, 2001.
- Marion, Jean-Luc. God Without Being. Translated by Thomas A. Carlson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
- Williams, James G., ed. The Girard Reader. New York: Crossroad, 1996.
Moderate Postmodern Theology
- Almon, Russell L. “The Postmodern Self in Theological Perspective: A Communal, Narrative, and Ecclesial Approach.” Ecclesiology 13 (2017): 179–96.
- Grenz, Stanley J. Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993.
- ———. Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000.
- ———. “The Social God and the Relational Self: Toward a Theology of the Imago Dei in the Postmodern Context.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 24 (2002): 33–57.
- Haight, Roger. “The Promise of Constructive Comparative Ecclesiology: Partial Communion.” Ecclesiology 4 (2008): 183–203.
- Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. New York: Fordham University Press, 2001.
Critical Engagement with Postmodern Ecclesiology
- Mackenzie, “Mission and the Emerging Church: Pauline Reflections on a New Kind of Missiology.” Missiology: An International Review 40 (2012): 315–28.
Influenced by Postmodern Atonement Theories
- Green, Joel and Mark D. Baker. Recovering the Scandal of The Cross. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.
- Weaver, J. Denny. “Violence in Christian Theology.” Cross Currents 51 (2001): 150–176
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