Volume 43 - Issue 1

The Postmodernism That Refuses to Die

By D. A. Carson

People aren’t talking about postmodernism nearly as much as they were fifteen or twenty years ago. Thirty-five years ago, graduate students in English departments in many universities of the Western world spent more time reading Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault than Shakespeare, Keats, and Frost. Proof of mature reading of a text was tied rather more to creative deconstruction than to trying to understand the text in its historical and cultural framework. More important than the English texts was postmodern theory.

Much of this has changed. Far fewer students are assigned major readings from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The founding writers of postmodernism (understood, for the sake of this brief editorial, as an epistemological enterprise) are largely sidelined from college curricula.

But that doesn’t mean the impact of postmodernism has entirely dissipated. What seems to be taking place, rather, is something like this: some of the conclusions of postmodernism are now adopted with little question as cultural “givens” without a felt need to justify them. Why defend stances that large swaths of the culture accept as obviously true? So, what we find is substantial numbers of postmoderns who rarely think of themselves as postmoderns, and who know next to nothing of the literature and debates that occupied so much attention a bare generation ago. They understand neither the theory nor its critics, but they presuppose many of its conclusions.

A couple of examples might help. Recently, Christian students at a fine West Coast university engaged in a thoughtful survey of their fellow students, focusing on what they thought about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Some of the questions focused on the afterlife: e.g., What would it take to know that there is a new heaven and a new earth to be gained? A not uncommon answer was, “How can you claim to know anything at all?” Or again, when asked how they understood the exclusive truth claims of Christianity (e.g., John 14:6; Acts 4:12), most responses fell into one of two pools: (1) “Christians are so bigoted. We all have our own distinctive approaches to spirituality. Christians don’t have the right to rule out of camp the claims of other religions.” Or: (2) “Deep down, all religions are really saying the same thing anyway, so why should one view others as distinctively different or in some way inferior?”

Of course, the adoption of such stances should not be traced exclusively to the impact of postmodernism. Other competing streams have brought to bear important influences: contemporary understanding of what “faith” means, the shifting tides of “tolerance,” and the broader cultural developments that some wag has identified as “a thin crust of vehement hostility masking a vast sea of apathy.” Yet we would be avoiding the obvious if we did not sniff out something of the impact of postmodernism on contemporary epistemologies.

The students at that West Coast university kindly passed on to me the results of their survey as I was preparing for an evangelistic event at the university. Those stances, I soon discovered, characterized not only a substantial number of students who labeled themselves atheists or secularists or anything other than followers of Jesus, but also surfaced in the minds of many Christians who faced these questions in their own courageous attempts to share their faith, and did not quite know how to answer them. So here are a few of the answers I’ve found helpful in my responses to both groups.

  1. Not a few of the discussions about what we can or cannot know depend on a misleading baseline. The argument is that unless we know everything about something, we cannot know anything certain about that thing. The logic depends on a rather antiquated form of the so-called “new hermeneutic.” That is an impossible standard. It means that we can legitimately speak of knowledge only if we enjoy omniscience—or, to put it another way, only Omniscience truly knows anything. Read a certain way, of course, that is true. Yet we human beings often speak of things we “know,” and implicitly we are not claiming omniscience; rather, we speak of a variety of human modes of knowing that are appropriate to the human condition. That is true of human beings in the Bible; it is equally true about all human beings everywhere. We “know” the earth will rotate on its axis, and there will be a sunrise tomorrow morning; I “know” that my United flight is scheduled to leave San Francisco in just over an hour. Of course, my “knowledge” of the latter turns on what I read on the United screen and on my United app, and I confess it is a bit disconcerting to sit here and listen to an audio announcement to the effect that what the big screen says about another flight is erroneous on the screen: maybe it will turn out that the posting for mine is erroneous, too. If I were omniscient, there could be no errors of that or any other sort. Nevertheless, we continue to make our plans on the assumption that the earth will continue in its rotation, and that my United flight will leave at 6:00 pm unless there is another notification. We “know” these things, as we know that King David reigned in Jerusalem and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, not with the knowledge that belongs exclusively to God, but with the knowledge that is appropriate to our human status. To adopt the baseline of omniscience is counter to human experience and common parlance.
  2. Another way of getting at the same thing—viz., that one can responsibly talk of human knowing even though our finiteness and proneness to error both ensure that human knowing is never grounded in omniscience—is to recall how learning takes place. Whenever we embark on a new discipline, whether Attic Greek, Shakespearean sonnets, or microbiology, the opening stages seem daunting: there is so very much to learn, so much to memorize. Nevertheless, the weeks and months skip past, and pretty soon the elements that seem so daunting at the beginning of the learning curve have been comfortably absorbed. There is no longer any effort expended on the present indicative paradigm of λύω, because we know that, even though there is so very much about Greek that we do not know. It is difficult to see why this should not be the case with every discipline, including biblical and theological studies. In other words, the common experience of learning things, whether in academic courses or in the business of life, confirms that human knowledge is attainable, even if it is invariably partial.
  3. That there are highly diverse interpretations of the Bible is often taken to justify the conclusion that we cannot legitimately claim to know what the Bible says. That conclusion holds if one of two conditions holds true: (a) The Bible is so multi-faceted, and without a coherent message, that diverse readings of it are inevitable. (b) The Bible may in theory have a univocal message, but church history shows that we cannot agree as to what it is. Either way, how can we fairly claim to enjoy genuine knowledge of God? Neither stance holds up very well. On the first point, what is at stake is what the Bible is. I cannot delve into that subject here. On the second point, my own experience (and it is a common one) is that it is surprising how much agreement regarding what the Bible is saying can be achieved, provided there is agreement among dialogue partners that the Bible is the final authority, and that they are willing to be corrected by it. Elsewhere I have recounted my ten happy years with what was then called the World Evangelical Fellowship, coordinating highly diverse study groups where I was invariably pleasantly surprised by how much unanimity could be achieved by hard work, patient discussion, mutual criticism, humility of mind, and a greater hunger to be faithful to the text than to be thought right.
  4. So far, these epistemological discussions have treated challenges to the acquisition of knowledge as essentially neutral problems. Not many experts in hermeneutics devote much space to the role of moral turpitude in trying to know the truth, or to the dangers and barriers cast up by idolatry in this business of trying to know God. At some point in discussion with an atheist, isn’t it worth pondering what the Bible says on this point? “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 14:1). This is not the short-fused condescension of a knee-jerk conservative, but a sober assessment of how widely God has disclosed himself and how the atheist jettisons that revelation. But in any case, it is certainly part of the biblical response to the epistemological postmodernism that will not die.

Hans Madueme has faithfully served as the Systematic Theology and Bioethics book review editor since 2008, when TGC took over publication of Themelios from RTSF/UCCF. Over the past decade Hans has made a tremendous contribution to the journal as a member of the editorial team and has also authored a number of articles and reviews. Owing to other opportunities and commitments, this is Hans’s last issue as an editor, but he has agreed to serve henceforth on the journal’s editorial board. Succeeding him in this role is David Garner, who is vice president of advancement and associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. David completed his PhD at Westminster and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is the author recently of Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ and is a past contributor to Themelios. David may be contacted at [email protected]

Jeremy Kimble began serving as the Ethics and Pastoralia book review editor in 2016 and is now transitioning to focus on other responsibilities. Rob Smith succeeds Jeremy in this editorial role. Rob is lecturer in theology, ethics, and music ministry at Sydney Missionary & Bible College in Sydney, Australia. He is an ordained Anglican minister, is co-author of Songs of the Saints: Enriching Our Singing by Learning from the Songs of Scripture, and has published a number of articles in Themelios. Rob may be contacted at [email protected].

We will miss Hans Madueme and Jeremy Kimble and are grateful to God for vital work as book review editors. We warmly welcome David Garner and Rob Smith to the editorial team.

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and cofounder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.

Other Articles in this Issue

This article considers the emergence of an evangelical endorsement of the Two-Source Hypothesis as a solution to the Synoptic Problem in the first half of the twentieth century...

Brian Simmons has made a new translation of the Psalms (and now the whole New Testament) which aims to ‘re-introduce the passion and fire of the Bible to the English reader...

Nearly three hundred fifty years after Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenburg, Charles Haddon Spurgeon confronted the growing influence of Roman Catholic teaching within the Church of England...

Philip Rieff’s sociological analyses explore the implications of Western Civilization’s unprecedented attempt to maintain society and culture without reference to God...

The giant of Old Princeton, B. B. Warfield, outspokenly condemned the racism and rigid segregation of American society of his day...