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Books: Pomo-evangelicals

Books | Theologians as wannabe postmodernists

Issue: "Larry Woiwode: By the book," July 4, 1998

Breast implants for high-school girls. Cyber-civilizations. Tax support for "domestic partnerships." Such realities, currently plaguing our culture, seemed unlikely only a few years ago. But each of these American mainstays has its roots, at least in part, in a pervasive way of thinking that has been gaining prevalence in philosophy departments for almost two decades, and not in philosophy departments alone: Well-nigh every facet of academic and intellectual life is now well within the mainstream of the diverse set of ideas known as "postmodernism," or "pomo." And, of course, what settles in the academy inevitably finds its way into the church as well. This last development is the subject matter of Millard Erickson's Postmodernizing the Faith. The book offers a Cliff's Notes approach to the wide range of evangelical reactions to postmodernism, surveying the thought of seven leading evangelical theologians. The critics of postmodernism include David Wells (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Thomas Oden (Drew University), and the late Francis Schaeffer. The theologians who think it is possible to be both evangelical and pomo are Stanley Grenz (Carey Theological College), Richard Middleton (Colgate Rochester Divinity School), Brian Walsh (University of Toronto), and Keith Putt (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). In part one of the book, Mr. Erickson lucidly explains the relationship between premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism. The premodern intellectual period, Mr. Erickson tells us, was teleological: It looked for a transcendent purpose beyond the sensible cosmos. In the modern period, however, belief in a higher reality "outside" the world (such as God) faded. Any kind of organizing principle had to inhere within the natural order of things. But for all their differences, both the premoderns and the moderns left open the possibility of a unified worldview. Enter pomo, with its thorough-going suspicion of any and all truth claims, which are considered nothing more than human "constructions." In part two, Mr. Erickson summarizes three evangelical critics of this new mode of thinking. Trained as a historian, Mr. Wells offers a sweeping cultural appraisal, arguing against the possibility of a theology that is at once postmodern and orthodox. He calls instead for a return to a commitment to truth within the confines of evangelical theology. Only then can our time experience healing. Mr. Oden, in response to the brokenness of our world, suggests an agenda for the church that, while resisting both the modern and the postmodern labels, centers around the so-called catholic creeds of the first millennium, which, for him, define ecumenical orthodoxy. Mr. Schaeffer sees postmodern thinking as a flight from reason, a movement that, if not reversed, will bring about not only the death of Christianity, but also the death of man. Part three describes pomo-friendly evangelicalism. Mr. Grenz and the duo of collaborators, Mr. Middleton and Mr. Walsh, embrace much of postmodern thinking but resist its unqualified rejection of all unified truth claims, which would have to include those of the Bible. They also see great opportunity for a faithful reinterpretation of the gospel as well as its effective contextualization apologetically. Mr. Putt, by far the most radical of the surveyed thinkers, tries to theologize within the "framework" of deconstructionism, which generally rejects all truth claims. Mr. Erickson ends the book in part four with his own thoughts on the matter. It's too bad he focuses almost exclusively on the extent to which the gospel can be shared with a real live postmodernist. Though helpful, this approach has the tendency to devolve into a discussion of witnessing techniques rather than a genuine appraisal of the compatibility (or lack thereof) between biblical faith and postmodern thought. So should Christians reject postmodern thinking altogether or go to the opposite extreme and accept it uncritically? The Reformers may have been in a similar position, challenging the rationalistic systems of medieval scholasticism while also avoiding the human-centered excesses of Renaissance humanism. Certainly, modernism, with its scientific rationalism, has been hostile to the faith. Mr. Grenz, Mr. Middleton, and Mr. Walsh make the case that postmodern thinking is, in several ways, more open to the faith than modernism. However, they never really succeed in offering penetrating criticism of current postmodern thought, instead settling for a half-hearted attempt to adapt Christianity to the current atmosphere. Mr. Oden is more incisive, pointing out the postmodern openness to the past and its yearning for tradition. He argues that the best way of going beyond the modern is to bring premodern Christianity into the present. Christians can agree with postmodernists that human logic is not ultimate and that truth has a personal dimension. To know God and his truth, we need the revelation of his Word and a relationship with Jesus Christ. Contrary to postmodernism, though, God's Word does provide a unified truth, one that is not a mere human system or ideology. And the gospel of Christ is the only way of salvation for everyone-premodernists, modernists, and postmodernists alike.

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