Abstract

The philosophies of postmodernism are founded on three basic ideas: there is no ultimate truth; language is not extremely effective for communication, especially with time and cultural distance; and the meaning of words is determined primarily by the reader of the text. The effect that these principles have on biblical hermeneutics is to render them useless. Bible scholars can simply redefine words and choose the meaning they find most agreeable. Man’s word becomes the starting point for biblical interpretation.


Introduction

Before diving in to the specific theories of postmodernism and their effects on how believers view the Bible and the world around them, it is important to have a grasp on exactly how these secular ideals subtly influence our thinking.1

Robertson McQuilkin, former president of Columbia International University, and Bradford Mullen, a professor at Columbia Biblical Seminary, outline three key areas in which postmodernism has challenged biblical hermeneutics:

  1. Unchanging, ultimate truth does not exist.
  2. Language cannot accurately communicate through to another person’s mind, and with time and culture distance the attempt becomes ever more futile.
  3. The inadequacy of language is not necessarily bad because meaning is constituted of a combination of what is out there (objects and events, including the words of others) and what is in here (my own subjective sense). Though the words of others play a formative role, the controlling element is what I bring to the text.2 [emphasis added]

That first challenge relates to whether there is a standard of truth to which every thought and philosophy is held. Anyone who has spent time studying postmodernism has almost certainly heard the phrase, “Truth is relative.” This common self-contradictory phrase refers directly to that first challenge. Ultimate truth is also the very concept that deconstruction seeks to dethrone (deconstruction will be discussed in detail in part 3 of this series).

The second challenge is related to communication. Postmodernism often comes down to a game of words—that words do not mean what they clearly do, or that our culture simply cannot understand them the way an ancient culture could. Admittedly, our understanding of any text is furthered by an understanding of the culture in and for which it was written. That is why it is so important to know the historical and cultural background of the text one is studying.

However, it is now common to hear Bible scholars carry such a view too far, claiming, “Well, that culture would not have understood these concepts, so we must learn how they thought and not impose our own, more developed thinking on them.” The obvious problem with this argument in relation to Scripture is that it assumes most other cultures and times are less intelligent than the present one. In this case, these scholars have fallen prey to the faulty notion that time inherently equals progress. There are, of course, many variations on the idea of cultural distance, depending on the person making the claim.

Furthermore, some Bible scholars are especially guilty of assuming that God could not communicate a literal, timeless truth to man, that He was somehow bound by cultural understanding. This runs counter to the idea of the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture is, by God’s intention, understandable in all times.

The final challenge concerns meaning in general. Can man find an ultimate meaning outside himself in what he reads and sees? While the believer can confidently answer “yes” based on God’s Word, the person who views the world through the lens of postmodernism would be constrained to say no.

Unfortunately, the mindset that claims that the text has little or no meaning itself, but that it is the person who brings the meaning, has pervaded our churches, too. How many times has the question been asked in a Bible study, “What does this Bible verse mean to you?” The practice of collecting each participant’s ideas on a Bible verse while avoiding dealing directly with what the verse says outside of one’s own subjective sense is often a pooling of ignorance and is directly in line with postmodern ideas.3

Man-Centered Theology

What is at the heart of these postmodern views that invade our thinking, arguing for a different “truth” than what the Bible teaches? A man-centered theology. Just as Adam and Eve in their bid for autonomy chose to disbelieve God’s Word and disobey His commands, so we too cast aside the more “disagreeable” parts of the Bible and live as though we know better.

At Answers in Genesis (AiG), we often say that in this battle with the culture, it is God’s Word versus man’s word. We would say that postmodern ideas are the fruit of a secular worldview, which makes it all the more egregious that professing Christians, whether they realize it or not, are adopting these ideas. For instance, one of the many areas scholars attack is the meaning of the word literal. The definition of the word literal is, “adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression.”4 At AiG, we accept that definition of literal; and in relation to hermeneutics, we would say that we take the text “naturally.” The Bible should be read and understood according to the appropriate principles for the genre of the passage.5

BioLogos, an organization that actively promotes “the compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith,” often engages in a type of postmodern thinking when they insist that a young-earth creationist understanding of Genesis is too literal. Greg Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, explains in a BioLogos video the “dangers of an ultra-literal perspective.”6 Using a couple of fallacious examples, Boyd attempts to make a case against an “all or nothing” approach to reading the Bible literally:

The reality is that no one really takes all of the Bible literally. They might say they do, but they don't. They don't believe that the earth is held up by pillars—the Bible says that—or that it is surrounded by a bunch of water.6

Of course, Boyd has merely created a straw man to knock down. That is, in an effort to dispense with the word literal, he painted an inaccurate picture of biblical creationists as people who cannot distinguish between metaphor and history. And that is really what it comes down to for BioLogos. The word literal, with its accepted definition, constrains them to read Genesis as though it is historical. Whereas, if they were able to alter the definition of that word, they could argue for a reading that is mythical and promote evolutionary ideas as the best understanding of the universe’s origin. Whether or not Boyd would identify as postmodern, he is actively engaged in the game of distorting biblical truth (and misrepresenting those who disagree with him) to push his agenda.

Postmodern Language Games

Scholars through the redefinition of words often promote distortions of biblical truth. Indeed, N.T. Wright, in another BioLogos video, plays with the meaning of the word literal. Like Boyd, Wright may not identify as postmodern, but his academic arguments show the clear influence of these ideas.

Wright first claims that young-earth creationists who take a literal reading of Scripture are forced also to view parables as historical events.7 His assertion is clearly absurd, as he either doubts the abilities of readers to distinguish between genres for themselves, or he has carried the definition of literal to an extreme that no reasonable person ever would. Finally, he redefines literal outright, saying that he is more concerned with how the writer of Genesis intended it to be understood, rather than with what the words in the text clearly say. By itself, the desire to understand the author’s intended meaning is not wrong. However, when this is juxtaposed against what the words of Genesis clearly state, Wright is essentially claiming that the writer was not able to properly communicate with us, leaving it up to us to determine the meaning.

Wright’s argument demonstrates two major postmodern influences: first, following his logic to its conclusion, the meaning of words becomes totally unreliable; and second, if readers are to dismiss the meaning of words and instead look for a supposed overarching theme that the author “intended” to communicate to that particular culture, the range of possible themes widens greatly because present-day readers are no longer connected with ancient Israel or the personal thought process of Moses. The assumption with cultural distance is that the culture’s understanding had to be far different from ours today; thus, readers cannot interpret Genesis 1–11 as actual history, either because ancient Israel supposedly would not have, or even if they did, it was because they did not have access to the science (i.e. evolutionary ideas) society does today.8

Of course, nowhere in Wright’s argument does he make a solid case for why Genesis 1–11 should not be read as historical narrative. Rather, he reduces the meaning of a word to something completely dependent on the person using it (see 2 and 3 of McQuilkin and Mullen’s list above) and then sums up Genesis 1 as a strictly theological “story” likely written in “bits and pieces” by many people. Wright has brought evolution to the text, and made it the hinge on which the creation account is to be interpreted.9

Wright’s assertions beg the question, if readers cannot trust the word literal to mean exactly that, what can they trust when it comes to words, especially those on the pages of Scripture? Is God not capable of communicating a timeless message to a people whose ability to use language came from Him? To paraphrase a friend on the absurdity of the postmodern word game, literal may as well mean “pancakes,” if that is how the hearer chooses to understand it.

While Boyd and Wright are scholars in their fields, what they are engaging in here is not honest scholarship. Unwittingly or not, they have allowed postmodern ideas on language and time to become part of their hermeneutic. Their thoughts on Genesis do not serve to further our understanding of God’s Word; rather, these arguments simply reposition portions of Scripture into a place where meaning is fluid and man’s changing ideas can hold a place of prominence. As a result, the clear words of Genesis, words that were intended to be taken literally (in the genre of historical narrative), are made out to be nothing more than a dusty story with some compelling theology behind it.

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Footnotes

  1. As noted in the introductory article to this series, Andrew Fabich makes a compelling case for why the term postmodern should be replaced with antimodern and neomodern, depending on the specific philosophy. However, for the purposes of this series, postmodern will serve as a catch-all term for ease of reading. For more of Fabich’s argument, see “Time to Abandon Postmodernism: Living a New Way,” Answers Research Journal 4 (2011): 171–183, www.answersingenesis.org/articles/arj/v4/n1/abandon-postmodernism. Back
  2. Robertson McQuilkin and Bradford Mullen, “The Impact of Postmodern Thinking on Evangelical Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 1 (1997): 69–82. Back
  3. Of course, in the arena of application, we might ask, “How does this passage apply to us?” That question requires us to deal with the content of the passage and is the appropriate and expected conclusion of any study of Scripture. Back
  4. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, s.v. “Literal,” www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literal. Back
  5. In hermeneutics, this is known as the historical-grammatical approach. For more on the historical-grammatical approach to scriptural interpretation, see Tim Chaffey, “How Should We Interpret the Bible, Part 1: Principles for Understanding God’s Word,” Answers in Genesis, www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2011/02/22/interpret-the-bible-1-principles and “How Should We Interpret the Bible, Part 2: Is Genesis 1–11 Historical Narrative?” www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2011/03/01/interpret-the-bible-2-genesis. Back
  6. Greg Boyd, “Dangers of an Ultra-Literal Perspective,” BioLogos, biologos.org/resources/multimedia/greg-boyd-on-the-dangers-of-an-ultra-literal-perspective. Back (1) Back (2)
  7. N.T. Wright, “What Do You Mean by ‘Literal’?” BioLogos, biologos.org/resources/multimedia/n.t-wright-and-pete-enns-what-do-you-mean-by-literal. Back
  8. N. T. Wright argues that ancient Israel would have understood Genesis 1–3 to be a greater metaphor for their own history of turning from God and being exiled. For more, see “Genesis with N. T. Wright,” BioLogos, biologos.org/resources/multimedia/n.t.-wright-on-genesis. Back
  9. The inconsistencies in Wright’s view of Genesis are highlighted in another BioLogos interview, where he explains the distinctions between parables and history. He then performs a leap in logic to say that while he affirms that God created in some way, he wants the “whole investment of the theological stuff” (the implication being that it’s lost when readers focus on taking the creation account literally). For more, see “Understanding Ancient Texts with N.T. Wright,” BioLogos, biologos.org/resources/multimedia/n.t.-wright-on-understanding-ancient-texts-video. Back