On Being Truly Postmodern

There is a good deal of talk in contemporary evangelicalism about the rise, nature, and effect of so-called “postmodernism,” a movement in architecture, literature, philosophy, and religion associated with a circle of French writers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In some circles this movement is thought to be a threat to Christianity and some evangelicals advocate a return to the status quo ante. Other wings of evangelicalism, such as the emergent and emerging movements, see postmodernity as a boon to Christianity and seek to adapt Christianity to it.

This essay argues that, because of it’s core convictions reflected in its doctrines of revelation, God, man, creation, sin, Christ, imputation (federalism), predestination, and the church, confessional Reformed theology is not only, in some sense, postmodern, but more precisely, it is consistently anti-modernist.

In the biblical faith there is only one sovereign Creator and Redeemer: the Holy Trinity. Scripture says that, in the beginning, God spoke creation into existence, it teaches that all three persons of the Trinity were involved. The Father spoke, and nothing came into being that came into being except through God the Son, the Word (John 1), with the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the deep (Gen 1). This picture of the transcendent and triune God acting freely to create ex nihilo (from nothing) sets the pattern for God’s dealing with humanity in providence and redemption. God acts through his created agents (Exod 9:16) and with them (which Reformed theology describes as “concursus”) but never in dependence upon created agents. The Bible faith, confessed by the ancient church, is that the triune God made humans in his image. It is that image-bearing status that constitutes us as human. We confess that we freely rebelled against God, violating God’s law, introducing sin and death into the world. God the Son became incarnate as the Last Adam, obeyed, died, and was raised on the third day for our justification. In God’s joyous transaction, our sn was reckoned to Christ and his righteousness was credited to all who believe, to all whom God has given the grace of faith. Christ committed this faith for safekeeping, administration, and proclamation to a visible, institutional community, the church.

Christian Antiquity

This was conceptual framework within which the Christian church thought, taught, and acted from the ascension of Christ until the modern period. The great question that all Christians asked, and to which they gave different answers was: What has God said? The sovereign, authoritative self-revelation of God was an article of faith just as much as “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The Roman and Protestant communions developed different views of where God’s authoritative Word could be found, Rome says it can be found in two places: Scripture and tradition and Protestants says that it is found in Scripture alone (sola scriptura) which is read and confessed by the church. Both communions agreed, however, that God has spoken and that his revelation is normative.

Modernity

By the middle of the seventeenth century, however, that consensus began to break down. By the time the French philosopher Rene Descartes died (1650) an increasing number of the leading writers and thinkers in Europe were beginning to ask a different question: “Has God said?” Where the great debates in Christian antiquity had theological (about God, man, Christ, salvation, the church), the debates in the early modern period centered on whether one can know anything certainly and if so, where the locus of authority is. By the eighteenth century many had concluded that “man is the measure of all things,” that God, if he exists, is so utterly transcendent that he can neither know nor be known. Some turned to sense experience (empiricism) and others turned to what could be known through rational process (rationalism). Where God had been, in one way or another, at the center of pre-modern thought by the nineteenth century, humanity was the center of the intellectual universe. The leading thinkers and writers had issued a declaration of independence from all external authorities. The only religion that could be credited was the religion of morality or perhaps the religion of intense religious experience. From the Eighteenth century many evangelicals attempted to adapt the religion of intense, immediate experience of the divine (subjectivism) but humans remained autonomous, arbiters of what constituted the right sort of religious experience.

With the rise and dominance of the philosophy and religion of human autonomy (being a law unto one’s self) came a few corollaries beginning, as all theology always does, with the doctrine of God and including a doctrine of man, sin, Christ, salvation, and the church. The modern doctrine of God taught that God is the father of all humans in the same way without distinction. Christians have always taught that all humans are, as creatures, children of God but relative to righteousness with God and salvation there has always been a distinction between believers and unbelievers and between the elect and the non-elect. In the Enlightenment, such distinctions were erased. Where Christianity taught that humans are sinful because of the fall, modernity taught universal human goodness and even perfectibility and denied the doctrine of sin. Throughout modernity, the new “liberal” creed was actually quite illiberal. Those who adopted the modernist creed of the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man, and human perfectibility were quite intolerant of any dissent from the new orthodoxy and, by the early 20th century, the modernists had succeeded in driving those who still believed the old creed from positions of authority or influence in academia.

The hubris of modernity, the notion that man is the measure of all things, that he understands (or can understand) how the world works, what can be done and what can’t be done, was was first shaken in Europe and then destroyed by World War I. The senselessness of modern war destroyed the modernist universalism and modernist optimism only to be replaced by totalitarianism, facism, socialism, and existentialism. The churches of Europe emptied during the 20th century. The optimism of modernity was replaced with fear, loathing, and nausea. World War I led, eventually, to World War II and destruction on a scale unthinkable without modern technology. During the 20th century it is likely that more humans were killed by other humans than at any time in human history. One has only to recite the names: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, the Armenian genocide, Rwanda and so on. As modernity moved from rationalism and empiricism to Romanticism and subjectivism European writers began to doubt that there is such a thing as an “objective” reality that can be known. One’s subjective experience of reality came to dominate. The old modernist optimism was replaced with late modern suspicion. The dominant question, first in Europe, and later in the USA, came to be “Who’s asking?” By the late 60s, in the midst of turmoil over civil rights, the Vietnam war, the rise of cynicism about government and authority the same shift was underway in North America.

Late or Liquid Modernity

Some accounts of modernity describe the late or “liquid” modern period (the subjective turn) as “postmodern,” but at least a few writers have called that adjective into question. Taken literally “postmodern” would seem to entail a rejection of fundamental principles of modernity but there is little evidence that any such rejection has taken place. Few, if any, of the leading so-called “postmodern” writers have rejected the fundamental principle of modernity, i.e., human autonomy. Indeed, the subjective turn of late modernity was anticipated in the 19th century by the Romantics who sought to balance the early modernist turn to the objective, to rationalism (i.e. the doctrine that only that is true or real that can be comprehensively understood and analyzed rationally) and empiricism (i.e. the doctrine that knowledge comes principally or only via the senses), with intense affective (feeling) experiences. The subjectivism of the current period emphasizes, e.g., not the author’s intent but the reader’s reception of the text. Evangelical Christians were, in certain respects, ahead of the curve when it came to this sort of subjectivism. The religious revivals of the early to mid 18th century bore marks of the sort affective emphasis that marked 19th century Romanticism. The late modern turn to the subjective experience of texts was a feature in American evangelical piety for decades before most English speakers would know the names Derrida or Foucault.

The great unifying theme of modernity, whether early or late, whether optimistic or suspicious, has always been human autonomy. Inasmuch as late modernity still assumes human autonomy relative to all other sources of authority, including God, it is still modernity. To be truly postmodern would be to reject the fundamental principle of modernity altogether. To its credit, in principle, Reformed orthodoxy or confessionalism never accepted human autonomy. Beginning with God’s autonomy, self-existence, and authoritative self-revelation, many of the old Reformed theologians were at war with modernity from the start. It was a confessional Reformed theologian who diagnosed Deism (an utterly transcendent, unitarian, unknowing, and unknowable deity) and it was a confessional Reformed theologian who saw Descartes’ turn to human autonomy for what it was: an attempt to unseat God and to replace him with humanity and human experience.

The Reformed Antithesis to Modernity

Since the rise of the religion of autonomy, human perfectibility, and universalism, only one confession has been utterly antithetical: The Reformed confession. Only the Reformed faith has utterly and consistently rejected modernity root and branch. In arguing this I am not claiming that the Reformed churches or that Reformed Christians have escaped completely the influence of modernity. There are important ways in which we have come under the influence of rationalism and subjectivism. Cornelius Van Til called attention to ways in which some segments of the Reformed world sued for peace. Arminianism is one example of an attempt by some “Reformed” folk to sue for peace in the early days of the struggle with modernity. The attempt, in the 17th century, of some of the followers of Cocceius to appropriate Descartes for Reformed theology and J. A. Turretin’s rejection of his father’s theology are other examples. The collapse of Reformed orthodoxy across Europe is witness to the failure of those attempts to find a mediating place between modernity and Reformed orthodoxy. Arguably, bearing in mind the revisions to the story argued by Paul Helseth, Kim Riddlebarger, and others, even old Princeton Seminary bore the pockmarks of the ravages of modernity in its sometime attempt to mediate between the subjectivism of revivalism and the rationalism of the 19th century.

Contemporary evangelicalism has sought a middle way with modernity via religious subjectivism. The temporary and strategic alliance between revivalist evangelicals and the Reformation began breaking down in the early 18th century. That alliance was temporarily revived in post-World War II neo-evangelicalism, but relations between evangelicalism and the Reformation have returned to the status quo ante. The same might be said for fundamentalism. Having begun with a conservative version human autonomy, fundamentalists were temporarily allied with the Reformation faith early in the 20th century, but the interests of fundamentalism were never those of the Reformation. When it became clear that the Reformation was a poor friend of religious nationalism (Christian America) and moralism (tee-totaling) the fundamentalists abandoned their dalliance with the Reformation. The starting point of most fundamentalists, however, was never very different from that of modernity: human autonomy. The fundamentalists sovereignly exercised their autonomy to assert their election of Christianity and moralism but the core conviction has always been sovereign human choice.

Nevertheless, the Reformed confession of the absolute sovereignty of the Triune God, the mystery of the fall, the imputation of Adam’s sin, the mystery of the incarnation, the wonder of the substitutionary atonement, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and behind all these, of the mystery of unconditional predestination stand in stark relief to modernist subjectivism and rationalism. Where the modernist says “the real is the rational and the rational is the real” and where the subjectivist says, “the real is the experienced, and the experienced is the real,” the Reformed faith says, “The real is the revealed and the revealed in the real.”

This antithesis best explains why the modernists have expended so much energy and ink in seeking to destroy Calvin’s reputation. One has only to google “Calvin” and “Servetus” to see the evidence. By contrast, the modernists have not sought to deface the image of Luther in the same way. It is because Calvin is singularly and unfairly associated with the doctrine that is most utterly opposed to the religion of modernity: predestination. We have a similar problem with doctrines such as federalism (Adam and Christ as representative heads of humanity). These two doctrines are utterly unreconcilable to the modernist assertion of human autonomy. The modernist definition of humanity entails autonomy relative to all other authorities and actors. The Reformed definition of humanity begins with God and our status as image bearers. We understand ourselves as necessarily implicated in tow great corporations, righteous humanity and fallen humanity. In both cases our state was determined by someone outside of us who acted for us. Our autonomy is compromised fatally from the beginning.

The emerging and emergent movements seek to be “postmodern.” In fact, to the degree that they begin with human autonomy, with versions of rationalism (e.g., in their denial of the atonement), in subjectivism (e.g., in their hermeneutic and quest for the immediate encounter with God) they are not postmodern as much as they are, as Mike Horton likes to say, “most modern.” To be truly postmodern would be to embrace the historic Reformed faith. It would be to become anti-modern, to repudiate the assertion of the sovereignty of human choice or of human experience or of human rationality in favor of the the sovereignty of the mysterious Triune God, of the two-Adams, of unconditional grace, faith, and the church instituted by Christ himself.