Part one of this series can be found here: “I. A Summary of Postmodernism from David Wells.”
This is part 2 of our 13-part series over “Postmodernism: the Air we Breathe.” Today, we read a helpful, detailed description of postmodernism from Stephen Wellum.
I have completed 4 courses under Dr. Wellum, 2 in my M.Div. and 2 in my Th.M. I must say that he has a sincere, consistent passion to know God, and to make Him known. He stands unashamedly on the inerrant Word of God as he preaches and teaches from its pages God the Son incarnate. I appreciate Dr. Wellum’s willingness to stand and defend the faith once delivered to the Saints. He has always shown me Christ-like kindness. I’m indebted to his ministry, as are the Southern Baptists I serve as Pastor. As a result, I asked Dr. Wellum 4 questions concerning Postmodernism in hope that he could help shed some light on the subject for us. His answers are outstanding! So much so, that there are many sentences he writes below that are quote-worthy.
Dr. Wellum, thank you for participating in this interview.
Bio from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Professor of Christian Theology (1999); Editor, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Dr. Wellum comes to Southern from Associated Canadian Theological Schools and Northwest Baptist Theological College and Seminary where he taught theology since 1996. He has also served as a senior pastor and interim pastor in South Dakota and Kentucky as well as a conference speaker at various engagements in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. Dr. Wellum has written numerous journal articles and book reviews for various publications including the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, and the Reformation and Revival Journal.
1. What is Postmodernism?
The term “postmodernism” has become somewhat of a buzzword today, at least for the last twenty years. It is used across the academic disciplines, primarily in the humanities and especially now in the theological disciplines including the study of hermeneutics. Interestingly in recent days, there are some who are now saying that “postmodernism” is on the way out. Before we agree with that assessment it is necessary first to define clearly what we mean by the term, even though postmoderns strongly resist the notion that any description or definition of it can be given! Let us think of what postmodernism is in two ways.
First, in terms of the schematizing of western intellectual history, postmodernism is what comes after or post- “modernism.” Of course, this raises the important question: What precisely is “modernism” that “postmodernism” is reacting to? Generally speaking, “modernism” is best identified with the spirit of the Enlightenment, or the “age of reason.” Even here we have to be careful since “modernism” is not monolithic and it spans a long period of time, but there are some features of it which allow us to speak of “modernism” as an overall viewpoint.
From a Christian view, modernism reflects the Enlightenment spirit that man has come of age, thrown off the shackles of the “dark ages” (associated with the medieval era and primarily a theological interpretation of reality), and now made himself the ultimate starting point in how to determine the true, the good, and the beautiful apart from direct dependence upon the Christian God and his Word-revelation. Instead of attempting to ground all knowledge in God, the “age of reason” walks the road of human autonomy as it famously “turns to the human subject” as the ultimate starting point for human knowledge.
In this regard, modernism is often associated with the French philosopher, René Descartes, whose “first philosophy” was epistemology since he was concerned with how one knows what we know and thus the grounding of human knowledge. For a variety of reasons, he was concerned to justify his beliefs in order to become certain in regard to his knowledge. His epistemology is associated today with what is called foundationalism of the “classic” variety—a view which sought to provide justification for one’s beliefs by demonstrating how derived beliefs are grounded in what is basic or beyond dispute. By providing such a justification and evidence for one’s beliefs, an individual not only arrives at knowledge which is objective and universal but also free of doubt and uncertainty. Descartes believed that he could “peel off” pretty much everything – e.g. his previous beliefs, his place in history, and so on—in order to discover what he believed was bedrock. In fact, when Descartes followed this procedure, he discovered that his own existence as a thinker was most foundational and from this sure starting point (so he thought), he sought to build the house of knowledge and arrive at universal truth, step by step in a neutral, objective fashion.
This is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers followed the exact same approach as Descartes. The Enlightenment was associated with two competing schools of epistemology—Continental Rationalism (René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz) and British Empiricism (e.g. John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume) who disagreed in how to obtain and justify truth claims. Yet, both schools had this in common: they were foundationalist in their approach and agreed with Descartes’ “turn to the subject” by making the individual the ultimate starting point in the pursuit of knowledge. In this way, the Enlightenment spirit, as represented by numerous thinkers, took the path of human autonomy as they sought to discover universal, objective truth apart from dependence upon God and his revelation.
Another way of stating this approach is that the Enlightenment believed, in starting with the human subject, they could discover a unified field of knowledge, what is often called a “metanarrative,” i.e., a grand theory or explanatory scheme which could ultimately explain reality (metaphysics) and provide the grounds for the good life (ethics). Examples of these “grand stories” modernism produced are well known: Idealism, Marxism, Darwinism, etc. Each of these “metanarratives” served as universal explanations—“worldviews”—by which all life was viewed and interpreted. In this way, “modernism” affirmed that by human reason alone and by following the correct methodology, one could obtain a “God’s eye viewpoint” of the world which is simply another way of saying that humans could gain objective, universal truth and thus achieve certainty in their thinking. It is this project, as epitomized by the Enlightenment, i.e., the pursuit of universal, objective truth, that postmodernism rejects, hence the use of the prefix “post” in their self-identification.
Second, in order to explain what postmodernism is we must say more than it merely comes after “modernism” in western history. That is no doubt true, but in postmodernism’s rejection of the Enlightenment project, we gain a better understanding of what precisely it is. It is best to view postmodernism in all of its varieties as more of a “mindset” or “mood” which denies the possibility of gaining a “God’s eye viewpoint” or being able to describe the world in one, authoritative way. This is why the famous statement by Jean-François Lyotard nicely captures the mindset and mood of postmodernism: “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Postmoderns, in rejecting “modernism,” believe that the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, individual autonomy, and the ability to gain universal, objective truth are simply not possible. It is important to note from a Christian view that in their rejection of modernism they do not reject the Enlightenment’s “turn to the subject.” Instead, in a more epistemologically self-conscious way, they start with modernism’s starting point and then conclude either that there is no universal truth at all (often tied to a naturalistic understanding of the world), or there is objective truth but we have no way of accessing it or justifying that we know it. In fact, given our human finitude and situatedness, for us to think that we have the Truth, so they argue, usually leads to nothing but disaster and tyranny as the group who thinks they have the Truth attempts to dominate over the “other” which is simply reflective of our own myopic, ethnocentric, intolerant attitudes. In this way postmodernism, in contrast to modernism, affirms that finite, human subjects cannot achieve a unified field of knowledge since reason is rooted in shared experience and shared logical categories, not universal ones. That is why humans can never achieve a universal or “God’s eye viewpoint;” they can never say in areas of ultimate concern, “This is the way it is,” since all human beings are limited in our understanding, rooted in a particular time and place in history, and thus unable to grasp of the whole, assuming that there is even a whole to grasp.
What, then, is postmodernism? It is the mindset and mood that argues that there is no one way either to gain a universal perspective or to demonstrate that one has it. It denies that Truth is universal and objective, rather truth is always perspectival, provisional, incomplete, and what a community most values. It is at this point that for all the legitimate insights of postmodernism regarding our finitude, social location, and so on, it is in direct contrast with Christianity since at the heart of Christian theology is the affirmation (to paraphrase the words of Francis Schaeffer) that the Triune sovereign-personal God is there who has not remained silent but who has spoken to us so that we may know truly and objectively—especially in areas of ultimate concern—but not exhaustively. In other words, we as image-bearers and creatures of God can have a “God’s eye viewpoint” (objective and universal)—not exhaustively as God has it—but as finite, even fallen creatures who are dependent upon his spoken Word. At the end of the day, Christian theology stands against both modernism and postmodernism (even though both of them may have legitimate insights at certain points) as two expressions of idolatrous attempts to de-throne God and to set the human subject in an autonomous direction which leads to a denial of the truth and disastrous consequences, especially vis-à-vis the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2. Is it important for the church to understand Postmodernism today? Why?
In my view it is vitally important that the church understand postmodernism for at least two reasons. First, the church must always seek to understand their times rightly in order to minister the gospel effectively. Postmodernism as a mindset is everywhere around us, whether people self-consciously think they are postmodern or not (and most people do not!). The loss of truth in our larger society is literally the “air we breathe.” In poll after poll, people in our society do not think there is a basis for Truth whether that is in the philosophical, religious, or moral realm. No doubt, people do not consistently live in light of these beliefs and no doubt one can argue that the mindset of postmodernism is ultimately self-refuting, but it still is a fact that everywhere around us the ethos of postmodernism runs deep. As many have documented (e.g. Charles Taylor, Peter Berger, Os Guinness, David Wells), the entire plausibility structures of our society have changed so that a vast majority of people believe there is no longer a basis for universal, objective truth, at least in the ultimate questions of life. That is why statements that postmodernism is coming to an end are somewhat overblown. Until something else takes it place, the mindset continues with disastrous consequences both individually and corporately in terms of our political life together. In terms of the latter, for the last half a century we have sought to build a society on the mood and mindset of postmodernism as represented by multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and the outright acceptance of philosophical and religious pluralism, and we are now seeing the frightening consequences of such actions. The western world is now in the midst of its own implosion—economically, politically, culturally, morally, spiritually—and much of this is due false ideas bearing bad fruit. The “turn to the subject” in the Enlightenment and its rejection of the grounding to human knowledge in the God who is there and who is not silent, and the extension of the Enlightenment spirit to the postmodernism mindset has left us in the dust of death that is now settling everywhere around us. Ironically and sadly, postmodernism in all of its claims to humility and its rejection of what it perceived was the hubris, dogmatism, and totalizing metanarratives of modernism, has simply replaced modernism with its own “absolute” creed, namely, that everyone must view the world in their way and no other! As Christians we need profoundly to understand what is happening around us, to analyze it correctly, so that we are able more effectively to minister the gospel in the day and age we live.
Second, building on the first point, we must not only understand postmodernism to grasp rightly the day and age we minister in, but we must also realize that this mindset is the great battle the church faces in proclaiming the gospel to a watching world. Martin Luther is famously quoted by saying that the church does not faithfully minister the gospel unless she proclaims the truth of God precisely at the point where the world and the devil are presently attacking. In church history this statement is borne out. In the Patristic era, the great battle of the day was over the doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, and so on, and the church faithfully proclaimed and defended the gospel at these points. In the Reformation era, the church stood for the full authority of Scripture and the great doctrine of justification by grace through faith. If she had stood for every other point of the truth of God’s Word other than those points which were under attack, she would not have been faithful. In our day, we must ask ourselves the simple question: Where today is the world and the devil most attacking? I am certainly not a prophet but I am convinced that the great battle of our day centers precisely at the point where the mood and mindset of postmodernism prevails, namely in the dismissal of the very plausibility of having Truth.
Yet, as noted above, it is at this point that postmodernism and the gospel most directly clash. If the gospel is anything, it is a glorious message that is rooted in an incredible claim to be the Truth. The Scripture presents us with a grand metanarrative which though not exhaustive in its content, truly gives us a “God’s eye viewpoint.” It is precisely because the true and living Triune God is there and he has spoken to us that Truth is possible and actual. In our Lord Jesus Christ we have one who is nothing less than “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The gospel which proclaims our human need and the depth of our depravity before the Judge of the universe, including the solution to our problem in entire cross-work of our Lord Jesus is the Truth. However, it is at this point that our gospel proclamation and the entire Christian faith stands in direct opposition to the thought and mindset of our day. And unless we understand this, we will be tempted to fight other battles which may be important but are not the central battle, and we will be tempted to relativize the gospel claim and to deny its exclusive nature. The church must be aware of this battle and fight it head on. We must not be caught off guard. We must prepare our people to stand in the gap and to use gospel weapons to fight this battle with integrity, courage, and gospel conviction, otherwise we will not be transformed in the renewing of our mind but instead be conformed to the patterns and spirit of the age (see Rom 12:1-2).
3. Concerning Postmodernism, what issues face the church today? What are some potential answers to these issues?
Postmodernism raises many issues for the church but let me give three issues. First, postmodernism by its very mindset leads to an undercutting of the truth claims of the gospel. In so doing, postmodernism does not merely reject this or that truth of the Christian faith, rather it rejects the entire metanarrative, theology, and worldview. Christian theology is a seamless whole which is rooted and grounded in the Triune God. At the heart of the Christian position is a truth claim of astounding proportions and it is this ultimate truth claim which postmodernism seeks to undercut. The church in response must not only disciple the people of God to know their times, to know their Bibles, and to know sound theology, but she must also engage in apologetics and worldview evangelism. We no longer live in a society which takes Christianity as a default position. Our society is very pluralistic which leads many to throw up their hands and to say that no one position is true. We as the church need to learn anew how to minister the gospel in a society that is philosophically and religiously diverse, that believes no one view is true, and sees in us people who understand their times and effectively minister God’s Word in truth, power, and conviction.
Second, in our preaching and living of the gospel we must clearly articulate that the gospel is not something merely to re-orient our thinking and that which is subjectively true “for me” and for “my community.” Rather, we must proclaim that the gospel is Truth and that the realities of the gospel are objective realities which demand our attention, obedience, devotion, and our entire lives and commitment. Too often in a postmodern society the gospel is only preached to meet our felt needs and not that which is true. This also entails that our lives must live out what we proclaim. In a world and society that is so cynical in regard to truth, it is not enough to say that we believe it; we must also demonstrate it in our churches, families, and everyday life. We must walk the talk otherwise we will sound like clanging gongs in the ears of those around us.
Third, we will have to learn how to pick up the pieces from the consequences of the mood and mindset of postmodernism. In evangelical circles, Francis Schaeffer was famous for articulating the phrase, “ideas have consequences.” In the case of postmodernism, which is certainly a whole set of ideas and a worldview perspective, the consequences of it are devastating. As people begin to live out in their daily lives a commitment that there is no ultimate grounding for the true, the good, and the beautiful, we should not be surprised the effects of this show up in the breakdown of families, in how we treat one another, in the loss of human rights, the loss of human dignity, and so on. The church will no doubt have to pick up the pieces not only in terms of people within the church seeking to teach, disciple, and demonstrate who to know and live out the truth of the gospel in every aspect of their lives, but also to help people outside the church. If we do not do it, who will?
4. Who are some theologians that have faithfully interacted with postmodernism that you would recommend? What are some books our readers might find helpful for understanding how Christians should respond to postmodernism?
A number of people come to mind who are helpful in thinking through postmodernism and how to respond to it. In biblical and theological studies the work of D. A. Carson is helpful, especially his The Gagging of God. I have also found the work of David Wells to be penetrating in its analysis and to point the way forward. In this regard his series of books analyzing the effects of postmodernism on theology are very helpful: 1. No Place for Truth; 2. God in the Wasteland; 3. Losing our Virtue; 4. Above all Earthly Powers. In terms of hermeneutics, I would highly recommend Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? In that work, Vanhoozer not only gives you a sense of where hermeneutical thought is, but how to respond to it as a Christian theologian. In regard to apologetics, I am convinced that a presuppositional approach as represented by people like Cornelius Van Til and his contemporary defenders such as the late Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Scott Oliphint, and others is the best way to engage our society in worldview evangelism and defense of the faith. I also like Part 1 of Tim Keller, The Reason for God, who helps the reader penetrate the mindset of postmodern thought as it shows itself practically in everyday life. In academic philosophy, many of the works of Alvin Plantinga are also helpful in thinking through the epistemological issues at stake, especially his Warrant trilogy and his Warranted Christian Belief.
Articles and Books from Dr. Wellum
1. “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants” (Scroll Down for this article online) in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ
2. “Postconservatism, Biblical Authority, and Recent Proposals for Re-Doing Evangelical Theology: A Critical Analysis” in Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times
3. “The Inerrancy of Scripture” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity
4. “The Deity of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels” and “The Deity of Christ in the Apostolic Witness” in The Deity of Christ (Theology in Community)
Resources from Dr. Wellum Available Online
23. “Baptism and Crucicentrism” Interview (MP3)
Future posts in this series:
III. What is postmodernism in Layman’s terms?
IV. What are some examples of Postmodernism in Academia?
V. What are some examples of Postmodernism in Media?
VI. What are some examples of Postmodernism in Urban Settings?
VII. What are some examples of Postmodernism in Rural Settings?
VIII. What are some examples of Postmodernism in the Church?
IX. How do we respond to Postmodernism in Academia?
X. How do we respond to Postmodernism in Media?
XI. How do we reach Postmoderns in Urban Settings?
XII. How do we reach Postmoderns in Rural Settings?
XIII. How do we respond to Postmodernism in the Church?
XIV. A Summary or our Conclusions