As someone who works to interpret the culture and explore how our Christian faith speaks into it, the subject of postmodernism is one of great interest to me. As the latest wave of broad-scale cultural change, it is a context that most Christian leaders are grappling with one way or another. With its emphasis on deconstruction and relative truth, postmodernism can look like a death blow coming to the western church. It is indeed resulting in a changing landscape of ministry, but I believe postmodernism is an adaptive challenge, not a death sentence for the church in the West. Knowing the difference between these two is all the difference in the world – one pushes to explore and find new approaches, the other encourages us to circle the wagons and stay in place until we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is, for this reason, I’m writing a number of articles in a faith and postmodernism series, and this is the latest.
Before I dive in, I want to cite some credit where credit is due with this article. I have the fortunate privilege of having a number of friends in the global body of Christ, and this particular article comes from some areas where my friend Derek Morphew has educated me. If you know the man, he is a treasure! If not, he is a life-long scholar and student of kingdom theology and has been one of the critical voices in kingdom theology scholarship for the Vineyard movement globally. The subject of this article comes from my own reflection and engagement with him personally, as well as his lengthy scholastic book The Kingdom Reformation.
Postmodernism and the Importance of Context
Postmodernism as a whole is a reaction against modernism (as could probably have been guessed by the name). One of the specific elements included in that is the understanding of what truth is. I’ve written more extensively about this in another article, so suffice it, in summary, to say that modernism started with an understanding of truth that is absolute: the truth is always true from every vantage point. Postmodernism pushes back and suggests that truth may be more complex than that: truth may be context-dependent. It might be that what we understand the truth to have as much to do with our vantage point as it does what we are looking at.
This shift has both good and bad in it. On one hand, this is the source of postmodernism becoming an entry point to moral relativism and “choose your own adventure” morality, spirituality, and everything else. Most of us in ministry are getting pretty familiar with this conversation by this point. This aspect of the shift is a challenging one to engage.
On the other hand, there is an aspect of this which is probably good because it also feeds a degree of humility into the way we think about ourselves. It acknowledges that we are limited and finite and that there is a distinction between what exists and how we understand it. Furthermore, it asserts that our understanding is based on fundamentally human aspects that we will never be able to fully get out of the equation. Said another way, my experience of life and truth is inextricably connected to me. It is inherently mine, and there are degrees in which it may or may not overlap with others’ experiences of life and truth. I believe this aspect of postmodernism is insightful and important: as human beings, our context always influences our understanding of truth. There is no escaping that fact.
In these two aspects, we see how postmodernism is both a correction and an overreach of modernism. Modernism asserted that there did exist absolute truth and reality, but it denied the subjective experience of that reality that we humans will always have. It not only made truth objective, it proposed that objective truth could be known by us objectively. Postmodernism pushes back and renders both truth and our knowledge of it subjective. In this, I believe postmodernism goes too far as well. A more objective balance is to realize that reality does indeed exist separate from us and in that, there must be at least a degree of absolute truth, but we as finite human beings can only know objective realities subjectively.
From my reading, this perspective seems to hang largely with the way the Scriptures articulate the way we humans know and walk with God. God is an objective reality: he exists separate from our knowledge of him. The Word (as in Jesus the Son) is the revelation of this objective reality within the timeline of our human history. He is God, an objective reality, making himself known to us. This self-revelation comes to us in an inherently subjective manner: through a relationship. The revelation of God doesn’t exist in theological truths we can articulate about God (though those do exist), but rather in the relational walk with God’s self-disclosure himself. Truth is known in the subjective form of a relationship, not in the objective form of dogma.
One way I love how the Bible illustrates this is in the names of God. At a number of places in the Scriptures, God (or at times a person) reveals a name that represents the way they know God:
A modernist reader will respond to these names by making a list and enumerating these attributes of God. “The sum of these attributes describes who God is.” I think there is value in that study – but there is a more postmodern reading of this which I find to be more helpful for my personal walk with God: these are a set of labels that are attached to various walks with God. In other words, it is possible to know God relationally as “Shepherd, Sanctifier, Healer”, and so on. This is a collection of relational walks with God that illustrate different ways that different people have walked with the same God. Each of these people had a different walk with God and knew the same God as a somewhat different being. These are labels to some of the subjectively different ways to know God.
Framed this way, I don’t respond by making a list, I respond by asking this question: “I wonder how God wants to walk with me?” What if his walk with us is unique because that is the unique way he images himself through us to the world around us? We all walk with the same God, but we all know him a little differently. I find that a beautiful and inspiring thought.
Hermeneutics and the Scripture
But in all of this, we digress slightly. We were talking about context: as human beings, meaning is inherently context-dependent. This turns out to be really important in the way we study the Bible.
Suppose we were to take this idea seriously and be faithful to apply it to the way we understand the Bible – as this is exactly a project that Biblical scholars have been undertaking the last several decades of Biblical scholarship. This means we have to shift the starting question we use to derive meaning from the Scripture. Consider these two natural questions to ask as we come to the Scripture with these two different lenses:
Modern Hermeneutic: What does this passage mean to me? (Implies that the difference between original context and my context is irrelevant)
Postmodern Hermeneutic: What did this passage mean to them (in their context) & what does that mean for me? (Works to understand original words in original context, then carry the meaning across)
Now at the front let me be forthright and acknowledge that the postmodern hermeneutic is a lot more work. Working to understand the original context and try and determine what the words in the original context meant takes a lot of effort. (Note, I am not saying just the textual context, but the historical-cultural context). What it does though, is prevent the consistent error of modern era Christianity: we have a tendency to constantly remake God in our image.
I’m sure you’ve noticed this at some point – how is it that we have so many different conceptions of Jesus running around? To the conservative, Jesus is conservative. To the liberal, Jesus is liberal. To the universalist, Jesus is universalist. To the woke, Jesus is woke…and so on. How is it that Jesus looks like so many different ideologies and philosophies? This results because unless we work to place Jesus (and the rest of the Scriptures) in their context, we will supply our own and unknowingly read the meaning of what he says and does in our context.
What postmodernism challenges us to do is to work to understand the original biblical context so we can understand what those words meant in that context – and then figure out what that means for us.
A Bit of History
Now here is something fascinating and cool: all of these postmodern context ideas began to swirl around academic circles in the mid-to-late 20th century. At exactly the same time, two very interesting developments happen:
- The Dead Sea Scrolls (and a whole body of literature from the time Jesus lived in Israel) were discovered. This provided a library of literature that informed the context of Jesus in a way the church hasn’t had for well over 1500 years.
- As an after-effect of WWII, Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue opens in a way that hadn’t been open for hundreds of years. Among other things, this granted biblical scholars access to lines of tradition that trace back to the times of Jesus.
Look at this: how is it that at exactly the time that Biblical scholars are coming to the conclusion that the best way to understand Jesus is to know his context, exactly the resources needed to do that become available to the scholastic community for the first time in over a thousand years? Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence; I can’t believe that’s true. If you’re looking for evidence that the hand of God is still active in history in our day, that’s pretty compelling evidence in my book.
Now without diving into the nitty-gritty on this, do you know what happens when you do that hard work to place the words and actions of Jesus in his context and understand their meaning? The answer is Kingdom Theology happens. A new picture emerges: not just one of Jesus as the suffering savior who gives himself for our sins, but one of Jesus as the eschatological king, ushering in the kingdom of God and becoming the ruling Lord of all creation. The new understanding of Jesus’ context gives a new understanding of Jesus’ ministry, and it’s the first time in over a thousand years we’ve been able to do that.
To anyone who is new to Kingdom Theology, you may have wrestled like I did: why does this sound different from what I’ve heard before, and why should I listen to it if it is different? This is such an important question, and there is an amazing answer: Kingdom Theology is birthed out of something incredible God has done. In the last several decades, God has made it possible to study the Bible in a way it never has been studied before, a way in which we can read the words of Jesus in reference to the context Jesus was living in. When we do that, and we value that context in the appropriate way, we can understand the Bible in a deeper way than it has been understood before.
Thanks to an appropriate value for context, we can go deeper than Luther or Calvin, Wesley, or Moody were able to go. Don’t get me wrong, I love the reformers – those guys are my heroes, but they didn’t have this information so they weren’t able to understand Jesus in his context. It is only in the last few decades that the Lord has brought all of this to the fore and as a result, we are living in such a beautiful time. A time in which the gospel has been unearthed again in a way it hasn’t been understood for centuries.
Is postmodernism perfect? Far from it. Like all human systems, it is flawed and incomplete. Devoid of God, all systems of meaning become idols and postmodernism is no exception. At the same time, if wrestling with the downsides of postmodernism is the price we pay for living in a time of the most exciting developments in the understanding of the message and ministry of Jesus that have happened since the early centuries, that seems like a trade I can live with.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman