Special Article October 2019

This essay is a slightly revised version of a talk that I gave at the Baptist Pastors Fellowship a number of years ago. I am unable to recall the exact date of this talk.

 What is Postmodernism?

The term ‘postmodern’ has become something of a buzzword today. It is a word that is often invoked in the august halls of academic institutions, the pages of popular magazines and newspapers, and in advante garde art galleries.  ‘Postmodern’, and its cognates – ‘postmodernism’ and ‘postmodernity’ –  are celebrated, analysed, debated and, as a term of fairly recent vintage, over-employed. Yet, there seems to be no consensus on what these terms mean and what in fact they propose to describe. Even the genealogy of the term ‘postmodern’ is contested. Some have argued that the word first appeared as early as 1934, when Frederico de Oniz coined postmodernismo,[1] while others traced it to Arnold Toynbee who in the aftermath of World War I announced in 1939 that the modern age had ended in 1914.[2]

‘Postmodern’ appears to be a kind of umbrella concept that covers a whole range of things: styles, movements, and approaches in the fields of art, history architecture, philosophy, economics, science, politics and literature. It is as diffused as it is imprecise, as irregular as it is malleable. This has led social theorists like Hans Bertens to conclude that ‘postmodernism is not a monolithic phenomenon’.[3] There is no one postmodernism but many, prompting the question if posmodernism is a coherent concept. How, then, are we to understand this phenomenon and the intellectual and ideological forces that inspire it? Perhaps the best way forward is to examine what the prefix in the term ‘postmodern’ suggests. Michael Köhler has suggested this approach when he wrote:

Despite persisting controversies as to what constitutes the characteristic traits of the new area, the term ‘postmodern’ is now generally applied to all cultural phenomena which have emerged since the second world war and are indicative of a change in sensibility and attitude, making the present age ‘post the modern’.[4]

In other words, since in trying to surmount modernism postmodernism is in some ways parasitic to the former, the best way to understand it is to look at what characterises the modern. During the medieval period, the prevailing worldview is that both nature and history are ordered by God, the Creator, and therefore subject to the divine governance. According to this worldview, human lives located in God’s purposeful universe are meaningful. The modern era sought to emancipate humanity from existence in a God-centred universe. The rise of the natural sciences not only promises to set humanity free from the prison of a predetermined universe, it also promises man untold freedom to determine his own destiny.

However, in a cruel and ironical twist, the freedom that modern man experienced appears short-lived as he now finds himself entrapped by the very forces that had allegedly ‘liberated’ him, namely, the powerful technological and scientific imperative and the destructive ideologies they have spawned. As evangelical theologian Carl Henry puts it,

The twentieth century – the century of scientific progress – brought with it, among other debacles, World War I, World War II, Marxist totalitarianism, Auschwitz, the increasing poisoning of the planet, and bare escape from nuclear destruction. Despite boundless expectations from science, modernity with its militarism and rape of nature is seen by postmodernity as a threat to planetary life and survival.[5]

Seen broadly, postmodernism is a movement that tries to break away from the determinism of the modern worldview. In his now famous work, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, the French philosopher of science François Lyotard maintains that postmodernism emerges from the cultural and ideological crisis in Western civilisation. In decrying the modernist goal of a unified science, postmodernism rejects all forms of meta-discourses or meta-narratives that try to explain the nature and meaning of the universe. Thus, all grand-narratives, from unified field theory to Marxism to the Christian Gospel are declared modern, and therefore dead. So comprehensive is its critique of the modern that Lyotard could declare that postmodernism has altered the game rules for science, literature, the arts as well as religion.[6]

Although it is notoriously difficult to define postmodernism, it is possible to identify its key characteristics. Firstly, postmodern philosophers maintain that knowledge is always conditioned by particularities and by the situation of the knower. There is therefore no objective knowledge, and since knowledge is always bound up with the context, there is no neutral discovery of knowledge. This leads philosophers to conclude that knowledge is uncertain. This is the second characteristic of postmodernism. The view that knowledge can be erected on some indubitable foundation (foundationalism) is denied. What we have in actuality, according to these philosophers are individual constructions of ‘reality’. Thirdly, since what we have are but particular constructs there can never be an over-arching system of explanations as the moderns claim. These over-arching systems, what we have called meta-discourses or meta-narratives, must therefore be abandoned.

Fourthly, postmodernism rejects the modern vision and rhetoric of progress. According to its philosophers, the tumultuous history of the twentieth century has comprehensively and decisively demolished such ideals of progress. Fifthly, postmodernism rejects modern individualism, which sees the individual knower as the ideal. Knowledge is now located in a community, but because of postmodernism’s emphasis on the particular, the language-game of a particular community may be incommensurable with that of another. Thus, while postmodernism champions the community over the individual, communities are at the same time isolated from one another. There is very little prospect for genuine dialogue. Finally, postmodernism rejects the idea that the scientific method is omnicompetent. It recognises intuition, for example, as a legitimate source of knowledge.

There are of course various shades of postmodernism. Some philosophers have talked about a soft postmodernism, which seeks only to challenge the presuppositions and conclusions of a dogmatic form of modernism. Thus, soft postmodernism rejects the naturalism and antisupranaturalism of modernity. It also rejects modernity’s tendency towards a reductionist view of life, in which, for instance, the human being is defined purely in genetic terms. Soft postmodernism also rejects the naïve objectivity that fails to take into account the cultural and contextual influences on human knowledge. It is important to point out that Christians should have no problems with these objections. Indeed, theologians like Stanley Grenz have argued, correctly, that these critiques forwarded by soft postmodernism resonate with the Christian critique of modernity as well. But, as they say, the devil is in the details! In addition, we have to see what postmodernism has to offer by way of constructive correctives to the perceived excesses of modernism.

Philosophers also speak of hard postmodernism. Hard postmodernism agrees with all the criticisms forwarded by soft postmodernism against modernity but pushes for the most extreme conclusions. It deconstructs everything that modernism proposes. It does not only argue against objective truth in the sense that all truth-claims are influenced culturally and contextually. Hard postmodernism also rejects objective knowledge and claims that our knowledge and our language do not have any objective referent. As some philosophers have put it, hard postmodernism is in fact saying that ‘there is no there there’. As a result, every knowing and speaking is done from a certain perspective, and every perspective is equally ‘true’, since there is no objective referent out there by which they can be verified. Such postmodernisms embrace pluralism as a necessary cultural and philosophical phenomenon.

The Eclipse of Objective Truth

The first characteristic of postmodernism is the loss of objectivity and the eclipse of truth. Postmoderns attempt to ‘deconstruct’ the modern concept of absolute truth. Although there are different proposals for this deconstruction, they are all undergirded by the view that there is no relationship between truth and reality. Postmodern epistemology rejects the correspondence theory of truth. Truths have to do rather with perspectives, associated with different individuals and communities and expressed through language. In other words, truths are social constructs that are specific to the communities that hold them and have no reference outside of those communities. This view of truth in effect rejects the idea that truth-claims are objective and thus universally accessible. There is no metanarrative, no rational account of the grand scheme of things that is there for all to evaluate. Truth is dissolved into communities, ethnic and gender groups, and other contingent factors.

With this view of truth, postmodernism not only embraces pluralism but celebrates it. Because truths are tied to the communities that propose them, they are as diverse as these communities. Os Guiness has provided a succinct description of the postmodern condition in his book, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds:

There is no truth; only truths. There is no grand reason; only reasons. There is no privileged civilisation (or culture, or belief, norm and style); only a multiplicity of cultures, beliefs, norms and styles. There is no universal justice; only interests and competition among interest groups.[7]

The postmodern rejection of objective truth and its embrace of pluralism mean that it sees relativism as a necessary phenomenon that must be welcomed. There is no need for the different truth-claims to jostle for supremacy, for there is room for all of them. No one has the monopoly of truth, and therefore no institution or group has the right to pontificate its beliefs on others. In this climate of pluralism and relativism, tolerance is often hailed as the noblest of virtues. In the end, it is tolerance that matters, not right or wrong, truth and falsehood. As Allan Bloom has put it so startlingly in his celebrated book The Closing of the American Mind, ‘The danger … is not error but intolerance’.[8]

Some postmoderns maintain that truth has to do not with theoretical correctness as such but with its usefulness. This concept of truth is forwarded by postmodern thinkers like Richard Rorty, who undoubtedly is one of the most influential proponents of postmodern pragmatism. According to Rorty, pragmatism’s focus is not theory but practice. Pragmatists focus on action rather than contemplation,[9] and they ask questions about what is useful rather than what is right.[10] This pragmatism eschews the ideals of modern science whose goal is to establish models that would best correspond to or depict reality. This understanding has elevated science to a privileged position among the human cultural enterprises, when in fact, according to Rorty, science is merely one vocabulary among many. The question that must be asked, Rorty insists, is a utilitarian one: ‘Which vocabulary works better than the others for the purpose in view’.  This same utilitarian approach is found in postmodernism’s attitude towards tradition. Tradition is not discarded altogether, but one should use only those ‘bits’ that might be useful for the present purpose and concern.

The postmodern attitude towards objective truth has at least two important implications for Christian ministry. The first has to do with the place of doctrine and theology in the Christian Faith. In the past 30 years, a number of theologians have criticised the lack of doctrinal emphasis in the Church and the dismal state of theological literacy among Christians. In his book, No Place for Truth, theologian David Wells traces the decline in theological astuteness in evangelical churches in America. According to Wells, while in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s American evangelicals were firmly grounded in the Bible and the fundamentals of the Christian Faith, from the 1950s onward there seem to be a decline in interest in such matters. According to Wells American evangelicals

… have lost interest (or perhaps they can no longer sustain interest) in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers, and even in those doctrines that articulate Christ’s death such as justification, redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. It is simply enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people.[11]

Accompanying this decline in interest in theology and doctrine is the emphasis on the practical. This is seen in various quarters, in the way the theological curricula in theological institutions are shaped to provide more practical courses in the name of ministerial training, in the various projects of the church with their concern for tangible results and numerical growth, and in the way sermons are reduced to the recounting of personal narratives and experiences. Underlying all this is the pragmatic notion of truth with its focus on utility rather than theory.

The second implication of the postmodern understanding of truth relates to how the Bible is understood and read. Christians influenced by postmodernism no longer see the Bible as ‘foundational’ or ‘authoritative’ in the traditional and modern sense. This of course does not mean that the Bible is no longer important to them or the Christian community. For these postmodern Christians the Bible no longer refers to truths that are objectively there outside the perspective of its readers. The Bible is now ‘true’ in the sense that it is meaningful for the Christian community. The Bible is important for the Christian community not because it bears witness to the truth of God’s revelation but because through its narratives provide spiritual resources and inspiration to the community of faith.

Postmodern hermeneutics has shifted attention from the text to the reader. According to such approaches meaning is no longer located in the text. Rather it is either found in the reader (Wolfgang Iser[12]) or in the reading community as a socio-cultural phenomenon (Stanley Fish[13]). According to this approach – which is later described as ‘reader-response theory’ – the meaning of the text is no longer found in or behind the text but in front of it. Put differently, according to this hermeneutical theory, what is important is not the intention of the author or the meaning of the text in its original context but the context of the reader. In contrast to the historical paradigm, which begins with the history behind the text, and the literary paradigm, which enquires about the meaning of the text, the reader-response approach to interpretation begins with the reader. And since it is impossible to separate the reader from his social location, reader-response theory maintains that one must begin with the socio-logical / cultural context of the reader, which is read into the text. This approach is taken by liberation theologians in Latin America and by feminist and gay theologians. But this approach is also embraced, albeit unconsciously, by Christians who claim that God has spoken to them in a personal and often idiosyncratic way. Since true objectivity is impossible, according to these scholars, all exegesis is really eisegesis. The autonomous text is repudiated, and the text is no longer confined to just one meaning but is actually open-ended, and meanings can be multiplied as different readers respond to the text in question. In other words, it is the reader(s) who give meaning to the text.

De-traditionalisation

The second aspect of postmodernism that has important ramifications for Christian ministry that I would like to examine may be described as the phenomenon of de-traditionalisation. As modernity marches on to what some philosophers have called late or hyper-modernity, the process of individualisation that it spawned generates an ever-deepening suspicion of received social conventions and traditions. From a sociological perspective, it is often observed that as the various master narratives disintegrate, certainties, values, and norms that were inherited from tradition are also relativised. As the Belgian theologian Lieven Boeve has rightly observed, ‘emancipation from bonds that were once taken for granted and left unquestioned has resulted in a situation in which every human being is given the structurally-subjective task of constructing his or her own personal identity’.[14] Accompanying this process of individualisation in late or post- modernity is a radical pluralisation where individuals are faced with numerous possibilities and a bewildering diversity of choices. Because postmodernism has critically unmasked universalistic pretensions as the absolutisation of a particular viewpoint, it is confronted with a legion of different perspectives, each valuable in itself even though they are incompatible or are even in conflict with others.

This of course does not imply that the customs, values and norms that were once prized so highly have completely disappeared. They still continue to function in some sense, but they have now become only a part of a broad array of possibilities from which individuals can choose. But most importantly, in the postmodern context all these customs, values and norms can no longer claim to be the exclusive basis for determining people’s lifestyles. This means that the social significance of tradition as the means of interpreting individual and social existence has collapsed in postmodern society. The claim that tradition makes of being the living and life-giving narrative is no longer taken seriously by some and seen as irreconcilable to the postmodern ethos by others. Traditions that have survived the collapse find themselves among countless other new life-options in the characteristically plural postmodern cultural market. Religious traditions also suffer the same fate as they take their places among the many different religious commodities displayed in the postmodern religious market. And as the New Age movement has shown, bits of the classical religious tradition can be excised from their original contexts and combined with fragments from other traditions to form a postmodern religious collage.

The Protestant Church, especially its evangelical variety is particularly susceptible to the postmodern rejection and irresponsible pilfering of tradition. In a devastating critique of American evangelicalism, Mark Noll writes: ‘the evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic and utilitarian. It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment’.[15] Equally sharp is the critique forwarded by theologian David Wells who laments the alarming theological illiteracy of American evangelicals who are no longer able to articulate the Faith that have shaped their own tradition.[16] Wells argues that if evangelicalism were to regain its theological integrity it must reconnect itself to the historic Protestant orthodoxy from which it has been severed. That is to say, it must take seriously the formative traditions that gave it its identity. If it fails to do this, evangelicalism will continue to lose its link with historic Christianity and thus its identity, and become victim to the corrosiveness of postmodern relativism. Without the tradition, that is, without the content of faith (fides quae creditur) to inform its central task, the church will lack coherency and stability and be swept by the currents of contemporary culture. As Wells has so vividly described it:

As nostrums of the therapeutic age supplant confession, and as preaching is psychologised, the meaning of the Christian faith is privatised. At a single stroke, confession is eviscerated and reflection reduced mainly to thought about one’s self.[17]

The Church that abandons its own rich heritage will willy-nilly be guided by the market place of ideas. By abandoning continuities, the Church will gravitate towards discontinuities as the vacuum that is created by the absence of a sound theological tradition is filled rapidly by a hankering after new techniques and gimmicks in the exercise of ministry. Loren Mead, in his book The Once and Future Church has described this condition as the ‘Tyranny of the New’.[18] ‘When the new way is considered the only way’, writes Mead, ‘there is no continuity, fads become the new Gospel and in Paul’s words, the church is “blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine”’.[19] And since postmoderns of every stripe are into marketing, the church that has abandoned its traditional framework of beliefs or relegated it to the background must adopt a whole new paradigm, borrowed from the contemporary business world. This is precisely what George Barna recommended in his 1988 book, Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You about Church Growth, published interestingly by Navpress.[20] The church is a ‘franchise’, with a core product to sell, namely the message of salvation. Furthermore, the church must show a ‘profit’, that is, it must be successful in penetrating its market.[21] Under this new paradigm pastors, Barna argues, need a portfolio of gifts that is radically different from those presented by the Apostle Paul. The ‘gifts’ of decision-making, visibility and practicality have in the postmodern context overshadowed those related to teaching and counselling.[22]

This is fertile soil for rootless consumerism to flourish in these experimental churches that have ignored the rich heritage they have inherited. In rejecting its own Christian heritage, these churches have bowed down to a different god – the god of personal choices. Driven by senseless consumerism, the church must constantly ask herself if the ‘products’ she offers in the religious market are able to address the ‘felt needs’ of her members. Conversely, members no longer assess the church by her theological orthodoxy and commitment to being an authentic witness in the world. Rather they judge the church on the basis of whether she is able to meet their needs. This has brought about an interesting and new phenomenon, one that is so characteristic of the postmodern sensibility. By yielding to the demands of the consumer, churches have effectively installed revolving doors. Churches may be full each Sunday, but not with the same people. Membership becomes superfluous, as Christians are no longer committed to their own local churches. This mirrors almost perfectly the average consumer, who is no longer loyal to particular products and brands. As Wells has described it, ‘People keep entering, lured by the church’s attractions or just to check out the wares, but then they move on because they feel their needs, real or otherwise, are not being met’.[23]  It’s a buyer’s market, and what the buyer wants the church must be prepared to give. Knowing how to keep the customer satisfied and happy therefore becomes indispensable in the world of competitive marketing.

Faced with this postmodern predicament, the church must heed the admonition of Moses, the psalmists and the prophets of Israel to the people of God to ‘remember’. ‘Remember the days of old’, reads Deuteronomy 32:7, ‘consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you, your elders and they will inform you’. This admonition reminds Christians that Christianity, like Judaism, is a faith that takes history very seriously. God has entered into our world and acted in our history through his dealings with Israel and then supremely through the Incarnation. The admonition also reminds us of the profound significance of the past, and our memory of it. ‘Without memory’, writes Robert Wilken, ‘our intellectual life is impoverished, barren, ephemeral, subject to the whims of the moment’.[24] This is equally true of the spiritual wellbeing of the church. Christians who maintain that God works in the immediacy of the present through his Holy Spirit must be reminded that it is that same Spirit who has guided the church in ages past. Christians who are unwittingly lured into the individualism of our times by emphasising the Spirit’s personal guidance on their individual lives must be reminded that the Spirit also works in the church. And part of the work of the Spirit is to enable us to recall the teachings of Jesus Christ and to ensure that they were faithfully handed over from one generation to another. This is what is meant by traditio which is both a verb as well as a noun. As a noun, traditio refers to that which Jesus ‘handed over’ to the apostles, and they to the church. In its verbal sense, the term refers to the whole movement by which the Christian faith is deposited, preserved and transmitted. Tradition in this sense is dynamic. As D. H. Williams has put it, tradition is ‘not something dead handed down, but living being handed over’.[25] The Reformers well understood that the Christian message, rooted in the Incarnation of the Word, is transmitted in the history of the church. We must not forget that at the heart of the Protestant Reformation is the quest to rediscover the Christian past. For it is only by remembering the past that we are able to recognise present aberrations and make way for genuine renewal in the church.

Postmodern Morality

The third and final aspect has to do with postmodernism’s attitude towards morality or ethics. As we have seen, postmodernism does not only emphasise the cultural, racial and ideological diversity that characterise our world, but celebrates it. Although postmodernism agrees with the modern idea that our world has become a ‘global village’, it is quick to point out that this village consists of many radically different cultures and systems of belief. As William Schweiker has put it in his commentary on the postmodern outlook, ‘We live in one world of many moralities’.[26] Pluralism itself, if it is understood merely as a synonym for ‘plurality’, is not new, and certainly not remarkable. Different cultural forms, beliefs, ideals, practises and moral standards have always co-existed in our world, which is home to many moral worlds. But for postmodern philosophers, ‘pluralism’ is more than simply the recognition of the diversity of moral outlooks. Rather for them pluralism is itself a moral outlook because it affirms that moral diversity is a good thing. And it is precisely because for postmodern thinkers pluralism is not merely a description of moral diversity but a moral statement (or mandate) that it raises a profound problem for the Church.

The postmodern approach to morality embraces pluralism and therefore relativism. There are at least two ways of looking at moral relativism. In his The Concept of Morals, Walter Stace defines moral relativism in this way: ‘Any ethical position which denies that there is a single moral standard which is applicable to all men at all times may fairly be called a species of ethical relativism. There is not, the relativist asserts, merely one moral law, one code, one standard’.[27] Richard Brandt offers a different definition of moral relativism when he describes the relativist as someone for whom ‘conflicting ethical opinions’ are equally valid.[28] Although these two definitions look radically different, they both accurately describe relativism. The rejection of a single moral standard and the equal acceptance of conflicting ethical opinions as valid may be said to be the two sides of the same coin.

Scholars have generally identified two main kinds of relativists. Radical relativists are people who maintain that all moral judgements emerge from particular conceptions of morality that are conditioned by history, culture and society. In other words, for them there are no moral judgements that are bound to human nature. Conventionalists on the other hand, are those who maintain that certain moral judgements are rooted in human nature. These values are primary. Secondary values, however, are relative and are thus shaped by particular traditions and social conventions.  In addition, scholars have classified relativism as hard and soft relativism. Hard relativism sees all cultural norms as incommensurable and therefore mutually incomprehensible. Soft relativism, while denying that there are transcultural standards of evaluation would allow that the different cultural moral norms are mutually comprehensible. Postmoderns of every stripe can be classified under one of these categories.

Moral relativism is a form of subjectivism. It maintains that there is no universal and absolute moral standard to which individuals and societies must submit. Moral truths therefore become the preferences associated with individuals and particular societies. Moral preferences therefore become of matter of taste, and no one should require that a certain moral situation should be met with only one response. When moral truths are reduced to a matter of taste or preference – even if it is in some ways conditioned by the community – the moral question is no longer, What is good? It becomes, What feels good or right to the individual or the community? Or, Which actions are deemed meaningful to that particular individual or that particular community? Moral relativism in postmodern society is the direct consequence of the eclipse of objective truth discussed earlier. Once truth is no longer taken seriously, there can be not objectivity in ethics either. If objective truth either does not exist or cannot be known, moral truth becomes an incoherent concept.

The Church must resist the moral relativism that is so pervasive in our postmodern culture. In the face of subjectivism and pluralism, the Church must continue to emphasise a transcendent moral standard, an ethic that is truly universal. This ethic is not the construct of a particular religious community that is subsequently imposed in a draconian way on the rest of humankind. This ethic, Christians believe, is based on the revelation of God in Christ and therefore expresses God’s will for the entire human family. Postmodern philosophers will surely challenge the claim that Christian ethics is universally relevant and binding. They ask how a revelation that is made to one community can be said to be relevant to all human beings? On what basis can we argue that the Christian vision is not merely a tribal ethic but is in fact for all human beings?

In his book, The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics, Stanley Grenz offers two important answers to these questions. The first is that there is a profound connection between Christian ethics and the ethical quest of all humankind. Grenz maintains that this connection is not established by the Church or by human beings, but by the universality of the divine intent. The universal intent of God is the main message of the Bible in that throughout scripture God’s eschatological goal is not only directed at a few but at the whole of humankind. This, of course does not imply that everyone will eventually participate in this divine goal. But the divine intent for everyone to do so is clearly expressed by Paul who exclaimed that God wants ‘all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2:4). This is also clearly seen in the mission of the incarnate Son. Grenz explains:

Although Jesus came primarily as Israel’s Messiah, our Lord’s mission encompassed the Gentiles as well, and therefore the early community spoke of Jesus as ‘the Saviour of the world’ (e.g., 1 Jn 4:14). Similarly, even though those who actually come to Christ in repentance and faith may be the direct focus of divine salvation, in Christ God acted for the reconciliation of all humankind (2 Cor 5:19; 1 Jn 2:2).[29]

The second connection between Christian ethic and all humankind is established on the profound relation between creation and new creation found in the NT. The eschatological new creation, most Christians hold, is not a creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) but the healing, transformation and transfiguration of God’s original creation. If the new creation is understood as the fulfilment of God’s original creation, its completion, then God’s original intention must be closely connected to creation. In addition, Christians believe that God had intended that every human being should participate in this eschatological new creation. With respect to the divine intention, Christian ethics, which Grenz aptly defines as ‘the exploration of the implications of our anticipated eschatological renewal in the present context’,[30] is therefore for all.  Postmodern philosophers would no doubt reject this metanarrative concerning ethics as another example of the totalising discourse of modernity. But Christians should not for that reason either lose confidence in this truth or replace it with something more palatable to postmoderns.

Conclusion

The postmodern challenge to the Church must not be simply brushed aside as an idiosyncratic cultural reaction that will disappear as quickly as it has appeared, but must be taken seriously. As I have briefly pointed out, the postmodern critique of the excesses of modernity must be taken seriously because some aspects of this critique are in agreement with the Church’s own assessment. By taking the postmodern criticisms of modernity seriously, the Church may be led to identify ways in which the latter has shaped her own outlook and ministry. In this way, the postmodern challenge can urge the Church to be self-critical of its theology and practise. But the basis of the Church’s self-criticism, it must be emphasised, is not in the final analysis postmodern philosophy but the Word of God. This means that although the postmodern challenge can in some sense urge the Church to examine its own practises, it cannot serve as the foundation for Christian ministry.

Furthermore, postmodernism itself must come under the critique of the Word of God as interpreted and preserved by the tradition of the Church.  This is what I have tried to emphasise in this talk. Thus, because the Church is truly ‘in the world’ she cannot ignore postmodernism in all its diverse manifestations. But because she is not ‘of the world’, the Church must not allow postmodernism to set the agenda for her ministry in the world. This raises complex questions about the relationship between Gospel and culture and Church and society that are beyond the scope of this talk. The point to be stressed here is that in recognising its solidarity with the world and its culture, the Church must also recognise the prophetic role that it is called to play. The Church can only play this role if she places her confidence not in herself and her ability to adapt to the changing culture but in God and his Word. Amidst the ruins of World War I, the Swiss German theologian Karl Barth wrote:

The Church will gain true courage and genuine significance whenever and wherever it is firmly resolved to resign the false courage and counterfeit significance – the courage of large numbers, of moral qualities, of activistic programmes, of effect on and appreciation from those without – with the intent of putting its sole confidence in what founds and preserves it as it unites in lending an open ear to what God has spoken.[31]

These words still ring true for the Church in the postmodern world.


[1] Michael Köhler, ‘“Postmodernismus: Ein begrffsgeschichtlicher Uberlick’, Americkastudien 22 (1977): 8-18, cited in Hans Bertens, ‘The Postmodern Weltanscauung and Its Relation to Modernism: An Introductory Survey’ in A Postmodern Reader, Ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1993), 23.

[2] Thomas Docherty, ‘Postmodernism: An Introduction’, in Postmodernism: A Reader, Ed. Thomas Docherty (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 1-2.

[3] Bertens, ‘The Postmodern Weltanshauung’, 26.

[4] Köhler, ‘Postmodernismus’, 42.

[5] Carl F.H. Henry, ‘Postmodernism: The New Spectre?’, The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement, Ed. David Dockery (Wheaton, Ill.: BridgePoint, 1995), 35.

[6] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge, Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, in Theory and History of literature, Vol 120 (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1984), 6.

[7] Os Guiness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994), 105.

[8] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 25.

[9] Richard Rorty, ‘Pragmatism, Relativism and Irrationalism’, in The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), 162.

[10] Richard Rorty, Introduction: Pragmatism and Post-Nietzschean Philosophy’, in Essays on Heidegger and Others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 4-5.

[11] David Wells, No Place for Truth, Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 128.

[12] Wolfganag Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Balttimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1978).

[13] Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretative Communities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980).

[14] Lieven Boeve, Interrupting Tradition: An Essay on Christian Faith in a Postmodern Context (Louvain: Peeters Press, 2003), 53.

[15] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 12.

[16] David Wells, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993).

[17] Wells, No Place for Truth, 101.

[18] Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church (New York: The Alban Institute, 1991).

[19] Mead, The Once and Future Church, 77.

[20] George Barna, Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You about Church Growth (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988).

[21] Barna, Marketing the Church, 26.

[22] George Barna, User Friendly Churches: What Successful Churches Have in Common and Why Their Ideas Work, ed. Ron Durham (Ventura, Cal.: Regal Books, 1991), 143-6.

[23] David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 75.

[24] Robert Wilken, ‘Memory and the Christian Intellectual Life’, in Remembering the Christian Past (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 179.

[25] D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 35.

[26] William Schweiker, Power, Value and Conviction: Theological Ethics in the Postmodern Age (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim’s Press, 1998), 22.

[27] W. T. Stace, The Concept of Morals (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 8.

[28] Richard Brandt, Ethical Theory: The Problems of Normative and Critical Theories (Eaglewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1959), 272.

[29] Stanley Grenz, The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics (Leicester: Apollos, 1997), 225.

[30] Grenz, Moral Quest, 227.

[31] Karl Barth, God in Action (New York: Round Table Press, Inc., 1936), 23.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.