Evangelical Postmodern Diversification - by C. Matthew McMahon, Ph.D.

Historical Theology Articles

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The following is an overview of how Postmodernism affects the church in manner in which doctrine is redefined. If one desires to completely overhaul the systematic theology of the church, they are taking into their bosom the very foundations of postmodern methodologies.

“Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths…” (Jeremiah 6:16)

Liberal Protestantism is one of the most destructive movements within modern Christian thought because it 1) redefines and reinterprets orthodox idea to fit new categories of thought, and 2) removes objective truth and absolute standards. In other words, though postmodernists would not claim this in every area (though some would) truth changes. If this is not blatantly stated, it is practically accomplished. This movement gave way to atheistic theories such as Darwin’s evolutionary theory. If the pseudo-intellectual theory of evolution can take root in Postmodern thought, and reside there with any degree of comfort, then its existence in relativity to Christina teaching and the God of the Bible, is at complete odds with it, or at least should be at odds with it. For the postmodern theologian, almost all Christian beliefs will come to be regarded as “seriously” out of line within modern cultural norms. Most of the time, Christian beliefs are “completely” redefined, or orthodox beliefs abandoned, as liberal theologians reinterpreted them. This can be seen in the writings of men like Albrecht Ritschl who saw the Kingdom of God as “ethical values” for culture, or men like Karl Barth and Reinhold Neibhur who regarded liberal Protestantism as based upon an optimistic view of human nature and having faith in faith. Others, such as Paul Tillich wanted to see a correlation between theology and culture, culture obviously giving the foundation and structure of what is to be believed. They believe the Gospel must speak to culture, thus, as culture changes, so does the Gospel. Postmodern Liberalism places an immense weight on the notion of universal human religious experience, and denies absolute truth, as well as the objectivity of truth. It emphasizes transient cultural relationships, and surrenders Christian theology at the expense of changing times or the need for a new and fresh redefining of terms. Postmodernism has come to be known as a “cultural sensibility” without absolutes, fixed certainties, or foundations. It delights in pluralism, and divergence, and thinks in terms of situational ethics. Postmodern philosophers are as diverse in their theological outlook as they are many. They are primarily concerned with the developments of liberal theology, and how theology affects and interpolates with culture.

In regard to Biblical thought, deconstructionist ideas are a primary aspect of Postmodernism which teaches the critical method that virtually declares the identity and intentions of the author of a text are irrelevant to the interpretation of the text. Therefore, before the interpretation is given, there is really no meaning to the text but what one brings to the text or reads from it. (This actually applies to any text or idea that is read.) Traditional and academic biblical interpretation is overthrown, and any type of systematization of information (systematic theology) is hostile to the framework of postmodernism. Postmodernists, then, tackle a type of “biblical” interpretation in a biblical theology (wherever their theology would lead them) over a systematic theology which sets certain undeniable lines and guides for historical orthodoxy.

Postmodernism’s end result is that in its subjective complexity it is neither one or many, has neither beginning or end, has neither one direction nor detectable regularity, and is a relativistic force which sets cultural progress as its acropolis. Pluralism is inherent in postmodernism, though postmodern theologians do not like the idea of being pluralistic. They would rather see their movement as a movement, but in reality, it is the diversification factor that presses them to be culturally relevant, thus, not unified.

The affects of Postmodernism can be seen in the church in a liberalism that infects the manner in which hermeneutics affect systematic theology and exegesis. With postmodern theology of any kind there is always the inherent characteristic of redefinition for the sake of clarity or relevancy. Postmodern theologians take old ideas, strip them of their meaning, reinvent these ideas with a type of cultural relevancy, and then pass them off as biblical teachings under the guise of a new paradigm shift that must take place due to changing times. However, new angles usually represent old deviant ideas and heretical concepts repackaged as the truth. For example, Barth based religious truth on faith rather than on biblical propositions found in the Word of God.[1] Ralph Smith is also a case in point where he says his book Eternal Covenant is a “reflection” on James Jordan’s comment, “Reformed theologians had often seen the covenant as a Trinitarian pact.” Smith then says that “because in my own reading of Reformed Theology, I had not noticed the “Trinitarian” aspect of the covenant.”[2] Smith will argue that the form of unity within the Trinity is “covenant”, not “ontological being.” This unity is seen in perichoreisis, the mutual indwelling of each “person of the Trinity” in one another as “deeply penetrating”. Smith has written this book as a reflection of setting the record straight – in other words, a redefinition of Reformed Theology and its historical content. However, one must wonder how much Reformed Theology he has actually read to miss such an integral part of Covenant Theology for Covenant Theology is profoundly Trinitarian. Douglas Wilson also has this problem of needing to redefine historical orthodoxy when he says, “But we have to make all such qualifications because current misunderstandings of the covenant do need to be modified— and when we do, some will be tempted to think we are compromising on some of these basics.”[3] Peter Leithart suggests the same when he says, “The Reformation doctrine of justification has illegitimately narrowed and to some extent distorted the biblical doctrine.”[4] In other words, historical orthodoxy has been wrong, and it needs to be corrected. James Jordan seems to find ease at rejecting the foundation of justification, for example, when he says, “Nowhere in Scripture is Jesus’ accomplishment spoken of as earning salvation.”[5] Of course, whenever new concepts are introduced to replace old one that have been the set standard, compromise becomes the Postmodern dream.

N.T. Wright has also adjusted comfortably to the entrance of postmodernism into the church. As a matter of fact, much of what follows Wright’s own teachings in the New Perspectives on Paul, or saturated into the Federal Vision theology, has secured itself on the principles of redefinition. Wright says, “But the righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness. That makes no sense at all. God’s own righteousness is his covenant faithfulness, because of which he will (Israel hopes) vindicate her.”[6] He so overturns justification that his revision (redefinition) is something other than what the church has believed in following “what Saint Paul actually said”. Wright does not think justification is being reckoned righteously before God by the active/passive imputation of Christ’s righteousness given to the elect by way of Faith and God’s declarative judicial forensic act – certainly not. Rather, he thinks it is “whether Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians can share table fellowship.”[7] Really? Yes, this is Wright’s redefined ideas that follow along with Dunn, Heikki, Sanders and others who revel in redefinition and higher critical theory. Wright says, “’Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.”[8] However, as Fesko rightly points out, “If Wright’s claim about justification is true, then, needless to say the NPP represents something of a Copernican revolution in the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures.”[9] Exactly. Copernican Revolutions revel in paradigm shifts, redefinition and new models to follow. It is no wonder why Wright has called his work, “What Saint Paul Really Said.” He is following the liberal Postmodern paradigm shift.

Postmodern Liberalism does not have to deny all matters of the Christian Faith, it simply needs to take old orthodoxy and redefine it to means something else, or something they think is more relevant. In terms of the Federal Vision or Auburn Avenue theology which is a current strain sorely affected by Postmodernism, it is establishing the idea of covenant faithfulness (or the objectivity of the covenant) for the covenant community as the deciding factor surrounding soteriological ideas, instead of following the classic doctrines of imputation following the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Redemption. In this need for change away from classic formulations Wilson says, “One of the great reformational needs in the Church today is the need for us to understand the objectivity of the covenant.”[10] This is really the underlying idea as to the way many are taking the idea of “reformation” and substituting the classic idea of “reformation” to the postmodern idea of liberal theology and redefinition. “Reformation”, though, is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a 16th century religious movement marked ultimately by rejection or modification of some Roman Catholic doctrine and practice and establishment of the Protestant churches.” Taking this biblically further, to define reformation biblically, in association with the same ideals and principles of the Reformation of the 16th century, True Biblical Reformation is only accomplished through the Word of God, is always joined to a solemn resolve to continue to follow God’s Word and is always a thorough reform.[11] Without adhering to these three maxims, reformation in the church will never take place. Postmodernism takes this biblical idea and diversifies it subjectively instead of adhering to it objectively. Redefinition, then becomes a new fabricated pseudo-reformation. In such a re-fabrication, the substance of everything housed with the objectivity of the Word of God is replaced by the subjectivity (not objectivity) of a fictitious “covenant faithfulness” that such a “vision” wishes to employ.

Evangelicals, in this strain of postmodern thought processing, are diversifying theology instead of seeking unity. Unity is practically seen in subscriptionism to Biblical truth found in the theological traditionalism of exegetical work tried and tested, and to the historic creeds and Reformed confessions. In other words, those to whom Christ is communicating His truth remain on the same theological page throughout history. Truth is unchanged and unchanging. Orthodoxy, then, remains the same. That is why confessions exist and that the mission of the church could not function without the unity behind them. Hetherington states, “Thus a Confession of Faith is not the very voice of divine truth, but the echo of that voice from souls that have heard its utterance, felt its power, and are answering to its call. And, since she has been instituted for the purpose of teaching God’s truth to an erring world, her duty to the world requires that she should leave it in no doubt respecting the manner in which she understands the message which she has to deliver. Without doing so, the Church would be no teacher, and the world might remain untaught, so far as she was concerned.”[12] Diversity, then, is at the crux of misrepresenting historical orthodoxy. Orthodoxy itself is defined as “conforming to established doctrine”. Not diversifying a doctrine already established and accepted.

However, advocates of the New Perspectives on Paul, Federal Vision or Auburn Theology find a need to verbally say they hold to Reformed Theology, yet find it necessary to overhaul it with redefinition. Yet, there is a great difference between further defining a doctrine, and redefining a doctrine. Steve Wilkins demonstrates this in lectures at the Auburn Avenue Conference in 2002, “Traditionally, the Reformed have said, we have to view our children as presumptively elect or presumptively regenerate.” In other words, this is what the church has said throughout church history. Yet, Wilkins needs to redefine things and says, “And therefore, Christian, if we are willing to take the Scriptures at face value, there is no presumption necessary. Just take the Bible. And this is true, of course, because by the baptism, by baptism the Spirit joins us to Christ since he is the elect one and the Church is the elect people, we are joined to his body. We therefore are elect. Since he is the justified one, we are justified in him. Since he is the beloved one, we are beloved in him. Since he was saved from his sin in death…so are we”.[13] Doug Wilson, echoing John Baruch’s lectures, says the same, “Theologically I think I want to amen everything that John said in his talk about election and covenant and the reality of it, how that works.”[14] But make note, John Baruch rejects the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Wilson willingly follows his redefinition and says, “I want to begin by saying that when we first start talking about the objectivity of the covenant and it starts to sink in what we are saying. You mean that you are saying that lesbian Eskimo bishop lady is a Christian? She is not a Buddhist, she is not a Muslim, yes, in the New Testament sense, she is a New Testament Christian.”[15] N.T. Wright follows this same postmodern redefining genre when he says, “Despite the long popularity of [the view that the righteousness of God refers to a righteousness given to humans], the overwhelming weight of Jewish evidence, including many passages in scripture that Paul either quotes or alludes to, push us decisively into [the fact that] the righteousness of God’ must refer to God’s own righteousness.”[16] Rick Lusk revels in redefinition and rejection of historic formulations when he says, “I have no doubt that the form of covenant theology Dr. Smith represents has substantial backing in the Reformed Tradition, but it is by no means the only viable option within Reformed Christendom.”[17] Lusk desires a new option – the Federal Vision. John Baruch also says, “It is not the case that there has been only one accepted Reformed view on the relationship between covenant and election.”[18] This true is using Postmodern pluralism as the defining character of any definition of “election.” However, if one holds to the Reformed consensus, they would quickly turn to the Westminster Confession of Faith for their definition. Tom Trouborst is for the Federal vision, and is right when he says, “Some may view the issues at hand with different lenses or with a divergent interpretive model or framework. We must continually remind ourselves of the nature of our debate in that it is not merely, for example, over exegesis of a particular text.”[19] In other words, the Federal Visionists use a completely different framework or hermeneutic in order to get to their interpretation of their ideas about the Bible – the bible as drama or story, and not as a series of biblical propositions to be exegetically defined. This, though, is feeding the Postmodern maxim. Follow Steve Wilkins when he says, “As Steve Schlissel has noted, this entire discussion revolves around a “way of seeing.”[20] Yes, for the Federal Vision, Auburn Avenue and NPP, a blurred vision, even blindness, is their “way of seeing”. Make no mistake, though, it is their way of seeing.

David Hall rightly asserts, “Nature abhors a vacuum. So does the interpretation of church history.”[21] This wisdom is also applied to historical theology. What is unfortunate is that, as a result of the Federal Vision advocates inability to deal faithfully with Reformed History and Historical Theology in general, which also goes for NPP advocates such as Sanders, Dunn and Wright, they do not even see their historical and theological mistakes. As Rich Lusk admits, “Nothing has been lost by our reformulation of the popular Reformed picture, and a great deal has been gained.”[22] How can one completely “redefine” historic Reformed Theology and still have “Reformed Theology” at the same time? More is lost than Lusk suspects. As Doug Wilson proves when he lays Reformed theological concepts next to Federal Visionism, “And none of them, in my view, is outside the historic Reformed stream of orthodoxy…I do not believe that this is a question of heresy at all.”[23] It matters little, though, in light of historical orthodoxy, what “one” thinks over the theological traditionalism which has continued. Jordan, for example, in following Wilson’s suit, not only misunderstands but mislabels what Turretin wrote concerning the Covenant of Works. Jordan says, “Despite Turretin’s strictures, this scheme is still fundamentally Pelagian in character.”[24] Turretin advocated Pelagianism? Well, it might help Jordan not to simply read secondary sources as he did in quoting Turretin in Murray’s writings.[25] Leithhart, in his chapter in The Federal Vision, does the same as he quotes selected quotes of Augustine and Aquinas in other works.[26] But again, such secondary sourcing is typical because primary sources would stand in utter opposition to these postmodern trends of redefinition. The advocates of the New Perspectives on Paul and Federal Vision need to stop reading secondary and tertiary work on these issues, and instead begin reading both historical theological sources and modern scholarship on these issues. In reading primary sources that would the eliminate the “grapevine” affect of interpreting what another interpreted about what the other read. Take note from J. Ligon Duncan when he says, “As to the core of doctrine in the Confession, it is clear that classic federal theology is so much a part of the warp and woof of the Westminsterian system, that removal of any component of its covenantal theology would bankrupt the very idea of “Westminsterian system of theology” of any meaning. Therefore, those who have expressed reservation about the Confession’s covenantal system (in both nineteenth and twentieth centuries) are not so much questioning particular doctrines of the confession as they are the very heart of its theological system.”[27]

In considering how Postmodernism affects the church radically by removing key supports to its theological axis, it is easy to see how unity is diversified into a pluralistic theological mess. Confessions (like the Westminster Confession of Faith) ought to bring unity among the faithful as exegetical standards, not diversification. Postmodernism creates diversification instead of unification because old orthodoxy must give way to new trends in thought. Hetherington rightly says in opposition to redefinition, “the formation of a Creed, or Confession of Faith, is imperatively necessary; and thus it appears that a Church cannot adequately discharge its duty to God, to the world, and to its own members, without a Confession of Faith.”[28] In other words, confessions regard unity as paramount, having the same biblical exegesis that other pastors and theologians have had in history. They are to be godly plagiarists of God’s ideas. Christ has given His church pastors and theologians for a reason, gifting them suitably to the task of bringing forth the Word of God to the people of God in His church (Eph. 4:11ff). Christ is not interested in a diversity of biblical interpretations in His Word. Rather, He desires His people to know the truth, for only “the truth” sets them free. As Christ testified in John 8:32, “…you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The Apostle John said in 3 John 1:4, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” Without knowing the truth, how could anyone follow the truth? Postmodernism removed the stability of the truth for a diversity of cultural changes that ebb and flow along with every milieu that comes along. Today it is the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul. Tomorrow it may be something different, new, or “cutting edge.” But in any case, whenever redefinition and reformulation becomes a theological movement’s banner, the church should take immediate notice and make declarations that hold fast to Scriptural subscriptionism to Reformed orthodoxy. Without unification on what is known to be true, there is no unification at all.

Evangelical Postmodern Diversification within the contemporary church, then, is one of the most dangerous antagonists to the Bible, and the historical Christian faith. It allows a sinful pragmatism to enter the church, and novelty in creating new ways to redefine, thus destroy, orthodox doctrine. May we take a lesson and heed God when He says:

“Thus says the LORD: “Stand in the ways and see, And ask for the old paths, where the good way is, And walk in it; Then you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ 17 Also, I set watchmen over you, saying, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not listen.’ 18 Therefore hear, you nations, And know, O congregation, what is among them. 19 Hear, O earth! Behold, I will certainly bring calamity on this people — The fruit of their thoughts, Because they have not heeded My words, Nor My law, but rejected it.” (Jeremiah 6:16-19)

——————————————————————————–

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1:2:17.

[2] Ralph Smith, Eternal Covenant, Page 9.

[3] Douglas Wilson, Reformed” is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant (Canon Press, Moscow: ID, 2002.)”

[4] Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, editors., The Federal Vision, (Monroe, Athanasius Press: 2004) 209.

[5] Ibid, 192.

[6] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 99.

[7] Wright, Romans, 458.

[8] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 119.

[9] J. V. Fesko, Ph.D., The Confessional Presbyterian, A Critical Examination of N. T. Wright’s Doctrine of Justification, 2005.

[10] Wilson, Reformed is Not Enough, 13.

[11] See the historical narrative of Josiah’s example in 2 Kings 22-23.

[12] Hetherington, William M, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1993) Page 343.

[13] Steve Wilkins, “Halfway Covenant,” (Auburn Avenue Conference, 2002) Tape 11

[14] Doug Wilson, “The Curses of the New Covenant,” (Auburn Avenue Conference, 2002) Tape 7.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 103.

[17] Calvin Beisner, The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros and Cons, (Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale: 2004), A Response to The Biblical Plan of Salvation, by Rich Lusk, 118.

[18] Ibid, Covenant and Election, by John Baruch, 151.

[19] Ibid, A Response to “The Reformed Doctrine of Regeneration,” by Tom Trouwborst, 187.

[20] Ibid, Covenant, Baptism and Salvation, by Steve Wilkins, 268.

[21] David W. Hall, ed., The Practice of Confessional Subscription, (Oak Ridge, The Covenant Foundation: 1997) 3.

[22] Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, ed., The Federal Vision, (Monroe, Athanasius Press: 2004), New Life and Apostasy, by Rich Lusk, 290.

[23] Ibid, A Response to Covenant and Apostasy, by Doug Wilson, 225; and, Ibid, Sacramental Efficacy in the Westminster Standards, by Doug Wilson, 233.

[24] Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, ed., The Federal Vision, (Monroe, Athanasius Press: 2004), Merit Versus Maturity, by James Jordan, 153

[25] Jordan actually quotes Murray’s collected writings which make a quote of Turretin. One wonders, how then, Jordan seem to “know” so much about what Turretin’s “strictures” actually say in context and in full.

[26] Wilkins, Federal Vision, 205 (twice cited other sources other than the originals), though he did quote Luther and Turretin in their original sources.

[27] David W. Hall, ed., The Practice of Confessional Subscription, (Oak Ridge, The Covenant Foundation: 1997) Owning the Confession, by Ligon Duncan, 88.

[28] Hetherington, 343.

Bible Verse:

“I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless,” (Gen. 17:1).

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