Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Postmodernist Theology

“It is easy to see why the next step in philosophy would naturally be the questioning or denial of certainty and objective reality itself: the postmodern project. But like existentialism, POSTMODERNISM ALSO HAS BOTH A CHRISTIAN VERSION AND A SECULAR OR ATHEIST VERSION. In its Christian incarnation postmodernism is a ‘soft modernism’ that questions our dogmatic certainty and interpretation while maintaining the Bible as the ultimate source of truth about God, faith and practice. It is not that the Bible is questionable; it is our interpretation of the Bible that is always questionable. Because all reading of the Bible is ultimately interpretation, we must maintain a hermeneutic of finitude and ‘sinitude.’ Our finiteness and our sinfulness severely inhibit our ability to know objectively and for certain whether our interpretation of reality through the Scriptures is ‘the right interpretation.’ We can never escape our human sinfulness and therefore can never know truth ‘objectively’ outside of our fallen ability to interpret. Christian postmodernism is not the rejection of reality or rationality, but a recognition of the lack of certainty in our knowledge claims because of a ‘chastened rationality,’ as postmodern Christian authors Stanley Grenz and John Franke explain” (Brian Godawa, “Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom and Discernment, Second Edition.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009, page 120).
Yesterday I found myself in the middle of class studying Romans 9-11. I always feel the ground shaking (metaphorically speaking) whenever I get to the end of Romans 8. What follows (chapters 9-11) is usually going to be one roller-coaster ride, so I “buckle my seat belt” and anticipate the chaos.
The class read through all of Romans 9 together...and then come the following statements:
“Who is sovereign in salvation? God. Who is responsible for not believing? We are. How does that work? I don’t know.”
Now, the above statement made is a rather honest statement. But pay attention to these statements:
“If you are going to be biblical on God and man in salvation, you have got to affirm A LOGICAL TENSION BETWEEN ROMANS CHAPTER 9 AND ROMANS CHAPTER 10.”
“I spent the longest time trying to come down on one side or the other (Calvinist and Non-Calvinist)...finally, I JUST DECIDED TO BE BIBLICAL. I’m not saying that either side is unbiblical...I JUST DECIDED TO LIVE WITH THE TENSION.”
“I don’t know how it works. All I know is that GOD CHOSE TO SAVE ME, that there’s nothing I did to deserve it.”
The key words in the first two of the last three quotes I provide here are the words “logical tension” (first quote) and “I decided to live with the tension” (second quote). I will deal with the third quote later in the post. For now, my attention will lie with the first two quotes.
What is meant by the words “logical tension”? To affirm a tension in the Scriptures is to affirm that two concepts of Scripture are “at odds” with each other. Is this what we desire to say about the biblical text? If the above quotes are right, then we cannot understand the will of God in salvation nor man’s responsibility. Interestingly enough, the instructor said, “So who’s in charge of salvation? God.” And then, going further in the text (Romans 9:30ff), he said, “So what’s the basis upon which a person is saved? Faith.” The instructor demonstrated his knowledge that faith is the condition for salvation. However, he couldn’t understand how to connect the sovereignty of God with the condition of faith.
Why is this so hard to understand? If God is in charge of salvation, if God can dispense salvation as He wills (Rom. 9:18), and we must believe to be saved (Rom. 10:9), then is not the sovereignty of God displayed in the fact that He determined that faith would be the condition by which many are saved and many are damned (John 3:16-18)? Why is this so hard to understand? And why do we assume there is a tension?
I’ll tell you why we assume there is a tension. The answer is found in one of two things: (1) we believe that there can be no definite answer on the issue of the sovereignty of God and responsibility of man or (2) our interpretation of the text is flawed.
Let’s take the first of these claims. If we believe there can be no definite answer on the issue of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, then we are Christian postmodernists, and Brian Godawa’s comments above about believers are correct. In his quote above, he notes that Christians believe the Bible to be infallible, but when it comes to interpretation, they are quick to argue that human beings cannot know the truth of passages like Romans 9-11, for instance. But if I can assume a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (that is, a distrust of my interpretation) in Romans 9-11, can I not also assume a hermeneutics of suspicion when I come to John 3:16? Or Romans 10:9? Or 1 Timothy 2:4? Or 2 Corinthians 5:17? I mention these verses because when we approach such verses, we assume that we “can” know truth...that, there is a definitive truth in these verses that we can know. Why then, when it comes to Romans 9-11, we throw up our hands and say, “I don’t know how it all works”? We don’t do this with verses like 2 Corinthians 5:10 and so forth, which talk of a day of judgment. We don’t do this when we read Jesus’ parables...or when we read Paul’s letters regarding ecclesiology. When we arrive at the Scriptures, many of us assume that the Bible “has answers to give”---which is the reason why we read the Scriptures in the first place. Why then, when it comes to Romans 9-11, do we affirm tension in the text and say, “I don’t know"?
Secondly, if we’re not postmodernists (the idea many Christians seem to oppose), then our interpretation of the text is flawed. Ken Keathley writes:
“Often in John’s Gospel, Jesus places the DIVINE/HUMAN TENSION SIDE BY SIDE. In John 5:21, our Lord declares that He gives life to WHOMEVER HE PLEASES. Yet He in turn appeals to them ‘that [they] may be saved’ (John 5:34) and excoriates them for their unbelief and places all responsibility on them (“And you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life,” John 5:40)” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010, page 127).
Why does “whomever He pleases” have to oppose human responsibility? Why is it that God cannot “give life to the one who comes to Him”? Why must the two concepts be exclusive? The reason why such concepts are assumed as exclusive is because one approaches the text with a Calvinist notion of sovereignty (unconditional election) and an Arminian notion of human responsibility (anyone can be saved). But to affirm these two concepts that way does not produce tension, but a contradiction!
I’ll leave you with this: think of a teacher and her students. If the teacher says, “I’m going to pick the students I want to receive the prize,” do any of the students have a choice whatsoever in whether or not they receive the prize? No. It does not make sense for the student to say, “I am responsible for why I am not picked,” when the teacher is the one who picked “at random” certain students in the first place. Only if the teacher sets conditions for receiving the prize (good grades, good behavior, homework completed, good exams, etc.) can the students have an equal opportunity to win the prize. It is no different with God. If God picks individuals “at random,” then neither you nor I have a responsibility in the matter. We cannot be responsible “for not being picked,” if God is the One doing the selecting. So the instructor’s third quote (above) that “All I know is that God chose me,” might seem to comfort him; but what about the reprobate? Evidently, he is responsible...but he is responsible DESPITE the fact that God did not select him. How is it logical to hold to a contradiction in the Scriptures?

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