Postmodern theology’s age-old mistake

Brian McLaren’s lamentable book, A New Kind of Christian, argues that the Christian church needs to adapt its theology to keep pace with changing cultural values (i.e. postmodernism). He proceeds to demonstrate what he means by engaging in some of that revision himself. Of course, some of that work is helpful (he can only conceive of a modernist church as an alternative to a postmodern one, and so finding weaknesses there is a bit like the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel). However, he trims away far too much, including nearly everything that Jesus meant when he said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’.

Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order includes a passage on Karl Barth that reveals that this theological revisionism is not new and not clever:

“In the thirties Barth spoke against those German theologians who felt themselves bound to shape their theology in response to the great new cultural fact of their time and place, the sudden and passionate yearning for national identity among the German people. The issue can be seen most clearly in his comments on Emmanuel Hirsch… Hirsch wrote: ‘If we in theology and church are too small for [God’s] hour, if we cannot… risk ourselves to the inrushing “new”, to our own folk in this living moment, then we are cast out.’ It was this deference to the ‘inrushing new’, this interpretation of a major cultural movement as God’s hour, that Barth had to contest. ‘Hirsch wants to build a church on this rock and this rock only. It is from this viewpoint that he construes her preservation, her renovation, her task.’ Does this mean that theology cannot respond to the cultural crises of its day? [No,] Barth himself, of course, was doing just that. But it responds from its own ‘Christian centre… the Word of God, or Jesus Christ, crucified and risen’, who ‘stands as Lord’. It was a matter of authority. Neither the ‘German hour’ nor any other hour could become important for theology under its own momentum or on its own self-determination. It would have only that importance and significance which the Lord of the church assigned it. Theology could not allow itself to speak from it, but only to it, as the exposition of the Word of God drove it to articulate critical reproof or exhortation.” [O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order 2nd Ed., Pg 90]

It is remarkable how similar the rhetoric of the German nationalist Christians is to the postmodern Christians, as they tap more into the romantic notions of yearning and risk than into any kind of theological basis. Here are some examples from A New Kind of Christian:

“…[falling away] is a risk you have to take… Besides, maybe you’ll fall into God instead.” (pg. 69).

‘Change like this… well, it’s agonising and threatening and terrifying. But deep down it’s what people need, and it’s what the church needs. And I guess it’s what the gospel is about. Besides… sooner or later this has to be done and I’d hate to shrink back from my chance to help… I don’t know where this path will lead. It’s like we’ve come to the edge of the map, and all familiar paths are behind us, but a new world is out there ahead of us.’ (Pg. 142)

‘My guess is that out of a hundred churches, maybe ten would say they want to transition (to postmodernity). Most are happy as they are, or they’d rather die than change… Contemporary churches are happily modern… so that the pain of changing would be greater than the pain of not changing. Of course, there are some amazingly smart contemporary pastors out there… so I’m sure there will be exceptions to this.’ (Pg. 147)

Hopefully the ‘amazingly smart’ pastors out there will follow Karl Barth in rejecting the nonsense view that theology is only relevant when it has undergone reconstructive surgery at the hands of cultural novelty.


One thought on “Postmodern theology’s age-old mistake

  1. Lance Wonders says:

    Outstanding insight! You are absolutely right about how Barth would be viewing–and would be disgruntled by–“post-modern Christianity”/the whole “Emerging Church” movement (though he would, of course, share some of their criticisms of modernism and stuck-in-rut institutional Christianity). The biblical Word and illumining Spirit need to be embraced in a fresh readdressing of God’s own revelation to and commandings amongst His people. We “follow” Him, we are not supposed to “make things up as we go along”, as if that was the best He has enabled us to do….

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