Sola Scriptura in the Postmodern World

In response to Jollyblogger’s challenge:

Postmodernism is essentially an attempt to come to grips with the despair of Nihilism as the end point of Modernism. Nihilism forever stripped away any thought that morality or knowledge could exist in a purely naturalistic world, and with that loss went hope and significance. Postmodernism has at its roots a suspicion against all forms of authority, especially the authority of cognitive systems. Modernism posited the existence of rationalistic authoritarian systems of thought, and postmodernism attempted to assert itself against those authoritarian systems as being no better, ultimately, than the religiously authoritarian systems that modernism itself attempted to subvert and overthrow. Postmodernism tries to recover significance by destroying authority, so that the individual is free to construct his own significance as an act of pure will. In this way, postmodernism is closely related to existentialism.

Fundamental to the postmodernist attack on modernism is at the point of authority. In order for modernism to hold onto its claims of authority, a ‘metanarrative’ must be posited, that is, a way of talking about the universe that is seen as fundamental. Sometimes this metanarrative is described as the “text”, that is, the body of truth which is seen as being foundational to everything else that is thought. Postmodernism is an attempt to deconstruct all such “texts”, and posits that due to the great deal of information, wealth and personal freedom that the modern world affords the individual, each individual subconsciously subverts these metanarratives through consumerist choices of mass media, religious options and consumer goods thereby constructing their own personal narratives which to them become the truth, although that truth is in a constant state of flux. Rather than simply accepting anyone’s “metanarrative”, each individual consumer, in concert with whatever communities that consumer perceives himself as being connected to, constructs that narrative for themselves. All truth claims, beauty claims and moral claims are therefore understood as being fundamentally rooted in individual and group perceptions and constructions, rather than in any absolute or transcendental claims.

Certain Christian circles, known as Postmodern Christianity or the Emergent Church, have attempted to construct themselves along similar lines, and believe that this process was essentially what Jesus himself was doing. Such groups talk about “doing church” and the importance of the Christian community and the Christian narrative, but they mean different things by these statements than many Christians of a more traditional bent might expect. Instead, the local Christian community is invited to sample from the whole range of Christian experience both from their own history and from the history of other groups, as well as the experience of those outside Christianity to some degree, in order to construct their own narrative by which to experience Jesus. Absolutist statements about what Christianity ought to look like are viewed with the same suspicion as any other claim of absolute truth, as being the attempt of some group to enforce their perspective on another group.

Therefore, the concept of “Sola Scriptura” will have no authority for a consistent Postmodern Christian, insofar as postmodernism in any context can ever be described as consistent. “Sola Scriptura” is a statement about authority fundamentally, and not information. The adherent to Sola Scriptura does not claim that the Bible is the only source of information or revelation. Rather, he claims that the Bible is the only absolute authority to which the church must adhere. The postmodernist views the Bible as a rich and valuable source for selecting elements for his narrative, and perhaps even as the most valuable source. But he does not view the Bible as an authority, for fundamental to Postmodernism is the idea that there is no absolute authority except God Himself, and God is experienced individually and through the local community, not in a book.

Talk amongst yourselves… I’ll give you a topic… Postmodern Christianity then is ultimately neither really postmodern nor really Christian. Discuss.

Postmodern Christianity is not really Postmodern because the mere fact of calling itself Christianity binds it to a metanarrative whether it likes it or not. Postmodern Christianity cannot be about Allah, and it cannot be about the joys of torturing cats. There is an authoritative truth structure to which it must conform in some sense, in order for it to be meaningfully called church or Christianity. Postmodern Christianity tends to resemble evangelical Christianity, just with a much looser view of acceptable practice and a tendency to use a lot of postmodernist jargon.

At the same time, Christianity fundamentally is about submission to God, and to what Christ did for us. If Christ is not risen, then we are of all men most miserable. Postmodern Christianity, in attempting to detach from Christianity the importance of an authoritative text, attacks the very heart of Christianity, because Christianity in its most basic nature is a metanarrative. It is a story about something that happened that is fundamental to who we are. This is why the Apostles’ Creed, the most basic and universal creed of all branches of Christianity, describes historical events.

And fundamental to that metanarrative is the text which describes that metanarrative, the Scripture. If there is to be any truth, there must be an authority for that truth, and the historic Reformed teaching of Sola Scriptura is based on the idea that Scripture declares itself, in self-attesting terms, to be that authority. The only other option for a basis for truth is the human mind, and resort to the human mind as authority for anything always results in nihilistic despair. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura stands against, as it always has, the lie of Satan that man can be his own judge of good and evil.

We’ve been through this whole thing before. What the postmodernist church is saying today was said 150 years ago, and better, by Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and later, Barth. We already know where it ends- in relativism, irrelevance and the gutting of the church and the gospel. In this environment the declaration of the truth of the gospel and the authority of Scripture as the basis for that Gospel is as badly needed as it ever has been. The choice is and always has been between the absolute authority of God’s word or meaninglessness and despair. The first lie the devil ever told man was, “Has God really said?”

8 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura in the Postmodern World

  1. DM says:

    Absolutely correct. The Bible deals with historical facts, as we see time and time again. One of my favorite examples is 1 Cor. 15, where Paul establishes the historicity of the resurrection. Without the narrative — the historical facts about Christ — there is no Christianity. And the authority of Scripture is essential to knowing the historical facts about Christ. Without the authority of Scripture, we’re reduced to something like the Jesus Seminar: deciding what we think Christ’s real teachings were.
    The real fallacy of postmodernism is, everyone must begin with an absolute, even if it’s “There are no absolutes”.

  2. You gave as discussion the idea that postmodern Christianity is neither Christian nor postmodern. I would agree wholeheartedly with the notion that we are one or the other. If a Christian movement, like the Emergent church, becomes postmodern, it has ceased to be Christian in any verifiable, historical, orthodox sense of the word. Conversely, to be Christian, I believe, is to live in opposition to the basic tennants of postmodernism. It is good to see some good analysis of this issue on the web!

  3. I read your very well written critique of postmodern Christianity, and I couldn’t help but wonder at a few points. The most baffling point to me was “The choice is and always has been between the absolute authority of God’s word or meaninglessness and despair.” What about the early Christians who knew had no set authoritative cannon? What would you say to the first 1500 years of Christianity’s existence under the Catholic Church? Was the life of every Christian during that time period meaningless and full of despair?

    What of the early church reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin? Luther founded the “sola scriptura” movement, but he never insisted on the infallibility of scripture. He only insisted on its authority over the very fallible Catholic hierarchy. Calvin likewise relied on the authority of scripture over imposed doctrines without insisting that every word was perfect. I challenge you to find where each of these influential thinkers claimed that scripture was infallible.

    If you closely examine the roots of Biblical infallibility, you will find that modern “fundamentalism” has its roots in the early twentieth century. Christians felt threatened by the theories of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, and held up the Bible in defense. This is different from Luther and Calvin holding up scripture against the Catholic Church one very important way. The protestant reformers never appealed to absolute Biblical perfection. The fundamentalist Christians of the early twentieth century had no other argument or reason for their beliefs.

    I believe that a true return to the fundamentals of Christianity means a return to the teachings of Jesus. It means we need to focus on loving our neighbors as ourselves, and praising God for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The teachings of Jesus are meant to empower us to do his work in the world. In order to be effective workers in his kingdom, we must put aside misguided claims of Biblical perfection. We must also put aside misguided claims of Biblical irrelevance. The truth lies in between these two extremes.

    You are correct that postmodern Christianity is not really postmodern. Christianity cannot be. It lives in the Bible. It lives in the metanarritive related in the Bible. But the Bible cannot contain Christianity. It lives in people, and each believer must relate the metanarritive of Christianity to his or her life. We must understand how the God of the Bible works in the world.

    Insistence on absolute Biblical authority hinders this understanding. It traps us into the scientific and social beliefs of the first century. The Bible is a religious text, and should be looked to help us understand the nature of God. Any other use will only deconstruct the valuable lessons we have learned about the world in the past two thousand years.

    My arguments haven’t been as clear or as well-structured as yours, but I think I have a point. Let me know what you think.

  4. Karl mentioned

    “..scientific and social beliefs of the first century…”

    those first century scientific and social beliefs probably looked a lot like those of the 4th century BC

    At the time of Aquinas (12th century), they seemed pretty prevalent, in Newton’s age (he died in 1740) they were pretty strong, certainly by his written citations on people who he referred to and you wonder who were the “..shoulders of giants” he was standing on.

    So let’s put that statement in the context above, call it 2000 years. Not so bad.

    The Bible is significantly more than a religious text, it dabbles in cosmology, a bit of biology and all those soft ology’s that were once important throughout the western cultures until the age of scientism.

    Using my handy notional inference system I can extrapolate from a “sola” label to an estimation of the author’s world view, and fill in some fields like cosmology, anthropolgy, etc

    but when i don’t have “sola” how do i fill those blanks for you? or better yet explain how you know how to fill them in.

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