Think, Part 4 Postmodernism and Reader-centered Interpretation

In the past few posts concerning Christian thinking, we’ve explored the exclusivity of the gospel and the historical transitions that have attempted (rather successfully in some instances) to mitigate the universal and supra-cultural authority of the Scripture.  In this post, we’ll highlight the contemporary quandary left by the blurred lines separating Modernism and Postmodernism.

Modernism resulted from the confident assertions of the Enlightenment.  Flowing out of the secular framework built by Enlightenment thinkers, Reason became established as the Truth.  When combined with Darwinistic Naturalism in the late 1800’s, the break from religious truth and faith was complete.   The modernistic framework no longer needed the vestiges of faith and religion to provide a starting point as with Enlightenment Deism.  Modernism had high hopes as it combined with the idea that humanity was evolving into an enlightened understanding about life, philosophy, politics, and culture.

Shattering the positive, hopeful nature of Modernism was the devastation caused by the two world wars in the early twentieth century and the sinister despotism of the totalitarian regimes inspired by nationalism and communism.

An overarching positive view of the world was increasing incompatible with the destructive and deadly realities displayed in the early and middle twentieth centuries (which have not really changed today).  Enter postmodernism.   The postmodern mindset rejected the positive, hopeful approach that science and secularism had expected.  Further, postmodernism rejected the idea of the metanarrative (grand and universally comprehensive worldviews explaining life).  In some ways this was a helpful and even welcome critique (particularly related to the totalitarian worldviews of communism and nationalism as well as the secular scientism that dominated [and in many cases still dominates] academia).

As with so many reactions, postmodernism overreacted—throwing out any metanarrative and proceeded to relativize truth.  Art, music, and pop culture depicted a world without rules or overarching explanations.  Interpretation (hermeneutics) shifted from its traditional view of a text-centered approach to a deconstructionist or reader-centered approach.  In other words, meaning (for the postmodern) is not determined by the text, but by the reader.  Postmodern relativistic interpretation was planted into a fertile soil by combining this radical hermeneutic with the individualism of Western culture.

As such, the church today must confront reader-centered hermeneutics with a return to text-centered interpretation where what God said is what God meant.  The former approach idolizes individual interpretation and severely minimizes (if not destroys) God’s rightful authority as the author of Scripture and Truth.  The Bible means what it meant, and our challenge is to discover what God meant when it was originally written and apply it to today’s cultural context.  As a result, we must humble ourselves before the text (God’s inspired, inerrant Word) and submit to its authority.  If we fail on this foundational task, we have no right, no authority, and no certainty to the exclusive claims of truth and salvation we rightly believe are taught in the sacred Word of God.


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