Erosion of The Modern Synthesis: Call for Postmodern Hermeneutics


From Epistemology to Hermeneutics: From True Truth to Relevance


                                                      Roger Lundin has called this erosion “our evangelical culture lag.”  He points out that what evangelicals condemn when it first appears, they eventually come to adopt, with some variations, whether it be TV, music or philosophy.  He raises the possibility that, based on the past patterns of response, “in only a few years we will be hearing the sanctified deconstructive word from Christian critics.”  (Roger Lundin, “Deconstructive Therapy” The Reformed Journal 36/1 (Jan. 1986, pp. 15,16).  The earlier tendency toward antithesis and rejection has in more recent years given way to adoption and absorption, and this might even be true of something as radical as deconstructionism.  There is no “reason” why not!  (cf. Millard J. Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation (Baker, 1993), and John E. Thiel, Non-Foundationalism (Fortress, 1994).


From Modernism to Postmodernism


The classic work of John H. Randall, Jr., The Making of The Modern Mind (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1940) brilliantly traces the nature of Modernism.  Randall exposes ten crucial presuppositions:


(1)  Modernism emphasizes the centrality and autonomy of man contra premodern Christian model which emphasized the centrality of God and His sovereignty).  Modernism shifted attention to the human (contra the authority of God, Church and Scriptures (see Kant’s definition of Enlightenment).


(2)  Another major assumption was the centrality of nature.  The focus shifted from God to man, so the center of activity shifted from the heavenly to earthly preoccupation.  The drama of human life was to be acted out on the stage of nature.


(3) The growing interest in nature was the context of the origin and development of the scientific method.  This method became the major means of gaining knowledge.  This became the paradigm of the only method for investigating truth.  This method was extended to the behavioral sciences and sought to employ statistical methods to reduce findings to a mathematically quantifiable form (see my work, Changing Paradigms of Mathematics and Their Impact On Philosophy and Theology).  Science and mathematics become the standard for all knowledge claims.


(4)  Fused with these concepts was the idea of nature as dynamic and as the sole and sufficient cause and explanation of what is and what transpires.  The concept of evolution was used to explain human origins.  Rather than being a product of God’s supernatural act of creation, socio-politics, art, literature and music have evolved.  Man was understood to be from other living forms, to be a part of nature bound by natural laws.


(5)  This period of scientific development generated a growing conception of determination or absolute causation within the whole of the universe.  This led to the assumption of uniformitarianism or complete regularity or complete causation in nature (cf. extended to uniformitarianism in geology).  Research which proceeded on these presuppositions proved fruitful in its results.  This presupposition of this observable pattern in all parts of reality could be extended to those parts that could not be similarly observed, or had not yet been investigated (cf. Randell, Murphy, McClendon, “ Distinguishing Modern and Postmodern Theologies” Modern Theology (April 1989) pp. 197-98).


(6)  From determinism there was a growing tendency toward reductionism, the effort to explain everything by fewer or more basic factors.  This psychology has tended to reduce to biology, biology to chemistry and chemistry to psychics.  (cf. Schaeffer’s “Nothing Buttery” Murphy and McClendon, pp. 196-97); see my section of “Scientism”--Loss of Transcendence in Postmodern Culture).


(7)  The modern period was grounded in foundationalism.  This is the idea that knowledge must be justified by being based on certain indubitable or incorrigible beliefs.  From Cartesian foundationalism the task of the philosopher was a search for such indubitability.  For Descartes, the foundations of knowledge were seen as intuitions of clear and distinct ideas (a la Euclidian Geometry; Descartes was a mathematician).  For Hume, on the other hand, the source of knowledge was sense impressions.  While Hume seemed to be something of a sceptic (when compared to rationalists such as Descartes), he, too, was searching for and believed he had found a sound basis for belief.  The Logical Positivists, in their early days, were seeking for such a certainty in sense data (Murphy and McClendon, Ibid., pp. 192,93).


(8)  Metaphysical realism was a fundamental assumption.  Physical objects were believed to have a real existence apart from our perception of them.  These objects which are apprehended by us through sense perception are therefore real (Dean, History Making History, pp. 6,7); and Murphy and McClendon, Ibid, pp. 192,93).


(9)  The modern perspective affirmed the representative/expressive theory of language.  Language has as its primary role representing that to which it refers.  Language names objects and represents facts about these objects.  The representational theory of language is inadequate in the area of God talk, ethics, aesthetics although the grammatical form of sentences may be seen to indicate representation.  Here the role of language is actually to express the feeling or emotion of the seeker.  Hence, the reference is not to the ostensive referent, but to inward states or intentions of the speaker (Dean, Ibid, pp. 192-96); Emotive Theory of Ethics, Situational Ethics, Life Boat Ethics, etc., derive from this issue).


(10)  Fundamental to the modern mode is a correspondence theory of truth (cf. Schaeffer’s “True Truth” versus Relativism/Radical Contextualization).  That is to say, those propositions are true that correctly reflects or corresponds to things as they really are (cf. Timothy Reiss, The Discourse of Modernism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 44.)  This theory of truth was supplemented and often competed with by the pragmatic theory of truth, but even William James’ first definition of truth in his essay on pragmatism is essentially a correspondence view:  “Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas.  It means their ‘agreement’ as falsity means their disagreement with reality.”  (William James, Pragmatism (NY: Meridian Books, 1955), p. 132; see my Critique of William James’ Epistemology.)  This suggests that the pragmatist view of truth was more a theory about testing for truth than an attempt to delineate the nature of truth.  This “modern world view” has gradually begun to erode.  Slowly at first, and then with accelerating pace of late, the inadequacies of this understanding of reality have been revealed (cf. compare the works of Randell and Henry on the Making of The Postmodern Mind).  


                                                      The acceptance of the idea that the modern period is passing away has become increasingly widespread.  The significance of this change should not be overlooked or minimized.  We are not witnessing merely the displacement of one theory by another, or a conflict about some peripheral ideas.  We are actually seeing a paradigm shift taking place before our eyes.  The very foundations on the basis of which society has functioned for sometime are changing.  As Diogenes Allen put it, “What is crumbling are the pillars of Western society, which were erected during the Enlightenment.”  (D. Allen, “Christian Values in a Post Christian Context,” in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith In A Pluralist World (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1939, p. 21).


Education Paradigms for Understanding/Encouraging Postmodern       Culture -- Dewey, Spock, Derrida, OBE and New Age Pantheism


                                                      We need to observe first the reason for this collapse, so that we may understand what is happening any why, and then look at which conceptions may survive, which conceptions may need to be adopted, and which conceptions will surely pass away completely.  Diogenes Allen lists four areas of breakdown which are useful for critical analysis (Allen, Ibid., p. 1-125)


(1)  The idea that the universe is a self-contained entity has broken down the modern view assumed that all reality functioned according to certain fixed patterns.  A number of factors have combined to undercut this conception, however.  One of these was Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy.  At the subatomic level, the behavior of particles or electrical charges appears unpredictable. Another (but dubious) factor, the Big Bang theory suggests that the entire universe was at one time very dense, concentrated in one place  (cf. David Ray Griffin, God and Religion in The Postmodern World: Essays in Postmodern Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1939, p. 36)


(2)  The modern model appears to have failed morally (cf. Positivism assumed the theological, ethical, political, economic, linguistic propositions must survive the critical eyes of the “verification principle.”  (cf. Scientism in Islam’s Science and Marxist Physics; my critique of position in The Loss of Transcendence in Our Postmodern Culture).  If this is true, then non-physical science linguistic propositions are non-cognitive, i.e., irrational, not verifiable, and therefore not linguistic candidates for the status of “true truth.”  Human ingenuity seemed most productive when geared to making war.  In all of this the problem is not simply the failure to solve specific problems, but the inability of modern thought to provide norms and the emphasis upon individualism have not facilitated the sort of consensus necessary for moral action in a pluralistic society.  In part, the tendency toward mechanism in the worldview has been a factor in this difficulty (cf. Postmodern confrontation with a certain view of science, education and media/technology as gurus of social and personal salvation).


(3)  The postmodern culture has lost belief in virtually inevitable progress.  It was inspired by the first industrial revolution and supported in part by the extension of Darwinism to cover the development of all facets of culture.  Yet Generation X has discovered that its standard of living will be lower than the preceding generation; disillusionment with the “great American dream” has begun to set in.


(4)  The assumption that knowledge is inherently good has also come to be questioned.  It is apparent that knowledge can be used for good or evil, and that an increase in knowledge will not automatically result in a better world.  The standard assumption that a college education will lead to a better job is proving uncertain.  The increase of knowledge and wealth has heightened the discrepancies between various social classes.  The most radical rejection of the modern view is expressed in deconstructionism or eliminated in postmodernism (one of the postmodern gurus is Mark Taylor, who describes this postmodern theological maze as the “hermeneutic of the death of God” (Taylor, Erring (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 6; and John E. Thiel, NonFoundationalism (Fortress Press, 1994). Taylor says, “The insights released by deconstructive criticism suggests the unification of the death of God for areas as apparently distinct as contemporary psychology, linguistics, and historical analysis.”  (Taylor, Ibid., p. 6).  Without the “transcendental signified,” there is nothing that grounds the structures of signification.”  Richard Rorty says that our transcendentless culture rests totally on words.  “It’s words all the way down.”  Words do not rest upon anything more basic.  Their referents are more words.”  (cf. Richard Rorty, Consequences of Nature: Essays 1972-1980 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. xxxv).  It becomes apparent that consciousness is creative and productive.  It does not afford meaning or criteria external to itself.  “That to which consciousness points is always already within consciousness itself.”  (Rorty, Ibid., p. 35)  Hermeneutics, then, consists in word play and word association.  Since there is no correspondence theory of truth, no objects to which the words refer, the consciousness of the interpreter creates the meaning out of itself. Like his literary mentor, Derrida, Taylor holds that the use of language is generative of meaning.  Clearly this view is in conflict with classical Christian theology but it is the source of “seeker friendly” audiences determining the meaning of any text mode.  The audience is the authority for most of Generation X.  God has been replaced by the audience as the source and ground of acceptance of the message.  The message must not be offensive to postmodern auditors of The Gospel.


Crossing Hermeneutical Horizons of Our Postmodern Audiences


Eleven Challenges of Postmodern Hermeneutics:


(1)                                     The rejection of Foundationalism must be taken seriously.  Postmodern hermeneutics is based upon this rejection (cf. Richard Rorty, “A Reply to Dreyfus and Taylor” The Review of Metaphysics, 34 (1980); esp. p. 39).  Einstein’s theory of relativity was formulated out of the paradox of addition of velocities.  Velocities should be cumulative, so that the speed of closure of light from a star moving toward the observer should be greater than that of the light from a star revolving away, yet this proved not to be the case.  Einstein proposed that we reject the underlying assumption of the absoluteness of time and space.  Instead, he suggested that time and space are relative.  This set of assumptions was validated by more nearly fitting the empirical data than by some sort of absolute justification (cf. James B. Miller, “The Emerging Postmodern World,” in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World, ed. F. C. Burnham (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989, p. 9).  William James pointed out that two men arguing about whether the spirals seen around the moon were not differing about a matter of fact, but about the interpretation thereof (cf. Wm. James, Pragmatism, pp. 41,42).  Truly foundations terms will have to be considerably reduced.  Rather than being substantive in nature, they may turn out to be more methodological.  They may be logical or linguistic assumptions that we cannot deny without assuming them in the process, or without resorting to sheer authoritarianism or dogmatism.  Perhaps our approach must be more presuppositional than classical foundationalism.  We will need to test these presuppositions, trace out the implications of these presuppositions, and show how these assumptions and the systems that derive from them are more consistent and coherent and fit the broad sweep of experience more adequately than do competitive views.  The exhibition of the truth of a position will be less likely a deductive demonstration from first principles, than an inductive fit of the facts.


(2)  Postmodern hermeneutics will examine closely what language signs signify.  The classical modern view has been that they correspond to objects--not necessarily physical objects, but objects inherent within the natural world of experience.  The postmodern view has tended to identify the objects of words as other words, rather than non-verbal referents.  This hermeneutical paradigm must be challenged if classical Christianity is to sustain both its truth and relevancy claims.  The referent of our language is the concept (e.g. chair-chairness/differing colors and materials), (cf. language acquisition, e.g. das Fenster = the window, the car, the apple, etc.  See my paper “Changing Concepts of Subject/Object Epistemology).  Is this view merely an uncritical return to Platonism?  What we must not deny is the concept of “verbal inspiration” in favor of some sort of dynamic or conceptual view.  The real locus of biblical revelation, however, is the ideas or concept that the written words convey.  Abraham in Genesis 22 was commanded by God to offer his son.  However, Genesis 22 is teaching us more than the historical fact; it also teaches us about the holiness of God, his expectation of obedience from his followers and his faithfulness.  This makes the message cross-cultural.


(3)  Postmodern hermeneutics will need to take into account the fact of meaningfulness (as contrasted with meaning) and significance (as contrasted with non significance) is the main issue today for many, at least, of Generation X.  For many people, the fundamental question is not “Is it time?,” but rather, “Does it matter?”  (cf. Joe Holland, “The Postmodern Paradigm and Contemporary Catholicism” in Varieties of Postmodern Theology, ed. David R. Griffen, Wm. A. Beardalee and Joe Holland (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). pp. 11,2).  Whether this ought to be the question is not the issue.  The point is that hermeneutics must address the question of the relevance of a given truth in individuals and groups.  Perhaps the ultimate question is--Why apart from the question of truthfulness is relevance important?  Perhaps we have tended to equate meaning and significance with meaning then and meaning now, but such really should not be the case (E.D. Hirsh, Validity in Interpretation (NY: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 8).  There is both past meaning and meaningfulness and present meaning and meaningfulness!!!


(4)  The meaning of biblical propositions will not always be in terms of showing the meaning of each individual statement.  Rather, it may be a matter of showing the meaning and meaningfulness of the scheme as a whole and then showing the relationship of individual parts to the whole (cf. my suggestion in Theology of Promise:  Christ is “de mitte” and the source of ordering the parts, i.e., variety of literary genre).  Is there a biblical message or are there biblical messages conflicting or complimentary?  Two central concerns are exposed in this thesis:  (a)  It has often been thought that the meaning of language was to be found in the meaning of individual units or words.  Logical Positivism modified this by contending that the proposition, rather than the word, was the basic unity of meaning.  In narrative literary interpretation, meaning is extended to the whole story.  The pertinence of the story as a whole can be shown in ways in which individual segments of it cannot.  (b)  Another proposal is found in the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg.  Pannenberg has developed a concept of revelation in which the whole of history is revelation, not merely certain elements or motifs within it.  Yet the meaning of history is seen at the end, not at the beginning or some intermediate point (cf. Creation/Incarnation - see W. Pannenberg, “Dogmaticness on the Doctrine of Revelation” in Revelation As History, ed. W. Pannenberg (NY: MacMillan, 1968), pp. 131,135).  Without adherence to the theological paradigm of Pannenberg, it does suggest that the meaning of any story depends on its outcome, and its content of a message requires the conclusion.


(5)  The meaningfulness of biblical texts will be demonstrated by showing their relationship to fundamental human needs (cf. God’s determined needs not necessarily postmodern Generation X’s felt needs).  What are the needs?  These needs are such things as the need to have significance as an individual.  The depersonalizing impact of corporations, governmental agencies and consumer image in industry plays havoc with individual value.  Man has become a commodity to be marketed (cf. marketing Christ and the Church based on needs satisfaction, i.e., our pragmatic/therapeutic syndrome in the mega Church mode (e.g. Matt. 10.29,30; John 10.3 - need for forgiveness, hope, return of Christ, resurrection, etc.).  Many texts may not have a specific meaning.  Often texts have meaning only in a system as a whole, i.e., meaningfulness by virtue of their coherent participation in the whole (cf. unifying parts and the whole via Theology of Promise).


(6)  We will need to employ phenomenology as a method for identifying these dimensions of human experience to which the biblical material can be related.  It is here that one hermeneutic will be postmodern rather than merely pre-modern, for it is an aim to take the experience of the postmodern, secular person as a point of contact in engaging he gospel.  Langon Gilkey’s Naming The Whirlwind: Renewal of God Language (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), pp. 305-413).  The modern secular person does not and cannot live entirely within the categories of his own system.  Four dimensions of our experienced ultimacy are: (1) Source of what we are; (2) Experience of our limits; (3) Source and basis of our values; (4) and the element of mystery (cf. see my “Worship In The Secular City” and “The Awe of God in Our Awful World” (Isaiah 6).  The Gospel of Christ addresses each of these dimensions.


(7)  Non-linear physics (Chaos Physics) has recently produced the breakdown of the conception of the universe as a self-sustaining, fixed, law-bound entity.  The idea of absolute determinism has been affected by such factors as Heisenberg’s “principle of indeterminacy” and the “Big Bang” (see David R. Griffen, God and Religion in The Postmodern World: Essays in Postmodern Theology (Albany: State University of NY, 1989), p. 36; Diogenes Allen, “Christian Values in A Postmodern Context” in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith in A Pluralistic World (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), p. 21).  Taking seriously belief in an omnipotent, transcendent God, this approach held that he was capable of doing anything, nature notwithstanding (cf. see esp. John Polkinshorne, Science and Creation (S.P.C.K., 1989), p. 51-63).  The recent developments in the physical sciences make the Christian concept that God has supernaturally caused all that has occurred, including the production of the Bible (cf. Allen, “Christian Values in a Post Christian Context,” p. 22).


(8)  A fundamental claim of the modern era was the value of the individual (cf. Joe Holland, “The Cultural Vision of Pope John Paul II: Toward A Conservative/Liberal Postmodern Dialogue” in Varieties of Postmodern Theology, p. 120; Murphy/McClendon, “Distinguishing Modern and Postmodern Theologies,” pp. 196-198).  The era of radical individualism (Deconstructionism) where each person formulated his or her own interpretation of a division text is now passé.  Private interpretation expresses literary and cultural fragmentation in the midst of the paradigm explosion of information.  A private world is insanity!!  (eg. Pannenberg’s circle model of graduate students at Heidelberg in the early 1960’s, which collaborated in the development of a doctrine of revelation; also special interest groups in American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature; Evangelical symposium on Inspiration, Secularism, Hermeneutics in our Postmodern culture, etc.).


(9)  There needs to be a genuinely philosophical basis to the hermeneutical work before us (see my Search for Philosophical and Psychological Foundations--Postmodern Hermeneutics; and Logic and Epistemology in Postmodern Hermeneutical Debate.  A given hermeneutic will need to be understood as a part of a much larger system of thought and that system will have to be carefully evaluated.  This means that postmodern hermeneutics will need to be more broadly prepared than in the past.  Certainly the discipline of linguistics must inform what is done.  An example would be the Biblical theology movement and the devastating criticism levelled at it by James Barr (cf. Semantics of Biblical Language (NY: Oxford Press, 1961).  It was drawing conclusions that rested on unsustainable concepts of language.  Any form of postmodern hermeneutics will require a better knowledge of linguistics (cf. esp. Nida and Pike; and my paper, “Pike’s Theory of Tagmemics;”  the magistral works of Anthony Thiselton, The Two Horizons and New Horizons and my work, “Thiselton in The Postmodern Hermeneutical Maze”).


(10)  The Postmodern hermeneutical challenge calls for a “meta-hermeneutics,” i.e., a foundation (vs. Loss of Transcendence in Our Postmodern Culture) for hermeneutical discussion classical hermeneutics are defective in light of our postmodern challenges.  Whether there can even be rules for interpretation, whether truth is primarily subjective or objective, where meaning resides there are big issues that need immediate scrutiny.  Since there can be no hermeneutical order without foundation, the loss of transcendence in our postmodern culture is our premium challenge.


(11)  Hermeneutics will need to give more attention to global or multi-cultural issues.  This will entail alternative worldview analysis and critique.  The modern mode of hermeneutics made an endeavor to find universal conceptions.  This hermeneutical mode presupposed a universal way to “see the world.”  Contact with a variety of cultures has shown us that there are actually different perceptions of reality.  There is a different way of grasping or integrating or conceptualizing reality in such basic matters as space and time (cf. Ernest Cassier, An Essay On Man (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1944), pp. 62-79).  In a postmodern world, a world in which Christianity is growing faster in the third world than it is in Europe and North America, perhaps the full meaning of the biblical text is not white, middle class, male interpretation.  A truly postmodern hermeneutic will need to be fully global and fully multicultural if the world Evangelism/Mission mandate is to be effectively carried on.


(Compare critically John N. Nall, “Deconstruction and The Universe of Theological Discourse, or Who is Jacques Derrida and What is He Saying About The Logos?”  The St. Luke’s Journal of Theology, 28/4 (Sept. 1985); Roger Lundin’s “Deconstructive Therapy,” The Reformed Journal 361, (Jan. 1986); Millard J. Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation, Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues (Baker, 1998); and Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of A Conceptual System.”  Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association, 47 (Nov. 1974), pp. 5-20; The Conflict Between Christ and Culture (Elite vs. Pop Culture); C.S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1967); and D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1984); esp. on logical fallacies).


Dr. James D. Strauss

Professor Emeritus

Lincoln Christian Seminary

100 Campus View Drive

Lincoln, IL 62656