Christianity was born in the midst of a "thinking war." Other religions, and pagan philosophies threatened the movement from the time it sprang on the scene and that threat has continued unabated until this very day. I am not concern with tracing the contours of the philosophies that have vied for predominance in Christian thought throughout it's history. My concern is related to the threats that Christianity faces today. You see, ideas have consequences. And often, ideas have unexpected and even undesirable consequences.
The underpinnings of modernism can be traced to the Renaissance. With it comes the idea that man is the measure of all things, not God. Modernism contends that we live in a material world and that nothing exists beyond the physical world. As one might imagine, this view holds that humans are self-governing. As such, they are free to choose their own direction. Modernism takes an overly optimistic view of human reason. The progress of humankind depends on science and human reason. And that progress is moving forward, according to modernism. We continue to get better.
Specific Influence on Christian Thought
Modernism has influenced Christian hermeneutics by displacing biblical authority with science and autonomous human reason. One area most affected by Modernism is the interpretation of Genesis 1-11. Rather than seeing this section of Scripture as historical narrative, modernistic thinking tends to understand the Genesis story as poetry. This results in serious inconsistencies in hermeneutics, not to mention the nature of man, salvation, the atonement, and varies other Christian doctrines. Of course these influences have a corresponding influence on how Christians think and hence, how they live their lives. Modernism contends that truth can be discovered through scientific method and human reason. As a result, man thinks he can fix himself. This view permeates even the church: God helps those who help themselves were told. Here is the bottom line, modernism influences Christianity is the area of authority more than any other area. Rather than God's self-revelation being the sole authority for faith, practice, and how we are to understand and interpret our world, man interprets and understands this world and even God by invoking himself as the sole authority. He leans heavily upon human reason and his ability to know about life through what he thinks is the infallible scientific method. These become the foundation by which he understands everything, to include the self-revelation of God in Scripture. Anytime Scripture creates tension with these foundational beliefs, it is reinterpreted in a manner that is harmonious with them, or even worse, dismissed entirely.
As modernism began to let man down in many ways, he began to search for a replacement. Man is a rational being and as such, he seeks to harmonize his views with what he observes in reality. This is how God wired man. The problem is that there is only one way to understand reality: it is the result of divine creation. And the God who created all things is a certain kind of unchanging being. But sin gets in the way of our willingness to accept God at face value. It isn't much different from what many of us do in relationships. We meet someone and we like most things about them, but there are a few we seek to change. Well, we do the same thing with God because there are some things about God that our sinful nature really doesn't like. And all sinners are the same in this respect. Some change God into a rule oriented, wrathful being who's only concern is seeing how many people he can condemn. Others change God into a docile grandfather who gives us our every wish and never has any expectations of us. We all have things about God we are tempted to change. Postmodernism has had a noticeable impact on the church in this regard. It opened the door to the kind of thinking that supports the practice of changing God into whatever we want him to be. How about this statement: "everyone has to serve God in their own way!" Is this really how we serve God?
Kevin Vanhoozer writes about postmodernism's rejection of modernism's framework for understanding reality saying:
The above rejections combine to form a grand refusal of modernity's metaphysical project, namely, the project of mastering natural reality in a comprehensive conceptual scheme. [Vanhoozer, Kevin. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. 11]In other words, the physical world cannot be explained in terms of systems of causal laws. There is no such thing as a unifying theory. The postmodern contends that all these theories are mere interpretations of humans who are interpreting reality within an unavoidably tainted and pre-conditioned framework. We are slaves to our condition. And our condition is the product of society. We are who we are and think the way we think because this is how society programmed us to think. To escape this condition is folly in the mind of the postmodernist.
Specific Influence on Christian Thought
Postmodernism influences Christian thought by displacing God's self-revelation with doubt. Since we cannot really understand the intention of the author that wrote the text, we must give equal weight to any and all views of God and Christian Doctrine. Take the debate on homosexuality for instance. If it is true that we are all the product of our culture, then it is also possible that the writers of the NT were unjustly biased against homosexuality and wrote, not from divine command, but from a cultural bias against the practice. This possibility alone opens up the topic for debate around the question, "does God really condemn homosexuality?" And once we open the door to this "method" of thinking, no doctrine is safe. Christian views on hell, God, man, divorce, abortion, etc, all become open for debate. And if we take postmodernism's claims to heart, how shall we solve the problem? If there is no authority to which we may appeal, how do we answer these questions? We cannot say yes, homosexuality is OK, nor can we say no, it is not. The only thing we can say is that it may be OK for you but not for me and we will have to co-exist with that understanding.
Relationship of Liberal Theology and Rob Bell to Post Modernism
Rob Bell and the Emergent Church clearly take a post-modern approach in their interpretation of Scripture and reality. But, like all postmoderns, they are inconsistent. After all, postmoderns do not live out their beliefs in reality. For example, if a man murders an innocent child and throws it into the river, all decent postmoderns recoil with disgust. There seems to be some uniform moral standard by which even postmoderns live their lives. Rape the wife of a postmodern adherent and see how he responds. Or, simply spit in his face and see if he feels victimized. Rob Bell is guilty of the same kind of inconsistency in his theology. All we need to do is examine it and see if he really stays with his own claims about certainty being evasive and impossible to achieve. He claims that the true version of the Jesus story has been hi-jacked. But if everything is a simply a matter of interpretation, how can Bell genuinely know what the real version is in the first place? How does he know that he isn't the real hi-jacker and that orthodoxy has it right after all? If he stays true to his earlier claims, he simply cannot. Postmodern thinking influences Christians thinking, and therefore our doctrines, and as a result our living in numerous ways. It is to blame for why the church is living in such a state of confusion these days. To be sure, postmodernism is just a cloak for sinful thinking. What it really is is man's attempt to think on his own terms, apart from God. Every day, in many, many ways, man seeks to redefine who God is and what He is like. That is the result of the curse of sin. And this is unavoidable. It is the responsibility and privilege of the Christian community to recognize this and respond directly and lovingly to sin and error wherever it may be found. Our tool bag contains the ointment of love and the bandage of forgive, not hammers and nails. Our approach should be sober and direct, but eager to restore and forgive where God grants repentance.