Does the Bible mean what it says, or only what each of us thinks it means? Have you ever heard a Christian say, “Well, it’s true for me”? Does “Thou shalt not” sometimes mean “Thou shalt”? Rev. Strevel explains how such non-Christian notions have worked themselves into the Christian conversation.
According to the linguistic theory known as Structuralism, which was popular during the first half of the 20th century, words or signs do not have any intrinsic relationship to what they signify. Instead, the way people in linguistic communities use words determines these relationships.
The late Jacques Derrida, the proponent of a later theory called Deconstructionism, pushed Structuralism to its logical end: if there are no ultimate relationships, there is no ultimate reality. Words are all that exist. “Reality” is created by the words a society uses, and these words have no objective truth external to them. Words point to other words, nothing more. Language is a cultural creation and hence a social construction. It is unstable, arbitrary, and abstract.
A text, therefore, cannot contain a meaning. Instead, the reader creates its meaning for himself, when he fuses his particular horizon of understanding with the text. Each individual and society constructs meaning through language. This is not an objective meaning, but only a “construction.”
Deconstructionists like Derrida teach that linguistic conventions are the mask that each society wears to “cover up its sins”: racism, homophobia, patriarchalism. Language is essentially a power struggle through which various groups within a culture seek to gain mastery over their environment and impose meaning upon the world and others.
When approaching a text, the goal is not to uncover the author’s intended meaning. Texts must instead be evaluated to disclose the author’s hidden meaning, his self-interested attempt to master his environment. All truth claims must be subjected to the hermeneutics of suspicion. Each reader must ask, “What meaning, agenda, or philosophy was that author attempting to construct for himself and his readers?” Every text becomes a political creation of that culture’s winners, self-justification for their power and prosperity.
Postmodernism is wedded to deconstructionist linguistic theory. It posits that there is no ultimate, objective truth or reality and claims that knowledge is only subjective to the knower. Thus language is merely a social construction. Postmodernism makes the arrogant claim that the individual constructs a reality that works for him. Yet postmodernism is also strongly communal. Individuals, and especially individuals operating within communities that share the same general worldview, construct realities that provide meaning within their context. Postmodernists claim that our construction is our reality, and it is illegitimate to judge anyone else’s construction by the standards of competing systems. When we claim that something is true, therefore, we have simply created a system to explain and control our environment.
Legitimate moral choices are those that work for an individual or group in their particular context. According to postmodernists, we must abandon the vain quest for universal truth and normative standards of morality. We should focus instead upon finding new ways to organize the facts so that those who have been oppressed and disadvantaged can be brought to the center of the overall human experience.
The rise of historical revisionism is a necessary corollary of postmodern thinking. Revisionists make no pretense about rejecting the notion of objective truth about men and nations. The issue is power. The old powers oppressed and ignored the needs and concerns of divergent traditions and groups. The new postmodern powers are feminism, globalism, ecologism, and homosexualism. The purpose of “knowledge” is to create a paradigm so that those who are seeking political power and freedom from oppression can acquire and retain it.
The Postmodern Mentality
Ideas have consequences, and postmodern thought continues to have a destructive influence over Western culture. Postmodernists deny the need for internal consistency and worldview coherence, since in their view reality is subjective (“Reality isn’t real.”). They deny that there are binding standards of rationality by which judgment is possible. Because language is intrinsically irrational, postmodernism actually sees contradiction as proof that reality is ultimately incoherent and that interpretation is subjective. In fact, embracing contradiction is the ultimate expression of personal freedom and authenticity.
To the postmodernists, beliefs are accepted not because they are objectively true but because they have personal appeal or usefulness. “Enlightened pragmatism” is the ethical standard of postmodernism, and our culture’s abandonment of traditional values proves how pervasive this has become. Since rational, objective discourse is impossible, only sound bites, billboards, slogans, and political correctness campaigns can be the real educators in postmodern society. It is pointless to argue with those of differing philosophical and moral persuasions; there is no final arbiter of truth or meaning.
Postmodern man finds his identity and meaning in terms of his image: possessions, social status, group identity, entertainment, and outward appearance. Image is the self-projection of the individual’s reality. There is no truth beyond image. We should not be surprised that postmodernists resort to political intrigue, lawsuits, and lobbying by special interest groups to achieve their agenda. Their philosophy makes no provision for persuasion through rational discourse.
The Impact of Postmodernism on the Bible
Postmodernism is a self-refuting philosophy, which is a critique postmodernists themselves not only recognize but also frequently embrace. Yet its impact is increasingly felt in the church, especially its destructive views of the Bible.
Traditional views of Scripture are incompatible with postmodernism. If words are ultimately meaningless, the Bible can no longer be the Word of God. It is a word about God, mediated through human language and cultural contexts accused of oppressing women and homosexuals. It is at best a record of how past men and groups have expressed religious faith. It does not possess objectivity, carry authority, or function as God’s will.
This explains the willingness of some Biblical scholars to redefine radically the nature, content, and boundaries of the Biblical canon. Robert Funk, the head of the Jesus Seminar, has called for a complete revision of the New Testament.1 John Shelby Spong, the popular Episcopalian minister and homosexual advocate, has written that we must abandon concrete, creedal approaches to the Bible.2 Any authoritarian use of the Bible is primitive, oppressive, and divisive.
These men are consistent with their philosophy. If language cannot convey transcendent truth, though it is a medium created by God to serve this purpose, the Bible can point to nothing but the belief systems of those who wrote it. Because modern humanistic belief systems are different, we need a different canon. This is a great theological battle, and it may well result in the formation of a “scholarly” Biblical canon radically different from that cherished by Christians for millennia.
Authority and Evangelism
Deconstruction is convenient for those whose response to serious Biblical confrontation is, “Well, the Bible means one thing to you and something different to me.” But the Christian worldview stresses coherence. God is not internally self-contradictory; His Word is internally self-consistent. We cannot reject views of God, man, and salvation that we find personally distasteful by ignoring them or treating the Bible as a smorgasbord from which we select only what appeals to us. The Bible stands or falls as a unit. Interpreting the Bible correctly requires understanding the analogy of Scripture, that Scripture is its own best interpreter.
This principle requires belief in a transcendent and personal God, whose omniscient Spirit is the single divine mind behind the entirety of Scripture (1 Cor. 2:10-14; 1 Tim. 3:16,17). We may not personally like the conclusions that the Bible’s internal consistency forces us to accept, but we do not live in a fairyland created by our personal whims. Believers who refuse to accept truths of Scripture, or who neglect passages that speak clearly to a given doctrine, display the same immaturity.
Deconstructive postmodernism also rears its ugly head in the proclamation of the Christian gospel. The Bible proclaims that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, the only name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved (Jn. 14:6; Ac. 4:12). To the deconstructionist, this is naïve and bigoted against other religions. Churches that hold interfaith worship services, grant the possibility of salvation apart from Jesus Christ, and support the legitimacy of various world religions have capitulated to this view. To claim that Jesus is only one of many available gods, or that God’s mercy allows “sincerely held” non-Christian views renders apologetics, gospel preaching, and even Hell superfluous. Even our failure to call men to repentance reveals that postmodern views have infiltrated our ranks.
We are ridiculed for affirming that the Bible is the Word of God. To affirm the internal consistency of the Bible, and that we must interpret it with the eyes of faith may seem harsh and restrictive to those who prefer ultimate mystery to Scripture. If we defend the exclusivity and necessity of the Christian gospel, we will be persecuted.
We must not surrender to the forces of deconstructionism. Only the immature and rebellious would rather wallow in ignorance and false sophistication than submit to God’s revelation in Scripture. In God’s providence, the church finds herself confronting a philosophical and linguistic position with the full consequences of rejecting Biblical revelation — utter irrationalism and total skepticism. The battle is just beginning, but we may proceed with confidence that God, truth, and time are on our side. The frustrated gates of Hell cannot stop the progress of the gospel if the people of God will but seize the moment.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt. 16:19)
1. Robert W. Funk, “The Once and Future New Testament,” in Lee MacDonald and James A. Sanders, eds. The Canon Debate ( Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 555-557.
2. John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 1998), 19.
- Christopher B. Strevel
Rev. Christopher B. Strevel currently pastors Covenant Presbyterian Church (RPCUS) in Buford, Georgia. He also oversees students in Bahnsen Theological Seminary specializing in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. He currently resides in Dacula, Georgia, with his wife of twelve years, Elizabeth, and his three children, Christopher, Caroline, and Claire.