Christians Hoodwinked by Modernism

n-t-wrightI’m currently reading my review copy of N.T. Wright’s new book, Surprised by Scripture. In the book, he takes up exploring how the Bible can be applied to some of the most pressing contemporary issues facing us. In the coming week or so, I’ll post up a fuller book review. However, I wanted to briefly look at an issue brought up in his chapter How the Bible Reads the Modern World.

In this specific chapter, Wright sheds light on how a modernist, Enlightenment paradigm has directed the way the Bible is read in much of the western world today. But, surprisingly, what many might not know is that the modernist template was actually adopted by most Christians in the western hemisphere as well.

How so?

Let me first start by quoting some of Wright’s thoughts:

Surprised by ScriptureAnd the churches have regularly gone along for the ride. If the culture dictates that you have to choose between God and the world, the churches will choose God – forgetting that in the Bible God is the creator, or, if they do remember, getting stuck on essentially modernist ideas about what creation might mean, with a god who makes a world that looks as though it’s been around for 13 billion years but is actually only six thousand years old. Conservative churches have spoken of miracles, in the sense of a god normally outside suddenly reaching in, doing something dramatic, and then going away again. And so the confusion goes on.

He goes on:

The trouble is that even the conservative scholars who have tried to defend the Bible against this kind of attack have regularly done so within the same split-level world, so that those who have defended the miraculous, who have wanted to speak of God’s action in the world, have done so in terms of invasion – of a god who is normally outside the processes of the created order reaching in, doing a few tricks, and then going away again. And that picture has very little to do with the God of the Bible. (p134-136)

You see, here’s the problem I’ve come to discover. Following what many believed as the triumphant victory of the Enlightenment, we embraced the position that all that is true is only that which can be proven. And the way such truth was proven was through gathering together empirical data, observable evidence, all summed up in something like the scientific method.

Now, let me say from the get-go that I am not anti-science. I am no scientist of any sorts, though I have great friends who have PhD’s in varying fields of science while also being pastors and/or involved in some kind of specific ministry. But I personally can see the positives of what science has to offer, including studies in evolutionary biology.

But science – or let’s say “a commitment to truth only being discovered through observable and empirical evidence” – does not satisfy all questions. As Wright goes on to offer in Surprised by Scripture: “science takes things apart to see how they work, but religion puts things together to see what they mean” (p142).

And that’s just it, science cannot answer the deeper philosophical, nor theological, questions of meaning. Why are we here? What are we here for? It lacks the ability to address the why’s of life.

But let’s go back to how Christians accepted the modernist, Enlightenment paradigm, or how we were hoodwinked by this reductionist view of knowing truth. In an effort, a noble effort, mind you, to combat early 20th century liberalism and secular modernism, the church in the west took up every effort to prove the veracity of the faith, including its claims on Scripture. Thus, the Bible was approached almost as a set of propositional statements or journalistic history that could be empirically proven in one way or the other. And if something couldn’t be proven, we’d remark: “Right now we don’t have enough info (data) to support the truth proposition we offer, but if we keep searching and studying, we’re liable to get there at some point.” Something of this sort.

And so in our apologetic and polemical efforts of defending the faith, a particular commitment to setting Scripture within modernist, scientific study (don’t think “science” as in biology, but more the method of how science is approached to “prove” something), we actually lost the battle.

Without realizing it, we were duped into believing we lived in this sort of split-level world. Truth was only boxed up as fact. Narrative, or historical narrative, could not have elements of story, but rather was only to be seen as journalistic, factual reporting. Truth could not be in poetic or pithy statements and could not well embrace story (or “myth,” which is simply storied form to communicate truth).

Consequently, we lost the battle because Scripture was not given to us within that paradigm of the Enlightenment, scientific approach. It was given in a much different framework of the ancient world. They worked under much different auspice and conviction about communicating the truth, or God’s revelation.

And here’s the thing: The word truth and fact are not synonyms. Truth is the umbrella term, fact is only one branch of truth. This is why a poem (think the Psalms), which is not journalistic history or empirical data, is true at its core, even at the expense of using metaphor, imagery and other literary devices. This is why parables are true at their core – because they teach truth, even if the good Samaritan was not necessarily a guy named John Smith who lived in the early part of first century Palestine. This is why borrowing old Egyptian wisdom sayings and planting them within Solomon’s own proverbial sayings still gives us truth (or God’s revelation). This is why storied narrative is true, even as elements are shaped in a way within the story that wouldn’t be seen as acceptable for Dateline or reporting in the Washington Post.

Now hear me!

I’m not even negating apologetics as a whole. But even apologetics has it’s limits (just as science does, believe me!). When we engage in the realm of apologetics, or defending the faith (or the Bible), we are dealing in the realm of reasonable proofs. Let’s say on the matter of Jesus one can reasonably conclude that Jesus was an historical person, who was historically crucified, and even historically rose from the dead. Now, what you do with that information is another whole issue.

But let’s look at Jesus and those 3 “propositions” of him being an actual living person in history, his crucifixion and his resurrection. The first two are more “provable,” though again, not wholly empirically observable (you can’t test his life and death over and over in the way science tests hypotheses over and over). But, it’s pretty dang reasonable he lived and was crucified. Even the Bart Erhman’s of today recognize this.

Yet, for the resurrection, things are a little less empirically observable and proven (from that modernist ploy of the scientific method). But they are not wholly unreasonable. Of course, science doesn’t speak to resurrection. Maybe resuscitation, but not resurrection – a man was truly dead from a late Friday afternoon to a Sunday morning, but he walked out the grave alive.

This is even what N.T. Wright spends time looking at in his book, Surprised by Hope, which lays out the tale that a pivotal change took place on that resurrection Sunday when God turned all things around towards new creation as Jesus walked out of the grave. He adds some discourse in on the reasonable reality that Jesus was raised by the power of God.

So all of this is good and helpful. But I’m not sure it gives us THE final answer, mainly because our empirical investigation into matters does not yield 100% provable answers. It leaves reasonable answers, reasonable evidence. But not always tangible, observable data for our case. I can reasonably prove my wife loves me, even pointing to some tangible evidence. But I’m not going to be able to offer empirically measured data. Sorry! But I am assured, certain of (!!), her love for me.

And, you know, science is in the same boat. To believe otherwise would be pretty silly.

Therefore, as Wright surmises in the book, we as the church have gone along for the ride. Again, out of noble intent. But many of us have trapped ourselves into arguing out of modernist, scientism, rather than out of a more holistic approach to truth. We’ve pushed the wide scope of literary genres in Scripture into only things like fact, proposition and literal history. Of course it contains such. But not on every page. And to claim such, I believe, is to reduce the Scripture that God gave us.

As someone once remarked: “I want to love the Bible we’ve been given, not the one we wish we had.”

This is why I came to appreciate the writings of Jamie Smith, especially his tempered appreciation of some aspects of postmodernism, as espoused in his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? The book was instrumentally helpful for me moving away from a strongly committed modernist approach to Scripture to a more balanced approach, embracing the wider measurements of truth, even as it’s expressed in Scripture. And this includes fact and history, but not only such, even within those sections of Scripture we identify as “history”.

I don’t want to see the church duped into some of the extreme lies of modernist, Enlightenment though, just as I don’t want us deceived by some of the extreme measures of postmodernism. But truth is big in the eyes of God. He’s the God of all truth, within Scripture and without, within particular literary elements and within others. And God has never been committed to expressing his truth only in factual or propositional statements. He, like us, is relational at his core. And relational beings embrace the expression of truth much wider than we might have first imagined. Just remember, your relationship with your spouse can always leave you a good example.

5 thoughts on “Christians Hoodwinked by Modernism

  1. Great article. Love your conclusion. All truth does not equal facts. God’s personal relationship with us is TRUTH, but it can never be proven empirically as a fact.

    I wanted to address one item you quoted.

    “… a god who is normally outside the processes of the created order reaching in, doing a few tricks, and then going away again.”

    I have started rejecting this way of looking at miracles myself. For instance, I believe the plagues of Egypt were all a result of a natural disaster in the area. They weren’t just random acts by God to “punish” the Egyptians. God used the natural processes of creation to affect the change He desired. It was His expert “timing” if you will, rather than the events themselves, that were miraculous. Some would say this viewpoint lessens or even disproves that these were miracles, but I think it proves that God can use whatever He wishes to carry out His will without subverting the natural processes that He set up at creation, thus showing an even GREATER display of divinity than simply randomly turning a river to “blood” or creating a swarm of locusts.

    God is the God of everything that happens within His creation. He is NOT outside it, poking in miracles here and there. The miracle is that He works WITHIN His own rule set and STILL accomplishes what He wishes.

  2. Interesting post. I’m wondering what you think of this:

    You said, “And so in our apologetic and polemical efforts of defending the faith, a particular commitment to setting Scripture within modernist, scientific study… we actually lost the battle.” Yet, Wright himself, in Jesus and the Victory of God, adopted precisely this approach. On a discussion panel at the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference, he was asked why he used only the synoptic gospels and not the gospel of John. He replied that those were the “rules” in the guild, and that he wanted to take them on on their own terms, and thus pave the way for others to do the same. The other panelist pushed back, “but who cares what their rules are.”

    Have you heard this discussion before regarding his own apologetic approach to the historical Jesus? wondering how it fits into the framework you’re discussing here.

    I love how thought provoking Wright is on a basic worldview level in helping us begin to realize some of our own interpretive “spectacles.”

    • I’ve read about a quarter of Jesus & the Victory of God. So I didn’t/haven’t picked up that non-use of John yet. I suppose I understand the motive behind his engagement with critical scholarship. Now doubt his “Christian Origins and the Question of God Series” is for an academic crowd, not a popular one. In 4 volumes, he’s written something like 3500 pages!

      So I’m not sure this is an example of putting all of one’s eggs in the basket of modernism. It’s a scholar engaging with scholars and being ok with the terms of the playing field. It’s like engaging with a non-Christian and deciding not to use the text of Scripture as an arguing point, but something more broad from our world, all to help people think about the eternal things of God. I don’t think it’s an example of succumbing to the world. It’s like what Paul did in Acts 17.

      I’m sure we’ve all been affected by modernism in some way. We might not be be arguing certain things if it weren’t for the Enlightenment, and we can recognize some positive aspects of any paradigm (as I would do with postmodernism). But one’s commitment can be seen at greater measures at times, which I think is described in this article. Modernism in some extreme forms cam block a more holistic approach to God’s truth revealed in Scripture.

  3. Pingback: Does God Change His Mind? | New Leaven

  4. A really interesting post and your final conclusion seems to hit the mark: truth is not (ultimately) propositional but relational. I tend to see the value of what you seem to suggest in response to the comment above on a modernist worldview. I would suggest that modernism has done much good and much harm. The same could be said of many other world-views. When we are forced into a naturalist perspective that demands that only what empirical evidence shows via scientific method can prove anything true about the world, then we are wearing blinkers (and being philosophically naive). I personally see many limitations in postmodernist thinking too. The trick is to spot and recognise the limitations of any world-view. That is of course almost impossible given we are unavoidably shaped by our historical and cultural context – which is why the illumination of the Holy Spirit can help and open our minds. I tend to think that most philosophical big picture dilemmas relate in some way to the problem that we are part of the world we are trying to describe and we are aware of how that might fatally compromise our right understanding of that world. We can get a long way to making some headway with this problem, though normally on the back of some pretty hefty assumptions that seem to make sense to us (the way we tend to approach most things in life). Too much thinking about this kind of thing that can leave you bound in Cartesian doubt and feeling slightly unhinged (or is that just me?!), which is where a suitable amount of humility about what you know is helpful and why revelation is so important – and that brings me back to trust in the person of Jesus: truth is ultimately relational.

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