Ironic Faith: Postmodern Theories of Language

McKnight concludes by referring to classic Postmodern arguments about the nature of language —

Finally, ironic faith grows out of emergents’ realization that language plays a large role in our faith and our claims to know the truth. Even a first-year college course in literature or criticism exposes students to philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, or Stanley Fish, and few students are left unchanged and unchallenged. Emergents reason that theology is language-bound; language has its limits; the Bible is in language; that means the Bible, too, has the limits of language. The Christian faith, many emergents conclude, is language-shaped and that means it is culturally shaped. Why does one language—either ancient Middle Eastern or modern Western—get to tell the whole story? Emergents by and large plead for a multilingual approach to theology, which can lead to an ironic relationship to the language of the Bible and Western theology.

I followed this pretty well until he got to the “multilingual” approach to theology. What on earth does that mean? And so, I turned a related article at Scot McKnight’s blog, “Jesus Creed”

Orthodoxy has tended to see itself as timeless, transcultural, and always relevant. Postmodernity has chased that idea down and suggested otherwise.

Everything, it is now argued, emerges out of a cultural context and reflects that context.

Even the Creeds of the Christian faith.

Which is not to deny truth or truthfulness. But, we must remember this: only God is Truth. His revelation in Christ is truth, the scriptural witness is truth, and our theology can articulate truth. But, only God is Truth. Which also means that Truth is ultimately known most completely in relationship with God.

This much makes sense. We can’t capture God in a creedbook. Alexander Campbell would agree! We used to say, “We have no creed but Christ.” It’s much the same thought. 

So, if we wish to chart a path for the emerging churches we will have to recognize the place of culture in the way we express the gospel and the way we “do church.”

Well, the history of the Churches of Christ sure proves this one! Our movement was born in the 19th Century, and our worship forms come as much from Frontier Revivalism as from the Bible — which says nothing of an invitation in midst of congregational worship or “going forward.”

And our 5 acts of worship are a frozen picture of how church was done in the early 19th Century in frontier America — and they ignore many of the elements of the First Century church that weren’t present in frontier America, such as the love feast, daily meetings, and meeting in homes.

And so, yes, culture certainly affects how we express the gospel and how we do church.

Generosity demands that we be humble about all our culturally-embedded understandings.

The only way to do church in a way that speaks to today’s unchurched is to express universal, eternal truths in forms and words that that speak to a 21st Century audience — consistently with scripture, of course. 

Moreover, we need to be open to learning that our prior understandings were in error. For example, when I was a child, it was a sin for a woman to be in church without a hat — a fashionable, expensive hat. Today, it’s no longer a sin. In fact, today the idea that women must dress up for church, at considerable cost, is often seen as unscriptural (correctly, I think).

Truth is certainly attainable, but we have trouble seeing God’s truth when it’s contrary to our culture. Indeed, we tend to hallow our culture as though it were God’s truth. Thus, back before business casual came into fashion, the Bible required men to wear suits to church. Now that culture has changed, so has our understanding of the Bible.

But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve escaped our culture. Our children will laugh at us for something we do today that we haven’t even thought about changing.

When it comes to culture, the generosity dimension of our generous orthodoxy means we will encourage cultural analysis, cultural expression, and cultural adaptation. No one culture will maintain supremacy on how to articulate or express truth.

How I wish my brothers in the Churches of Christ understood this! First, we are often the antithesis of generous orthodoxy. We tend to have parsimonious orthodoxy. Indeed, some of us are much more narrow today than they were 30 years ago. 

The “worship wars” are, of course, the classic example. Dividing and fighting over song styles is far removed from the attitude needed to be missionally effective. You see, we hallow culture, making an idol of our preferred practices — the culture we grew up with — sacrificing the souls of the lost on the altar of our selfishness. It’s very wrong and yet we tend to deal with the attitude through accommodation rather than rebuke.

Language is a part of culture, and that means our language always carries cultural baggage. Which means our language-based articulations of truth are always culturally-shaped. This does not mean that truth can’t or doesn’t transcend culture, but it recognizes with some humility that our articulations are culturally-shaped.

This is a tough one. But for an example, consider Thomas Campbell’s assertion that the Bible is the church’s “constitution.” In his “Declaration and Address,” Campbell asserted that — 

the New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, discipline and government of the New Testament church, and as perfect a rule for the particular duties of its members; as the Old Testament was for the worship discipline and government 40 of the Old Testament church, and the particular duties of its members.

Now, look at this statement culturally and historically. He wrote in about 1809. The United States had been founded with the first democratically adopted constitution, establishing self-governance in a radical departure from hundreds of years of European history. There was no king! Americans were understandably proud of the achievement and understandably saw having a constitution as a necessary and wonderful thing. Declaring the New Testament a “constitution” would have been, in Campbell’s mind, high praise and would have spoken in terms familiar and important to his readers.

Moreover, Campbell had come up in the Presbyterian Church, the state religion of Scotland, and Presbyterianism was highly mixed with Scottish politics in those days. It’s hardly surprising that as someone who’d grown up in a church with an elaborate legal structure (he’d been tried for heresy!), growing out of a nation-state, in a country with a new constitution, he thought that way — as did his readers, who shared many of the same experiences.

But he was dead wrong. The New Testament reads nothing like a constitution. I’ve read several true constitutions and they are dramatically differents kinds of literature. But Campbell was reading the New Testament through the lens he had available — that is, through the paradigms of the day. He looked for laws and rules for how to worship and organization, and looking through legal eyes, he found legal answers. To him, the New Testament was a book of law.

Just so, our children or grandchildren will see that we’ve made similar mistakes — hopefully ones not as bad — because we’re not able to judge such things. We are also trapped in our own worldview. But just knowing that helps us escape — so long as we are humble enough to never think we’ve totally escaped.

It also asks, rather pointedly, this new generation to come to terms with the cultural-shape of the Bible, and it should lead a new generation to see the value of Hebrew and Greek. My 11 years of teaching seminary were years when I heard plenty of students question the value of studying biblical languages; that questioning came from a generation that believed English and Western were enough. This new day, however, knows the embeddedness of culture in language, and so it knows that the Bible is shaped by a culture. As Goethe said, Willst ein’ Dichter Du verstehen, musst in Dichter’s Lande gehen (If you want to understand a poet, you must go to the poet’s land). So, we must return to the biblical text and the biblical world and the biblical cultures and languages.

Alexander Campbell once taught that anyone can pick up the Bible and understand it correctly — that is, as Campbell understood it. Time has proven him very wrong indeed. Even in his lifetime, preachers he trained contradicted his most deeply held principles. 

N. T. Wright, E. B. Sanders, and many others have shown the value of reading the New Testament, not as a blueprint or constitution, but within its Jewish cultural context — and by learning to think more like a First Century Jew — going to the poet’s land — we see our understanding profoundly changed — and bettered.

Anyone with a spirit of generosity will recognize the need to appreciate other cultural expressions and other Christian traditions. 

I can disagree with the Baptists on some things and yet appreciate the value of the work of Rick Warren. I can learn prayer techniques from Medieval Catholicism and learn to love the environment from Francis of Assisi — while disagreeing with them on other things.

The more eyes through which we see God, the better we see him.

A little humility goes a long way. When we finally shed our need to feel superior to our opponents and instead realize the importance of learning from (or better yet, with) our opponents, then, finally, we find ourselves surrounded by the scholarship, wisdom, and examples of men who’ve preceded us for thousands of years. We can learn not only for Luther and Calvin but Irenaeus and Aquinas — and from many today who are far removed from the world of the Churches of Christ, but not far removed from Christ.

Of course, we don’t and can’t agree with all they say, but by allowing the gospel to speak to us in many languages, from many cultures, we become better equipped to discern what’s true and what’s not. The first step in Bible study is always humility.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to Ironic Faith: Postmodern Theories of Language

  1. Reggie says:

    OUTSTANDING article. IMO this is about the best that you have done (that I have read). I doubt that it can be stated any more succinctly and clearly than you have done here. Oh, that all could read this with humility and hunger to know God and the life in Jesus.

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