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An Evangelical Theological Response to Postmodernity

  1. Introduction: Evangelicalism and Postmodernism


Postmodernity is here - we are living in it, and along with postmodernity has come postmodernism. A question which needs to be answered is how should evangelical Christianity respond to postmodernity and postmodernism? There have been many emotive comments made about postmodernism which generally class it as the latest threat to society and sanity, and hence as inimical to evangelicalism. Some of the fears may be justified, but many may be the knee-jerk reaction which some Christians tend to make to any ‘ism’, apart from the one to which they belong.  

Evangelicalism, being a child of the Enlightenment, has typically produced a theology which operates firmly within the modern paradigm. David Wells is a theologian whose work might be considered as broadly representative of a numerous and influential section of conservative evangelical theology. Taking the response of Wells to the emerging postmodern paradigm as an example, I will try to show that a negative reaction to postmodernity is not fruitful. Non-evangelicals and non-Christians perceive such a reaction as either antimodern or premodern. This isolates evangelicals from the world as it is now becoming, and therefore prevents the evangelical voice from being heard. I also believe that a negative response to postmodernity misses the very heart of the gospel by encouraging individualism, isolationism, withdrawal from religious dialogue, and disengagement with ‘otherness’. However, Wells does sound some warnings which need to be heeded. 

On the other hand, Stanley Grenz, Nancey Murphy and Ted Peters are evangelical theologians who have taken a positive attitude towards postmodernity. By examining their attempts to develop a postmodern evangelical approach to theology, in particular in the areas of nonfoundational thinking, the religion-science debate, and ethics, we may be able to discern how theology can remain truly evangelical, avoid the worst extremes of postmodernism, and yet also be fully engaged with the world. By distilling the evangelical ethos out from what has become an evangelical tradition, I believe a postmodern evangelicalism is possible, and essential. 

Some significant aspects of the work of Grenz, Murphy and Peters include nonfoundational thinking, the communitarian nature of the gospel, the concept of prolepsis and a future orientation, ethics, holism, the relationship between theology and science and an exploration of postmodern scientific and theological methodology, the convergence of conservative and liberal theologies in a nonfoundational context, the nature of the Trinity, sin, and an approach to religious pluralism. The recognition that many of these aspects are common to the work of each of them gives us a clue to how we might begin to understand a postmodern evangelicalism. 

There are problems and ‘evangelically risky’ aspects of some of this which will need to be taken into account. In particular, Murphy has a tendency to reintroduce modern methods into her postmodern theology. Is this unavoidable? Is it wrong? Peters sometimes skates on the edge of New Age and pantheistic religious ideas. As these are prevalent in postmodernity, then what is an appropriate evangelical response which avoids closing the door to some who are searching for truth? I will seek answers to these questions, while drawing together some of the characteristics of a postmodern evangelical theology.

  1. Dimensions of Postmodern Thought


Postmodernity is a broad cultural phenomena, not just a period in time. As Grenz says: 

Whatever else it might be, as the name suggests, postmodernism is the quest to move beyond modernism. Specifically, it is a rejection of the modern mind-set, but under the conditions of modernism. Therefore, to understand postmodern thinking we must view it in the context of the modern world which gave it birth and against which it is reacting.1 

For our purposes it is necessary to have some understanding of not just what postmodernism is, but what evangelicals think postmodernism and postmodern theology are. Since postmodernism is not well defined, it is no trivial task to find a suitable framework by which to measure a person’s commitment to postmodernism?


    1. Postmodernism and Antimodernism


History may be divided into premodern, modern and postmodern periods.2 Just as premodernity gave way to modernity, so postmodernity is either a transformation of modernity or the way beyond it. 

Two opposing philosophical streams, postmodernism and antimodernism, both attempt to transcend modernity’s failure. Antimodernism, like much of postmodernism, is committed to restoring those things which the Enlightenment drove out of modern culture, in particular the supernatural and communal aspects of Christianity, but also rejects postmodernity as the extreme logical extension of modernity. David Tracy classifies these philosophies as follows: 

For modernity, the present is more of the same - the same evolutionary history of the triumph and taken-for-granted superiority of Western scientific, technological, pluralistic and democratic Enlightenment. For antimodernity, the present is a ‘time of troubles’ - a time when all traditions are being destroyed by the inexorable force of that same modernity. For the antimoderns, ours is a time to retreat to a past that never was and a tradition whose presumed purity belies the very meaning of tradition as concrete and ambiguous history. For postmodernity, modernity and tradition alike are now exposed as self-deceiving exercises attempting to ground what cannot be grounded: a secure foundation for all knowledge and life. For the postmoderns at their best, the hope of the present is in the reality of otherness and difference.3


    1. Hard and Soft Postmodernism


Both soft and hard modernism believe that integrative metaphysical schemes or worldviews can be constructed, but hard modernism goes further and excludes anything other than this - limiting knowledge of reality to what can be known through reason and experience and excluding all supernatural or intuitive explanations.4 However, according to D. Martin Fields, enthroning reason and science and removing God to the transcendent did not liberate man as was intended, but did free him to commit unrestrained evil - creating a new prison. As the human spirit was still striving for its freedom and autonomy, the way was open for postmodernism.5 

Postmodernism may also be classified as hard or soft. Soft postmodernism rejects the dogmatic naturalism and antisupernaturalism, the reductionist view of the sciences, and the limitation of knowledge to sense experience, found in hard modernism. While agreeing with soft postmodernism in its rejection of logical positivism, behaviourism, and artificially scientistic approaches to reality, hard postmodernism goes further in rejecting any sort of objectivity and rationality. This view is best represented by deconstructionism - all theories are an abuse of power by those who construct them, language has no objective or extralinguistic reference, and all truth is relative and pluralistic.6

    1. Epistemological Axes


Nancey Murphy and her husband, James William McClendon Jr., identified three significant doctrines which seemed to form the basis of modern thought: “foundationalism in epistemology, an approach to language based on reference and representation, and atomism or individualism in metaphysics and ethics.”7 They mapped these onto a conceptual space defined by three (Cartesian) axes: an epistemological axis, with skepticism and foundationalism as its poles; a linguistic axis,


with representationalism and expressivism as its poles; and an individualist-collectivist axis. Any thought system which transcends at least one of these axes may be considered to be to some degree postmodern, because it is outside of the modern conceptual space.8  

This system is an oversimplification. As Murphy and McClendon admit, other axes, such as a “rhetorical” axis, with detachment or objectivity as one pole and subjectivity or self-involvement as the other, could usefully be added.9 Also, the scheme may not clearly distinguish whether a system is pre-, post- or anti-modern. However, it usefully distinguishes what is not modern. For example, Mark C. Taylor’s a/theology is often cited as the epitome of postmodernism. Murphy and McClendon demonstrate that “despite its name Taylor’s work represents not the beginnings of a new era in theology, but rather the last racking gasps of modern-style thought”.10 On the other hand, George Lindbeck’s Cultural-Linguistic theory of religion is shown to be “through and through postmodern”.11 

Of course, this begs the question of whether such a modern system of analysis can make valid claims in a postmodern paradigm. If we claim that it can, then surely we have shown that the postmodern paradigm is at best an extension of modernity, and at worst flawed and possibly invalid. 

Murphy and McClendon detect a growing unity in postmodern thought as various aspects take shape and extend towards each other, with the corollary that to be postmodern now means that escape from one of these epistemological axes calls for a corresponding detachment from the others.12 An interesting analogy can be made between this and Paul Feyerabend’s ‘epistemological anarchism’, or Dadaism, as he calls it. 13


    1. Constructive, Deconstructive, Liberationist and Restorationist Postmodernism


David Griffin identifies four types of postmodern theology:14 (a) the deconstructionalism of Mark Taylor’s “a/theology”, and the eliminative postmodernism of Lyotard and Rorty;15 (b) the constructive or revisionary postmodernism of Griffin and others;16 (c) Cornel West and Harvey Cox support a liberationist postmodernism;17 and (d) restorationist or conservative postmodernism is represented by Richard Neuhaus, some Roman Catholics,18 and George William Rutler.19 

In philosophy, postmodernism attempts to overcome the modern worldview through an anti-worldview (deconstructionism or eliminative postmodernism). Examples are the philosophies of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida. The result is relativism, or even nihilism, what Griffin calls ultramodernism20 - the result of carrying modernism to its logical conclusion.21 

Similarly, there exists great variety among postmodern theologies, but postmodern theologies may be distinguished from modern by their common view of the nature of modern theology and their common conviction that the era of modern theology is over. We will later identify a typical evangelical choice among the above four choices.


    1. Nonfoundationalism


Nancey Murphy defines foundationalism as: 

… a theory about how claims to know can be justified. When we seek to justify a belief, we do so by relating it to (basing it upon, deriving it from) other beliefs. If these other beliefs are called into question, then they too must be justified. Foundationalists insist that this chain of justifications must stop somewhere: it must not be circular nor must it constitute an infinite regress. Thus, the regress must end in a ‘foundation’ of beliefs that cannot themselves be called into question.22 

Of course, “nearly every thinker is in some sense a foundationalist,”23 occasioned by our desire to overcome the uncertainty produced by human error and disagreement. Strong foundationalists demand absolute certitude for the foundations of human knowledge; a certitude which (they say) can only be transferred to nonbasic beliefs by the ordinary logical relations of either deduction of other truths from innate ideas (Descartes) or induction of truths from sense impressions caused by the material world (Locke).24 

Foundationalists often go beyond describing the difference between basic and nonbasic beliefs, and prescribe what sort of beliefs are properly basic, generally relegating religious beliefs to the nonbasic category. However, things are changing. John Thiel claims that a majority of contemporary philosophers practice nonfoundational thinking, as do a large number of theologians.25 As Grenz says, by the focus of systematic theology on the propositional content of the faith and a logical presentation of Christian doctrine, evangelical theologians gave credibility to Christianity in a culture that glorifies reason and deifies science. However, our intellectual context is shifting dramatically, with crucial implications for evangelical theology.26 

Wentzel van Huyssteen agrees with Grenz that foundationalism among philosophers is in dramatic retreat.: “Whatever notion of postmodernity we eventually opt for, all postmodern thinkers see the modernist quest for certainty, and the accompanying program of laying foundations for our knowledge, as a dream for the impossible, a contemporary version of the quest for the Holy Grail.”27 

There are alternatives to foundationalism. First, coherentism suggests that the justification for a belief lies in its ‘fit’ with other held beliefs - no beliefs are intrinsically basic and none are intrinsically superstructure, but all fit together to form a ‘web of belief’.28 Where foundationalists try to determine the truth value of each assertion independently of the others, coherentists find truth in the interconnectedness of beliefs - truth is a predicate of the whole belief system. The quest for knowledge entails a “research program” (Lakatos), in which advances occur through “paradigm shifts” (Kuhn).29 

Second, philosophical pragmatism is more than simply a commitment to ‘what works’. An early modern pragmatist, Charles Sanders Peirce, said, “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.”30 William James took this further: “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.”31 

Basing their work on these beginnings, some postmodernists have been able to substantially break free of foundational thinking, so it forms a useful indicator of postmodern thought. A characteristic of postconservative proposals for doing theology that Erickson identifies is an overall rejection of foundationalism, by which he means ‘hard foundationalism’ or ‘strong foundationalism’. Soft foundationalism is generally acceptable. For example, even though Murphy and McClendon do not seem to distinguish between hard and soft foundationalism, it is implicit in their thinking. Erickson sees in their work an acceptance of the idea that there is an objective truth wherever we can conclusively demonstrate its reality.32


  1. A Negative Evangelical Reaction to Postmodernism


Historian and theologian David Wells is conscious of the close links between evangelicalism and modernity, and fears the directions that evangelicalism is taking in response to the present crisis in modernity. Well is uncomfortable with a philosophical approach to modernity, preferring to engage it through history and social science.33 For him, modernity stems from the intellectual Enlightenment the way “the social environment shapes consciousness and in turn produces a set of ideas that are matched to the environment.”34 How we think is a product of our society.35 Wells admits that evangelicalism is changing, but  it is “not the emergence of a new model but rather the dismembering of the old by the forces of modernity. The impetus for change is coming from without (his emphasis) rather than from within and is primarily sociological, not theological.”36 

Wells divides recent history into the Age of the West - up to the middle of the nineteenth century, and Our Time - from then until the present day, marking the shift of the political and economic centre of the world from Europe to America, the transition from Judeo-Christian values to the psychological attitudes described as modernity,37 and the disappearance of belief in an absolute, objective truth that transcends relative beliefs and values.38 Wells does not perceive postmodernity as something which follows Our Time as a reaction to modernity; rather it is an extension of modernity in a more extreme form. His focus is still on America as the centre, a very modern attitude. Our Time is a child of capitalism, democracy, technology and urbanisation. It dominates the entire world as the world strives to emulate the West. As someone commented - in any world city you will find a Coca Cola sign. Wells calls the emerging culture resulting from these secularising influences of modernity the ‘World Cliché Culture’.39 This is a pervasive drive towards globalisation, or what Tom Sine calls McWorld.40 

I suspect that Wells has almost missed, and not properly understood, something else going on at the same time - a reaction against Our Time, both in the West and elsewhere. In No Place for Truth he speaks very little about postmodernism, but this is because for Wells the only thing new about postmodernism is its name.41 As he says: 

It is certainly curious, not to say illuminating, that many of today’s expressions of post-modernism are simply continuing what were seen as the anti-modernisms of a century ago. Then, roughly between 1880 and 1920, they were the recoil against modernity, the revolt against an overcivilized world. Solace was sought in the simple life, in quaint mind cures, in the revival of arts and crafts, in the quest for the self and the search for authentic experience. Now these are the means by which we are transcending modernity! Common to both cultural movements, however, is the same disillusionment, the same sense of betrayal. It is just now we think that we are going beyond modernity, whereas then we thought that we were standing out of its way.42 

On the other hand, for some, particularly those of a more liberal persuasion, a strong point in Well’s favour is this lack of a knee jerk reaction to contemporary culture and the headlong dive into postmodernism which is so common among today’s writers.43 For example, Wells mentions Rorty’s radical relativism - but instead of an issue to be addressed, it is just one more item to be added to the list of the ailments of contemporary society. He says that:  

in philosophy, Richard Rorty has asserted that the world of truths that philosophy used to explicate has collapsed and that the only reason to do philosophy now is as personal therapy; if it helps you to think in this sort of way, then you should do so, but the days when your conclusions could be accorded normativity for anyone else have gone.44 

And as it is in philosophy, for Wells, so it is in evangelical theology. He describes what others call postmodern theologies as an acceptance of pluralism as a protest against the fragmentation produced by modernisation. They attempt to bind up the “rift between ourselves and nature, ourselves and the divine order, and between individual groups and the human community” by a return to pantheism or an equating of the divine activity of God’s immanence with the “rectification of social wrongs”.45 The modern fascination with the self has led to Christianity being transformed into a “metaphor of healing… the triumph of the therapeutic” and of feelings over logic. The goal of being righteous has been replaced with one of being whole and happy.46 

Wells rightly criticises the privatisation of evangelical faith. For the psychologisation of faith Wells gives the example of Robert Schuller,47 who extended Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking into a doctrine and practice of Possibility Thinking.48 Another aspect of the secularisation of evangelicalism, the professionalisation of the clergy, is exemplified by the establishment of the Doctor of Ministry degree,49 which Wells, indulging in an almost postmodern word game, calls the D-Min-ization of evangelical theology,50 and lays the blame firmly at the doors of the American evangelical seminaries, of which the most notorious is (for him)  Fuller Theological Seminary.51 

However, I believe that Wells, to use Roger Olson’s expression, “has named the wrong beast” as the archenemy of evangelicalism. Modernity prizes truth, reason and progress - it is postmodernity which has dethroned these Enlightenment ideals.52 Perhaps Wells is still fighting the old Liberal versus Conservative battle, but now, in his eyes, the Evangelicals have become the Liberals, and he is among the remnant of the Conservatives. Far from leading us forward into the postmodern age, Wells would return us to the beginning of the modern project, or even earlier. His view of evangelicalism in the ‘modern’ age is largely apocalyptic. “That a sundering of the movement is coming seems utterly certain to me; the only question is when, how, and with what consequences.”53 Wells is unashamedly antimodern. He says of himself, “Evangelicals are antimodern only across a narrow front; I write from a position that is antimodern across the entire front.”54 

Wells advocates a “remedial theology”, which restores the emphasis of the transcendence of God, and from which the abuses of his immanence can be addressed.55 He speaks of ‘God’s weightlessness’; orthodox doctrine is still subjectively believed but has little objective significance.56 Wells says, 

Indeed, our generation is rapidly growing deaf to the summons of the external God. He has been so internalized, so tamed by the needs of religious commerce, so submerged beneath the traffic of modern psychological need that he has almost completely disappeared. All too often, he now leans weakly on the church, a passive bystander, a co-conspirator in the effort to dismantle two thousand years of Christian thought about God and what he has declared himself to be. That is to say, God has become weightless. The church continues its business of satisfying the needs of the self - needs defined by the individual - and God, who is himself viewed and marketed as a product, becomes powerless to change the definition of that need or to prescribe the means by which it might be satisfied. When the consumer is sovereign, the product (in this case God himself) must be subservient.57 

Undoubtedly, Wells is speaking of a very real tragedy here, but it is a modern tragedy, one the results of which evangelical postmodernity has recognised and to which it is attempting to respond. 

Ironically, it is Robert Johnston of Fuller Theological Seminary who recognises in Wells a call to a countercultural Christianity.58 Wells says,  

The choice for God now has to become one in which the church begins to form itself, by its grace and truth, into an outcropping of countercultural spirituality. It must first recover the sense of antithesis between Christ and culture and then find ways to sustain that antithesis.59 

Earlier he said, “The church has no future if it chooses from weakness not to speak its own language, the language of truth and understanding, in the post-modern world.”60 In the language of George Lindbeck, the church needs to be intratextual,61 a concept not incompatible with a postmodern outlook, although undoubtedly Wells intends the church to oppose all other languages. 

As Johnston points out, Well’s theology emphasises the cross and neglects resurrection, effectively ignores the work of the Spirit in the world apart from applying what Christ has accomplished, and reduces divine love merely to an expression of God’s holiness. The value of ‘subjective’ truth is undervalued in his haste to be ‘objective’.62 He may be able to influence some already convinced ‘evangelicals’, but will not touch those already living in the new paradigm. For that which they are seeking he has nothing to offer. As Hewitt says, “I do think that he is far too pessimistic about the prospects for a ‘postmodern’ Christianity. Wells all too easily falls for romanticised notions about the ages of faith past when contrasted with the apparent (his emphasis, and mine) spiritual barrenness of the present.”63 

In Losing our virtue Wells sets up a straw man of ‘postmodern spirituality’, and then criticises it. The version of postmodernism he argues against is at variance with that of others. He compares it to what he calls  ‘classical spirituality’, again with an idiosyncratic use of the term ‘classical’. Wells sees two kinds of spirituality in the church, differing not so much in doctrine as in morality, or lack of it. The version of spirituality in which the moral has weight has the capacity to be countercultural, the other does not.64 

Wells deplores modern evangelicalism, and detests postmodern evangelicalism, so all that is left is a return to the ‘classical spirituality’ of nineteenth century fundamentalism. One thing I must agree with Wells in, however, when he calls this time ‘Our Moment’, is “the conviction that no time in this century has been more ripe with opportunity for Christian faith.”65 But I can not so lightly dismiss Christianity’s competitors as Wells does, nor can I agree with him on how we should take advantage of this moment. It will take more to rejuvenate evangelical theology than getting people to pull an enormous condom over their TV set.66 Wells should consider his own advice when he says that “‘tough-minded engagement with modern intellectual culture’ means abandoning a practice of all too many evangelicals in the past - namely that of characterizing the intellectual enemy in a few largely unfair descriptive sentences and then presuming to blow him away with a few equally inadequate attack sentences.”67 Especially when this comment is immediately followed by, “We have to love our intellectual enemies enough so that we can state their positions better than they can - with the possible exception of Richard Rorty.”68 Does this convey an inability to love, or an inability to comprehend, the unfortunate Rorty? 

Wells is strong on sociological critique, from a North American evangelical point of view,69 but short on indicating a way forward into ‘Our Moment’. He also ignores the fact that the prevailing anti-intellectualism of American evangelicals might not apply to the rest of the world, and there are more evangelicals outside of America than there are inside it.70 As Donald Carson says, Wells paints with a broad brush, with little attempt to deal charitably with those who do not fit into his neat categories and generalisations.71 Carson also believes, and I suspect Wells might also agree, that for all of Well’s dislike of postmodernism, it is modernity that has had the greater effect of gagging God in this generation.72

  1. Positive Evangelical Responses to Postmodernism
    1. Nonfoundationalism


One aspect of the emerging postmodern ethos which Grenz believes is especially crucial for evangelical theology is the widespread rejection of the foundationalism that characterized the Enlightenment epistemology. To replace it many scholars, such as van Huyssteen,73 are attempting to discover a nonfoundationalist, or even a postfoundationalist, approach.74 

In seeking a nonfoundational basis for theology, Grenz turns to Wolfhart Pannenberg, whom he believes has perhaps exemplified most clearly the application to theology of the non-correspondence epistemological theories of the modern coherentists and pragmatists.75 In his Systematic Theology Pannenberg concentrates on demonstrating the internal coherence of the doctrines and the external coherence of Christian doctrine with all knowledge.76 In particular, he shows how the misuse of the doctrine of biblical inspiration has not helped to demonstrate the coherence of Christian doctrine with human knowledge.77  

Grenz shows that Pannenberg rejects the concept of truth the medieval scholastics inherited from the Greek philosophical tradition, namely, that truth is found in the constant and unchanging essences -or the eternal presence - lying behind the flow of time and, reminiscent of modern coherentists and pragmatists but drawing on the biblical view, argues that truth is essentially historical - truth is what shows itself throughout the movement of time, modified in the light of subsequent experience, and climaxing in the end event. The truth that emerges in the end is the truth of God, who is “the reality that determines everything.”78 All truth ultimately comes together in God, which leads to a coherentist theological method. “Theology seeks to show how the postulate of God illumines all human knowledge.”79 

Grenz also considers Lindbeck’s ‘cultural-linguistic’ approach to be an attempt to provide a nonfoundationalist alternative to the ‘cognitive-propositionalist’ and ‘experiential-expressive’ approaches, both of which are results of the application of foundationalism to theological method. 

The cognitive-propositionalist approach erroneously assumes that doctrines make first-order truth claims: that is, they assert that something is objectively true or false, thereby identifying religion too closely with its cognitive dimension. The experiential-expressive approach sees doctrines as the outward expressions of the “inner feelings, attitudes or existential orientations”80 related to personal religious experience. The error is in assuming that there is some identifiable core experience common to all religious traditions.81 

Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach gives to coherentism a Wittgensteinian twist. Doctrines are like grammar rules, constituting  the rules of discourse of the believing community, having a “regulative” function, serving as “community authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.”82 They are “teachings regarding beliefs and practices that are considered essential to the identity or welfare of the group,” and so “indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community.”83  Christian doctrines establish the ground rules for the ‘game’ of Christian thinking, speaking and living.”84 

Lindbeck suggests that doctrinal statements, like Wittgenstein’s grammar rules, should be seen as second-order statements, not speaking of ‘truth’ or ‘falsehood’ about anything outside of the language within which they have a regulative role. As a rule is only true in the context of the body of rules that govern the language, similarly, doctrines do not assert something objective about reality but are primarily rules for speech about God. 85 “Doctrines are ‘true’ primarily as ‘parts of a total pattern of speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting.’”86 

This calls for an “intratextual theology” which “redescribes reality within the scriptural framework” and aims at “imaginatively incorporating all being into a Christ-centered world.”87 Drawing from the text, theology explores what it means to articulate and live out the community’s vision within a specific time and place.88 With Pannenberg and Lindbeck, Grenz concludes that the theologian “expounds the doctrinal core or framework of the Christian faith, determines that it coheres within itself, and indicates how doctrine illumines human existence”.89  

Despite the critique of foundationalism by contemporary thinkers like Pannenberg and Lindbeck, many evangelical modernists appear content to engage in theology in a manner that presupposes the older foundationalist epistemology. However, evangelicals are beginning to recognise the demise of foundationalism in philosophy and are increasingly exploring the theological implications of this. Theology must engage the postmodern critique of Enlightenment foundationalism and formulate nonfoundationalist alternatives.90 The work of Nancey Murphy presses this engagement into one of the bastions of modern thinking - philosophy of science.


    1. Theology and Science


The interest and skill that Nancey Murphy shows in philosophy of science leads her to some innovative approaches to doing theology in a postmodern context. This is appropriate, given the dominant position of science in modernity. Wentzel van Huyssteen believes “her own creative interpretation of the Lakatosian model for theology in itself becomes a novel and exciting postmodern paradigm for dealing with the troubled relationship between theology and science.”91 

In Theology in the age of scientific reasoning Murphy says that, while avoiding the fideism of some postmodern “narrative theologies”, in this age of agnosticism and atheism the Christian community is obliged to provide rational support for its belief in God “in accord with the ongoing standards of evidence”.92 By drawing on new historicist accounts of science, such as that of Imre Lakatos, she shows that it is possible to approach theology in a nonfoundationalist manner. 

Lakatos’ scientific methodology relies on research programs being based on a fixed core of theory and a series of changing auxiliary hypotheses which allow for the prediction of and explanation of novel new facts. Through analysis of the research programs of Pannenberg and others, Murphy attempts to show that theological claims can be justified using similar patterns of probable reasoning, developing the idea of communal discernment and communal consensus as a postmodern holistic epistemology.93 

Murphy identifies four kinds of truth theories: the correspondence theories, coherence theories, pragmatic theories, and the theory that there is no single adequate theory.94 The correspondence theory relies on the fallacy that language mirrors reality, leading many to accept a coherence theory - that a statement is true if it coheres with the rest of a body of beliefs, but the correspondence illusion still persists. The pragmatic theory recognises that we can assign any sentence to any fact or situation, but that some will be easier to live with than others. There are attempts to bypass the problems by speaking of theological language as metaphorical, but then how can we speak at all of truth?95 The persistence of these theories indicates that each contains truth, but rather than truth-seeking being like solving a jig-saw puzzle,96 it is more like solving a cross-word puzzle, with its three types of constraints: clues - external stimuli, such as experiences, which suggest but do not determine possible answers; fit - consistency among theories in a given domain of knowledge; and language - the conceptual scheme within which we are working.97 

Lindbeck distinguishes between intrasystemic truth, categorical truth and ontological truth. Intrasystemic truth, which says a belief is true within the context of a given religious framework, is inadequate for adjudicating between competing religious systems, but a religion is categorically true if its categories are adequate “for construing reality, expressing experience, and ordering life”, and ontologically true if it conforms its practitioners “to the ultimate reality and goodness that lies at the heart of things.”98 Murphy recognises that this formulation leaves no way of assessing the adequacy of ontological truth, and although Lindbeck considers the adequacy of language to be important, we have no way of assessing such adequacy. So, Murphy turns then to Alasdair MacIntyre’s contribution to the truth of traditions to fill the gap.99 

MacIntyre says that when we consider the adequacy of language, rather than examine the sentence-to-fact correspondence; instead, “The test for truth in the present... is always summon up as many questions and as many objections of the greatest strength possible; what can be justifiably claimed as true is what has sufficiently withstood such dialectical questioning and framing of objections.”100 The tradition which, through crises and reformulations, overcomes its own problems, and perhaps even some of its rivals’ difficulties, while its rivals become sterile, is true. The meaning of ‘truth’ is summed up by ‘unsurpassability’, but even so, any tradition adjudged true now might later be surpassed by another, ruling out both absolutism and ‘absolute’ relativism.101 

Murphy’s commitment to nonfoundationalism is clear, but has she achieved it? For example, van Huyssteen feels Murphy is unjustified in making Scripture a criterion for judgement without first warranting such use on the basis of probable reasoning.102 He warns that her presupposition of the existence of God as ‘hard core’ for a Lakatosian theological research program might lead to a subtle form of foundationalism.103 

Murphy’s use of Lakatosian methodology as a basis for theology stems from her conviction that theology’s place is at the top of a hierarchy of the natural and human sciences. Arthur Peacocke proposed that theology occupied the top rung of the scientific disciplines, as the science that studies the relations among humankind, the cosmos, and God.104 Murphy says,  

Peacocke’s consideration of  human life as the highest form of complexity yet to emerge from the evolutionary process of the cosmos provides a transition to theology: we alone among higher forms of life raise questions about the meaning of our existence, and answer them by postulating another order of Being conceived as the source of all other lesser being.105 

Unlike Peacocke’s single hierarchy, Murphy and physicist George Ellis argue that the hierarchy bifurcates at the top, with the social sciences in one stream, the natural sciences in another, and with ethics and metaphysics - or theology - linking the two streams at the top.106 Then they argue that a correct understanding of cosmology, theology, and the social sciences must be based on the recognition of their underlying ethic of self-renunciation.107 

Of course a deconstructionist, such as Lyotard, would consider Murphy’s hierarchy of sciences to be merely another modernist attempt at construction of a grand narrative.

    1. Future Orientation


Like Pannenberg,108 Grenz has a future orientation. “Because truth is historical, the focal point of certitude can only be the eschatological future. Only then will we know truth in its absolute fullness. Until the eschaton, truth will by its own nature always remain provisional and truth claims contestable.”109 So, like any hypotheses, theological statements are to be tested by seeking to determine their internal and external coherence, and for Pannenberg, as for modern pragmatists, the question of truth must be answered in the process of theological reflection and reconstruction. Pannenberg is optimistic that such testing will confirm the power of the assertion of the reality of God to illumine the totality of human knowledge.110 

I believe the ability to have a future orientation is a characteristic of a spiritual, rather than merely cerebral approach to life, which becomes possible when the pragmatism, rationalism and ‘now’ focus of modernity is transcended. The sense of time is more closely linked to the human spirit than to the mind and emotions which dominate the modern desire for control and immediate gratification. An analogy could be made by contrasting the ability of a mature adult to defer self-gratification in favour of a higher purpose with that of a child whose needs must be met immediately with no thought for the cost. Such a future orientation facilitates the embrace of ethical responsibility for our society and world, but we must guard against its degeneration into mere apocalypticism.


Through the cultivation of a proleptic consciousness of the yet-to-be consummated whole of reality, we can gain “an awareness and anticipation ahead of time of the future whole,” 111 based on God’s promise and faith in God’s faithfulness. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises a destiny - the new creation, which means reality is future-oriented. Only with the fulfillment of this promise does reality become a whole and the true nature of all the parts, including ourselves, is revealed. In the life death and resurrection of Jesus, we see ahead of time what this nature is.  

Where once people asked “Who is God?”, in today’s context the question is more likely to be “Is reality more than what we perceive it to be?”112 Ted Peters describes ontological shock, that sudden awareness of “the brute thereness of things, and the accompanying awareness of possible nonbeing”, which brings with it the sense that “what is is not just what is.”113 He examines the notion of God’s creating as a continuous act,  drawing implications for modern cosmological ideas, and introducing the concept of proleptic creation. God creating from the future, not the past, means that “it is the continuing divine work of future-giving that is the source of life and being.” For Peters, “God’s creative activity within nature and history derives from God’s redemptive work of drawing free and contingent beings into a harmonious whole.” 114 

Peters speaks evocatively and with clever ambiguity about “becoming human and unbecoming evil”.115 To be human is to live in the metaxy - “the tension between what is and what is beyond.” The presence within us of the Spirit of God, and our language capabilities - the influence of the word - allow us to transcend ourselves. Jesus, the new Adam, proleptically reveals this humanity in its fullness. This imago dei draws us forward toward transformation and divinisation or true humanity.116 To resist God’s call forward and fixate ourselves in the present is the essence of evil. Sin is the assertion of the part against the whole and the present against the future.117 

In his recent study Sin: radical evil in soul and society Peters raises some interesting issues. He writes, 

The sense of fallenness is pervasive. It is a reality belonging to the human society. Is it grounded in fact? Perhaps we should note that one of the effects this tension has on us is to drive us forward, to stimulate striving toward the good. It motivates efforts toward progress, toward individual and collective betterment, toward perfection. The key… is the orientation toward the future… we are drawn to look beyond present reality toward the way things ought to be… What we think of as missing the mark is less a matter of falling away from a perfect past than a matter of failing to reach the ideal of a healed future. 118 

In my opinion, the key difference between Peters’ prolepsis and the modern deification of progress is that moderns consider progress as inevitable - driven by evolution and human striving, whereas for Peters progress is created by God. Modernity is characterised by the anxious drive to prove one’s worth by doing things - it is not enough to be or become who we are in God’s image. Postmoderns seek God, not just themselves, although some might equate the two. 

Could postmodernity developing out of and in reaction to modernity be an example of this striving for the good? Is it God’s doing? “Anxiety is a fear of loss. It is a sometimes overwhelming sense of insecurity. Anxiety arises when we anticipate some sort of diminishment of who we are… the fright we feel at the prospect of losing our existence, at dropping into the abyss of nonbeing.”119 Peters speaks of the delusion which anxiety causes, when we can not accept our own death and try to create our own immortality by stealing life from others, such as through destruction of relationship or by military aggression.120 Is what is commonly referred to as postmodern anxiety, with its attendant high suicide rate, really a characteristic of the postmodern worldview, or is it better understood as a symptom of modernity’s collapse, of which the rise of postmodernity is another symptom. I propose that this anxiety is a fruit of modernity, not postmodernity. 

Then there is the sin of pride, “when I treat my own self as ultimate, when I trust my self more than I trust God. If it is to my own self that my ‘heart clings and entrusts itself,’ then I have entered the realm of subjective idolatry.”121 The narcissism that denies relationship with others, that fragments and isolates and destroys holism, “not only disrupts the harmony of the whole, but also tends to fixate us on the present moment rather than the coming future. It declares the present to be absolute. It closes us off to future transformation.” 122 

Peters speaks of the link between genetic inheritance and inherited sin.123 This is interesting, in the light of the recently renewed acceptance by some biologists of the possibility of epigenetic inheritance,124 since modern science has long resisted the ‘Lamarckian’ possibility of behaviour and environment influencing the genetic code. A postmodern approach to both science and theology opens the door to fruitful cross-fertilisation. 

Peters’ proleptic ideas have ramifications for physics and cosmology, and especially the possibility of the further integration of science and theology. A proleptic framework gives a firmer foundation to the idea of God as creator, countering the modern view of a mechanistic universe driven by past causal events. The God who is the future also continues to create and to sustain life and draw it on toward wholeness.  

This question of ‘Who is God?’ is very important in a postmodern context, particularly because the ‘death of God’ is one of the central tenets of secular modernism. God’s nature as Trinity is central to Peters’ system. God is creator, incarnate redeemer, and present in the world as Spirit. Applying his ideas of time to the relationship between the immanent and economic Trinity, Peters says that though the economic Trinity allows us to see that the entire Godhead is related to the world, if the economic Trinity is thus a temporal image of the immanent Trinity, then we have returned to subordinationism. This is “another defense of the absolute Beyond at the cost of the related Intimate.”125 He applauds Moltmann’s move to the ‘open’ Trinity as showing that God’s relationship to the world is internal to the divine life.126 From this Peters is able to show that we must think of the identity of the immanent and economic Trinity as eschatological. Then, “The redeemed creation is drawn up into the eternal life of God through the eschatological consummation. This is what salvation means.”127 

The premodern and modern concepts of freewill and predestination have long caused difficulties for theology. Prolepsis allows for the idea that instead of God creating us and then abandoning us to make of life what we can, or perhaps pushing them from behind to try and make us go his way, or worse still, mapping out our life from the beginning and leaving us no choice, instead God is ahead at that ‘place and time’ of the consummation of all things, drawing the world gently forward towards its destiny in him, while still allowing us to make choices along the way. God is wooing his creation, not coercing it. In this way God can also be present to us at any place in our life, and at any time. Because all present moments have the same ultimate future, then from the vantage point of that future all of time is present to God. This facilitates the healing of fragmentation of relationships and of the corresponding drive towards self-fulfillment, power, and selfishness.

    1. Holism


Part of the importance of these ideas for postmodern thought lies in their holistic nature: the reuniting in a single epistemological structure those fields of knowledge which were explicitly torn apart by modern science and philosophy. Also, the self-renunciatory ethic running through natural and human science accords well with the Christian gospel. Gregory Peterson, while critical of Murphy and Ellis’ neglect of feminist and liberation theologians, who would have difficulty with the non-violent and self-renunciatory ethic, while also considering themselves postmodern, still commends their connecting of ethical issues with the religion-science dialogue.128 

Murphy contends that the divide between conservative and liberal theologies, caused by modern theology is not as great as that between modern thinkers and those who have adopted what she calls Anglo-American postmodernity. She believes that this revolution in thought, while creating even greater misunderstanding at present, offers hope for bringing postliberals and postmodern evangelicals closer together.129 

Murphy outlines the limited options for theologians that modern philosophical assumptions have created: 





Experiential foundationalism


Scriptural foundationalism





Relationship with science



Divine action




According to Murphy, each of these positions has insoluble problems. Foundationalist use of Scripture has the problem of how to know with enough certainty to serve as the foundation for a system of religion, that the Bible is the revealed word of God. Religious experience as a foundation relies on knowing that one’s experience is actually of a real, objective divinity. Interventionist accounts of divine action make God a part of the system of physical forces, in which case God’s action should be measurable. An immanentist view of divine action either removes intention from God’s acts, or makes every event intentional - even disasters. A propositional view of religious language neglects the self-involving character of religious discourse, while an expressivist view requires a greater distinction between the cognitive and expressive functions of language than can be maintained. If we argue that science and religion are incommensurable, or too unlike to be able to conflict, we attempt to detach ‘meanings’ from the way things are. On the other hand, the commensurable view neglects important differences between religious and scientific purposes and language.130 

The advent of a new set of philosophical rules brings hope into this otherwise dismal situation. Foundationalism can be replaced by a holistic epistemology, opened up by Quine and developed by MacIntyre.131 Holistic religious language is less about labeling things and more about speech acts and human interactions. Wittgenstein, Austin, McClendon and Smith,132 and Lindbeck have charted a way here.133 The explanation of divine action may become part of a metaphysical holism, by which we see once again a consistent postmodern worldview involving science, philosophy of language, epistemology and ethics.134 

If there is anything that Murphy’s approach lacks it is probably an adequate theory of experience.135 Reliance on the repeatability of communal discernments hardly equates to the kind of objectivity required of a repeatable experiment in science. ‘Objectivity’, for Murphy, “means that others under similar circumstances and experience will see the same thing.”136 

In Anglo-American Postmodernity,137 Murphy, in pulling together the various strands of her work, calls attention to the transformations we have mentioned above: the shift in epistemology from foundationalism to holism, the shift in language from reference to use, and the shift in metaphysics from reductionism to nonreductionism, and examines the consequences of these changes for science, theology, and ethics. She outlines the prospects in the new paradigm for a postmodern conservative theology. Murphy contends that “it has simply been impossible to do theology in an intellectually respectable way using the resources of modern thought”, but that “the problem is not with theology but rather with modernity.”138 However, postmodernity has restored the possibility by identifying the parallels between scientific and theological reasoning, and by restoring the proper relationship between the two sciences. 

Murphy is not without her critics. J. Wesley Robins disputes Murphy’s contention that theology is at the top of the hierarchy of sciences because it attempts to answer the boundary questions that the other disciplines cannot answer, such as the ethical question of “the ultimate purpose of human life”.139 He feels this is a modern question, not a question “one would expect from a postmodernist advocate of the embeddedness of human minds”.140 He says for embedded minds boundary questions are just interesting questions which their field can not answer. An inherited boundary question is danger of being disregarded since it is of insufficient importance.141 

This is a sad comment on the narrowness of thinking of some, but if it was generally true, then we would not have the drive towards postmodern philosophy and theology that is evident today - some people simply have to know truth. Even modernity would not have ‘progressed’ as far as it has without this desire. 

Philip Clayton agrees with Murphy that holism or postfoundationalism is inescapable for the science-religion debate, but believes that a more inclusive holism is needed rather than what he calls Murphy’s insular holism. He contends that we should not adopt an “insular holism that confines itself to traditions but rather an inclusivist holism that applies the very best of human reasoning in the search for overarching agreements at the broadest level”.142 In reply, Murphy argues that the very reason she adopted MacIntyre’s account of rationality is because it is “the best account available of how agreement can be reached, in time, regarding which large-scale traditions, including theological traditions, are, in Lakatos’s terms, progressing or degenerating.”143 

Peters approaches holism from a different direction. He disagrees with David Griffin’s “natural pantheism”, but believes that Griffin offers “one of the best descriptions available of a holistic and constructive postmodern agenda”. 144 Peters says, 

We can and should leave modernity behind - in fact, we must if we are to avoid destroying ourselves and most of the life on our planet… [Constructive or revisionary] postmodernism … by contrast [to deconstructionism] … seeks to overcome the modern worldview not by eliminating the possibility of worldviews as such, but by constructing a postmodern worldview through a revision of modern premises and traditional concepts. This constructive or revisionary postmodernism involves a new unity of scientific, ethical, aesthetic, and religious intuitions. It rejects not science as such but only that scientism in which the data of the modern natural sciences are alone allowed to contribute to the construction of our worldview… Going beyond the modern world will involve transcending its individualism, anthropocentrism, patriarchy, mechanization, economism, consumerism, nationalism, and militarism. Constructive postmodern thought provides support for the ecology, peace, feminist and other emancipatory movements of our time.145 

Following the ideas of Pannenberg, Peters seeks a theology which adequately addresses living in a postmodern world. His holism is based on prolepsis, mentioned earlier, which he explains as the idea:  

...whereby the gospel is understood as announcing the preactualization of the future consummation of all things in Jesus Christ. The world has been given God’s promise that in the future all things will be made whole. The promise comes to us through Jesus who died on Good Friday and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. He embodies the promise because he anticipates in his person the new life that we humans and all creation are destined to share.146 

Like Grenz, Peters abhors the exaltation of the specialist, and the division of the scientific project into separate disciplines by the pursuit of dispassionate knowledge.147  

The modern world - the world we have lived in since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century - is the critical world that has torn apart the relation between the human mind and objective reality. Through the specialization of knowledge into separate disciplines, modernity has broken our naive sense of oneness with the whole of the world.148 

“God’s promise of future wholeness for all creation affects our life now amid a world of brokenness,” by proleptically and beatitudinally seeking to reunite what has been broken apart.149 

Modern thought eroded that certainty which theology once provided for the Christian. If the modern mind has difficulty now in relating a faith, that was formulated long ago in an ancient culture, to the present world, which is “dominated by natural science, secular self-understanding, and a worldwide cry for freedom,”150 then where can a postmodern person, after watching modern foundations crumble, find stability amidst increasing disenchantment and fragmentation? Theology must address the quest for wholeness, bringing healing to modern wounds by moving beyond looking at the parts of reality, to the whole which is much greater than the sum of its parts.151 

Peters focuses on the need to see the unity of the Spirit in the world, rather than there being a Christian Spirit and an Eastern Spirit, or a New Age Spirit. Peters, unlike many evangelicals, is not afraid to investigate New Age thought, but rightly indicates that care is needed. He looks at pluralism and ethics from an ecumenic perspective. Ecumenical means inter-denominational or intra-Christian, while ecumenic refers to the much wider concept of inter-faith or inter-religious.152 Evangelicals tend to shy away from these. There is a need for caution, but also the willingness to recognise other religions as the search for reality that they often are.

    1. Community


Some evangelicals, such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, with their ‘Reformed epistemology’, reject strong foundationalism for the idea that reason is “person specific” and “situation specific”. While rejecting foundationalism, they still accept that certain beliefs, such as belief in God,  are basic. They acknowledge the indispensable role of communities and traditions in shaping our conceptions of rationality, along with the loss of certitude that results from the potential disagreement of these communities as to what is basic.153 Grenz says, 

This focus returns theological reflection to its proper primary location within the believing community, in contrast to the Enlightenment ideal that effectively took theology out of the church and put it in the academy. More specifically, nonfoundationalist approaches see Christian theology as an activity of the community that gathers around Jesus the Christ. This has far-reaching implications for evangelical theology.154 

Evangelicals generally agree that to be a Christ-focused community means “an emphasis on an experience of being encountered savingly in Jesus Christ by the God of the Bible. This encounter is an identity-producing event. Through Christ, God constitutes us individually as believers and corporately as a community of believers.”155 

This focus on experience differs from that of liberal Protestantism, which sought an underlying universal experience as a foundation for the various religious traditions, whereas evangelicals assert that the various religions mediate religious experiences that are categorically different from each other. For example, the Christian’s encounter with the God of the Bible through Jesus is shared only by those in the Christian community, although the experience is potentially universal.156


Peters identifies a modern or emerging postmodern maxim: to be an individual person is to be in relationship. He derives this from the observation that who we are as an individual is in a constant state of becoming as we interact with other individuals and the surrounding world. Gone is the image of the self-defined and autonomous individual, the island of personhood standing over against society.157 There is an emerging postmodern point of view that emphasises that persons are always interpersonal. No one can be personal except in relation with other persons.158 This is analogous to our understanding of the Trinity. Peters says, 

It is inconceivable that we would have a single person existing in total isolation. When applied to the trinity, then, we could posit a postmodern or relational understanding of person to Father, Son, and Spirit and hold together both the unity and diversity. What we could not do is apply the postmodern concept of person to God in a singular sense - that is, in a brute monotheistic sense.159 

The social sciences and humanities are providing a new appreciation for the dynamics of mutuality in relationships. Our concept of person is changing as we move from an individualistic point of view toward a dependence of personhood upon relationships.160 But Peters says that rather than model human society on the image of the immanent Trinity, “we should seek to transform human society on the basis of our vision of the coming kingdom of God in which God alone is the absolute.”161 

Peters contends that the social doctrinalists chose the wrong symbol in the Trinity, which is a second order symbol which clarifies the more primary symbols of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The concepts of personhood are products of our intellectual context, which we fit to the need for evangelical explication. “This was as true for Arius, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians as it is for us today. Specifically, the ideal of a nonhierarchical community wherein relationships come prior to persons is the product of our modern and emerging postmodern Western mind.”162 Is he saying that

postmodern consciousness is allowing us to now understand the trinity as the early Fathers did?163 The point for us, surely, is that a clear understanding of the community of the Godhead is a sound foundation for the construction of a healthy human society.


4.6 Ethics


One of the clear characteristics of the theologies of Grenz, Murphy and Peters is the way each converged over time to a strong focus on ethics. This is significant, given that while postmodernism was born out of the reaction to modernity’s abrogation of its ethical responsibility for the negative results of uncontrolled progress, postmodernism itself asserts the absence of absolute truth, upon which ethics has traditionally been dependent. This means that, in a postmodern context, a new, nonfoundational approach to the study of ethics is needed. 

Many of the issues which have fostered the development of postmodern thinking are primarily ethical, causing Grenz to comment on the growing “concern for a community-based ethic of being”.164 

In the postmodern world we are becoming increasingly aware that every ethical proposal - even ethics itself - is embedded in an interpretive framework which in the end comprises the shared belief structure - the theology - of a community. In short, every understanding of the ethical life is ultimately derived from a community-based vision, which links the personal life with something beyond.165 

Grenz believes that the hope for a global ethic, which originally arose out of the modern pluralist ethos, is even more workable in a postmodern communitarian climate.166 

Not all evangelicals like what Grenz says. Millard Erickson and Donald Carson both express some doubt as to just how ‘evangelical’ Grenz’s theology can be considered to be,167 although I wonder if perhaps the ability of some conservative evangelicals, still working with the methods and practices of modernity, to only define his work in terms of what it is not, might be an indication that it has a genuine postmodern character after all. 

Postmodernism is still immature. Among theologians, different areas, such as fundamentalism, liberation theology, process theology, or the recovery of premodern metaphysics, have been put forward as the postmodern theology.168 Peters’ primary conception of postmodernity seems to be of a movement which seeks to reintegrate those things that modernity has torn apart.169 In 1985 he laid out this conception of postmodernity, and it does not include the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida or Mark Taylor. I agree with his contention that these are extreme forms of the modern.170 He retains this understanding in God - the world’s future. The point Sheila Davaney makes in her critique of the ‘postmodern’ theologies of Lindbeck, Kaufman and Welch applies also to Peters: his theology must “not only be aware of the historicity of human life but of the political and conflictual character of the struggle to define reality and to interpret humanity’s place within the cosmic order.”171  

Peters focuses on holism, but neglects the fragmentation produced by insistence on the equal ‘rightness’ of a plurality of world views. If he took this into account then I wonder how he would account for the diversity of interpretations of the basic Christian symbols upon whose explication he builds his theological system? When writing about ecumenism Peters does point out the destructiveness of ‘radical pluralism’, by which he means “an ideological stance that tends to lose sight of the whole while advocating an inviolate plurality of parts,” advocating instead ‘ecumenic pluralism’ which “affirms the unity of the human race as an article of faith even though empirical differences and divisions seem so strong.”172 

Of course, the process of constructing a postmodern systematic theology, as Peters attempts to do, is fraught with danger. Grenz lays out the progress of the deconstructionists:173 from Derrida’s abandonment of ontological descriptions of reality and the idea that reality incorporates transcendence,174 to Foucault, who asserts that every interpretation of reality is an assertion of power and conducive to violence,175 to Rorty, who abandons the idea of truth as either the mind or language mirroring nature and proposes replacing ‘systematic philosophy’ with ‘edifying philosophy’ which “aims at continuing a conversation rather than at discovering truth”.176 On this basis a postmodernist might reject the whole notion of systematic theology, even one as sympathetic as that constructed by Peters. Perhaps Peters is not so much writing a postmodern systematic theology, as he is setting out what he believes should be the nature of a theology which will be able to function redemptively in a postmodern culture.  

Peters’ attempt does go some of the way towards passing a crucial test of such a theology: How much it is able to counter the tendency towards despair and acceptance of meaninglessness in a community of increasingly fractured relationships, despite the often declared emphasis of postmodernity toward community and wholeness? His theology points to Christ the source of community in a way that might not alienate the postmodern consciousness with modern or premodern language, but it still lacks much indication of a suitable praxis. His proleptic system primarily offers hope of personal transformation, whereas transformation of community and world remains a promise for the future. Peters realises what is needed is a proleptic ethic.  

We would seek to establish policies based on our vision of future wholeness and to take measures to effect the healing power of wholeness amidst our present world of brokenness. Such an ethic would try to heal the wounds caused by attempts to separate people from nature and from one another through ethnic or gender prejudice, nationalism, classism, etc. It would seek, through direct and indirect means, to foster unity, inclusivity, cooperation, and community.177 

He develops a brief outline of such an ethic, but it still needs expansion and strengthening.

  1. Some Characteristics of a Postmodern Evangelical Theology


It is easy for evangelicals to be alarmist about postmodernism, but, as Grenz says, “We are living in the midst of a widespread fragmentation affecting all dimensions of Western culture, including the theological enterprise, a situation due in a great measure to the advent of the postmodern ethos.” 178 We must take seriously the challenge of postmodernity. Evangelicalism is a child of the Enlightenment and modernity, being concerned about the propositional content of the faith, and a logical presentation of truth.179 One approach is to engage in a thorough ‘revisioning’ of evangelical theology in the light of cultural changes.180 Evangelicals who react to modernity, generally do so using modern tools: a strong reliance on commonsense realism and the scientific method.181 With evangelicalism so obviously wedded to the Enlightenment, evangelicals should also consider whether evangelicalism as we know it should not be consigned to the past along with modernism if we are to take postmodernity seriously?182 

Evangelicalism served the modern generation well, but a new evangelical paradigm is needed. Rather than “recoil with horror” at the ideas of Foucault, Derrida and Rorty and their possibly over-rejection of the Enlightenment project, we should realise that the “clash of postmodernism with Christian sympathies runs at a deeper level than the debate over which epistemological theory we should follow”.183 The rejection of the correspondence theory of truth undermines Christian claims that our doctrinal formulations state objective truth, but more importantly, they introduce a despair that there is no all-encompassing truth, and no ‘reality’, and the best we can do is pragmatically follow ‘what works’. However, as Christians, we believe there is a unifying centre of reality. While we may agree to some extent with Lyotard’s rejection of the metanarrative in areas such as the scientific enterprise or the worship of progress, we must proclaim that the one metanarrative has as its centre the story of Jesus of Nazareth - the “single metanarrative that encompasses all peoples and all times”.184 

Although postmodernism says all interpretations are in some sense invalid, must they all be equally invalid? Conflicting interpretations can be evaluated according to a criterion that transcends all of them, ‘the Word become flesh’ in Jesus Christ. Where postmodernism suspects human reason because of the impossibility of being an objective participant, it is also suspect because of humanity’s fallen nature, which makes it even more certain that aspects of truth lie beyond human knowing.185 

It is not enough for theology to account for postmodernism, rather we must formulate a genuinely postmodern theology. The mandate to proclaim the gospel to the next generation means we must learn how to “embody the gospel in the categories of the emerging social context”.186 Grenz calls for a revisioning of evangelical theology, based on our shared experience of encounter with the living God, resulting in “an experiential piety cradled in a theology”.187 Many evangelicals will struggle with his willingness to include culture as a source or norm for theology. For Donald Bloesch, the idea that the gospel must not only be proclaimed but also contextualized - placed in a new and often alien context, runs the danger of bending the gospel to meet the expectations of the culture rather than overthrowing and challenging the culture’s self-understanding.188 Of course, Bloesch may be overlooking the severe distortion the gospel has already endured to fit it into a modern evangelical context. It might finish straighter than it is now. 

A postmodern gospel must be post-individualistic, post-rationalistic, post-dualistic, and post-noeticentric.189 A post-individualistic gospel rejects the modern focus on the “self-reflective, self-determining, autonomous subject who stands outside any tradition or community”, and encourages recognition of the community of faith as important,190 a theme around which Grenz’s systematic theology, as laid out in Theology for the Community of God, revolves.191 Bloesch says,  

Grenz’s work differs from most other evangelical systematics by its focus on community. Salvation is not simply an individual commitment but a reception into the community of faith. Sin is not simply a personal transgression but a disruption of community. The goal of salvation is not simply eternal life but life in the community of God. God himself is understood socially - as a trinitarian fellowship of love in which all believers are destined to participate.192 

A post-rationalistic gospel “ought not to become anti-intellectual and wholly abandon the gains of the Enlightenment”, but must recognise that “intellectual reflection and the scientific enterprise alone cannot put us in touch with every dimension of reality or lead us to discover every aspect of God’s truth”.193 There must be room for the concept of mystery. Propositions, even theological ones, are of second-order importance. 

A post-dualistic gospel overcomes the evangelical emphasis on souls at the expense of bodies, presenting the human person as a unified whole - physical, emotional, intellectual and social.  

This does not mean merely placing more emphasis on emotion or the affective aspects of life alongside the rational. Rather, it involves integrating the emotive-affective, as well as the bodily-sensual, with the intellectual-rational within the one human person… But postmodern Christian holism must go beyond reuniting the soul and body torn asunder in the Enlightenment… must also put the human person back into the social and environmental context that forms and nourishes us. We must not dwell merely on the individual in isolation but also on the person-in-relationships.194 

A post-noeticentric gospel  

… must affirm that the goal of our existence encompasses more than just the accumulation of knowledge. ... the purpose of correct doctrine is to serve the attainment of wisdom… [It] emphasizes the relevance of faith for every dimension of life… the postmodern world provides the occasion for us to reappropriate the older pietist belief that a right head has no value apart from a right heart.195 

Lindbeck showed that experience does not precede interpretation: experiences are always filtered and facilitated by an interpretive framework, or ‘grid’, so religions produce religious experience rather than merely being the expression of it.196  Grenz says, 

Christian experience is facilitated by the proclamation of the Christian gospel, inherent in which is a specifically Christian theological interpretive framework, a “grid” that views the world in connection with the God of the Bible… Christian theology, in turn, is an intellectual enterprise by and for the Christian community, in which the community of those whom the God of the Bible has encountered in Jesus Christ seeks to understand, clarify and delineate the community’s interpretive framework as informed by the narrative of the action of this God on behalf of all creation as revealed in the Bible. In this sense, we might say that the specifically Christian experience-facilitating interpretative framework, arising as it does out of the biblical narrative, is “basic” for Christian theology.197 

This is not a return to Enlightenment foundationalism because it is not a ‘given’ cognitive framework which precedes the theological enterprise. The framework and the theology are inseparably intertwined. Grenz believes we should view Christian doctrine as a “web of belief”, and theology as “the articulation of the cognitive ‘mosaic’ of the Christian faith”.198 Also, like Pannenberg, Grenz sees the theological task as including “demonstrating the explicative power of the Christian faith by indicating the interconnectedness of the set of doctrines and the value of the Christian world view for illuminating human experience, as well as our human understanding of the world.”199 

On what basis, without resorting to foundationalism, can we claim that the Christian theological vision is true? For Grenz, the combining of communitarian and pragmatist insights says that the theology which leads us to the kind of society we seek is true.200 The Christian vision, focused on God as Trinity, and humankind as the image dei,  

sets forth more completely the nature of community that all religious belief systems in their own way and according to their own understanding seek to foster. This vision… provides the best transcendent basis for the human ideal of life-in-relationship, for it looks to the divine life as a plurality-in-unity as the basis for understanding what it means to be human persons-in-community.201 

Another goal of a postmodern theology is the overcoming of postmodern despair. Modernism rejected all that is non-physical and non-rational, equating it with the non-existent and irrational. Ted Peters’ proleptic theology, set in the context of what he calls an emerging postmodern consciousness, can provide a real sense of hope, when people are disillusioned at the crumbling of modern culture, and do not yet know what will replace it. This hope can fill the role that other forms of eschatology filled in times of earlier crises, such as two world wars, the great depression, and the immanence of global destruction during the cold war. However, a proleptic gospel and eschatology provide a positive hope, unlike the life denial or life avoidance all too often generated by dispensational and apocalyptic eschatologies. 

The concept of God creating from the future and drawing all things into the future to be with him, rather than creating in the past and now having to push creation towards completion, has the potential to at least partially unravel some of the paradoxes which result from human linear time thinking. The notion of predestination becomes far less draconian when one thinks of it not as God deciding in advance what we will each be, with there being little or nothing we can do about it, but rather as God drawing yet incomplete human beings, with their cooperation, towards the glorious completion and perfection that God has in mind for them. It allows for a more open future, not driven from behind, by tradition in particular, or by a presupposition of what the future ought to hold, a very typical evangelical failing. It is a gentle postmodern replacement for the drivenness of modern progress, and leaves room for  nonfoundational thinking. 

Of course, any thorough examination of the relationship between evangelicalism and postmodernism would need to take into account the views of many more evangelical theologians who have made contributions to this debate than the few considered here. For example, Peter Hodgson attempts to set forth a revisioning of Christian theology.202 He speaks of a postmodern ‘kairos’, an opportunity to shift “from the fragmentation, hegemony, and alienation of late modernity to a holistic, organic vision, especially one that is theanthropocosmic in scope.”203 He contends that postmodernity challenges us “to ‘speak meaningfully’ of God’s presence and action in the world. The presence of God may indeed be a function of our ability to speak meaningfully of God.”204 This is a postmodern understanding of the function of language. 

Alister McGrath places emphasis on the loss of truth, and the role of evangelical Christianity in its recovery and protection. In A Passion for Truth, before going on to look at postmodernity, he makes the following revealing comments about truth and evangelicalism: 

‘Truth’, in the New Testament sense of the term, is not abstract or purely objective; it is personal, and involves the transformation of the entire existence of those who apprehend it and are apprehended by it. It is necessary here to rediscover the full richness of the biblical concept of truth, and to rescue evangelism from this truncated and secularized notion of truth.205 

…evangelicalism is under an obligation to ensure that it does not remain a secret prisoner to rationalism … in which values and rationalities from outside the Christian faith come to exercise a normative role within it.206


McGrath sees opportunities in postmodernism, because within it Christianity is at least acceptable because it is true for some. However, it is not true for all, and a way needs to be found for Christianity to commend itself in such a context.207 He believes that the resilience and coherence of  evangelicalism will allow it to remain a good vantage point from which to critique both the modern and postmodern worldview, without needing to take on the postmodern agenda.208 These views, and others, will need to be taken into account for a representative evangelical postmodern theology to be developed. 

Are glimpses of an approach to postmodern theology that might be called evangelical beginning to emerge? A question which needs to be asked is, to be recognised as such, what would be the major characteristics of a postmodern evangelical theology? For this essay, I will restrict myself to the more limited, but related question, What shape would an approach to an evangelical theology which is able to address the postmodern ‘crisis’ take? Some of the answers to this question can be discerned in the reactions and responses of the four theologians studied above. 

Wells forms the negative pole of a spectrum of response which passes through Peters to Grenz and Murphy at the positive end. Mind you, Grenz and Murphy are by no means the most ‘postmodern’ of theologians in its more general sense. Someone like Mark C. Taylor might still claim that crown. However, his is a more destructive variety of postmodernism, and Murphy and McClendon make a good case for considering him to be an ultramodernist, and not postmodern at all.209 

It is not unexpected that the three evangelical theologians studied who have a positive response to postmodernity all have a strong investment in the study of ethics, given that the events and issues which precipitated the crisis in modernity, such as world wars, the holocaust, economic and environmental crises, and issues of justice and freedom, all have a dominant ethical and moral basis. 

I believe that Wells has a limited understanding of the nature of postmodernity, and of the relationship that should exist between postmodern and Christian thought. He has that archetypal modern attitude that consigns anything which smells of postmodernity to just another ‘ism’. His lack of appreciation of the opportunity that postmodernity presents to the church is illustrated by his arguments about ‘classical’ versus ‘postmodern’ spirituality based on his analysis of modern and ‘classical’ worship songs.210 He places great weight on this issue, so we will consider it as a representative example of his attitude towards postmodernism.  

Wells’ analysis is flawed by being based on a very limited selection of rather old Vineyard and Maranatha! songs, not many of which have become standards, or ‘classical’, to borrow his own terminology; and by the criteria used to classify these songs.211 But even if we ignore these methodological problems, Wells demonstrates little understanding of how the truly contemporary church uses these songs, being unaware that it considers most songs which are more than a few years old to be probably out of date. Only a small number - generally those which would compare well with Wells’ ‘classics’ - continue to be used beyond that time. An analysis of popular older hymns would equally turn up a significant proportion which focus on having our needs met, rather than on only giving praise to Jesus.212 On the other hand, during the past decade there have been literal thousands of strongly evangelical, Christ-centred, theologically meaningful worship songs published. 213


Certainly, many of these songs do speak of human suffering, and human needs, but they do give the glory to Jesus, not mankind? What Wells seems unable to grasp is that postmodernity has not taken God by surprise - he is doing something different in the church today. Wells views worship from a cerebral, thoroughly modern perspective. He wants songs which touch the mind. The hymnody that Wells accepts has been canonised by a modern generation, as can be seen by the relative rarity of additions to that canon during this century. Wells also ignores the role of the Holy Spirit in the writing of new songs, speaking as if the words come uninspired, or un-en-Spirited, entirely from the human writers’ own needs. This is part of the very attitude that postmodernism is reacting to.  

The Spirit is giving today’s church a constant stream of fresh music that brings the gospel right into the place where a postmodern generation can receive it - into their fear, uncertainty and loneliness. Is not this what Jesus of Nazareth did? This music is presenting the grace that blows all fear away - Jesus! 214 They need to discover a God who cares about them, and with whom they can have a relationship, before they will be willing to confront yet another figure of power and rule, even one that is a King who is crowned with many crowns, to paraphrase a popular, traditional hymn.215 This music is crossing denominational, cultural and generational boundaries. It is relational music, restoring the place of the Spirit of God and of the human spirit into a worship which had become cerebral, individualistic and often unemotional. 

Wells makes a mistake that Grenz and Murphy, in particular, have avoided. Commenting on van Huyssteen’s statement that “Even the briefest overview of our contemporary theological landscape reveals the startling fragmentation caused by what is often called ‘the postmodern challenge’ of our times”,216 Grenz and Murphy see this supposed fragmentation as a result of how  

...many theologians today, whom may be termed “evangelical modernists,” either discount the significance of the intellectual and cultural changes transpiring in our society, or they view such changes as largely negative. These thinkers advocate that evangelicals maintain the course their forebears charted in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and developed further in the twentieth, when the heroes of the tradition engaged the questions that arose out of the Enlightenment. 217  

Instead, postmodern evangelicals believe that Christians ought to take seriously the church’s context within the contemporary cultural milieu. Postmodernism may be considered to be the opportunity for theology’s reengagement with God, in reaction to modernity’s earlier breaking of that engagement. For example, Michael Horton writes, “More than anything else, the Enlightenment was an adolescent’s rebellion against his parents’ religion.”218 Colin Gunton observes, “The distinctive shape of modernity’s disengagement from the world is derived from its rebellion against Christian theology. In that sense, there is something new under the sun. Modern disengagement is disengagement from the God of Christendom.”219 Gene Veith says,   

Without a belief in God… it would be difficult to avoid postmodernist conclusions... If there is no transcendent logos, then there can be no absolutes, no meaning apart from human culture, no say out of the prison house of language... Postmodernism may represent the dead-end - the implosion, the deconstruction - of attempts to do without God.220 

Postmodernism need not be a mortal enemy of theology. Rather, it should drive us back to total dependence on God as the foundation for every area of life.  

Postmodernism points out that we all have presuppositions, and that no one is unbiased. We all bring our assumptions to our experience; each fact about the world is theory-laden. The question then becomes, “Which presuppositions are true?” The answer is clear: the Christian worldview is true. It alone is the only escape from subjective nihilism, for it alone provides the necessary foundations to make the facts intelligible. This being the case, the Christian is able to glean what is good from postmodernism, and reject the extremes. 221 

Stanley Grenz222 and Ted Peters223 agree that the watchword of postmodernity is holism - the desire to put back together what the compartmentalization characteristic of modernity has torn asunder. But of greater importance for Grenz is postmodernism’s questioning of the radical individualism of Western culture to which modernism gave birth, and into which evangelicals have immersed themselves and by which we interpret the gospel.224 He comments on the current identity crisis in evangelicalism: 

The ferment within our ranks exhibits a deep-seated desire among contemporary believers for a new understanding of the relationship between the personal life of faith and the faith community. The disquiet within many evangelical churches is in effect a postmodern cry to the church to be the church.225 

Grenz suggests that we need to move beyond the kingdom theology of the 20th century, to explore the idea of  a community that is oriented toward the theme of the already and the not-yet.226 

Ted Peters has done some sorting between various contenders for the title of postmodern theology. For example, Harvey Cox, of Harvard Divinity School compares fundamentalism (particularly American fundamentalism) and liberation theology and argues that liberation theology offers the most hope to take theology into the postmodern world, while fundamentalism is antimodern and resistant to postmodernism. Peters points out that, far from being antimodern, fundamentalism is a product of modernity. Cox has confused fundamentalism’s attack upon “modern” or liberal theology, with an attack on modernism. Fundamentalism’s roots are in  eighteenth century revivalism, which espoused personal freedom, democracy, anti-authoritarianism, individualism, human dignity, laissez-faire liberty and local control - all values close to the heart of modernity. The one point where fundamentalism diverged from modernity is in its approach to the biblical text - defending its traditional authority and literal meaning. Cox ‘proves’ his case for liberal theology by leaving out of his definition of modernity several key values which he does not want to be there, in particular the revolutionary sentiments of “liberty, equality, and fraternity”.227 

Evangelicalism is not monolithic. Its various branches relate to both modernism and postmodernism in different ways. Revivalism, mentioned above, has both modern and antimodern aspects. Fundamentalism embraces premodern, modern and postmodern ideas. Pentecostalism has often been criticised as a drive back to premodern times, as has the Charismatic movement, but is this fair? Among the Charismatics are groups, such as the Restoration Churches in the United Kingdom, who might be prime candidates for Griffin’s Restorationist or Conservative postmodernism category. But among the Restoration Churches, the more totalitarian aspects of the New Covenant and New Frontiers Churches would indicate strong elements of modernity, while the Pioneer Churches have a more postmodern emphasis on relationships and interdependence.228 Other Charismatic groups could fit into Griffin’s Constructive or Revisionary postmodernism category. It is too simplistic to equate a desire to restore the manifestly supernatural to church life as premodern, even though its loss may be substantially attributed to its earlier rejection by modernism. 

One area where there is a close relationship between evangelical charismatics and postmodernists is in the emphasis on the validity of experience. Scotland says: 

The early part of the charismatic movement coincided with the rationality of modernism. Theology was skeptical and rational and a good deal of official Christianity was correspondingly cerebral, cold and unfeeling. Early charismatic experience was therefore in reaction to this. Since the later 1980s modernism has crumbled with remarkable suddenness. Now, unexpectedly, experience is seen to be perfectly valid. Indeed, it is even felt to be a valid means of apprehending truth. Truth is no longer regarded solely as a body of doctrine which is appropriated by bending the mind around it. Truth can actually be experienced in ways more akin to Eastern custom and philosophy.229 

The Vineyard movement, with its particular emphasis on intimacy with Jesus and God the Father through tangible experience of the indwelling Spirit, gave many evangelicals a “daily working experience of the doctrine of the Trinity”.230 The acceptance charismatic churches have with the young might be an indicator of its affinity with postmodernism and Generation-X. In 1991 the charismatics had more church-goers in their twenties than any other section of the church in Britain.231 It also represents the largest group of evangelicals in Britain.232 The same might well be true of Australia. 

Does postmodernism need to be as pessimistic as some evangelicals seem to believe? I do not believe so. Certainly, some of those of a revisionist persuasion see it as an opportunity, not just to restore good things that were lost in modernity, but to retain the best of modernity and to transcend much of the bad. Griffin describes it as a ‘creative synthesis of modern and premodern truths and values’.233 But beyond this is an opportunity for the church to actively demonstrate, to an open and watching audience, that life in the Kingdom of God may be just what they are trying so hard to find as a replacement for the disillusionment of the collapse of what had once been so familiar and comfortable. But to take up this opportunity it will first have to examine its own investment in, and subversion by, the discredited Enlightenment project. 

Just as since the 1960s many evangelicals have struggled to reconcile a growing charismatic experience with their modern theological position, similarly, recent observations of aboriginal spirituality through my involvement in the movement for reconciliation with indigenous Australians has shown me a side to the spiritual activity and the healing of the land whose accommodation has stretched my western ideas almost to breaking point. Where once I might have arrogantly dismissed their stories, now I must allow them to influence and become part of my story. The Canon (large C) of the Bible may be closed, but the canon (small c) is still open, especially as regards the writing of the Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the World. 

To summarise, then, a way forward for postmodern evangelical theology: 






  1. Conclusion


Wells hankers for a time when the church was static. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, but this is not a prescription for the church to emulate in our approach to worship and witness. If we are to relate to a culture then the culture must also affect us - witness the current exploration of seeker sensitive services and other innovations. We must follow what the Spirit is doing in the world. Wells illustrates the danger of mistaking matters of style, such as worship styles and lifestyle preferences, for matters of doctrine. A church which focuses on preserving its own culture - Wells’ ‘Our Time’ - will at some time look around and discover, perhaps to its discomfort, that the Spirit has continued to cause the Kingdom to break out in the surrounding cultures, while that church has itself remained isolated and become irrelevant to what God is doing. The Spirit can not be boxed in, but blows where he will. 

Jesus was always ready to speak and act against the status quo, and particularly counter to the received religious wisdom of his time. I believe this gives his people a mandate, even an expectation, that they should do the same. As Evangelical Protestants, our way of living in the world has too often settled into a formula which has gradually solidified into a worldview. It sees life in terms of absolute laws, often of its own making. We have judged the society around us against this formula - a judgement which manifests at different times in such things as our attitude towards styles of entertainment and codes of dress, our intolerance of other forms of Christian expression, our reaction to the role of science and technology in society, our perceived anti-intellectualism, and our crusading zeal to make the rest of the world like ourselves. In doing this we have reaped a corresponding judgment against ourselves from the surrounding society. 

We tend to put this reaping down to the burden of having a prophetic role, overlooking the fact that what Jesus spoke against and acted to overthrow was this same pharisaical rigidity which we are espousing as God’s word. We have placed the responsibility upon God for something which very often has come from within ourselves and our own sinful reaction to the insecurity we feel in our role as a part of God’s salt and light, or his leaven, in the world. 

Instead of allowing our evangelical worldview to manifest as a hard lump against which all else reacts, it needs to be broken up again and allowed to dissolve back into the flux of life and society so that once again we might lead and influence change. 

It is illuminating to look at the different responses to the threatening ‘split’ in evangelicalism.234 Wells sees himself as firmly in the mainstream of evangelicalism, guarding against the decay of what he calls modernism into a form of postmodernism, which postmodernists would more accurately call ultramodernism. On the other hand, Murphy believes that postmodernism has the potential to not only bring together evangelicals, but even bring together conservatives and liberals. She says: 

My projection (and hope) is that theologians from both left and right will find resources in the new worldview for many fresh starts in theology - not fresh starts in content so much as fresh approaches to issues of method, to conceptions of the nature of the theological task. And these new approaches ought to form more of a continuum or spectrum of theological options than a dichotomy. 

We have seen… that if an epistemological theory something like MacIntyre’s is adopted, it becomes impossible (her emphasis) for theologians to choose between Scripture and experience as the foundation for theology. Scripture has its authoritative and ineliminable role in the tradition as the formative text. However, it is impossible to do theology except in the light of current experience if what one wants to do is to apply (her emphasis) the text in one’s own context.235 

We are faced with a difficult choice. As Steve Clarke, paraphrasing the words of one who I believe would have coped admirably with the transition to postmodernity, puts it so evocatively:  

So modern, evangelical Alice faces a seemingly unsatisfactory choice. In one direction the ‘Hatter’ of modernity, and in the other the ‘March hare’ of postmodernity. ‘Visit either, whichever you like: they’re both mad.’ The Cheshire cat’s instructions to Alice are necessitated by her failure to understand where she is.236 

Some, like Wells, would like postmodernity to go away, but it has come to stay. Postmodernity is the time period in which we live. As Gene Veith points out, “If the modern era is over, we are all postmodern, even though we reject the tenets of postmodernism.”237 There are many negative, nihilistic facets of postmodernism with which evangelical theology will have to grapple, but the annihilation of all that brings death into the world is precisely what the Christian gospel is all about. Postmodernism rejects the possibility of metanarratives, while at the same time constructing its own - that there is no absolute truth. We, on the other hand, know of one metanarrative - the One in whom we live, and breath, and have our being. 

Many of the myths of modernity that are countered by the gospel, such as the concept of individualism, are those things whose opposites have become central to postmodernity. For example, on the subject of individualism, D. Martin Fields says, 

For our personal life, postmodernism shows us the futility of autonomy. It forces those of us who know Christ back to the basics of depending on Christ for everything, whether it is salvation or standards. That in him we have meaning and purpose for our lives; he is the vine, we are the branches, and apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:15).238 

Just as Fields, drawing on Diogenes Allen, 239 says of theology in general, so evangelical theology too must find its place between the modern rationalism which rejects doctrines because they are unscientific and the premodern fundamentalism which will not allow its doctrine to engage the world. 240 

We need to be willing to give up the luxury of having certain knowledge about many things while still functioning effectively as Christians. This sounds like a workable definition of living by faith, not sight, to me, and fits with the postmodern emphasis on pragmatism and experience rather than intellectualism. 

An attempt to ignore the changes in the world, or to treat them as an aberration to be opposed, could imply that we are foolishly leaving behind some sort of golden age and deliberately moving forward towards destruction. The gospel warns of the second, but it does not accommodate the first. 

The postmodern generation needs to see Christianity seriously taking hold of the ethical issues which have brought them to despair and nihilism, and they need to be offered the hope of real solutions. They need, in particular, to see that those who have been advocates for unrestrained technological ‘solutions’ are now able to view the world more as they themselves do, and can join with them in the search for a balanced approach to the alleviation of both the causes of the problems and the effects of the ‘solutions’. The postmodern generation must see evangelicals lay down their ‘us and them’ attitudes and rejoin with common humanity. 

Postmoderns already recognise that there is a spiritual dimension to life which has long been neglected, diminished, or even feared by many evangelicals. And yet, it is in the evangelical’s experience of a supernatural God - not just in their intellectual assent to such a God’s existence - wherein lies the treasure that postmoderns are seeking in all the wrong places.




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