How Does a Postmodern Understanding of Faith Relate to a Premodern Understanding?

John ArmstrongPostmodernity

All my early life I heard that premodern Christianity was intolerant and ignorant in comparison with the great teachers of the Protestant Reformation. This is simply not true. One illustration will suffice. Theologians such as John Duns Scotus (1270-1308) and William of Ockham (1288-1348) developed new ideas, often quite very different ideas, but they never started new churches or got excommunicated. Different ways of understanding the faith were not only tolerated in premodern time but they were, in so many ways, celebrated. The reason for this breadth in theology is clear. Truth was not thought of as narrow and precise like mathematics.

st-augustine A primary reason for this premodern flexible approach to interpretation is that Christians argued that Scripture was the root of all truth but the Scripture did not have a single, univocal meaning. Listen to how St. Augustine, one of the greatest orthodox minds in the Western Church, put this regarding the church’s reading of Genesis:

Although I hear people say “Moses meant this” or “Moses mean that,” I think it more truly religious to say “Why should he not have both meanings in mind, if both are true? And if others see in the same words a third, or a fourth, or any number of true meaning,s why should we not believe that Moses saw them all? There is only one God, who caused Moses to write the Holy Scripture in the way best suited to the minds of great numbers of men who would all see truths in them, though not the same truths in the each case.”

For my part I declare resolutely and with all my heart that if I were called upon to write a book which was to be vested with the highest authority, I should prefer to write it in such a way that a reader could find re-echoed in my words whatever truths he was able to apprehend. I would rather write in this way than impose a single true meaning so explicitly that it would exclude all others (The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Edward B. Pusey, 1962, 308).

The first time I read St. Augustine words above I realized how very different my approach to Scripture was from his. What I did not know was why. I sought out evangelical teachers to help me understand this problem and the answers I got were that God had one thing in mind and by good, historical, grammatical, exegetical hermeneutics we could see this one truth clearly. The problem with this answer, a problem that I later came to clearly see, was that it was not historically Christian. Furthermore, it was rooted in Enlightenment reason not in biblical realities.

The irony is that St. Augustine’s premodern reading of the Bible is a lot closer to a postmodern reading than a modern one. Augustine responds to those who think they know the exact and precise meaning of the Scripture in this way:

[They do so] not because they are men of God or because they have seen in the heart of Moses, your servants, that their explanation is the right one, but simply because they are proud. They have no knowledge of the thoughts in his mind, but they are in love with their own opinions, not because they are true, but because they are their own (Confessions, 301).

So St. Augustine, not John Armstrong, says that pride, and a sense of personal ownership, are the basis for so many dogmatic claims to truth. And St. Augustine is saying, at this very point, precisely what a chaste and teachable postmodern is trying to say. If the Cartesian worldview is not biblical, and it is clearly not, then the desire to master the text (of the Bible in this case) is rooted in sin. Try teaching this to many of your older Christian friends raised in a conservative Protestant context and see just how far you get.

The postmodern Christian sees the modern desire for truth as a desire to possess and control. If truth is precise, narrow and easily understood, through a proper teaching of the Bible, then the interpreter is in control, By this means they seek to control both themselves and those who disagree with them. But if truth is less easily possessed and more broad, and a lot less certain to the human mind, then we do not possess it but it captures us and it changes us into humble worshipers of the living Christ.

I am now becoming rooted in premodern Christianity by reading the Church Fathers. I am thankful for some parts of modern Christianity, especially the insights of sixteenth century Reformers who broke with the scholastic method that developed in the centuries just prior to 1500. And I am increasingly grateful for how postmodernity is helping people move away from the kind of certitude that fills them with pride and the desire to control Christ as if he was a truth commodity that belonged to them in their private opinions.