Further Reflections on Postmodernism and the Problem of Certainty

John ArmstrongPostmodernity

A friend wrote a private question about my references to certainty in recent posts. The concept of certainty is heavily philosophical. I am not praising doubt, or unbelief. Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed my central point well when he wrote: “Jesus Christ alone is the certainty of faith.” What this means is that our various systems of faith are not the truth! They may help point us to the One who is the truth but when we invest the idea of final and absolute truth in these systems we create the very problems I am writing about. This leads to the idolatry of ideas, so prevalent in my generation. Young postmodern Christians are pushing back on this very point and I agree with them in their “push back.”

Further, there is “a vast ocean of what we do not know and do not understand,” wrote the late Lesslie Newbigin. This is major component of what I am arguing for in a positive way via my comments about how postmodernity can specifically help us. I have expressed strong reservations about postmodernity but then I also have strong reservations about modernity too. What amazes me is that so many in my generation want to defend modernity as if it has served Christian faith so well over the last four hundred-plus years.

Yet my comments could be taken in ways that are not faithful to my real intentions. A true friend wrote: “I understand your hesitation regarding ‘absolute’ or ‘infallible’ certainty. However, I have no hesitation whatsoever, and I hope you don’t either, in saying that a ‘professing’ Christian who denies the Incarnation of Christ is ‘preaching another gospel.’” Well, of course I have no hesitation at all. (I think those who read me carefully will see that I don’t and those who do not see this will find fault where they will.) Such a “false gospel” surely denies truths like the complete deity and humanity of Christ, his substitutionary atonement for sin (though particular theories of the work of the atonement are still open to further exploration), and his bodily resurrection. If Christ was not God, did not die in our place, and was not “raised for our justification” then we have no gospel.

The problem I was addressing in these several blogs occurs when various polemicists tell us they know who does not love Christ and thus who is not a real Christian. This happens because of inter-Christian differences over the exact nature of justification, right views of the sacraments, the nature and place of authority in the church, etc. By these means anti-Catholics regularly tell their followers that no Catholic could be a real Christian since Rome preaches a “false gospel.” (If they are real believers then they will [indeed must] leave the Catholic Church these folks insist!) This type of approach is found among some very traditional Catholics, who reject all Protestants as schismatics and anti-Catholic, see us as those who stand against Christ’s true church, thus the true gospel. But the problem is that this type of approach occurs far more often on the Protestant side, especially since Vatican II. Subsequent events, since the 1960s, have shown how Rome can and will engage other Christians correctly and with real charity. Thankfully, mainstream Protestant evangelicals have entered this dialogue more recently and refuse to employ the old rhetoric and vituperative response of their past. The sad fact is that anti-Catholicism is still strong in some of Reformed and evangelical circles. Because I regularly say this I create new opportunities for personal and Internet opposition almost daily.

Finally, I am most definitely not saying that postmodernity has made it impossible for the church to describe or reject anti-gospel teachers, and their heresies, as “in the wrong”. As my friend puts it so well: “Not only are such folk ‘bad guys,’ they are energized by the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:1ff.).”

My reference to the “good guys” and “bad guys” lists was in view of the kinds of lists (usually informal of course) made by anti-Catholics who do this kind of thing all the time if you read their books and blogs. Some in the Reformed community even continue to do it with regard to Arminians and sundry other “heretics” that they regularly attack. These polemicists spend countless hours attacking Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, etc. (I have questioned the policies and opinions of all four of these gentlemen but I do not treat them as avowed heretics in the process!) This is the kind of misuse of Galatians 1:6-9 that I had in mind, not the correct use of this important text when used in a proper context. Since I work within mainline Protestant churches regularly I assure you that I do believe in heresy and I am more than willing to point it out when I see it. I also assure you that I have not become weak on the gospel, just more open to see it confessed by people I would not have had the time of day for a decade ago. Unless you are prepared to say that we are all finally saved by "right ideas" of doctrine (which some clearly are saying) then I do not see how you can conclude anything less.