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The Paradigms and Parameters
of Postmodern Theology

By J. E. Choate

religion, articles, christianity

When we address, in the postmodern world, our brethren as liberals there are some facts we need to know. We must first come to an understanding of postmodernism as opposed to modernism. And we must learn the relationship between modern theology and postmodern theology, and what this means for churches of Christ. Only a handful of academicians in our colleges can trace this thin dividing line and make distinctions.

Modern civilizations are moving into a postmodern global age that will make all the previous ages beggar in comparison. Who would be so presumptuous as to gaze into his crystal ball and see the paradigms of the 21st century which will not be one thing, but a vast complexity of many things, events, and forces which will be as radically different as the Renaissance was from the Middle Ages. I even find it grimly amusing to read what the editors of Wineskins claim to know about the changes churches of Christ must make to survive.

What are the energies that will drive the engines of the 21st century? This new epoch of man may very well be dated from World War II and the beginning of the nuclear age. This is the end of the age of the Greyhound bus, Freud and Marx, the theology of neo-orthodoxy, and the philosophy of existentialism.

In cataloging the events of such magnitude from Leonardo's sketch of the flying machine in the 16th century to the space shuttle in the 20th century, the anticipation of future changes is mind boggling. When we contemplate the intellectual achievements of the great minds from Newton to Einstein, the babbling of the "change agents" in the church about "shifting paradigms" becomes as comical as the antics of a clown in a circus.

This article centers on a selection of theological words and phrases to help explain major movements from modern to postmodern theology. We are doing this for the information of the brothers and sisters in the pews. They need to know that postmodern liberal theology is contaminating the teaching of the Bible in churches of Christ and our schools.

And painful though it may be, the "hot beds" of postliberal theology are tracked to their primary sources - colleges and their satellites - Bible departments, lectureships and workshops, the Restoration Forum, and Christian Scholars Conference.

(I am not against our schools, only against our liberal brethren who are destroying time-honored Bible traditions. I want to say that the immediate members of my family hold degrees on every level from schools as diverse as David Lipscomb College, Catholic University, Vanderbilt, and UCLA. I believe in education and do not think that ignorance ever qualified anybody for useful pursuits in life.)

A Definitive Glossary

As a carpenter is known by his chips, so are our liberal brothers identified by the words and theological references which they use to express their liberal ideas. At the very outset, it is necessary to point out that the selections of the words and phrases which put handles on the religious rhetoric of our liberal brethren go back thirty years. Our liberal brethren picked up on them in the prestigious schools of religion where they did advanced graduate study.

The best way to attach a handle to postmodern theology is to use the common classifications of history over the past 2,000 years. We have in mind the passage of time from the Ancient period to the Middle Ages and to the Renaissance. We move next from the Modern to the Postmodern period which is our own time. These two time references include and transcend all particular human events which show the flow and inter-connections of the ages in transition. Neither age was necessarily a denial or despair of one age giving way to another.

Ancient theology: The development of historical theology dates from the last century to 590 A.D. This general period embraces the apostolic period recorded in the writings of the apostolic fathers through Augustine (4th century).

Medieval theology: The medieval period lasted from 590 to 1517 to the beginning of the Reformation. The Renaissance and the Reformation periods were propelled from the vortex of 1000 years of what is sometimes called the "Dark Ages."

Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation: This period set up a transition epoch from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the modern period. The Renaissance witnessed the emergence of Protestant theology, the emergence of national states and capitalism, the age of discovery, the scientific revolution, and numerous other monumental events.

Modern theology: The roots of modern theology are traced back to the 18th­century Age of Reason, and to Immanuel Kant, who maintained that man could only know God through reason. It is a long way from Thomas Aquinas to Immanuel Kant, and eventually to Rudolf Bultmann who embodied the spirit of neo-orthodoxy. The roots of Modernism are discovered in man's reason which rejects the supernatural and the inspiration of Scripture, and relies solely on the scientific apparatus.

Many varied forms of modern theology have evolved from the "Old Modernism" which dominated the theological scene in 1900. The old modernism was a syncretism of the late 19th­century documentary hypothesis of the Mosaic law, form and source criticism of the New Testament, and which embraced the evolutionary hypothesis. This syncretism took the shape of the Social Gospel which dominated the modern theological scene until the horrors of World War I.

This brings us to 1919 to the birth of neo­orthodoxy (also called dialectical theology) where "God talk" and man's theological "human talk" sought common ground for the "divine-I-thou encounter" with God. Bultmann said Scripture is encrusted with millenniums of myth and folk stories. Tillich reduced God to a philosophical "ultimate ground of being."

Terminology of Postmodernism
as Distinguished from Modernism

Postmodern theology: This movement has not discarded the baggage of modern theology identified in the minds of most students with the theological systems of Barth et al. Their influence as leading spokesman of neo­orthodoxy was buried under the avalanche of the charismatics and "death of God" theologians in the 1960s and 1970s.

Our liberal brethren are now introducing theological expressions into churches of Christ as if they were their own brain children. Nowhere is this more evident than in college lectureships and the Christian Scholars Conference. These new terms, their meaning, and uses are hidden deeply in the dark recesses of postmodern theology. It is imperative that we understand their sources and meanings in order to learn what liberal brethren are not inclined to tell us.

Paradigms and parameters: Two of the words most often bandied back and forth are paradigm and parameter. Thomas Kuhn (1970) introduced the word paradigm into the scientific community. A paradigm is a working model of something. A parameter is an unstable circumference around something which keeps shifting.

Kuhn used the working models (paradigms) of Ptolemaic astronomy and Copernican astronomy to show the shifts which take place with the discovery of new knowledge. Each of these paradigms worked as well as the other because each showed the fixed positions of the heavenly bodies to the earth. The first was just a model. The second model showed how the universe actually works. The Copernican model, in turn, gave way to Newtonian astronomy.

Kuhn meant to show that paradigms shift with the discovery of new knowledge. Kuhn's paradigm (model) concept also found a common acceptance and use in politics, philosophy, theology, and literary criticism. Our liberal brethren should not think us to be so ill informed that we are groping in the darkness of ignorance on these matters.

They tell us of the urgent need for the old hermeneutic (paradigm) to be replaced by a new hermeneutic (model). They tell us the churches of Christ are now in a paradigm shift moving from an outmoded, obsolete old hermeneutic to a fresh and viable form of a new hermeneutic, but never explained.

Deconstructionism is another new term about which little is known outside the colleges. The old modernism is dying though its strength is not completely spent. Postmodernism poses even greater dangers because the theology repudiates and undermines all notions of coherent and unitary truth in the Bible.

The philosophy of Jacques Derrida is little known outside academic circles, and not favorably there. His philosophy of ideas is known as poststructuralism or deconstructionism. He maintains that the meaning of language is hidden and elusive. Radical postmodernism says nothing can be known for certain and best to steer clear of all ultimate truth claims. Derrida's suspicion of all literary texts, including the Bible, is an affront to man's intelligence.

The two prime examples of the content of postmodern theology are Elizabeth Fiorenzo-Schussler's theology of the women's liberation movement which calls for a complete radical "deconstruction" of what she terms to be the androcentric, or male dominance of the biblical message. And the second example of "deconstructionism" is to be found in the work of the Jesus Seminar best represented by the writings of John Dominic Crossan, and especially in his treatment of the life and crucifixion of Jesus.


The theme of deconstruction as advanced by our brethren is more or less hidden from the uninitiated. Some of their "destructive" tactics come out in their most publicized writings, e. g., The Second Incarnation, The Peaceable Kingdom, and Will the Cycle Be Unbroken, authored by Rubel Shelly, Carroll Osburn, and Douglas Foster. We think that our liberal brethren will be given cause to regret that they have opened up on these matters.

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Published April 1996