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Postmodern Theology:
The Beast Slouching Towards Calvary

By J. E. Choate

religion, articles, christianity

This article has two particular purposes, one of which is to provide the information that will lead to an understanding of postmodern theology threatening the scriptural integrity of churches of Christ. The second raises the question of why our university Bible scholars do not definitively inform the churches at the grass roots level on the issues. Be assured your children are in their classrooms.

Names, titles, and labels mean nothing unless defined and explained in context such as modernism, and postmodernism, and conservatism, and liberalism. Words take on symbolic significance when contextualized in religion or in a societal setting. There are no rules of language, logic, or anything else that make religion exempt from these influences.

Modernism is a multiple label that takes on special meaning when attached to the concepts of theology in 20th­century America. Modernism is not a word of recent coinage. The meaning and usage of the word is traced in philosophy and theology from 18th­century Enlightenment (Age of Reason) to the present. The evolution of theology since 1885 for this article falls into three categories-old modernism (social gospel), new modernism (neo­orthodoxy), and postmodernism (Jesus Seminar).

Conservatism in theology is the theological label in higher criticism which defends the positions that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch; that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word born of a virgin, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And its opposite label, liberalism, in modern theology does not accept the historical reality of such events as the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Metamorphosis of Modern Theology
in the 20th Century

(1) The old modernism at the turn of the century is identified with the amalgamation of the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch (1885), with Form and Source Criticism of the New Testament, and Darwinian evolution. One major outcome of this was the emergence of the optimism of the "man-made" social gospel that man is evoluting to ever-higher levels of social conduct and justice.

(2) The beginning of the [new] modernism is dated by theology historians with the 1922 publication of Karl Barth's commentary on the Roman letter. Neo­orthodoxy is the name given the modern theology in the post-World War II period. Neo-orthodoxy had become by the late 1950s a fully developed systematic theology identified with the names of Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was the first bulldog of Neo-liberalism. He preached his famous 1935 sermon in New York titled "The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism." This famed preacher had indeed declared war against the conservative Protestant churches with this 1935 manifesto. (How well do I remember the shock that came in the middle 1940s while I was reading Fosdicks's Understanding the Bible. I considered the book, then and now, as blasphemous atheism.)

Neo­orthodoxy reached its heyday in the 1950s. In this period, this writer completed the B.D. program in the Vanderbilt Divinity School, and came out with a good understanding of modern theology which enables me to wage unrelenting warfare against modern theology, and to name by name its major propagandists. (Yes, I have read Matthew 18 which is the last refuge of pious scoundrels.)

And by the year 1970, neo­orthodoxy was so compromised that it ceased almost over night to exist as a viable modern theology. In the 1970s, neo­orthodoxy found itself under attack from within its own house. The attackers were the "death of God" theologians who had been tutored in the new theology.

But the truth is that they realized that their theological inheritance was the residual atheism which flowed from the theology of Bultmann et al that the Bible is layered with historical facts, myths, legends, folklore, and old wives' tales. They had been sold a bill-of-goods which had been falsely labeled.

Their response shook modern theology to its very foundation. Their solution was that Bultmann et al had killed God by destroying the faith in Holy Scripture as the Word of God. The historical Jesus was almost stripped of all characteristics attributed to him in the Gospels. Bultmann left Jesus partially in the realm of history and partially enshrouded in myth.

Their conclusion was that "God is dead" since all references to God in the Bible had been reduced to little more than theological nomenclature. What is dead is buried. What would come next?

(3) Postmodernism was the answer. It was not one thing, but many things. Postmodernism is something new created in the present and something old borrowed from the past. Postmodernism is part and parcel of the old modernism plus a hundred years of accumulated baggage. An apt analogy is comparing the generational passage of theology to the evolution of the old Model T Ford, a new Chevrolet, and a postmodern Cadillac.

The Westmar Institute and the Jesus Seminar

The current update of postmodern theology in its most radical form ends up eventually on the doorsteps of the Westmar Institute and the Jesus Seminar. And this becomes a nightmare for the avant-garde Bible scholars in our schools. They do not want this poisonous theological label attached to their names. But there is no avoidance of the stigma.

John Crossan, Robert Funk, and associates are the new-kids-on-the-block. They are the most talked about radical theologians in these times. The Jesus Seminar made the front covers of Time, Newsweek, and U. S. News and World Report during the 1996 Easter week.

A series of my articles was printed in 1996 and 1997 in the Firm Foundation laying the foundations for an understanding of postmodern theology such as Derridean "deconstructionism," and "church growth" paradigms such as Willow Creek and the Third Wave. (DLU's new CEO would be greatly profited if he would call upon his DLU Bible department heads to brief him on these matters.)

A mere policy statement from the president's office will not sweep these things under the rug. Why is it that our scholars in the "Scholarship Movement" are muted as the grave when it comes down to addressing postmodern theology and church practices?

Robert W. Funk founded the Westmar Institute in 1985. The Jesus Seminar is part and parcel of the Westmar Institute. The seminar is made up of a small selected association of academic scholars who meet twice a year to debate the historical Jesus. The Jesus Seminar begins with the assumption that the Gospels are not accurate histories.

Their task is to determine the actual words spoken by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels. The scholars vote by casting colored beads in a box: the red, words are his; pink, could be; gray not his, but close; black, not his words, but created and embellished by his disciples. The Jesus Seminar attributes only 18 percent of the words of the New Testament to Jesus.

What the Westmar Institute scholars thought about the historical Jesus is fully documented in the books they wrote. The first work is the Five Gospel: The Search for the Authentic Jesus with translations and commentary by Robert Funk, and others of the Jesus Seminar. This is described above.

The second is a companion study of the Five Gospels, written by Burton L. Mack titled The Lost Gospel: The Book of Christian Origins. A German scholar hypothesized there was a fourth document in existence that Matthew, Mark, and Luke used as a common source book for a part of their accounts. It was called Quelle, (German for source). This fictitious document never existed as a proven fact.

Funk, Mack, et al, conclude that Christianity is a mythologized religion (like Buddhism rooted in a historical figure and teachings quite unlike the historical realities of the period).

The third is John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. The book is about what Jesus did and said. To make a long story short, this is the book that pictures Jesus as a Jewish Socrates, who was a political troublemaker in his day. He is pictured as a societal rebel who preached the equality of all men, and who is pictured as conspiring against both the church and state. Both the Romans and Jews conspired to kill him.

What must be the latest "vomit of Satan" in this century is Crossan's picture of the crucifixion scene -Jesus is buried in a shallow criminal's grave on the crucifixion grounds from which scavenger dogs dug up his body while croaking crows flew overhead.

Not a single article has appeared in Wineskins dealing with Postmodernism "church growth paradigms" and theologies. Their dodge is-"We don't go down to the plains of Ono to talk with the children of Ashdod." The fact is that this is their native habitat. The best way to put the fear of God into souls of the "change agent" scholars is to deal with facts

Summary Statement

Gary Holloway and Michael Weed come up to the edge of postmodern theology and church practices in their 1995 DCHS paper. They mention other voices for our scholars called "neo-conservatives" and "moderates." There is a half-good apple, but not a part-good egg which is rotten in the whole.

Postmodern theology is rotten in the whole. Somebody ought to break the news to the GA editorial staff that there is no "middle ground." We do not read where David Lipscomb and B.C. Goodpasture thought so. They also called names, and they also knew Matthew 18.

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Published November 1997