Sometimes Known as Post-Conservative Evangelicalism

The claim that belief in God is “unscientific” can no longer be intelligently maintained by any serious investigator; But now a new assault: One Person's Religion is as Good as any Other Person's Religion Since All 'Truth' is Merely Relative...

A Sell-Out to Postmodernism?

The 'emergent church movement' – also sometimes known as 'post-conservative evangelicalism', or, 'post-conservatism' is an interesting but ultimately rather worrying new theological trend. It is a trend which recognises that Modernism (which foolishly believed that science could solve all of human problems), has just about come to the end of it's rope and period of influence, and that Post-modernism is increasingly breaking forth into the reasoning of secularists everywhere, and it appears to seek accomodation within Postmodernism; surely a most serious tactical error. To have carefully checked out the tools of Postmodernism to see if Christians can gain any helpful and useful insights would have been no problem, but just as Liberal Protestantism chose to jump right inside Modernism and to operate from there, a few “evangelical” writers are now choosing to operate from within Postmodernism. Surely this is an example of certain Christian leaders being without excuse in refusing to learn from earlier serious and costly errors (the cardinal reason for the loss of authority of Christianity in the formerly “Christian West” is because many hundreds of its leaders decided to 'jump ship' and to seek accomodation with Modernism between 1850 and 1950).

I was writing a few years ago that Postmodernism was about to make a major breakthrough into modern society, and I was warning our readers of the impact it would have. Although Modernism was mostly no friend of Christianity, it did at least tend to uphold and recognise propositional truth, that is, it upheld the view that – with a little research – you and I could arrive at the truth on many subjects and topics. Truth was seen as a 'universal', if you will, because we could study and research and find that true path; it was seen as entirely possible to separate truth from error. Christian Apologetics itself is based on the belief that ultimate truths are discoverable with a little research (although Christian Apologetics does recognise that a person will never truly open his or her eyes to the truth of the Gospel without the guidance of the Holy Spirit). But Postmodernism preaches a denial of ultimate, or propositional truth. It supports Relativism (what is 'true' for you many not be 'true' for me), and postmodernism's denial of ultimate truth is probably its most seriously concerning trait as far as Christianity is concerned.

Postmodernism is sceptical of all written accounts which claim any sort of authority or authenticity, insisting that all such accounts should be seen as freely open to interpretation according to one's own worldview and truth view. Traditional historians have quickly come under attack but that is probably only the beginning. At once those of us who champion the authenticity and authority of Holy Scripture as recorded in Old and New Testaments will feel shivers! Biblical Apologists have had to defend the Word of God against all sorts of assaults for many hundreds of years and just when it seemed that Modernism had an empty armoury with nothing much left to throw at us (especially with the increasingly pervasive recognition that evolution was only ever an anti-God philosophy as more and more evolutionary claims are being debunked year by year – by scientists themselves – and when even several university-level science lecturers are starting to say that 'divine creation' should no longer be rejected on philosophical grounds alone), it is as though our great adversary has suddenly moved the goal posts! Modernism is about to die (actually, even now, almost every typical television “science” -type programme refuses to recognise this, at least here in the UK), so better replace this quickly with Post-Modernism. While this new philosophy has been slow to gain ground in certain areas it has quickly spread into other areas. For instance, modern Europe's (especially modern Britain's) claim to be a “multi-cultural society” (the claim was never heard just a few years ago), is pure Postmodernism in social action! The British government has repeatedly been claiming that the presence of a huge immigrant population in the UK is very healthy because “Britain is now a multi-cultural society,” the supporting view, of course, is that all religions – or no religion at all - are all equally good personal philosophical life preferences, indeed, purely a private matter of individual preference – no superior truth claims to be had anywhere! (Wesley and Spurgeon would – if it were possible – be 'turning in their graves'!)

As those who seek to defend the Christian Faith, let us be completely clear about this: Multi-culturalism with its accompanying insistence that all religions should be considered equal and the belief that religion is only meaningful in one's private and family life and certainly has no society-wide claims or authority, is pure Postmodernism in action and will surely prove to be a most serious opponent of the Christian Faith! Even now, British police are starting to “caution” football players who make the sign of the cross before going onto the football pitch (it happened in Scotland quite recently), because – after all – that could offend people of other religions or no religion at all. There seems little doubt that if I were to take a Christian evangelistic team into the Pakistani-muslim areas of several British cities, I and my team would be quickly arrested! It would be considered “offensive behaviour”! Yet even as recently as 25 years ago people would have said, 'Such a thing could never happen in pro-Christian Britain.'

Theologian Lesslie Newbigin

Former missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998). We do not seek to judge a man about whom some fine things have been written, but we do challenge some of his approach in his 1990 book, 'The Gospel in a Pluralist Society' which appears to be too hastily seeking accomodation with postmodernism.

Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

Unfortunately, certain leading Christian writers are seeking accomodation within Postmodernism. One of those who have been thus accused is Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) . Newbigin's analysis of postmodern society reveals that he was substantially persuaded by postmodern assumptions, even to the extent that his book seems to undermine any basis for objective truth, for apologetics, or even for the clarity of Scripture. His book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, is most worrying because it is proving to be influential in certain circles. This is not meant to be a thorough critical analysis or review of this particular book (others appear on the internet. Here, for instance), but I am well aware of some points which occur in this book and I want to make just a few comments about some of these points). The book was originally written as long ago as 1990, but it has become influential and seems to be influencing more evangelical writers all the time.

Newbigin believed that Christianity saw the rise of 16th-18th century enlightenment rationalism and immediately moved to a position where Christianity had to justify itself in rational, or 'ultimate truth claim' terms, which it would not otherwise have employed. But this ignores the fact that the apostle Paul himself can be found engaging in Apologetics in the New Testament (see Acts 17, for instance), and that Christians have always had to explain and defend their faith (1 Peter 3:15) – nothing new about that and nothing to do with 'enlightenment reasoning' forcing them into making unsustainable truth claims! Indeed, for Newbigin, Apologetics is simply to dance to the tune of Modernism, to attempt to compete on Modernism's own terms. He is worried about ultimate truth claims even though the Holy Bible is full of such claims; but to deny the existence of such claims is not to carefully look at postmodernism to see where we may use a few of their more helpful tools, but, to put it frankly, it is surely to sell out to Postmodernism!

Newbigin apparently believed that Christians should settle for the dogma (to propagandize a doctrinal point of view or approach) of the story of Jesus in order to further any evangelism, but he apparently believed we should not go any further than that. He says,

The dogma, the thing given for our acceptance in faith, is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story. Here, I think, is the point at which we may well feel that the eighteenth-century defenders of the faith were most wide of the mark...” (pages 12-13, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

There is an apparent thinly-veiled criticism of systematic theologies here (and certainly one can perceive errors in their approach, namely in their view that God has told us everything if we can just be smart enough to cunningly fit the entire 'biblical jig-saw puzzle' together; the error here is in overly depending on human logic), nevertheless, those theologians were surely right to locate ultimate and profound truth claims by an all-powerful and all-mighty God in Scripture, and to gather them together to see what Scripture clearly claims about the nature of God; neither were the systematic theologians the first to do this, the great Christian creeds did exactly the same thing (on a less systematic level) many hundreds of years earlier. These men were quite clear that Scripture makes certain clear truth-propositions about the nature of God and His plan of redemption. But Newbigin has a problem with such truth claims. It is also just plain wrong to say that, 'The dogma, the thing given for our acceptance in faith, is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story.' I find this comment quite disastrously wide of the mark! What would be the point of the story of Jesus, if it were just a story and if the Bible did not set out to substantiate it with just the “timeless propositions” which Newbigin apparently so dislikes? Then the 'Jesus story' would have no more authority than 'Father Christmas,' 'Hansel and Gretel' or 'The Pied Piper of Hamlin'! No!! The Bible is careful to ground the revelation of Jesus in timeless truths about sin and about the need for human redemption from that. At best, Newbigin appears to be showing amazing naivety here. It is so sad that a person who spent so many years as a Christian missionary, and who had been considered at least loosely 'evangelical,' eventually chose to overly seek accomodation within a plainly Postmodernist approach which is always so sceptical about any claimed authoritative or authentic writing, especially any such writing which also proclaims ultimate truths (truth which is applicable to everybody, everywhere, any time). About a hundred years earlier, other Anglicans had been too quick to sell-out to Modernism, a move which proved to be a destroyer of the authority of the Church, and something which it has never recovered from in Europe.

Ultimately, Biblical truth is not 'relative' according to who you are, where you live, and/or your family's cultural preferences. It is - even now - impacting every man woman and child in this world (whether they realise it or not), and it will decide the eternity of each of us. Contrary to the approach which the late Lesslie Newbigin appeared to support, modern evangelists now find that 'the story of Jesus' is known far and wide but modern people will not even consider it if Christians are not able to provide broader philosophical/scientific answers, for even at the beginning of this postmodern age thousands still (completely mistakenly) believe the myth that "science has now made religion irrelevant." In opposition to this, the Christian Apologetics which was clearly supported by the apostle Paul must have more of a role, not less of a role.

Robin A. Brace, 2006.