Scripture in the postmodern shift

Life in the Postmodern Shift

January 2, 2013 | Viewpoints | Volume 19 Issue 1
Troy Watson |

There are numerous schemas that map out differing views of Scripture. One of the most straightforward suggests everyone believes the Bible is either:

  • fully divine, or
  • fully human, or
  • human in some parts, divine in others, or
  • fully human and fully divine.

I believe this kind of categorical thinking is inadequate for our postmodern context. Neo-orthodoxy, for example, doesn’t fit neatly into this comparative framework as it postulates Scripture becomes God’s Word as we engage the Biblical text and as God’s Spirit speaks to us through it. Neo-orthodoxy asserts God reveals God-self in events rather than words thus the Word of God is not a revelation in itself, but an instrument of divine disclosure that is personal but not propositional. According to this school of thought the Word of God is principally the manifestation of God in Christ and the Bible witnesses to this Word of God but the Bible itself is not the Word of God—it is the word about the Word. Clear as mud?

I have personally found Neo-orthodoxy helpful, yet some argue it is too subjective. Yet, ultimately all approaches to the Bible are subjective in that they are faith-based positions. Of course, most views of Scripture are reasonable if one shares the presuppositions they build upon (presuppositions are what one presumes beforehand and takes for granted as true). However, most of our presuppositions are assumptions that can’t be verified. None of us can prove or disprove our viewpoint on Scripture for we all build our outlook of the Bible on the ground of faith and the soil of subjectivity.

Are there legitimate concerns and potential pitfalls with Neo-orthodox and postmodern positions? Definitely, as there are with all approaches to Scripture in my opinion. But the concern many Christians name as most problematic with theological perspectives like Neo-orthodoxy is they appear to diminish Scripture’s divine authority. It raises some serious questions, not the least being, “On what authority do we base our truth claims if the words of our Bible are not God’s very words?”

The oldest document of the early church, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, declares, “our gospel came to you not only with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (I Thess. 1:5).

I would argue, as I have been since the beginning of this series, that for the early church, words alone were not the primary authority. For Christians, God’s Spirit is our ultimate authority. Therefore the important question for me is this: “How do we receive and understand the communication of God’s Spirit and what is the Bible’s role in this?”

My understanding on this matter is based in part on a version of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in conjunction with the Anabaptist community hermeneutic. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is an approach to theological reflection based on John Wesley’s teachings listing four primary pillars for understanding Christian truth: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. I believe it is only as we hold these four avenues of communication in amalgamation that we can best sense and discern God’s truth. More importantly, we must also be yielded to the Holy Spirit and the community hermeneutic of the Anabaptist tradition.

The Anabaptist community hermeneutic developed from their rejection of “Sola Scriptura” in preference of “Scripture and Spirit together.” The radical reformers believed the best interpreters of Scripture were those filled with the Holy Spirit. This meant a Spirit-filled illiterate peasant was a better interpreter of Scripture than an educated theologian without the Holy Spirit. This was an extremely radical idea in the 16th century and was soon revised as some began saying and doing very questionable things, claiming to be led by God’s Spirit. The challenge was how to discern authentic divine revelation.

The solution, in part, was what we now call the community hermeneutic, a process of involving the community in interpretation over and above the individual, providing a safeguard on Scriptural interpretation and on discernment of what is genuine divine revelation.

I realize this cursory overview of so many complex ideas is utterly insufficient but it will have to suffice for now. To summarize, I believe a meaningful approach to Scripture in the postmodern turn starts with recognizing all spiritual truth comes from God’s Spirit and Christians access, discern and interpret spiritual truth through 1) engaging Scripture in coalition with Reason, Tradition and Experience, 2) in openness and “yieldedness” to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and 3) in the context of the community hermeneutic. 

Troy Watson is Pastor of Quest Community. This is part of the ongoing series, “The Role of Scripture for Postmodern Life.”

Further reading:
Shedding Sola Scriptura
Is the Bible Reliable?
Divinely Inspired
The priority problem
The professionalization factor

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I've enjoyed reading these articles and think they'd be helpful, esp. for young adults with no SS or Bible training. I have parts 3,4,5,6 but have looked everywhere for parts one and 2. How can I get a hold of them? OK to email me them to save time. THanks.

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