Postmodern Theology and Renewal By Grace

Postmodern theology is diverse, ranging from “postliberal theology” to “deconstructive theology,” and trying to capture its fundamental tenets likely conflicts with what one even does (or can do) with such theology. But one might describe postmodern theology’s fundamental tenet as a recognition that one is ‘placed’ in an interpretive context (or community) and it is from this place (a “view from below”) that one interprets scripture and tradition. Postmodern theologians recognize, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, a “tradition-based” rationality. According to MacIntyre for one “to be outside of all traditions is to be a stranger to enquiry; it is to be in a state of intellectual and moral destitution.”[1] Postmodern theologians also cite Stanley Fish who argues that a reader is not a free agent, but “a member of a community whose assumptions about literature determine the kind of attention he pays.”[2]

Kevin J. Vanhoozer describes this approach as the following: “Neither individual nor cultures enjoy a God’s-eye point of view on the world. Human beings always and only hold points of view from within particular histories, languages, and traditions…..Human understanding is always ‘from below,’ never ‘from above.’ Bereft of privileged perspectives, we must make do with our prejudices (preconceptions).” He quotes Hans-Georg Gadamer as saying, “the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power….Understanding is to be thought of less as a subjective act than as participating in an event of tradition.”[3] The demand of the postmodernist is the rejection of “traditionless reason,” which on their account does not exist.

The obvious reply to all of this is simply that the demand to reject “traditionless reason” is itself a view from above. It is a proposition about all traditions; it is a universal proposition. Postmodernism always has trouble avoiding relativism, subjectivism, and basic self-refutation. This a common objection and I will not discuss it further.[4]

Here I will briefly argue that postmodernist theology is rooted in a false view of grace and renewal. I argue that the Reformed conception of grace describes a reorientation to God, others, and creation that transcends tradition, culture and institution and thereby ‘places’ a person in a theoretical, traditionless stance toward God’s self-disclosure. The Reformed theologian, Anthony Hoekema, in Created in God’s Image, identifies the renewal of the human by God’s grace as an “empower[ing] to function properly.”[5] This is an interesting way of describing renewal. What he means is the following: “In this renewal of the image we are once again enabled to live in love, in three directions: toward God, toward the neighbor, and toward nature.” He says “once again” because the renewal by grace is a “reorientation” of the human being back to humanity’s original orientation toward the Creator and creation.  We are reoriented away from the flesh and toward the self-disclosure of God in creation and scripture. We see, hear, smell, taste, touch the things of God “properly.” One could say that we now properly “see” God’s beauty in creation and we “hear” God’s voice in scripture.

What postmodern theologians have missed, in my estimation, is what it means to be renewed by grace. Being renewed is not a reorientation toward one’s tradition, but toward God’s self-disclosure in both creation and scripture. It is a renewal toward being fully human, a creature specially designed to experience God’s self-disclosure in the world.[6] As I argued in Section III of another post (here), this means that renewal places someone in his right mind. God brings about a theoretical neutrality that places one in a stance or perspective to see God’s work as Creator and Redeemer without being clouded by culture and tradition. It is only our status as sinners, as the not-yet-perfected, that orients us to understand ‘from below’ and not ‘from above.’ The renewal brought about by God’s act of regeneration is an initial restoration of the image of God in man; and as the image of God we are “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1) in creation. We are in creation as creatures, yet we are above creation as bearers of God’s image in creation. Thus our renewal restores a God’s-eye view.

Of course, language has a significant role in understanding God’s self-disclosure in both creation and scripture, and language can obscure things. But language is a system of symbols with referents; and if God’s work of renewal is a reorientation toward a fixed self-disclosure, then the body of referents remains the same. Thus the obscurity of language can be overcome by dialogue and precision. We already do this constantly in our everyday lives: our interaction with others shapes and modifies our referents in our language. If the referents do not change (since God does not change), then the problem is sorting out our symbol-referent relationships, which takes effort but is not impossible.

One could object by saying that my thoughts are a view from below and do not transcend a tradition. But even if this is true, I am not in a position to know it. For my “tradition” includes the idea of transcending traditions through the renewal of grace. And it does not follow that I should change my tradition to ensure that my tradition conforms to the notion that one cannot transcend traditions. I would simply be conforming from one universal proposition to another.

The dialogue with the postmoderns needs to continue, not only for the sake of the young Christians who encounter them in college, but for the sake of the Church whose members have been reoriented toward God’s self-disclosure. When we abandon the idea that grace brings us into “proper functioning,” we can easily abandon reorientation toward God, others, and creation.


[1]Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 367.

[2] Is there a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (London and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980).

[3] Truth and Method (New York: Coninuum, 2002). Quoted in Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003), 152-3.

[4] Here are two helpful books addressing postmodernism and Christianity: Truth Decay by Douglas Groothuis and Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church by D.A. Carson.

[5] Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing 1986), 86.

[6] This reorientation-by-renewal is brought about immediately, not mediately through a mediating institution.

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