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Postmodern Dogmatics

By Fred Zaspel–

I realize that the title seems self-contradictory, but I take it from the title of an article published nearly ten years ago now by John Franke, then of Biblical Theological Seminary, in the Westminster Theological Journal (WTJ 65 [2003]: 1-26): “Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics.” Franke has of course expressed his proposed theological method elsewhere, and for our section entitled “An Introduction to Systematic Theology” I require my students to read this piece — not because I agree with it but because it is a good sample of this approach to Scripture and theology that students of theology need to understand and be acquainted with. Here I’ll offer a few of my thoughts, only in summary. (You can read my previous reviews here and here.)

Postmoderns are suspicious of knowledge and of certainty of knowledge in particular. Certainly (if you pardon the language) the modernist mind was overly confident of its abilities and often seemingly unaware of the sometimes blinding influence of tradition and community in the conclusions it held. Tradition and community bias can indeed prevent us from thinking clearly and forming objective conclusions, and this caution against over confidence is a good one. We may affirm with the postmodernist, certainly, that certainty of knowledge is difficult to come by. So far so good.

Moreover, our reading of Scripture, even, is inevitably affected by the influences around us. We may be certain of this also. Finite humans have finite perspectives. When we read the Bible, our understanding of it is inevitably shaped by the various influences around us — our culture, tradition, religious community, pre-understandings, biases, and so on. Only omniscience can avoid the limitations of perspectivalism. Limited as we are in our knowledge and understanding our interpretations and conclusions are often incomplete and even skewed.

And so Postmoderns insists that there can be no genuine certainty of knowledge. And in regard to the Bible specifically, the meaning is not in the text. The meaning is “out in front” of the text in the community that reads it, with “meaning” varying from community to community. We are finite, and we therefore cannot attain certainty of knowledge. And we are inevitably affected by various influences, and so “meaning” and “truth” necessarily vary. There is a “plurality of truth.” These are the certain claims of postmodernism.

What should we say to this? I’ll highlight what seems to me to be the most obvious problems.

What is first striking about all this, as I have alluded already, is the certainty with which postmoderns speak of the impossibility of certainty in knowledge and of the certain truthfulness of their proposed alternative. Just on the face of it something seems awry here, and we are left to wonder if the postmodernist can really live with his own pronouncements. Postmodernism is surely right to expose the unwarranted confidence of the modernist mind — it was a needed corrective. But its alternative does not appear to be an improvement.

Next, we again must agree that our interpretations and conclusions are inevitably affected by the various influences that have shaped us. We must heartily acknowledge that neutrality is impossible. But this is not to say that objectivity is impossible. This seems to be a bit of a jump. It is good for me to recognize that I approach Scripture with bias and with pre-understandings, and so forth. But this recognition ought to drive me to strive the more for self-critical objectivity as I approach the text of Scripture so that I may more faithfully interpret it.

Again, we must readily agree that the knowledge we possess is not exhaustive. It is limited. Only God is omniscient. But while it is true that we cannot know fully, this is not to say that we therefore cannot know truly and accurately. And our incomplete knowledge can well skew our understandings, and we must guard against it. But the fact remains that although we know nothing fully, we can and do know accurately. Even the most radical postmodernist much acknowledge this, or his own system would be incoherent.

And at this point it would be helpful for us simply to be reminded of the scriptural affirmations of and exhortations in regard to notions such as truth, falsehood, error, certainty, assurance, knowledge. Even notions such as morality, moral norms, right and wrong all presuppose not only divine revelation but its accessibility to us and our responsibility to believe and act accordingly. Indeed, on all these scores we are held accountable.

Finally, there is the reality of authorial intent. There is a “right” and therefore a wrong way to understand the biblical authors (2Tim. 2:15), and understood rightly Scripture serves as a reliable lamp and light to our path (Ps. 119:105) by which we are to test all things (Is. 8:20). That is to say, there is authorial intent, in the Scriptures, that we are responsible to grasp. The meaning is not “out in front” but in the text itself, and we are responsible not simply to interact with the text in such a way that it impacts us and our community in the way that we happen to read it. We are responsible to understand and believe and obey. Indeed, our Lord’s “Have you not read the Scripture?” (Mark 12:10; cf. Matt. 21:42), “Have you never read?” (Matt. 21:16), and “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures” (Matt. 22:29; cf. Mark 12:24) all reflect his conviction that the Bible has its own intended meaning.

So what does all this say to the theologian? At least these five things.

First, we must learn how to read the Biblical text. There is a right way and a wrong way. There is a “pattern” of truth (2Tim. 1:13-14) that we must observe and which must guide us. This is our first priority.

Second, we must follow the text. We must follow it carefully and submissively, willing to walk any path it directs.

Third, we must follow only the text. Outside influences there are — tradition, culture, pre-understandings of all kinds. But there is just one authoritative word (Is. 8:20).

Fourth, we must go no further than the text. The temptation is often to make Scripture speak in keeping with our previous bias. And we may want to speculate and draw conclusions that have no explicit Biblical warrant. But as Scripture itself warns us, we are responsible both to believe all that which God has revealed and to recognize that he has not revealed everything (Dt. 29:29). Go no further than the text.

Finally, we must recognize that our work is never done. Precisely because we are often led astray by previous bias, and precisely because we are not omniscient, our work is never done. This is the nature of the “hermeneutical spiral.”

We cannot know fully, but we can know truly. Truth there is. It is found in the text of Scripture, and we are rendered responsible accordingly.

Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010); Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.


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