Postmodern Agnosticism Rules at Most Conservative Theological Institutions1
Most Evangelicals have no idea what is being taught in Christian colleges and seminaries in America today. They assume that those training for the ministry are being taught the Bible, sound doctrine, and how to teach and preach.
The truth is hard to believe.
The norm in most American theological institutions, among both the faculty and the students, is the idea that we are certain of either very little, or of nothing at all. Many professors, students, and graduates are certain that they can’t be certain of anything!
Not only are theological students and faculty not certain of their eternal destiny, they aren’t even sure that God exists! And they say so in class.
Students no longer primarily study the Bible. They primarily study what scholars say about the Bible.
Sound doctrine is no longer a given among Christian students. Many diverging views are tolerated among the students and faculty, even views that radically disagree with the school’s doctrinal statement.
According to most Evangelical educators today, we cannot be sure of even foundational Christian truths. For example, many seminary and Bible college professors specifically say we cannot be sure that Jesus rose from the dead! Consider the following evidence.
Postmodernity Is the Next Reformation
Carl Raschke is the author of The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004).
He has a Ph.D. from Harvard in the Philosophy of Religion and is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.
Raschke says that postmodern faith is existential, not rational. Faith is “a total surrender of one’s heart” (pp. 168, 210). “A rational ‘faith’ is not really faith at all. Faith does not require any kind of unimpeachable demonstration. It is a passion for God amid the contingencies of experience and the messiness of life in general” (p. 168).
“The Bible is not a system of arguable and debatable propositions. A genuine systematic theology forged from the Bible is impossible” (p. 210).
The Bible has errors in it, yet it is authoritative (pp. 120, 134, 143). “The ‘infallible’ authority of Scripture, therefore, is not founded on the fact that it contains no ‘errors’” (p. 134). “The authority of the Bible does not rest on whether it is logically and seamlessly consistent and free of ‘errors’” (p. 143). Certitude is the enemy of faith (pp. 82, 150, 168, 174). Without certitude to stand on, postmodernity takes it stand on intuition! “The real is relational and the relational is real. On this intuition the postmodern Christians take their stand” (p. 158, italics his).
“Postmodernity is all our doubts supersized” (p. 174).
Raschke admits, “At first glance the prospect appears both repugnant and frightening.” It must take a lot of glances to remove those fears. The more I look at evangelical postmodernity, the greater my fear and repugnancy grows.
We Believe in God Despite No Evidence
According to Wheaton Professor of Philosophy W. Jay Wood, “modest foundationalists make no claims about the invincible certainty of one’s basic beliefs” (Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, p. 98). The reason is because we cannot be sure of anything based on evidence.
Wood rejects the suggestion by W. K. Clifford that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (p. 107). For Wood anything we “believe” is believed in spite of the fact that there is insufficient evidence. Clifford’s credo runs headlong against Wood’s postmodern “truths.”
Wood speaks of “the inescapable ambiguity of ‘sufficiency of evidence’” (p. 112). No matter how much evidence one has for something, it cannot prove that it is certainly true. He gives as an example the belief that God exists. Even this basic belief is not something of which a postmodern can be certain (pp. 112-13).
It is hard to believe that we have faculty at leading Bible Colleges, Christian Colleges, and Seminaries who are not even certain of the fact that God exists.
Wood gives many examples of situations in which a person’s eyewitness testimony is reasonably doubted by others (see, for example, his example of jurors with different beliefs about a defendant’s guilt, p. 11; the illustration of a young boy accusing another of stealing one of his baseball cards, yet with the group doubting the charge, p. 114; and the claim of a bird watcher to have seen a very rare bird, with the group doubting the claim, pp. 167-68). Wood in part wishes the reader to see eyewitness testimony may not be true. Of course, no one has ever doubted this. However, he also seems to want the reader to jump to the unreasonable conclusion that one can never be sure of the eyewitness testimony of any witness or group of witnesses. Interestingly, in each of the examples he gives to show that an eyewitness claim may not be true, he shows the reader problems with the claim by appealing to evidence.
Postmoderns seem to want it both ways. On the one hand, Wood presents lots of evidence in an attempt to prove his claim that no amount of evidence could ever be sufficient to prove anything is certainly true. On the other hand, they want to say that all evidence is suspect and no matter how much there is, we are faced with “inescapable ambiguity.” It would seem that they are in a hopeless impasse.
However, for postmoderns, this is the beauty of beliefs that are not bound by proofs. Wood, by his own admission, was a new convert who when he went to college was “not at all sure that my newfound faith was intellectually defensible” (p. 11). He learned as he continued in philosophy studies that when people expressed skepticism about his religious beliefs he might avoid giving evidence entirely! “What if instead of answering the religious skeptic’s demand for more evidence, I were to argue that one may be perfectly rational believing in God in the absence of evidence?” (p. 13).
We Can’t Know Anything, Except We Know We Can’t Know
James K. A. Smith is the head of the department of Philosophy at Calvin College.
Smith has written a book endorsing postmodernism: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Smith notes, “The postmodern theologian says, ‘We can’t know that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The best we can do is believe’” (p. 119).
Smith continues, “Why? Because to know would mean being certain. We know that such certainty is an impossible dream…”
Did you notice that Smith contradicts himself? “To know would mean being certain,” Smith says. And we can’t be certain. But then he turns right around and says he does indeed know something. He says, “we know that such certainty is an impossible dream.”
Smith continues, “therefore, we actually lack knowledge. We don’t know; we can only believe, and such faith will always be mysterious and ambiguous. But this isn’t a bad thing; quite to the contrary, it is liberating and just” (p. 119).
He doesn’t even seem aware that in back to back sentences he totally contradicts himself.
As with many Evangelical postmoderns, Smith describes himself as a charismatic. On an NPR radio interview cited at his personal website, Smith said he likes to describe himself as a “Reformed Catholic Charismatic.” In the same interview he stressed the importance of experience in the Christian life (3:05ff.). He spoke of the importance of mystery and of charismatic worship (ca. 4:30).
Evangelicals Agree There Are No Absolutes
The following are short transcripts from two of Dr. John Franke’s presentations at the 2005 Annual ETS meetings in Valley Forge, PA.
One of his messages was on “Postfoundationalism and Postcolonialism.”
Everybody [at ETS] agrees that classical foundationalism is not a helpful project…I’m glad the theory has been rejected. I think it needs to be. So I think it sounds like we can stop debating that. We agree. That’s what I’m hearing at ETS. (Disk 4, 9:45-10:45, emphasis added).
Moments later Franke expanded a bit on his point:
Postmodern theory raises two basic questions about this agenda and its tendencies. Whether such an approach to knowledge as described by foundationalism in its classical form and its tendencies 1) is possible and 2) whether it is desirable.
It’s not possible. Human beings are finite. Further, it’s not desirable. Human beings are fallen and if some would say even if it were possible, it wouldn’t be desirable because it’s a scary thing when people, human beings who are corrupt, feel they have that kind of confidence about absolute, certain, objective truth.
As one friend of mine put it, “You don’t have to listen to most of the defenders of absolute truth very long before you realize they not only believe in the idea, they think they have it. And they are prepared to use it—sometimes on you, if you don’t agree with them.” [Laughter in background.] That’s important, friends. It’s funny and I think we can laugh, but that’s what happens. (10:55- 11:47, emphasis added).
During another ETS Parallel Session in which Franke and J.P. Moreland2 discussed these issues, Franke made this fascinating comment:
The word to me that haunts this discussion…is certainty. So in J.P.’s response…he says that …we need to move forward without caricaturing the position of [modest] foundationalism as having anything to do with the quest for certainty, control, human autonomy, or such. I agree with that…(Disk 4, Tract 29, Time: 29:30-30:00, emphasis added).
Franke’s choice of the word haunt is quite telling. Haunting suggests that which is fearful, dreaded, and sinister. For Franke, certainty is like a ghost that haunts and thereby terrifies people.3
We Aren’t Even Sure That Jesus Rose from the Dead
A message given at the 2005 ETS Annual Meeting in Valley Forge, PA, by Dr. Stewart Kelly,4 entitled, “Miracle, Method, and Metaphysics: Philosophy and the Quest for the Historical Jesus” shows that the probability, rather than certainty, of Jesus’ resurrection being true is precisely what many if not most Christian historians, theologians, and exegetes say today. Note this comment by Kelly about Troeltsch’s probability principle:
The probability principle claims that “in the realm of history, there are only judgments of probability, varying from the highest to the lowest degree, and that consequently an estimate must be made of the degree of probability attaching to any tradition.” Given that faith requires at the least a certain degree of trust, the inherent non-certainty of the historical method might be seen as an enemy of faith. But as Alvin Platinga points out, Troeltsch’s first principle is not a prescriptive claim, about how all historians and theologians should practice their craft, but rather a descriptive one about the historical enterprise in general. Well, any historian, Christian or otherwise, can readily agree with Troeltsch in this matter, for absolute certainty of the sort that Descartes and others prize will be limited to innocuous claims such as Caesar crossed the Rubicon or else he didn’t.
Now from the fact that historical claims are probabilistic, it hardly follows that particular Christian claims, for example, Jesus rose bodily from the dead, are at risk here. Few Christian apologists claim apodictic [incontrovertible, demonstrably true] certainty for such a claim [the resurrection of Jesus!], but merely that it is the best and most plausible explanation given the historical data with which we are dealing (Time marker: 16:22 to 17:44, emphasis added).
Our Beliefs Never Correspond to Reality
Also in Valley Forge at ETS, Dr. Merold Westphal, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York City, said, “I appreciated, Bill, these charitable attempts to make me into a critical realist…But, he was just dead wrong about me. He was hoping desperately that my view is that our beliefs do not necessarily correspond to reality and not that, therefore, our beliefs never correspond to reality. And, it is the latter which is my view, and this is why I am anti-realist” (Disk 4, Message 47; around the 4:30 mark, emphasis added).
Our beliefs never correspond to reality?
If Westphal is right, every human being should be in a mental institution since we are all out of touch with reality.
Westphal went on to say, “nothing we ever say about God strictly speaking is true.”
Then why would any honorable person who believed that make his living by being a pastor, by teaching in a seminary or Bible college, by being a missionary, by working in a parachurch organization, or by doing anything Christian? Would he not feel guilty if he knew that nothing he says about God is true, and yet that is what he is being paid to do? Wouldn’t it be hypocrisy to take a paycheck for promoting lies? Wouldn’t anyone in the ministry be a shyster?5
The Role of the Teacher Is Not to Impart Information
James P. Danaher is the head of the Department of Philosophy at Nyack College, a CMA school. In 2006 a faculty interview of him was posted at the Nyack website.
Under the heading, “My conversion to a life in Christ,” Danaher says:
I had an experience with the Lord when I was eighteen, but it was an experience and not a conversion into a radically new and different life. Twelve years later, I had another God experience but again without the kind of surrender that marks the beginning of a transformed life. God was faithful still and, two years later, with a third experience, there was a surrender and the beginning of a transformation that has continued for the past twenty-five years.
As a committed Evangelical postmodern, it is not surprising that Danaher emphasizes experience in telling of his conversion. He tells of three difference experiences with the Lord. Evidently Danaher hadn’t surrendered sufficiently the first two times for transformation to begin.
It is telling that we read nothing about faith in this testimony. Nor is anything said about Jesus Christ in this testimony. And nothing is said about everlasting life, justification, or the kingdom of God. As with many postmoderns, Danaher sees surrender to God as a condition of temporal transformation, which is a common understanding of salvation among Evangelical postmoderns.
That Nyack College, a Christian school, posted such a testimony on their website reveals the degree to which postmodernity is at home there.
In the same faculty interview, note what Danaher says “the role of a teacher” is:
The role of a teacher is not to impart information but to stimulate imagination and create interest. Intelligence is largely a matter of interest. We are all geniuses with regard to those things toward which we have a deep interest. The job of the teacher is to instill such an interest in the student. To do so, two things are essential. You have to love your subject matter and you have to love your students. Everything else in regard to teaching is superficial.
While there is certainly some truth in what Danaher is saying, there’s also some error.
Surely the role of teacher includes at least some impartation of information.
We are not all geniuses, even in regard to things to which we have a deep interest.
While loving your subject and your students is certainly important in teaching, it is going too far to say that “everything else in regard to teaching is superficial.” Communication skills, knowledge of your subject, preparation for each class session, and attention to detail are also vitally important.
The Bible Is Insufficient for Sanctification
At the 2006 ETS annual conference in Washington, D.C., John Coe, Professor of Philosophy and Spiritual Theology and Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology, presented a provocative paper entitled, “Spiritual Theology: A Methodology for Bridging the Sanctification Gap.” He said, “Though the Scriptures are a central and defining datum, a Bible-alone approach is inadequate and truncated in understanding the doctrine of sanctification and the process of transformation” (p. 2). He continued, “If we are going to understand all we can about the work of the Spirit in the soul, we are going to have to study and understand that work in real life as well as the Biblical text” (p. 3, italics his).
In the Q & A time I asked him if we can learn from unregenerate people like Catholics, Buddhists, and Hindus, how to do spiritual formation. He answered that while the unregenerate often have a “truncated view” of spiritual formation (note the quote above using the same expression regarding Bible-only folks!), yes, we can learn from the unregenerate how to do spiritual formation as long as we filter out the mistakes they make.
The room this took place in seated around 75 people. Every seat was taken and there were another 20 or so seated in the back and in the aisles. This was a very popular session. As far as I could tell from the questions and from the faces of the people in the audience, people were very favorable toward this presentation.
It is time that believers wake up about what is being taught in our theological schools. It is not only liberal schools which are out of step with the Bible and with its fundamental truths. Even historically conservative schools for the most part teach the postmodern principle that we cannot be sure of much, if anything.
I have a friend with two children under age 3. He does not plan to send them to public schools, which he calls atheist schools. Maybe he is a bit too harsh. However, it isn’t just public K-12 schools that are a problem. Christian colleges and seminaries often do not promote the values that parents want their children to maintain.
It is time for Christian parents to spend as much if not more time deciding on a college or seminary for their children as they did deciding on whether to homeschool or send them to a Christian middle school and high school.
Sadly, the more impressive the academic credentials of the faculty at a school, the more likely the school promotes postmodernity and uncertainty. Degrees from prestigious schools like Harvard, Yale, Duke, Oxford, Cambridge, and Aberdeen should be red flags. Watch out. Liberal theology flows from liberal schools.
1. This message was originally given in 2006 at the Pre-Trib Study Group Annual Conference in Dallas. It has been slightly edited (including being cut into two parts). All of the people mentioned in this article continue to teach at the schools indicated.
2. Moreland is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA.
3. Today Franke is Executive Director and Professor of Missional Theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT.
4. Kelly is Professor of Philosophy at Minot State University in Minot, ND.
5. In an article entitled, “Blind Spots:Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy” (www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_12_120/ai_1039…) Westphal compares atheistic postmodernist and
Christian postmodernists such as himself. “Atheistic postmodernism says that we are not God because there is no God. Christian [postmodern] thought says we are not God because only God is God. In spite of the deep disagreement about God, there is a deep agreement between Christians [i.e., postmodern Christians] and postmodern thinkers [i.e., atheistic postmodern thinkers] that we are not God and should not claim divine status for our knowledge.”