How Critical Thinking Solves the Problem of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation

Updated on December 13, 2019
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Wife, Oregonian, coffee lover, chronic illness warrior and entrepreneur.

Familiarity with the precepts of critical thinking can restore confidence in the Bible as God’s inerrant Word.
Familiarity with the precepts of critical thinking can restore confidence in the Bible as God’s inerrant Word.

How Has Postmodernism Influenced Culture?

Postmodernism, a worldview popularized in the mid 20th century, presents a world devoid of absolute truth and asserts that no two individuals can ever reach a genuine understanding. When this assumption, which still pervades the American culture, is applied to author and reader, the implication is clear: no reader can ever grasp the author’s original intent. When this assumption is applied to biblical scholarship, the implication is detrimental to sound interpretation and rejects hundreds of years of hermeneutical scholarship and voids textual criticism altogether. At a non-academic level, postmodernism has influenced everyday Bible readers with the assumption that people can bring their own truth to the text and potentially extract something new or different than what has been the historical interpretation.

According to Barna Research’s 2018 article, The Trends Shaping a Post-Truth Society, “64% of millennials don’t feel that any one religious text has a monopoly on truth.” This is likely due, at least in part, to what William Osborne describes in his journal article Thinking Critically, Reading Faithfully: Critical Biblical Scholarship in the Christian College Classroom: “Evangelical Christianity lost its voice in the academy in the latter part of the twentieth century…it had a great deal to do with a surge of intellectual weakness” (84). Restoring the secular discipline of critical thinking to the modern American church can make it possible for both the ordinary believer as well as clergy to extract real meaning from biblical texts and overcome the interpretive roadblocks that postmodernism creates.

Historian and Philosopher Arnold Toynbee
Historian and Philosopher Arnold Toynbee

Where Does The Term "Postmodern" Come From?

While the exact date of the beginning of the postmodern era is contested, the title of “postmodern” as it relates to eras in history can be traced back to 1947 in the work of historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee. In volume two of his book A Study of History, Toynbee states, In the Post-Modern chapter of Western history, the devastating effects of the parochial sovereign states had been enhanced by a demonic drive. The restraining influence of a universal church had been removed. The impact of democracy in the form of nationalism, coupled in many cases with some new-fangled ideology, had made warfare more bitter, and the impetus given by industrialism and technology had provided the combatants with increasingly destructive weapons. (313)

Jean-Francois Lyotard, French sociologist and literary theorist, then “elaborated these ideas into a proposal that the so-called grand narrative used to explain the world in terms of the individual, science, history, and the state no longer serve to describe the contemporary experience” (Drucker 429). Lyotard defines postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv).

Postmodernism finds its roots in the 20th century and is still shaping the culture today.
Postmodernism finds its roots in the 20th century and is still shaping the culture today.

What Is Postmodern Ideology?

The most obvious hallmark of postmodern ideology is its wholesale rejection of modernist and enlightenment ideals. The enlightenment period, which gave the world the scientific method as well as great intellectual and artistic achievements, assumed a common humanity among all people, enabling them to communicate these achievements across culture, time, and language. Where the enlightenment and modernist historical characters sought meaning for the individual within the metanarrative, postmodernism has rejected all forms of metanarrative which unite all people within a common story.

One of the immediate symptoms of rejecting metanarrative is the rejection of objectivity. Because of postmodernism’s pervasive influence, the grand narrative is abandoned in favor of individual narrative. Within individual narrative, anything can be regarded as truth so long as it only pertains to that individual. According to George Barna’s article The Trends Shaping a Post Truth Society, “Truth is increasingly regarded as something felt, or relative (44%), rather than something known, or absolute (35%).” The evangelical community has not been immune to these ideological shifts either. According to Ligonier’s State of Theology poll, “32% of evangelicals say that their religious beliefs are not objectively true.”

Another symptom of postmodernism’s rejection of grand narrative is, the inability to communicate truth to other individuals across culture, time, and language. This results in the isolation of individuals within their individuality. First, postmodernists are isolated within their micronarrative in rejection of any common human story. But also, within the postmodern worldview while individuals can neither be fully understood in their use of language or art nor can they fully understand the cultural artifacts in the world around them. Therefore, they see their micronarrative as living and dying in solitude without being genuinely understood.

"What Rome thus affirms of the church, and her tradition, Protestantism attributes to the individual reader of the Word who uses the ordained means." - MacPherson
"What Rome thus affirms of the church, and her tradition, Protestantism attributes to the individual reader of the Word who uses the ordained means." - MacPherson

Do Protestants Believe Everything In the Bible is Easy to Understand?

When postmodernism interacts with biblical theology, it runs counter to the Reformation’s assertion that anyone can extract the basic meaning from biblical texts in matters that pertain to the means of salvation. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith,

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (38)

John MacPherson’s notes in the 2008 edition indicate that at the time the Westminster Confession was written in 1646, the young Protestant church was facing similar issues to those evangelicals face today. MacPherson states: “The Romish Church maintains that Scripture is not in itself intelligible to the people in matters of faith and insists that only the church tradition can give the true interpretation. What Rome thus affirms of the church, and her tradition, Protestantism attributes to the individual reader of the Word who uses the ordained means” (38).

It is inherent in historical Protestantism that certain things can be understood.

It is inherent in historical Protestantism that certain things can be understood.

The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture assumes that God gave his Word to the world in a way the world could comprehend. While the historical Roman Catholic church shrouded this doctrine under layers of tradition five hundred years ago, the postmodern worldview clouds it today. In the words of Larry Pettegrew, “The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is complicated by the vociferous antagonism of the postmodern critics of biblical authority… these postmodern philosophers insist that clarity of meaning is only to be found in the reader, not in the text itself” (210). The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture was considered so crucial to the reformers that it resulted in what could be considered the greatest church split of all time. It should remain of great importance to the modern Bible reader five hundred years later as it has again come under assault, this time by the postmodern worldview.

The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that historical Protestantism rejects the idea that some things in Scripture remain difficult to understand. As previously stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all…” (38). What the confession does call for, however, is “the due use of ordinary means.” These ordinary means are the use of proper hermeneutical methods and critical thinking skills that are as readily available today as they were five centuries ago. These methods include practices such as using Scripture to interpret Scripture, reading the different genres of Scripture as they were intended to be read, and considering how the church has viewed different passages throughout history.

The latter may sound reminiscent of Roman Catholicism’s historical shrouding of the truth under tradition but understanding the church’s historical view is critical because biblical scholarship cannot flourish within a vacuum. Those who find themselves influenced by postmodern culture may find it tempting to see truths” in the Bible that no one has seen before. It should be noted that:

[While] it is not outside the realm of possibility or God’s power to divinely reveal a unique interpretation of a biblical text to an individual…this has not been the standard approach of the Christian community since its inception and should not be the assumed method now, even the Apostle Paul’s teaching is subjected to the scrutiny of the believing community in Berea (Acts 17:11). (Osborne 88)

These methods can protect the modern Bible reader from heresy and misinterpretation, just as they have protected the universal church from antiquity.

[While] it is not outside the realm of possibility or God’s power to divinely reveal a unique interpretation of a biblical text to an individual…this has not been the standard approach of the Christian community since its inception and should not be the assumed method now, even the Apostle Paul’s teaching is subjected to the scrutiny of the believing community in Berea (Acts 17:11). (88)

— William Osborne

Critical Thinking is Becoming a Lost Art

Among millennials, the ability to use basic critical thinking skills is waning. When given a nine-question test which studies an individual’s ability to evaluate news sources and information using critical thinking skills “roughly three out of four millennials failed, answering five or fewer questions correctly” (“Third Annual State of Critical Thinking Study”). When compared with an older generation, “13% of baby boomers received an ‘A’ while only 5% of millennials did likewise.” To help American Christians interpret Scripture correctly, the teaching of basic principles of critical thinking should be fostered within the church. These principles include but are not limited to defining terms, understanding personal bias and being skeptical of it, and exploring all the facts.

While individuals ought to use critical thinking skills in all areas of life, it is particularly crucial to apply these skills when studying the Bible. This is known as “biblical criticism.” According to J.C. O’Neill, “Biblical criticism is the practice of analyzing and making discriminating judgments about the literature of the Bible- its origin, transmission, and interpretation…as in other fields, [it] is designed to promote discriminating analysis and understanding” (O’Neill). Enabling the individual to practice these skills empowers them to find answers to difficult questions in the Bible and apply the Scriptures to life correctly.

Among millennials, the ability to use basic critical thinking skills is waning.
Among millennials, the ability to use basic critical thinking skills is waning.

It is important to note that in the secular world and particularly within the postmodern and humanist communities which are currently wielding enormous influence over academia, critical thinking about the Bible typically only involves skepticism toward the Bible but rejects skepticism toward self. This is partly because, as state earlier, postmodernists find the truth within themselves, rather than in the external world or the artifact being examined. This is why critical thinking without first examining personal bias is dangerous. One of the greatest ruses perpetrated against Christians in the secular academic world is that they must first set aside their faith in order to critically examine the Bible (Osborne 83).

While some have argued that “the postmodern era is characterized by a rediscovery of epistemic humility, and postmodern theology is no exception” (Boone 36), the basic premise that truth resides in the individual rather than the text should cause the Christian reader to be skeptical of postmodern inclinations. As William Osborne states, “True critical thinking requires a sincere humility on the part of the learner, which is completely right and appropriate given a biblical worldview” (86). While the critically thinking Bible student should not set aside their faith to examine the Bible, they should examine the Scriptures with humility and awareness of personal biases in order to gain the most from their studies.

Does Critical Thinking Diminish the Work of the Holy Spirit?

A potential evangelical objection to the argument that critical thinking is essential to biblical scholarship is that it might seem to exclude the work of the Holy Spirit in both personal Bible study and the pursuit of sound biblical criticism. “Postmodernism has great adverse effect on the Bible’s interpretation and renders it unimportant to apply hermeneutics to it” (Adu-Gyamfi 8) because it does not recognize external sources of absolute truth. The Christian Bible reader, on the other hand, must consider the Holy Spirit to be an omniscient, external (and in a sense, also internal) source of absolute truth.

As Jesus said in John 16:13, “When he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth” (NKJV). This is the doctrine of illumination and it does not negate the need for critical thinking, just as critical thinking does not negate the need for the Holy Spirit. Jesus said in Luke 10:27, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” Also, in John 14:26 he said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” Therefore, critical thinking does not exclude the work of the Holy Spirit through the text. Rather, the Holy Spirit enhances the believer’s intellectual ability to glean truth from the text.

Why is it Important to Train Christians in Critical Thinking?

Because the Christian academic community bears the weight of training pastors in hermeneutics and biblical scholarship, critical thinking is an important skill for future clergy members to master during their seminary training. Passing on the heritage of critical thinking to seminary students an important legacy that can effectively curtail the “surge of intellectual weakness” (Osborne 84) because it is an “essential component of thoughtful exegesis” (86). It also encourages students to ask hard questions of the Bible by proposing that the Bible can withstand intense scrutiny. Osborne goes on to state: “As teachers, when we encourage intelligent questions -even about the Bible- we are demonstrating to our students that we do in fact believe that all truth is indeed God’s truth” (86).

Where a postmodern approach to Scripture robs the reader of the assurance of absolute truth and makes it difficult to extract real meaning from the text, familiarity with the precepts of critical thinking can restore confidence in the Bible as God’s inerrant Word. Critical thinking demonstrates that individuals do not have to be afraid to press the Bible with difficult questions. A willingness among the academic community to allow students to cross-examine Scripture with challenging inquiries displays confidence in the Bible as God’s revelation of understandable truth.

A willingness among the academic community to allow students to cross-examine Scripture with challenging inquiries displays confidence in the Bible as God’s revelation of understandable truth.

While the Christian academic community bears the weight of training pastors, pastors, in turn, bear the weight of shaping their churches’ beliefs about the Bible. Teaching congregants to love and learn from the Bible is one of a pastor’s most important tasks because “serious critical reflection on the Scriptures is not only necessary for the academy. It is essential to growing in the knowledge of the Scriptures and engaging the world with the gospel” (Osborne 85). Through critical thinking, everyday Christians can learn how to discern real meaning from biblical texts for themselves. This will allow for hundreds of more years of meaningful biblical scholarship and reinstate to the individual reader the ability to glean accurate insight from Scripture as the reformers intended. By being empowered to effectively examine the Scriptures all believers will be able to meaningfully answer the postmodern world’s most pressing questions.

Bibliography

  • Adu-Gyamfi, Yaw. “Adverse Effects of Postmodernism on Interpretation of the Bible.” Ogbomoso Journal of Theology, vol. 20, no. 2, 2015, pp. 1–14. EBSCOhost, chilib.moody.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&A uthType=ip,url,uid&db=rfh&AN=ATLAiFZK171218002933&site=eds-live. Accessed 19 Sept. 2019.
  • Barna, George. “Trends Shaping a Post-Truth Society.” Barna.com, 9 Jan. 2018. Barna.com/research/truth-post-truth-society. Accessed 17 Oct. 2019.
  • Boone, Mark J. “Ancient-Future Hermeneutics: Postmodernism, Biblical Inerrancy, and the Rule of Faith.” Criswell Theological Review, vol. 14, no. 1, Fall 2016, pp. 35–52. EBSCOhost, chilib.moody.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,uid&db=rfh&AN=ATLAiBCB170123001465&site=eds-live. Accessed 19 Sept. 2019.
  • Drucker, Johanna. “Postmodernism” Art Journal, vol. 49, no. 4, Winter 1990, pp. 429-431.
  • https://www.jstor.org/stable/777146?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Accessed 31 Oct. 2019.
  • Ligonier. "The State of Theology." Poll. 2018. Thestateoftheology.com. Accessed 5 Nov. 2019.
  • Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota, 1984.
  • Macpherson, John. The Westminster Confession of Faith. Kessinger Pub., 2008.
  • NKJV. New King James Version. The Holy Bible. Thomas Nelson, 2015.
  • O’Neill, J. C. “Biblical Criticism.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. Doubleday, 1993.
  • Osborne, William R. “Thinking Critically, Reading Faithfully: Critical Biblical Scholarship in the Christian College Classroom.” Criswell Theological Review, vol. 11, no. 2, Spr 2014, pp. 79- 89.EBSCOhost,chilib.moody.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?dire ct=true&AuthType=ip,url,uid&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001979609&site=eds-live. Accessed 19 Sept. 2019.
  • Pettegrew, Larry D. “The Perspicuity of Scripture.” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Fall 2004, pp. 210.https://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj15i.pdf. Accessed 2 Nov. 2019.
  • MindEdge. “The 3rd Annual State of Critical Thinking Study.” Poll. 2019. file:///Users/abigailhreha/Downloads/MindEdge_digital_literacy_v6.pdf. Accessed 5 Nov. 2019
  • Toynbee, Arnold. A Study of History, Vol. II. Oxford University Press, 1946.

Questions & Answers

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      • Peopleofthebook profile image

        B A Johnson 

        5 months ago

        This was fascinating! Thank you for your work.

        The popularity of post-modernism has always been somewhat of an anomaly to me, as it seems to strike at the heart of everything that makes even the most basic society possible – objective truth and the ability for individuals to communicate. It was helpful to read your overview of its history and development.

        I never considered the parallels between Rome’s objections to the perspicuity of Scripture and the post-modernist’s self-definition of truth. It’s interesting that even in the earliest days of the church, similar claims had to be refuted on the same grounds that Scripture is clear in and of itself – as Irenaeus did in Against Heresies. It seems this has always been the primary battleground on which the church must stand!

        I look forward to seeing more from you.

      • celafoe profile image

        charlie 

        5 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth in between the oceans

        show me one scripture that relates to "protestantism. The term has no place in a discussion pertaining to scripture or Christ or God as ALL of them say it is an abomination. It is a catholic term so surely not of God as it denotes division which God abhors

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