The last forty years of church history has been a history of rapid deformation. It is also remarkable that in all the different countries and in all the different bonds of churches the same pattern of deformation was followed.
The silent killer
When we hear about women in office, approval of homosexuality , a denial of the historic and factual accuracy of Scripture, seeking ecclesiastic ties with churches who do not share the same confession, and finally a denial of Christ as our only Mediator, then we are in fact not dealing with different issues but with one and the same disease. Although there may be many symptoms differing in appearance and in gravity, the disease is caused by the same virus. The first symptoms may not look serious, but it is caused by a virus that will not rest before the whole body is destroyed.
The church deformation of our day has a definite consistency and cohesion in its progress. In general, there is even a fixed order in which the symptoms appear and follow each other. When you recognise one symptom you may be sure that the next is bound to follow, for they are part of one and the same mind frame. I am speaking of the relativism of postmodernism, which is the spirit of our time. For those who ignore its symptoms, death comes quietly and swiftly.
A description of the battlefield
One of the most prominent characteristics of postmodernism is that it views all truth to be relative. It does not want to know about absolutes – neither absolute truth, nor absolute falsehood. There is no absolute right or wrong. Truth is no longer viewed as a static or fixed concept. Truth is determined by its relation to changeable factors such as time and circumstance. Truth is even made subject to time and circumstance. There is then no such thing as timeless truth. What is true today will not necessarily be true tomorrow. One who says, “I have the truth!” is reckoned to be naïve. For the postmodernist truth is like quicksilver: you cannot take hold of it.
The man who sees himself as a postmodernist is proud about this discovery. The more he loses all absolute certainty the more impressed he is with his scientific progress. The more he lets go of fixed truth, the more enlightened he reckons himself. And thus one gets this strange phenomenon that people who become less and less sure of truth are amazingly proud about their insight. They honour their doubts and praise their uncertainty by calling it scientific humbleness. Yet, these humble doubters are very proud indeed. For this relativism is combined with the idea of evolution. The relative truth of today is better than the relative truth of yesterday! We know more and we know better than those who have gone before us! And there is no humbleness in rejecting the old “outdated” confessions of the church. While postmodernism reacts against the “certainties” of the Enlightenment, it is still just as proud about its own enlightenment and confident of its scientific superiority over all that has gone before.
According to this relativism, truth can be viewed from innumerable perspectives; and each individual has his own perspective of truth. And each perspective is valid in its own way, for truth itself is viewed to be multifaceted. Also, each one’s individual perspective of truth is constantly changing since it is subject to changing times and circumstance and new experiences. And who are you, then, to say that your perspective of the truth is the only correct perspective?! Your view of the truth is only your interpretation of the truth.
Truth becomes a subjective matter. But for the very reason that this relativism is so subjective, it seeks for some other form of “objective” security. The only check whether your perspective of truth is not wayward, is that it does not clash too much with most other people. In this way man finds some sort of security and objectivity in the collective interpretation of his time and society. Man, collectively, then creates or determines his own relative truth for his own time and circumstance. When this idea is introduced into the churches, one of the applications is that the members of a congregation, or churches within the same bond, must determine collectively the norm or “style” of faith and Christian living.
The church member who endorses postmodernism may still subscribe to the Reformed confessions if the Church requires of him to do so. He will do so with his fingers crossed. And he may feel no remorse. There are not many who will be quick to realise that he has signed the confessions in a different way. He owns these confessions as a part of his history. He ascribes a certain historic value to them: the confessions were relatively true in their own time, and it may be of academic interest to see what the church believed in those times. And in a sense the postmodernist may still feel a traditional bond with times gone – although he may have more criticism than appreciation. And thus he subscribes to the confessions as postmodernist. That is to say: he signs it as relative truth that had relevance within the time and circumstance of its origin. But in order to be relevant in his own time he believes he also needs to go beyond the historic confessions. And if the church is shocked by his new insights, he may even happily bear the ignorance of the church as long as the church is on the move to better insight. Finding himself to be a member of an old-fashioned church he may stay on – as long as the progress towards relativism does not take too long. And as far as possible he will help to put the pressure on. He still views himself as a Christian – a postmodern Christian, a Christian with a different (enlightened) mind frame. And the church must make room for him, if it does not want to lose his membership.
When postmodernism enters the church, then the theology of yesterday has become outdated. And it is impossible for the postmodern theologian to stick to the boundaries of “old” confessions. To stick to old “truths” is viewed as stagnation; it will make the church irrelevant for our own time and circumstance. And thus the chase is on after ever changing relative truth, not for the sake of truth itself, but in order to stay relevant. A constant alarm is sounded: if the church does not stay relevant, it will disappear! And it can only stay relevant if it keeps up with ever changing truth.
Combine this mindset with a new approach to evangelism, and the result is this: in order to win the world, we must be relevant in the eyes of the world. The chase for relevance then also includes accommodation and compromise.
This chase after relevance has its own application for the theologian who works at a theological seminary or university. In order to retain his academic prestige, he must practise theology in a way that receives accreditation in the eyes of the academic world; or else he has no academic relevance. But he also has to practice theology in a way that stays relevant in a changing church. Thus, for the postmodern theologian, it seems impossible to exercise his profession if he remains bound to a set of old truths. As he lets go of all absolute truths, not even Scripture is allowed to determine the rules for practising theology. Theology itself is then made subject to that human science which is accredited in the eyes of the world, and to that relevance which a new generation experiences to be truth for them. Theology then becomes a scientific game chasing relevance as its ultimate goal. In order to enjoy the game and to make free progress, room is asked to experiment with the truth beyond the boundaries of fixed confessions.
Postmodernism, and especially its relativism, has become the common denominator in nearly all the heresies of our day – at least those heresies which are now in fashion.
A deadly weapon
Postmodernism has made its inroads into the church through a new hermeneutics. Hermeneutics (the way in which we interpret Scripture) has become the key subject in the battle. If you quote the exact words of Scripture then you are still allowed to say, “Thus said the LORD”, but to say “Thus says the LORD” has become naïve arrogance. There is supposedly a large gap between what God said and what it means for us today – a gap that must be bridged through the efforts of human interpretation. What God has said may be true; but what He actually meant, has become unclear.
How does this new hermeneutics work? It is a combination of a language theory and postmodern relativism. Words are viewed to have no meaning in themselves; they are only symbols which are used to communicate meaning – a meaning that exists only for a moment within a specific time and context. That meaning is not fixed to the words, but to time and circumstance. To discover the original (bygone) meaning behind the words of Scripture, the exegete must make a hypothetical reconstruction of time and circumstance. The more accurately this reconstruction is done, the closer you may come to the original meaning – but of course some historical facts are always missing, and that makes it then impossible to be absolutely sure of the original meaning. Moreover, every part and aspect of this hypothetical reconstruction involves interpretation, and all human interpretation is fallible.
This becomes even worse when the new hermeneutics shifts the focus from the author to the recipient; from the speaker to the hearer. The recipient’s own interpretation of the words becomes the message that has been conveyed. If you want to determine the meaning of a text you should then no longer ask, “What did God say?” but rather, “What did the recipient hear?” What the first recipient actually heard cannot be determined from the exact words of the text. The hypothetical reconstruction of his time and circumstance has to determine that.
Then the next step follows. After the exegete reconstructed the original message of his text through a complicated process of interpretation and reinterpretation, the message must be communicated to the present recipient of today. However, that requires a second reconstruction, because the focus must now shift to the new recipient. How will the new recipient in his time and circumstance receive the message? What will he hear? To make sure that the message has an equivalent effect on the new recipient it will have to be reconstructed in accordance to the new time and circumstance. Only after this whole process is completed can the exegete come with a plausible suggestion of what God may be telling us.
Let me illustrate this with an example. When 1 Tim. 2: 11 – 13 has gone through the process of this hermeneutics a typical result will be this: In Paul’s time it was not acceptable in secular society for a woman to exercise authority over a man. In order that the church may not give offence to the world Paul teaches the women to adapt themselves to the views of society. What is the message for today? In our society we have an opposite situation. Now it will be offensive to the world if we do not allow woman in office. So, what Paul is teaching us today is that we should appoint women in office and adapt ourselves to society. That is most probably what God wants to tell us in 1 Tim. 2: 11 – 13!
Without this new hermeneutics it is impossible for a church to allow women in office, because Scripture itself clearly says that it is not allowed. All the churches that allowed women in office have done so by means of this new (postmodern) hermeneutics. The moment that a bond of churches allows woman in office, it has also given official approval to this hermeneutics.
With this new hermeneutics the exegete is able to do wonderful things with Scripture. The possibilities are infinite. Take for example Rom.1: 26, 27. First a hypothetical reconstruction of time and circumstance: In Paul’s time homosexuals had violent practices which were often part of the rituals of idolaters. Next step (the original message behind his words): The shameful thing that Paul condemns is not homosexuality itself, but the idolatry of the heathens and the violent way in which they practiced homosexuality. What the original recipient “heard” in Rom.1: 26, 27 was: God turns idolaters over to shameful violence. Next step (new time and circumstance): Today worldly people may still practice homosexuality in a violent way, and violence is shameful. Next step (message for today): Homosexuality should be practised in a loving way. Next step (plausible application): Let us show the world how a Christian can practise homosexuality in love and faithfulness!
With such hermeneutics we can make the Bible say just what we want it to say, just as long as we stay humble about our plausible suggestions.
But, of course, the real postmodernist will not bother too much about Bible verses anyway. Doctrine is not a popular thing to him, for there is no such thing as eternal truths. Also God’s law has become relative to him, and needs reinterpretation. For the postmodernist the will of God is a mystic concept. The postmodern theologian will tell you: Forget about the detail of the law. Forget about fast rules. Just follow Jesus! Or: just do what you think and feel Jesus would do. Just live in the style of the kingdom! The Holy Spirit then has to guide us without clear instructions. And the ministers of the Word will come with plausible suggestions how this may work.
In less than forty years we saw thousands of churches making a total turnabout. The enemy is in bayonet charge. The bayonet is this new hermeneutics. When the church is robbed of a clear Bible, heresy is bound to follow. It is coming our way. Here and there the symptoms of the disease already appear.
What shall we do? Let us “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1: 3). Let us bow our necks together under the authority of God’s Word. Let us discern between true and false, right and wrong. Let us pray the Lord for true reformation that the churches may return to the Lord and to His Word, and be prepared to separate ourselves from those who do not serve the Lord according to His Word. Let us in humble dependence on the Lord boldly confess our Reformed confession with an open Bible, confessing: Thus says the LORD also to us and to our children.
(A lengthier version of this article was published in Una Sancta in 2008, long before our sister churches in the Netherlands adopted woman in office, and long before they started to accommodate and justify homosexual relationships, and long before they (Hans Burger and others) started to fiddle with the message of Christ’s mediatorial atoning death. The above article is a condensed and updated version of the original.)