Postmodernism and the Modern Church (V)
In our modern Church setting it seems that precious little thought is given to how we worship God. Nick Needham is correct when he couches our contemporary problem in these terms: “The question which most evangelicals tend to ask of worship-practices is, ‘Do I find this helpful? Is this meaningful to me? Doe this make me feel closer to God?’ The question, ‘Is this how God actually wants to be worshipped?’ is rarely raised.” What Needham is describing is the “worship wars” that pitted the “Roman-Lutheran-Anglican” side against the “Calvinistic” or “Puritanic” side. I would also place modern evangelicals in the R-L-A camp.
These things being the case, modern pastors/teachers/theologians are attempting to re-define the Church and, as often as not, we hear the phrase “doing church” rather than explanations as to the essence of Christ’s Church. The net result is worse than a mere dumbing-down, which is included in the modern dilemma but does not totally define it. Historically, in the Protestant’s struggle against the Roman Catholic Church in the period known as the Reformation, two essential aspects of the Church emerged: worship and the pastors that led a God-centered worship.
In the last segment, I ended with a quotation from William Cunningham about the Church. By way of review, I want to remind you of what Cunningham said: “The ekklēsía (Church), both etymologically and really, is just the assembly or congregation of the klētoí (called), those who are called out of the world. Christ calls men to come out of the world, to believe in Him, to submit to His authority, and to unite together in an organized society of which He is the head, and which is to be governed exclusively by His laws.”
So I want to do something that is necessary in our time, namely to step back in history and listen to what one of the Reformers had to say about the Church, worship, and pastors. In one sense, this should be something that Brian McLaren and the Emergent Church tribe should applaud, because they are constantly hearkening back to the Roman Catholic Church. Ironically—I would say predictably—, McLaren and the ECM crowd tends not to place much of a premium on who the Reformers were or what they accomplished.
Just to give us a handle on this part of the discussion, I’m going to make use of what was arguably one of the most important debates during the Reformation: the debate between Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto and John Calvin. In his reply to Sadoleto’s accusations, Calvin states that pastors have a twofold role to play: To edify the Church and “to repel the machinations of those who strive to impede the work of God.”
Of central importance to Calvin with a view to proper worship is Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (ESV). That is to say, God’s glory must be the center of our worship. He writes, “It is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves.”
This is a virtual direct contradiction to what passes for “worship” in many evangelical circles today—and given both the mega-church as well as the ECM, those circles are widening exponentially. Worship becomes whatever man decides is plausible or will keep the “troops” happy and in attendance. Referring to the unbiblical accoutrements in the Roman Catholic Church during Calvin’s time and the gross, crass biblical ignorance Calvin concluded that the existence “worship” in the Roman Catholic Church was both preposterous and perverse.
How then should we worship? That is the burning question of our time, even though a number of so-called and self-styled pastors refuse to ask that question. Calvin compares true and fictitious worship and clarifies what he means in this manner: “The primary rudiments by which we are wont to train to piety those whom we wish to gain as disciples to Christ are these; viz., not to frame any new worship of God for themselves at random, and after their own pleasure, but to know that the only legitimate worship is that which He himself approved from the beginning. For we maintain what the sacred oracle declared, that obedience is more excellent than any sacrifice (1 Sam. xv. 22). In short, we train them by every means to be contented with the one rule of worship which they received from His mouth, and bid adieu to all fictitious worship.”
With a glaring, deplorable lack of biblical knowledge—mega-church folks as well as their Emergent counterparts are notoriously biblically ignorant or liberal or both—it is no wonder that many are falling into the false dilemmas of postmodernism.
The Latest Fad or the Theology-du-Jour
Postmodern philosophers are calling the operating tenets of the Enlightenment into question and it should come as no surprise that non-Christians are, once again, going with the proverbial flow. Postmodernism and its elite academicians are as far from God as their Enlightenment counterparts. This is the latest fad to come down the pike and especially in its pop-cultural variety, it promises new freedoms. What the philosophers have promised in academia has been watered down enough for postmodern man to be able to grasp primarily through the entertainment media. Since many—if not most—people live life almost totally unreflectively, what do we expect from the non-Christian world? It doesn’t really matter how you stack it, you still end up with the same old pile.
What might shock us, however, is that some Christians, especially the younger ones, also are “buying in to” the whole postmodern scene. I intentionally used the word might in the previous sentence to make the point that really we should not be all that shocked at all. The two biggest consumers of postmodern thinking are both the now almost-defunct mega-church movement and its newest sibling: the emergent (or emerging) church movement. As we shall see, these two movements that seem to be at each other’s throats actually have a great deal in common—a great deal.
But there is more. Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You, recently gave a talk entitled, “You Can’t Handle the Truth: Addressing the Tolerance of Postmodernism.” One of Johnson’s theses is this: “I’m convinced that postmodernism is inherently incompatible with biblical Christianity.” He is simply echoing what I and a number of other Christian theologians have been saying for the longest time. Of course, you shouldn’t get the impression that Johnson simply makes the declaration and then moves on, but he substantiates his position very well—something that postmoderns don’t like and something that Christian pastors who have foolishly embraced the tenets of postmodern don’t want to hear.
Johnson gives a number of reasons why he, as a Christian, is opposed to Christianity’s involvement with postmodernism. Allow me to summarize his excellent points.
First, he explains that the postmodern way of looking at the world is fundamentally anti-Christian. All you have to do is to peruse the postmodern’s array of philosophers and this truth becomes painfully evident painfully quickly.
Second, Johnson contends that “postmodernism is based on an erroneous set of unbiblical beliefs, and we need to oppose it with the clear and careful application of biblical truth.” Many have been saying these things to the pastors who insist on “engaging the culture, but too little or no avail. Johnson is spot on when he comments: “Listen: the Christian message has always been out of step with the times…. The gospel has always been out of step with the wisdom of the world.” When are we going to get this simple truth through our thick skulls?
Third, postmoderns deny that “absolute truth may be objectively known. And that is the central idea that gave rise to postmodernism.” That being the case, how can any Christian pastor or any Christian embrace this tenet?
Fourth, postmodernism “generally prefers subjectivity to objectivity and ambiguity to clarity.” This has become evident to me as I have responded to postmodern “bloggers.” They continually cloud issues, speak in vagaries, or ascribe words like “arrogant,” “naïve,” “outmoded,” “culturally biased,” “judgmental,” “poor argument,” “fallacious,” and the like. Johnson’s experience is not unlike mine and anyone else’s who has tried to dialogue with the ECM tribe: “They would use pettifogging arguments to try to overthrow every definition I give and every dichotomy I make. And they would call me naïve for even attempting to clarify what they insist cannot be objectively explained or understood.” And this argument carries weight starting at McLaren and moving on down the line.
From my perspective, as I stated above, I believe that it is a good thing that a large number of Enlightenment concepts are being disassembled. It has been too long in coming. My question, however, is this: what will come in its place? Is postmodernism a good replacement or is the cure as bad if not worse than the disease? In this and succeeding issues I will argue that postmodernism is not a good replacement both in its philosophical and theological forms, which are, after all, akin to one another.In the next installment, we’ll examine why postmodernist thinking is, at bottom, bankrupt and how it militates against anything that resembles a consistent, viable ethic.
 Nick Needham, “Westminster and Worship: Psalms, Hymns, and Musical Instruments?” in J. Ligon Duncan III, (ed.), The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2004), p. 230. Italics mine.
 William Cunningham, Historical Theology, Vol. I, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 19693), p. 14. Emphasis mine.
 I’ll be using the pagination located in John C. Olin [ed.], John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto: A Reformation Debate, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966).
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid. Italics mine.
 You can download this .PDF file at the following web address: http://www.gracechurch.org/shepnew/2005notes/JohnsonTruth.pdf.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 4.