Review: How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, Part 2
In the first part of my review of Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, I noted what I think are the strengths of the book, and why I think it’s one of the most helpful introductions on the subject for Christians to read. Now, I point out what I think are the weaknesses of her work.
Let it be known now, before I say any word of critique, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a good deal from it. It’s among my favorite Christian books on postmodernism by far. But, the book does have some weaknesses, and they’re not minor.
Insufficient view of Scripture. In a nutshell, I strongly get the impression that Downing denies the inerrancy of Scripture. That is to say, she does not necessarily believe that the Bible contains no errors (whether historical, scientific, etc.). She seems to equate the doctrine of inerrancy with the modernist worldview that undergirded much of Christian fundamentalism. There’s one major problem: the teaching of the errorless-ness of Scripture (though the term “inerrancy” wasn’t used until relatively recently) dates far, far before modernism. Augustine, living in the 3rd and 4th centuries spoke of God’s word as true in all that it teaches.
The sad part of Downing’s portrayal of inerrancy is that she nowhere interacts with the vast literature on the subject by competent, historically informed evangelicals. here I’m thinking of works like Scripture and Truth, God’s Inerrant Word, and Inerrancy (edited by Norman Geisler), and more recently (just released) Greg Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism. Perhaps the best single work refuting the view that inerrancy is a later theological development from modernism-influenced Princetonians is John Woodbridge’s Biblical Authority. Ironically, considering postmodern’s emphasis on justice toward the “other,” Downing (at least in this work) pays no attention to “other” approaches to this important issue.
Inclusivism. Inclusivism is the view that states that while salvation cannot be found apart from the work of Christ, someone can be saved apart from a conscious knowledge of Jesus Christ. Recounting the ending of C. S. Lewis’s work, The Last Battle, Downing implies that a fundamentalist Christianity insists on exclusivism (the view that says salvation comes only through a conscious knowledge of, and faith in the person of Jesus Christ), while an open, postmodern-chastened Christianity will realize that salvation doesn’t come through a formula (i.e. the baptist, pentecostal, presbyterian [etc] understanding of the gospel) but instead will be inclusivist. But, no one I know that maintains an exclusivist faith reduces the gospel to their particular confession of faith. And few (read: none) of the people with the educational background and interests to be reading Downing’s book with make the error of believing that salvation depends on a “formula.” Maybe some do reduce salvation to a particular creed, but Downing should interact with the best presentation of a view. I for one think that the Westminster Confession of Faith is perhaps the best and most precise creed ever developed in the history of Christianity, but I would never presume to say that those who do not adhere to it aren’t saved (of course, some chapters in the confession of more essential to salvation than others. For instance, if someone rejects it’s teaching on the person and work of Christ they cannot rightly be called a Christian.).
Another sad thing in this regard is that Downing doesn’t really engage the texts that are most often cited against her position (Acts 4:12, and others that place a heavy emphasis on the name of Jesus). D. A. Carson has addressed this issue pretty exhaustively in his book, The Gagging of God. Inclusivism simply cannot be made to fit the whole texts and plot-line of the Bible without forcing upon it a number of postmodern sensitivities.
Truth. Now, this issue is a bit sticky. Groothuis and others have made the truth issue central to all discussion on postmodernism. This, of course, isn’t a bad thing. Many “postmodern Christians” find it much easier to speak of Christ as the Truth (cf. John 14:6). So far, so good. But it normally stops there. Unfortunately, many times a sad reductionism of the truth issue is employed when we choose only to affirm the absolute truth of the incarnate Word, but shy away from confessing the same of the written word of Scripture. The propositions of the Bible are divinely given propositions, it’s questions are authoritative and demand to be answered, and it’s declarations demand to be believed. We need to reject a false dichotomy between the incarnate and the written word. Jesus Himself said to the Father in John 17, “Your word is truth.” Paul develops arguments regarding the work of Christ based on the form of a particular word (“seed”) in Galatians (showing that the very words of scripture, and not merely it’s broad message, were crucial for hearing God), and Christ said that those who did not heed His words will be like a house built on the sand.
She may very well believe in the absolute truth of the words of scripture, but she isn’t very clear on the matter. And her troubles with inerrancy makes the matter worse.
Idiosyncratism. In her discussion on the various forms of relativism, her final form in described as building relativism. This is the kind of relativism that states that we access to many truth is relative to a number of circumstances (gender, location, intellect, biases, etc, etc), but is still compatible with a belief in absolute truth. But, once you finish the book you realize that she never mentions “building relativists” (what I would call perspectivalists) that hold to views different from her own. So, it would seem, that building relativists are open to theistic evolution, opposed to the “modernist doctrine” of inerrancy, and are inclusivists.
But is maintaining these views necessary to be a serious Christian thinker that can fairly, and without hostility, access competing worldviews? What about those that believe in a 7 day creation? Surely she doesn’t believe they are all dumb fundamentalists. I most certainly give her the benefit of the doubt in that regard. Does everyone who believes that the text of the Bible contains no errors have to be influence by modernist foundationalism? If so, what about Augustine?
Conclusion. Perhaps her positions are formed as a (over)reaction against forms of Christianity that presented the above mentioned doctrines in an unattractive manner. I cannot say. But, she should have spent more time engaging her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who sincerely, and strongly disagree with her on such vital matters.
Like I said, these are not minor errors. And they serve to mar an otherwise fantastic book. Is the book worth the time? Certainly. But even a helpful book like this one demands that it’s reader search the Scriptures “to see if these things are true.”