Tag Archives: postmodernism

Reason: one use of it builds faith–the other creates heresy; the early and medieval church knew the difference


ecumenical-council

Having looked, in the “theology chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, first at our evangelical problem with Truth, then at the medieval scholastics’ way of understanding and teaching Truth, we now come to the central storyline of medieval theology: its unique attempt to hold faith and reason together.

I start my discussion of this heroic attempt with a brief account of where the early church thought heresy came from (surprisingly: an over-active use of reason) and how early theologians and councils acted to preserve the integrity of the apostolic faith.

The next post will show what medieval thinkers did with this early precedent when it came time to re-explain the mysteries of the faith for new socio-cultural realities.

When I say that medieval thinkers held reason and faith in a delicate balance, I am thinking of their ability to use reasoned understanding and argument not to erase mystery, but to carefully couch and protect it. This was a premodern trait. The modern tendency – let us say, post-Enlightenment – has been to put our trust in what Stanley Grenz called the “omnicompetence” of reason–its supposed ability to fix all humans problems and solve all conundrums. The postmodern tendency, on the other hand, is to point to the man behind the curtain, or the emperor who has no clothes–to assume that anybody who claims to have figured things out via reason is actually making a power grab, disguising baser motives.

I would argue that the postmoderns are now where the nominalists were at the end of the medieval period. They have looked cynically behind the claims that we may know truth, at least partially, via reason, and they have lost faith in our ability to see any truth beside the one each of us makes for ourselves. Conservatives today may even be tempted to identify postmoderns as those who, in the Dantean phrase, have “lost the good of the intellect”—they can no longer access moral truth. But that’s too easy: the fundamental insight of postmodernism is hard to argue with: people do in fact often claim to be following the direct dictates of reason when in fact their motives have little to do with reasoned understanding. (Nor is this even intentional much of the time!)[1]

But when we go back to a brilliant premodern Christian thinker such as the proto-scholastic Augustine of Hippo, we find a different process: Instead of claiming that “reason solves all,” he frequently looks up from an argument he’s just presented (say, on the nature of the Trinity), and he says:  “I didn’t say you had to like it.” Continue reading

Chastened modernism or principled postmodernism–comments inspired by C S Lewis on medieval morality


It occurred to me that this comment and my response, spurred by the post “C S Lewis and ‘medieval morality'” may be worth its own post, as an invitation to others to join the conversation: Continue reading

The evangelical patient awaits a medieval transfusion


The Summer of Research has given way to the Summer of Writing, issuing in the first halting words of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants (Baker Books, forthcoming). Here are some initial, gut-level thoughts–rough and unrevised:

I write this book not as an expert but as a pilgrim. The subject is medieval faith, but academically I am an Americanist. I write for the American evangelical Protestant church(es) in a time of intense pain and confusion. Battered by modernity, we have tried in turn rational apologetic, pragmatic ecclesiology, charismatic experience, and postmodern experimentation. None of these has proved lasting.

The rationalism of modern apologetics has collapsed as the questions of the unchurched have turned away from doctrine and the agonies of the churched have centered on spirituality and practice rather than belief.

The pragmatism of the church growth specialists has dissolved, as it always has, as its shallow spirituality has become evident.[1]

The experientialism of the charismatic movement seems often to have failed to build lasting, faithful, discipled churches as worshippers have bounced from one high to the next.

The postmodernisms of some emerging Christians seem already to be veering into heresy.[2] Continue reading

Podcast on evangelical theology, globalization, postmodernism, and seminary education, with John Franke & friends


This conversation was really fun to have. And maybe even has some light to cast on, as my colleague Kyle Roberts says, “the present and future of evangelical theology, the challenge of globalization and postmodernity, the prospects for the evangelical church in the days ahead, and the role of seminary education in all of this.”

Kyle (a rising theologian, like Christian Collins Winn, who also speaks out on this podcast) explains: “The dialogue participants were John Franke, of Biblical Seminary (on campus to lecture at Bethel University and Seminary), Chris Armstrong, church history professor at Bethel Seminary, Christian Collins Winn, historical theology professor at Bethel College of Arts and Sciences, and myself. Enjoy this discussion and please add any comments or questions of your own for further discussion.  We view this as the beginning of a conversation, not the end.”

Enjoy the podcast, and (we hope) many fascinating posts to come on Kyle’s blog.

Sharing stories from the heart: can reading about the lives of others really change us?


Here is the third of my Christianity Today history website series “Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor” Links to the first two articles in the series are embedded early in the article:

#3: Sharing Stories from the Heart
Chris Armstrong

[Back in the first installment of this diary, I interacted with the Emergents’ fear that evangelicalism’s entrenched, conservative church culture is just not reaching a young generation. Deep in writing my own “Patron Saints for Postmoderns” course, book, and blog, I suggested that the time might be ripe for telling and hearing stories—in particular, stories of our “foreparents” in the faith. Why not turn to the historical cloud of witnesses and see how they engaged their own cultures? That would seem to be one good way to learn how to translate the gospel for our own cultural moment.

[In the second (most recent) installment, I defended this idea of translating the gospel for new cultural situations against one potent objection: that such translation involves a dangerous compromise. When we set out to do such a translation, say some critics, we are allowing sinful human cultures to set the terms of the discussion. We are adapting and compromising Christ’s essentially countercultural message in illegitimate ways. The church, as Stanley Hauerwas and others argue, should be its own culture. My answer to this objection was to try to bridge the “translators” and the “separators” with a kind of ecumenical position that sees value in both approaches.]

Dear folks,

Perhaps, if you have read the first two installments of this “diary,” you are ready to launch into a lifetime of fruitful biography- and history-reading. But some of you may still be standing on the path, obstructed by one more roadblock: the postmodern claim that the cultural frameworks that have formed us as individuals so strongly condition and define us, that the experiences and ideas of people from other cultural frameworks (that is, other places or times) can never really speak to us or help us. Continue reading