“It need not further be denied,” argued James Orr, “that between this view of the world involved in Christianity, and what is sometimes called ‘the modern view of the world’ there exists a deep and radical antagonism.” James Orr observed this ‘deep and radical antagonism’ over a century ago. Can we possibly fail to see it now?
As Christians, we are unavoidably engaged in a great battle of worldviews–a conflict over the most basic issues of truth and meaning. A worldview that starts with the existence and sovereign authority of the self-revealing God of the Bible will be diametrically opposed to worldviews that deny God or engage in what we might call ‘defining divinity down.’
At the heart of this controversy lies the irreducible obstacle of biblical authority. As a matter of fact, it may be impossible to overestimate the true depth of postmodern antipathy to the Bible–at least to the Bible as an authoritative revelation from God.
Just consider what the modern secular mind confronts in the Bible. At the foundational level, the Bible makes a “totalizing” claim to truth. In the terminology of postmodern academic discourse, this means that the Bible claims to present absolute and non-negotiable truth that effectively trumps all other authorities. In an intellectual context of personal autonomy and individual self-expression, this appears to represent an unfair imposition of authority and a violation of the contract theory that lies at the heart of the modern experiment. We can ‘contract’ with the Bible to serve as a guide, but that contract is open to constant renegotiation.
And the Bible contains so much material that runs against the moral sense of a largely-secularized society. Let’s just be honest and admit right up front that the Bible pulls no punches and leaves no room for a public relations effort to clean up the dust storm. The Bible begins with a straight-forward declaration of divine creation, complete with a divine design for every aspect of the created order. Then, we confront the creation of human beings as made in the image of God, and thus uniquely gifted and accountable as moral and spiritual creatures. And, we add, human beings are made male and female to the glory of the Creator. There it is–gender as part of the goodness of God’s creation. This is no vision of gender differences as mere social construction. Marriage immediately follows as the divinely–designed institution for human ordering, reproduction, sexuality, and romantic fulfillment. Marriage–the union of one man and one woman–is presented as an objective reality constituted as a moral covenant with legal and moral boundaries, not as a contract to be made, remade, or unmade at will.
Then comes sin. The third chapter of Genesis clearly fails to meet muster in terms of modern psychotherapeutic expectations. Responsibility for sin is laid right at human feet; and the consequences of sin–downright repressive–are worse than draconian. Most troubling of all, sin is presented as something that tells the truth about us–not merely the truth about a sinful world system. From beginning to end, the Bible undermines the modern secular worldview at its very foundation.
Those first four words land like nitroglycerin on the modern mind: “In the beginning, God . . . . ” From that point onward, everything flows from the fundamental reality of God’s existence, power, and purpose. Creation itself is explained as the theater for God’s own glory, even as human beings, male and female, are created in God’s image. The institution of marriage is shown to be God’s gift and command, not a sociological adaptation to prevailing cultural conditions. Humans are given responsibility as both stewards and rulers of the earth, ordered to subdue the earth to the Creator’s glory.
Of course, to the postmodern mind, Genesis is hopelessly “speciesist” even as (to use their language) it presents a “totalizing meta-narrative of hegemonistic authoritarianism.” In other words, it tells us in no uncertain terms that God is God and we are not, even as it reveals that humanity fulfills a special purpose for God’s glory.
The Pentateuch–all five books–presents an unvarnished picture of humanity’s sin and its consequences. To a culture deeply committed to a therapeutic worldview, this is just too much. Now that sin has been banished from our moral vocabulary, what are postmodern Americans to do with the Fall, the giving of the Law, the sacrificial system and blood atonement? Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is now cited by postmodern critics as the Bible’s second most egregious example of God-inspired child abuse (the first, of course, is the cross of Christ).
The Law is another stone of stumbling for the modern mind. Moral relativism rules the field of postmodern ethics, with laws seen as socially constructed and needlessly oppressive instruments of subjugation. In many law schools, a movement known as “critical legal theory” claims that laws generally reveal hidden claims of manipulative power that should be de-constructed for the betterment of all humankind. Thus, consistent with the postmodernist’s complete embrace of subjectivity, laws exist to be endlessly renegotiated and reinterpreted.
Of course, one of the most cherished maxims of the postmodern mind is the so-called “death of the author.” The reader, not the author, of a text is the ruling authority. Put simply, the postmodernist believes that the text means what the reader says it means, not what the author intended. Jump from that to this: “You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it might go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” [Deuteronomy 5:32-33] So much for subjectivity, reinterpretation, and renegotiation! The postmodernist demands a hermeneutic of suspicion, demanding that the text meet his expectations. The Bible sets down a hermeneutic of submission as God demands obedience from His people–nothing less.
The Bible presents the living God, Creator of the entire cosmos, as a speaking God who addresses His people with authoritative revelation. “Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?” [Deuteronomy 4:33] As Israel was to learn, revelation must lead to obedience, lest God’s wrath fall upon the people.
The Lord does not invite His covenant people to speculate about His character, His power, or His purpose. He demands total obedience, even as He reveals his saving purpose and His sets down covenant. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other Gods before me.” [Exodus 20:2-3]
The rest of the Old Testament continues the pattern and widens the divide. God elects Israel as His chosen people, inviting charges of ethnocentrism. Then, violating modern norms of war, Israel is charged to wage a holy war against pagan nations. God is presented as the supreme ruler of all nations, the only true Sovereign in a world of contending kingdoms. The prophets attack injustice and the abuse of privilege, within and without.
To these must be added claims of miracles, supernatural occurrences, prophets, and impositions of law. All this amounts to one great obstacle for so many modern people, whose worldview is so firmly established in secular terms that the Bible seems more of a problem than a solution.
And what of the New Testament? Instead of refuting the Old Testament, the New Testament fulfills the Old, pushing the envelope of secular suspicion even further. Now we confront the great claim of the incarnation–that Jesus the Christ is fully God and fully man. Miracles are documented, the teaching of Jesus is presented in full force, and the Gospel is laid before our eyes.
Then come the cross and the empty tomb. God’s determinative plan to save His people from sin come to a climax in the suffering and death of Christ, presented as God’s plan set into action before the creation of the earth. The empty cross points to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and the truth claims of the Gospel contradict any effort to reduce Jesus to a mere teacher or guide, a social activist or a proto-therapist.
The church is established as God’s people on earth; an eschatological people eventually drawn from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. And then, looming in the future, lies judgment. The realities of Heaven and Hell are presented as dual destinations for humanity, and the wrath of God is promised to be poured out upon sinners, even as the mercy of God is extended to all who have come to Christ by faith. The way to salvation is narrow; the road to destruction is wide. There is but one Savior and one way of salvation.
All this is just too much for the postmodern mind to handle. A “deep and radical antagonism” separates the Bible and our postmodern culture. But then, since the Fall that antagonism has always existed, separating obedience to God’s truth from the demand for human autonomy.
Christians are often perplexed by resistance to the Bible and to the Gospel. We tend to distance ourselves from the reality that the Bible sounds so exceedingly strange to modern and postmodern ears. We underestimate the distance of the divide between biblical Christianity and secular worldviews.
All this should remind us of our constant evangelistic and apologetic task–and of the fact that salvation is all by grace. After all, it’s not that we were smart enough to wade through all this and emerge as believers. Instead, our eyes were opened so that we would see. That radical antagonism James Orr was talking about isn’t overcome by force of argument and persuasion alone, but by grace. As we engage in the controversies and debates of this age, we had better keep that great fact always in the forefront of our thinking.