Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern In Theology

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

(Ecclesiastes 1:9-12)

If we had to classify the Teacher of Israel, it’s fairly clear he was not a modern.

Commenting on some of the defining marks of the theory of progress and the heart of the modern, Peter Leithart notes:

“The theory of progress rests on the notion that there is a cut in time between all that went before and what comes after the beginning of modernity. Modernity establishes itself by digging a monumental ditch, a ‘great divide,’ between the past and the present, between those still living in the past and those who are fully in touch with the possibilities of the present. The modern distinction of us and them and the boundaries that accompany it map out the world as modernity sees it. Modernity is an act of cartography, a zoning operation, an exercise in ‘chrono-politics.'”

Solomon Among the Postmoderns, pg. 32

Leithart sees this as part of modernity’s appropriation and secularization of Christian theology, particularly its eschatology: “Moderns treat modernity as if it were a new stage of redemptive history” (31). Instead of carving the world up into “in Adam” and “in Christ”, though, it’s “in Copernicus” or “in Aristotle” (or something less flattering like, “in Cave Dweller”). On this view, moderns understand the birth of Modernity as a radical break such that things are forever altered, they are better, we can’t go back, and we shouldn’t want to.

Chronological Snobbery

Now, when thinking about philosophy or theology, it’s typical to note that Modernity’s ditch-digging eschatology funds what C.S. Lewis has called its “Chronological snobbery”: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Rudolph Bultmann has a famous quote typically used to illustrate the need for his program for demythologizing the message of the New Testament, so that its existential challenge can be felt by modern men and women. In more conservative circles, fairly or not, it’s also a common example of the phenomenon Lewis is describing:

“We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”

Now that we have science and medicine, cars and so forth, who’s going to believe in superstitions like miracles, angels, demons, and the like?

Of course, taken baldly, and after reviewing the actual philosophical arguments for and against miracles and so forth, it’s a rather silly and somewhat arrogant claim. A good dose of Lewis, Aquinas, Plantinga, or other common works of apologetics others can disabuse you of that fairly quickly. All the same, it’s fairly intuitive and recognizable impulse.

Chronological Anxiety

As I’ve read more in theology over the years, I’ve realized that this sort of thing isn’t limited to “traditional” apologetics issues. And even more, it doesn’t always express itself as an arrogant snobbery. Rather it’s a sort of modern anxiety theologians have about the answers we have for the deep moral and existential questions our world is asking.

You can spot it whenever you see someone wringing their hands as they say something like, “the old answers just won’t work for us.”

Usually this can be connected to the Enlightenment and Romantic narratives of heroic doubt and world come of age (see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age). “In our intellectual infancy and innocence—before Copernicus reoriented the heavens, or the Lisbon earthquake, or the shattering of Europe in WW 1, or the Holocaust, etc. (pick your favorite intellectual or moral cataclysm)—we could accept such answers, but now, we simply can’t. And so we must bravely seek out new answers for a new age.”

perfectly simpleStephen Long points out that one of the easiest places to spot this anxiety is in modern revisions of the doctrine of God. He connects the revisionist project to G.W.F. Hegel in a few ways. (And I’ll be condensing and likely bastardizing here.)

First, there’s the bigger Hegelian (and Feuerbachian) impulse of identifying the theology of an era as a manifestation of the Spirit of that era (or projection of the human culture). In which case, the assumption is that the answers accepted in previous eras are particularly (and peculiarly) suited to those eras, and therefore not suited to ours.

Second, there’s the material appeal of his theology as a response the problem of evil that’s loomed large in the modern period ever since the Earthquake of Lisbon down through the Holocaust. Process metaphysics, a number of the 20th Century German theologies, and so forth, have all been influenced to some greater or lesser degree by Hegel’s revised metaphysics of the doctrine of the Trinity. In this revised economy of salvation, God becomes historical, not as the absolute author freely becoming incarnate in history while maintaining his perfection, but rather is dragged into it in such a way that he himself becomes and achieves his own self-realization (and self-salvation?) in the redemption of the horror and pain of history, and so forth.

Long thinks this is mistaken for a number of reasons, but one of them is connected to that anxiety to be modern:

This revised economy has had too much of a hold on modern theology. The need to be “modern” is part of the problem, when the “modern” is understood as a never-ending apocalyptic moment in which everything we have done up until this moment does not prepare us from the “now” that is about to arrive but never does. Everything must be revised; everything must be new. There has been a modern, apocalyptic anxiety about theology that seeks calls for revision and is fated to continue to do so, each call for revision trying to be more apocalyptic and historical than the previous one. The historical situatedness of this assumption need not hold us captive. To challenge this modern anxiety is not to wax nostalgic for premodernity. —The Perfectly Simple, Triune God: Aquinas and His Legacy, pg. 385

There’s much to comment on in this.

For one thing, Long pushes the notion of being modern past Leithart’s single “cut in time” and notes the way the modern ethos (which continues into postmodernity) is to continue anxiously cutting time between this age and that, these people and those.

And so, if we’re to be modern, giving answers to modern people, we need to constantly revise our answers for post-Holocaust, post-industrial, post-colonial, etc. age. Revisions must come by age-bracket now (insert joke about “millennial” eschatology).

Long’s comment also begins to push us towards the problem with such an impulse. For one thing, the thesis of the radically-situated and projected character of all theology is a radically-situated thesis itself. It is not necessary to view the nature of truth, theology, or the world that way.

Another way of putting this is that often enough the refrain, “The old metaphysics won’t work for us,” could be translated as, “The old metaphysics won’t work for some, dissatisfied white kids talking philosophy in a coffee-shop in the late-modern West.” Because something like the traditional metaphysics and economy of redemption seems to be doing fine in a global context, even if there are regional variations.

And even that’s not the whole picture, since there are plenty of late-modern kids in the West who find beauty, power, and strength in the older metaphysics. I know. I’ve talked to them, pastored them, and—surprise!—been one of them.

It seems plausible, then, the modern anxiety and assumption that just because they’re the “old answers” they can’t possibly work in a new context is more prejudice than established fact. Indeed, it borders on fideistic superstition since it exists in the face so many counter-examples sitting in pews across the world.

Nothing Is New Under the Sun

Which brings me back to Ecclesiastes. The Teacher’s early refrain is, “there is nothing new under the Sun.” I don’t want to deny the modern point that history is real, time passes, and cultural and material changes happen. But what we see this modern anxiety can take an extreme form such that it constitutes a denial of the continuity of human nature. “We are Moderns (or Postmoderns), it simply impossible for us to believe such things, since we are a different kind of human.” In that sense, it’s not just an eschatological heresy, it’s an anthropological one.

Coming back around to the problem of evil and the doctrine of God, it’s true that for some reason the problem took on a particular potency in philosophical reflection. But what surprises me in these discussions, though, is how often modern, theological revisionists tend forget that pre-moderns were well-acquainted with death and destruction, as if their answers constructed in a theological vacuum.

People act like Augustine didn’t live through the Fall of Rome or pastor in North Africa before the advent of Penicillin. As if Aquinas didn’t grow up in a world of warfare, or where mothers regularly lost their lives (or their children) in childbirth. Or as if Calvin and the other Reformers didn’t witness Religious wars, or have to pray for plague victims at their deathbeds. In other words, the people who came up with the “old answers” on the basis of Scripture were as well-acquainted with evil and pain as any modern or postmodern. Possibly more so.

In that case, if the “old answers won’t do” it’s possible to question the assumptions shared by moderns which keep them from accepting those answers, instead of the answers themselves?

Wolfhart Pannenberg, something of a reviser himself, has commented:

The fact that a later age may find it harder to understand traditional ideas is not a sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation and thus to keep their meaning alive.
Systematic Theology Vol. 2 , 422

The connects well with Long’s comments. To question this modern anxiety is not simply nostalgia for a straight-line return to premodern theology simpliciter, using all the same texts, formulas, with no alterations or considerations of our changed time and place. None of this relieves us from the task of application.

In order to preach the Word of God in our time, we have to know our time. We must know the moderns and the postmoderns. We should understand their objections, their fears, their particular anxieties and worries, which do exhibit cultural differences. It may take more arduous work “to open up these ideas” about God to the women and men of our times.

And because of the human finitude of our forebears, that may even include subjecting our theology to the Word of God afresh. God may move and show us that prior generations were insufficiently attentive to some aspect of revealed truth. One of my theological heroes, Herman Bavinck, is a fantastic model in this regard, in his ability to retrieve and creatively re-articulate the “old answers” of the Reformed tradition in such a way that attends to modern concerns.

But I suppose my point at the end of this long meditation is to say, when it comes to the practice of doing theology—having a Word from God to our neighbors—in the modern (or postmodern era), “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). Do not think that in this we must constantly start anew with the release of every Mac operating system.

It is not unlikely God has provided you the answers you need through the work of the Church reading Scripture in history. A good many of them might even be premodern.

Soli Deo Gloria

15 thoughts on “Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern In Theology

  1. Derek, thanks for this thought! I have a similar palate for classical/”premodern” thought and aesthetics, so I can definitely understand the impulse to want to reject anything labeled “modern” 🙂

    That being said, I minister in a church that is largely Millenials, and – even though most of them have something of a Midwestern churchy background – it’s just a fact that their starting points are defined more by their generation than by anything else. Whether it’s vocation (“I have to find the job that fulfills my passions!”), ministering in the world (yay social justice! *mumble mumble* evangelism), or whatever else, we have to start with the questions they’re actually asking and the answers they’re actually looking for and at least begin by sharing biblical or historical truth in an understandable way.

    It’s also interesting (as I think Chesterton pointed out, in his introduction to “Thomas Aquinas”) how different generations/cultures can find a unique resonance with a particular historical figure: whether the figure naturally appeals to their hungers, or naturally presents something so jarring that they need to hear it. Chesterton himself is the most resonant figure I could imagine for our age – the patron saint of Christian bon vivants? – but it’d be interesting to hear which other historical thinkers “land” well in our context.

    • Joseph,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I possibly have misexpressed myself, but my point isn’t to deny that history happens, that we have to contextualize, and so forth. My point is that it’s not obvious that our fundamental doctrines have to change in response. We may need to talk longer to think them through, or to present them to people beginning from different starting points, but that doesn’t have to reshape things from the bottom up. Does that make sense?

      • Oh, totally – you didn’t misexpress that at all. I must have been unclear in my comment, because I thought I was agreeing with you. I’d meant to affirm something along the lines of …
        1. Christian truth (even historic Christian wisdom) is enduringly valuable

        2. At the same time, our context may demand that we examine our language or guide our people’s inquiries to prepare them to receive that truth.

        So I guess we “modernize” our language and methods, but not our answers.

        My bad if that didn’t come through.

  2. Derek,

    Do you think this tendency is common in evangelicalism? If so, amongst whom (as in groups, not necessarily specific people)?

    When it comes to more educated types, it seems that those who this might apply to tend to distance themselves from evangelicalism nowadays. On the other hand, it seems that the problem more common amongst educated evangelicals is something like this: “postmodernism has shown that modernism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; therefore, we will just embrace premodernism.” (Maybe one evaluates which problem is more prevalent depending upon what side one identifies with more.)

    One last point. I’ve taken the Bultmann quote in context to be something as follows, “whether rightly or wrongly, this is just where people are at and so we need to contextualize (read: demythologize) the message” while others take it to be “clearly one cannot rationally believe in angels because of the telephone.” Any insight on which interpretation is correct?

    • Brett,

      Thanks for commenting.

      In Evangelicalism, I don’t see it quite as much, though it can be present. For instance, Long notes movements like Open Theism share similar anxieties with Process and Panentheist revisionist theologies at this point. You can also see it in certain sorts of revisionism in atonement theology and such. But as you note, this sort of instinct usually goes along with a move towards walking away from the Evangelical moniker altogether.

      And yes, it’s true, some do the “let just go be premodern” thing. I suppose that’s probably a temptation for me. I think it’s more complicated than that, but I do think some postmodern (or really, hyper-modern) critiques, at the very least, open up space for retrieval theology or taking confessional theology as serious contenders in our age.

      Finally, that could be the right reading of Bultmann. As I said, “fairly or not” it’s often taken to be the latter. I’m not a Bultmann expert, though, so I probably can’t shed as much light there.

      • Derek,

        Yeah, I thought something like open theism, process theology, or denial of divine simplicity (especially given the book title referenced) might be examples. It’s definitely a case by case basis. On the one hand, there are people who try to argue for process theology because of evil or something and it’s clear they haven’t read philosophy of religion. On the other hand, there are people who deny divine simplicity because they study philosophy of lanaguage and think language about God is univocal and so divine simplicity cannot be true. Etc.

        So let me ask you this, and I mean it in the best way possible: if you don’t think this applies to many evangelicals, what’s the purpose of this post? Do you think a lot of nonevangelicals will read it and might change their mind? Or is it merely something that interests you? Or is it a way of warning about the bad things that go on outside of evangelicalism? I’m just curious how this ties into who you think your audience is, etc.

        Right, my point isn’t that to say premodern views are wrong or anything. I also think we should make a difference between reasoning in the same sort of way and coming to the same conclusions. For instance, to take an example evangelicals would want to reject, we could buy into radical postmodern hermeneutics and thereby come to the interpretive conclusions as premoderns but in a radically different way. (I also find these discussions can often not bear fruit because things can be pretty complicated because there’s a tendency to talk past each other due to thinking we mean the same thing as modernism or postmodernism. Personally, I think there are modernisms and postmodernisms, etc. in a Wittgensteinian family resemblance type thing (thereby betraying my own biases).)

        On Bultmann, no worries. I just didn’t know if you had read anything on the topic.

        Thanks for the response.

      • Brett,

        “What is the purpose of this post?” Ha! That’s kind of an odd, difficult one. I mean, it’s a blog. Some of these posts are just me working out my thoughts on issue as I get through school and work out my own sense of the theological task. In that sense, they’re written for me.

        That said, I don’t think that *no* Evangelicals think about this. What’s more, based on past experiences, occasionally people outside of Evangelicalism happen to stumble upon it. I suppose it’s written to others concerned with how to do theology and pastoral ministry in our context, Evangelical or not.

        I don’t know if that clarifies things for you.

  3. The appropriation of eschatology that you mention is an important point to make. I think along with that, though, there needs to be discussion on modernity’s appropriation of Christian soteriology via “social contract” as well. A significant source of our modern (postmodern?) anxiety comes when we realize that we haven’t saved ourselves from the Hobbesian “war of all, against all”.

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