The following is another arresting article by Matthew Garnett, posted on FB last night (Monday, December 11, 2017). As I read it I could not help but think about a quote from Karl Marx that I had recently read from Uri Harris, writing at Quillette, both here and here:
“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.
As Christians, we don’t need to doubt that God is in the business of transforming the world in Christ, and that He does this through His people. I suggest that Marx, following Hegel, can only imagine doing this because his thought, like all Enlightenment thought, is parasitic on Scriptural truth. The ancient world — at least the influential thinkers we are aware of — simply did not think this way. All this said, our Lord not only means to change the world in His time and in His way, but for us to have real knowledge. We are to know Him and we are to know His creation as it was, as it now is due to sin, and as it will be again through Christ (we even see some of the firstfruits of renewal now). And we are to have all this with certainty (see, e.g. my posts here and here).
But what is happening now? Matthew Garnett does not use these words, but I will: “Theologians have hitherto only interpreted the Bible in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Because the Spirit of the Age (Hegel) — which demands that man must save the “vale of tears” — is the water in which we swim and in which we must fight.
Postmodern, deconstructionism are the waters in which we swim in this day and time. We employ this philosophy almost like breathing when confronted with difficult issues and then appear shocked when the results manifest themselves. Like fish swimming in water – who don’t even know what “water” is – we are immersed in these postmodern waters and often, we’re caught completely unawares as to what we’re breathing in and breathing out. My aim here is to help us understand, in no uncertain terms, just what the post-modern “water” is when it comes to law and gospel. I am attempting to explain to us “fish” what “water” is.
So let’s begin with “deconstruction”.
“Literary Deconstruction” is an approach to literary criticism invented by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. “Literary criticism” is essentially the practice of learning how to evaluate writing. Take any undergrad lit course as an English major and you’re going to be taught how to “deconstruct” literature of all kinds.
Here’s how it works.
Take Mary Bysshe Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this story, we are schooled by Shelley in man’s quest to “play God” by becoming the Creator. Throughout human history (until very recently), “Creator” stands above “The Creature”. Right away, we recognize a binary relationship: “Creator” and “Creature”. It seems clear that Shelley is warning us creatures of attempting to take the role of ultimate creator. The results are literally monstrous.
If we are to “deconstruct” this work, the first step is to invert the binaries. We jettison Shelley’s warnings and elevate the creature above its creator and then proceed to re-read the story with this presupposition. We note the obvious flaws in the creator. We elevate the virtue of the creature.
The next step is blur the definitions of the binary. We might ask, “Who really created whom? Did Frankenstein really create the monster or did his creation really create Frankenstein to become the real monster?” This results in a complete loss in the definition of terms. “Creator” no longer has any real meaning, nor does “Creature”. The meanings of these terms can never be pinned down. They are always “deferred” – what Derrida called “la différance”.
Here’s how Derrida’s “deferred meaning” or “la différance” works. If you looked up the word “creator” in the dictionary, you’d find several other words describing what is meant by creator. According to Derrida, those words don’t solidify the meaning of “creator” but actually blur its meaning. The words to describe “creator” can also be found with other words describing those words ad infinitum.
To be sure, this is a fascinating manner in which to approach literature. But Derrida and his disciples, especially Michael Foucoult, did not merely stop with literature. They extended this principle into politics, culture, and religion. They did this, not because they actually believed in a meaningless nihilism, but as a slight of hand in order to wrest power and recreate culture and society as they saw fit.
Let me give you a practical example of this, how Derrida’s schema has infiltrated out culture, and has wildly succeeded.
Take the binary of “man” and “woman”. One of Derrida’s favorite words was “phallogocentrism”” – a word he invented. “Phal” meaning “male”; “logo” meaning “words” or “speech”; and “centrism” meaning, of course, “central”. So, “Male’s words are central.” Derrida’s aim, with “deconstruction” was to obliterate this notion.
One way to do this was to deconstruct the binary of “man” and “woman”. In order to accomplish this, you elevate the virtues of the woman over the man. In the name of “equality”, you actually so degrade the man as to accelerate the woman. So not only is the man lowered, but the woman is now exalted – hello “Third-Wave Feminism”. However, the deconstruction doesn’t stop there. The definitions of the binary must ultimately be blurred and dissolved. Hello transgenderism. Once the categories of “male” and “female” are lost, according to Derrida and his minions, we are one step closer to what I term as an “egalitarian utopia”.
Put simply, postmodern deconstructionism strikes at the heart of Western culture. It takes the terms and definitions of reality upon which the West has been built and it obliterates those categories. Ever hear someone say something like, “We need to destroy the white, male privileged system! We want justice!”? I’ve actually had people tell me when I’ve presented then with the flaws in their logic, “Well that’s just your white, cis-gendered logic and it doesn’t apply to me!”
Thus now, the waters we swim in are those which no longer privilege logic and reality in order to inform our epistemological conclusions. No. Instead, emotion and subversion are prioritized. For example, we Lutherans say at the end of every article of the Creed, “This is most certainly true.” For the postmodern, the question is not “Is this true?”, but rather “Does this subvert the dominant system of hierarchy?”
So they ask, “Does blurring definitions when it comes to terror attacks subvert?” Answer? Yes it does. “Does destroying the traditional family subvert?” Yes it does. “Does illegal immigration subvert?” Yes it does. And so it goes.
As stated, postmodern deconstructionism can be applied in virtually any arena of thought and life. The trick is to make utility of this philosophy to the end of attacking the heart or the foundation of what you are attempting to destroy. In popular culture, as has been demonstrated, postmodernism has arrayed its armaments at traditional sexuality and the family.
Unfortunately, the specter of postmodernism moves around us like some ghost; using and attacking those who are not on guard against it. In other words, if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves using postmodern philosophy to inadvertently destroy even that which we hold most sacred. As stated, we are fish and this is the water in which we swim. As Dr. Gregory Shultz of Concordia University Wisconsin puts it, postmodernism is a disease like Shingles. It lies latent in the blood stream of fallen humanity and flares up as the opportunity presents itself.
One such opportunity is the preaching and teaching of law and gospel. Let me say here that I am convinced that very few pastors are consciously making utility of postmodern philosophy, but like Shingles, it often rears its ugly head unawares. Here the devil, the world, and our sinful nature attack the heart of our theology and here are the practical manners in which we can observe this happening.
Dissolution of the Law and Gospel Binary – Abstracting the Law/ Blurring the Gospel
There are several terms to which our modern culture is allergic, and it is no different for law and gospel preachers. Those terms are words such as “duty”, “responsibility”, “obligation”, and “discipline”. In an effort to “emphasize the gospel”, sometimes preachers will de-emphasize or downplay the law. They realize how important the gospel promises are, but fail to realize that the promises have no context without the law. Thus, by de-emphasizing the law in this way – by toning down the law with softer language – they inadvertently end up blurring the clarity of the gospel.
Practically speaking this is done by referring to the New Obedience (AC VI) and “growth in good works” (AP II, FC/SD IV), in generalities and abstractions. Terms such as “duty” and “discipline” are replaced with words like “love” (undefined) and “vocation” (similarly undefined). Indeed, in our cultural climate, telling someone they have a responsibility to say attend to and study God’s word or attend church is distasteful. Using terms like “love” and “vocation” aren’t wrong or unbiblical, but used to the exclusion of specific instruction in the law, the preaching of God’s commands lose their sting and become blurry. Once powerful and potent terms for describing God’s law are replaced with more culturally palatable terms. Unfortunately, while many well-meaning men are doing this in order to attract more people to the gospel, they are actually deconstructing the heart of our theology.
Examples of Deconstruction in Preaching
• “Live free in the gospel”
Like “love” and “vocation”, “freedom” is a positive, cultural buzz word. It is also a biblical word. However “freedom”, used biblically, has a much different meaning than it does especially in the West. Preachers and teachers who use this word without qualification generally will obscure its biblical meaning.
Imagine this scenario. A gay couple attend Pastor X’s divine service. The gay couple are wrestling with their consciences because of their lifestyles. They are expecting to hear X affirm what they already suspect – that they are living in sin. Instead Pastor X concludes his sermon with, “So go! Live free in the Gospel!”
“That was a relief!” says one man to his gay partner. “Yes,” says the other. “In the gospel we are free to be who we are!” Note well here how an ill-defined phrase, how what is supposed to be a preaching of the law, actually becomes the gospel for these two men and law and gospel is quite nicely deconstructed.
• “You cannot reform the old man” and/or “The new man is perfect”
This is a perversion of Luther’s quip, “Simul Justus et Peccator”. While technically true, this is used to soften the law by saying that doing the hard work of progressing in Sanctification is not really necessary or at least should not be emphasized. After all, if the old man cannot be reformed and the new man is perfect, improvement, progress, or growth is not needed. Now, it is true that the old Adam cannot be reformed and must “daily die” as Luther puts it. Also, in baptism, we are given Christ’s perfect righteousness. Thus, unaware of his bias toward the cultural zeitgeist, the pastor proclaims that improvement and change are not needed for the Christian. However, in contrast to this inadequate preaching, Pastor Paul Strawn puts it this way:
Think of a sapling of an apple tree that we would plant in our yard. Now there is nothing wrong with that sapling, it is exactly what it should be as a sapling. But as it grows into a mature tree, what does it do but provide shade for our lawn, beautiful flowers in the spring, a place for birds to nest, and squirrels to hide, pollen for the honey bees, ultimately fruit, good fruit for us to eat. Now there was nothing wrong with the apple tree when it was a sapling, it was just not fully matured into a fruit bearing tree. Similarly, there was nothing wrong with our New Man when it is created within us, we are baptized, or come to faith in Jesus Christ. But, we must say like the boy Jesus , Jesus according to his human nature: There is room to grow, room to bear fruit, room even to do those things which are pleasing to God.
Over and against this notion, the preacher who claims, “No change needed for the Christian” salves the conscious of their hearers, not with the gospel, but with a deconstructed version of the law.
• “Good works are a gift” and/or “Everything is gift”
Similar to the others, this too has some truth to it. Indeed it is a joy and a privilege to the Christian to participate with God in loving others. God does graciously give us this opportunity and it is helpful for us to see service to others as a gift. That said, it is disingenuous to say that it is a gift or a promise from Scripture. It is not. It is indeed a command. Commands are not bad things, but in current Western cultural milieu, “command” has a negative connotation and it seems that preachers and teachers are heavily influenced not to make anything in the Christian life appear to be negative or difficult.
Thus, they soften the law here by calling what is commanded and in fact demanded by God the Father of his children “gifts”. It is disingenuous because it makes sacrificing ourselves and suffering for the neighbor out to be something that is simply handed to us on the silver platter of the gospel. It is not. While we are given power to obey the self-sacrificial commands of our Father, following our big brother Jesus is not simply something that gets handed to us. It is something that is difficult and requires the utmost discipline.
• “Your good works are pre-destined”
Based on Eph. 2:10, we have at last a genuine misunderstanding of the text. This single verse is often used to encourage people not to trouble themselves with doing good because the fate of every true Christian is to do good works. According to these deconstructionist teachers, these works will simply fall in your lap, again similar to the “good works as gift” notion.
By now, hopefully we’re seeing a pattern here. These teachers use half-truths in order to portray the Christian life as something easy and not difficult. That is a form of good news to most people who formerly thought that if they became Christians, something might be required of them – even if that something had nothing to do with their eternal destiny. Put simply, it is attractive to people to hear that doing good is simply a fated thing; something for which or into which they’ll never have to try or put effort.
To be sure this is a popular “gospel” in our culture which was prophesied of 2000 years ago in, “…..the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (emp. mine)
Fundamentally, deconstructing law and gospel is what has been commonly referred to as “confusing law and gospel”. Its primary problem is that it confuses Justification and Sanctification. Additionally, it makes the law sound like something we already want to do at best or, if that fails, makes the law sound impossible and not to be attempted. Furthermore, and most sadly, it locates elements of the law (i.e. “love”/ “fruits of the spirit”) in the category of gospel and not law.
For all of this, I’ve devised a cliché: “The degree to which one loses the law, he loses the gospel.” The greatest danger in all of this is when law is deconstructed – that is, loses its meaning and full force in the manners described – the gospel also loses its meaning. That is textbook postmodern, deconstructionism. Unfortunately, this deconstruction of law and gospel, just like political postmodernism, results in a most horrifying teleology.
In the vacuum that this softening of the law brings is not merely a trend toward lawlessness, but a trend toward an insipid and dark form of pietism; a pietism where the new law calls what is good, evil and that which is evil, good. It is a pietism where if you dare say that growth in good works is Christian, you are immediately branded a Pharisee and a legalist. Taken to its logical extreme, it demands what is called sin in the Scriptures must be held up as virtuous. Most sadly, the gospel slowly disappears into nothing. Just as surely as secular and political postmodernism leads to a nihilism replaced by an elite consolidation of power (viz Marxism), religious postmodernism – it all its forms – whether intentional or accidental – leads to a nihilistic ethical vacuum that will be replaced by some form of man made law and the true gospel will be lost. For, when postmodern deconstructionism reaches its full flower, there is no forgiveness for those who will not adopt its “ethics” and twisted “morality”.
Instead of this empty and vain philosophy that so permeates our culture, may God grant us so to hear the Holy Scriptures; read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast to the blessed hope of everlasting life, which has been given to us in our Savior Jesus Christ.