Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth…

Postmodernism and the Jesus of history

There is both a diachronic (historical) and a synchronic (a-historical, existential) dimension to the development of a theology for the emerging church. The argument has for the most part been developed synchronically in response to cultural and philosophical changes taking place both inside and outside the church. Biblical stories are treated as types and exemplars of general spiritual truths. The diachronic or historical dimension has been neglected. We do not understand well enough the historical-eschatological narrative that brings us to the point at which we may properly address the postmodern questions about identity, community, mission, truth, culture, and so on.

The development and implementation of a critical-realist or strongly historical hermeneutic and the postmodernization of evangelical theology are two distinct tasks, but there are important links between them.

1. Perhaps the most important link is a practical and opportunistic one. The current crisis of confidence and the growing willingness (born largely from desperation) to experiment with new forms of church have created the sort of opening needed to get a more realistic understanding of Jesus, of his mission, and of the nature and purpose of the community which he initiated into the mainstream.

What is needed is a usable, public hermeneutic that does not merely serve the interests of an unthinking pre-emptive dogmatism. The challenge here is in the words ‘usable’ and ‘public’. Such a hermeneutic must be consistent with the standards and methods of ordinary rationality, which is likely to reflect an interaction rather than a conflict between modern and postmodern habits of thought, and must be allowed to shape popular, and not merely scholarly, Christian discourse. To put it in Wright’s terms, the portrait of Jesus that is emerging from ‘Third Quest’ scholarship needs to have an impact at pew-level’ and at ‘street-level’ (cf. N.T. Wright, Who was Jesus?, 16, with reference to the work of E.P. Sanders).

2. An historically oriented hermeneutic presents what is probably the most effective means of deconstructing the controlling paradigms of modern evangelical interpretation while, at the same time, offering the possibility of re-constructing an alternative narrative coherent and powerful enough to motivate a recognizably ‘evangelical’ commitment.

3. There is the further advantage with a critical-realist hermeneutic that it gives priority to the historical and theological referents behind the text. In that sense it is pragmatic. In this way we may hope to avoid both the modern preoccupation with abstracted propositional truth and the postmodern distrust of the texts and of the project of exegesis.

A critical-realist hermeneutic is the product not of church practice and teaching but of scholarly investigation. This has certain advantages. One is that we may hope to reduce the gulf that has opened up between biblical scholarship and the thought-world of the church. Another is that it will allow for a more tentative, open-minded management of the truth. We come much closer to the standpoint of postmodernism if we recognize that truth is always an emergent value and cannot be separated from the complex, unpredictable process of coming to understand.

On the face of it, Wright’s insistence on the historicality of the gospel narratives runs counter to the postmodern distrust of purported historical knowledge, but it may be in its particularity that the story about Jesus finds its plausibility within the framework of a more suspicious epistemology. The history of dogmatic interpretation has always moved from the particular and concrete to the abstract and universal and has then re-imagined the historical starting point in universal terms. Postmodernism resists the dogmatic argument, but it may be possible to return to a more confidently reconstructed historical narrative and restate its inherent truthfulness in a way that does not ignore the limitations and difficulties of historiography.