A Word for Post-Moderns

Abraham Piper has a clever line that I think describes the post-modern ethos of our day: “If you ask questions but you reject answers, you’re not actually asking anything. You’re just festooning tired, old propositions with trendier punctuation.”

This is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but it is actually a very serious point. The post-modern proclivity for interminable questions is very much like Paul’s description of the women at Ephesus who had been deceived by false teachers. Paul says that they are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).


  • Truth Unites... and Divides

    Abraham Piper: “If you ask questions but you reject answers, you’re not actually asking anything.”

    A laser beam. Straight to the heart of POMO sophistry. Good job Abraham.

    One favorite POMO technique of rejecting answers is to appeal to uncertainty. Closely related to that is to appeal to relativism.

    Their attempts to rationalize sinful choices and behavior are largely successful in terms of deceiving themselves and beguiling unthinking sheep.

  • John

    I love the generalizations here. Denny, not all postmoderns are evil (McKnight? Olsen? Driscoll?). Maybe all moderns are evil, because they have to have a reason for everything and don’t live by faith. I’ll take postmodernism any day over that. This isn’t a post I would expect from a young seminary professor who probably has many young postmoderns on his campus.

  • Nathan


    Talk about generalizations; where did this post say that all postmoderns were evil?

    The post did not say they did not live by faith. If you ask me what 2+2 is and then reject the answer of 4, then you fall into this post.

    If you already had a presupposition that my answer would be a lie, then why ask? Also, if we take your logic to fruition, then the young postmoderns on campus should all leave because they simply need to live on faith, they should not be there seeking reason and answers.

    You can question the answer you receive, but if you reject all answers, you might be an idiot.

  • Darius

    Driscoll is not the kind of postmodern that this is speaking to, John. Perhaps you should read up on the subject. Driscoll asks questions, but he also demands answers, which someone like McLaren avoids.

  • John


    That is why I believe Denny should clarify his “postmodern” label, because it’s a generalization and mischaracterization on behalf of many “postmoderns.” It’s akin to me saying that Denny lets reason dictate everything since he is more modern-minded….it’s ridiculous.

  • Darius

    No, you should clarify it in your own mind. Postmodern, as most people understand it, refers to a person who believes truth is relative and that absolute truth is unknowable. (That’s the simplified version). Under that mantle, Driscoll does not fit.

  • John

    I agree, and neither do Scot McKnight and Roger Olsen, who are both considered “postmodern” and both embrace the label. I understand the kind of “postmodern” that you speak of, I just think when that type of postmodern is addressed, it should be clarified. That’s all I’m saying. Ecclesiologically, a postmodern may be a person who does things differently than has traditionally been done, one who emphasizes community and mystery on many things, one who is not dogmatic about minor things, etc. I consider a generalization of the term “postmodern” as insulting to what I described above.

  • Truth Unites.. and Divides

    Why can’t we all just get along as equals? Let’s all adopt postmodern liberalism and all will be well.

    “LIBERALS are fond of brow-beating the Churches about sectarianism and disunity. These twin evils, they say with some justification, are harmful to society because they set one group against another and because sectarianism is, at the very least, uncivil.

    It now transpires that all this liberal bleating about sectarianism and disunity was exactly that, bleating. But it was also hypocritical because when it suits their agenda liberals are very inclined to use sectarian language of their own and have no hesitation adding to the already deep divisions between the Churches.

    The Church of England itself is also in crisis because of its recent decision to ordain women bishops.

    For liberals this is a matter of principle. Equality is equality. If men can be made bishops, then why not women? Likewise, if sexually active heterosexuals can be made priests and bishops, then why not sexually active homosexuals as well? The questions are unanswerable, once you absolutise equality.

    Writing in ‘The Guardian’ the other day, commentator Theo Hobson attacked the Lambeth Conference for putting unity above (his) principle.

    He was angry that the Archbishop of Canterbury and nominal head of the Anglican Communion, Rowan Williams, hadn’t come down hard on the side of the liberals and strongly endorsed the decision by American Anglicans in 2005 to elect as bishop of New Hampshire an openly homosexual man, Gene Robinson.

    He asked: “Why hasn’t a tougher liberal Anglicanism emerged that says the truth of liberalism must not be sacrificed to ‘unity’?”

    Conservative and orthodox Christians are used to being lectured about the need to put aside their opposing dogmas for the sake of unity. But as we’re now discovering, liberals have dogmas of their own, or rather they have one super-dogma; equality.

    Since its beginning, the Church has taught that only men can be ordained because Christ was a man and because his Apostles were men. But liberals dismiss this argument on various grounds, the chief one being that it creates inequality within the Church. With regard to human sexuality, the Church has always taught that sex has a meaning and a purpose beyond the act itself and that it finds its true meaning only if it takes place within a permanent loving relationship and if the relationship is open to the procreation of children.

    This makes it intrinsically heterosexual. Ordaining sexually active homosexuals would radically change the Church’s teaching on sex.

    Liberals, of course, are quite happy to see that teaching change, even though the separation of sex from children, and often from commitment, has been extremely bad for children.

    It has resulted in a colossal number of children being effectively disowned by their mothers through abortion and in many more being disowned by fathers who want little or nothing to do with them.

    Apart from the general liberal view of sex, however, they insist that sexually active homosexuals must be ordained because it is an offence against equality not to ordain them.

    Having decided on these positions, liberals are then happy to employ the most sectarian language possible to describe those who stand in their way.

    All opposition to theological liberalism is rooted, they insist, in ignorance and prejudice, and opponents are summarily dismissed, insulted and derided as ‘bigots’, ‘sexists’, ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘homophobes’.

    In any event, it is now perfectly obvious that liberals no longer prize Christian unity. Indeed, they have become its chief enemy.

    The fact is, liberals are willing to sacrifice anything and everything on their altar of equality, because they believe they are right and that they are the One True Church.”

    Excerpted from Liberal Dogmatism Killing Church Unity

  • JM

    You may be right that there is a “type” of postmodernism that this statement does not fit. This “type” of postmodernism actually is making a change/addendum to the regular reading of the word. But you don’t require these people to include the addendum every time they use the word postmodern…

    The “type” you are describing as represented by McKnight and Olsen are most definitely not the predominate position. First off, postmodernism is not simply a church word. It is a culture word. And the type you are describing is not reflected in the culture, but only in the small subset of the church. Furthermore, in the church today, the type you are describing is a small subset of the larger group who use the postmodern label (or the emergent label).

    Congratulations, you found an exception to the rule (generalization). That doesn’t mean the rule (generalization) is false. Simply because there are possible exceptions out there, doesn’t mean one can’t use generalizations. I’m sure there are hundreds of distinct varieties of postmodern views (yet pretty much all of them are united on the fact that absolute truth is unknowable).

    And being offended or insulted might just be a good thing here. It might make you realize that when you call yourself a postmodern – this is what most people ‘think’ you are saying. Most people ‘think’ you are aligning yourself with a position that denies absolute truth and affirms relativism.

  • Russ

    Over generalizations abound on this subject.

    There is a very real sense in which we are all postmoderns, including Denny. One can discuss postmodern philosophy, sure. But it is unfortunate how the discussion tends to lump it all together. The ‘Truth Project’ drives me nuts in this regard. Postmodernism in the broadest sense in no more a demon than modernity was. Modernity shaped a certain approach to Christianity, and you can easily find and argue some positive results of the effect. You can also easily argue damage that was done. The same is true for postmodernity.

    Most anti-POMOs, in my opinion, think they are defending Christian orthodoxy, but are often just defending modernism, or ‘modern Christianity.’This is not to suggest that there are not huge problems with some of what is coming out of the emergent/POMO church (much of which is a not a reaction to historical Christianity, but the modern, Western, Evangelical version). That’s to be expected in a time of transition. Has any read their Reformation history lately???

    Read about all the different theological ideas being bantered about by the likes of Luther, Zwingli, and even Calvin. They were tinkering and discovering, and often crossing the line. In fact, I have little doubt they did cross the line in some areas.

    Reform can be a messy business.

  • bprjam

    Russ (#12):

    Hear, Hear! I could not have said it better, and find it disappointing that those who look to the reformers often forget the messiness of “eccelsia reformata, semper reformanda”.

    (Of course, those who haven’t “read their Reformation history lately” have and will accuse me of misusing the reformers phrase…)

  • Russ

    Elaborating a bit more on my humble (and admittedly generalized) assessment of what is going in the ’emergent church.’

    I know some of the leaders of the organization, ‘Emergent’ (it is often important to distinguish that organization from the general phenomena of the emergence of Christianity from modernity) and I think these those guys (I’m thinking of Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt in particular) are (were) at their best when pushing against some of the aspects of modern Christianity that they, and many of us, found wanting.

    One example (I could give many) goes directly to Denny’s original post quoting Abraham Piper.

    Again, I submit that the original ’emergent’ push-back was against the prevailing tone and practice of modern, Western, Evangelical Protestant Christianity. Many of us began to wrestle with the disfluency we were experiencing between some tough questions we were asking and the answers that the Evangelical Christianity we grew up in was offering.

    Not only did we feel that many of the answers were unsatisfying, we began to be more and more suspicious of a system that purported to have all the questions answered correctly and absolutely in the first place. The most basic understanding of history should call such a view into doubt. I have to say that the Reformed tradition (Baptist or other) seems to be particularly blind to this problem.

    The idea that ‘we have it all figured out’ (or that we ever could) is one extreme. It should come as no surprise that the reaction to this extreme and thoroughly modern view might lead to an extreme pendulum swing to the other side. Maybe we can’t know anything for sure! Maybe there are no answers, only questions!

    But these are extremes.

    I think where Emergent (Tony and Doug and others) have gotten off-track is in moving beyond a critique of modern Christianity to call into question tenets of historic Christianity that have long been accepted (think Apostles’ Creed). Or, to move beyond an understanding that we don’t have all the answers to suggesting we don’t have any.

    Take this with a grain of salt, because this doesn’t really work, but those guys are sort of the Bucer and Zwingli to, say, a Scot McKnight’s Luther.

    The Reformation was at its best as a protest of the specific abuses in some parts of the medieval church. It was at its worst as a complete abandonment and rewrite of many long standing and established Church understandings, practices and beliefs.

    Emergent is at its best when pointing out specific abuses and faults in the modern church. It is at its worst when it repeats history and tries to rewrite the whole thing.

    I find this very sad because my journey of emergence has lead me not to an overthrow of historical Christian orthodoxy, but rather a discovery of it. Personally, I have found much better answers in a more thoughtful, historic form of Christianity than in the form of Christianity I grew up with, along with a refreshing willingness to leave some questions unanswered.

    Let us remember that POSTmodernity is just that. It is a reaction to what has been and a transition to whatever is next. No one should expect it to be balanced, free of excess, clean, or safe. No one should be surprised when key leaders/voices in the transition step over the line from time to time. Just remember, if Luther had had his way our New Testaments would be missing some books.

    Finally, and with sincere apologies for the length of this comment…

    I have often wondered what would have happened if the Church leaders in Luther’s day had, instead of saying ‘you are not of us!’ had said, ‘let’s work this through,’ or if Luther could have found a more effective and patient way to work ‘within the system.’ (It is clear that this was his original intent)

    These are good questions I think. And they might even have answers that will be important to the next 500 years or so of Church history, should the Lord tarry.

  • John


    Good words brother! Wow, you seem very wise and educated in all of this. Thanks for sharing with us, I think you raise some terrific points. I particularly like your insights about Christians reacting to postmodernism thinking they’re protecting and defending orthodoxy but it’s really just modernity. I see this as a huge generational gap and in my experience both generations just don’t seem to “get” one another, thus making it tough to converse and work together. Both sides use slippery-slope arguments, misrepresentations, and huge generalizations and caricatures about one another and there just seems to be a communication problem. I’d like to hear more from you about this.

    In any case, can you please explain what it is that defines “modern” Christians? And can you also describe the main differences between a postmodern and modern Christian. Maybe just a brief one or two sentence overview for both trains of thought (modernism and postmodernism) are needed. Thanks man.

  • Russ


    Oh my! I can almost hear other readers and contributors to this blog begging, “No, don’t encourage him!”

    I find a great deal of resonance on these matters with the viewpoint of my friend Rex Miller, who wrote an excellent book on this subject, “The Millennium Matrix.” It is unfortunate that this book, published about 5 years ago, has not gained more notoriety than it has. I would find it hard to believe that a strong thinker like, say, Denny Burk would not be in some way moved by the clear thinking and observations made in this book and that it wouldn’t impact and bring some greater level of balance and understanding to his positions on this subject. Denny, I recommend it!

    Rex’s ‘Matrix,’ which takes the form of a table in the middle of the text, is worth the price of the book.

    Rex charts distinct views toward worship, theology, philosophy, religious practice, etc… between 4 major ‘divisions of era’ driven by the dominant communications media of each period (Rex is a student of the thoughts and observations of the late Marshall McLuhan in this regard).

    Those divisions are: Oral/Ancient, Print/Modern, Broadcast/Postmodern, and Digital/Convergent

    Rex gives some general elements of the matrix on his website for the book. Here are the sections relevant to your question from Rex’s site:

    From :

    Here is a brief catalogue of the tradeoffs that becoming Modern brought:
    Understanding through analysis replaces understanding through dialogue, Individual autonomy replaces community allegiance, A conceptual understanding of God replaces a relational orientation toward God, A progressive view of history replaces a cyclical view of history, Reading about the gospel in a book replaces experiencing the gospel through ceremony and ritual, Ethical principals replace moral choices, An objective worldview replaces a participant worldview, Pedagogy replaces mentoring, Logical reasoning replaces dialectic exploration, Rational design replaces symbolic art and architecture

    The transition from Print to Broadcast (the postmodern transition or emergence) inevitably involved some tradeoffs:

    Broadcast’s epistemology of immediate experience replaces Print’s reliance on rational analysis, Broadcast’s collective awareness replaces Print’s sense of individual autonomy, Broadcast’s existential understanding of God replaces Print’s abstract orientation, Broadcast’s chance-driven view of history replaces Print’s linear progression, Broadcast’s dramatized presentations replace Print’s structured oratory, Broadcast’s “Be all that you can be” replaces Print’s “Do the right thing.”, Broadcast’s emphasis on process replaces Print’s emphasis on outcome.

    And since Rex’s contention is that we are close to being finished with ‘postmodernism’ and moving on to what is next, I’ll include this:

    In the not-so-distant future:

    Digital’s desire for direct, unmediated, hands-on experience will replace Broadcast’s passive gestalt, Digital’s reliance on networks and personal relationships will replace Broadcast’s bias toward collective “main event” experiences, Digital’s “open source” technologies, organizations, and thinking will replace Broadcast’s branding and proprietary claims, <b<Digital’s ability to reframe the past will replace Broadcast’s tendency to discard the past, Digital’s paradigm-based approach to complex issues and conflicts will replace Broadcast’s political approach, Digital’s multimedia language will replace Broadcast’s visual language, Digital’s integration of right and left brain processes will replace Broadcast’s reliance on right-brain thinking, Digital’s view of the world as permeable will replace Broadcast’s view of the world as a series of closed systems.

    I added the emphasis on the line about reframing rather than discarding the past since it goes to a point I was trying to make in my earlier posts. I believe this key to the Church’s proper response and confluence with the present transition we are in. Failure to understand and appropriate this aspect of the postmodern transition is a significant problem for many staunchly ‘reformed,’ evangelical protestant leaders so apposed to the emergent discussion/movement. Likewise, the same can be said for emergent leaders who fail to be constrained by the historical grounding this approach would bring.

    Denny… I am REALLY sorry about this tome. Clearly I need to re-start my own blog. 🙂

  • Don

    Contra TUAD’s quote, the COE is in the place it is in because some in it decided to make an openly homosexual person a bishop and others in the church deny that this should ever have happened. Hence the split.

  • Truth Unites.. and Divides

    Don: “Contra TUAD’s quote, the COE is in the place it is in because some in it decided to make an openly homosexual person a bishop and others in the church deny that this should ever have happened. Hence the split.

    Actually, the split was over the doctrine of the Authority of Scripture.

    Nonetheless, let’s see what the openly homosexual person, Bishop V. Gene Robinson, said to other gay priests as a way to gain acceptance:

    I had said to them, ‘It’s too dangerous for you to come out as gay to your superiors, but I believe that if you work for the ordination of women in your church, you will go a long way toward opening the door for the acceptance of gay priests,” Robinson said.

    An excellent and refreshing piece of honesty by Bishop Robinson in admitting and confessing that there is a slippery slope between women’s ordination and gay ordination.

    WO —> GO

    TUAD’s general dictum:

    If WO, then GO.

    No WO, no GO.

    (WO = Women’s Ordination. GO = GLBT Ordination)

  • Larry Geiger

    From above:
    work ‘within the system.’

    New wine requires new wineskins. For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit tends to move in such a way that old things are not transformed, but rather crucified, dead and buried, and a new thing resurrected.

    When a man is born again, the old man dies and the new man is born. When a movement, or group of people is born again, the old group, attitudes, thoughts, methods, etc. die and a new thing is born. It’s how He works. And it’s almost always disturbing and painful.

  • Don

    Yes, if a church “changes” in one thing, this means “change” in another may happen. This is phrasing the question wrong, IMO.

    It is always the question of what does Scripture teach.

    In some cases tradition may be wrong and it others it may be right. Where it is wrong it should be changed, where it is right, it should be kept.

  • Russ

    Larry Geiger…


    Hmmmm…. not sure I agree.

    But I’m curious, how would you apply your view on the way the Spirit tends to work to the issue of the emergent/postmodern discussion/movement in the church?


    “Yes, if a church “changes” in one thing, this means “change” in another may happen. This is phrasing the question wrong, IMO.”

    Yes! Well said.

Comment here. Please use FIRST and LAST name.