Once again, we continue with our evaluation of the four primary views that people have taken in engaging our postmodern culture. And, once again, here are the options of the original post:

Option 1: Deny the horse is really postmodern. No one can be a consistent postmodern. We simply need to convince them of the untenability of their professing worldview and show them how they don’t hold to it in reality.

Option 2: Convert the horse from being postmodern. Create common ground in epistemology (the way we come to know truth), then they will be able to drink the water.

Option 3: Change the rope. Christians need to change the communication method and style for a postmodern audience, being sensitive to the ethos of our culture.

Option 4: Change the water. The water we are calling “Gospel” today may not represent the true Gospel due to traditional folk theology and misinformation. Therefore, the water needs to be “purified.”

Let’s expand on option four.

I can hear the reaction. “Change the Gospel? This cannot be. This is the last thing that I would choose. The Gospel must remain pure and unadulterated.” I know that it is very easy to have an elbow-jerk reaction to this, proverbally slapping it in the face, but, like the others, let us consider it in the way that those who opt for it would.

There are many in the church who would say that the “Gospel” that we call the “Gospel” is not really the Gospel at all. In other words, the water is not pure. According to this group, the culture is reacting strongly against church, christians, and religiousity in general. They are not only sick of the self-righteousness that is so easy to find, but against the dogmatism of the various groups represented. This dogmatism has the “I’m right, your wrong; Your going to hell, I’m not” feel about it. They like Jesus, but not the Church. What does that mean? Well according to those who hold to this option, it means that the church does not have Jesus, at least the real, essential Jesus. In other words, if Jesus is the subject of the Gospel, and the church does not have Jesus, then the water as it is now is nothing but a poisoned, bitter, and false representation of the Gospel. Therefore, the church needs to re-evaluate the water. The church needs to put the water to the test and purify the impurities.

There are two groups that represent this option:

Radical water changers: Those who would say that the historic christian faith is wrong in many ways.

Moderate water changers: Those who say that the contemporary christian faith is wrong in many ways.

How can we purify the Gospel? By removing unneccesary and bad doctrine that has misrepresented the truth and given the church a bad name. But the question becomes: What are these impurities?

The radical water changers would have no ties to tradition at all. They would entertian the thought that many beliefs that have defined the historic Christian faith are wrong. Included in these beliefs could be the doctrine of Hell (is it really eternal? Is it really real? Let’s not speak about it), the doctrine of God (is God really eternal? if so, how can He relate?), the exclusivity of Christ (is Christ really the only way?), the atonement (would God really enact “cosmic child abuse” to secure redemption?), the docrine of sin (are we really condemned for the sin of another?), and the like. The water is purified to the point where all that secure is the fact that God loves all people and will eventually save all somehow (univeralism). These can be found in the liberal church and many of the more radical representatives in the emerging church. 

The moderate water changers, on the other hand, would say that the church must always be evaluating the water to make sure that no impurity has crept in unaware. Sometimes these impurities come as a result of reaction against the culture or other false teachings. They are added to the water during the battle, but never taken out – even when the battle is over. This group would look to historic Christianity for the basic essential elements of the Gospel, often looking to the early creeds and confessions. Additives that they would consider unworthy of the water would be issues of practice that have become normalized to such a degree that you cannot distinguish them from the Gospel. It may be how we do church (“big church,” “little church”), how we present the Gospel (the “sinners prayer,” walking the aisle, the Four Spiritual Laws), how we relate to the culture (“if the culture does it, Christians should not” mentality), and legalistic practices (Christians should not drink, gamble, dance, smoke, or go to the movies), political additives (Christians must vote Republican), and the like. According to this group, these practices have been traditionalized within the church to such a degree that they are now part of the water. As well, according to this group, non-essential doctrinal additives are present in the water. Some Christians have elevated non-essential beliefs to that of essentiality (views of the end-times, views on election, views on the inerrancy of Scripture). Therefore, the church needs to purify the water as it has become corrupt, getting the water back to the basic essentials. This option is held by many evangelicals and has much representation in the moderate emerging church.

In evaluation of this option, I don’t believe that the radical water changers are on safe ground. How can one depart from two-thousand years of essential Christian belief and still call themselves Christian? Is God absent from history. Is He a cheerleader on the sidelines or is He in the game? You cannot justify a radical change in basic Christian doctrine. You may not like it or agree with the way God did things, but if the Church has held strong to these basic essentials, we must respect God’s work through the giants of the past. When they speak in unity across time, you had better humble yourself and listen. This amounts to diluting the water according to the feelings and opinion of a contemporary audience. This will not do.

The moderate water changer option, on the other hand, has much to commend. They don’t seek to dilute the water, but to remove the additives. We are always in need of re-evaluation and reform. I believe that the Reformers were moderate water changers with regards to the culture and church at the time of the Reformation. Interestingly, the institutionalized church of the day believed that they were radical water changers. I believe that the church does need to inspect the water to make sure that there are no impurities present. I do believe that the Gospel can become identified by non-essential methodology and folk lore. Indeed, this makes the water not only hard to drink, but it can become completely destructive to the representation of Christ. Christ, in this sense, can be separated from the Gospel and the church. We need to make sure this does not happen.

In short, the water needs to be mere Christianity. Once it is, then it cannot be changed.

To bring this series to a conclusion, I believe that all the options have their place when rightly understood. How do we engage postmodernism? I believe that we meet people where they are and bring them the essential Christ. The options will be relative to the situation. Therefore, there is no one option that is always right or wrong. (Boy, that sounds postmodern!)

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    5 replies to "Engaging Postmodernism (5): Changing the Water"

    • danutz

      I like so much about your evaluation here. I like that you seem to have chosen option 4. The only problem I have is that you don’t fully understand option 4a (the radical water changers). I think you’ve drawn a line in the sand about what questions with limits to ask and what doctrines are up for debate. Why are you afraid to go there? If your views can’t hold up to questions then is it possible that they hold no truth?

      Here are a couple of things you said that misrepresent us (the radical water changers). I can’t speak for all in this camp (the “far left” end) but since this is my view I feel confident I’ll know this view better than you.

      1. You say “The radical water changers would have no ties to tradition at all”.

      This is a completely wrong perception. I/We value tradition and look to keep any or all ties to it, BUT we are willing to question it and not simply accept it as created by God. Man created the traditions NOT God therefore it needs to be questioned and “purified” (That word is harsh and I only use that it because I don’t want to mix metaphors with your initial post). For example, many may choose to keep all traditions, rituals, etc. but recognize them as man made metaphors for deeper truth and NOT truth itself.

      2. You say “The water is purified to the point where all that secure is the fact that God loves all people and will eventually save all somehow (universalism)”.

      Again, you’ve misinterpreted the vision of where it will lead. Your critic is very vague and makes no rational argument of how/when/where this happens. Also, you’ve injected the notion that the role of religion is to provide some security of something. Where does this modern notion that the world will calapse without secure and stable guidelines for thought come from? You should expand this because it sounds remarkably like that of fundamentalists that view the Bible and other man made doctrines as divinely created.

      Your critique here is off-base because you based it on a false view of where this line of thinking might lead. Then, you rejected it based on that false imagined destination. It is always problematic to try and state the opinion of another person that disagrees with you. You’ve missed the boat here. It is usually best to let the other person (or group) state their own vision. I appreciate your view of your own chosen path, but I disagree with how you

    • C Michael Patton

      Great comments here. Thanks so much. Who are you identifying with the “radicals”? What authors, pastors, and teachers would you think are here along with you?

      While I do think my evaluation is correct since most of my information comes through converstaioins, readings, and real personal struggles with the issues, I do understand that there is virtually no way to make absolute categories that all will agree with in regards to emergening and postmodern thought.

      Thanks again for a great and well throught out response.

    • danutz

      I would imagine your critique is of a long list of people that feel the water needs to be changed. The most well know are those within the Emergent Conversation like Brian Mclaren but I think there are also many that have been fighting for this change for over a century in the liberal mainline denominations. More recent examples of those are Marcus Borg and Bishop John Shelby Spong. That is a broad spectrum but I think all would consider themselves in your category #4.

      Thanks for engaging my comments. I have to admit I stumbled onto this site by accident and didn’t realize how far I had drifted by landing here. I watched a brief video on the home page of “reclaiming the mind” and was excited about what might lie under the covers, but after engaging I realized this was a much more fundamentalist organization. I almost feel like I should apologize for commenting. I didn’t realize I was “in enemy waters”. I use the word “enemy” there in the best possible way and don’t take lightly Jesus’ command to love you.

      I do want to say the idea of offering free theological instruction on the internet is a wonderful idea. I agree that the lack of theological education among Christians is a horrible problem. I wish more progressive institutions would follow suite.

    • C Michael Patton


      Thanks again for the response. I think that is the first time we have been called a “fundie organization.” Interesting you see us as such.

      That is a strong statement to call our waters “enemy.” I would only assume that you deny some of the historic essentials of the Christian faith (salvation by grace, human sinfulness, the resurrection of Christ, or the righteousness of God) in order to see our waters as enemy. If you don’t, I am curious to know why we would be the enemy?

      FYI: I would not necessarily put Brian Mclaren in the Hard camp. Maybe the early Brian, but not so much the present Mclaren. My hard camp would include some in the emerging church who are denying essentials of the Christian faith that have historically been found everywhere, of all time, by everyone, as St Augustine would put it. What is called the early regula fide.

      You are more than welcome to enter the conversation (or whatever you want to call it) here at Reclaiming the Mind Ministries. Our desire is to truly discuss these issues, being sympathetic to the concerns of our culture.

      We find our roots in the historic Christian faith in unity in essentials and diversity. in non-essential.

      Would you agree? If you are a hard water changer, what so-called “essentials are you ready to say are not really essential?


    • Lora

      Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958)
      by J.I. Packer
      would go a long way towards resolving these disagreements……

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