The tension is heating up; the rancor is getting louder. Evangelicals are fighting each other again—this time over postmodernism. There are some churches that have embraced elements of postmodernism, while others are holding the modernist line against this evil intrusion. I want to quickly take stock of some of the basic issues.

Years ago, I attended a regional Evangelical Theological Society conference where postmodernism was the topic of a panel discussion. Those discussing it were philosophers and theologians. For the most part, they were extremely nervous about it, arguing that we needed to first ‘convert’ someone to Aristotelian logic before we could convert them to Christ. I was shocked. There seemed to be a sense of desperation on the part of these scholars that their jobs were in jeopardy because all they knew was how to argue! They had no concept of loving a person into the kingdom. I wonder what they would think of Dan Kimball’s new book, They Like Jesus, but not the Church (Zondervan, 2007). I highly recommend this work as a book by an emergent church pastor who has the pulse of American culture. He knows how to be a Christian in today’s world. And, by the way, Kimball holds to absolutes and even calls himself a fundamentalist! In the least, he shows that it’s possible to be in the emergent church and hold to absolutes.

What is often unreflected in Christian condemnation of postmodernism is that the one doing the condemning subconsciously embraces modernism. What is not recognized is that modernism is not completely compatible with the Christian faith either. Here are some things to consider.

First, postmodernism puts at least as great an emphasis on relationship as it does on knowledge. Or to put things biblically, love is just as important as truth. To be sure, many postmoderns think of truth as relative. This is not an essential part of postmodernism (any more than denial of apostolic authorship for Ephesians is an essential part of higher criticism), but it is a common element. Postmodern Christians, however, need not (and I might I say, dare not!) embrace relativism as an epistemological necessity. But modernism puts far more emphasis on truth than on love. That, too, is imbalanced.

Second, postmodernism puts emphasis on community and service far more than modernism does. To be sure, the emphasis often collapses at the level of actual cooperation because of imbalances in postmodernism (e.g., the general lack of emphasis on truth also means that there is a lack of confrontation when necessary, leaving community and service at the mercy of the most assertive individuals rather than at the mercy of what is right).

Third, postmodernism puts an emphasis on a holistic view of man, while modernism dissects man into body, heart, and mind, while prizing the mind above all else.

We could chart the differences this way:

At a glance, we can see that there is both good and bad in postmodernism and good and bad in modernism. And this brings me to my fundamental point: The Imago Dei or image of God, as theologians are fond of saying, has not been erased but it has been effaced. It’s not destroyed but it is distorted. All sinners are born in the image of God, but we immediately distort that image. Normally, we think of such distortions as only individual. But it also occurs on the societal, historical, and cultural levels. There is a modernist distortion of the Imago Dei just as there is a postmodernist distortion of the Imago Dei. It is for this reason that Christians should exercise some discernment and should not embrace either modernism or postmodernism lock, stock, and barrel. At the same time, since the Imago Dei has only been distorted, we need to seek what is good on the societal level that we can embrace. The problem I have with many apologists is that they all too often subconsciously embrace modernism as though it embraces only Christian values. These same apologists attack anyone who even smells like a postmodern, quickly labeling them as denying absolute truths and being too soft on non-Christians. I think a little more discernment and theological reflection are needed before such pronouncements are made. But then again, since I have been labeled as a relativist who doesn’t hold to absolute truth, I could be wrong!

    10 replies to "Postmoderism and the Imago Dei"

    • Jugulum

      Hi Dan. A couple things.

      First, I noticed that you referred to Dan Kimball as “an emergent church pastor”. Actually, “emergent” and “emerging” are a bit different. (It’s very unfortunate that we have to make such a confusing distinction!) “Emergent” generally refers to people involved with Emergent Village–Brian McClaren, Tony Jones, etc. That’s where we tend to see relativistic statements about the nature of truth–the kind of thing that gets people riled up with concerns about heresy. “Emerging” is the broader term, which includes people with entirely orthodox theology who are concerned about various aspects of practice and approach. (There was a lot I liked about Kimball’s book, BTW.)

      Second, I wonder about the way you characterized modernism. You said:

      “What is not recognized is that modernism is not completely compatible with the Christian faith either. Here are some things to consider.”

      And what were some of your examples of ways that modernism falls short?
      “But modernism puts far more emphasis on truth than on love. That, too, is imbalanced.”
      “Second, postmodernism puts emphasis on community and service far more than modernism does.”

      I question the applicability of “modernism” to those matters at all. What does “modernism” have to do with our view of love or the importance of community and service? Why connect the two? The categories you’re using seem peculiar to me. Almost like saying, “Libertarianism doesn’t provide a solid approach to parenting.”

      I understand “modernism” as a systematic approach to epistemology, as a view of how certainly we can obtain knowledge using proper foundations and rigorous analysis. I do not understand classifying every concern raised in the broad “emerging church” topic as being a matter of post-modernism vs. modernism.

      We should absolutely listen to all those concerns, and not dismiss anyone who smells of the emerging church as falling victim to the post-modern views of knowledge that undermine Christian truth. There’s a lot we can improve, and there are many valid issues being raised–such as about arrogant attitudes on theology and about inappropriately dogmatic approaches to Christian practice, for instance. We should listen, interact, and grow.

      We should certainly talk about the issues. But that doesn’t require adopting the (mis?)use of the modernism/post-modernism classifications.

      Now, if you can explain how the breakdown of issues in your modernism/post-modernism chart is a valid characterization of the historical issues involved in those terms, then of course I would withdraw my concern. 🙂

    • C Michael Patton


      I agree with you about being careful about drawing too close an association between postmodernism and the emerging church, but I think what Dan was getting at is the postmodernism itself has some redemptive qualities that the emerging church is picking up on. I draw some similar conclusions here.

    • Finrod

      I think I’m stuck in premodernism, i.e., belief in a supernatural being who is involved and interacts with His creation, and where reason is subordinate to revelation.

      Is that acceptable with modernists? Postmodernists?

      Am I a relic? A dinosaur? Or (since I’m premodern (Classical)) a Númenorean?

    • kurtvader

      They obviously have doubts about Rom 1:16-17.

      The problem I think is that evan-gel-licals (pun intended a bit) want to make the Gospel first rational so that it can be believable. If your Gospel does not sound foolish, it is not the Gospel.

      Kurt Vader

    • Jugulum

      I agree that self-identified post-moderns do tend to be characterized by some of those redemptive qualities, and I think that’s a point well-taken.

      I still question, however, the characterization of modernism. As far as I know, modernism has absolutely nothing to do with community, service, or the relationship between or relative standing of truth and love. I’m welcome to correction on that if I’m wrong. However, simply because current self-identified post-moderns in America view those issues as defining aspects of post-modernism, it doesn’t mean those issues have anything to do with the historic category of “modernism”–or even, necessarily, with the historic category of post-modernism.

      In other words, simply because people these days like to use “post-modern” as a catch-all for every good quality they think is lacked by “the establishment” or “traditional organized religion” or some aspect of modern society, doesn’t mean we should grant them the right to redefine “modernism”. It doesn’t help communication, and it doesn’t help serious discussion and consideration of the issues.

      Discuss the issues, certainly. Discuss how the emerging church is taking those issues to heart, certainly. But don’t redefine categories, if those issues actually aren’t what the categories are about.

    • Dan Wallace

      Jugulum, thanks for the correction about emerging vs. emergent. I always seem to get that one wrong! As for modernism vs. postmodernism, the issue I’m raising is both epistemological and anthropological. As I pointed out in the little chart (or chartette?), modernism puts a premium on the mind while postmodernism puts a premium on the heart. You argued that modernism, strictly speaking, deals only with epistemology. I disagree, but even if I agreed I think my points would still hold a general validity.

      As for what modernism means, here’s what the Catholic Encyclopedia says:

      “In general we may say that modernism aims at that radical transformation of human thought in relation to God, man, the world, and life, here and hereafter, which was prepared by Humanism and eighteenth-century philosophy, and solemnly promulgated at the French Revolution. J.J. Rousseau, who treated an atheistical philosopher of his time as a modernist, seems to have been the first to use the word in this sense (‘Correspondance à M. D.,’ 15 Jan. 1769). Littré (Dictionnaire), who cites the passage; explains: ‘Modernist, one who esteems modern times above antiquity.’ After that, the word seems to have been forgotten, till the time of the Catholic publicist Périn (1815-1905), professor at the University of Louvain, 1844-1889. This writer, while apologizing for the coinage, describes ‘the humanitarian tendencies of contemporary society’ as modernism. The term itself he defines as ‘the ambition to eliminate God from all social life.’ With this absolute modernism he associates a more temperate form, which he declares to be nothing less than ‘liberalism of every degree and shade’ (‘Le Modernisme dans l’Eglise d’après les lettres inédites de Lamennais,’ Paris, 1881).”

      Webster’s offers three definitions:
      “1 : a practice, usage, or expression peculiar to modern times
      2 often capitalized : a tendency in theology to accommodate traditional religious teaching to contemporary thought and especially to devalue supernatural elements
      3 : modern artistic or literary philosophy and practice; especially : a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression.”

      In none of these definitions/descriptions is epistemology the only thing that is in view.

      Actually, one could find several different descriptions of modernism. But when comparing it to postmodernism, I think that one can readily see that it is a worldview that tends toward the individualistic, focuses on the mind and the rational, and uses argument to achieve its ends.

      But even if we think epistemologically, modernism itself moves toward the acquisition of knowledge by rational thought as well as empirical testing, in the search of truth (whether absolute or not). Postmodernism, on the other hand, embraces a holistic view of man (both on the individual level and in terms of community cooperation) in its epistemological model, and it embraces mystery and supra-rational (not necessarily anti-rational) means for gaining its objectives. To be sure, its objectives are usually stated in terms of authenticity rather than truth, but the net result is still generally epistemological because the objective is to access what affects one’s outlook.

      So, I’m not sure what bothers you about my use of the word modernism. If you wish, call it “pre-postmodernism” and regard me as an uninformed syncretist who thinks (or feels?!) that our hearts have a say in what we believe and are convinced about, just as our minds do. But language aside, let’s get back to the basic issue.

    • Todd Mangum


      Nicely framed; good spirit.

      I’m a bit puzzled and often disheartened by the knee jerk, alarmist reaction evangelical scholars seem too often to have toward the “postmodern turn.”

      Your blog brought to mind Scot McKnight’s recent article in CT on “emergent,” in which he suggests the following framing of Christian stances regarding postmodernism : 1) Christians who believe our culture is postmodern, but that part of our calling is to witness prophetically against this inherently anti-Christian turn; 2) Christians who seek to minister TO postmoderns as winsomely as possible and seeking as much common ground with them as possible; and 3) Christians who are witnesses for Christ AS postmoderns.

      At Biblical Seminary where I teach, the theology department (myself included) leans heavily towards 3 (at least 2+ ? 🙂 ).

      I’d recommend two recently published books that are short and digestible that help explain how such a stance (being a postmodern Christian) is possible; they’re readable but nevertheless maintain scholarly credibility:
      1) Crystal Downing, How Postmodernism Serves (my) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006) — Downing is an English and literature professor at Messiah College; and

      2) James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) — Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College. Interestingly, in this book, Smith takes both Brian McLaren and Don Carson to task — McLaren for getting careless and reckless with some of the ideas, despite the correctness of his sentiments and instincts; and Carson for “missing the point,” though affirming some valid concerns along the way.

      Anyway, I’d highly recommend both these books for seeing “postmodernism” in a new light, and in a way that can be seen as a boon (rather than just a danger) to pursuit of Christian faith & pilgrimage.

      For those looking for deeper philosophical engagement, it’s hard to beat Merold Westphal — who describes his own approach as “appropriating postmodernism” (as a Christian philosopher; i.e., not uncritical of the ideas of postmodern thinkers, but generally positive).

      For those with questions — or just interest piqued! — these could be great conversation starters! 🙂

      Anyway, keep up the great work, Dan! I am always encouraged by your engagements — doesn’t seem to matter the topic! 🙂

      Happy summer,


      R. Todd Mangum, Ph.D.
      Dean of the Faculty
      Associate Professor of Theology
      Biblical Theological Seminary
      215-368-5000, x132

    • mjfreshoil

      Hello everyone,

      I think evangelicals should visit an emergent church that worships in a brewery-then after the service we should all enjoy a beer. I think we as evangelicals have spent so much time over thinking things, we have lost the Joy of our salvation. All of the comments Ive read above have been very cogent… but also very silly when it comes to semantics. I realize that there is an importance to communication, but it seems as though what we are talking about has become a main reason evagelicalism has been a turn off to the emergent church… and even worse to sinners. We should spend less time trying to debate semantics maybe and more time actually falling in love with Jesus. Evengelicalism has become to some degree as stiff, dull, and dry as the Catholic Church we “split” away from.

      We have replaced experience and passion with academics. Im not saying that this is not an important discussion. But whats the last time we actually shut ourselves in our prayer closet and just prayed- and talked with God, like Adam did in the cool of the day? Whats the last time we raised our hands to God, and praised Him for his love to us, and told him that we Loved Him, like the Psalmists?

      It seems as though Michael, Dan, Ruth Tucker, and JP Moreland have all been drawing conclusions that there has to be something more. When we became believers and accepted Christ, we believed with our hearts… but somehow after that, our faith became only an exercise in academics.. and although important- its not where our faith in Christ should rest. I agree with writer Finrod to some degree. We have missed the big picture. I dont believe that reason should have to be subordinate… but I also dont think that our heart experiences should be subordinate either. We have to keep things balanced.

      The church has always combatted error with extremes. When musical instruments were misused, the church elimintated them from worship- and our worship experince became diminished. Now we are experiencing the same sort of thing… this time though its evangelicalism that has gone to the extreme. When faith healers started to do very unscriptural and off the wall things… we combated it by telling people that God doesnt do that anymore- the list can go on. Again as a result our experience with God has been diminished, and we have replaced the joy, awe and wonder of a relationship with our Lord with good theology. It has become like a drug. It doesnt really satisfy, because we have a burning desire to know Him. When seek Him and He does an awesome thing in our lives or we have an experience with Him, we somewhere disallow it because we have put God in an Evagelical box, and that experience was somehow out of the box. As a result we replace the experience with more and more head knowlegde and discard what our hearts really desire.

      The solution to our problem is not in the evangelical church, the emergent church or any other movement. It is only be found in a relationship that is IN HIM.

      I hope I havent offended anyone.. and if I did I am truly sorry. I would also like to thank you for provoking us to think, and allowing me to preach. (ha ha)


    • Vance

      When I think of “modernist” Christianity, the Creationist movements, like scientific creationism and intelligent design (which is not fooling anyone by disclaiming religious foundations). In these movements, they are attempting to “prove” God scientifically, prove that God created in a certain way scientifically (since they believe that the Bible says He created that way), and at a certain time.

      I think this is misguided for a number of reasons, but relevant to this discussion, I think the entire process of trying to “prove” God by modern scientific means is a futile effort, and actually counter-productive. It is tacitly accepting the modernistic concept that if something is “true” it is able to be understood and described by modernistic tests. It is accepting the secularist playing field and then trying to beat the secularist at his own game. But this just sets the Gospel up for damage, because the playing field is the wrong one, and the way God works will fail the modernistic tests in some areas.

      I think the best response to modernism was penned by Shakespeare: “there is more to heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophies.”

    • Dan Wallace

      Todd (and others), thanks so much for your comments. Todd, you’ve always struck me as a good and provocative thinker; I’m honored that you would make a comment on my blog. And thanks, too, for the great bibliographical help! I tend pretty strongly toward McKnight’s #2, but I work with #1 and #3 type folks. At bottom, we all need to recognize that our relationship to Jesus Christ is more important than labels or other associations.

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