Postmodernism - Part 2: The Ministers Intellectual Life

To follow the philosophy of postmodernism in one's intellectual life is to end up in confusion. Of the current society, Gary Phillips writes, "Now modernity asserts that all knowledge is mediated through the subjective perspective of the knower. A knowledge reality probably exists, but this reality can never be known objectively." According to Steve Badger, "Postmoderns think the meaning is beyond recovery, but probably means something different than, often the opposite of, the plain meaning."  Ray Clendenen writes, "But stubbornly maintaining that readers and writers are shackled and blinded by their own worldviews so that messages cannot be conveyed and worldviews cannot be transformed runs counter to experience and reason, as well as the Christian faith."

Of course, experience teaches that language has its limits. Ravi Zacharias declares, however, that "communication is impossible if we do not grant univocal meaning to our words." William Brown says that "the implications of devaluing verbal communication cut at the heart of biblical worldview. God has chosen language as an integral mode of self-revelation. If the verbal is no longer important, where does that leave Scripture?"

Still, it may seem to some that Christianity and postmodernism have some common ground in their positions on the power of man's intellect.

The Bible teaches that the human mind was so adversely affected by the Fall that unaided human reason cannot comprehend the Gospel. Gene Veith writes, "Human nature is so deformed by sin that our very capacity to reason, to discern, and to act on truth is distorted. Our problem is deeper than mere ignorance of the facts, a mental lapse, or a sincere misunderstanding. We are dead in our sins. No one can be brought into the faith by reason alone−our minds will run and hide from the reality of God. Rather, we must be altogether changed by the Holy Spirit, who brings us to faith in Christ through the gospel."

On the other hand, John MacArthur says, "Evangelicals have always believed that Scripture is perspicuous−its essential meaning is evident on its face. It is not a secret or a mystery to be solved. The Bible is God's revelation to us. It is a disclosure of truth; it is not a puzzle. And in all essential matters, it speaks with perfect clarity." He recognizes, of course, that in the Bible there are "some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16). Still he declares, "But the main gist of Scripture, and the gospel message in particular, is clear and unambiguous." He explains further, "Lest anyone misunderstand, we are not advocating rationalism−the notion that human reason alone, apart from any supernatural revelation, can discover truth." Notwithstanding any of these qualifications, however, MacArthur concludes simply, "People cannot be saved apart from hearing and embracing the truth."

All of this suggests that to relate to a postmodern generation, the minister of God must be a careful and diligent student of the Bible.

Indeed, an essential ministerial duty is the cultivation of the mind. John Wesley advised that the preacher spend all the morning in study, or at least five hours a day at it. Jonathan Edwards spent thirteen hours per day in his study, though he used much of that in counseling. To those ministers who would declare, "But I have no taste for reading," Wesley said, "Contract a taste for it by use, or else return to your trade." The Unitarian Code declares, "The Minister should count it a most important part of his work to keep in touch with the best thought of his day, and should make it a point of honor to set aside sufficient time for reading and study." The preacher's ethical duties certainly require that he or she not take the lazy route and plagiarize the sermons of others from books of sermon outlines or tape recorded messages, or by simply copying those heard at conferences or otherwise.

Instead, the preacher must maintain a good, well-situated library and make regular use of it, spending a good share of each day within its walls. It needs to be stocked with adequate tools to assist in study. In that way ministers will follow in the footsteps of Jesus as to His intellectual life. They will also be patterning their ministry, in regard to both study and preaching, after that of Paul. Postmodernists tend to see themselves as intellectually astute. A minister who is lazy as a student is not likely to impress a postmodernist who is well informed on the thinking of the day.

Deciding where to locate the pastor's study or library can be difficult. Some prefer it to be in their own homes. One obvious advantage of that is convenience. Another is that it takes them away from interruption by the phone or persons who just want to drop by the church for a chat. Concentration in study, however, can be as frequently broken at home as it is at the church. Quick questions, brief conversations, or requests to run errands for spouse and family make demands on the time of the preacher that he or she can hardly avoid.

On the other hand, locating the minister's study in the facilities of the church has certain advantages and disadvantages as well. In the larger church, of course, a secretary is a valuable assistant in helping pastors to guard their time. If the building provides a private, outside entrance, the pastor can arrive in the study, buzz the secretary to announce the fact, and even request that all phone calls except emergencies be held during the time set aside for study and prayer. In cases where one can devote space to a library or study area both at home and at the church, the minister can readily inform the secretary if a time of study at home will delay his or her arrival at the church for the normal workday.

The pastor's daily schedule often consists of spending mornings in study, afternoons in counseling or pastoral calls, and evenings in attendance at meetings.

Such a balanced approach is beneficial, especially to the minister who loves study. It enables that minister to avoid losing most of his or her study time to the urgent demands of pastoral calling. It provides a similar service to the one who prefers calling over study. Harmon observes, "The chief study faults to be guarded against are too much specialized study, or a bookishness that may result in taking one out of touch with life and its realities, and, on the other hand−and that is the more common fault in our active ministerial life−too little time for study."

Any serious student does well to establish a regular time in the same location to engage in the pursuit of knowledge. Research in educational psychology has demonstrated that this contributes measurably to learning. The force of human habit helps a person shift into a study mode automatically when in that place at the regular study time.

The minister's invaluable tool in facilitating study is a collection of books and study aids. At the core of that personal library, naturally, is the Bible. A preacher should own as many different translations of Scripture as he or she can afford. This should rightfully include both literal and paraphrased copies. The basic Bible, however, the one used in the pulpit, should be a literal translation. Others are valuable for comparative and illustrative purposes. The various study Bibles available today are also helpful. Most contain brief comments in footnote form on every page of the Book, obviously some with more and others with less. Further, they provide more extensive introductions to the various portions of Scripture than those in regular Bibles. In addition, at various points in study Bibles, articles appear on selected subjects. As another aid to my own study, I make frequent use of the marginal reference columns of my copies of Scripture.

A careful study of Scripture itself requires a good English dictionary. For many years I have kept one within arm's length in my office. I don't expect to outgrow the need for its help. Rather than purchasing an inexpensive one, I think I have done well to buy one with quality scholarship. It helps not only with definitions but also with correct spelling as well as word division and hyphenation. I use Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. In addition to an English dictionary, a serious student of Scripture must also have a Bible dictionary. The difference is that the first focuses on the meaning of single words while the second has articles on all of the basic subjects found in the Bible. Most helpful to me through the years has been The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas. Bible encyclopedias, generally in multi-volume sets, offer more extensive treatments of subjects than do Bible dictionaries.  The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia is among the most well known of these.

Of course, a minister who is a student of biblical languages will need both a Greek and a Hebrew lexicon. Some more recently published study aids make it possible for any preacher to do limited but helpful research involving Greek and Hebrew. One such source is The New Testament Study Bible with ten volumes, a part of The Complete Biblical Library. The works contain the Greek text on each left page with corresponding commentary in English on the right. A numbering system appears over each Greek word. This allows one to use the companion six volumes of the Greek-English Dictionary of The Complete Biblical Library by turning to the corresponding number of any word one wishes to study. The dictionary contains articles on the meaning and use of specific words along with a listing of every reference in the New Testament where such a word appears.

Ideally, the preacher's first step in preparing a sermon should be reading the biblical text for the message in every version of the Bible on the library shelves. It is even better, if one has acquired the necessary knowledge of the languages, to begin the reading in the original of either Hebrew or Greek. That is usually slow going for most, but it gets the minister as close as humanly possible to what the Spirit actually said as the Author of the Bible. It is my personal preference to read the originals and the translations before I allow myself to look at the commentaries. All the while that I am reading, I am taking notes. When I do consult the writings of the commentators, then, I find that I have already personally noticed much of what they saw as they wrote.

Another important work to assist in Bible study is a concordance. I make regular use of both a small one, such as Cruden's, and a more exhaustive one, like Young's, to help me dig into the Word. My basic use of Cruden's is to help me locate specific verses of the Bible whose reference I cannot immediately recall.  Then I turn to Young's when I am engaged in word studies.

Available commentaries include those that cover the whole Bible in one volume and those having several volumes. For years I have found valuable material in the single volume New Bible Commentary. Some multi-volume commentary sets also come in an abridged single volume form. Notable among them is the work of Matthew Henry. Multi-volume commentaries can be as exhaustive as the twenty-three volume set of The Pulpit Commentary. It contains not only a rather extensive commentary on each biblical passage but also usually several homilies on each by various authors. I find that I rarely read the sermons included in the set. For that reason, a minister would spend his or her money better to purchase commentary sets with a half dozen or so volumes. It seems unwise to spend money for material that will seldom if ever be used. Indeed, in some cases, the preacher is better to purchase only selected volumes of some commentaries. He or she may be familiar enough with the authors of each to choose only those known to offer the most solidly biblical material on a given book of the Bible.

In today's world, of course, the availability of Bible computer programs is of great assistance. The speed with which one can find materials and the convenience of copying and pasting portions of Scripture as well as selected quotations greatly enhances the process. Both aid in presenting things accurately either in speech or in print. Most offer commentary material along with other useful items. Understandably, the more economical ones offer less than the more expensive. The commentary offerings in the cheaper programs are also generally the older works. In the moderate price range, I have found what Zondervan Publishers now make available to be acceptable.

To complete the collection of basic tools for Bible study, the preacher should search for a good Bible atlas. Along with hard copies of these, publishers now provide computer software to aid in an effort to master a basic knowledge of the geography of the lands of biblical times. A map allows a minister to fix the location of a certain place mentioned in Scripture and lends greater meaning to the study of whatever happened there. It is the next best thing to taking a trip to the Holy Land. Of course, if one has been fortunate enough to visit that region, ever afterward when he or she reads about a spot there, such as the Sea of Galilee, a full picture of the scene fills the mind.

Indeed, a preacher is wise to avoid purchasing mostly devotional books or those dealing with sensational subjects. Why clutter the library shelves with works that will be read only once and never consulted again? Certainly, when it is time to move, books weigh the most heavily of anything. This means it is expensive to transport them. In the process the minister may find it necessary to dispose of some rarely used volumes. Reference books that will be used repeatedly are of the most value. Utility rather than quantity is the key word.

Some have remarked on one basic difference between preachers in the United States and those of Great Britain.  They report that when one visits a minister in England, the thing of which the minister is most proud and most eager to show a guest is the library. By contrast, when one visits a preacher in the United States, that minister's most prized possession is an automobile!  My wife worked part-time in a Christian used bookstore for a while. She soon took note of the fact that students from one Bible college in town came in looking for specific works, as they were building their libraries from a list of books that every preacher needs on the office shelves. At the same time, those from a similar school came in frequently just to find the latest book on the sensational subject of the moment.

Even Jesus gave concerted attention to intellectual growth while on earth.

Luke reports that during childhood and adolescence, "Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52). This report takes nothing away from His deity, though the genuineness of His humanity appears here. It seems puzzling to us how He increased in "favor with God" during His years of growing up. With these inspired words of Scripture, though, none can deny that He grew spiritually as the rest of His manhood developed. This, of course, is the most important thing in Luke's record. Jesus also experienced normal physical growth, however, as He "grew in stature." He matured socially as He increased in "favor with men" along the way in life. That His storehouse of wisdom increased, strongly implies that He gave diligent attention to His studies in the schools of His day as a Jewish lad. 

Public elementary education in the Jewish culture began to develop in a formal way about the second century before Christ. Such schools were called beth-hassepher, "house of the book." The local synagogue generally housed these educational institutions. Students sometimes met, however, in an adjoining building or in the house of the teacher. Attendance at these schools became compulsory as early as 75 BC. A saying prevailed among the Jewish people declaring that a town without a school and a school without children should be destroyed. Teachers there received great respect. Parents taught that their children should revere their teachers even more than their fathers, reasoning that the latter brought them into this world while the former indicated their way into the next.

The curriculum included reading, writing, and math. As Aramaic became the vernacular language in the Jewish culture, the formal study of Hebrew also became necessary. Moral instruction was based on the Ten Commandments and Proverbs, but also on the entire Torah and the Talmud. The learning of a trade also became a part of a Jewish boy's education.

The method of instruction included a strong emphasis on memorization and recitation. Jewish people declared that a teacher who instructs without having the lesson repeated back to him aloud was like one who sows without reaping. To aid the memory, the teacher employed mnemonic devices, short sayings that would fix a truth in the mind and could be readily recalled. Instruction also frequently arranged material in the form of an acrostic, especially using the Hebrew alphabet in creating it. Psalm 119 is a well-known example of this approach to learning.

Postmodernists tend to downplay the importance of an education that focuses on the transmission of truth through the use of language. They conclude that people learn more by intuition and experience than through the formal, systematized studies of educational institutions. The claim is that both the curriculum and teaching methods reflect a Western way of thinking. Such a rational approach to learning cuts across the grain as far as the way the Eastern mind thinks. Thus the propagation of theology in Christian circles is not in keeping with the Eastern culture in which the Bible was produced.

Theologians of today, however, tend to follow the reasoned thinking of Paul as reflected in his teaching, preaching, and writing. Luke describes it saying, "As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead (Acts 17:2-3).

The apostle certainly stressed the fact that getting to know God involves more than the human intellect. His emphasis on coming to know God, however, did not focus on becoming acquainted with Him mostly through mystical experiences that were devoid of knowledge acquired prior to such events. Concerning the subject, J. I.  Packer presents some penetrating questions: "What are we talking about when we use the phrase knowing God? A special sort of emotion? Shivers down the back? A dreamy, off-the-ground, floating feeling? Tingling thrills and exhilaration, such as drug takers seek? Or is knowing God a special sort of intellectual experience? Does one hear a voice? See a vision? Find strange trains of thought coursing through one's mind? Or what?"

Paul's heart burned with a desire for those in his audience to know the Lord personally and experientially. Analyzing just one passage from his letter to the Ephesians (1:17-23) makes clear, however, that such a knowledge of God does not occur apart from acquiring objective knowledge, truth, and facts. Nevertheless, Paul was perfectly aware of the limitations of the depraved human mind in seeking such information. Accordingly, his prayers for believers included petitions that the Holy Spirit would assist them by giving them understanding.

The first expressed desire of Paul for the Ephesians was that God would grant them spiritual illumination so they might comprehend more fully what has been revealed in Jesus (Ephesians 1:17-18a). He asked (literally, "keeps asking") that they may have wisdom, but note that it is the "spirit of wisdom" and not just wisdom (v. 17a). Teachers say wisdom is the ability to use knowledge correctly. As such it is something like common sense. More appropriately for this context, Packer defines wisdom by saying, "Wisdom is the power to see and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it."

The apostle asked also that the Ephesians might have knowledge which has been revealed about Jesus, literally hoping "that you may know Him better" (Ephesians 1:17b, NIV). The "knowledge" he sought for them certainly included the acquisition of facts, the mastery of information, the comprehension of principles, and the understanding of concepts. To know means to gain knowledge, to acquire content. Beware of the danger in concluding modern man is so concerned about relationships that he cares not about "dry" truth!

The most frequently used title of Jesus while on earth was Master, literally Teacher, and the best known title for His followers was disciples, literally students.

Thus the emphasis in the relationship between them is certainly on learning, acquiring knowledge, and that requires a focus on content. Do you want to get better acquainted with God? Then master the teachings of Scripture and learn well the concepts of the theology expounded from the pulpit! Some young ministers unwisely declare that they are not interested in doctrine but will simply preach Christ. Apparently they have not yet learned that to preach Christ is to preach the doctrine of what theologians term Christology!

Yet the apostle desires that the eyes of the "hearts" of the believers at Ephesus might be opened (Ephesians 1:18a). Heart understanding is often superior to that of the head. A minister, however, must not emphasize the one to exclude the other. To expect something in the heart without also having something in the head is to look in the wrong direction!

Second, Paul wishes his Ephesian readers to realize fully the hope of their calling (Ephesians 1:18b). With hope one can stand up in the face of the most severe trials. Without it, he is a "goner." For the severely ill person to give up hope is a clear sign of the end. That hope includes eternal life, but the details of what that involves--all that goes with it--require a lifetime of study. Hope is one of the most essential qualities of life.

Next, the apostle wants the Ephesians to understand better the riches of their inheritance (Ephesians 1:18c). Some conclude that this indicates that believers are the inheritance the Father has prepared for the Son. A parallel passage from Paul's pen, however, suggests it speaks of the believer's inheritance by virtue of being a joint-heir with Jesus. Elsewhere, Paul told the Colossians that God "has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light" (Col. 1:12). Such truth is so mind-boggling that it will take eternity for followers of the Lord to learn how great their inheritance is. Later in his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle explained that God's plans are such "that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:7).

Finally, Paul asks that the Ephesians might know the exceeding greatness of God's power (Ephesians 1:19a) as He has manifested it in some of His mighty works. These include the Resurrection of Jesus (vv. 19b-20a). The Cross gave man the greatest possible demonstration of God's love; in the same way, the resurrection of Jesus provided man with the greatest possible demonstration of His power. Billy Graham responded to Richard Nixon's terming man's first walk on the moon the "greatest event since the creation" with, "No, the greatest is the coming of Jesus into the world!"

God also demonstrated His power in the exaltation of Jesus (Ephesians 1:20b-23). As the risen Lord, He was exalted to sit at the Father's right hand in the position of Chief Officer or Prime Minister. He is over all principalities, powers, might, and dominion, any and all organizational or governmental agencies, whether of spirits or men in the universe. His Name is greater than any in this or the world to come. All things are subject to Him, under His feet (v. 22b).  His specific executive assignment is that of being the Head of the Church. It is His body. Through it He fills all creation with the knowledge of, and information about, Himself.

These are facts about Jesus that believers need to know, or else Paul would not have told them so, nor would he have prayed continuously about them. If they seem dry or unimportant to any today, maybe those people should examine the whole matter of their relationship with Him. It is possible that some focus so much on the traits of the X-Generation or whatever title the sociologists give theirs, that they tend to forget that after the new birth, they belong to the C-Generation, the Christian One!

Getting to know the Lord, then, requires that one gain more knowledge, understand the facts, and acquire more information about Jesus; that one comprehend more the magnitude of the hope of his or her calling; that one acquire additional insight into the nature of the inheritance in Christ; and that one know or experience the power of God as demonstrated in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Recently I heard a professor speak to a group of collegians over concerns that some in his audience might have only a shallow acquaintance with the Lord. He expressed his concern eloquently by declaring, "I fear that some have felt Him but hardly know Him at all!"

Suppose a young person thinks all that matters is just being "in the presence of" the one he or she is considering to become a lifetime companion. What if that young person concluded that what the two say in the relationship doesn't matter? Or what if one or both were so goggley-eyed that they didn't really hear anything the other said? Without question, they would be courting disaster.

It is by one's words that a person reveals who he or she is. It is no less true of God. If it means anything, getting to know God means acquiring knowledge, gaining information, mastering facts, learning things about Him. Precise words matter. They did to Paul when he focused on the number of a word in Gal. 3:16, emphasizing that it was singular rather than plural. Grammar matters, as when Jesus spoke in Mark 12:26-27, declaring that He is, rather than He was or He would be.

To seek only mystical experiences which provide one with sensational testimonies is to have a mind akin to that of the Hindus and many others. What one believes, the truth about God that an individual knows, understands, and applies in life, is more important than what one momentarily feels at an altar.

Content matters.

When a student asked the late Dr. Donald Johns to pray that the Lord would give him the anointing in preaching, the good Professor replied, "I'll do better than that. I'll pray that He will give you something sensible to say from Scripture!"

In summary, then, the preacher must maintain a good, well-located library and make regular use of it, spending a good share of each day within its walls. It needs to be stocked with adequate tools to assist in study. In that way the minister will follow in the footsteps of Jesus as to His intellectual life. He or she will also pattern the ministry in both study and preaching after that of Paul. As far as relating to postmodernists in intellectual life, D. A. Carson counsels preachers that "the challenge of worldview evangelism is not primarily to think in philosophical categories, but it is to make it clear that closing with Jesus has content (it is connected with a real, historical Jesus about whom certain things must be said and believed) and is all-embracing (it affects conduct, relationships, values, priorities)."

Selected Bibliography

Badger, Steve. Witnessing to Our Postmodern World. Springfield, Mo.: by the author, 2003.

Brown, William E. "Theology in a Postmodern Culture: Implications of a Video-Dependent Society." In The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

Carson, D. A. "Athens Revisited." In The Telling Truth: Evamgelizing Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.

Clendenen, E. Ray. "Postholes, Postmodernism, and the Prophets: Toward a Textlinguistic Paradigm." In The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

Cruden, Alexander. Cruden's Unabridged Concordance. Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1974.

Davidson, Francis. The New Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953.

Douglas, J. D. The New Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962.

Harmon, Nolan B. Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950.

        . Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette, 2nd rev. ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987.

Harris, Ralph W, ed. The New Testament Study Bible, 10 vols. In The Complete Biblical Library.
Springfield, Mo.: Complete Biblical Library, 1986.

        . The New Testament Greek-English Dictionary, 6 vols. In The Complete Biblical Library. Springfield, Mo: Complete Biblical Library, 1986.

MacArthur, John. Why One Way: Defending an Exclusive Claim in an Inclusive World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002.
Packer,  J. I. Knowing God, 20th Anniversary Edition. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Phillips, Gary. "Religious Pluralism in a Postmodern World." In The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. Loving God with All Your Mind, rev. ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003.

Young, Robert. Analytical Concordance to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n. d.

Zacharias, Ravi. "An Ancient Message through Modern Means, to a Postmodern Mind." In The Telling Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.

About the Author 

Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Professor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years. 

In addition to his career as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in the Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and the Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books--What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure--as well as a commentary on the Book of Second Corinthians in the Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter: A Pentecostal Perspective.

Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.