Postmodern anthropology and justification by faith

Modernity tended to have an optimistic view of humanity: It emphasized universal and reliable human reason, human goodness, and human perfectibility.  It also emphasized universality in its anthropology — according to modernity, humans have a common mental and moral make-up.  In such a context, questions of righteousness were relatively easy – if humans weren’t already innately good, they were at least able to clearly identify the good and then pursue it.

Postmodernity instead emphasizes human limitations and particularity.  Humans are, according to postmodernity, imperfectly reasonable and imperfectly good.  Their understanding of reason and the good is limited by their particularity: their culture, gender, class, life experience, etc.  Thus, universal standards of reason or morality take a big hit with postmodernity.  Furthermore, any student of history must at least admit that postmodernity is right in naming human variation.  Humans have and do believe greatly different things and act with greatly different standards of what constitutes right.

Such a postmodern anthropology has serious implications for a doctrine of righteousness.  The question of how it is that we can be considered righteous (conforming to the standards of the good and acceptable in the eyes of God) is one at the heart of Christianity.  Questions about justification often revolve around humans’ ability to do good, but postmodernity raises even more fundamental questions.  If humans can only ever imperfectly know the good, how could we do that good, even if we were capable?  In a limited and particular world, how can we undertake the quest for righteousness?

There are several responses to this problem, it seems.  The first is accept that the relativist thrust of postmodernity makes the pursuit of righteousness impossible and abandon the quest, focusing instead on some other aspect of religion.  This approach, however, seems to me to be letting go of one of the traditional pillars of Christian theology, something I am unwilling to do.

Another approach is to reassert universality and attach the pursuit of righteousness to that universality.  This approach can come in a strong form of rejection of postmodern critiques of universality.  I find such an approach undervalues not only the intellectual weight of these postmodern critiques but also the real existence of human variety, both across contemporary cultures and historical periods.

This approach can also come in a weaker form in which postmodern emphasis of particularity is acknowledged, but it is asserted that despite such human variation, we can still identify some moral precepts that the vast majority of humans agree upon.  For instance, everyone agrees that murder is bad.  This approach, however, seems to me to lead to a lowest common denominator version of morality and the good.  Is everyone who doesn’t murder really righteous?  Is righteousness just being nice?  Christianity has often answered “no”, drawing on (among other things) Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said [such and such a commandment], but I say to you [some more stringent requirement]”.  Furthermore, such an approach undermines a quest not just for righteousness, but for justice.  Justice is rarely a universally agreed upon quality, yet it is a critical one for Christianity.

A third approach is to take the attitude of “to your own self be true”.  We may be unable to determine universal standards of righteousness, but in absence of those universal standards, we should be as true as we can to whatever particular standards we have inherited or fashioned for ourselves.  This may be viewed as a reassertion of the classic medieval doctrine of “facere quod in se est (do what is in you)”.  Do the best you can with the knowledge and ability you have, and God will accept the result.  I find a lot to recommend about this approach, and I think it may be the best grounding for postmodern ethics, as long as some provision is made for critiquing one’s understanding of the good through interaction with others.

Yet, as a Protestant, I don’t find this approach (with is frequently the Catholic approach) fully satisfying.  Instead, I would suggest that postmodern anthropology and the challenges it poses for the question of righteousness is a chance for Protestants to reassert the doctrine of justification by faith.  We are righteous, not because we are able to discern what God’s standards of righteousness are and are able to follow them, but because God has, through God’s grace, regarded us as righteous.  This reassertion of justification by faith must define faith not in the confessional sense of assent to right propositions (for, as I’ve been saying, postmodernity poses too great a challenge to epistemology for us to be totally secure that we’ve got the propositions right).  Instead, it must define faith (as Luther did) in terms of relational trust (a securer move, since postmodernity is less critical of our ability to be in relationship with each other than it is of our ability to have correct knowledge).  We must trust God; we must have faith that God is loving enough to accept us despite our limited and particular nature.


Scott (Boston, MA) posted on February 26, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Do I get to be first commenter ever on your blog?

Interesting post. As a big fan of Paul, I like a lot of where you end up, in that our our righteousness is grounded in our participation in Christ rather than our own goodness, so we’re not under compulsion to figure out *exactly* what God is calling us to do in order to be faithful Christians.

At the same time, I don’t see how a truly postmodern reading of Paul would find anything at all.

For one thing, for Paul, faith is in the gospel, which is not simply a general trust in God, but a more specific trust that (1) God has brought us salvation through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and that (2) God will raise those who are in Christ from the dead at the last day. If we get rid of the Gospel part and just use the relational part of faith, then I don’t see how enough of Paul’s doctrine would be left to really do anything with.

The other thing is that Paul repeatedly associates baptism with becoming a new creation in Christ –– which is to say, there’s an action involved in becoming righteous. Obviously, a lot of protestants totally reject such a suggestion, and we could make the typically Protestant move of saying the action doesn’t actually have anything to do with the righteousness. But again I’m not sure how we’d be saying we’re actually using Paul’s doctrine. And since Luther presumably thought he was using Paul’s doctrine, I’d think that would be important.

So I guess I’m just not postmodern. But I suppose the question for postmoderns is, how much of the content of a doctrine can you rip out and still have the doctrine? Surely the gospel in Paul is so foundational that we can’t really hope to get anything from him if we reject that part (or regard it as unfounded)? And ultimately, why would a true postmodern think they have anything to learn from the Bible in the first place?

David Wm. Scott posted on February 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Thanks, Scott, for posting the first ever comment on my blog!

I like a lot of what you say. First, kudos to you for identifying God’s salvific act with both Christ’s death and resurrection. I think the resurrection is often and wrongly overlooked as an essential part of soteriology when people focus entirely on Christ’s death.
Second, I think the gospel is both why we have faith in God and what we have faith in God to do. Jesus’s self-sacrifice for our redemption (in a number of senses) is both promise and proof of what God intends for us. That is why we are justified in and justified by having faith in God.
I will disagree with you on one point, though. I think you’re too harsh on postmoderns. I don’t think postmodernity necessarily involves rejecting all truth claims or external authority. It may involve questioning them, but not necessarily rejecting them. So I like to think that even postmoderns can like and learn from Paul 🙂

Emily posted on February 28, 2011 at 7:19 pm

I really like this discussion, David! Entering graduate school as a Catholic I was unmoored by my first encounters with postmodern theorists. Eventually I found a post modern perspective loosened me to be more compassionate and to look for multiple meanings, ultimately, to be less fundamentalist. While it was initially disruptive because I lost the metanarrative that held my life together…very scary…I now believe that Jesus had a post modern lens and was able to see the historic specificity in those he encountered and understood well the power dynamics that constrained their understanding and perceived choices. Hence, I feel, he was able to forgive and to demonstrate unconditional love because of his flexibility in seeing, each time, the unique and complex web that constitutes one’s identity and sensibilities.

Ernie posted on March 2, 2011 at 3:00 am

Your post got me thinking about a lot of things. Just some bullet point thoughts:

It’s funny. As I was reading your article, I was saying to myself, “This was written by an historian.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) As I understand you, you write about postmodernism almost as zeitgeist. Incidentally, if you’ve read Hegel’s philosophy of history I’d be interested to get your thoughts. I don’t see postmodernism as much of major force in academia anymore, and certainly not in the world at large. I’m not sure that the average Christian knows or cares about it. Therefore, I’m not sure that it’s something pressing upon which we have to respond.

Can one be a postmodernist and an orthodox Christian? I don’t think so. At least not completely. Can Christianity be criticized through a postmodernist lens. Certainly.

Looking at the other tenets of Protestantism, sola Scriptura and sola gratia, I don’t think that postmodern anthropology or outlook fares as well, certainly not with Scripture and its myriad interpretations. Also, what is the role of grace in a postmodern world?

There can’t be a postmodern science, because science requires objective truth. As I consider the possibility of postmodern theology (the queen of the sciences), I see an aimless discipline.

I think in postmodern Christianity much is lost for no reason. Your focus on faith is a good correction in modern (liberal) Christianity that I think is increasingly Pelagian and soteriology is more about what you do rather than faith or grace, which play little or no role. However, I fail to see the answers that postmodernism provides that can’t be obtained from others like Aquinas or Kierkegaard.

David Wm. Scott posted on March 2, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Thanks for your comment! I completely agree that Jesus was able to see each person’s unique and specific location, which is part of what allowed him to have compassion.

Thanks for your comment, too! You’re exactly right that I’m writing about postmodernity as a historian, not a theologian or philosopher. So, I’ve got in the back of my head not people like Derrida or Levinas, but a set of cultural assumptions about authority, power, humanity, forms, aesthetics, etc. I think a lot of your comments are right if you take postmodernity to mean people like Derrida or Levinas, but if, like me and other historians, you look at postmodernity as a cultural system, then it is very much something with which the church is aware of and engaged with and must be. I’m still not entirely settled as to whether I think postmodernity is a new era of Western culture that will last for a long time as modernity did (which fits better with a cultural definition), or whether postmodernity is merely the death of modernity (which fits better with a philosophical definition) and we’re now on the brink of something else. That will probably be a future post.

Chris posted on March 18, 2011 at 12:21 am


I’m thrilled to see that you’ve started a blog. I wanted to win the award for “first ever poster on David’s blog,” but alas, I did not fare so well at this goal. Since it’s spring break for me, I finally have some time to write out some of my thoughts.
It’s interesting to read how you come to your conclusion – that the prevalance of post-modernism in our culture is an opportunity for Christians to assert the doctrine of justification by faith. My question for you is this: If you have accepted none/some/most/all of a post-modern worldview or its conclusions, how does this change your understanding of your assertion of the doctrine of justification by faith? For what reason are you unwilling to let go of this traditional pillar of Christianity?
Also, if we can somehow generalize about what a post-modernist might think, how do you think a post-modernist would understand your assertion? Would you agree with their understanding?

One of the other posters questioned whether post-modernism had much sway in our culture today. I must admit that this surprises me. I believe it’s the dominant worldview today, especially among younger people. It’s also my opinion that when a worldview gains the upper hand in academia that it eventually filters down to the rest of our culture. Many people will eventually agree with the conclusions of this worldview even if they won’t really know the reasons why.
I’ve found many Christians who struggle with accepting biblical teachings because of their belief that religion cannot communicate knowledge. No, none of them would say it in those terms; it’s ingrained in them to the point that it’s almost instinctive. As an example, just two nights ago, I was giving a woman a ride home from a bible study. This woman is incredibly gifted – she just left her job at a private equity firm making big money to get her MBA. Both Harvard and Stanford offered her a free ride. Despite these gifts and the fact that she grew up in a theologically conservative church, she struggles to understand why Christians should live a different kind of life than someone who doesn’t know Christ. Holiness seems to be a foreign concept.
Sometimes you can explain the signifiance of the resurrection to someone but there’s no “Aha!” moment. The power of understanding a universal truth has been removed by the influence of a post-modern epistemology.

After my mentioning “universal truth,” you can probably guess that I am someone who rejects post-modernism. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the time to read up on this in detail and fully flesh this out my thinking. I can say that in as much as I understand what I would consider to be a general post-modern worldview today, I reject post-modernism on an epistemological basis.
In this sense, I disagree with some of what you’ve said in your last paragraph. I am fine with asserting that we have the right propositions. In fact, I believe this is one of the keys to a vibrant church today – not simply the assertion but rather the understanding of why it is possible to make these assertions and why they are meaningful.

I’d like to point out a potential issue of consistency. In your conclusion, you mention: “We must trust God; we must have faith that God is loving enough to accept us despite our limited and particular nature.” If you simply mean that something along the lines of “having faith in God is all we have left after post-modern’s sucessful critique,” then there’s no issue. However, if you are using the word ‘must’ in the sense of something that is supposed to be compulsory for me, then I think there is a problem with consistency in light of what you’ve said previously.
This has been a fun post to read and think about. It also reminds me that one day I’ll have to graduate so I can read about things I enjoy more than business!

David Wm. Scott posted on March 23, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Thanks for your very thoughtful comments and questions on my post. It was fun for me to read and think about them as well. I’m hoping that some of the questions you put to me will be answered in the post I’m planning for this week defining modernity, postmodernity, and whatever comes after that.

Your first question (about why I think justification by faith is important) is, I think, related to my understanding of some of the opportunities involved in postmodernity. As much as postmodernity may have negative implications for Christian notions of universal truth, I think postmodernity also opens up room for faith that is harder to find in a modern emphasis on reason. Sure, giving up on that supremacy of reason may hurt some Christian notions of truth, but it also disabuses people of the false claims of scientism, which would present scientific knowledge as the only true form of knowledge. I don’t think Christian faith is the same sort of knowledge as scientific knowledge. I think it’s faith that goes beyond, besides, and beneath other knowledge. And postmodernity recognizes that there are such things.

As for your last question about whether I’m being inconsistent in using “must” language, you’re right in your suggestion that by “must” I really mean, “I think this is the best way forward in the light of postmodernity’s critiques”. “Must” is probably the wrong word for that, as you point out. I will, however, stand by my statement that “We must trust God; we must have faith that God is loving enough to accept us despite our limited and particular nature.” as a normative part of the Christian gospel. I think the Christian gospel says that God is both trustworthy and loving and that God desires to reconcile us to Godself despite our shortcomings.

SapiensIAS posted on August 13, 2018 at 9:45 am

Thanks for sharing this useful article.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *