Reading Words in a Postmodern Church

It is always interesting to read past generations. Things that they took for granted oftentimes stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t just mean candles instead of light bulbs. I mean philosophical presuppositions. It makes me wonder what generally accepted philosophies in our own day will sound quaint and time bound in the future.

While reading my District President’s STM thesis (that’s a phrase you don’t often see in the LCMS) I came on one of those moments of discovery and self-realization. Since before my seminary days, I have been fed a steady diet of post-modern hermeneutics. It looks something like this: Meaning is only to be found by the receiver of a message. You may send one thing. But the person on the other end may be receiving something entirely different.

In an extreme form, this hermeneutical principle is used to justify the post-modernist ideal of “no objective meaning”. So, our synod’s CTCR has spent the better part of a decade studying the meaning of the word “authority”, with no end in sight. They have spent the last three years trying to discern the secret meaning of the word “drink”. In the wide-world, we are told that “male” and “female” are neither necessary nor sufficient to describe humanity. Marriage can be between any or all of the 57-and-counting genders.

Which is to say, post-modern deconstructionism leads to madness, in and out of the church. So, it was interesting to see that such was not always the case. In discussing Augustine, President Hill writes:

The things to be used are the signa, which point to the things to be enjoyed, the res. The highest thing which is to be enjoyed in the ascent of the soul to God is God himself:

The things which are to be enjoyed are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a single Trinity, a certain supreme thing common to all who enjoy it, if indeed, it is a thing and not rather the cause of all things, or both a thing and a cause. (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine.)

Augustine then goes on to unfold what it means to enjoy the res. He comes to the incarnation of the Son as “the Way” to God, God, “appearing to mortals in mortal flesh.” By analogy to speech, in which thought is expressed in words without causing change to the thought, so “the Word of God was made flesh without change that He might dwell among us.” His theory of language is expressed again here, “But our thought is not transformed into sounds; it remains entire in itself and assumes the form of words by means of which it may reach the ears without suffering any degradation in itself.” (John Hill, The Development and Place of the Notae Ecclesiae in Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, p. 30. Emphasis mine.)

Augustine ties the incarnation conceptually to the movement from thought to speech. A post-modern hermeneutic would allow for no such conceptual understanding. Thought moved to speech is always contingent on the hearer. That is, it CAN and DOES change the thought.

And, as I write this, I am now pondering how such an understanding on the part of Augustine gives insight into our own generation’s problems. Augustine is not just picking an analogy that is now out of date. He is pondering the incarnation of THE WORD. If thoughts, when turned to words, are contingent on the receiver, rather than the objective and unchanged meaning of the speaker, then Jesus as the Word made flesh is contingent on our own reception of him.

Jesus is not contingent. And I think that perhaps our approach to a lot of church issues has been. I’m guessing that a more concrete understanding will have profound benefits, and solve a lot of problems in the church, such as preaching, worship, the sacraments, pastoral practice, marriage…

 

If you find this intriguing, you might like Luther’s Large Catechism in outline form. Luther, more than any other theologian, manages to avoid getting caught up in the philosophies of his day, instead adhering to the Word of God. Now with these outlines, you can delve into perhaps his greatest writing.

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