By James M. Rochford

Postmodern thinkers question whether we can know what language really means with any degree of objectivity. They charge that you might have your interpretation of the Bible, but it’s no better than anyone else’s. Since we all bring our own personal agendas and biases to the table, postmodern thinkers argue that it is impossible to have any kind of objectivity in our interpretation of the Bible (or any other text for that matter).

To illustrate, imagine if we lined up an eclectic group of people to read the Bible together. One was an engineer from Silicon Valley; another was a 19 year old girl studying women’s studies for her undergrad; another was a middle aged, Indian, computer engineer; and still another was a 65 year old, white, construction worker. Wouldn’t these people all have different biases and perspectives on the Bible? Postmodern thinkers argue that their gender, social class, education, and other background factors would poison their ability to be objective in their interpretation. Whether we like it or not, they argue, we are hopelessly biased, and any claim to an objective interpretation is hopeless. We regularly see this sort of thinking in our culture.

Madonna: “[Words have] gone out, lost their meaning. Don’t function anymore. Words are meaningless—especially sentences.”[1]

Arcade Fire: “I’m living in an age that calls darkness light. Though my language is dead, still the shapes fill my head.”[2]

Nicole Kidman (The Invasion, 2007): “When someone starts talking to me about ‘the truth,’ what I hear is what they’re telling me about themselves, more than what they’re saying about the world.” The movie is really a metaphor of postmodernism. The infectious alien disease wipes out our “otherness” (our culture, passion, and individuality), so that we can be governed in a utopia of bland reason, logic, and conformity.

Postmodernism doesn’t deny that truth exists, per se; instead it denies that we could ever know this truth with any certainty or objectivity. Our individual biases pollute our interpretation so much that we could never claim to know truth.

Of course, I’m sure you can see how this view is in direct conflict with a Christian worldview. Even if God inspired the Bible for us, it wouldn’t be any use if we couldn’t truly interpret what he was saying. To put this another way, what use is an inspired Bible, if we cannot deduce its meaning? This would be like getting a prescription from a doctor without being able to find a pharmacist who could read his poor handwriting: The cure would be useless without being able to interpret the script.

Sadly, some Christian thinkers have adopted a postmodern view of biblical hermeneutics.[3] George Barna writes, “Although 88% of those in evangelical churches say the Bible is the infallible word of God, 53% also say there is no such thing as absolute truth! The proportion of evangelical youth doubting that absolute truth exists approaches the same ratio as that in society as a whole.”[4]

Should we adopt a postmodern view of hermeneutics? While postmodernism has made some positive contributions to the subject of hermeneutics, it should not be adopted wholesale. For one, the postmodern view is self-contradictory. For instance, when Madonna sings, “Words are meaningless—especially sentences,” we know what she means. And yet, if her statement is true, then we shouldn’t be able to understand her words or her sentences.

Moreover, while there is some truth to the postmodern critique of objectivity, these claims are often greatly exaggerated. Postmodern thinkers usually focus on the 10% of obscure passages in the Bible (1 Cor. 15:29; Rev. 13:18), rather than the 90% that are clear, straightforward and understandable. John claimed that non-Christians could interpret his book to find faith in Christ (Jn. 20:31). Paul claimed that Timothy could find salvation as a child by reading the OT (2 Tim. 3:14-15; cf. Mt. 11:25), and average lay people could use it to counsel and teach each other (Col. 3:16). This is why Scripture is addressed to the lay people—not the leadership of the church (Phil. 1:1) and why it was read publicly (1 Tim. 4:13; Col. 4:16). If Scripture is so difficult to interpret, then why would it say that non-Christians, lay people, and even children should be able to interpret it and use it?

Many of the Bible’s statements are crystal clear. For instance, Isaiah writes, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5). After reading this verse, ask yourself: How many different ways are there to interpret this passage? I suppose I could be wrong, but it seems that Isaiah was trying to tell us that there is only one God—not many!

Interpreting someone else’s words can be tricky, but is it really impossible? If this is true, why do postmodern writers keep writing books about it? Why do they denounce written critiques of their books, if their meaning isn’t essentially clear? And, why is it that postmodern thinkers don’t hold this view when they read the directions on a medicine bottle or the words on a street sign? If objectivity is impossible, what would be the use?

Postmodernism offers a valid critique of how our biases and background affect our ability to interpret a passage, but its solution is bankrupt. Instead of throwing up our hands in defeat, we should combat our biases with the rules of hermeneutics. Studying hermeneutics helps us to eliminate these biases, so we can learn the author’s intent. (For further reading, see our earlier article “Hermeneutics”)

[1] Madonna, “Bedtime Story.” Neon Bible. Merge Records. 2007.

[2] Arcade Fire, “My Body is a Cage.” 1994.

[3] For a clear example of this, see Penner, Myron B. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Baker Publishing Group. Grand Rapids, MI. 2013.

[4] Barna, George. The Barna Report: What Americans Believe. Regal Books. Ventura, CA. 1991. 292-294.