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One of our first concerns is to rethink the way we interpret history. For example, when I was in seminary it was popular to regard the civilizations that preceded the Western world as inferior. This attitude has undergone significant change. The new hermeneutic rejects the Enlightenment view of the steady progress of civilization, and seeks to understand and appreciate each epoch of history within its own time, taking into consideration its geographical location, culture, and philosophical presuppositions.
It is now common to think in terms of six discernible paradigms of time that can be traced in the complex history of the Western church. While these divisions are somewhat artificial because history does not change abruptly, we can nevertheless speak convincingly of the following periods of Western thought: primitive Christianity (the first century); the common era, with the emergence of classical Christianity (100-600); the medieval era, with the formation of a distinct Roman Christianity (600-1500); the explosion of the Reformation and the growth of Protestantism (1500-1750); the modern era, with the growth of denominations (1750-1980): and the postmodern period now emerging (1980-) (see table A).
In each of these periods of history, Christianity wrestled with unique sets of philosophical, scientific, and cultural factors. Throughout history Christians have always struggled to incarnate the faith in each particular culture. Consequently, a style ofChristianity successful in one era changes as another era begins. Those who remain committed to the old style of faith subsequently freeze that style in the particular culture in which it originated. This process accounts for much of the diversity we have in the faith today and allows us to understand that the differences among Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant groups are largely due to the cultural styles in which they have become embedded.
We now live in a transitional time in which the modern worldview of the Enlightenment is crumbling and a new worldview is beginning to take shape. Some leaders will insist on preserving the Christian faith in its modern form; others will run headlong into the sweeping changes that accommodate Christianity to postmodern forms; and a third group will carefully and cautiously seek to interface historic Christian truths into the dawning of a new era. It is this latter position that I want to espouse. I will do so in the broadest strokes while recognizing the complexity of the issues.
We begin with a brief overview of the six paradigms of Christianity with the intent of viewing the landscape of two thousand years of history in a variety of cultures. This review will enable us to see that the church has gone through a number of transitions and will make us sympathetic to the current transition from a modern to a postmodern worldview.
A Summary of the Paradigms
The biblical paradigm is difficult to summarize in just a word or two for it covers many generations of people and draws from cultural settings as diverse as the liberating work of Moses, the settled reign of David, and the era of the prophets. Philosophically it may be said that the biblical era was a time for the holistic understanding of all things. In Israel reality was interpreted by the conviction that God was at work in history, most especially in the community of faith. Faith was situated in this historic religious community that passed down its teaching through oral communication from generation to generation. Like Israel, early Christians were immersed in the history of their community and found meaning and an explanation of their world through the rituals and rites of worship that handed down the faith.
During the ancient period of culture (100-600), Christianity faced the challenge of communicating the faith in an era dominated by Platonic thought. For Plato, the dominant philosopher of the period, the universal was found in the "other world." This world was a mere shadow of that true and ideal world of the other. This other-worldly vision of reality caused the church to stress the biblical idea of mystery and the Pauline notion that we see through a glass darkly. God was the mysterium tremendum. The most often used image of God was that of light. God dwelt in inaccessible light, a light that could not be penetrated by human sight. The church and its theology dealt with the mystery of how God who is wholly other became involved with the plight of a fallen world in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. While God's redemption was a great mystery, every effort was made to understand the shadow of the mystery expressed in history, embodied in the church, enacted in worship, and witnessed to in the creeds. In this period of history classical Christianity was formed.
The medieval world (600-1500) shifted its philosophy toward an Aristotelian outlook. Aristotle, in contrast to Plato, insisted the universal was within the created order. This location of truth within the structures of creation led to an emphasis on the church as the institution of God on earth. It ruled the world, both the spiritual and political arms. It interpreted truth; it dispensed salvation through the sacraments; and it acted as the establishment of heaven on earth. In this period of history Christianity took on its medieval and Roman form.
The Reformation (1500-1750) was preceded by a new philosophy, nominalism. Nominalism insisted that truth is not found in an objective institution but in the mind. This philosophy weakened medieval Roman Catholic institutionalism and resulted in an emphasis on the individual and his or her mind. The Bible became the object of study that could now be interpreted by individuals who were in conflict with previous institutional understandings. This Scripture-driven approach to Christianity fueled the Protestant faith. It also accounts for the rise of denominationalism, the differences of which are traced back to various interpretations of the Bible.
The modern era (1750-1980), shaped by the philosophy of Descartes, placed its emphasis on reason. The rise of logic and the empirical methodology insisted that truth be based on observation and derived from the empirical method. For liberals, reason led to the denial of a supernatural Christianity and to the teaching of Christianity as myth. For conservatives, the emphasis on reason led to a proof-oriented Christianity, to "evidence that demands a verdict."
Currently, Western society is in a transition from the modern world to a postmodern world. The new revolutions in science, philosophy, and communications—in all areas of life—are shifting us toward the affirmation of new values (see table C). We live, science says, in an expanding universe; we are, philosophy states, in an interrelationship with all things; and we increasingly communicate through visual and symbolic means. These shifts are resulting in a whole new culture and raise new questions about the way a biblical Christianity is to be understood and communicated (see table A).
The Value of Paradigm Thinking
This brief overview of the major Christian paradigms introduces us to a key element of postmodern thought: paradigm thinking. First, paradigm thinking asks us to understand the past contextually. Each epoch of Christian history is to be studied in its own culture. Since its beginning, the Christian faith has been filtered through a variety of cultures. In each of these cultures Christianity has been primarily communicated through one or more dominating principles. Thus, it may be said broadly that the story of Christianity moves from a focus on mystery in the classical period, to institution in the medieval era, to individualism in the Reformation era, to reason in the modern era, and now, in the postmodern era, back to mystery.
Next, paradigm thinking allows us to have a deep appreciation for the past. We Protestants usually root our understanding of the faith in one of the post-sixteenth-century renewing movements—a Reformer, pietism, revivalism, or the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. We often freeze that particular moment in time, make it the standard expression of faith, and then judge all other movements or periods of time by our standard. Paradigm thinking sets us free to affirm the whole church in all its previous manifestations. Therefore, the study of other periods of history should not be looked at judgmentally, but as a dialogue and an encounter with a previous manifestation of faith that may inform and strengthen our Christian understanding in a different culture.
Third, paradigm thinking also recognizes that the major models of the past continue into the present world. For example, Christianity adapted in the Greek world remains with us in Eastern Orthodoxy; Christianity formulated in the medieval world remains with us in Roman Catholicism (note, however, that Vatican II sought to relate Catholic thought to the twentieth century). Many Reformation models are still with us—Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, and Anabaptist. And, of course, there are those expressions of faith that have been formed by the culture of modernity—modern liberalism, for example. Through the hermeneutic of paradigm thinking we are able to understand the multiplicities of faith expressions as attempts within a particular cultural moment and geographical place to express the faith in a fresh way.
Fourth, paradigm thinking affirms the variety and diversity of the Christian faith and looks for the framework of faith that is common to the diversity. This search for a common heritage allows for the emergence of a new understanding of unity and diversity. Unity is based on what is passed down in the ecclesio-social culture of the universal church, whereas diversity is a particular understanding of the faith that reflects the specific cultural context in which it was expressed (e.g., medieval Roman versus sixteenth-century Reformation). So while we are all Christians, some of us are Roman Catholic Christians, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Reformation Christians, twentieth-century evangelical Christians, or some other form of modern or postmodern Christians.
Finally, paradigm thinking also provides us with an intelligent way to deal with times of transition. For example, we currently acknowledge that the Christian faith incarnated in the modern culture, with its philosophical assumption of a mechanistic world understood through empirical methodology, is eroding. The cultural revolutions are in the process of ushering us into a new era. In this swirl of change, many are seeking to honestly incarnate the historic faith in the emerging culture. This goal will not be accomplished by abandoning the past, but by seeking out the transcultural framework of faith (i.e., the rule of faith) that has been blessed by sociocultural particularity in every period of church history.
Therefore, the point of integration with a new culture is not to restore that cultural form of Christianity, but to recover the universally accepted framework of faith that originated with the apostles, was developed by the Fathers, and has been handed down by the church in its liturgical and theological traditions. This hermeneutic allows us to face the changing cultural situation with integrity. Our calling is not to reinvent the Christian faith, but, in keeping with the past, to carry forward what the church has affirmed from its beginning. We change, therefore, as one of my friends said, "not to be different, but to remain the same." Right now we are caught up in the throes of changing from modernity to postmodern times. So let's look at this shift more closely to figure out how we ought to change to remain the same.