Postmodernism in Dr. Jonathan Pennington’s Writings
In Dr. Al Mohler’s attempt at damage control, Southern Seminary has released two video responses to Dr. Russel Fuller’s first and second whistle-blower interviews. In the first video, concerning the writings of Dr. Dominick Hernandez, which reflect a higher critical view, Dr. Hernandez essentially contradicts some of his own writings without recanting or apologizing for them.
You can find the related documents, including Dr. Fuller’s compilation of concerns here: Dr. Dominick Hernandez Documents.
In the second video, Dr. Jonathan Pennington, who has advocated a kind of postmodernism for years, essentially answers irrelevant questions with standard orthodox answers. Rather than contradict his former work, he seemingly obfuscates the actual issues by dwelling on the perimeter of Dr. Fuller’s concerns while carefully evading them.
Pennington’s stated belief is that “evangelical hermeneutics is so driven to prove the verifiability and reliability” due to possible insecurity and fearing the “loss of authority of the Bible.” Paper 1, 10
In Pennington’s understanding, the meaning of a text is “dependent, at least in part, on what questions we ask of it” and “the questions we ask of a text are at least in part culturally conditioned . . .” So “No one’s reading of a text/interpretation is objective, scientific discernment of authorial intent apart from [experience].” Pennington seeks to walk the tightrope between a “modernist Objectivism or postmodern Relativism” by drawing from “not-modernist/post-critical (post modern, if you will) theorists and practitioners” such as “Paul Ricouer, Hans Georg Gadamer, Wolfgang Iser, and . . . Uberto Eco” who recognize “the role of the reader in interpretation” while still seeing “texts as having intent and a voice that we need to hear.” Paper 1, 11
This view is consistent with Gadamer’s “Horizons” view which teaches that meaning is found through a fusion of experience between the reader and listener. Meaning is affirmed, but it is NOT objectively discerned.
In order to safeguard orthodoxy, Pennington builds his house on the sand of community interpretation or “creedal orthodoxy” which avoids “the anxiety that Fundamentalists have that the Bible is the ONLY authority or ONLY source of truth and understanding.” Paper 1, 10
It’s very important to realize that Dr. Pennington IS NOT referring to the laws of logic, or tools accessible to all and fundamental to reality when he states that the Bible is not the “ONLY authority.” Rather, he is referring to, in context, how individual and community experience shapes meaning. This is consistent with a “Horizons” approach.
While most Christians believe creeds are important for the purpose of defining belief, they are not authoritative in the sense of ascertaining the meaning of a text apart from its objective meaning. Dr. Pennington fails to make this distinction in his recent interview, which serves to muddy the waters by answering an irrelevant question about the purpose of creeds.
He states, “So we’re all reading the same Bible, that’s the authority, but we need statements of faith to articulate truly what we think the Bible is teaching.” However, the question was NEVER one of “articulation,” but rather, of “meaning” itself.
Postmodernism has never been a monolithic movement, but there’s no safeguard to keep Pennington from embracing relativism in his embrace of idealism over realism. If he’s going to embrace Gadamer and any aspect of his approach this leaves no substantial reality by which to ground the text.
Carl F. H. Henry rightly described Gadamer’s approach as a “new hermeneutic” because it regarded the “interpreter as the source of meaning itself, rather than merely an agent of interpretation and translation.” (God Revelation and Authority, Vol. 4, 304; Thornbury, Recovering Classical Evangelicalism, 146) Henry believed Gadamer’s claims made “cultural differences between eras . . . so radical and absolute that even the most painstaking historical study cannot recapture the meaning of the past documents.” (God Revelation and Authority, Vol. 4, 463).
Even if Pennington wants to try to find an epistemological stability in creeds, what’s to keep his students from taking an extra step off a metaphysical cliff?
Some of these issues perhaps come out most clearly in questions of Gospel harmonization and the existence of a Messianic paradigm in certain Old Testament passages.
Of the ability to harmonize the Gospel accounts with each other and other historical sources, Pennington writes:
“To seek the behind-the-text realities is to fall back into the errors of modern historicism, which eschews testimony, distrusts witnesses, and desires to reach the supposed, original, objective truth of the matter. But this as we have argued, is epistemologically and historically naive and impossible! . . . While affirming the essential historical veracity of the Gospel accounts and the importance of real history to which they testify, we must not in theory or in practice supplant the text with our reconstruction of the events behind it, nor should we make this reconstruction the end goal of our reading. . . And, not using the Gospels as windows onto other (historical) events and realities. Reading the Gospels Wisely, 150
Dr. James White tangentially addressed Dr. Pennington’s view on the lack of harmony in the Gospel’s birth narratives in 2016. The relevant portions are between 59:44 to 1:06:09.
In Pennington’s recent interview he stated that “Isaiah 53 is one of those texts, of many many texts of the Old Testament, Christians very quickly saw that its ultimate fulfillment, it’s deepest truth that it is speaking actually occurred in Jesus Christ.”
However, this statement evades Fuller’s actual critique. Of course Christians believe Isaiah 53 is about Jesus, but was it possible or expected for Jews to understand Isaiah as messianic even before the coming of Christ?
Concerning the Messianic paradigm in the Old Testament, Dr. Pennington writes that ” . . . the way the Messiah came was largely unexpected and not what anyone could predict or even see afterwards without the apostolic teaching . . . It is only after the fact that we can go back and re-understand the scriptures with this new interpretive lens . . .” Paper 1, 13
This kind of approach clearly runs up against passages like John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me,” and John 5:46, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me,” not to mention Acts 18:28, 28:23 and 9:22.
Pennington favorably quotes David Crump who argues, “it’s nothing more than a self-induced illusion to think that the OT scriptures contain ‘a preexisting messianic paradigm’ written or symbolic, that he healed the sick raised the dead, forgave sins, was crucified, rose on the third day, and then ascended to heaven. Paper 1, 13
Pennington even goes so far as to conclude that “one is hard pressed to make any convincing arguments that many key OT texts in the New could have been understood messianically at all, even ones like Isa 53.” Paper 1, 14
However, many prominent leaders in the Jewish community itself, who disagree that Isaiah 53 is referring to Jesus, still identify the “suffering servant” as the Messiah without the aid of a New Testament interpretive lens.
At the end of Pennington’s recent interview he appears to almost make a concession to Dr. Fuller’s critique but then stops short. He states, “I like everything that’s in [Reading the Gospels Wisely], but I realize there are some things I could have said more clearly and better.”
One would have hoped Dr. Pennington would have refuted his postmodern statements, but instead he says, “I’ve come to realize that a great way to talk about the Bible is to talk about all the different important questions we can ask about the Bible” followed by “I’m going to go back and make that aspect a little clearer.”
The issue was never one of “questions we can ask,” but rather, to phrase it differently, “Do asking different questions based upon different experiences influence the meaning of a text?”
Gadamer himself taught that “meaning . . . that is to be understood is always one that needs to be translated [applied] . . .” The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, 43.
Dr. Pennington’s final statement that: “You start with the grammatical historical, but you don’t stop there, because the point of the Bible is to transform us,” sounds good to our evangelical ears. But, if his concept of meaning and interpretation is consistent with Gadamer, one of his stated influences, he is speaking a different language.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons 50% of the faculty voted against his promotion?