It’s a bona fide buzzword in contemporary theological discussions: “deconstruction.” What is it, exactly?
A popular preacher turns out to have engaged in a few immoral relationships with women, and now people are questioning his teachings about relations between the sexes. A friend tells you that she is questioning whether we need to follow any Old Testament laws, given that so many are nearly impossible to follow in our time and place. A Christian author renounces his own strict teachings after confronting the damage caused by inflexible discipleship, and then says he isn’t even sure he is Christian anymore. All of these are examples of a contemporary movement in Western Christianity broadly called “deconstruction.”
Deconstruction is a story that some formerly conservative Christians tell to explain how they came to be the way they are now. With a name borrowed from Jacques Derrida’s philosophical method for destabilizing meaning, it proceeds via a combination of disillusionment with the religious institutions of conservative Christianity, disgust with the partisan uses to which conservative Christianity is sometimes put, and deconversion from some or all of the faith commitments formerly embraced. The result of this deconstruction, depending on how it was carried out, is to become either a different sort of conservative Christian, another kind of Christian, or some variety of post-Christian.
According to those broad outlines, contemporary deconstruction is little else but a new label slapped on an old package, one that dates at least to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. For what was incipient Protestantism—or Seventh-day Adventism, for that matter—if not a skeptical view of traditional religious institutions, as well as dismay for how a commitment to conventional doctrine fostered by those institutions was used to prop up state power (and vice versa)?
These general continuities don’t capture, however, how our era’s deconstruction impacts culture and faith differently than similar stories from bygone eras. One significant difference has to do with the use of history. The previous reformers—from the Renaissance humanists who trained the early Protestants to the Catholic theologians of Vatican II who initiated their communion’s detente with Protestantism—rallied around the slogan ad fontes—"to the sources!” They found moral authority to challenge custom and tradition by clarifying the original meaning the Holy Scriptures, the early Church Fathers, and classical literature.
The Contemporary Way
Contemporary deconstruction uses historical research to clarify how Christian communities arrived at their traditional interpretations, and to determine whether those positions emerge from a commitment to God or from cultural mores. Across a range of moral issues—birth and death; marriage, family, and sexuality; race, ethnicity, and immigration; law enforcement, war, and torture; economics and climate change; politics and biopolitics—the debates rage and opinions multiply. Many of these discussions center on questions about the end times, like the status of the Jewish people and state of Israel; what happens when we die; the fate of the unevangelized; the nature of hell, or whether anyone will ultimately be lost. Christian scholars are writing books that document how teachings they have come to reject should be attributed to specific White-, male-, colonialist-, capitalist-, nationalist-dominated cultures in which they claim those teachings were formulated. They refuse the understandings of Scripture interpreted within the frame of traditional Christian orthodoxy.
Taken this far, deconstruction allows for a historical-prophetic reinterpretation of end-time Babylon and the beast powers of Revelation—although one should ask why these tools of deconstruction don’t get applied to progressive politics and liberal theology as well. But deconstruction can change the reasons a Christian is interested in what the book of Revelation has to say about ethics and ends. For the question of how much is derived and how much is divine is asked of both Bible interpretation and even the Bible itself.
This sifting of the Scriptures into that which the authors believe is revealed and that which they believe is relative to culture can be accomplished via various methods. Those who wish to retain a conservative commitment to the authority of the text of Scripture can use the “historical” pole of the “historical-grammatical method” to argue that whatever they find objectionable in Scripture referred to something in the cultural past that has now changed so much that its meaning is completely different for us today. Others trace historical developments in the Bible’s teachings, and the reception of those ideas in culture, and then discard those teachings that they consider culturally undeveloped today. In both cases, the motivation for certain teachings of Scripture is categorized as cultural—something we are supposed to be able to see from the heights of historical distance. Those doctrines or beliefs are dismissed because anything motivated by culture is not supposed to have a divine claim on us.
Or is it? In my previous article, I explained how those attempting to minimize bias in biblical interpretation construe the Bible as a book for computers, not characters. I argued that instead of trying to keep bias out of our relationship with God, we need to live our histories, cultures, and identities in the sight of God so that we can align our goals, purposes, and desires with His. Additionally, I believe that the attempt to separate the cultural elements from the enduring claims of Scripture has the unwelcome effect of misunderstanding God as a moralist, rather than a moral example.
The deconstruction which assumes that the text of Scripture may be treated as a historical husk that must be stripped away to reveal the timeless truths it encloses directly challenges Scripture’s source. In this view, our human experience is so limited by uncertain and culturally contingent desires that divinity cannot clearly communicate with humanity on many—if not all—subjects. Regardless of the emotions and purposes a divine being might have, His disconnection from our concerns in the here and now would render us unable to relate to Him as anything other than a source of timeless ideals.
That this God doesn’t intervene to prevent even minor errors in Scripture implies that He is not a personal participant in human history. On the one hand, He is not implicated in our atrocities and depravities, but is mainly an unbiased judge of our shortcomings. On the other hand, He is wholly removed from our failing experiments with morality, and must be indifferent to those tragic choices that human cultures must make in order to endure in a sinful world.
God as understood by such deconstruction is inevitably a remote being, and the Scripture through which He says He communicates with human beings is therefore faulty or incomplete because of the irredeemably limited perspective of its human authors. But as I showed in my previous article, Acts 17:16–28 portrays God as intimately involved in human historical developments with the goal of shaping cultures that direct us to Him as the source and consummation of all that is good (see also Prov. 21:1, Isa. 7:18, and Dan. 2:21, 4:17, 32, 5:21, 10:13, 14, among others). A God who is not a part of human history is not the kind of God with whom we can have a personal relationship. Part of what it means to be a person is to share a story in common with other persons.
The God of Scripture does not come to us only in the words of His written Word, but also in the Word made flesh. Jesus was not content to moralize at us from His side of the supposed “ugly broad ditch” that separates the “accidental truths of history” from the “necessary truths of reason” (quoted with apologies to Gotthold Lessing). He came to us in the mess of our history—fully human and fully divine—and gave us an example of how to live in this world of sin. And just as we dare not attempt to distinguish between Christ and the limitations of Jesus’ human experience (the name for this ancient heresy is Docetism), the attempt to separate what we term “cultural” from what is of continuing and permanent value when interpreting the Bible is to deny what makes the Scriptures unique. Rather, we should trace in Scripture how God used human frames of reference, including cultures, to align people with His goals, even as we allow Him to do the same for us.
If there is to be a reconstruction after deconstruction, it must begin with a humble acknowledgment that we may be left with more questions than answers when it comes to some texts in Scripture that we find difficult to understand from our contemporary perspective. Sometimes we are tempted to leave certain statements in the past instead of seeking their relevance and meaning for today. But just here the Bible shines as a collection of divinely inspired messages from the Godhead through and to other people with a goal of character transformation. We are reading far more than a technical manual for life: we are absorbing through application the care of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all whom they have created and fully love.
Reconstruction, when we choose it, starts with a personal transformation—making peace with not having all the answers immediately; proceeding with the recognition that at some times our interpretive judgments might be wrong; and asking—always asking—God to make up for our shortcoming.
Reconstruction, then, is an experience of reformation grounded on the certainty of justification by faith.
How’s that for an old package with a new label?
David Hamstra is the lead pastor of the Edmonton Central Seventh-day Adventist Church in Alberta, Canada, and a Doctor of Theology student at Andrews University.