Saturday, August 23, 2014

“Unevangelised” notions of Truth

I wrote the following in response to a comment in my recent critique of Mohler’s chapter in the terrific Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. I thought it might be worth slamming it up on the main webpage.

Although I come from a very conservative Christian background, reading this book has given me fresh appreciation for the integrity of the views of those with whom I disagree. In other words, this Five Views book, and many others like it, have ecumenical power, they, I think, facilitate generous orthodoxy, even if not all of the contributors do.

So, to get to the issue: by "unevagelised" I mean that Mohler’s grasp of Truth, so it seems to me, has not allowed itself to be sufficiently informed and shaped by the gospel. He assumes that the major concern of Truth, in terms of Scripture, is the correspondence of facts with propositions. So to say that Jonah is fiction, not factual, is to bring into question its very truth. But this is not, I argue, a proper evangelical way of thinking of Truth. What is? Well, consider these examples:

(a) John’s Christ says "I am the Way, the Truth ..." which means that Truth is finally a Person. One could suggest that Truth is, therefore, personal or relational (see also 1 Cor 8:1-3). (On a related note, John Stackhouse has recently made an eloquent case that Truth is bound up with our vocation as disciples of Christ. See Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology)

(b) Capital “T” Truth, before Christ returns, is penultimate, never final and simple, not something to grind through a simple syllogism unfettered by the eschatological “not yet”. So Paul (who wrote much of the NT) can include himself in the following: "we know in part" (1 Cor 13). Capital “T” Truth, then, involves that vulnerable place of faith, which places its trust in God, not looking at itself. For faith that looks at itself, not God, ceases to be faith and finds only darkness.

(c) Truth is likewise, in the Christian gospel, contrasted not necessarily or naturally with falsehood, but with "evil" (see 1 Cor 13:6). I would think that the pairings in 1 Cor 13 ought to alert us to potential conceptual anachronisms in Mohler’s account.

It is important to recognise that conceptions of truth and rationality are bound up with particular forms of culture, and so have changed over time (on this, see MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Hauerwas’ “The Politics of Justice”), hence also the modern plethora of theories of truth (correspondence, coherence, constructivist, pragmatic, etc.).

It follows, then, that a Christian understanding of Truth needs to allow any notion of "truth" to be shaped by the contours of the gospel, or it runs the risk of simply parroting any old Zeitgeist, whether it be gospel shaped or not. And when one speaks of foundational concerns, such as the Truth of Scripture, one needs to be all the more careful. I argue that Mohler – though he is not alone in this – has not been careful!

As Ben Fulford writes in his recent book, Divine Eloquence and Human Transformation: Rethinking Scripture and History through Gregory of Nazianzus and Hans Frei:

“[W]hat the truth of the scriptural witness (and Christian language-use more generally) involves here is more complex than a question of correspondence to the ‘facts’. It entails talking about the truth conditions of that witness in terms that begin to look Trinitarian”

Hence, a Christian grasp of the Truth of scripture will recognise and express, at the very least, the relational nature of Truth, that discipleship and obedience to the gospel is a factor inherent to Christian Truth, that it remains penultimate, and patient, trusting in God in Christ, waiting for the eschatological presence of the Triune God.

That truth can correspond to facts, present itself as coherent, etc., can be readily admitted. I do not wish to isolate a Christian notion of “Truth” from others, but to settle on a (albeit uncomfortable) foundation, namely Christ himself, crucified and risen. That truth can also be expressed in propositions, I would likewise endorse. The NT is full of them, with “claims that things are such and such and so not their contradictories” (Colin E. Gunton, A Brief Theology of Revelation, 13). However, the master in our grasp of Truth, is the Lord of the gospel. The factor that gives our Christian conception of “Truth” form, context and meaning, is none other than the gracious, saving, relational, discipleship making activity of the loving Triune God.

To speak of the “Truth” of Scripture without allowing these – and other - issues interpretative force, will lead to problems.


At 8/23/2014 4:03 PM, Anonymous Kevin Davis said...

I appreciate this, Chris. I would caution, however, with "conceptions of truth and rationality are bound up with particular forms of culture." This runs the danger of indicating an untempered form of postmodern epistemology, a radical anti-realist Idealism, à la Foucualt for example -- which is about as irksome to the evangelical mind as it gets.

A tempered realism -- "critical realism" or "practical realism" -- is a more promising way forward in dialogue with these legitimate evangelical concerns. As such, I would rather use Polanyi and Torrance, especially Torrance -- not MacIntyre. The differences may be formal and not material (as Kenton Sparks has indicated), but Torrance strikes me as doing a much better job at articulating the priority of metaphysics for conditioning epistemology, which allows for a genuine realism over-against the predominant nominalism of pomo epistemologies. A book like Torrance's Reality & Evangelical Theology would serve as an excellent primer for disaffected evangelicals who sense that something is amiss with the Al Mohler (or Carl Henry) approach.

At 8/23/2014 4:07 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Thanks Kevin, and I entirely agree, apologies for my lack of clarity. I only refer to MacIntyre to illustrate that one point. I would also largely endorse the Torrance / Polanyi proposals.

At 8/23/2014 4:10 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Nice book recommendation, too!

Also want to link to this one:

At 8/23/2014 4:12 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Or slightly tidier: here

At 8/23/2014 4:22 PM, Anonymous Kevin Davis said...

Oh, nice, I hadn't checked-out the Rae book yet. The entries look promising.


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