Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (14): Christian theology aims for truth.

In the past several decades, certain philosophers, literary theorists, and other intellectuals have put forth intellectual programs that are (more or less) relativist. While metaphysical relativists (there is no such thing as truth) are rare, epistemological relativists (we cannot know truth) are on tap in nearly any department on a given American university campus. The central problem with such relativism is obvious (and has been pointed out repeatedly)-the assertion of relativism is itself a purportedly true assertion. In other words, this assertion is self-referentially absurd (difficult to sneak this one past the epistemology police). If we’ve given up on knowing “truth,” we can’t deign to offer relativism as a “truth.” You can’t have it both ways (or, as my grandfather would say, “Let’s not go peeing down both legs”).

In light of the varying shades of relativism that can be found in our Western intellectual context, Christian theology’s claims to have truth (and even “Truth”) are often met with skepticism or even ridicule. Indeed, for many Westerners, this entire blog series lacks even minimal plausibility because the series has been written under the belief that Scripture is revelation from God which provides the true story of the whole world. As we noted, Christian theologians recognize Scripture, tradition, reason, experience, and culture as sources upon which they draw. They integrate the insights given by historical, biblical, philosophical, systematic, and practical theology in order to build an integrative theology which remains in conversation with philosophy, science, and other fields of knowledge. All of this is done in order to provide a unified and coherent account of the truth about God and the world. “The church’s affirmation,” writes Lesslie Newbigin, “is that the story it tells is the true interpretation of all human and cosmic history and that to understand history otherwise is to misunderstand it, therefore misunderstanding the human situation here and now. . . . From age to age, the church lives under the authority of the story that the Bible tells, interpreted ever anew to new generations and new cultures by the continued leading of the Holy Spirit who alone makes possible the confession that Jesus is Savior and Lord.”[1] But what does it mean to say that something is “true”?

Some philosophers set forth a coherence theory of truth.[2] Under this theory, any coherent system of belief counts as a “true” system of belief. Any belief that coheres with the rest of one’s beliefs counts as “true.” The problem with this theory is that one can construct a coherent set of beliefs that has no connection with reality. While the logical coherence of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, coherence is not itself constitutive of truth. Other philosophers set forth a pragmatist theory of truth.[3] Under this theory, whichever beliefs prove to be invaluable instruments of action can be counted as true. However, not all true propositions are immediately useful and not all useful propositions are true. Adolf Hitler’s belief system proved to be a valuable instrument of action for him and for Germany’s economy, but his belief system was built upon deeply inhumane falsehoods. While the pragmatic value of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, pragmatism is not itself constitutive of truth. In contrast to these theories, Christian theologians traditionally have espoused a correspondence theory of truth. In this view, truth is what corresponds with reality. Truth is independent of the human mind. Even if the human mind cannot recognize a particular truth, the truth of a matter still stands. This view of truth is pre-theoretic and intuitive, rooted in the human experience. We believe this view tallies with the biblical testimony, which teaches that God is truth and that God speaks truth (e.g., John 14:6).

Related to the question of truth is the question of knowledge (epistemology). Can human knowers access objective reality? Some philosophers have espoused naïve realism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower can directly access objective reality. Naïve realism is called by this name because it naïvely overlooks the obstacles to knowing truth, obstacles such as human idolatry, and the historical and cultural location of the human knower. Other philosophers have held to epistemological nonrealism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower does not have access to objective reality. In contrast to these two views, we believe that Christian theology best fits with a view known as critical realism.[4] In this view, human knowers are constrained by the limitations of our rational and empirical faculties and by the historical and cultural locatedness of our attempts to gain knowledge. But Christian theologians recognize a further reason that human knowers are limited and fallible: the distortive, corrosive, and ultimately subversive effect of human sin on the mind’s ability to know. In other words, sin has epistemological consequences. While God’s knowledge of reality is comprehensive, therefore, our human knowledge of reality is partial, inadequate, and dependent upon God. N. T. Wright puts it well when he writes that critical realism “acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence, ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower or the thing known (hence, ‘critical’).”[5] We believe that a critically realist theological method is necessary in order to take full account of the biblical testimony concerning truth and knowledge. What humans can know and say about God is not comprehensive, but it is true, trustworthy, and sufficient for faithful living.[6]

[1] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 77-78.

[2] Brand Blanshard, “Coherence as the Nature of Truth,” in The Nature of Thought, 2 vols. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), 2:264-269.

[3] William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, 1975).

[4] Some of the foremost theological proponents of critical realism are David K. Clark, Lesslie Newbigin, and N. T. Wright. See Clark, To Know and Love God; Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 47-64.

[5] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 35.

[6] This way of putting it is a slight modification of Spykman, Reformational Theology, 74.