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.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (7): Who Needs the Bible When They Have a Good Systematic Theology?

An anonymous reviewer once skewered a book by saying, “This book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.” That’s clever and it made for a nice dig against a certain book, but there is a sense in which any text of theology is good only to the extent that it is not original. This is because a faithful Christian theology lashes itself to the biblical text. (Now, I do not mean to imply that our theological formulations cannot be constructively creative, or that our formulations are a-cultural. I simply mean that as theologians, we are conceptualizing and articulating “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”) Theology is a love affair with God, undertaken by our interaction with his love letter to us. For this reason Christian theologians treat biblical studies and biblical theology as the sine qua non for evangelical theology (the condition without which it could not exist). Scripture provides the basic categories, themes, and framework within which evangelical theologians work. The Bible has priority. But what does it mean to make the Bible a priority in the task of theology? We mention four initial imperatives about biblical interpretation before moving on to a discussion of biblical theology.

Reading the Scriptures:

Hermeneutics is the theory and practice of interpretation. Theologians must approach the biblical text with a proper hermeneutic, which will include at least these four imperatives. First, when reading Scripture, we seek to understand what the biblical author was trying to communicate. Although we cannot “step inside” the biblical author’s mind in order to access his mental state, we can access the biblical author’s communicative purposes through the text.[1] Second, we read the text with a hermeneutic of love. To do so means that we value it for its inherent worth and beauty, rather than using it toward some other means (such as proving our theological systems). We approach it patiently, attentively, like a lover, rather than impatiently and inattentively, like, perhaps, a Sonic drive-thru customer. N. T. Wright writes, “Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself. . . . In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.”[2] The process of interpretation is a conversation with the text, one in which the reader can gain real understanding of the text, and in so doing, gain real understanding of the world outside of the text (external reality).

Third, we read the text with a hermeneutic of trust. We trust Scripture and are suspicious of ourselves, rather than trusting ourselves and being suspicious of Scripture.[3] Fourth, we read the text humbly. We recognize that we read the text with historical, cultural and existential biases that threaten to distort the text. For this reason, we seek continually to bring our exegetical conclusions back to the text for “cleaning.” David Clark writes, “In light of cultural and life issues and concerns, a theologian listens to Scripture, then develops tentative hypotheses, and then goes back to the Bible in a dialogical movement. . . . He seeks to flesh out his hypotheses and to test them for adequacy to Scripture, internal coherence, and explanatory power for life.”[4] Furthermore, we seek the help of the Christian community in reading Scripture. When we read the Scriptures in this manner, we are more likely to avoid the interpretive distortion that can be brought about by our biases and limitations.

Exposing the inner unity of the Scriptures:

Biblical theology is a discipline which studies the various biblical texts as a whole, seeking to apprehend and express their unity, and doing so by means of categories taken from the texts themselves. As such, it lays the basis for systematic and integrative theology, whose theologians also seek to apprehend and express the unity of the Bible, but often in relation to questions that arise outside of the text, and with categories that are not explicitly found in the text. Biblical theology is a rather diverse field of studies.[5] Evangelical biblical theologians are unified in their belief that the Bible exhibits unity amidst its diversity.[6] For this reason, we think that systematic and integrative theologies benefit particularly from narrative-shaped biblical theologies. “Over the past few decades, one of the most exciting developments in biblical studies has been the growing recognition among scholars that the Bible has the shape of a story. . . . It functions as the authoritative Word of God for us when it becomes the one basic story through which we understand our own experience and thought, and the foundation upon which we base our decisions and actions.”[7]

Indeed, the narrative approach is helpful because of the narrative quality of Scripture. Not only does the majority of the Bible consist of narrative, but even the non-narrative books (e.g. epistles) are in constant conversation with the Old Testament narrative(s) and the life of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:1-13). Further, it is helpful for apologists who seek to show the explanatory power of the biblical narratives in contrast to other narratives, for pastoral theologians seeking to employ the narrative for shaping Christians’ worldview, and, most importantly for our purposes, for systematic and integrative theologians who want to locate the major heads of doctrine within the Bible’s home environment, which is its overarching narrative framework. Finally, it is helpful because it helps us to read the text within its totality (tota Scriptura).

[1] See Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 43-97. Also, see Anthony Thiselton’s “adverbial” understanding of authorial intent. Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 558-562.

[2] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 64.

[3] This point is worked out in detail in Craig Bartholomew’s “Philosophy, Theology and Biblical Interpretation: Watson, Dooyeweerd and Vanhoozer,” an unpublished paper delivered in 1995 at the Bible and Theology Conference at King’s College (London).

[4] Clark, To Know and Love God, 51.

[5] New Testament scholar D. A. Carson has listed six different conceptions of biblical theology; Old Testament scholar Gerhard Hasel lists no fewer than ten major methodologies in the field of Old Testament theology. D. A. Carson, “Current Issues in Biblical Theology: A New Testament Perspective,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995), 17-41; Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, 4th ed., rev. and exp. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 38-114.

[6] For an evangelical response to objections that some scholars have leveled against the unity of Scripture, see Craig Bartholomew, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (ed. Craig Bartholomew et al.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 144-171.

[7] Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 21.

Christianity May Be True for You, But . . .

N. T. Wright on relativism and religion:

Saying “It’s true for you” sounds fine and tolerant. But it only works because it’s twisting the word “true” to mean, not “a true revelation of the way things are in the real world,” but “something that is genuinely happening inside you.” In fact, saying “It’s true for you” in this sense is more or less equivalent to saying “It’s not true for you,” because the “it” in question–the spiritual sense or awareness or experience–is conveying, very powerfully, a message (that there is a loving God) which the challenger is reducing to something else (that you have strong feelings which you misinterpret in that sense). This goes with several other pressures which have combined to make the notion of “truth” itself highly problematic within our world.

From N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 26-27.