Saturday, August 27, 2005

Staying True to the Truth

A prospective student wrote to Denver Seminary. He was alarmed by our vision statement, which speaks of defending “absolute truth” in our postmodern world. Being favorable to postmodernism (through reading Brian McClaren’s book, A New Kind of Christian), he was wary of believing in absolute truth. This view would stifle our witness to non-Christians and hinder Christian growth, since those who believe in absolute truth think they have it all figured out.
This reveals that postmodernism is seducing the church as well as the world. Christians authors tell us not to emphasize biblical truth as objective and absolute. Instead, we should underscore the life of our community and tell the Christian story. According to McLaren, it is wrongheaded modern view to try to prove other religions wrong. We should rather try to be good and not worry so much about being right. (However, McClaren is concerned throughout the book to prove supposedly “modern” Christian are wrong.)
This kind of thinking issues the death sentence for apologetics: God’s call to defend our faith as true, rational, and compelling in the face of intellectual objections (1 Peter 5:15-17; Jude 3). One leading challenge to Christian faith—and to the idea of truth itself—is postmodernism itself.
Postmodern philosophies claim that truth is constructed by communities and shaped by language and social structures of power. There really is no truth “out there” above us. Richard Rorty claims that no “vocabulary” (or worldview) is any closer to reality than any other—although he presents his own view as an improvement over opposing views. Truth is merely what his colleagues let him get away with. Few Christians make such bald claims, but one Christian writer recently published a chapter called, “There is No Such Thing as Objective Truth and It’s a Good Thing, Too.” Other Christian leaders join the chorus and instruct us to leave a strong emphasis on truth and apologetics behind.
Yet without a clear view of the nature of truth and a rational defense of Christianity as true our witness will be paralyzed. We should tell our stories and invite people to join our communities. But Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers and others in our pluralistic world will tell their stories and beckon souls into their communities, too. What makes us different? As apologist Francis Schaeffer often said, the purpose of Christian community is to serve the God of truth with all our being. Truth should constitute our identity as Christians, individually and corporately. Jesus prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them by the truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
The Hebrew and Greek words for “truth” in Scripture have deep meanings, but they all center on the idea of factuality and accuracy. To put it more philosophically (but not unbiblically), a true statement corresponds with reality or fits the facts. Christian faith must fit the great facts of the Christian story or it is false and hopeless. Paul said that if we hope in Christ and his resurrection and Christ is not risen our faith is in pointless and misleading. It must be historical, factual, and reliable (1 Corinthians 15). Our confidence in the gospel is based on objective facts. We believe these them because they are true; our believing them does not make them true. Christians do find their faith to be subjectively compelling. However, these beliefs are existentially gripping only because they lay rightly claim to realities about our selves, our world, and our God.
But can we say that Christianity is absolutely true? Many professed Christians get philosophical cold feet at this point. Recent polls show that upwards of sixty percent of “Christians,” like our prospective student, deny the existence of absolute truth.
An absolute has no exemptions or qualifications. Jesus affirmed an absolute truth about himself: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6; see also Matthew 11:27). Paul echoes this when he claims that there is but one mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:4). Peter preached that salvation is found in Jesus alone (Acts 4:8-12). This absolute truth gives us a trustworthy point of reference, Jesus Christ, who is he same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). It is no arbitrary pronouncement, but a claim based on good evidence from the incomparable life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and found in historically reliable documents (Luke 1:1-4; 2 Peter 1:16).
Defending and living in accord with this objective and absolute truth does not imply we have absolutely mastered all the truth or all biblical truth. We bear witness to the absolute truth, but we are not absolute! No church or denomination perfectly captures biblical truth, but that is the goal. Nor does belief in absolute truth mean we can easily convince doubters of this truth, but we should try. Nevertheless, we must marshal truth-claims and humbly present the arguments and evidence given for the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ—as well as for all the defining doctrines of Christian faith. Otherwise, we fail to be true to the truth that sets the captives free.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of several books, including Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (InterVarsity Press, 2000).

5 comments:

BAG said...

Amen (so be it :), Dr. Groothius!

I have been engaged in dialogue with people, like the prospective student to Denver, over at pastors.com (Rick Warren's site)under the Emerging Church forum. They are likewise, from my perspective, naively parroting McLaren and companies party line, "truth is not objective". And it's all done in the name of "relevance" for the gospel's sake, of course.

It seems to me that society (culture/s)needs to become relevant by bowing the knee to the gospel; not the gospel bowing the knee to society's various truth claims (which hybrids the gospel into a non-gospel cf. II Cor. 11:1ff).

The general trajectory of the Western (American) church (reflected esp. in the Emerging Church) highly concerns me. What is your perspective on where the "Evangelical Church" is heading (if she maintains her current trajection) , Dr. Groothius?

BAG said...

P.S. I have quoted from your book, "Truth Decay" (great book) over at pastors.com, and their response is to turn me to an article that McLaren provides on the "evolution" (my word)of PoMo epistemology. In this article he caricatures the position you portray in your book (Truth Decay), of PoMo, as an "old school" academic PoMo understanding. In other words, that view of PoMo (truth as relative, incredulity to metanarratives, etc.)has moved on and blossomed into something, that he describes as the 3rd stage of PoMo--what this 3rd understanding of PoMo is (McLaren's view)isn't quite clear, even to McLaren--but it does represent his view--I think you might call this methodology of defining PoMo, by McLaren, a "Red Herring fallacy" :). But that's ok, logic is just an Aristotelian invention that helped shape the epistemology of modernity (sarcasm :).

Douglas Groothuis said...

Bag:

McLaren isn't clear because he is a very poor thinker. He does not explore the philosophical implications of his ideas (like his mentor, Stan Grenz), nor does he even state these ideas clearly. In that, he is a good postmodernist, since postmodernism revels in ambiguity, obscurity, and obfuscation. McLaren and his followers are selling out the objective nature of Christianity and its rational defense. This is no small offence. They have not sanitized or cauterized postmodernism; they have been infected by it and the virus is spreading rapidly.

BenT said...

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding here. When Christian post-moderns describe divine Truth as being "not objective" or "subjective", they aren't (necessarily) denying God's ultimate judgment over any thought or action. Rather, it seems they are implying a more sort of situational objective truth - where God's sovereignty is maintained in an ever-changing and variable world - where the right choice is whatever God would have one do given the context. If you want to call that subjective truth, fine. But don't call it weak or naive.

BAG said...

Bent,

Unless you know the people I've been interacting with over at pastors.com, how can you speak to their view of PoMo (PoMo seems to be a very compartamentalized, fragmentized, "situationalized", utilitarianized, pragmatized . . . must I say more, view of truth/God ;)?

After saying all that, could you clarify what you mean by God maintaining His sovereignty, and expressing that sovreignty situationally? I'm not sure how this provides a framework for understanding truth/God from a subjective perspective.

BTW, after some engagement with the folks over at pastors.com, it is apparent that "most" of them are indeed naively parroting the "weak" view of truth that they've heard their mentor fomenting (McLaren).