Saturday, February 23, 2013
About ten years ago, a prospective student recently 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.)
McLaren’s 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).