Saturday, December 16, 2006

Greg Koukl on Truth, Faith, and Belief

Greg Koukl has written a superb article on truth, faith, and belief. This distills paramount truths that so many are missing, especially those stupified under the spell of postmodernist philosophy. These concepts are vital to every aspect of the church's witness today. Spread the word. Bravo to Mr. Koukl!


Tom said...

I think one of his central claims is importantly wrong, i.e., his claim that you can't reject an objectivist notion of truth and be a Christian. I'm in no way advocating that people reject objectivism regarding truth (may it never be!); I'm also not saying that subjectivism or relativism or nihilism regarding truth coheres with a Christian world view. But even if it is incoherent to be a non-objectivist about truth and a Christian, well, lots of us have incoherent belief sets.

If I've understood Koukl right, you can't be a Christian and non-objectivist regarding truth because genuine Christian faith requires belief (that the claims of the faith are objectively true) and faith in Christ. And non-objectivism about truth rules out both. So without realist truth, you don't have faith.

But even on the assumption that Koukl is right about the incoherence of postmodern accounts of truth and the Christian faith, his argument is flawed. From the fact that (P and Q) entails not-R, it by no means follows that it is impossible for one who believes P and Q to also believe R, and for one to act on the belief that R. Notoriously, humans frequently fail to believe the entailments of their beliefs, and often believe their contradictories.

Think of it this way: perhaps it is incoherent for a person to believe there is no truth and yet firmly believe that her spouse genuinely loves her. Still, I daresay there are nihilists about truth out there who genuinely believe they are loved by their spouses, and who trust those spouses. There may be an incoherence in their beliefs (and their trust) but that's not to say they don't have them.

One more thing: isn't it hubris of the first order to assert that a person who sincerely claims to believe the elements of the Christian faith, who puts those (apparent) beliefs into action, who worships with a body of believers regularly and who has a rich spiritual/prayer life--that such a person is not a Christian if he accepts the wrong philosophical account of truth?

If Koukl is right, then we'd better add a line (perhaps at the very beginning) to the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in Truth, with a capital T, objective and absolute."

Tim said...


I think you have a point but that Koukl just phrased his claim incautiously. Perhaps he should have said, instead, something like this:

"You cannot be a Christian if you do not, in your doxastic practice, actually treat the claims of Christianity as objectively true -- even if doing so is inconsistent with the rest of your worldview. Of course, if it is inconsistent with the rest of your worldview, you're in deep epistemic trouble; people who start out with a relativistic philosophical position are at risk of losing their grip on truth in practice as well. The only fully consistent Christian position is to believe in objective truth and to believe that the central claims of Christianity are objectively true."

What would you say to that? Does it strike you as correct? I suspect that, if he were asked, he'd say that this is what he really meant.

Kevin Winters said...

What of those who are stupified under the spell of an overgeneralized and ultimately inadequate understanding of so-called "postmodernist philosophy"?

Either way, what is "objectivity"?

Tom said...


You might be right that Koukl didn't mean exactly what he said.

It seems to me that if his claim is just that non-realist accounts of truth are inconsistent with the traditional understanding of Christianity, then I suspect he's right. I'm also enough of a realist about truth to think that any sensible interpretation of Christianity will require a realist's understanding of truth. Of course, I'd say the same about any sensible understanding of topics from the laws of nature to the rules of baseball.

What I have a real problem with is sentences that begin "If you don't believe X, then you aren't a Christian" where the value of X is something not explicit in the Apostles' Creed. In fact, I think we should probably never utter a sentence of the above schema no matter what the value of X is. Whether someone is a Christian, (i.e., a member of the body of Christ) is (by my lights) not so easily codified. I've known too many self-described Christians who have a sincere faith that leads to the kind of good fruit we are instructed to look for, and who even have active spiritual lives, and yet who are agnostic about one or more points in the Apostles' Creed to think that you simply *can't* be a Christian if you are not blessed with orthodox belief.

That's not to say that we should back away from claims about what
the catholic Church has always taught about faith and salvation, nor is it to say that we shouldn't stand by these things as being (really!) true. I have no problem thinking that people like those I just described are mistaken if they deny the traditional claims, or at least that they are lacking some important beliefs if they remain agnostic. But thinking that we are in a position to *know* that they they aren't Christians seems to me fundamentally misguided.
It strikes me as dangerously close to presuming to judge the condition of another's soul, and that is God's perogative and God's alone.

Tom said...

One question for Doug, Tim, and anyone else who has a thought: is it really the case that leaders of the emerging church have a non-realist view of truth? I've read a couple of Brian McLaren's books, and one of Donald Miller's, and I don't recall seeing anything that amounts to a denial of truth in a realist sense. Now I know that McLaren is fond of using the term "postmodern" in a positive way, but it has always seemed to me that there was nothing particularly postmodern about his view at all. True, compared to some traditions, McLaren (and Miller) de-emphasize the importance of rational argumentation as a means for reaching out to nonbelievers. But on that score, Alvin Plantinga might might be closer to these "postmodernists" than he is to rationalistic apologists. So if that's all their postmodernism comes to, it seems to me no big deal.

So I guess my questions are two: (i) are leaders of the emerging church really non-realists about truth? and (ii) if the answer to (i) is no, then in what way are they "postmodern," and is it so bad to be postmodern in that way? (And a follow-up: if it is a bad thing, why?)

Kevin Winters said...

In addition to Tom's question, I would like to ask for specific quotes on this matter. If they do not "say" that there is no "truth," what of what they say implies such?

David said...

Hi Tom,

Do you generally agree with this statement by Koukl in the article?

"if there is no truth, there is no saving faith. And if there is no saving faith, there is no Christianity."

I'm inclined to concur on this point, though I agree with you that his argument is still somewhat flawed.

Is this because he commits a level confusion by not distinguishing between believing something to be the case, and something actually being the case?

Tom said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the response. You asked if I think the following is right:

"If there is no truth, there is no saving faith. And if there is no saving faith, there is no Christianity."

Yeah, probably. But I have to admit I don't understand what the claim "There is no truth" is supposed to mean. The most obvious reading is "No proposition is true" and, of course, such a claim leads immediately to a paradox. The trouble is that no obvious alternatives to this interpretation come to mind.

I take it that any version of Christianity (conservative or liberal or what-have-you) will assert at least some claims about the way the world is and the way it should be. And on non-realist understandings of truth, I just don't get what sense these claims have. Of course, if we throw realist truth out the window, I'm not even sure what it means to claim that the Earth is round or that 2+2=4.

And, yes, I think it is something like level confusion (although not it exactly)that Koukl commits. Ironically, given his intent in his article, I think he fails to keep metaphysics and epistemology (i.e., truth and knowlege/belief) distinct, and that this causes him problems.

And if I don't see you around the office in the next couple days, Merry Christmas!

Tim said...

Tom asks:

[A]re leaders of the emerging church really non-realists about truth?

I don't know. This could just be due to the fact that I don't read the EC literature regularly. But I can't think of a single one I've come across who has consistently and unequivocally spoken out as a truth-realist. If you know of a leader there who has consistently and unequivocally defended absolute truth, let us know.

When postmodernism filters down to the level of popular books, the denial of absolute truth seems to be the take-home message. Here, for example, is the capsule summary on the first page of the Introduction to James C. Greer's book Mapping Postmodernism:

Roughly speaking, modernism affirms the existence of absolute truths. Postmodernism affirms the opposite: the nonexistence of absolute truths. (p. 13)

Greer goes on to tell us all about "The Dark Side of Absolute Truth," which comes down to two things: (1) sometimes people disagree about what's true, and (2) sometimes people are arrogant jerks who use the claim that they possess the absolute truth to beat down anyone who disagrees with them.

To his credit, Greer wants to maintain at the end of it all that absolute truth does exist. (p. 17) But he doesn't demonstrate that he has a grip on the idea that reason and evidence are the means by which we attempt to discern the truth. There is a great gulf fixed between Jimmy Swaggart and William Lane Craig, but you'd be hard-pressed to find it in Greer. And a great deal of postmodern writing -- including the writing of Foucault, on whom Greer relies for his indictment of absolute truth, is suffused with pretentious sneering about reason.

Tim said...


You write:

True, compared to some traditions, McLaren (and Miller) de-emphasize the importance of rational argumentation as a means for reaching out to nonbelievers. But on that score, Alvin Plantinga might might be closer to these "postmodernists" than he is to rationalistic apologists. So if that's all their postmodernism comes to, it seems to me no big deal.

Plantinga is very clear about his truth-realism. That said, you have a point about the downplaying of rational argumentation in the Reformed Epistemological tradition. Unlike you, however, I think this is a very big deal indeed. If you're interested in seeing how much of a difference this makes between me and Plantinga, you can find out here and here.

Tom said...


Thanks for the reply.

Yes, you are surely right that Plantinga is clear about his realism. I never meant to suggest otherwise.

For the record, and in case my remarks have suggested otherwise, I am a committed realist who finds postmodernism awfully perplexing. However, outside of a little bit of dabbling, I've not done much to try to understand it. And to appropriate Wittgenstein, whereof I don't know much, thereof I should keep my mouth shut.

Furthermore, I do firmly believe in rational inquiry, in the importance of making philosophical sense of our convictions, and in producing arguments for our positions when we can. It's not for nothing that I am an analytic philosophy professor.

However, from the first time I read William James' "The Will to Believe" I've been struck by his observation of how little of what we believe we arrive at through anything like rational reflection. Now there are a lot of claims in that essay I'd want to distance myself from, but his observation about the role of what he calls our "passional nature" in the fixing and maintaining beliefs seems to me true and important. If that's right, then I don't see why we shouldn't be normative pluralists about how religious beliefs are grounded. Rational refection on available evidence is one legitimate way of forming belief, but it is clearly not the only such way.

I'm not saying that all modes of belief formation are on an epistemic par. And I think that rational reflection has a very large part to play in what we might call social epistemology--the best way for those of us who differ about important claims to discuss them is by looking at the public, available evidence for them, and trying determine which claims the evidence best supports.

When I said that if it turns out that Plantinga is "postmodern" then postmodernism is not a big deal, what I was really getting at was this: our choices are not simply to either accept a rationalistic evidentialism about religious matters *or* be a reason-denigrating postmodernist. The great majority of us accept neither of these alternatives.

nancy said...

Tim, Tom, David et al..

My impression is that McLaren is a realist and holds to coherence, not correspondence. On one page he believes Christianity is true but then states "knowledge is a luxury beyond our means, faith is the best we can hope for." (Reinventing Your Church, p 179-80).

Also John Franke (a theologian) who appears (yes I still have more homework to do) to be often quoted by some ECMers states "Chastened rationaltiy is marked by the transition from a realist to a constructionist view of truth and the world...No simple, one-to-one relationship exists etween language and the objective conceptoin of the "real" world" (Christianity and the Post Modern Turn, ed Penner, p 108)

I sure would love to do a masters thesis on tracing some of the theological reprecussions of coherentism and non-realism. In paticular, I find it troubling when evangelicals parrot from Franke and others without understanding the implications of the philosophical system they are espousing.

I'm enjoying this discussion!!!

Tom said...


Thanks for your reply.

You wrote: "My impression is that McLaren is a realist and holds to coherence, not correspondence. On one page he believes Christianity is true but then states 'knowledge is a luxury beyond our means, faith is the best we can hope for.' (Reinventing Your Church, p 179-80)."

I'm not sure I understand this since realism and coherence theories of truth are generally thought to be contraries. But I suspect the way to resolve this is to attribute to McLaren a coherence theory of knowledge/justification and a realist theory of truth. In addition, I take McLaren to think that the epistemological position of the believer is considerably weaker than some of McLaren's more conservative critics take it to be. That is, I don't think he wants to question the existence of objective truth so much as question our ability to *know* it (or some parts of it) in anything like the way that so-called modernists thought (or at least hoped) we could.

nancy said...

Tom -

Thanks for clarifying a bit. I still get a little muddled on knowing (pun intended) all of the philosophical categories.

Greer, in his postmodern apologetic, (Tim referred to it earlier in the thread) included chapters on Foundational Realism (Schaeffer), Post-Foundational Realsim (Grenz/Franke and I think quite a few ECMers), Post-Foundational Antirealism (Hick) and Post-Foundational Middle-Distance Realism (Lindbeck)

Though I disagree with much of the book, it helped me understand motivations and methodology.

Tim said...


I can see why we'd all want to be descriptive pluralists about how religious beliefs are grounded, but it doesn't follow that we should be normative pluralists. In my view the child and the rustic believer may well have evidence that justifies them in their belief. That's not to say it couldn't be bettered by swotting up a bit on their apologetics -- or that it couldn't be battered by their encountering a Tom Paine. But fragility is one thing and non-existence another.

Someone who has a copy of McLaren's A New Kind of Christian might want to check to see whether Neo (who is, I think, unquestionably McLaren's mouthpiece) commits himself to Kuhnian epistemology. If so, he's endorsing anti-realism about truth. I don't own the book, but from what I've read both about it and in quotations from it I'd say the prognosis is not good. (Running on memory here, but doesn't Neo claim that the postmodernists have shown that claims to universal truth are merely a pretense, an illustration of the will to power?)

And please don't get me started on Tony Jones ...

Tom said...


I may regret asking, but who is Tony Jones and why shouldn't we get you started?

Tim said...


Quit provoking me! Must ... resist ... temptation ...

Kevin Winters said...

Sheesh, I go out of town and miss lots of good topics. One of the unargued presuppositions of those who reject so-called "postmodern" thought is the conflation of "absolute truth" with "truth." What I find purplexing is the apparent need to add adjectives to truth--as if being "true" is not enough, it needs to be "absolutely" true, "really" true, etc. But what is an absolute truth? Every truth man can give, whether mathematical or otherwise, is inherently contextual: 1+1=2 is meaningless outside the mathematical context, outside the realm of beings who are able to 'gather' objects (in both the Heideggerian and everyday sense). Does this contextuality make it false? No at all, for it is indeed our interactions with beings in the world that 'grounds' the truth of the equation.

As I interact more and more with counter-postmodernist Evangelicals (and, unfortunately, many proponents who simply have not read the major thinkers) I notice that the thing that is most lacking is a grasp of the hermeneutic ground of Continental thought and, similarly, a serious lack of understanding in semiotics. They misunderstand how that tradition generally uses the term "interpretation" and "narrative" in its discussions of truth. For those who are interested, I could suggest no better text than Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative. Ricoeur has done more post-Gadamerian work on hermeneutics from a "Continental" perspective than any other name I can think of. He's also one who has consistently interacted with the so-called "analytic" tradition on these matters; he speaks within an understanding of both cultures.

Anyway, some thoughts during a Christmas Day break. Merry Christmas all!

Tim said...


The reason for the apparently redundant adjective (Schaeffer used to speak of "true truth" for the same reason) is the debasing of the ordinary term in the mouths of many postmoderns. There's even some of this evident in your illustration. You write:

Every truth man can give, whether mathematical or otherwise, is inherently contextual: 1+1=2 is meaningless outside the mathematical context, outside the realm of beings who are able to 'gather' objects (in both the Heideggerian and everyday sense). Does this contextuality make it false? No at all, for it is indeed our interactions with beings in the world that 'grounds' the truth of the equation.

What does "gathering" have to do with it? Why this blurring of the line between pure and applied mathematics, this apparent reversion to Mill's discredited view of arithmetic? I'll grant that one needs semantic knowledge even to understand the utterance. But unless "context" is just an odd word choice for "meaning," there's no useful sense in which this can or should be called a "contextual" truth.

Kevin Winters said...

It should be obvious, Tim: we learn 1+1=2 from "gathering" together objects, namely one object with another, which gives us two. I do not know this in a "pure" way: it is understood within the context of my being able to bring objects together, in intention and spatially. "Pure mathematics" is a fiction, a reification in the attempt to find an 'eternal' world on which the world of 'change' depends. But such a world never appears; embodied existence is inherent in every theoretical and non-theoretical endeavor we do, if only from the spatial relations of 'left' and 'right' and the placing of terms, etc.

But I now have many questions: what is the "ordinary" understanding of truth? Is "correspondence" really "ordinary"? Is reducing things to propositions with "truth signifiers" and "correspondence relations" really "ordinary"? Is axiomatic thinking or organizing statements into "formal logical categories" really "ordinary"? It is has become such in the philosophical tradition, but it is neither fundamental nor adequately thought out. Moving from (ordinary) people thinking that the truth is related to the real to truth as a correspondence relation between proposition and thing is a huge step. J.Austin has shown how many of the "ordinary" understandings in philosophy are really far removed from the "ordinary" (I think his analysis of perception in Sense and Sensibilia is particularly useful in moving through traditional philosophy's claim to "common sense").

Lastly, in relation to context, your ability to read what I am posting is itself inherently dependent on a wider context. Outside that context I could just as well be writing gibberish. Similarly with 1+1=2: it is meaningless outside the context of mathematics with its own understanding of beings, even its historical evolution ("number" means something very different today than it did 1000 years ago). "Context" is not another name for meaning, but it is that wherein meaning can occur.

Let's illustrate this with the following, that I ask you to interpret in a meaningful way: "He bashed Himself over the head with a tofu key." Please, give me the non-contextual (i.e., non-postmodern) meaning of this statement; its "true truth," as it relates to what it means.

Tim said...


I can hear the echo of Lakoff and Núñez in your last post. We've been 'round the barn before on this blog regarding their distortions and misunderstandings of mathematics, and I won't reprise that discussion here.

But briefly: while handling manipulables (in small quantity) is no doubt a common way to come to understand mathematical truths like "1+1 = 2," the mathematical truths are not about manipulable objects, nor are mathematical operations like adding vectors merely metaphorical extensions of counting cookies. You're mistaking one of the roads for the destination. Pure mathematics is not a fiction, and your attempt to insist otherwise lessens the credit of your other claims.

Something similar goes for your over-the-top claims about embodiment. The veriest Cartesian dualist (that would be me) acknowledges that we encounter the world by bodily interaction with it. This is not news. When you leap from this jejune premise to startling conclusions about the inadequacy of wider philosophical positions, especially analytic ones, people with analytic training will simply yawn. Unless you can articulate in a reasonably clear rigorous fashion what it is about embodiment that forces us to back off from the claims you disparage, we're just not interested. But I get a sinking feeling that your response will be to complain that you don't understand what the word "rigorous" means here.

Tim said...


The "tofu key" is a red herring. The most that is established by your presenting a sentence with pronouns that lack antecedents is that it is possible for the meaning of a sentence, taken in isolation, to be underdetermined. So what? Hasn't this been known since the demise of positivism? Or are you under the misimpression that when analytic philosophers talk about meaning and objectivity, they're endorsing some sort of semantic atomism?

Kevin Winters said...

Quite obviously we need to discuss this in more detail. At the moment we are dealing with generalities that are quite ambiguous and, thus, we are talking past each other. I honestly don't know what to believe in relation to so-called "analytic" philosophy, just like I don't know what to believe about Evangelical theology: each are much broader than the generalizations that we parade around on this blog can do justice to. That is exactly what I am trying to say about so-called "postmodernism": the popular understanding, that Groothuis and others here perpetuate, is so one-sided that it doesn't do justice to the movement, it isn't true to the "reality" that Groothuis etc. think so important.

We need more discussion, more extended discourse about our views and the important distinctions that give them the texture they do. I'm more than ready to enter into such a conversation about anything that I've mentioned or that you would like to discuss. We are seriously lacking in the "rigour" here that you would like. My email is always open and I'll be around.

But let me re-ask my original question, in order to reduce the topics we are dealing with and allow for more rigour: what is "objectivity" and "objective truth"?