[After expressing the fear that emergent leaders are losing the concept of objective truth,] A lengthy e-mail exchange with Jim followed. In defense of emerging church leaders, he insisted that truth is paradoxical, simultaneously personal and propositional. It is objectively true that Jesus Christ is Lord no matter what anyone thinks, Jim wrote. But, he added, "Propositional truth is not the highest truth. Indeed, the highest truth is personal."Colson's position is not unique; in fact, it is the bedrock of contemporary American evangelicalism. For much of the history of the Christian church (post-Scholasticism up into the Enlightenment), the Bible was viewed precisely as Colson & co. view it: as a collection of facts and propositions which tell us what we are to think and believe about God, humanity, the world, and all creation. Charles Hodge wrote an entire systematic theology which is simultaneously Protestant and rooted in propositional truth; his is the standard presentation of these views. The foundational doctrine which arose out of this propositional theology is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
Like all statements that can lead us into error, those have the ring of truth. Of course, truth becomes relational when we come to Jesus, Truth himself. But our doing that isn't what makes it true. He is the truth whether or not we ever experience him. Scripture is never less than revealed propositional truth.
Colson's column evades that sticky issue, but this is the reality which we cannot evade here: the concept of Scripture as propositional truth is wedded to—in fact, depends upon—the doctrine of inerrancy. Colson makes this clear, even while he avoids the debate over inerrancy altogether. What Colson fears is a radical relativism in which each person is his or her own standard of truth. No universal standard exists, and we end up with extreme emotivism: truth is what each person feels like calling truth; right and wrong are individually assigned rather than determined by a universal rule, canon, or standard.
Colson's fear is not unique to the so-called "postmodern" era. The same fear struck Christians a hundred years ago with the onset of modernism and Darwinism. Hodge and B. B. Warfield were fearful of secularism, because it attempted to answer questions like, "What is the origin of humanity?" apart from Scripture. Secularism, in their minds, was the destructive attempt to offer answers to the big questions of life without appealing to God or the Christian truth. We find, during this same period of time, the rise of atheism as a valid possibility. So Hodge and Warfield concocted the doctrine of inerrancy as the way of protecting the Christian truth from the danger of modern secularity.
What is the point of inerrancy? Inerrancy is not about the authority of Scripture; Christians already had that long before Hodge and Warfield came around. Inerrancy is about the universal authority of Scripture. In other words, inerrancy wants to posit the authority of Scripture for those outside of the church—for those who are not part of the community of saints. Most evangelicals see no problem with this whatsoever. The infantile debate between evolution and creationism is an obvious example of this attempt to make the Bible authoritative in all realms of human knowledge—which, of course, assumes that the Bible was intended to be authoritative in those realms. (Realms which were only established in the modern era, revealing again that the central problem for American evangelicalism is its almost complete lack of historical self-consciousness.)
Colson and those who view propositional truth as the highest form of truth—with inerrancy as the doctrine which protects this in terms of biblical hermeneutics—have everything backwards. They think that (1) because the Bible is a universal, inerrant authority that (2) presents truth propositionally, they are then justified in using biblical proof-texts to present what "the Bible says" about God and the world. Their textual case, if accepted (which it should be if the Bible is accepted as the universal authority on all matters), then leads a person into the Christian faith based on these propositions. In other words, the issue with inerrancy and propositional truth is the protection of apologetics as the rational argumentation based on texts and facts for the purpose of conversion (whether to the faith or to a particular belief). One could put it this way: propositional truths --> faith. Or: faith in the Bible --> faith in Jesus Christ.
As I said already, this is entirely backwards. One must find oneself part of the church in order to have the Bible as one's authority in faith and practice—I stress in faith and practice, because this is indeed what the role of the Bible is for every believer. Not an inerrant guide to all matters of knowledge, but the witness to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Thus: faith --> articulating the truths of the faith, or fides quaerens intellectum [faith seeking understanding]. Or: faith in Jesus Christ --> acceptance of the Bible and the church community as, respectively, the norm for theological knowledge and the sphere in which the practices of thinking, speaking, and living as disciples of Christ take place. (I should concede that Scripture is our only authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, but insofar as we accept that witness, we place our faith in the person of Jesus and enter into the community of the church. We do not accept propositions; we accept the person to whom the biblical writers witness in the gospel narratives as well as the community for whom that witness is intended.)
Let's return now to Colson's column:
The arguments of some emerging church leaders, I fear, draw us perilously close to the trap set by postmodern deconstructionist Stanley Fish. Defending himself after his sympathetic statements about the 9/11 terrorists boomeranged, Fish claimed that postmodernists don't really deny the existence of truth. He said there is simply no "independent standard of objectivity." So truth can't be proved to others; therefore, it can't be known—a verbal sleight of hand.First, a major pet peeve: conservative Christians should not be allowed to use the word "deconstructionist" ever. They botch it up every time. Derrida did not deconstruct texts; Derrida simply revealed where texts deconstruct themselves. And Stan Fish is not a philosophical deconstructionist, at least not in the sense defined by Derrida.
For evangelicalism (let alone emerging churches) to buy into that would undermine the very foundation of our faith. Theologian Donald A. Carson puts his finger precisely on the epistemological problem: Of course, truth is relational, Carson writes. But before it can be relational, it has to be understood as objective. Truth is truth. It is, in short, ultimate reality. Fortunately, Jim came to see this.
The emerging church can offer a healthy corrective if it encourages us to more winsomely draw postmodern seekers to Christ wherever we find them—including coffee houses and pubs. And yes, worship styles need to be more inviting, and the strength of relationship and community experienced. But these must not deter us from making a solid apologetic defense of the knowability of truth.
Second, Fish is right to deny some universal standard for defining objective truth. Colson is wrong to assert that postmodernity means "truth can't be proved to others; therefore, it can't be known." I am not defending postmodern philosophy, but Colson is blinded by his insistence on propositional truth. Fish has written a fair amount on "interpretive communities," meaning communities within which the interpretation of a text takes shape. The interpretation of Holy Scripture properly takes place within the church, and within the church alone. It was a grave mistake when the Bible came to be viewed as a text for academic research, allowing interpretation to take place within the university apart from any ecclesial context. Truth can be known, but that does not mean it can be proved to be truth as such to any Joe or Judy walking down the street. The truth of the gospel occurs as an event within the church as the "interpretive community" centered on the person of Jesus Christ witnessed to in the pages of Holy Scripture.
Third, Carson and Colson defend objective truth as if the only other option is "truth does not exist." On one hand, they are right to assert that Jesus is Lord and salvation is through him alone regardless of what any one of us thinks (see my posts on universalism for the implications of this orthodox position!). But in that case, truth is a person, as in "I am the way, the truth, and the life." And as a person, truth relates to us. Not that the only truth is Jesus Christ, but saving truth—the truth of the gospel—is found in him alone. More accurately, such truth is him alone. So is truth objective? Sure, in the sense that truth is determined by the triune God, who is real apart from any human affirmation or rejection. But is this truth objective for all people, like the truth that the sun gives us heat on earth? No, because we can only recognize that Jesus is Lord from within the community of believers, those who are called the children of God. What I reject is any kind of general revelation or natural theology or biblical inerrancy, all of which make truth into a set of propositions that are generally available to all apart from faith and outside the church. Colson wants to keep open the possibility and necessity for a Christian apologetic. The interest in apologetics must be criticized as a naturalizing of the Christian gospel, its watering down into rational and propositional argumentation.
What is truth? Truth is personal, or rather, a Person. Truth is relational in that God relates to us in the person of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Truth is also relational in that it occurs as an event that interrupts us, which places us existentially outside ourselves before others and before God. Truth takes place in community. Truth is always objective, but never at the expense of its subjectivity. Truth is epitomized by and embodied in the Word of grace which interrupts us in our lives of untruth and places us in a new relation with God, with others, and with ourselves.