Charles Colson, Propositional Truth, and Inerrancy

In the June 2006 issue of Christianity Today, evangelical go-to-guy Charles Colson had a column entitled "Emerging Confusion." In this column, he spoke less about his rejection of the so-called "emergent" church movement and more about his underlying fear that "they are coming dangerously close to teaching that objective truth does not exist." Colson writes about a discussion (re: cordial argument) that he had with a contemporary church leader he calls "Jim" (McLaren, I suspect). Colson writes:
[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."

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 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.

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.

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.
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.

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.


Shane said…
I don't know how you have the time to write so much.

I think Colson is more nearly right than the Emergent people, because propositions are an inevitable part of thinking. Colson's problem is that he is taking over philosophical vocabulary (objectivity v. subjectivity) that implies much larger problems.

over at this blog there is a quote from MacLaren disagreeing with Colson's article"

"'There is no such thing as truth,' a rejection of all moral values, or their reduction to mere preferences – may have been purported by a few crazed graduate students for a few minutes at a late-night drinking party. But to paint the whole movement [post-modernism, presumably] with that brush is just plain irresponsible. . ."

MacLaren needs to spend less time getting rock guitars into church and more time reading the history of philosophy. Who are these crazed drunken graduate students giving post-modernism a bad name? Well, I would argue that Kant is one of them (he tries to save univeral rational morality, but he is complicit in the subjectification of value), Nietzsche is certainly another ("There are no truths, only interpretations"). I can't think of a post-nietzsche continental philosopher who has written an ethics.

On the anglo-american side there is G. E. Moore (Morality is a subjective emotional response). Moore's principia ethica was hugely influential on analytic ethics.

Moving from philosophers to popular culture, Colson's description of 'postmodernism' as the skepticism towards truth and the rejection of normative ethical claims is spot on. The last time I taught ethics was to 13 year old kids. And they were all, without exception moral relativists. (i.e. they answered negatively to the question "Does anyone have the right to tell someone else if an action is right or wrong?") All of them, even the very religious southern Baptist kid were very leary of "pushing their values down somebody else's throat".

Then I did a little experiment. I wrote "facts/objective" on one side of the chalk board and "values/subjective" on the other. I told the kiddos that I was going to make a few statements and I wanted them to tell me if they were fact statements or value statements. I start off with something pretty simple: "Peanut butter is delicious"
"value" they all shout out.
"Mozart is a better than Brahms"
"value" they all say again.
"Taxes are too high"
"value" say the kids whose parents are democrats and "fact" say the kids whose parents are republicans.
"Murder is wrong"
"fact" they all say.
"Abortion is wrong"
"value" they all say.
"Oh really? why is that" I ask.
"Because it is about your religious beliefs" says one girl.

I take this to be a real cultural crisis. Contra the emergent church movement, it won't go away if we get rock guitars on our praise and worship band. The answer here is to reject post-modernism without slipping back into the modernism that Colson does.

Back to middle ages, back to Christendom!
s said…
Great post. Really thoughtful.

Tony Jones replied to Colson on the Christianity Today blog - Out of Ur. In it he tackles Colsons immortal line: 'truth is truth'

You see, by saying that "truth is truth," Colson is essentially saying...well, nothing. That's called a "self-referential argument," or a "circular reference" and it's non-sensical; it doesn't say anything, and it doesn't mean anything


Shane said…
I've now posted some further thoughts on MacLaren v. Colson on my blog.


Andy Kaylor said…
I think you hit the real crux of the issue when you distinguished between knowing truth and proving truth.

And this is precisely where McLaren appeals to me. He may be weak on academic philosophy, but he's in tune with a common popular application of it. That is, the guy on the streets doesn't really care if truth is objective or not. He doesn't spend time thinking about that. He just lives and makes decision based on...whatever.

And there's the problem that McLaren is trying to solve -- what gets filled in for that "whatever." Somebody like Colson who argues for objective truth wants to hand that person not just a Bible but also an interpretation of it. McLaren wants people to think about the Bible, wrestle with it, interact with it.

And it's based on the belief that truth can be met more effectively than it can be told.
"...weak on academic philosophy, but he's in tune with a common popular application of it. That is, the guy on the streets doesn't really care if truth is objective or not. He doesn't spend time thinking about that. He just lives and makes decision based on...whatever."

Perhaps this is the problem we should be addressing.

On another tack, one that I fear I have been sounding to frequently here - David, be careful! :-) I am very sympathetic to your line of argument as far as inerrancy, but I don't think we should be as harsh on Colson as you have been here. It is true that Truth is first an foremost a person, in that Truth = Christ. So, truth is 'personal' in once sense. But, there is another way truth is personal, i.e., personal in that it confronts my person. That is, 'personal' as subjective to the knower (sorry Shane, bear with my terminological usage - :-P ). But, before Truth (Christ) can be 'personal' in this second sense, it must be 'objective,' i.e. existing prior to my being confronted with it. This is personal in the first sense discussed above. Sure, Colson might have an underlying 'bible as fact-book' mentality, but he is right in asserting that the truth that is Christ is 'objective' or prior to us and existing outside of any necessary relationship to us (its true whether we believe it or not, etc). Emergent people forget to mention this stuff and go straight to personal in the second sense, and I think people like Colson are right to say, "Wait a minute - back up and think through this whole thing." If people would just read Polyani a bit more (eh, Shane? :-P)...

As for the whole inerrency thing, you know i'm sympathetic. Just be careful who you take to task, where you take them to task, and that you take them to task where they are actually explicitly dealing with inerrancy. They do it in enough places that you don't have to invent things. :-)

Did I deny that Christ is objective outside of our individual and personal affirmation of him as the Truth? I hope I made it clear that I side with tradition over against a postmodern relativism on that issue. In short, I agree with everything you said.

I brought up inerrancy because I think it is intimately connected with the subject of propositional truth. To ignore this connection is a failure to rid evangelicalism of its demons.

I still think that I am rightly harsh on Colson. In retrospect, I should have taken this post in a slightly different direction. The concept of propositional truth is a problem related to the definition of revelation. Is revelation propositional truth, or is it God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ? I should have made that clear. I think this is where the problem begins. The Bible, when viewed as revelation, becomes a collection of facts and truths. The Bible, when viewed as a witness to self-revelation, becomes precisely that, and Jesus Christ becomes the Truth and the Revelation of God.
Perhaps this is the problem we should be addressing.

Travis, would you mind expanding on this?
In my humble opinion, one of the big problems is that the everyday person is so muddled in their thinking. That comment is commentary on the quotation I openned with. :-)
PS. I know you agree with what I said about objective / subjective truth, etc. I was just making it explicit.
Shane said…

I see no fundamental dichotomy between Scripture being the witness to Christ and it being the bearer of theological propositions.

The Bible is not written as a piece of analytic philosophy (which is the danger of the 'propositional' model), but the text has to contain or at least imply propositions for it to actually mean anything.

I am very leary of david's christo-hermeneutics because it seems to me to involve a rejection of the authority of Scripture. (In fact, the ECUSA general convention has proposed changing the language from "the Bible is our supreme authority in matters of faith and practice" to "God's self revelation in Christ is our supreme authority in matters of faith in practice" BECAUSE then they don't have to worry about providing a biblical justification for ordaining practicing homosexuals, they just have to think nice thoughts about Jesus and how much he loved everybody. The Bible is a written text with a determinate shape and you can't make it mean whatever you want it to (though God knows we try). Jesus isn't here anymore so we are perfectly free to make up whichever Jesus we like (gay, democrat, feminist).

In short, I don't think it is helpful at all to displace the center of theological authority onto something that is not given to us. What good does it do me to know that Jesus is the Word? I never met the man. Oh wait, so you say the Bible tells me true things about Jesus? oh, OK. But to tell me true things about Jesus it has to imply a propositional content.

[An example of one such proposition: (1) "There is exactly one God."]


p.s. I have no idea what "Truth is a person" means.
"p.s. I have no idea what "Truth is a person" means." - Nicely done Shane. :-)

It's a play on John 14:6 where Jesus says that "I am the way, the truth, and the life..." If Jesus = Truth, and if Jesus = person, then Truth = person, i.e. truth is a person. Semantic games, really. The payoff is that you can talk about truth as something you are involved with as in an interpersonal kind of way, instead of being involved with it in a disinterested way.
Shane said…

I was just wondering in the light of the comment in one of the block quotes in the original article, "the highest truth is personal".

I can dig saying that Jesus is Truth is some sort of metaphorical way. But that isn't really what is being said when you say "the highest truth is personal", which sounds much more like a straightforward philosophical claim to me.

there are all sorts of philosophical theories about what truth is. And very little in the way of consensus among philosophers, i'll add, but I really just can't figure out what the hell 'the highest truth is personal' is supposed to mean.

Does it mean that the highest truth is not objective? That there are different kinds of truth, higher and lower? That personal truth is truth without objectivity. Is what is true for me, personally, also true for you as well, personally? I don't have any idea, and i strongly suspect that the anonymous post-modernist doesn't either.

Shane, I think your medieval sympathies obscure your argumentation, because it seems as if you are trying to attack some preconceived notion of postmodern philosophy and not what I am actually talking about. I have no wish to dispense with Scripture or the authority of Scripture — since that is de facto a rejection of Christianity. My christo-hermeneutics is still hermeneutics, i.e., attention to Holy Writ as the norm for faith and practice. Remember that my christological hermeneutics is in relation to my posts on universalism, which is a strictly theological discussion — though the question of proof texts is involved, albeit marginally.

There is a big difference between the Bible "containing" propositions and the Bible "implying" propositions. The former states that Scripture contains the facts or doctrinal truths which the reader must either accept or reject. The latter states that such propositions are human constructs which are attempting to do justice to the witness of Holy Scripture. I accept the latter but mostly reject the former. Of course there are propositional statements — such as "there is one God" — but these are given in a relational encounter with a personal, triune God who is the gracious creator and redeemer. These propositions are not given by the text, but are witnessed to by the text. God is the one who encounters us in the pages of Scripture, not Scripture itself.

I don't like your argument that because you have not "met the man," the triune God incarnate in Jesus is not the authority, but rather the Bible. If you have read the Bible at all as a man of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, you have indeed encountered the living Word. Jesus Christ encounters us in the words of Scripture as the Word. A dialogical-relational ontology affirms this in a way that I think must be retained.

The main problem here is the personification of the Bible into a speaking person. The Bible only "speaks to us" insofar as God speaks through this witness, i.e., insofar as God commandeers human language for the purpose of self-revelation and authoritative speech. The Bible does not naturally function as revelation of God apart from the God who makes the Bible speak truly and authoritatively of God.
How about this: The highest truth is an objective personal reality in the triune God, concretely embodied in the incarnate Logos who, as the self-revelation of God, is the criterion for all truth. All truth is found in God, determined by God, and comes from God.

What's wrong with metaphor? Metaphors are vehicles of truth. See "Metaphorical Truth" by Eberhard Jüngel, in Theological Essays I.
Shane said…
David, I realize i've been unclear.

When I am attacking 'postmodernism' i mean that shrug-of-the-shoulders social malaise the hoi polloi think is innovative philosophy, i.e. the guy from that block quote from Colson. (I don't include Derrida in this camp, by the way, since I think his own position is actually quite opposed to it. Also, incidentally, it may look like I am just setting up a straw man here, but it is becaue I see so many of them walking around that I feel like I need to knock on them once and a while, cf. my experience teaching ethics mentioned above).

Nor do I think that this is what you are doing with your christocentric hermeneutics. But, I think you are going to end up in a similar epistemological quandry as the shrug-of-the-shoulder postmoderns and the feel-good spiritualism of the liberal episcopalians. The problem that all three of you will share is that you remove the determinacy of the meaning of the text. You from a desire to avoid any sort of natural theology. The post-moderns because texts mean whatever their readers want them to mean (which, as I have said, is emphatically NOT what Derrida believes). The liberal episcopalians because they want to ignore what it says so they can do what the "spirit" tells them to.

You theological position is not post-modern at all. If anything, as I have tried to argue on your most recent post, it is indebted to a sort of positivism. In reading the scriptures with faith I have met the man, he is fully present to me, Truth itself all at once. This is what I mean by a kind of positivism, a full presence, a total disclosure of the thing in itself.

(I hope that I am not reading too much into your position, because I am making it sound very much like Husserl's Phenomenology because I just took an exam on Derrida's deconstruction of Husserl this morning).

I am affirming, with Derrida, against Husserl, that there is not fully self presence. (For Husserl it is the presence of pre-linguistic ideal meanings, for you it seems to be the presence of Christ illuminating my mind with the truths of the Scripture). There is not pure presence, because meaning is linguistically mediated, but that is a whole other can of worms. Moreover, it simply is not true to my own experience of faith that my encounters with the divine have illumined my mind to the full truth about God. We have met, but it was a mixture of presence and absence. He was really there with me, but he was also beyond me and outside of me. If you have a different experience, I would very much like to know it!

I am happy to say that whenever the Bible speaks God speaks. But you are not happy because for you the Bible is deaf and dumb, it says nothing, it means nothing. Practically speaking, you and will come to the same general ethical stances because you have a generous account of God's speaking through the text all the time, but the theoretical differences underlaying this practical agreement are immense. My worry is that someone who does not have the same practical conclusions you do (a liberal episcopalian or a shrugging post-modern) will use your theoretical apparatus to derive conclusions completely contrary to the written Word of God, the divine revelation, the Bible.


p.s. I like metaphors, nothing wrong with them. But they aren't propositions, which is what we were trying to talk about here. There is much more to be said about this topic, of course. And i'm afraid i've only sketched the briefest trace of an answer to you. But that's how it goes, a continual play of presence and absence.

p.p.s. well maybe not. i realize that I'm privileging Derrida quite a bit here on the whole play of presence and absence thing. Marion develops an account of the saturated phenomenon which is like a presence in revelation. As a good catholic he connects it to the Eucharist. I'll have to reread that section again and get back to you.
I heartily agree with all of your fears, but I think you still are reading more into my position than is necessary or even warranted. The main issue seems to be the removal of "the determinacy of the meaning of the text." The problem with this statement is that, from what I can tell, you think that the biblical text provides its own interpretation. That is, the Bible is self-interpreting. That may be true in an historical sense, e.g., Paul offers an interpretation of the person and words of Jesus, and the later Jewish writings of the Torah. But taken at face value, such a statement has a very specific name: fundamentalism.

I intend to write a post on this sometime soon, but over at Dr. Ben Myers' Faith and Theology blog, there was a dialogue on D.A. Carson's stance on scripture. Myers was asked to summarize Carson's position. He did it beautifully, and unfortunately, you come too close to it for comfort. The summary is this: The Word = the words. The moment we make this identification — vs. The Word = Jesus Christ — we start down a very dangerous path.

What I think you and I wish to affirm is what more studious writers on hermeneutics, such as Kevin Vanhoozer, would readily affirm. And that is the purpose and place of ecclesial tradition, within which interpretation takes place. Our interpretations might break with ancient traditions — as Barth and others do over the idea of self-revelation or the doctrine of election — but it is always a break made consciously in continuity with the church past, present, and future. Now of course Postmodern John on the street is not reading the text as part of the church, nor should we expect them to do so. Their position is not christocentric because it is done extra ecclesiam. The liberal Episcopalian mentality, if simply based on experience and "spirituality," is not a christocentric hermeneutics because it does not have the biblical witness to Jesus Christ as its starting-point; it has human experiences and interests as the starting-point. Now, of course, I happen to think that some of the liberal Episcopalian interests are not all that unorthodox. I don't really think it is such a bad idea to allow homosexuals to be ordained, partly because I am not convinced that it is a hard and fast sin. Please don't take that to mean I am identifying myself in the "liberal Episcopalian" camp, but I do want to suggest that you can have a biblical, christocentric perspective and still hold to at least some of their main ideals.

Lastly, I do find it rather interesting that, for one so interested in the biblical text and tradition, you find your hermeneutical bearings from Derrida. I wholly agree with your defense of his reading of texts. Nevertheless, it seems rather questionable for one to accept a postmodern philosopher's ideas on presence as determinative for how the biblical text can function under the power of the Spirit.

For the record, I too hold no belief in "pure presence" nor do I think God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is immediately and fully available. My comments on indirect revelation hold true here, and I can only point you to Barth, whose statements on God's indirect identity with the man Jesus are germane to our discussion here.
Shane said…

This is the first time i've been faulted for being a Derridean and a fundamentalist at the same time. In fact, something about the accusation makes me wonder.

I don't believe in a self-interpreting scripture, because it just doesn't seem to work that way. A living person can interpret his own writings to you, but the text can't because it cannot ever say anything beyond what it alread says. Suppose you open your Bible and say, "Excuse me, Mr. Bible, what do you really say about universalism?" The Bible just sits there mute. It would be nice if the book magically started talking, but it doesn't, so it isn't self-interpreting.

My concern with your christocentric hermeneutic, however, is that it removes the determinacy of the text, which is to say, it removes the revealed content of the text. You smell natural theology in this and want to avoid it, so you say that Bible is not the word of God, only Jesus is the word and the Bible can only act as revelation through the Spirit, not intrinsically in itself.

My concern with what the misuses of the 'spirit' as an epistemological category runs into ecclesiological concerns too. Let's suffice to give a very brief account and say that I am opposed to Luther (that fundamentalist self-authenticator) because he makes the individual believer the locus of the spirit's work as opposed to the Church Catholic. However, though the Scripture has to be interpreted through the Spirit by the Church, it can't be interpreted willy nilly. The actual determinate content of the text resists the attempts to make it say something that it doesn't. For example, that God likes bestiality.

I agree that the work of the spirit is still necessary for the revelation in the Bible to become revelation to us, but I think it is wrong to say that the Bible is not the written word of God.

It seems highly questionable to me for a seminarian to make use of an anti-christian pantheist in his theology, but what can you do? You have to start somewhere. Derrida is the last word, but he's the best I've got to work with at the moment and I think he gives really good reasons to think that the full presence to God of our minds isn't possible. If you would like a good Lutheran philosopher who says the same thing, see Kierkegaard's rejection of Hegel. I'm personally fond of Marion too, but I don't have him on the tip of my tongue today.


Shane said…
My problem with Barth is the same problem with people who think that the Bible is self-interpreting (through the Spirit). It absolutely groundless and might as well be arbitrary. My inner marxist points out that the self-interpreting scripture says very different things about material wealth to rich people and to poor people. He also thinks that the Christ at the center of Christocentric interpretation of Scripture is going to look an awful lot like the interpreter, i.e. Harnack's Christ was a middle-aged, bourgeois German Lutheran professor. If we interpret Christocentrically on the Harnackian model, what the Bible really means is that we should all pay our taxes and do what the government tells us to.
Shane said…
The Word of the Lord!
First, I never wish to deny that the Bible is the Word of God written. I take that from Barth. But it is not the primary or only Word of God. If Christ is the Word of God incarnate, then we begin there. Scripture is the authoritative witness, and preaching is the spoken Word of God in the here and now.

Second, historically speaking, those who have searched for the "historical Jesus" are the ones who have most represented him in the image of the researcher-interpreter. I think the danger of Harnack or Schweitzer is indeed one that should compel us to attend to the God who stands over against us, even while identifying with us in Jesus.

Third, I do not mean to label you a fundamentalist or a Derridean. I was pointing out some interesting, possibly dangerous, tendencies.

Fourth, it seems like you are avoiding my responses to what you said in the past. For example, my insistence that Scripture cannot be interpreted "willy nilly" and that we never have God's "full presence" in the text. And you never responded to my thought on Scripture "containing" vs. "implying" propositions.

Fifth, identifying the Bible as the Word of God is an identification that can only be made within the church, and thus only by the Spirit among those who are brought to new life by the word of the gospel. In other words, by those who recognize Jesus Christ as the Word of God incarnate and living.

Sixth, Hegel is not anti-Christian. That is a slanderous and false remark. He defends as much as he criticizes Christianity. And he may lean toward pantheism, but he is not a card-carrying pantheist.

Seventh, I just can't help but feel like you are leaning in the direction of a dictation theory of Scripture, or some similar idea of extra-special inspiration that would make the words on the page God's revelation to us. Calling the Bible the written Word of God does not mean that the Bible is revelation. The Bible is the witness to God's revelation in history. If the Bible is revelatory, that is because the writers were compelled by these revelatory events to record the ways and works of God; i.e., they were inspired to write these records. But we cannot lose the truly human nature of this text with all its faults and inner contradictions.
Shane said…
I'm very interested in hearing what you think these internal contradictions are.

Regarding Hegel, I can only say that you and I must be reading a completely different thinker.

Spinoza created a pantheistic philosophical system in which all being is understood as a part of absolute substance. Hegel's goal is to rethink Spinoza's system in terms of an Absolute Subject, Spirit, God. Hegel's God creates the world because of a fundamental lack of self-determination. God determines himself through history.

This 'God' is supposedly coming to himself through the historical developments of humanity. The 'incarnation' of Hegel's God is identical with the beginning of history. The first stage was babylonian animism, in which the divine was thought of as spirits in the forms of animals. Then, spirit moved on to Egypt, where the paganism was developing into a religion of man. The Egyptians get stuck half way though (look at the Sphynx), so Spirit moves on to Greece, where the gods are thought of as human persons. Eventually Greek philosophy leads to monotheism. In the Roman period the greek philosophical genius combines with the jewish monotheism to produce a more perfect concept of God as a single entity which enters into time. However, at this point, Spirit is still trapped in a sort of mediated transcendence in the catholic church. fortunately "our" reformation purifies this transcendence away. God becomes something immediately present to the individual. The highest development of Spirit in Hegel's own time is Hegel's own work, because it contains all that is essential and true in what has come before. We are now moving to a time beyond religion. Philosophy is capabable of thinking Spirit better than religion, so religion is being replaced by speculative dialectical philosophy. The end point of history is the final resolution of all dichotomies and oppositions into Absolute Spirit.

God is this speculative dialectic historical process. He explicitly rejects the transcendence of anything Other to the immanent totality, because this would put it beyond the reach of thought, which Hegel thinks is impossible. "The real is the rational." God is our thinking about thinking for Hegel, because God is thought thinking itself (a parody of Aristotle).

Hegel's God is implicated in evil, since God is identified with history. Hegel's God must create out of a lack. Hegel's God is accessible through purely rational philosophical meditation. Hegel's God does not really seem to be personal.

I admit that I have not had much theological training, but this does not seem like Christianity to me.
I never said Hegel is a Christian theologian, only that he is not anti-Christian. He may be rather unorthodox on some points, but I don't think he is as off-base as you make him appear. He does speak about the necessary distinction between Subject and Predicate, and God and history, and insists on a "harmony" between them, not an equality. And he does defend Christianity.
Anonymous said…
As an undergraduate in accounting the professor said you can't have good practice unless you have good theory. This is true in regard to living for Jesus.
Sam said…
Disclaimer: I sympathize with analytic theology. Okay, I have a hard time understanding the "truth is a person" statement that I often hear. Truth can mean different things of course, and the biblical understanding, especially in Jesus' case, far exceeds strict truth or falsity. A person cannot be true or false, only statements or propositions can. But truth applied to persons is broader: it's faithfulness, care, presence, and *also* saying things that are either true or false. So why this false dichotomy?
Anonymous said…
I believe Colson would agree with everything you said in your final paragraph with the exception of your definition of "truth" as "an event that interrupts us, which places us existentially outside ourselves." I would first say that there either are or are not events of this kind on your blog. If not, are you failing your readers? If there are such events am I entitled to get an ineffable truth that leads me to abuse the environment? If not, why not? Can you explain this to me without propositions or will you offer me another event that I am free to make my own personalized "truth" (such as that I should defraud people of their money). Do you intend to start a blog with no propositions and "truth events" only? The fundamental issue is that it is just not "cool" to believe in absolute, propositional truth these days. Perhaps in your new blog you can provide me with an "event" that causes me to "get" how one can absolutely reject absolutes.