Knowing What You Believe in the Light of Postmodenrnity

During my college years the late InterVarsity staff member Paul Little wrote his little classic book, Know Why You Believe. It was a vintage, simple, and basic apologetic for the time. The idea was that there were a few (seven as I recall now) questions that any Christian should (and could) have a grasp of and through that grasp be equipped to respond to common objections made against the faith. This very simple approach freed many of us to feel confident that we could talk about the Lord openly, and with much more confidence, on the college campus.

Paul Little later wrote a book, far less well-known, titled Know What You Believe. The same idea prevailed. All of us should know the simple basics that Christians must believe if they are to understand and defend the faith.

Christians who truly believe the faith should plainly know what they believe. They should know what they believe about God, about Jesus, and about the Holy Spirit. They should know what they believe bout faith, about heaven and hell, and about the Bible. Make no mistake here, strong Christians do not waver back and forth about basic Christian doctrines. It does not serve Christian faith to live in continual doubt about the basic truths.

Modernity undermined the faith very directly in my college days. For this reason Little’s approach worked well. When converts came to know Christ they generally did so by embracing the Christian system whole, with very few remaining doubts in most cases since these were answered up front in many cases. Postmodernism, on the other hand, has the strong tendency to make young Christians waver in their faith long after they believe. It also tends to make doctrinal points less coherent in terms of any kind of systematic structure. This also has real weaknesses.

But we too often confuse strong faith with epistemic certainty, or strong knowledge of doctrine with a kind of modern argument for the faith. This is why the postmodern challenge to evangelicals is so important, for good and for ill. We not only know have been taught to know exactly what we believe but we have the tendency to embrace a kind of epistemic arrogance about how we know for sure what we believe. We say, "I know" and usually mean far more by "know" than what faith can truly claim this side of seeing Christ face-to-face.

What I would argue for is that evangelicals should become a people of bold humility in the face of this current postmodern challenge. If the sin of postmodernity is sloth, especially intellectual sloth, then the sin of my modernist generation is arrogance, especially intellectual arrogance about what we know and how we know it.

This was illustrated for me recently when a seminary professor friend told me of an ordination process that is all too common in some conservative Christian circles. One candidate knew the terrain of theology, and theological argumentation in general, quite well. He showed a general prowess and careful thought process. However, he missed a correct answer with regard to one point of doctrine in the interrogation section of the proceedure. The second candidate didn’t know the terrain well and thus did not have a wide angle grasp of the big picture of theology in terms of living and ministering in the present age. However, the second candidate did not miss a single question about a particular point of theological interrogation. The first candidate was rejected by the council while the second was accepted.

This council’s response is a classic illustration of how a committee clung to certain notions of competence that are quite modern. It also reveals how we construct an epistemological box that we want people to fit into in order to prove that they are acceptable. Nothing illustrates the difference between the modern and postmodern approach to truth quite like this one.

A better approach to the above would be to retrain the second candidate in how to think, which will be a massive task in most cases. He will need a new way of seeing and thinking about how to study and present theology. The danger is that the second candidate already knows that he knows the answers and thus he will be hard to really correct. The hope is that twenty years in the ministry might knock this type of certainty out of him. In the first case, where a specific answer to a theological question was missed, the mind can be sharpened on a point of weakness and the results will be very positive. In most cases this can happen rather quickly. We need to help this first candidate to fill in a gap in knowledge about what to believe. If our demeanor is that of Christlike humility the first problem will be more desirable than the second, though both can and should be corrected so the church can have good servant leadership with proper intellectual preparation.

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