Yesterday I gave a lecture and led a discussion at a seminar that was part of Imagine, a renewal conference event at Arcade Church in Sacramento, California. My session was on the emerging generation and missional church thinking. I made reference to the notion that "propositional truth" was an unhelpful category distinction for expressing what we mean by biblical truth. A very bright, genuinely helpful and fair minded participant agreed with everything I taught except for my observations about "propositional truth." He was quite concerned that I was denying the very essence of how we know, or can be certain, about what is true and false biblically. Our disagreement came down to the word "proposition." Since the setting was not a philosophy class I chose not to explore this too aggressively but pondered this question for the past day or so.

I also heard, since arriving in Sacramento, that a well-known minister recently made reference to me, by name, in a large public setting by expressing his concerns that I was denying "propositional truth." This whole debate rather amuses me. And it also amazes me since it openly displays how we have adopted linguistically loaded terms, often with little understanding of their origin and/or meaning, and then built castles upon these terms that we will fight for against all who challenge our well-built (?) castles.

Proposition is a philosophical term that is used in logic to describe the content of assertions that are understood to be non-linguistic abstractions drawn from sentences that can be evaluated as either true or false. "All snow is white" is a common proposition, to use a simple ilustration. When we use the term "propositional truth" we are saying, in effect, that our truth claims can be stated and analyzed in forms that fit into what we call, in logic, proposition.

Simply put, there are loads of problems with the term proposition. For example, lots of logicians do not like or use the term for very good reasons. There is no doubt that the term is hugely controversial, even among philosophers. Aristotle said proposition referred to a kind of sentence in which one affirms or denies the predicate of a subject. An illustration would be: "All men are created mortal" This would be fllowed by the conclusion that "Socrates is a man," thus "Socrates is mortal."

Think about this for a moment. If we say "All men are mortal" and "Jesus of Nazareth is a man" where does this "valid" proposition lead us? Jesus is a man, that is a truth. But Jesus is not mortal in the sense that all other men are mortal. In this case the propositional form has landed you right in the middle of a serious heresy. Propositional logic seeks to express complete propositions. I do not believe this can be done in many instances since Christian truth claims lead us into a biblical category we call mystery. I much prefer we stop using the term proposition before the term "truth." I would prefer to say I affirm the "truth." This underscores a very important biblical and theological truth, namely that Jesus is the truth, not our humanly constructed propositions. Christian faith cannot be contained in logical formulas and the sooner we recognize this the better.

I am not saying that Christian truth is anti-logical, or illogical, but rather that the truth rises above categories of human logic. It would be helpful, I believe, if this Greek influence on the church was submitted to the Hebrew-Christian thought forms of the Bible itself. By this means new biblical reformation might break out in many places. Certainly, we would be much more humble about how we state our truth claims. This is one reason I like the way many younger Christians are moving away from the term propositional truth and simply affirming the truth as it is in Jesus Christ.

Related Posts

Comments

  1. Joe Walsh March 19, 2006 at 1:46 am

    Hi John!
    Thank you for coming to Sacramento and giving the challenges you laid out before us. I especially enjoyed your lunch lecture today, Saturday. The opening statement you made about “the Church’s privileged position” in our culture and society is being lost … or is lost, I find to be unfortunately true! Over the past twenty five years the influence of the Church upon the U.S. culture and the political arena and public policy has greatly dimenished. In my opinion, many evangelical seminaries have missed the mark. We have misunderstood the application of the http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew%2022:36-40;&version=31; Great Commandment, the http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew%2028:18-20;&version=31;Great Commission, and the http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=john%2013:34-35;&version=31;New Commandment. And there are many reasons for that. But that’s not what I mainly wanted to comment about here.
    I know you had a time limitation when you spoke today, but I wished you could have unpackaged more your thoughts on Islam in the U.S.A. and where you see it growing and going in our country and North America.
    Personally, I am http://news.google.com/news?q=al+jazeera+and+Dish+Network&hl=en&hs=ZRB&lr=&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official_s&sa=N&tab=nn&oi=newsr watching Isalm gaining a greater and greater foothold within our borders on our political system, education, all media, the religious intolerance of Christianity – as it confronts them in the marketplace of ideas and dialog. They are wanting a greater expression of the Arabic language and a push toward judiciary independence or inclusion, and greater religious expression and acceptance by everyone. All these basic ingredients are a formindable foundation of establishing a “nationalistic” presence within the borders of another country. http://muslim-canada.org/ryerson.htm Canada is a good example of that.
    George Otis, Jr, in his book entitled: The Last of the Giants, first written in 1991, now revised in light of 9-11, documented very clearly the the focus and goals of Islam. And from a geo-political standpoint they seem to be right on schedule to “evangelize the world by 2020” Their “vision” is “to see” the world domininated by Islam in that year! At times it would seem they are frightenly on target . . .
    Thanks to the efforts of http://www.mpac.org and http://www.cair-net.org/default.asp?Page=About.
    Because of all of this “stuff”, and more, your ministry and others like yours is most important and strategic in North America and around the world. At CFFGroup.com , we want to focus networking, connecting and collaborating with the whole Body of Christ. We hope to do our part in walking with you in this vision.
    God bless you in your work in awakening us all … to our Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom purposes!
    Thank you again! Your’s IN Christ,
    Joe Walsh
    Sacramento, CA
    http://cffgroup.com
    http://praythenews.us

  2. Laurel March 20, 2006 at 9:08 am

    I am a high school logic teacher, among other things. I have one problem with what you said…a proposition cannot be valid or invalid, only true or false. It takes a whole argument to get into the issue of validity. So in your syllogism, “All men are mortal…” a correction could be made to the untrue proposition — “All men tainted by the fall are mortal…” Then we’d have to deal with Enoch and Elijah, and the whole exercise would miss your point.
    What I would like to hear further is this: What understanding of ‘truth’ in the Old Testament scriptures did Jesus answer in his claim, “I am the Truth.”? I am sad (beyond amused and amazed) for Christians and churches who do their very best to get hold of right doctrine, and slip so readily into God-in-a-box and we-are-the-people. God must be outside the logical processes He created, off in the realm of mystery, but incarnate among us in Jesus. Not Greek at all, but Hebrew in thought. Can you unwrap this Hebrew thought process so that I can temper my teaching of logic with a more Biblical perspective? Is this where the Old Testament launches into story and poetry? Does it in this way touch closer to the reality of God?
    I believe that lack of logical thinking is deadly in apologetics, but that it is not sufficient either. Even the disciplines of rhetoric take into account only the speaker, the hearer, and the message. What is missing here?

  3. Emil Brunner March 20, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    If the Christian faith and the very notion of truth is trans-logical then don’t human beings themselves have to be trans-logical beings in order to understand the faith and truth?
    If all of this is trans-logical then isn’t apologetics a waste of time?
    Would you say that the statement
    “I affirm the Truth”
    is trans-logical or would you say it is a proposition? How would I know the difference?
    Surely it is the truth that ‘Jesus is the truth.’ Admitting that, could you tell me how it is I know this Jesus apart from the use of propositional truths? If the answer is by trans-logical abilities, could you inform me how those work so I could know Jesus?
    We think we see many holes in this thinking and we appeal to our sense of Trans-logic in order to affirm this truth.
    Emil

  4. jannette March 23, 2006 at 1:15 pm

    Rev. Armstrong,
    I found your article quite provocative as I was sick and unable to hear you at City Church S.F.. Although the word proposition can be taken and used in various semantic contexts for a number of different reasons, I found it useful that you place it historically within the a Greek context. Many people do not often understand how current culture is so profoundly imbedded by the Greeks and Romans. It just amazes me when I see it so clearly illustrated in your article and here on these boards.
    Propositional logic or truth seems to parallel sometimes how I feel about theory and hypothesis. Truth seems to me a term that is somewhat immutable and yet magnanimous. How do we artfully and verifiably describe its nature? I am at such ease with identifying what seems to be fact once a theory becomes clear after much investigation. You could develop the thought further and say propositional truth is made valid by observable rational. However, I am uncomfortable when it comes to understanding God emotionally. In limiting ourselves to propositional logic don’t we loose part of ourselves? Let me explain;
    God created us with two hemisphere, lobes, a corpus collasum connecting them … Our left hemisphere is more concrete, chronological and spoken, the right spatial, symbolic, unspoken, emotional, more abstract. We are made in His image and from what I can understand, as I personally am very limited in my biblical knowledge, God wants us to have a spiritual affection and pursue him in this manner. I agree with John Piper when he says:
    ‘I was always told that feelings didn’t matter. Now I am finding evidence
    all over the Bible that that the pursuit of joy in God, and the awakening
    of all kinds of spiritual affections, are part of the essence of the newborn
    Christian heart. This discovery excites me and frightens me.’
    What I am saying about God and the way He has created us gives room to peruse His truth and His character in a more profound manner, inclusive with the propositional and all that it entails notwithstanding in the important context of rational and logic. In this way linguistics, like Saussure’s structural analysis and parol, words are wonderfully powerful and loaded with potential for misinterpretation. The propositional logic of Socrates works within the context of earthly and human imagination. If I understand what scripture says about ‘His ways being above our ways’, then our conjecture becomes impotent in the light of who God is, if He truly is who He says He is.
    Aren’t we suppose to worship God in truth and in wholeness? Like emotionally too? How do you do that when all educational institutions are left hemisphere driven?
    I’m deeply confused but for what it’s worth I loved your article.
    jannette

  5. Cara Fletcher August 4, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    I think propositional truth is very important for us and all the people in Sacramento California and people would support this idea.

  6. John H. Armstrong August 4, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    I am not denying propositional truth folks. I am saying that ultimate truth cannot be reduced to propositions. If Christ is the Truth then we cannot reduce truth to statements of logic or propositions.
    We can say that Jesus is never illogical, nor is the teaching of Holy Scripture, but this is not the same as saying that he is equal to logic, which the late Gordon Clark went so far as to actually say in his apologetics.
    It is quite amazing to me how these discussions go when both sides think they understand what someone else is saying. The question here is how we receive a message in its context and framework and then how we believe it and act upon it, not how we put it into human propositions. This is why postmodernity is both helpful and harmful, depending on what is being claimed and why. I do not endorse unbelief or logical fallacy in any sense. Ancient Christian confession was never built on this kind of framework.

  7. Jeff August 15, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    The first paragraph of the last post deserves some further scrutiny.
    First: I defy you to identify any meaningful distinction between sentence no. 1 (“I am not denying propositional truth”) and sentence no. 2 (“ultimate truth cannot be reduced to propositions”).
    Certainly, we are talking about “ultimate truth” when we discuss propositions such as, “Jesus is the truth.” How could it possibly be otherwise? Are you saying there is some type of truth that can be propositional in nature but that is somehow non-ultimate? And what is your basis for condescendingly referring to “reducing” ultimate truth to propositions?
    Second: Your third sentence (“If Christ is the Truth then we cannot reduce truth to statements of logic or propositions”) is patently false and unsupportable.
    When you say, “If Christ is the Truth,” are you denying that He is the Truth as John 14:6 clearly states?
    Where is there any Scriptural support for your statement? Certainly any attempt to support this statement would have to, at a minimum, reckon with John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word”). This text gives no indication that the author is the least bit reluctant to “reduce” truth to propositional form, even matters of ultimate truth.
    Further, any attempt to support your statement scripturally would also need to address passages such as Romans 8:32, Luke 11:13 and many, many others in which logic, propositions and arguments are made time and time again.

  8. Rich August 15, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    Join me in the church of Jeff as we bow down to ultimate reality – not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but even more importantly… the Great Proposition in the sky! All hail the logic, reason, grammar and syntax of the perfect sentence, the ultimate statement, the verbal glory that is nothing other than the Great Proposition in the Sky!

  9. John H. Armstrong August 15, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    Amen Rich!
    I am glad someone gets the point. Jeff is using propositions in order to prove propositions, which is not logical. Divine truth, putting it the correct way, never contradicts logic, thus it is never illogical, but Divine Truth cannot be reduced to logic or you will get what Rich is so eloquently describing!
    Jeff, if we need the Greeks and their philosophical categories of logic and truth to explain God’s transcendent truth we are in deep trouble. Christ defies all categories of human truth thus we will always grope as little children, “lisping” as Luther put it I think, the words of God. We speak the truth, but never perfectly, and we love the Truth, but never fully.

  10. Jeff August 16, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Rich and John — what delightfully nonresponsive postings. The careful reader will immediately notice that neither of you even attempted to answer my questions or to respond to the substance of my points.
    Perhaps I was not specific enough. Here are some more questions. Hopefully Dr. Armstrong will decide to respond to them:
    Why, Dr. Armstrong, do you repeatedly state that “we” are the ones who are “reducing truth to propositions?” Is it your position that the text of, say, John 14:6 is merely something “we” have reduced to a “human proposition?” Certainly, the clear teaching of scripture is that God — who could have chosen any number of ways to communicate His thoughts to us — chose to “reduce,” as you put it, His thoughts to written words, propositions and arguments — certainly, that is, unless one denies the doctrine of verbal inspiration of Scripture.
    Do you?

  11. Jeff August 16, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    And by the way, Dr. Armstrong, do you believe it is possible for we lisping humans to know anything at all about God or ultimate truth, assuming for argument’s sake that, as you seem to believe, we cannot refer to or rely upon the written text of Holy Scripture? If so, what exactly is it that we CAN know? In your view is it possible for us to know anything at all apart from subjective, mystical experiences? If so, what is it?

  12. John H. Armstrong August 17, 2007 at 9:47 am

    Jeff, you have made a series of mistakes in your claims about my views and this is demonstrated by your questions to me. You really ought to study epistemology seriously if you are going to jump into this briar patch. I have responded to your post by a new and longer blog written today. See the August 17th blog entry for that post.

  13. Jeff August 21, 2007 at 8:45 am

    I will ask you again to a simple, straightforward question which can be answered without a deluge of verbiage, and without any coursework in epistemology:
    ‘Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity’ – Martin Luther
    Dr. Armstrong, do you agree or disagree?

  14. John H. Armstrong August 21, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Jeff,
    You still do not follow what I am saying but I will happily and openly answer your question.
    I agree with Luther totally. Without doctrinal assertions there is no Christian faith historically speaking. The word assertion means “insistence on right opinion.” By confessing faith in the creeds the Church has always, rightly, insisted on believing certain things to be true.
    Why I say you do not understand me, nor do many who are making a big deal out of this, is that I never even came close to denying this question, which would seem to surprise you. My guess is that you would expect me to waffle on this one but I do not.
    But believing these assertions of the faith, I would hope you agree, does not save anyone. Without them you will have heresy and the ultimate denial of the Christian faith.
    But asserting something is not the same thing as “knowing Christ” with assurance. I am talking about certitude and assurance and I am making a difference between them that I believe to be biblical and important. Certitude is what you do not have, philosophically, but assurance is desirable and possible. We cannot prove the faith to be true as we would an equation or proposition in logic. But the Christian faith itself is not false in any sense.
    You need to read again David Bosch’s wonderful quote. You have only two categories you are using: true and false. And you are using them in a very modernistic and post-Enlightenment way. You were taught this by someone and you would be well served to study this further rather than attempt to suggest I am denying “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” I would still suggest you start with the books I have listed.
    I hope my response is not rude. I care about you as a person and a brother in Christ. I am seeking to patiently urge you to get off the point that you keep trying to make—namely that I am denying the faith in some way. My point is nothing of the kind and is rather “how we know” and thus “how we express the faith we do know” with humility and openness to public truth from all quarters. This is not a liberal or conservative issue, as I have argued. It is of a different sort.

  15. Jeff August 23, 2007 at 8:32 am

    “You have only two categories you are using: true and false…”
    Yes — despite what some may see as breach of postmodern etiquette.
    But the question here is how many categories are there in your view? Three? Twelve? As many as there are readers of the text?
    “You were taught this by someone…”
    Indeed I was — by the One who said, “No lie is of the truth,” and “He who is not for me is against me.” No matter how much it may offend the tender sensibilities of postmoderns, the Bible is simply chock full of mutually exclusive categories — good/evil, light/darkness, saved/lost, narrow way/broad way, and on and on and on.
    That is who taught me. Who taught you what you are teaching?

  16. John H. Armstrong August 23, 2007 at 8:42 am

    Jeff,
    You wish to badger me and put words in my mouth. I do believe there is truth and error and have plainly said so. You are using my words, without the context, to conduct a trial against me. While I am happy to conduct a conversation about how we know truth from error and why these two categories do not apply to every claim we make, as you have assumed, I am not interested in responding to your label of me (I am not postmodern) nor your suggestion that I am of the evil one since I do not agree with you. I suggest this conversation is productive of nothing good at this point and that we leave it here. If I knew you as my friend I would be happy to meet with you and talk but this form of communication has its limitations and I think we reached them with this last comment.
    In my view you are a serious Christian who loves Christ and I respect that and have no desire to argue with you. I count you my brother and I want to live in peace with all and love the brotherhood so I urge that we cease this exchange. This is, I must add, in no way an admission that I think you are right in your claims or points.

  17. Benny May 8, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    John, after reading your thoughts, responding, re-reading my response, deleting it all, thinking some more, I’m apt to agree with you to stop using “propositional” and just start saying “truth”. I also want to clearly understand what you are saying because it’s easy to be reductionist about this stuff…
    Since it’s obvious you support the concept of propositional truth (seen by the way you use propositional statements to make your argument: “ultimate truth cannot be reduced to propositions”, “Christ is the Truth”, “we cannot reduce truth to statements of logic or propositions”) could your stance be summarized in this way?:
    “Propositional truth isn’t belief. It’s a means to belief; a useful tool proper for pursuing said belief. It’s not the object of belief but rather the structure through which I’m able to understand, communicate, and appreciate my belief: Trust in Christ. Use propositions merely to aid in that endeavor.”
    Basically that propositions are a means and trust in Christ as the Truth is the end. If I got that right then it seems your criticism is that too many of us confuse the means with the end and start trusting in propositions even so far as to perhaps use Christ as an “example” or a means to better support our proposition(s). That’s a really interesting thought I hadn’t considered before. Did I make that up or is that sort of what you are getting at?
    As an aside, I was hoping the article would further clarify what “propositional truth” is by defining what other options for truth are on the table (by defining what it’s not). Aside from propositional truth and truth that can be deduced or induced logically from those propositional truths, what other theories of truth exist?
    Oh, and I hope someone responds by saying, “the alternative is relative truth which claims, ‘there is no propositional truths, only perspectives'” which would be an interesting perspective. It’s not TRUE of course, by their own admission, but an interesting (not to mention convenient) perspective.
    By the way John, got turned on to you after hearing your insight (note I did not say “truths” 😉 and civility concerning Rev Wright on Steve Brown’s program. Very refreshing and challenging. Thanks!

  18. Darrell Ferguson January 6, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Mr. Armstrong, everything you said in each of your posts has been propositional.

Comments are closed.

My Latest Book!

order here

Use Promo code UNITY for 40% discount!

Recent Articles

Search

Archive