God chose to reveal himself ultimately through Jesus Christ. This does not mean, however, that he did not also use words. Jesus is the ultimate "truth" but this does not mean there is no other truth source. We encounter Christ via revelation but this comes through the Holy Scriptures. This involves both our mind and our heart. I have said the same over and over again but some still think I am saying something that I am not saying thus they regularly challenge my approach to theology and truth. Several comments that have appeared recently on the posts made on this site have chosen to hear me only with an epistemology that is modern and, in my judgment, very flawed. It would take a course in epistemology to sort all this out and this is not the place to teach such a course. I would suggest the following readings with which I have a great degree of sympathy:

1. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? James K. A. Smith (Baker)

2. How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, Crystal L. Downing (IVP)

3. The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor (IVP)

4. Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People, Esther Lightcap Meek (Brazos)

5. The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Westminster/John Knox)

These books will give you a very good insight into how I am using terms and why philosophy cannot be divorced (entirely) from these commonly used words that we all assume have a meaning we completely agree upon as Christians.

There are two elephants in the room: truth and proposition. Truth, fundamentally, comes only from the One who is Truth. It is rooted in revelation. Human ideas never perfectly conform to that Truth, never. Truth is grace, truth comes by grace, never by reason. This is basic to my epistemology.

Commonly this debate is reduced to the use of another term by some conservative evangelicals: "objective truth." D. A. Carson, as one example, says "Objective truth is a category that both historic Christianity and the Bible itself have always insisted on" (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, 126). Really? This, I believe, is simply not the case at all. The Scriptures themselves give us excellent reasons to think otherwise yet at the same time the Scriptures openly affirm the reality of truth and of vital saving knowledge again and again. Carson, as James K. A. Smith correctly notes, "conflates truth with objectivity" and by this Carson argues that one can only be said to "truly" know if one knows "objectively." Carson admits that we have only finite knowledge but he equates this with "objective" knowledge. Interestingly, Carson never defines, at least in the book Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church, objectivity. (This is quite an oversight but one I believe that is also made by many who read and debate these things via blogs).

James K. A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, concludes: "His (i.e., Carson’s) affirmation of finite knowledge always elides into an affirmation of objective knowledge. Although he does not define objectivity . . . he clearly means this to carry some connotation of self-evident givenness: if truth is objective, then it is not a matter of interpretation" (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James K. A. Smith, 43).

I confess that I find Carson’s claims full of serious holes. The gospel is an interpretation. I think this statement is inescapably true. What is wrong here is to assume, as some postmoderns really in fact do, that this means the gospel and orthodoxy are unjustified assumptions built upon false premises. This I fervently repudiate.

Generally Christians who hold on to the notion of "objective truth" are concerned that something cannot be truly known if it is not "objectively" knowable. If I assert that truth is interpretation then they believe we are then in real trouble. So a truth claim must be universally true in so far as it can be universally known by all people, at all times and in all places. Thus, as in classical apologetics, it is generally argued that we can prove the gospel to be true objectively by rational demonstrations. This I reject.

This entire debate is built on a theory of knowledge. Everyone needs to admit this before they throw bombs about at other confessing orthodox Christians. But this simple admission is almost never understood by ordinary folks. They hear these words (objective, propositional, etc.) used by their ministers and then assume that when someone doesn’t affirm the universal use of terms like "objective" truth or "propositional" truth they reject orthodoxy and truth.

For a little interesting exercise ask your minister, the next time you hear these terms used, "What do you mean by objective truth?" You will soon discover that the answers will generally vary quite widely. Most are simply trying to say that the truth is not discovered through mystical experience but from Scripture by the work of the Holy Spirit, an answer I completely agree with. But then ask, "What do you mean by mystical experience?" You will find all kinds of wide-ranging responses. Evangelical rationalism is alive and well.

This is how some seem to respond to my own words, though charity leads me to say that this "appears" to be the case. This is clearly the way John MacArthur, and a few other similar critics in print, have openly responded to my work on theological method and epistemology. They assume that I am denying truth. This assumption is patently false and they refuse to do much more than make these assertions and then leave it at that. What I deny is the blatant use of any method that says truth is self-evident or universally provable and demonstrable. This is why I employ the Christian term "mystery," not because I am a mystic or persuaded by illogical arguments.

If the gospel is an interpretation then this does not mean the gospel is false. The NT narratives make it quite clear that not everyone who saw the miracles and heard Jesus teach understood the truth of who he was in the same way. They encountered the same person and heard the same truths but they still had to interpret what they saw and heard. This is why revelation must always be closely linked to this discussion. In the end this is really Reformed epistemology and faithful to Calvin more than to evangelical modernism and the arguments being made by some of my critics.

Some who post have asked me a number of questions. I have provided a framework for my thought process, but not explicit answers. Am I dodging the questions. The tone of these posts suggests that I am. We are back to the notion that I am hiding something and thus I am dangerous.

Do I believe in inspiration? Of course I do. Do I believe the Bible is trustworthy? Most certainly. And where does anyone ever get the idea that I am suggesting we cannot rely upon written Scripture? I never asserted anything of the kind, not even close. The reason I do not answer all of these suspicious questions is that they reveal the questioner doesn’t understand what I am actually saying and wants to prove me wrong by using a check list of various "objective" truths. We have a different theological method but I doubt we disagree about the core truths of Christianity at all. So why bother? For one reason, we need a more humble approach to knowing if we are to be effective in the world we now find ourselves in. (I am not calling my opponents arrogant people! Read the statement clearly.)

We can know God in Jesus Christ with deep assurance. We can know this with our minds and our hearts both. What I deny is the kind of certitude that is associated with modernistic philosophy, which is in the background of a great deal of "evangelical" epistemology, thus my repeated statements about "we" and so forth.

Again, I am happy to say more, time permitting, but interested and fair-minded readers can see that I am not denying the truth of confessional Christianity in the least but rather denying some of the ways we argue for it and about it. I reject the method of many conservatives, and their epistemology, but not the faith in any meaningful sense.

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  1. pyodor August 18, 2007 at 9:03 pm

    Dr. Armstrong,
    You state that “They encountered the same person and heard the same truths but they still had to interpret what they saw and heard.” I don’t understand the connection between ‘their encounter’ and ‘their interpretation’. Why couldn’t their encounter be objective knowledge? I actually don’t understand what you mean by “the gospel is an interpretation”. Are you saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection is an interpretation but not an objective truth? Are you saying God’s creation of the world is an interpretation but not an objective truth?

  2. George C August 19, 2007 at 8:28 am

    I think you are really dealing with a subject that needs attention and I think it is a shame that many people think you are saying things you are not. While humbling, I think it is healthy (maybe because it is humbling) to question our epistemology. I wonder however, if there might not be something a little askew either in your explaination or you understanding.
    The way I understand what might be called the objectivity of the Gospel is the fact that what is presented is true regardless of our perception. The narratives happened and the doctrines are true.
    I believe that Scripture teaches that the problem in our knowing what we should know (after the evidence has been presented) lies with us and our fallen nature. I believe that content of the Gospel narratives are objectively true in the sense that any sane person in the narratives should have recognized the truth of who Jesus was, ect., but that the problem was that none of the people of the time (and none of us now) are really sane.
    The writers of the Gospels were explaining things that should have been clear as day, but explained that they themselves could not see because of their own condition, not because of a lack of objective truth. In the same way that the physically blind needs to be miraculously restored to normal sight, they needed a miricle to have normal perception. The writers present it as something they should have seen, but could not at the time because they were not normal, as oppossed to something that could not be percieved even if they were normal.
    I guess the distinction that I see is that I believe that the Apostles believed that the Gospel should be believed solely upon the weight of the evidence, but recognized the inability for men to “see” the evidence as opposed to them presenting evidence that was genuinely suspect that needed more added to it. Both situations require the miraculous intervention of God, but the need is quite different.
    Am I making any sense?
    I think that we and everyone removed from the people of the Gospel narratives time are in a very different situation though. The Apostles would have to had a perverse distrust of their natural experiences or their memories to doubt if what happened actually happened. While I do believe that there is reasonable evidence available so that we do not have to be intellectually dishonest to believe the Gospel accounts, there is much more open to reasonable doubt on our part than would be on the part of the disciples and their contemporaries. This is where we cannot have the level of certainty that they had and where we should have a deeper humility than we often do have. Sadly, many Christians believe that this level of honesty is a flaw.
    Anyway, thanks for rattling the cage and sorry my comment is longer than your blog.

  3. John H. Armstrong August 20, 2007 at 10:03 am

    Terms like “objective” truth and “propositional” truth are front loaded with a lot of baggage. But they are being widely used to draw lines which place people into the older categories, now frankly less helpful, that we once called liberal or conservative. I do not deny that these categories had a useful function but I do deny that they are being properly used by many in our time. They are just what they are, “labels.” As noted here a few weeks ago they then can be used as “libels” against anyone who doesn’t speak of truth in this modernistic fashion. They are used, very simply, to put people in boxes so we do not have to work at hearing what they are really saying.
    What I am appealing for here is, in actuality, caution. We should be cautious when anyone offers only two options if we face a difficult issue.
    I am not advocating relativism, for which I have been accused falsely, but rather a hermeneutical process that truly believes the Holy Spirit still speaks to the Church in and through the process of translation. So what do I mean by translation?
    We are presently undergoing a major paradigm shift in mission in the West. This shift shows up in the so-called emergent conversation as well as among major missiological writers and teachers who have little or nothing to do with the term emergent. The debate comes down to this: How will we evangelize in an increasingly post-Christian context? What form will the church take and why? How will our message be communicated so that it is not lost in translation? Every message we receive from another person, time or place has to go through translation. This includes the gospel.
    To do translation is to get the sense of a sentence, a text, a poem, a book, a story (e.g., the gospel) and to communicate as clearly as possible in different words and/or contexts.
    The common charge, made in this case by some conservative Christians who retain an old (modern) approach to translation, is that we are in danger of having no “ultimate norms or values” if we go very far down the road I am advocating. I grant that this is a real problem as extremes will always present themselves on both sides of the road. But I also suggest that staying where we are is to lose the present opportunity that we have to be truly missional and effective in our own unique cultural context.
    Missiologist David Bosch rightly opposes the thinking that says there are always two options when he concludes:
    “The real point here is that one should in all research, whether in theology or the natural or social sciences, never think in mutually exclusive categories of ‘absolute’ and ‘relative.’ Our theologies are partial, and they are culturally and socially based. They may never claim to be absolutes. Yet this does not make them relativistic, as though one suggest that in theology—since we really cannot ever know ‘absolutely’—anything goes. It is true that we see only in part, but we do see. . . . We are committed to our understanding of revelation, yet we also maintain a critical distance to that understanding. In other words, we are in principle open to other views, an attitude which does not, however militate against complete commitment to our own understanding of the truth. . . . It is misleading to believe that commitment and a self-critical attitude are mutually exclusive” (David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, pages 186-87).
    This expresses well what I am trying to explain. I am opposed to all interpretation that does not remain “self-critical.” The easiest way to respond to my concern is to put the label “liberal” or “emergent” or “postmodern” on it. That finishes the need to wrestle with the issue for many. We can return then to our safety zone and reinforce the citadels of our human opinions.
    This has all helped to create the arrogance and division that plagues Protestant evangelicalism to the excess. I must work ruthlessly to consciously root this tendency out of my own life and fail in this effort quite consistently. But if you do not at least acknowledge the problem you will never seek to root it out in the first place. You will be content that you have found “the system” that is the TRUTH and thus simply dig in and defend that system against all comers.
    Reformed Christians, like me, are more inclined to do this since we have the tendency to live much of our lives in the arena of the mind and objective constructs. But Jesus is not a construct nor is he bound to them. We can and must confess the truth but we had best hold it with some degree of tension and mystery or we will not be good translators.
    This practically means I learn much from the 16th century but I do not live there in how I do theology and thus translate the gospel message in my time. We need deep historical awareness but we also need deep missional vision or we will live in the past and miss the future.

  4. pyodor August 20, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    “It is misleading to believe that commitment and a self-critical attitude are mutually exclusive.”
    “I am opposed to all interpretation that does not remain “self-critical.””
    I think this statement really deserves a donation!

  5. John H. Armstrong August 20, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks, for this kind response. I wish more agreed with you, and the number is growing I sincerely believe, and that people who do value this kind of discussion would help us expand it on the Internet and the radio via interviews. If we can reach our goals we can grow the outreach of what we are trying to do for the Church exponentially.
    Again, thanks for the positive note and contribution. It moves me to give thanks to God this evening with gratitude for you.

  6. Jeff August 21, 2007 at 9:13 am

    You say in your posting that “the gospel is an interpretation.” This raises a number of additional questions. Whose interpretation is it? There are two possibilities. If what we have in the Bible is God’s own inspired words, then the gospel found there is entitled to our absolute obedience and we must bend the knee to it.
    On the other hand, if it is a merely human interpretation of some events no longer accessible to us in the fog of antiquity, then it is entitled to no more respect than yesterday’s sports pages and we may discard any or all of it as we wish.
    To which of these do you adhere?

  7. Jeff August 21, 2007 at 9:43 am

    You also say, “Do I believe in inspiration? Of course I do.” That, of course, was not my question.
    My question was, do you affirm the doctrine of VERBAL inspiration of Scripture?
    Do you?

  8. Jeff August 27, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    “Cleverness and eloquence—away with them forever! If it is not the truth of God, the more cleverly and eloquently it is preached the more damnable it is. We must have the truth and nothing but the truth, and I charge the fathers in Christ all over England and America to see to this. Get ye to your watchtower and guard the flock, lest the sheep be destroyed while they are asleep.”
    C.H. Spurgeon

  9. John H. Armstrong August 27, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    You persist in your attempts to prosecute me in these diatribes. I will not respond. You do not want to share in a dialogue but to quote sources against me and make a point. You are sure you have made it and people who are of the same mind will no doubt agree.
    I have no further interest in responding. Make of this what you will but I am committed to the confessions and creeds of the Reformed Church as a minister of the gospel. You use words to pursue me but you do so in ways that underscore, for many to see, why I will not respond further.

  10. Rick August 27, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    Dr. Dr. John,
    I admire you for your patience. I was contemplating jumping into the ‘briar patch’ with Jeff,
    but when I checked into his websites and saw two quotes from Lorraine Boettner and his praise for “Lighthouse Trails”, I figured it was a lost cause. You certainly go the extra mile to reach out to those who have not experienced the far-reaching love of Christ…beyond some of the traditions that we were all raised in.
    My love and prayers go out to you!

  11. John H. Armstrong August 28, 2007 at 10:30 am

    Thank you. I had not bothered to track back and check on the writings and interests of Jeff. I seek to take each writer very seriously and not prejudge their motives and perspective, since I ask for the same for me. I try to respond in the love of Christ. I know I fail at times and my patience can be stretched but I hope I have been kind to him in his comments. It is evident that he is contending for the faith, as he understands it, and I commend him for that tenacity.
    At times I wish I could ignore some comments but if you are going to publicly write and interact you must be as faithful to that work as possible. My health and time constraints conspire against long interaction but I try to be as faithful as possible.
    Thanks for this kind word Rick!

  12. Jeff August 28, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    Dr. Armstrong, no one is badgering you in the least. I have asked you a few simple, straightforward questions.
    Let’s review the bidding:
    1. I asked how you can say on the one hand that you do not deny propositional truth, but at the same time maintain that “ultimate truth cannot be reduced to propositions.”
    2. I asked you to provide support in Scripture for your claim: “If Christ is the Truth then we cannot reduce truth to statements of logic or propositions.”
    3. I asked you if you deny or affirm the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture.
    4. I asked whether in your view it is possible for we humans to know anything at all about God or ultimate truth, and if so, what we can know.
    5. In your August 17 post you stated: “The gospel is an interpretation. I think this statement is inescapably true.”
    I asked whether you adhere to the view that the gospel is God’s own inspired words, or whether it is a merely human interpretation of some events no long accessible to us.
    Your answers, to the extent you have given any at all, are:
    1. Jeff is guilty of Greek thinking.
    2. None.
    3. John Armstrong is being misunderstood.
    4. Jeff needs a course in epistemology.
    5. Jeff is using modernistic and post-Enlightenment categories.
    As others have pointed out, what you and others like you are doing in a very real sense is even more dangerous than people like Spencer Burke who advocate blatant heresy.
    You are trying to convince naive individuals inside and outside the church — and, to give you every benefit of the doubt, perhaps even yourself — that postmodernism’s denial of certainty and denial of truth pose no threat to orthodox Biblical Christian faith.
    In this you are dead wrong.
    Dr. Armstrong, what I and your other friends who care for your soul are trying to do is pull you out of the thicket you have fallen into.
    As a friend of mine likes to say, “It’s only life and death.”

  13. John H. Armstrong August 28, 2007 at 8:39 pm

    This will be my last response! You are determined to “pull me out of the thicket” as you put it. This assumes I am in danger of losing my soul and yet you do not even know me pesonally. The hubris of this theological conclusion is quite staggering really. Many readers will follow this and make up their own mind as they read. God will decide the truth of the matter and thus we will each stand or fall to our own Master. I am grateful for your obvious concern. I reject, however, your arguments and really have nothing much else to add. I am also profoundly grateful that God is my final judge and that his mercy is more gracious and reliable than your human judgments and logic. If a man who relies on Christ alone—his death, burial and resurrection—to save him from his own acknowledged and confessed sin is a Christian then I am one.
    If I opposed Christ and his kingdom then your concluding comments might be appropriate. I suggest you rather spend your time trying to win people for our Lord who actually deny Christ and do not believe in saving faith which is granted by the Holy Spirit alone. That is my own calling as a minister of the gospel thus I have nothing else to add to this back and forth form of commenting on this blog spot.
    Grace and peace to you my brother!

  14. radukul4christ September 24, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Dr. Armstrong, your friend Doug Pagitt was quoted recently saying the following:
    “I’m not sure you’d be interested in this, but I have just finished a book somewhat on this topic. I think it might give you a more full understanding of the gospel than the one perverted by the likes of John MacArthur. I do not say “perverted” lightly, either. I really think what he communicates is so distant from the message of the Bible that it is dangerously harmful to people. If you heard the interview and his comments about a God who is “above us,” I certainly hope you would see this.”
    I have two questions for you:
    1. Do you agree with Doug Pagitt that John MacArthur has “perverted” the Gospel?
    2. Since Doug Pagitt has now admitted that his gospel is not the same as John MacArthur’s gospel, according to Galatians 1:8-9 one of them must be accursed. In your opinion, which of these two gospels deserves to be accursed?

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