How Important is Propositional Truth?

John ArmstrongBiblical Theology

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.