"Propostional" Truth, "Objective" Truth and the Debate About What We Know and How We Know It

John ArmstrongPostmodernity

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.