CAN WE KNOW THE TRUTH PB (The Gospel Coalition Booklets) Pamphlet – 1 Mar 2011
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It is not insignificant that all these conclusions are in conflict with what a number of respected groups and individuals (both Reformed and evangelical) believe about the concept of truth, such as, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, the Truth Project with Del Tackett, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, R.C. Sproul, Art Lindsley, David Wells, Norman Geisler, Ravi Zacharias, Douglas Groothuis, J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, R. Scott Smith, and others.
More importantly, these conclusions derive not from Scripture but modern epistemology (particularly the succession of theories of knowledge from Descartes to Kant), which holds that objective truth or reality exists but is unknowable directly or as it is in itself; it is only knowable indirectly and subjectively based on how the mind views things. (That is, human knowledge cannot be verified against external reality itself.) What TGC is doing is a Christian spin on this epistemology. They have exchanged the humanly centered knowledge of modern epistemology for (as they conceive it) the Christ-centered knowledge that comes subjectively by regeneration through the Spirit, which, in turn, enables them to understand God’s Word. Since God knows everything objectively and perfectly, regenerate persons (again, based on Scripture) escape their unknowing. That is, God’s people only know truth insofar as they know Scripture by the Spirit --- a view of truth which is more narrow than the understanding of truth assumed in Scripture.
There is, of course, truth to what they are claiming but it is an unbiblical exaggeration. For instance, when Moses provides a test for identifying a true prophet (Deuteronomy 18:21-22), he says that if what the prophet predicts come to pass, then the prophet is from God. If it doesn’t come to pass, the prophet is not from God. If we think of the prophet as a potential author of Scripture, then consider what God is saying here. In order to confirm such the people had to know the meaning of what the prophet said and know whether or not it came to pass. That is, there is in this case an underlying assumption that the prophetic text had meaning and people could reliably and objectively know it. There is also an assumption that the small sliver of history involved in confirming (or not) that the prophecy was true was also reliably, objectively knowable. Do we understand what this means for knowing? The people were obviously finite and sinful, yet God is commanding them through Moses to use their minds to know the meaning of the prophecy and determine through empirical observation whether or not the prophecy came true. What does God not say? He doesn’t tell them to rely on regeneration or the inner confirmation of the Spirit to determine whether or not the prophecy was from God. (Not that the Holy Spirit doesn’t do this in believers.) He also doesn’t point them to Scripture, since what qualifies truly as Scripture is what is at issue here. So, the point is that due to the latter, the people couldn’t rely on Scripture as a condition for knowing in general that would provide presuppositions necessary to determine whether or not someone was truly a prophet. Apparently, being made in the image of God as knowers and sustained by His providential goodness for knowledge, the people were able—again, finite and sinful though they were—to reliably and objectively know whether or not a prophecy had come to pass and, hence, whether or not a particular person was a prophet from God.
Consequently, TGC has, in my judgment, mistakenly associated human finitude and the effects of sin on the mind with a general errancy or defectiveness for knowing which, again, derives from philosophy but is foreign both to the assumptions of Scripture and our common experience. The difference between God as infinite and humans as finite entails no innate necessity that our knowledge of things like 1+1=2 or at what temperature water boils, etc. is defective or errant. And the effects of sin on the mind does not mean people cannot know truth in any sense. Obviously, we regularly observe unregenerate persons (scientists, doctors, professors, construction workers, etc.) knowing truth at some level. I suggest that sin’s effect on the mind concerns not whether people can know truth but what they do with it.
In general, TGC’s apparently adopting modern epistemology’s problems for knowing for explicating human finitude and sin shifts the Bible’s diagnosis of the problem of humankind from that of sin (which involves, at some level, successful knowing as Romans 1-3 clearly demonstrates) to that of knowledge. Accordingly, the solution to this problem (as TGC presents it) is not, as a matter of priority, a Savior from sin but a way of knowing (the basic tenets of Christian belief) which first makes truth or knowledge possible in general and, second (or afterward), appropriately frames the belief that Jesus is Lord. Hence, when modernists and postmodernists claim that truth is relative, in a sense, TGC agrees with them. Only TGC would say that truth is relative to Christian presuppositions. This also means that when unbelievers reject TGC’s invitation to, “Please try our way of knowing,” they will tend to walk away feeling—precisely because of this approach—justified and confirmed in their own relativism.
The “crisis of truth” in our time, I suggest, is not all that different from what was in the air in the first century due to ancient Greek thinkers like Plato, Protagorus, Pyrrho, and the Sophists. Jesus and the apostles did not respond to such a “crisis” of their age by accepting or integrating some of its problems for knowing (certain skeptical tenets) with what Scripture teaches about human finitude or sin. A bit more bluntly, Jesus and the apostles (including the apostle Paul who was no doubt familiar with such) ignored what the Greek philosophers said about truth. They held, for instance (in contrast to what skeptics have always believed on this), to the important, even foundational, role of the “witness” (what we might call a “knowerness” or “knower in state”) for grounding truth (see what Jesus says in John 5, for example). This contrasts starkly with the view stated in TGC’s booklet on truth: “With the postmoderns we are skeptical that finite, fallible humans are agents of truth” (p. 12). (That is, TGC is saying: “we are skeptical that people can be witnesses for truth.”)
If one does nothing more than study carefully the apostle Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and notice that there is no indication that the unregenerate persons to whom he is addressing himself are unable to know things generally or reliably—that there is no objective ground for truth between him and them. Peter doesn’t, first, make an indirect appeal for Christianity as a belief system or perspective before presenting his argument for Jesus as the Messiah. He directly builds his case for the latter explicitly noting that the people to whom he is preaching (though unregenerate) knew certain things, such as, that the languages they were seeing (as tongues of fire over heads) and hearing were miraculous; that Jesus had worked miracles among them as a divine attestation to his ministry; that King David died, his body was in the tomb they all knew about, such that the prophecy, “you will not let your holy one see corruption,” must have been intended not for David but for one of David’s sons. Peter then claims that he and the other apostles and disciples were eyewitnesses (yes, as in a court room, “agents for truth”) that Jesus, a descendant of King David, had been raised from the dead. Peter then closes his sermon with: “let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ.”
Three thousand people were persuaded by the compelling case Peter made that day for the verdict that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. The presentation of the case demonstrates that Peter, regenerate as he was, nevertheless saw himself as on the same objective ground for truth with these unregenerate people. The established truth that Jesus is Lord became the basis, then, for a change in presuppositions held previously by the people. Importantly, however, their unbelieving presuppositions did not prevent them from intelligibly encountering the truth as Peter presented it. (We can know things that don’t fit our presuppositions.) What happened to those persuaded of this truth, afterward, is that a whole new set of presuppositions began to be developed (that is, the appropriate Christian presuppositions).
Therefore, however, we conceive of regeneration by the Spirit and knowledge gained through Scripture, it must not conflict with apostolic assumptions and practice as found in places like the Book of Acts. Undoubtedly, the unregenerate do not know the truth as it is in Jesus with the life-changing, spiritually enlightening power that the regenerate experience. But there is a sense in which truth—even the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ—is public truth and as such is knowable for everyone. This is what makes people accountable for disobeying that message (2 Thessalonians 1:8), since they would not be so, if for lack of Christian presuppositions they were entirely ignorant or did not understand its truth in any sense.
Phillips proceeds to give several practical examples of how modernism defined and developed its own epistemology (theory of knowledge), and how postmoderns struggled with modernistic thought and what has resulted from that is a full-blown relativism where "we can't know truth." Instead of downright playing down the postmodern critique of truth, Phillips argues that Christians can apply some of the strengths of postmodernism in four ways:
First, Christians should acknowledge the role that context plays in anyone's understanding and belief. "Truth" is always held by actual persons, and those persons are deeply shaped by culture, language, heritage, and community.
Second, we should share postmodernity's concern that truth may become more an object of power than a mans for enlightenment.
Third, if postmodern critiques cause Christians (among others) to challenge doctrines and views that have become traditional, we can be thankful for the opportunity to reconsider, reformulate, and restate teachings that may have become stale in our practice.
Fourth, Christians may be cobelligerent with postmodernity's assaults against modernism.
The problems with both modernism and postmodernism essentially boils down to the same thing: they both deny the existence of God - Who is truth, reveals the truth, and is the way to truth through Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
Phillips writes, "Evangelical Christians, in particular, believe that truth derives from and is revealed by God. Thus, truth is authoritative. Here is where postmodernity parts company with historic Christianity, for the postmodern view rejects the reality of truth, positing an implicit (and in some cases, explicit) relativism in which nothing is really and finally true." The author gives several examples of how this theory does not work in actual practice. Here is one example from the book:
"One professor made this point after his college class had united against him in insisting that nothing is ultimately true or morally wrong in an objective sense. The next day the professor informed the students that regardless of their performance on the exam they were all going to receive an F. The students objected in unison, 'But that's wrong!' and the professor's point against relativism was made. No one can live it, and therefore no one really believes it."
The author articulates and expands on a third way of understanding truth based on what God has revealed to us in the Bible that is consistent with our experience - i.e., it corresponds to reality. He writes, "Christianity presents a legitimate third way over against the modern and the postmodern. With the moderns we believe that truth exists and is accessible, though we steadfastly reject that we can exhaustively know truth by our unaided reason. With the postmoderns we are skeptical that finite, fallible humans are the agents of truth, though we insist that truth is real and that we can know it. A successful Christian epistemology, then, not only responds to evangelical Christian belief but also enables us to communicate our doctrine of knowing to a world that both doubts and greatly desires to know truth."
In this essay Phillips has brilliantly and cogently argued for the reality of truth, how one can know the truth, defend truth, and live by and for the truth. You will find many examples of how modernism and postmodernism fall short in their theories of epistemology, and how a Christian epistemology is simply the most logical way of discovering the truth - because our belief and practice emanates from the Way, the Truth, and the Life - the Lord Jesus Christ. The salient point is made by Phillips, "Love divorced from truth is not love, and truth divorced from love is not truth." As Jesus perfectly modeled, spoke, and loved in truth, so must we. We are called to "speak the truth in love" just as we have heard it and experienced it in the person and work of Jesus Christ.