Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”
Considering who stood before him and the gravity of the issues he was being asked to decide, Pilate’s attitude was astonishingly dismissive. But he did raise a vital question: What is “truth”?
Where, after all, does this concept come from, and why is it so basic to all human thought? Every idea we have, every relationship we cultivate, every belief we cherish, every fact we know, every argument we make, every conversation we engage in, and every thought we think presupposes that there is such a thing as “truth.” The idea is an essential concept, without which the human mind could not function.
Even if you are one of those trendy thinkers who claims to be skeptical about whether “truth” is really a useful category anymore, to express that opinion you must presume that truth is meaningful on some fundamental level. One of the most basic, universal, and undeniable axioms of all human thought is the absolute necessity of truth. (And we might add that the necessity of absolute truth is its close corollary.)
A Biblical Definition
So what is truth?
Here is a simple definition drawn from what the Bible teaches: Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God. Even more to the point: truth is the self-expression of God. That is the biblical meaning of truth, and it is the definition I employ throughout this book. . Because the definition of truth flows from God, truth is theological.
Truth is also ontological—which is a fancy way of saying it is the way things really are. Reality is what it is because God declared it so and made it so. Therefore God is the author, source, determiner, governor, arbiter, ultimate standard, and final judge of all truth.
The Old Testament refers to the Almighty as the “God of truth” (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 31:5; Isaiah 65:16). When Jesus said of Himself, “I am . . . the truth (John 14:6, emphasis added), He was thereby making a profound claim about His own deity. He was also making it clear that all “truth” must ultimately be defined in terms of God and His eternal glory. After all, Jesus is “the brightness of [God’s] glory and the express image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3). He is truth incarnate—the perfect expression of God and therefore the absolute embodiment of all that is true.
Jesus also said that the written Word of God is truth. It does not merely contain nuggets of truth; it is pure, unchangeable, and inviolable truth which (according to Jesus) “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Praying to His heavenly Father on behalf of His disciples, He said this: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17). Moreover, the Word of God is eternal truth “which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).
Of course there cannot be any discord or difference of opinion between the written Word of God (Scripture) and the incarnate Word of God (Jesus). In the first place, truth by definition cannot contradict itself. Second, Scripture is called “the word of Christ” (Colossians 3:16). It is His message; His self-expression. In other words, the truth of Christ and the truth of the Bible are of the very same character. They are in perfect agreement in every respect. Both are equally true. God has revealed Himself to humanity through Scripture and through His Son. Both perfectly embody the essence of what truth is.
Remember, Scripture also says God reveals basic truth about Himself in nature. The heavens declare His glory (Psalm 19:1). His other invisible attributes (such as His wisdom, power, and beauty) are on constant display in what He has created (Romans 1:20). Knowledge of Him is inborn in the human heart (Romans 1:19), and a sense of the moral character and loftiness of His law is implicit in every human conscience (Romans 2:15). Those things are universally self-evident truths. According to Romans 1:20, denial of the spiritual truths we know innately always involves a deliberate and culpable unbelief. And for those who wonder whether basic truths about God and His moral standards really are stamped on the human heart, ample proof can be found in the long history of human law and religion. To suppress this truth is to dishonor God, displace His glory, and incur His wrath (vv. 19–20).
Still, the only infallible interpreter of what we see in nature or know innately in our own consciences is the explicit revelation of Scripture. Since Scripture is also the one place where we are given the way of salvation, entrance into the kingdom of God, and an infallible account of Christ, the Bible is the touchstone to which all truth claims should be brought and by which all other truth must finally be measured.
The Inadequacy of All Other Definitions
An obvious corollary of what I am saying is that truth means nothing apart from God. Truth cannot be adequately explained, recognized, understood, or defined without God as the source. Since He alone is eternal and self-existent and He alone is the Creator of all else, He is the fountain of all truth.
If you don’t believe that, try defining truth without reference to God, and see how quickly all such definitions fail. The moment you begin to ponder the essence of truth, you are brought face-to-face with the requirement of a universal absolute—the eternal reality of God. Conversely, the whole concept of truth instantly becomes nonsense (and every imagination of the human heart therefore turns to sheer foolishness) as soon as people attempt to remove the thought of God from their minds.
That, of course, is precisely how the apostle Paul traced the relentless decline of human ideas in Romans 1:21–22: “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.”
There are serious moral implications, too, whenever someone tries to dissociate “truth” from the knowledge of God. Paul went on to write, “Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting” (Roman 1:28). Abandon a biblical definition of truth, and unrighteousness is the inescapable result. We see it happening before our eyes in every corner of contemporary society .In fact, the widespread acceptance of homosexuality, rebellion, and all forms of iniquity that we see in our society today is a verbatim fulfillment of what Romans 1 says always happens when a society denies and suppresses the essential connection between God and truth.
If you reflect on the subject with any degree of sobriety, you will soon see that even the most fundamental moral distinctions—good and evil, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, or honor and dishonor—cannot possibly have any true or constant meaning apart from God. That is because truth and knowledge themselves simply have no coherent significance apart from a fixed source, namely, God. How could they? God embodies the very definition of truth. Every truth claim apart from Him is preposterous.
In fact, human philosophers have sought for thousands of years to explain truth and account for human knowledge apart from God—and all who have tried have ultimately been unsuccessful. That has led to an ominous shift in the world of secular thought in recent years. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how the change came about:
Ancient Greek philosophers simply assumed the validity of truth and human knowledge without attempting to account for how we know what we know. But about five hundred years before the time of Christ, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle began to consider the problems of how to define knowledge, how to discover whether a belief is true, and how to determine whether we're actually justified in believing anything. For some two thousand years, nearly all philosophers more or less presupposed that knowledge is conveyed somehow through nature, and they set forth a number of naturalistic explanations attempting to describe how truth and knowledge can be communicated to the human mind.
Then in the middle of the seventeenth century, at the dawn of the so-called Enlightenment, philosophers such as Rene DesCartes and John Locke began to grapple very seriously with the question of how we gain knowledge. That branch of philosophy became known as epistemology—the study of knowledge and how human minds apprehend truth.
DesCartes was a rationalist, believing that truth is known by reason, starting with a few foundational, self-evident truths and using logical deductions to build more sophisticated structures of knowledge on that foundation. Locke argued, instead, that the human mind begins as a blank slate and acquires knowledge purely through the senses. (Locke’s view is known as empiricism.) Immanuel Kant demonstrated that neither logic alone nor experience alone (hence neither rationalism nor empiricism) could account for all human knowledge, and he devised a view that combined elements of rationalism and empiricism. G. W. F. Hegel argued in turn that even Kant’s view was inadequate, and he proposed a more fluid view of truth, denying that reality is a constant. Instead, he said that what is “true” evolves and changes with the advancement of time. Hegel’s views opened the door to various kinds of irrationalism, represented by “modern” systems of thought ranging from the philosophies of Kierkegaard, Nietzche, and Marx to the pragmatism of Henry James.
Elaborate epistemologies have thus been proposed and methodically debunked one after another—like a long chain in which every previous link is broken. After thousands of years, the very best of human philosophers have all utterly failed to account for truth and the origin of human knowledge apart from God.
In fact, the one most valuable lesson humanity ought to have learned from philosophy is that it is impossible to make sense of truth without acknowledging God as the necessary starting point.
The Great “Paradigm Shift”
Lately, many unbelieving intellectuals have admitted the chain is broken and have decided the culprit is the absurdity of any quest for “truth.” In effect, they have given up that pursuit as something wholly futile. The world of human ideas is therefore currently in a serious state of flux. On almost every level of society, we are witnessing a profoundly radical “paradigm shift”—a wholesale overhaul in the way people think about truth itself.
Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging what truth demands and yielding to the necessity of belief in the God of truth, contemporary Western thought has devised ways to rid human philosophy of any coherent notion of truth altogether. The concept of truth is therefore under heavy attack in the philosophical community, the academic world, and the realm of worldly religion. The way people think about truth is being totally revamped and the vocabulary of human knowledge completely redefined. The goal, clearly, is to usher every notion of truth off into oblivion.
The goal of human philosophy used to be truth without God. Today’s philosophies are open to the notion of God without truth—or to be more accurate, personal “spirituality” in which everyone is free to create his or her own god. Personal gods pose no threat to sinful self-will, because they suit each sinner’s personal preferences anyway, and they make no demands on anyone else.
That fact underscores the true reason for every denial of truth: “Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Here the Lord Jesus says people reject truth (light) for reasons that are fundamentally moral, not intellectual. Truth is clear—too clear. It reveals and condemns sin. Therefore, “everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (v. 20). Sinners love their sin, so they flee from the light, denying that it even exists.
The war against truth is nothing new, of course. It began in the garden when the serpent said to the woman, “Has God indeed said . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1). A relentless battle has raged ever since—between truth and falsehood, good and evil, light and darkness, assurance and doubt, belief and skepticism, righteousness and sin. It is a savage spiritual conflict that literally spans all of human history. But the ferocity and irrationality of this present onslaught seems quite unprecedented.
The far-reaching ramifications of the recent paradigm shift are obvious already. Over the past generation—and especially the past two decades—we have seen convulsive changes in society’s moral values, philosophy, religion, and the arts. The upheaval has been so profound that our grandparents’ generation (and practically every prior generation of human history) scarcely would have thought the landscape could possibly change so quickly. Almost no aspect of human discourse has been left unaffected. The traditional, nominal devotion to ideals and moral standards derived from Scripture is dying with the senior generation.
Many believe the paradigm shift has already brought us beyond the age of “modernity” to the next great epoch in the development of human thought: the postmodern era.
Modernity Modernity, in simple terms, was characterized by the belief that truth exists and that the scientific method is the only reliable way to determine that truth. In the so-called “modern” era, most academic disciplines (philosophy, science, literature, and education) were driven primarily by rationalistic presuppositions. In other words, modern thought treated human reason as the final arbiter of what is true. The modern mind discounted the idea of the supernatural and looked for scientific and rationalistic explanations for everything. But modern thinkers retained their belief that knowledge of the truth is possible. They were still seeking universal and absolute truths that applied to everyone. Scientific methodologies became the chief means by which modern people sought to gain that knowledge.
Those presuppositions gave birth to Darwinism, which in turn spawned a string of humanistic ideas and worldviews. Most prominent among them were several atheistic, rationalistic, utopian philosophies—including Marxism, fascism, socialism, communism, and theological liberalism.
Modernism’s devastating repercussions were soon felt worldwide. Various struggles between those ideologies (and others like them) dominated the twentieth century. All failed. After two world wars, nonstop social revolutions, civil unrest, and a long ideological cold war, modernity was declared dead by most in the academic world. The symbolic death of the modern era was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the more apt and imposing monuments to modern ideology. Because the wall was a concrete expression of modernity’s misguided utopian worldview, its sudden demolition was also a perfect symbol for the collapse of modernity.
Most, if not all, of the major dogmas and worldviews from the modern era are now deemed completely outmoded and hopelessly discredited in virtually every corner of the intellectual and academic world. Even modernist religion’s fascination with higher criticism has given way to abstract spirituality.
The overconfident rationalism and human conceit that characterized the modern era has finally—and fittingly—had most of the wind taken out of its sails.
Accordingly, the new ways of thinking have been collectively nicknamed postmodern.
If you have been paying attention to the world around us, you have probably heard that expression a lot recently. The term postmodernism has been used increasingly since the 1980s to describe several popular trends in architecture, art, literature, history, culture, and religion. It is not an easy term to explain, because it describes a way of thinking that defies (and even rejects) any clear definition.
Postmodernism in general is marked by a tendency to dismiss the possibility of any sure and settled knowledge of the truth. Postmodernism suggests that if objective truth exists, it cannot be known objectively or with any degree of certainty. That is because (according to postmodernists), the subjectivity of the human mind makes knowledge of objective truth impossible. So it is useless to think of truth in objective terms. Objectivity is an illusion. Nothing is certain, and the thoughtful person will never speak with too much conviction about anything. Strong convictions about any point of truth are judged supremely arrogant and hopelessly naive. Everyone is entitled to his own truth.
Postmodernism therefore has no positive agenda to assert anything as true or good. Perhaps you have noticed that only the most heinous crimes are still seen as evil. (Actually, there are many today who are prepared to dispute whether anything is “evil,” so such language is fast disappearing from public discourse.) That is because the notion of evil itself does not fit in the postmodern scheme of things. If we can’t really know anything for certain, how can we judge anything “evil”?
Therefore postmodernism’s one goal and singular activity is the systematic deconstruction of every other truth claim. The chief tools being employed to accomplish this are relativism, subjectivism, the denial of every dogma, the dissection and annihilation of every clear definition, the relentless questioning of every axiom, the undue exaltation of mystery and paradox, the deliberate exaggeration of every ambiguity, and above all the cultivation of uncertainty about everything.
If you were to challenge me to boil down postmodern thought into its pure essence and identify the gist of it in one single, simple, central characteristic, I would say it is the rejection of every expression of certainty. In the postmodern perspective, certainty is regarded as inherently arrogant, elitist, intolerant, oppressive—and therefore always wrong.
The demise of modernity and the resulting blow to rationalistic human arrogance is certainly something to celebrate. From a spiritual perspective, however, the rise of postmodernism has been anything but a positive development.
Postmodernism has resulted in a widespread rejection of truth and the enshrinement of skepticism. Postmodernists despise truth claims. They also spurn every attempt to construct a coherent worldview, labeling all comprehensive ideologies and belief systems “metanarratives,” or grand stories. Such “stories,” they say, can’t possibly do justice to everyone’s individual perspective, and therefore they are always inadequate.
Postmodernism’s preference for subjectivity over objectivity makes it inherently relativistic. Naturally, the postmodernist recoils from absolutes and does not want to concede any truths that might seem axiomatic or self-evident. Instead, “truth,” if acknowledged at all, becomes something infinitely pliable and ultimately unknowable in any objective sense.
Postmodernism therefore signals a major triumph for relativism—the view that “truth” is not fixed and objective, but something individually determined by each person’s unique, subjective perception. All this is ultimately a vain attempt to try to eliminate morality and guilt from human life.
Getting Propositions off the Premises
One other extremely important point has to be mentioned with regard to postmodern notions of truth: postmodernists are generally suspicious of rational and logical forms. They especially do not like to discuss truth in plain propositional terms.
As we are seeing, postmodernism is largely a reaction against the unbridled rationalism of modernity. But many postmodernists’ response to rationalism is a serious overreaction. Lots of postmodernists seem to entertain the notion that irrationality is superior to rationalism.
Actually, both ways of thinking are dead wrong and equally hostile to authentic truth and biblical Christianity. One extreme is as deadly as the other. Rationalism needs to be rejected without abandoning rationality.
Rationality (the right use of sanctified reason through sound logic) is never condemned in Scripture. Faith is not irrational. Authentic biblical truth demands that we employ logic and clear, sensible thinking. Truth can always be analyzed and examined and compared under the bright light of other truth, and it does not melt into absurdity. Truth by definition is never self-contradictory or nonsensical. And contrary to popular thinking, it is not “rationalism” to insist that coherence is a necessary quality of all truth. Christ is truth incarnate, and He cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13). Self-denying truth is an absolute contradiction in terms. “No lie is of the truth” (1 John 2:21).
Nor is logic a uniquely “Greek” category that is somehow hostile to the Hebrew context of Scripture. (That is a common myth and a gross oversimplification that is often set forth in support of postmodernism’s flirtation with irrationality.) Scripture frequently employs logical devices, such as antithesis, if-then arguments, syllogisms, and propositions. These are all standard logical forms, and Scripture is full of them. (See, e.g., Paul’s long string of deductive arguments about the importance of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:12–19.)
Yet we often encounter people enthralled with postmodern ideas who argue vehemently that truth cannot be expressed in bare propositions like mathematical formulae. Even some professing Christians nowadays argue along these lines: “If truth is personal, it cannot be propositional. If truth is embodied in the person of Christ, then the form of a proposition can’t possibly express authentic truth. That is why most of Scripture is told to us in narrative form—as a story—not as a set of propositions.”
The reason behind postmodernism’s contempt for propositional truth is not difficult to understand. A “proposition” is an idea framed as a logical statement that affirms or denies something, and it is expressed in such a way that it must be either true or false. There is no third option between true and false. (This is the “excluded middle” in logic.) The whole point of a proposition is to boil a truth-statement down to such pristine clarity that it must be either affirmed or denied. In other words, propositions are the simplest expressions of truth value used to express the substance of what we believe. Postmodernism frankly cannot endure that kind of stark clarity.
In reality, however, postmodernism’s rejection of the propositional form turns out to be totally untenable. It is impossible to discuss truth at all—or even tell a story—without resorting to the use of propositions. Until fairly recently, the validity and necessity of expressing truth in propositional form was considered self-evident by virtually everyone who ever studied logic, semantics, philosophy, or theology. Ironically, to make any cogent argument against the use of propositions, a person would have to employ propositional statements! So every argument against propositions is instantly self-defeating.
Let’s be clear: truth certainly does entail more than bare propositions. There is without question a personal element to the truth. Jesus Himself made that point when He declared Himself truth incarnate. Scripture also teaches that faith means receiving Christ for all that He is—knowing Him in a real and personal sense and being indwelt by Him—not merely assenting to a short list of disembodied truths about Him (Matthew 7:21–23).
So it is quite true that faith cannot be reduced to mere assent to a finite set of propositions (James 2:19). I have made that point repeatedly in previous books. Saving faith is more than a merely intellectual nod of approval to the bare facts of a minimalist gospel outline. Authentic faith in Christ involves love for His person and willing surrender to His authority. The human heart, will, and intellect all consent in the act of faith. In that sense, it is certainly correct, even necessary, to acknowledge that mere propositions can’t do full justice to all the dimensions of truth.
On the other hand, truth simply cannot survive if stripped of propositional content. While it is quite true that believing the truth entails more than the assent of the human intellect to certain propositions, it is equally true that authentic faith never involves anything less. To reject the propositional content of the gospel is to forfeit saving faith, period.
Postmodernists are uncomfortable with propositions for an obvious reason: they don’t like the clarity and inflexibility required to deal with truth in propositional form. A proposition is the simplest form of any truth claim, and postmodernism’s fundamental starting point is its contempt for all truth claims. The “fuzzy logic” of ideas told in “story” form sounds so much more elastic—even though it really is not. Propositions are necessary building blocks for every means of conveying truth—including stories.
But the attack on propositional expressions of truth is the natural and necessary outworking of postmodernism’s general distrust of logic, distaste for certainty, and dislike for clarity. To maintain the ambiguity and pliability of “truth” necessary for the postmodern perspective, clear and definitive propositions must be discounted as a means of expressing truth. Propositions force us to face facts and either affirm or deny them, and that kind of clarity simply does not play well in a postmodern culture.
Uncertainty Is the New Truth
Of course, postmodernism is considerably more complex than those few descriptive paragraphs can possibly relate, but that is a sufficient thumbnail sketch of what the expression signifies. We will delve into some of the major characteristics of the postmodern “paradigm shift” here and there throughout the book. But to get us started, let’s consider this notion that certainty about anything is inherently arrogant.
That view is wildly popular today. The belief that no one can really know anything for certain is emerging as virtually the one dogma postmodernists will tolerate. Uncertainty is the new “truth.” Doubt and skepticism have been canonized as a form of “humility.” Right and wrong have been redefined in terms of subjective feelings and personal perspectives.
Those views are infiltrating the church too. In some circles within the visible church, cynicism is now virtually regarded as the most splendid of all virtues. I began this book with a prime example of that cynicism, as seen in the so-called Emerging Church movement. A relentless tone of postmodern angst about too much certainty pervades that whole movement. No wonder: the Emerging Church began as a self-conscious effort to make Christianity more suitable to a postmodern culture. Emerging Christians are determined to adapt the Christian faith, the structure of the church, the language of faith, and even the gospel message itself to the ideas and rhetoric of postmodernism.
Postmodernity is a major theme in the literature of the Emerging Church movement. Several leading voices in the movement have suggested that postmodernism is something the church should embrace and adopt. Others might be more tentative about endorsing postmodernism entirely, but they insist that Christians at least need to start speaking the postmodern dialect if we want to reach a postmodern generation. That, they say, will require a retooling of the message we bring to the world, not to mention a revamping of the means by which we deliver it. Some in the movement have openly questioned whether there is even any legitimate role for preaching in a postmodern culture. “Dialogue” is the preferred method of communication. Accordingly, some Emerging-style congregations have done away with pastors altogether and replaced them with “narrators.” Others have replaced the sermon with a free-ranging dialogue in which no one takes any leading role. For obvious reasons, an authoritative “thus saith the Lord” is not welcome in such a setting.
Of course, the first casualty of that way of thinking is every kind of certainty. The central propositions and bedrock convictions of biblical Christianity—such as firm belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, a sound understanding of the true gospel, full assurance of salvation, settled confidence in the lordship of Christ, and the narrow exclusivity of Christ as the only way of salvation—do not reconcile well with postmodernism’s contempt for clear, authoritative truth claims. The medium of postmodern “dialogue” thereby instantly and automatically changes the message. And the rhetoric of the Emerging Church movement itself reflects that.
Listen, for example, to how Brian McLaren sums up his views on orthodoxy, certainty, and the question of whether the truths of Christianity are sound and reliable in the first place:
How ironic that I am writing about orthodoxy, which implies to many a final capturing of the truth about God, which is the glory of God. Sit down here next to me in this little restaurant and ask me if Christianity (my version of it, yours, the Pope’s, whoever’s) is orthodox, meaning true, and here’s my honest answer: a little, but not yet. Assuming by Christianity you mean the Christian understanding of the world and God, Christian opinions on soul, text, and culture . . . I’d have to say that we probably have a couple of things right, but a lot of things wrong.
McLaren suggests that clarity itself is of dubious value. He clearly prefers ambiguity and equivocation, and his books are therefore full of deliberate doublespeak. In his introduction to A Generous Orthodoxy, he admits, “I have gone out of my way to be provocative, mischievous, and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.” A common theme that runs throughout most of McLaren’s writings is the idea that “there is great danger in the quest to be right.”
Postmodern influences have come into the evangelical movement through other avenues as well. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, by Stanley Grenz and John Franke, was published in 2001 and has made a significant impact in the evangelical academic community, garnering lots of positive reviews and stimulating numerous papers and lectures from evangelical leaders who evidently find much to agree with in the book.
But as the subtitle suggests, the book pleads for a whole new approach to theology, with the goal of “contextualizing” Christianity for a postmodern culture. “The categories and paradigms of the modern world” are in collapse, the authors note in the book’s opening sentence. They go on to assert that Christian theology therefore needs to be rethought, revised, and adapted in order to keep in step and remain relevant in these changing times.
Grenz and Franke argue that the Spirit of God speaks through Scripture, tradition, and culture, and theologians must seek to hear the voice of the Spirit in each one. Moreover, since culture is constantly in flux, they say, it is right and fitting for Christian theology to be in a perpetual state of transition and ferment too. No issue should ever be regarded as finally settled.
The obvious casualty of all this is any sure and certain knowledge of biblical truth. That is okay with Grenz and Franke. They are convinced that every desire to gain a fixed and positive knowledge of any truth actually belongs to the collapsing categories of enlightenment rationalism. That is precisely what they mean by the reference to “foundationalism” in the book’s title. They define “Classical foundationalism” as a “quest for complete epistemological certitude.”
“Certitude” naturally comes under repeated attack in the book. This culminates in the incredible claim that certainty is ultimately incompatible with hope. Of course, there are some things we don’t yet see clearly and still hope for (Romans 8:24–25). But it seems rather far-fetched to conclude that there is nothing we can know with a true and settled certainty.
Some readers have nevertheless found the Grenz-Franke argument persuasive, including John Armstrong. Armstrong is a writer, conference speaker, and former pastor who at one time was a defender of Reformation theology and a student of revival. The name of his ministry, Reformation and Revival, reflected that.
But after reading Beyond Foundationalism, Armstrong wrote a series of articles in his ministry newsletter declaring that he has changed his mind about several vital points of doctrine—including faith and understanding, the sacraments, the doctrine of revelation, and Christology—among other things. Crediting Grenz and Franke for helping him see the light, Armstrong wrote, “I have been forced, upon deeper reflection about theological method, to give up what I call epistemological certitude.” He goes on to explain: “Reformed dogmaticians and teachers on the conservative side seek a steady, unshakable and certain knowledge. . . . John Franke suggests that the agenda employed by such theologians ‘glorifies reason and deifies science.’ I have changed my mind about the way to do theology, and I confess I now agree with Franke’s conclusion.”
Armstrong reveals how far he has moved from his starting point with this statement: “If there is a foundation in Christian theology, and I believe that there must be, then it is not found in the Church, Scripture, tradition or culture.” Scripture is not the foundation for Christian doctrine? Then what is? Armstrong’s answer echoes the central thesis of Beyond Foundationalism: “If we must speak of ‘foundations’ for Christian faith and its theological enterprise, then we must speak only of the triune God as disclosed in polyphonic fashion through Scripture, the church, and even the world.”
Armstrong tries awkwardly to give lip service to the authority of Scripture by suggesting (in language Karl Barth might have applauded) that our doctrine must “always [be] in accordance with the normative witness to divine self-disclosure contained in Scripture.” Cutting through the jargon and reading that statement in its best light, Armstrong seems to be acknowledging (for a moment, at least) that God’s self-revelation in Scripture ought to be the ultimate yardstick for measuring all our thoughts, beliefs, and teachings about God. But even that morsel is instantly snatched away with the other hand and quickly replaced with a wholly subjective, irrational, postmodern anti-hermeneutic: “Theology must be a humble human attempt to ‘hear him’—never about rational approaches to texts.”
Armstrong identifies the illusion of many under the sway of this error by boasting that his radical turnaround is the epitome of “humility” and “the very essence of servant-leadership.” (In accordance with his shifting views, Armstrong has changed the name of his ministry from Reformation and Revival to Act 3—stressing his goal of being “missional” in the third millennium.)
Meanwhile, Armstrong employs caricature and exaggeration to attack the views he himself once held. He claims he has “routinely” heard “prominent Christians say: ‘I have never changed my mind—never.’ ” He cites Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology as an example of the “ ‘concordance’ view of theology. You gather all the verses on a given subject, sort them all out, put them in their proper place in your system, and then develop (or write) a theology, formal or otherwise. This theology is then transferred as if the system itself contains, or is, the truth of God.”
Armstrong, Grenz, Franke, and the Emerging postmodernists have blurred the line between certainty and omniscience. They seem to presume that if we cannot know everything perfectly, we really cannot know anything with any degree of certainty. That is an appealing argument to the postmodern mind, but it is entirely at odds with what Scripture teaches: “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).
That is not to suggest, of course, that we have exhaustive knowledge. But we do have infallible knowledge of what Scripture reveals, as the Spirit of God teaches us through the Word of God: “We have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). The fact that our knowledge grows fuller and deeper—and we all therefore change our minds about some things as we gain more and more light—doesn’t mean that everything we know is uncertain, outdated, or in need of an overhaul every few years. The words of 1 John 2:20–21 apply in their true sense to every believer: “You have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth.”
The message coming from postmodernized evangelicals is exactly the opposite: Certainty is overrated. Assurance is arrogant. Better to keep changing your mind and keep your theology in a constant state of flux.
By such means, the ages-old war against truth has moved right into the Christian community, and the church itself has already become a battleground—and ominously, precious few in the church today are prepared for the fight.
We have come to this down a discernible path.
War in the Church
This is by no means the first time the Truth War has intruded into the church. It has happened in every major era of church history. Battles over the truth were raging inside the Christian community even in apostolic times, when the church was just beginning. In fact, the record of Scripture indicates that false teachers in the church immediately became a significant and widespread problem wherever the gospel went. Virtually all the major epistles in the New Testament address the problem in one way or another. The apostle Paul was constantly engaged in battle against the lies of “false apostles [and] deceitful workers [who transformed] themselves into apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13). Paul said that was to be expected. It is, after all, one of the favorite strategies of the evil one: “No wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness” (vv. 14–15).
It takes a willful naïveté to deny that such a thing could happen in our time. As a matter of fact, it is happening on a massive scale. Now is not a good time for Christians to flirt with the spirit of the age. We cannot afford to be apathetic about the truth God has put in our trust. It is our duty to guard, proclaim, and pass that truth on to the next generation (1 Timothy 6:20–21). We who love Christ and believe the truth embodied in His teaching must awaken to the reality of the battle that is raging all around us. We must do our part in the ages-old Truth War. We are under a sacred obligation to join the battle and contend for the faith.
In one narrow respect, the driving idea behind the Emerging Church movement is correct: The current climate of postmodernism does represent a wonderful window of opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ. The arrogant rationalism that dominated the modern era is already in its death throes. Most of the world is caught up in disillusionment and confusion. People are unsure about virtually everything and do not know where to turn for truth.
However, the absolute worst strategy for ministering the gospel in a climate like this is for Christians to imitate the uncertainty or echo the cynicism of the postmodern perspective—and in effect drag the Bible and the gospel into it. Instead, we need to affirm against the spirit of the age that God has spoken with the utmost clarity, authority, and finality through His Son (Hebrews 1:1–2). And we have the infallible record of that message in Scripture (2 Peter 1:19–21).
Postmodernism is simply the latest expression of worldly unbelief. Its core value—a dubious ambivalence toward truth—is merely skepticism distilled to its pure essence. There is nothing virtuous or genuinely humble about it. It is proud rebellion against divine revelation.
In fact, postmodernism’s hesitancy about truth is exactly antithetical to the bold confidence Scripture says is the birthright of every believer (Ephesians 3:12). Such assurance is wrought by the Spirit of God Himself in those who believe (1 Thessalonians 1:5). We need to make the most of that assurance and not fear to confront the world with it.
The gospel message in all its component facts is a clear, definitive, confident, authoritative proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and that He gives eternal and abundant life to all who believe. We who truly know Christ and have received that gift of eternal life have also received from Him a clear, definitive commission to deliver the gospel message boldly as His ambassadors. If we are likewise not clear and distinct in our proclamation of the message, we are not being good ambassadors.
But we are not merely ambassadors. We are simultaneously soldiers, commissioned to wage war for the defense and dissemination of the truth in the face of countless onslaughts against it. We are ambassadors—with a message of good news for people who walk in a land of darkness and dwell in the land of the shadow of death (Isaiah 9:2). And we are soldiers—charged with pulling down ideological strongholds and casting down the lies and deception spawned by the forces of evil (2 Corinthians 10:3–5; 2 Timothy 2:3–4).
Notice carefully: our task as ambassadors is to bring good news to people. Our mission as soldiers is to overthrow false ideas. We must keep those objectives straight; we are not entitled to wage warfare against people or to enter into diplomatic relations with anti-Christian ideas. Our warfare is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); and our duty as ambassadors does not permit us to compromise or align ourselves with any kind of human philosophies, religious deceit, or any other kind of falsehood (Colossians 2:8).
If those sound like difficult assignments to keep in balance and maintain in proper perspective, they are indeed.
Jude certainly understood this. The Holy Spirit inspired him to write his short epistle to people who were struggling with some of these very same issues. He nevertheless urged them to contend earnestly for the faith against all falsehood, while doing everything possible to deliver souls from destruction: “pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 23).
So we are ambassador-soldiers, reaching out to sinners with the truth even as we make every effort to destroy the lies and other forms of evil that hold them in deadly bondage. That is a perfect summary of every Christian’s duty in the Truth War.
Martin Luther, that noble gospel soldier, threw down the gauntlet at the feet of every Christian in every generation after him, when he said:
If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.