23 March 2007

Epistemological Humility?

by Phil Johnson



ostmodern wisdom suggests that humility would actually keep us all from ever knowing with any degree of certainty or declaring with any kind of authority that anything is true.

In fact, as far as truly enlightened postmodernists are concerned, that sort of "humility" is the supreme and cardinal virtue. That's why, according to any postmodern way of thinking, dogmatism is inherently arrogant, diversity is always honorable, and propositional truth-claims don't ultimately matter much.

That's not "humility"; it's unbelief.

Evangelical Christianity is rooted, of course, in the conviction that God has revealed truth that He wants us to know and affirm. Our certainty about the truth of Scripture is derived from the fact that every word of it is God-breathed truth. And the proof that God Himself expects us to know and be certain of the truth He has revealed is the inescapable fact that He holds us accountable to obey His truth (Romans 2:8-9; Galatians 5:7; Revelation 21:8).

Of course, some things in Scripture are clearer than others; some things are indeed hard to understand; and Christians have their own intramural squabbles and academic discussions about epistemology (How do we arrive at an understanding of the truth? By what means do we acquire knowledge in the first place?)—and whatnot. But at the end of the day, this is one of the fundamental tenets of true, biblical, and historic Christianity: We believe God has revealed vital truth in His Word, and because God says it, we can have implicit faith that it is absolutely and necessarily true—because God cannot lie.

Someone is certain to argue that those assertions don't account for our differing subjective perspectives and other interpretive and hermeneutical issues. OK. But before we go too far down that road, let's first remind ourselves once more that God Himself holds us responsible for believing what He has revealed. It is our duty to receive it as fully-reliable, objectively true, factually accurate, historically trustworthy, inerrant, unchanging, eternal, and divinely-revealed truth. Ultimately, therefore, Scripture is the touchstone of all truth by which every other truth-claim must be tested.

You can work out the epistemological kinks however you like, but if you want to call yourself a Christian, you must affirm that much.

That has always been the Christian perspective, clearly stated over and over in the New Testament. It's not a very popular perspective in these postmodern times, but there it is.

Phil's signature

108 comments:

Tom G said...

Is it humility to deny what we know is true, on the grounds that we're too smart to believe it?

True Christian humility in regards to the truth is to submit to it, not to stand in judgment on it.

John H said...

Scripture is the touchstone of all truth by which every other truth-claim must be tested.

Yes, but that isn't a reason for rejecting epistemological humility. On the contrary, that is the basis for a proper, Christian epistemological humility (as opposed to the extreme, postmodern variety that ends up denying all truth).

That is because our own interpretation, and that of our church or confession, is itself to be open to correction from Scripture. This doesn't mean we hold those views any less firmly, but it does affect how we view those who differ from us, accepting in principle that we may ourselves be wrong, even if in practice we are still unpersuaded of their position and stand by our own beliefs.

This means, for example, that when we find someone disagreeing with our theology, we don't start saying, "Well, that just shows you don't really believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, because if you did you'd agree with me, because my views are based on Scripture". Sadly, however, that's just the sort of assertion one does hear far too often.

Garet Pahl said...

A hearty amen. We must presuppose the necessity and authority of revelation, there can be no other way to possess true truth about reality. We can humbly profess we know with certainty because "in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" so we might know the radiance of His glory.

Btw Phil, I listened to your sermons on Christian liberty. They were excellent. I love the distinction of "free from the law of sin". A point that is not preached often enough. We are no longer indebted to obey our flesh.

John H: You make great points.

Spurgeonite said...

Great post, Phil.

One must differentiate between true humility and false humility. Romans 12:3 makes it clear that we are neither to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, but neither are we to think less of ourselves than we ought. We are, rather, to think so as to have sound judgment.

Paul is not speaking in that passage of epistemology, but the point holds, I think. Whether in the realm of epistemology, or in the realm of spiritual gifts, true humility arises not from a denial of what we know or possess, but in a recognition that anything we are, or know, or possess, has its source in a gracious and revelatory God.

centuri0n said...

Did anyone else hear the White Horse Inn on "emergent" back in February?

Did anyone else get the feeling that those guys couldn't actually come out and say, "you know, this movement flatters itself and puts a costume of phony respectability over the top of rank unbelief"?

Nauvoo Pastor said...

Amen Phil!! You are right on the money and, as always, well stated.

Phil Johnson said...

John H: "Yes, but that isn't a reason for rejecting epistemological humility"

Well, it is a reason for rejecting the view of epistemic humility that prevails today. That's what I was talking about, and I made it a point to say so in my opening paragraph.

People who say, "If you really accepted Scripture, you would agree with me on everything" are certainly shrill and annoying, but let's face it: such people are not exactly threatening, at the moment, to commandeer evangelical Christianity. By contrast, the teeming hordes of postmodernists who will tolerate no hint of certainty about anything now dominate most of western society, the media, the emerging church, and at least four fifths of evangelicalism. (By the way: "four-fifths" is my attempt to make a conservative estimate).

Surely we can afford to be a little less concerned about the occasional shrill and overly-dogmatic fundamentalist in our midst. Don't you think we ought to be more concerned about the widespread and sweeping abandonment of historic evangelical convictions?

John H said...

Surely we can afford to be a little less concerned about the occasional shrill and overly-dogmatic fundamentalist in our midst.

I don't think it's as "occasional" as you suggest. On the contrary, I think it is a rampant problem within the theological blogosphere.

And alas, I fear Centuri0n's comment above (to paraphrase: "EC = rank unbelief. Period.") has just provided another example. Such a sweeping statement seems a long way from any concept of epistemological humility. And I say that as someone who is pretty sceptical about the "emerging church".

Phil Johnson said...

JohnH: "I don't think it's as "occasional" as you suggest. On the contrary, I think it is a rampant problem within the theological blogosphere."

I agree that one of the more visible and annoying problems in the blogosphere is the steady ululation of certain cocksure fundamentalist bloggers. But is the problem really "rampant"? Hardly.

A handful of shrill watchblogs do get lots of publicity because, let's face it: certain post-evangelical bloggers love to single them out for mockery, and they like to caricature such blogs as the very epitome of what's wrong with practically everyone who stands to the right of Karl Barth.

But is runaway fundamentalism really a "rampant" threat? Try a test: line up and count every shrill "watchblog." Start with TeamPyro, (since it's so popular among post-evangelicals to characterize us as relentlessly intolerant and hopelessly dogmatic—practically latter-day counterparts of Jack Hyles), and throw in every blog in our vicinity and to our right. For every one on that list, I can point you to dozens of post-evangelical, emerging, emergent, neo-orthodox, and liberal blogs in the Christian blogosphere where daily, incessantly, and almost unthinkingly, certainty and conviction and every evangelical doctrinal distinction are under steady attack.

As I was saying, that is the spirit of the age. Of course it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, the way the shrill fundies do. But don't be duped by that into thinking it's a less serious problem.

Jeremy Felden said...

Good on you, Phil! Their epistemology ignores the one thing that gives us surety--revelation.

Phil Johnson said...

PS:

Incidentally, the problem I'm addressing in the above post is not merely a blogosphere issue. It seems to me that the evangelical movement is running at breakneck speed toward the abyss of postmodern uncertainty.

And, John H, I knew when I made this post that someone would soon suggest that fundamentalism is a more imminent threat than postmodern relativism. But (and I hope you don't mind my being blunt) there is a bitter irony in the fact that the very first comment representing that point of view came from a Lutheran in the UK. The community in which you minister isn't exactly crawling with wild-eyed, dogmatic fundies, is it?

david rudd said...

Postmodern wisdom suggests that humility would actually keep us all from ever knowing with any degree of certainty or declaring with any kind of authority that anything is true.

this seems to be a bit of a straw man. if the rest of the post is developed from this "critique" of postmodern's discomfort with certainty, you may be arguing a position that few would hold.

humility does not keep us from ever knowing with any degree of certainty. that statement contains far too many "absolute" qualifiers to "ever represent any postmodern's wisdom at all period." (tongue in cheek)

rather, i think the postmodern "wisdom" would dictate that humility keeps us from making assertions which demand or imply absolute certainty.

certainty is a tricky thing. to accuse someone of holding to a position which denies certainty (which is what you have most certainly implied) removes the possibility of any conversation.

but perhaps that is the point of this post and this blog... to throw red meat to the ravenous supporters and perpetuate a self-certain worldview which has no room for those with questions.

i'd think i was speaking too harshly if i hadn't already read the comments above.

John H said...

The community in which you minister isn't exactly crawling with wild-eyed, dogmatic fundies, is it?

True enough, but I don't think the answer to the postmodern "this-is-true-for-me-that's-true-for-you" approach is to simply pound away saying "We have certainty! We have certainty!"

Postmodernism has raised serious questions that are not resolved by simply rejecting it out of hand as "rank unbelief". That only leads to people turning to more "postmodern" forms of Christianity, because they are led to believe those are the only parts of the church that have answers to these questions.

I think Don Carson has the right approach with his emphasis on a "hermeneutical spiral", in which our relationship to truth is asymptotic. Or Peter Jensen, archbishop of Sydney, who has argued that the gospel promises provide a basis for rehabilitating language as a vehicle for truth in the face of postmodern claims. These are more constructive approaches to engage with postmodernism while retaining fidelity to the Scriptural revelation about God.

Phil Johnson said...

David Rudd:

Here's the problem with your position: if you can't be absolutely certain of something, then you can't honestly say you are relatively certain about anything. "Relative certainty" by those terms, is meaningless, because nothing is really certain at all.

As you yourself go on to say--

David Rudd: "certainty is a tricky thing. to accuse someone of holding to a position which denies certainty (which is what you have most certainly implied) removes the possibility of any conversation."

My reply: To insist on a position which labels all settled convictions and unshakable certainty as inherently arrogant (which is what you have most certainly implied) preemptively forestalls any meaningful conversation anyway.

Phil Johnson said...

John H: "I don't think the answer to the postmodern "this-is-true-for-me-that's-true-for-you" approach is to simply pound away saying "We have certainty! We have certainty!""

Well, I don't happen to think that's quite the perfect answer, either—nor did I suggest (here or anywhere else) that such a strategy would be a complete and sufficient answer to postmodernism.

What I did say--and I think both Carson and Jenson would agree--is that the answer to the postmodern approach does at the very least start with the recovery of a bedrock conviction in our own hearts that we do have certainty. A second essential aspect of the correct answer to postmodernism involves the bold declaration of that truth about which we are most certain (especially the core realities of the gospel itself) to a postmodern culture—despite that culture's general distaste for truth-claims and expressions of certainty.

None of that is the least bit radical or bizarre from the perspective of any historical strain of Christian doctrine. It's pretty much what Christians have always believed. If someone is seriously troubled by that much certainty or thinks it savors too much of "fundamentalism" to tell postmodern people that God has revealed vital truth in the gospel of Jesus Christ and we therefore actually know the way of salvation, then it seems to me that person is part of the problem, not the solution.

david rudd said...

thanks for your response, phil. since you don't know me, or my presuppositions regarding this conversation, and i don't know you or yours, i will do my best to engage gracious manner.

if you can't be absolutely certain of something, then you can't honestly say you are relatively certain about anything.

unfortunately, this is an unprovable statement. a cursory glance might render it to be valid, but any logical effort to demonstrate it's veracity falls short. particularly, because proving "absolute certainty" is such a sticky wicket.

To insist on a position which labels all settled convictions and unshakable certainty as inherently arrogant (which is what you have most certainly implied) preemptively forestalls any meaningful conversation anyway.

perhaps you have misunderstood the point i am seeking to make.

i am not insisting on any position. in fact, i am no great fan of most postmodern thought. i am only suggesting that assigning a position of "we hold nothing to be certain" is an improper characterization of most postmodern thought.

doing so marginalizes the postmodern thinker and places him in an untenable position.

(most, if not all, postmoderns are certain about a good many things. they are just not willing to call their certainty "absolute". contrary to many, this in no way lessens their faith.)

it is not my intent to argue about whose positions most forestall a discussion. this is your blog, and you are welcome to limit the conversation as you see fit.

i would suggest that if you seek to convince others who do not agree with you, you would do well to properly represent their viewpoint.

The Doulos said...

Hear, hear!! This really resonates with me, and I recently posted an item over on my blog about a corollary of this: that belief in these revealed truths must lead to confidence in communicating and teaching them. For the minister of the gospel to proclaim Scriptural truth with certainty is not arrogance, it is simply confidence in the veracity of that truth. I have no use for "teachers" that constantly apologize for their teaching or begin every point with "I'm not sure but I think..." This is not humility - it is as you stated here, unbelief.

SolaMeanie said...

I often wonder if our pomo-influenced church friends don't secretly believe that God Himself is arrogant. They'd never admit it out loud, but they seem to run so hard and fast away from even clear Scripture that I really do have to wonder.

I'm sure that's not the love for "mystery" they were hoping to spark in me, but as Kurt Vonnegut said, "So it goes."

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

David Rudd said: "most, if not all, postmoderns are certain about a good many things. they are just not willing to call their certainty "absolute". contrary to many, this in no way lessens their faith."

They are certain about things, but they don't want to call it absolutely certain? What other kind of certainty is there besides "absolutely certain". If they are not certain in an absolute way, then it seems not to be certain after all. Then there is another word for their beliefs that they should be using instead, though I'm not sure what word works best; maybe "likely". But then they should be sure to apply that term in a uniform fashion, including being willing to make statements like these:

-God likely exists
-There likely was a resurrection
-Christ's death likely atoned for my sins
-Christ is likely deity

Are these kinds of statements compatible with the way Jesus told us to believe? Does someone who talks and believes like that have a lesser faith than Jesus' standard? Yes, is the answer.

Thanks for this post Phil; what you wrote is exactly the kind of response that's needed today.

I'm going back to my narrow and arrogant watchblog now :-)

david rudd said...

jim,

maybe you should ask one of them what they think about certainty...

i've never been bitten.

and i was surprised to discover a deep and passionate faith in the very same Jesus i BELIEVE in.

Habitans in Sicco said...

"maybe you should ask one of them what they think about certainty..."--David Rudd

Done it. Brian McLaren has written quite a lot on this issue, too. His perspective on preaching: "Life isn't that simple, answers aren't that clear, and nothing is that sure"--A New Kind of Christian.

Did you seriously want a conversation, or are you going to sit there with a straight face and keep insisting that pomo/emergent types have no real problem with certainty? Because you can't really use both ploys at the same time and expect to be taken seriously.

david rudd said...

habitans,

1) i will gladly engage in a conversation. i'll even promise not to make ad hominem attacks.

2) i kind of meant by "ask" that you sit down with someone you know who considers themself to be a "postmodern" thinker. (that wouldn't be me) i wasn't really thinking, "quote to me from a book"

3) can you cite the page from that mclaren quote. i'll be more than happy to read it within the context it was written.

4) i'm not really insisting on anything. i'm just making some suggestions.

5) *please don't read this one as smug, it may seem that way but is not intended to be* maybe if you did take me seriously for just a minute, you might find yourself trying to understand a worldview different than your own... (i'm not asking you to agree with them)

6) this all just comes back to my suggestion that we not pigeon-hole them by suggesting they believe we cannot have "any degree of certainty" or declare that "anything is true." am i missing something or did i say the "boogy-word"?

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

Ouch! There's that "any degree of certainty" concept again. It hurts my ears. David, you are the most postmodern sounding non-postmodern person I've met, at least today :-)

Habitans in Sicco said...

"i'll even promise not to make ad hominem attacks."--david rudd

your very first comment here ended with an ad hom. that was practically your intro to this "conversation"

2) i kind of meant by "ask" that you sit down with someone you know who considers themself to be a "postmodern" thinker. (that wouldn't be me) i wasn't really thinking, "quote to me from a book"

neither was i. when i said 'done that,' i meant i've personally discussed certainty with lots of people who are uncomfortable with the concept and who use classic postmodern deconstruction techniques (similar to the style you have been using) to challenge and question everything. it's like an addiction they can't stop

3) can you cite the page from that mclaren quote. i'll be more than happy to read it within the context it was written

page xiii. have you read the book at all? that's the major theme mclaren introduces in his intro as he explains why he wrote the book

4) i'm not really insisting on anything. i'm just making some suggestions.

one suggestion repeated again and again starts to sound pretty insistent

5) *please don't read this one as smug, it may seem that way but is not intended to be* maybe if you did take me seriously for just a minute, you might find yourself trying to understand a worldview different than your own... (i'm not asking you to agree with them)

but it is smug, based on the smug assumption that the one disagreement i have expressed with postmoderns and emergents must be rooted in ignorance and motivated by nothing more than an unwillingness to understand a worldview different than my own

if you want to sound less smug, you might give 5 minutes' consideration to the possibility that most postmodern/emergent people really do resist the idea of certainty, just the way brian mclaren himself admits

...instead of blowing it off without a real argument and punctuating your very first comment with an insult (while claiming to advocate "humility")

6) this all just comes back to my suggestion that we not pigeon-hole them by suggesting they believe we cannot have "any degree of certainty" or declare that "anything is true." am i missing something or did i say the "boogy-word"?

so far, you're missing an actual argument in favor of your position

you've already acknowledged you think it's wrong to make assertions that "demand or imply absolute certainty." in other words, we can't be completely sure (or at least we must not say we are completely sure) about anything. both phil and jim have already pointed out to you that such a claim is tantamount to saying nothing is really certain

so even after your deconstruction of the original post, you are still left with the exact problem phil wrote about: you cannot conscientiously declare with genuine authority and conviction that you know the way of salvation (or anything else) for sure

i agree with jim. for someone who is a not a postmodernist, you really do the pomo shtick exceptionally well

Mrs Pilgrim said...

Here's a link that ought to help. It quotes one of the foremost experts on postmodern thought"

http://www.christianworldviewnetwork.com/article.php/1702/Russ_Wise

David Wills quotes Dr. Dunning at length, and gives a footnote for source info. Most relevant is the following: "The postmodern would insist that no person or text ever contains any complete truth[….] Each text (or person) is limited by a particular assumption, bias, or focus to just part of a truth, or to one (or even a few) point of view of something that has many different but valid points of view."

Mr. Rudd, you specify that "i kind of meant by 'ask' that you sit down with someone you know who considers themself to be a 'postmodern' thinker. (that wouldn't be me) i wasn't really thinking, 'quote to me from a book'"

Why is it that people insist that conservative Christians (theologically, not politically) "sit down and talk face-to-face" with those with whom we disagree? Why is it insufficient to quote from one's writings, particularly in context? If anything, to quote the written word is even MORE accurate because the writer has the ability to reflect upon what he is trying to convey and to "tweak" it as necessary so as to avoid confusion. Additionally, it means that the subject in question is stripped of the ability to claim, "I never said THAT."

(Incidentally, sir, is your shift key broken? I'm just curious whether it's a technical difficulty, a question of personal style, or what...)

Thought that might help y'all.

danny2 said...

i don't normally link to my blog (never done it here until now), but 2 Peter 3:14-16 speaks to this very issue.

i was touched by macarthur's "truth wars," that the most effective argument is found in Scripture. dr. macarthur practically just walked through the book of jude and it spoke to most issues of the day.

funny that The Book itself speaks clearly about clarity.

clearly, they've chosen to ignore that.

Mrs Pilgrim said...

Ah, the link didn't work...

Just go to CWN and pull Dr. Wills's recent article.

Sled Dog said...

Phil said:

"That's why, according to any postmodern way of thinking, dogmatism is inherently arrogant, diversity is always honorable, and propositional truth-claims don't ultimately matter much."

I guess I'd have to know what you're definition of post-modernism is. Because at first read your statement is made with the broadest of brushes.

Your statement says to me, IMHO, that as nothing can be gained from any thinking that takes place in this post-modern era. It seems to suggest that anything associated with "modern" Christianity is good, anything that comes forth in the post-modern age is nothing but garbage, suitable only for the fires of Gehenna.

One of the marks of post-modernism is deconstrution. Now, complete deconstruction is obvious ridiculous. Tearing something down for the sake of tearing it down. But has not the postmodern era shone a light on some aspects of modern Christianity that need to be subject to the wrecking ball?

david rudd said...

never mind... i get it now.

so far, you're missing an actual argument in favor of your position

we only comment here if we have arguments to defend.

INCIDENTALLY, WHERE SHOULD I GO IF I WISH TO DEFEND "PEOPLE"

*sorry, that was smug... but funny? no?*

fyi,

i'm certain of God
i'm reasonably certain the world is round
i'm fairly certain of tomorrow's schedule
i'm not very certain i could explain the theory of relativity
i'm completely uncertain regarding the outcome of the next presidential election.

all that without ever claiming "absolute" certainty.A

Phil Johnson said...

Sled Dog: "But has not the postmodern era shone a light on some aspects of modern Christianity that need to be subject to the wrecking ball?"

Good question. I do think the postmodern critique of evangelicalism has raised a number of valid points. In fact, I agree with many if not most of the Emerging Church's criticisms of modern evangelicalism. (And I plan to expand that thought in a couple of upcoming posts—either next week, or at the latest within the next couple of weeks.)

In fact, this is a crucial point to notice: I've said not a word in favor of "modern Christianity," and yet your comment implies you assume that's what I wish to defend. Postmodern, post-evangelical, and Emerging Christians have done a superb job propagandizing in favor of the idea that if you don't (to some degree) embrace postmodern values, your only other option is a "modern" worldview.

That is what I emphatically and categorically deny, and have said so almost every time the subject has ever come up on my blog. I'm amazed at how invincible that canard is.

Christianity's historic stress on the certainty and authority of revealed truth and the assurance of faith is by no means a "modern" idea.

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

So in that list of things, the only one that you are really certain about is "i'm certain of God". (We have such good space photography now days, we should be able to talk you into the earth's roundness. Wow!)

And how do you answer someone who claims that you are not being humble when you say you are "certain of God"? I assume that this includes a belief in Jesus Christ being the only way to the Father. If so, that seems really arrogant to all of those other religions.

I think this whole charge of "your dogma is not humble" is unavoidable in true Christianity. Here's one of my favorite quotes from JC Ryle:

"we live in an age when men profess to dislike dogmas and creeds, and are filled with a morbid dislike to controversial theology. He who dares to say of one doctrine that 'it is true,' and of another that 'it is false,' must expect to be called narrow-minded and uncharitable, and to lose the praise of men ... The danger is real, great, and unmistakable. Never was it so needful to say, 'Be not carried about (with divers and strange doctrines)"

farmboy said...

"i'm certain of God"

Based on the clear teaching of Scripture, or if you prefer, based on the objective evidence of Special Revelation:

I'm certain that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Godhead, God the Father's only Begotten Son.

I'm certain that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, that He is both fully God and fully human.

I'm certain that Jesus Christ died on the cross.

I'm certain that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. (It was about a year ago that Mr. Phillips offered a post on this topic.)

I'm certain that Jesus Christ is ruling at God the Father's right hand.

I'm certain that the only way for lost sinners to be reconciled to God the Father is through the atoning work of Jesus Christ, where by grace alone through faith alone lost sinners are justified.

I'm certain that Jesus Christ will return to earth a second time.

The above statements of fact are not a part of the modern worldview. In contrast, those that consistently adopt the modern worldview will reject the above statements.

The above statements are not mere opinions. They are statements that capture the objective content of Special Revelation. To be more certain than the content of the evidence is unwise. However, to be less certain that the content of the evidence is equally unwise.

Sled Dog said...

I think it makes sense to assume, which I did, only because truth in the view of modernism is much more certain then the relativity of post-modern truth. I didn't believe you to be promoting modernism, though.

Mainly, I just found your statement about ANY postmodern thinking to be too blurry and generalized for me...

Phil Johnson said...

Dave Rudd: "all that without ever claiming 'absolute' certainty"

That's my point. I gather from your resume that you would not conscientiously disclaim absolute certainty about the existence and identity of God (or even the truthfulness and authority of Scripture). But your reluctance to affirm unambiguously that these things are sure and certain is quite at odds with the spirit of 1 John 5:20; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Hebrews 6:17-19; and everything else Scripture says about the certainty of God's Word. It's also contrary to the historic Christian perspective on truth.

If I were you I'd set aside some of that blithe smugness (which, by the way, is inconsistent with the claim of epistemic humility anyway) and seriously ponder those things.

donsands said...

Hey all those amigos in sombreros reminded me of, The Three Amigos.

I love the scene in that movie when Steve Martin really gets shot, with a real bullet. Up till then it was all just a show. But that real bullet changed everything.

Nice post. Appreciate it.

HeavyDluxe said...

Isn't it funny how our human pride twists its way into everything?

Look: If you believe in the Christian God then you believe that the Bible is God's Word to one degree or another. The trick is that the Bible sure seems to have a very high opinion of itself as, literally, the Word of God.

So, you're ultimately left with a 'take it or leave it' kinda problem.

Well, if the Bible is God's Word there is no way that being uncertain about what it says is humble. In reality, it's the very height of arrogance to elevate your 'humble uncertainty' above the revealed Truth of Scripture.

Maybe I'm just talking to myself... However, I know how I've seen my failure to live in subjection to God's Word - choosing instead to take some construct of my own design and elevate it. It's ever more pathetic when I do it under some guise of [false] humility.

Phil Johnson said...

Sled Dog: "I just found your statement about ANY postmodern thinking to be too blurry and generalized for me"

Point taken. I ought to have mentioned that this post is an intro to a subject I want to spend the next couple of weeks (at least) dealing with in greater detail. (It also needs to be read in light of the more thorough description of postmodernism I have already given elsewhere.) This brief blogpost was by no means meant as a full treatise on the issue.

Thanks for the feedback, tho. Good to see you back in the meta.

Phil Johnson said...

HeavyDluxe: "if the Bible is God's Word there is no way that being uncertain about what it says is humble. In reality, it's the very height of arrogance to elevate your 'humble uncertainty' above the revealed Truth of Scripture."

Bingo. Thanks for summing up the whole point very pithily.

Saturday Night Ideas said...

"if the Bible is God's Word there is no way that being uncertain about what it says is humble."

So. I've been a Christian for a bajillion years now. I've sat under great teaching. I've studied. I've read. I've listened. And I still struggle. I still doubt. I still look at things that seem so black and white to some folks and I think, "I am certain about what that says; but what it MEANS I'm not sure I'll ever know."

So what do I do with my struggles? Am I in a room here where no one has struggles with understanding this great God we worship? Stamping your foot and simply declaring that it's all crystal clear helps me in no way.

How do you guys come to each other with your doubts? It seems like you do because you seem like thoughtful folks. But, reading through this meta, if I've got some doubt or some struggle, I think I would rather talk to David Rudd, or someone with his attitude, than come to one of you folks who make claim to crystal clear absolute certainty.

I guess I'm trying to blast past this whole modern/postmodern thing and just deal with the reality of doubt and struggle in my life. If I'm allowed to struggle, doubt and misunderstand His Word, yet still cling to Him in faith, then I'm OK. But if, after all these years, I should already have all my questions answered and neatly systematized (because the Word is, after all, crystal clear), then I think I give up. If "faith" is "certainty," then I'm dead.

Brad

CalvDispy said...

I think true Christian epistemological humilty starts with the source of knowledge in the first place. Paul encourages the Colossians with "attaining all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:2-3). If Christ holds the keys to knowledge that is otherwise hidden, it must be revealed to us by Him. We do not attain a true knowledge of ultimate matters of import apart from Him. This begins to suggest the necessity of regeneration. Apart from regeneration the mind is hostile toward God (Rom. 8:7).

Another interesting text is John 3:32-34 - "What He [Christ] has seen and heard, of that He bears witness; and no man recieves His witness. He who has received His witness has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He [God] gives the Spirit without measure." Christ is the truest revelation of the Father and therefore perfectly conveys the word of God (Col. 2 again). Yet no man recieves this word (think 1 Cor. 1:14). Except some do. Why? - Because of regeneration in my estimation (consider context of John 3 - 'born again' - i.e. 'regenerated from above' best translation). This is the essence of Word and Spirit. The source of truth - the One fully embodied by the Spirit - Christ must give us something of the Spirit before knowledge is truly reformed. The fascinating part of this passage is vs. 33. The one who recieves the witness of Christ "sets his seal" to it. This bespeaks of an internal certification of its truth that has a foreign source (i.e. something other then ourselves) since the natural man is truly epistemologically hampered. "God is true" because God testifies of His truthfulness by the internal testimony of the Spirit. We Protestants don't believe in Natural Theology for good reason. Revelation requires an outside force to impress its truthfulness to the noetic dumb-bells we naturally are with regard to ultimate truth claims. That to me is true epistemological humility.

Phil Johnson said...

Saturday Night Ideas: "I guess I'm trying to blast past this whole modern/postmodern thing and just deal with the reality of doubt and struggle in my life."

No one is suggesting that there's no room for any doubt or uncertainty in the Christian life. In the post itself, I said, "some things in Scripture are clearer than others; some things are indeed hard to understand" (see 2 Peter 3:16).

The prayer of the desperate parent—"Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24)—is a legitimate prayer for every Christian.

But what I am stressing in this post is the first half of that confession: "Lord, I believe." We can't doubt everything and call ourselves unbelievers. Not everything in Scripture is doubtful or unclear. The core truths of the Bible are sufficiently clear, absolutely certain, essential confessions which every authentic Christian must affirm. And one of those core convictions is the truth that the Bible itself is the Word of God and therefore true.

How much or how little else is included in the essentials is a big question and far beyond the scope of this thread, but basic Christian doctrine must necessarily include the deity of Christ, the truth of His resurrection, the gist of the gospel, the authority of Scripture itself, and truths of similar import. If a person remains in perpetual doubt regarding those essential truths, he's not really a believer at all.

Hint: You can ignore the hysterical caricatures and angry rhetoric currently being spewed around the dark side of the blogosphere. Despite what one gentleman ("I'm so vain, I think every post at Pyro is about me") insists, the issue under discussion here is not about dotting theological I's and crossing Calvinist T's. For proof of this, see the Pulpit live blog, where I've been arguing all week against the notion that Arminians can't possibly be saved.

But (to repeat) the question under discussion here is whether someone who isn't totally certain about anything can properly be regarded as a believer.

I'm arguing that the answer to that question is emphatically no.

Saturday Night Ideas said...

Phil:

Thanks for a kind response to what was admittedly a frustrated comment.

"Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief"

You say you want to focus on the first part of that sentence (what we must know; what we must believe). However, it seems to me that the frantic father in the story is believing and doubting the same thing. He believes Jesus can heal the child; yet he doubts at the same time. These things are in tension in him, yet the Lord honors that.

Sorry for the frustration. I thought when you got older that you knew more and more and were certain of more and more. Instead it seems, after being in the Word since 1972, that what I "know with absolute certainty" is simply "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." I am gripping that tighter and tighter, and holding all else with much more "epistemological humility." But that's just me right now.

It has nothing to do with my understanding of the nature of Truth; it has to do with my "humility" in whether I am truly understanding what I see. The weakness is not in the Truth, but in this listener.

I do agree with David on this: I think characterizing the pomo world as simply not believing anything is simply too simplistic [wow; that's a terrible sentence]. The Christian pomo's I've met would not say that belief is impossible, or that they believe nothing. They "believe" the Christian basics. But maybe I just hang around with a more conservative pomo crowd.

I look forward to your expansion on this subject in the near future.

Brad

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

Saturday Night says: "I think I would rather talk to David Rudd, or someone with his attitude, than come to one of you folks who make claim to crystal clear absolute certainty."

That probably depends. If you were in the last 2 minutes of your life, and you knew it, and were unsure about your state before God, do you want to talk to Phil or [insert name of most any postmodern thinker here]?

When it's life or death, you want black and white (not shades of gray).

JSB said...

To SatNight:

I understand your frustration, and would say that "clinging to Him" is, of course, the life saver in all this. And that doubts about various items of revealed truth are not, in and of themselves, sinful.

Yet there is so much in the Bible itself, and from Jesus himself, about the necessity of "keeping" his Word and "obeying" the gospel and so forth, that a degree of certainty is demanded--at least the ongoing quest for it. And a belief that it may, to some degree, be attainable.

What Phil is expressing here goes deeper than the "dot the i's" idea he's been accused of. As his first sentence says:

"Postmodern wisdom suggests that humility would actually keep us all from ever knowing with any degree of certainty or declaring with any kind of authority that anything is true."

For me this is the dangerous point: Pomo "wisdom" (which is promulgated by many self-appointed leaders/teachers) is a dynamic set up to work against the attainment of certainty on *anything.* This may not be admitted or even recognized, but that does not change the reality of it. Pomos "on the street" will say they are "certain" about some things, and so on. But they may not even recognize what's going on, that the philosophical consequences of their presuppositions are worse than they realize.

That's what is at issue here, those consequences. It's not a matter of plastering various leaks in the doctrinal dam. The acid of pomo attacks the foundation of the dam itself, threatening to bring the whole thing down and flood the valley with every watery manner of belief.

4given said...

I wrote about the missing ingredient in the blogosphere the other day being that of humility. I appreciate the balance of this post to that one.

Here is some of what I prayerfully added in light of your post: I have seen appearances of false humility in the midst of biting criticism toward other believers and it is painful to see. May the Lord do a mighty and necessary work in all of this. But then may we not be "humble" at the expense of the truth... by never standing up for truth. As my husband says, "If you can't stand for something, you will fall for anything". In other words, that "something" my husband is referring to is God's knowable and applicable truth. NOT the sentimental, me-centered perspective that is based on relative, roller-coaster ride of self-sustained religion tossed to and fro 'truth'. Balance is key and only Christ can do that perfectly. This is where accountablility is essential.

*** My concern is when we think we are held accountable... but have sourrounded ourselves with people who merely tickle our ears.

Sled Dog said...

Phil,

Sometimes when I read your posts I wonder, "Who is he talking about?"

The darksides of the blogosphere...what is that? People who are unbelievers or people who simply don't agree with you on some theological issues?

As you said, your posting was not meant to be all inclusive regarding the topic. Yet the brush you paint with is so broad it is bound to raise some hackles. It is an attack on some segment of the population...I'm just not exactly sure.

I'll be honest, my first read of your posting brought me to the conclusion that your words were a sort of apologetic for a recent sermon at a certain conference. That you were responding to complaints that the message was less than humble. My sense is that your post gives permission to folks to not be humble in communicating theological truths.

I grew up under solid biblical teaching in a large So Cal church. The pastor, when discussing many theological issues, would respectfully share some differing views, then conclude with the results of his own study. This was a man of certainty, but he never came of as a pugilist. Truth communicated with humility and grace.

So, may I ask, who was your post intended towards? Who are these Christ claiming/Christ denying people?

Saturday Night Ideas said...

Jim:

You said:

"That probably depends. If you were in the last 2 minutes of your life, and you knew it, and were unsure about your state before God, do you want to talk to Phil or [insert name of most any postmodern thinker here]?"

Like I said; the pomos I know believe the same basics I believe. I think it's presumptive to say whether Phil or [xxx] would make a more presuasive presentation of the gospel basics. Further, I'm sure there have been many people on their death bed who have reacted positively to the struggling "humility" of a fellow vagabond. How many people have been lost to the kingdom because of the perceived "arrogance" of a black-and-white preacher?

jsb said:

"Yet there is so much in the Bible itself, and from Jesus himself, about the necessity of "keeping" his Word and "obeying" the gospel and so forth, that a degree of certainty is demanded--at least the ongoing quest for it. And a belief that it may, to some degree, be attainable."

It's funny. If I were an alien from outer space (don't you love discussions that start this way?), and I were to read, let's say the Sermon on the Mount, you would be hard pressed to convince me that very many of us church-goers were actually Christians. In fact, in my reading of, and listening to the major pomo/emergent/missional thinkers, I often sense a greater desire for "obedience" in this regard than I do in more conservative folks.

I don't think we're talking about issues of obedience here anyway. And I don't agree that we have to believe that "absolute certainty" is just over the horizon in order to live the Christian life.

jsb: why did you use the phrase "a degree of certainty"? I thought we were demanding absolute 100% certainty here.

bs

Saturday Night Ideas said...

By the way, Phil, your posts on Pulpit Live Blog are excellent and much appreciated.

bs

jsb said...

SatNight, I don't know if this is uncharitable of me, but you seem more determined to find points of contention where there are none than in tackling the actual issue.

Here's what I mean. You wrote:

"If I were an alien from outer space (don't you love discussions that start this way?), and I were to read, let's say the Sermon on the Mount, you would be hard pressed to convince me that very many of us church-goers were actually Christians."

So what does this have to do with ANYTHING I actually wrote? Please read my comment again and you will see it is NOT about the details of what precepts to obey at all, but about the existence of precepts AT ALL demanding a "degree of certainty."

And speaking of that phrase, which you jumped on, the context is the non-belief in certainty about ANYTHING (which is why I included the Phil clip). We begin by showing "a degree of certainty" is demanded by the existence of precepts. That's only the first step. 'K?

Saturday Night Ideas said...

jsb:

Then I guess I missed the point of what you said. I took you to mean that we can only be "obedient" if we admit that there are absolute certainties out there and that we have, in fact, discovered them. Once we discover them, then we can obey them. If we believe that there are no certainties, then there is nothing to "obey." That's what I thought you were saying.

To which, I respond...I do not see that playing out in real life. I see huge swaths of the church who claim to believe in absolute certainty, yet who are not obedient to many of the plain (albeit difficult) commands of Jesus. On the other hand, I see many of the pomo-emergent-missional types who, despite their struggles with the concept of "absolute certainty," are genuinely attempting to live out some of the more difficult sections of scripture.

I realize that I am speaking in generalizations here. But I think there's a fair amount of generalizing going on here already.

I do not mean to be contentious. These are the things I struggle with. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. But I'm not talking just to hear my head rattle, or to get a rise out of someone.

bs

jsb said...

Okay, then I guess we did cross wires there. I was talking more conceptually and you were looking at the practical side. On that score, you say:

"I see huge swaths of the church who claim to believe in absolute certainty, yet who are not obedient to many of the plain (albeit difficult) commands of Jesus. On the other hand, I see many of the pomo-emergent-missional types who, despite their struggles with the concept of "absolute certainty," are genuinely attempting to live out some of the more difficult sections of scripture."

I absolutely agree with you (I have several "emergent" friends who bear this out). One will always find examples like this, good and bad.

My concern, and I think Phil's as well, is on the larger, consequential scale. The acid of pomo teaching which I referred to in my dam comment (almost sounds like a curse, doesn't it?) is the more important issue for me. There will always be exceptions. But there will be fewer GOOD exceptions, I fear, because of the attack on certainty which is there in the self-appointed emergent leadership.

Phil Johnson said...

Sled Dog: "I'll be honest, my first read of your posting brought me to the conclusion that your words were a sort of apologetic for a recent sermon at a certain conference. That you were responding to complaints that the message was less than humble. My sense is that your post gives permission to folks to not be humble in communicating theological truths."

Well, you're reading an awful lot into the white spaces that simply isn't there. So let me clarify:

1. This post is not about that.

2. I would be the first to agree that eschatology is filled with questions which would fit into the category of "things hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16). The further you go beyond certain prophetic issues all evangelicals would agree on (such as the future bodily return of Christ, the ultimate triumph of righteousness over evil, and issues of similar scope and breadth), the more you get into realms of mystery. So I would wholeheartedly agree that it's unwarranted and uncalled for to have the same über-high level of dogmatic certitude about a dispensational chart or prophetic timeline as we have about the truths that Jesus is God incarnate and that He rose from the dead.

3. Search and see: I'm quite confident nothing I have ever written or preached could be cited with even the hint of a suggestion that I might want to make secondary eschatalogical issues a test of faith or fellowship. Nor have I ever been accused by anyone of being too dogmatic on such things.

4. So the question about whether someone else is too dogmatic in his or her eschatalogical opinions is an interesting side issue, and you are welcome to discuss it unmolested by me in any of the many venues where it's welcome fodder for debate. But for reasons I have repeatedly and thoroughly explained, A) we're not going to host a debate about such questions here; and B) I'm certainly not going to broach that subject either secretly or otherwise here at my blog; so C) that wasn't even a remote thought in my head when I penned this post.

5. Once more: I'm not making an argument in favor of hard-line dogmatism about everything. I'm arguing against the notion that we shouldn't be absolutely certain or firmly dogmatic about anything.

Sled Dog: "The darksides of the blogosphere...what is that? People who are unbelievers or people who simply don't agree with you on some theological issues?"

See, I think you pretty much know what that refers to. You get around the blogosphere. There's only one district I know of where this post elicited "hysterical caricatures and angry rhetoric" in reply. I'm not going to link there.

Is my problem with that particular cadre of bloggers merely that they "simply don't agree with [me] on some theological issues?" No. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any truth they won't mock or question or stop short of affirming clearly, and that disturbs me greatly, for the reasons outlined above.

Sled Dog said...

Thanks Phil for the lengthy reply. I'm not trying to focus on the white spaces, but I think there could be a clearer way to try to communicate your point.

Are you willing to identify some of these folks who truly say that nothing can be certain? Is that the plan for future postings on this issue? Because not everyone who might describe themselves as pomo or emergent thinks like this. When I was a youth pastor I'd see some youth guys rail against the whole youth group when they were frustrated with just a few rascals. The result was that everyone looked around wondering if they had down something wrong. I got that same vibe when I originally read your post. Lack of clarity promotes "white space" wonderings.

Not at all trying to be contentious. Just sharing my thoughts and reactions...

danny2 said...

saturday night,

i don't mean to get in the middle of a conversation you're already having with others, but just wondering a couple of things...

you've been a believer for about 35 years and have more questions now than before? or at least the same number of questions? is that a fair assessment from your posts?

to me, that seems very concerning and contrary to descriptions in Scripture that a believer would have more doubts over time. (this is not to say you don't still have doubts, or that you haven't become less sure about some things...but to generally see you life with less answers....with the Holy Spirit residing within and the Holy Scriptures before you...how can that generate more doubt?)

perhaps the problem comes from preachers who are "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7)

while some may confuse it with humility, often the source for unsure teaching is apathy. i sat in phil's workshop on calvinism a couple weeks ago. from what i heard, he would suggest that if a person cannot figure out their position regarding the doctrines of grace, they should: a) get in the Bible. b) read solid works from biblical calvinists. c) read solid works (possibly "work," being phil only really recommended one, sort of) by arminian.

his recommendation was not to surround yourself with people who share you difficulty in coming to an answer. that won't do much but produce more headscratching. the answer would be to lay two passionate, well informed persepectives next to the Scripture and see which one matches up best.

this is something i've noticed about many "conversations" that happen today regarding theology. a couple of guys get in a room together and all share the same doubts. they kick these doubts around for a while, each lacking conviction, and are surprised to walk out of the room with no answers. they say they tried, for they devoted time to the quest, but really weren't asking any people who felt them came to conclusions.

Phil Johnson said...

Danny2: "this is something i've noticed about many 'conversations' that happen today regarding theology. a couple of guys get in a room together and all share the same doubts. they kick these doubts around for a while, each lacking conviction, and are surprised to walk out of the room with no answers.

. . . or else they walk out of the room with completely wrong answers.

WARNING: If you follow that link, don't nose around too deeply if you are easily offended by profanity. But try to read enough of the post I have linked to to get the gist.

And be sure to read the comments also, because you'll notice that the subtext in almost every comment is a blind and totally inappropriate commitment to precisely the kind of "epistemological humility" I wrote about in the above post.

Sled Dog:

Most of the comments at that post I just linked to are exactly the kind of real-life, specific examples you're asking me to supply.

And for anyone else still wondering about my earlier comment, the website I'm linking to there (NOTE: the proprietor identifies himself as "Emergent") is a fine example of how truly dark the dark side of the "Christian" blogosphere has become—and it supplies us with yet another example of why it's not good to mix one's theology with copious drafts of beer.

david rudd said...

you've been a believer for about 35 years and have more questions now than before? or at least the same number of questions? is that a fair assessment from your posts?

to me, that seems very concerning and contrary to descriptions in Scripture that a believer would have more doubts over time.


i appreciate the honesty of saturday night. one thing i am quite certain about is that if God is who i think He is (am certain He is), the more i know of Him, the more i will realize i do not know of Him.

if i ever reach a point where i know so much of God that i sense there is less to know than before, then i can be certain i have fashioned a false God.

i have been a follower of Christ for over 30 years. the God i know today is far more beyond my comprehension than the God i knew 30 years ago...

this isn't really on topic, i just wanted to thank saturday night!

LeeC said...

But you said "i'm certain of God"

Who is He?
Do you mean the God of Islam?
How do you know there aren't many gods and you have offended one of them by leaving him/it out?

I know God,not just of Him. Christ is my personal saviour, and I am familiar with Him. I know His character, and I know what He will or will not do on many subjects with certainty. I can even hold Him accountable to Himself as David repeatedly did.

I can do these things because I know Him, and He cannot contradict His nature. If I could not do these things I would be left with the God of Islam that does not even hold himself accountable to himself, and can be totally capricious and arbitrary.

Praise be to God that He wants me to KNOW Him, and what He is like because He has told me about Himself!

Phil Johnson said...

david rudd: "the more i know of Him, the more i will realize i do not know of Him"

Well, I happen to agree with that. It really doesn't contradict or even pose a challenge to the point I'm trying to make. The more I know of God the more I see how much bigger than my knowledge He is. I'm not coming close to answering all the questions. In fact, ten new questions occur to me every time I learn one answer.

But again, I'm not suggesting that it's wrong for a Christian to have doubts, ask questions, ponder mysteries, or stand in awe of our infinite God. It would, in fact, be wrong to deny that such is the nature of biblical faith. See Matthew 11:2-9.

What I am saying, however (for at least the fifteenth or twentieth time), is that it is ALSO wrong to think God's Word offers no answers to any questions; nothing is completely certain; there is no truth that Christians must affirm; or none of God's revelation to us is clear enough for us to be dogmatic about.

E.g.: "He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 6:6); see also 2 John 7-11; Galatians 1:8-9.

But Emerging and postmodern Christians have a very blithe and facile way of glorifying doubt, to the point where even an attack on the very essence of Christianity can be celebrated as an expression of "honesty" and "humility," even if it's just rank unbelief. See the comment-thread referred to above for some real-life examples of that.

It's not a healthy trend.

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

David Rudd said: "the more i know of Him, the more i will realize i do not know of Him"

Can you point us to any passages by the Apostle Paul where he suggests an inability for believers to grow in the knowledge of God as time progresses, any passages where he has expressed the same sentiments as you?

David Rudd said: "if i ever reach a point where i know so much of God that i sense there is less to know than before, then i can be certain i have fashioned a false God."

But what if we isolate that into components, which I think is realistic and fair to do; can't we say things like:
I know more about God's love that I did at first.
I understand God's holiness better than I used to, and that helps me understand why some won't be eternally spared, where as I never understood that before.

Granted there are mysteries about God that don't get any easier with time, the Trinity and eternality of God being examples. But if I were to accept your point of view on ?diminishing? knowledge, I think I'd rather stop prayerfully studying my bible now, while I'm still ahead.

jsb said...

"the more i know of Him, the more i will realize i do not know of Him"

I have trouble with this statement. Not that David means it this way, but too often I hear this and it's a shorthand for not digging into hard truth, for avoiding the enterprise altogether, for giving up.

I also don't agree with the sentiment. The very nature of progressive revelation, culminating in the Incarnation, is that God WANTS us to KNOW him in a very real and understandable way. There is not MORE mystery, but less. That's the point of revelation, isn't it?

We are expected to GROW in the KNOWLEDGE of God. Col. 1:10.

We are given UNDERSTANDING by Jesus himself of the deeper things. 1 John 5:20

True, the full import of these things is in many ways beyond us. But that's only a matter of degree, not kind of knowledge. Our knowledge of God is clear, specific, attainable. If it weren't, the Bible would be a joke book.

It seems to me the move toward "embracing mystery" is always preceded by a downgrading of the inerrency of Scripture and a lack of faith in the power of God to reveal himself to us.

Phil Johnson said...

Not wishing to be the devil's advocate, let me say again that I do think there's a true sense in which the more we know about God, the more we will see how deficient our knowledge is. His judgments are unsearchable and His ways are past finding out. No less than the apostle Paul said so.

So there's a true sense to that contested statement of david rudd's. We ought to grant that.

But here's my answer to both the Emerging/postmodern point of view and the actual argument Mr. Rudd seems to be trying to make: That doesn't mean nothing is beyond dispute or that we have no sure and certain foundation for our faith.

That's the actual point we need to keep in focus against the emerging mudslide. We don't need to argue that we're getting closer every day to solving every mystery of the Christian faith. No one actually believes that, and (once more, slowly) that's not the point I'm arguing for in this post.

Dr. Qohelet said...

I think that the only way to overcome the epistemological roadblock between Evangelicals like yourself and postmodernity is predicated first and foremost in the incarnation.

Scripture won't get you anywhere in this discussion because the inherent flaws and contradictions in the Bible will be enough to keep the skeptics from listening. (Of course, if you think the Bible is a flawless testimony speaking with a unified voice, you've got other problems that I can't help you with.) But Jesus, the incarnation, the selflessness of the cross, all these provide a way to discuss religion even with the likes of Derrida and Caputo (though Foucault was always a bit of an S&M freak, so I'd leave him out of the discussion...).

I find it very odd that Scripture is your touchpoint of orthodoxy. Why this rather than an affirmation of the dual-nature of Christ and inner working of the Trinity? Both are traditionally the criteria of being a Christian, and neither was explicitly worked out in Scripture.

Jason Vaughn said...

Dr.

If we cannot trust the apostles,

"We proclaim to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with or hands, concerning the Word of Life - and the life was manifested and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us" 1 John 1:1-3

Then how can we trust the incarnation?

Sled Dog said...

Phil said:

"But Emerging and postmodern Christians have a very blithe and facile way of glorifying doubt..."

I know I keep singing the same tune, but shouldn't that be SOME emerging and postmodern Christians?

Phil Johnson said...

Sled Dog:

If I don't expressly say "some," are you seriously going to insist that a Calvinist like me must mean "each and every one without exception"?

You really ought to be as fair to me as you want me to be toward the pomos.

But if you insist on a qualifier, I'd settle for "most."

On the other hand, if you're subtly trying to get some kind of tacit indication from me that the glorification of doubt and uncertainty isn't really a major problem with the general drift of Emerging post-evangelicalism, those Jedi mind tricks (especially the kind that involve deconstruction of words while ignoring actual concepts) won't work on me.

jerryb said...

Interesting stuff,
Paul Feinberg looks at the question "How do we know what is true". He lists five approaches: subjectivism, rationalism, empiricism, pragmatism and authoritarianism (faith). My pencil may tell me what is 2 times 2, my senses may tell me which is the most lovely flower, but they cannot tell me what is ultimately true. I do not have the resources or wisdom to determine truth. Someone must tell me what is truth. Thankfully God has spoken in His Son and proved it through the resurrection. Additionally Christ said "Thy Word is truth" and that He always speaks what the Father tells Him. If I doubt the Scriptures I call Christ a liar. I may misunderstand what God has spoken but I know that it is absolutely true. I should be humble about my ability to listen, but not in God's ability to speak.

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

This one deserves repeating - Phil said:

"But Emerging and postmodern Christians have a very blithe and facile way of glorifying doubt, to the point where even an attack on the very essence of Christianity can be celebrated as an expression of "honesty" and "humility," even if it's just rank unbelief."

That's quotable. That concisely underscores the concern that so many of us have with this postmodern wave of thinking about Christianity. Thanks Phil.

Phil Johnson said...

Dr. Qohelet: "Scripture won't get you anywhere in this discussion because the inherent flaws and contradictions in the Bible will be enough to keep the skeptics from listening.

"For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ" (Galatians 1:10). See also 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. "Your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (v. 5).

Dr. Qohelet: "Of course, if you think the Bible is a flawless testimony speaking with a unified voice, you've got other problems that I can't help you with."

Thanks for your comment. Your attitude demonstrates why I keep saying that to join the postmodern "conversation" on Postmodernist terms is to eliminate the possibility of a profitable "discussion" from the get-go. I wouldn't expect (or care to try) to have any kind of "discussion" with you if your rules of engagement require me to agree beforehand with your denial of the Bible's truthfulness and authority.

The fact that some skeptics won't listen to the proclamation of Scripture isn't going to dissuade me from employing the means God has chosen ("the foolishness of the message preached") to save those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:21). We're not to turn aside from proclaiming the truth of the gospel just because some think it's "foolishness" and demand a sign or a philosophical argument (or a friendly "discussion" on their own skeptical terms) instead. (See 1 Corinthians 1:18-29).

Sled Dog:

Are you still looking for specific, living examples of the kind of skepticism I'm talking about, or are you prepared to acknowledge that there is a real and palpable danger in the postmodern glorification of uncertainty?

Dr. Qohelet said...

Jason Vaughn,

It seems weird to respond to another respondent on someone else's blog, so my apologies, Phil. I didn't make any statement doubting the testimony of the apostles. However, I believe the apostles because I believe in the Incarnation, not the other way around.

That is to say, I have faith in Jesus, and that brings about a sympathetic reading of Scripture and the Fathers (simple, not naive). Granted, such a correlary is not guaranteed, but it is nonetheless a frequent starting place in the current epistemology.

Phil,

I just got done reading a few books by Caputo on the very issue of epistemology and religion. There is much dialog to be had, if one comes at it from a certain direction. Propositional arguments can work, if predicated on the praxis of the incarnation.

Beyond that, I didn't ask for a "denial of the Bible's truthfulness and authority," only for honesty in the nature of the traditions. I believe in the truthfulness and authority of the Bible. I also know that it is an imperfect witness, as all things this side of glory are. I'm a Christian, not a Muslim, and as such am not required by the tenets of my faith to believe that my holy book is inerrant.

Now, if you see this as necessitating a denial of the truth of the Bible, that's a different issue; and one that doesn't really involve either postmodernity or the emerging church -- hence my parenthetical comment -- and might mean that you're right in thinking we all just can't get along.

Peace,
Dr.Q

DJP said...

...I believe the apostles because I believe in the Incarnation, not the other way around.

Whence do you know about the Incarnation?

Truth,
DJP

david rudd said...

you guys are great!

some of you can pull an argument out of mid-air with better touch than david copperfield.

phil, thanks for acknowledging my statement.

others,
it was really not meant to further debate (hence my paragraph above). note i said:

this isn't really on topic, i just wanted to thank saturday night!

it seems that if someone who is perceived as "the other side" says anything, the ensuing posts will take issue with what they said, and if that isn't possible, they will guess at the person's motives and then deconstruct that.

i mention this only to say, if you're hope is to "convince" pomo/emerging type of the error of their way... it's not going to happen if you pick apart every statement they make so you can bang your "absolute" drum a little more.

i've noted that phil seems at times to willingly engage those who disagree, but several of you seem to just want to argue. why?

perhaps your goal isn't to "convince" the pomo/emerging types of the error of their way. if this is true, you will be quite effective.

i'm just saying...

maybe there is a better way to engage in this conversation?

Phil Johnson said...

David Rudd: "i'm just saying...maybe there is a better way to engage in this conversation?"

That's real cute, given the fact that most of the "pick[ing] apart [of] statements" and deconstruction of words has actually been done by (as you say) "those who disagree" with the position I'm taking.

First of all, thanks for your recognition that I have at least tried in my own feeble way to engage "those who disagree."

But--

1. As far as I can see, no one who basically shares the concern I expressed about the erosion of certitude has gone over the line in this thread or stooped to mere insults to answer the dissenters who have commented here. Every point made against my original post has been seriously engaged by someone; and while some of the arguments have been stronger than others, no one has been verbally beat up and invited to leave.

2. Yet someone who participated briefly here left the discussion and went to a different blog to complain that he was "bruised by . . . theological gym-bunnies" over here.

3. Another commenter who has posted several dissenting comments in this very thread and has been treated politely by everyone who has replied went to another blog and suggested that dissenting opinions here are "like raw meat among a bunch of pit bulls."

Frankly, for all the posturing about "engaging issues" and having a "discussion" instead of a tantrum, the people who are taking your side of this debate are the ones who ought to be embarrassed about the way this particular "conversation" has been handled.

Touchstone said...

Phil,

What I see offered in your post is equivocation about what epistemology entails. Or, to put it another way, you seem to be conflating 'belief' with 'knowledge'.

There's nothing epistemologically humble or brazen about *believing*. That's a subjective prerogative we all maintain; we're not bound by any rules of evidence or logic in choosing and cling to that which we believe.

Knowledge, on the other hand, connotes something different. I realize that Paul and other writers in scripture use these terms rather casually, and in ways that invite conflation such as you offer here. But in a formal sense, knowledge, the kind of conclusions based on a demonstronstrable, *epistemic* foundation, is something quite distinct from belief.

Part of the post-modern argument is this distinction, between belief and knowledge. Knowledge in the secular sense isn't inherently any more "true" than any particular belief. Rather, it is simply backed by a epistemology that is objective (or at least nominally shared between dispassionate observers).

I suppose you can call this kind of classification "unbelief", if that suits you, but it's really just classification. Knowledge is knowledge (correct or not), and belief is belief. We may have compelling reasons for what we belief -- I see the personal evidence and interaction with my Lord and Savior throughout my life and those around me personally overwhelming, but I don't think for a minute this is 'knowledge' in the sense of demonstrating the effect of gravity on a thrown baseball.

I believe in God, and trust and hope in what I cannot see; but it is hubris for me to call this knowledge, as knowledge implies a conclusion arrived at by different means, at least when the term 'epistemology' is being bandied about.

All of which is to say, I do not *know* God exists, in the sense I can predictably and repeated watch a baseball drop from my unclutched hand to the floor. I *believe* it, and am convinced these convictions are true. But confusing knowledge and belief tends to erode all the good things about each of those terms, in my experience.

If you *do* distinguish between knowledge and belief, and I'm mistaken (in whole or in part here), how do you distinguish between them?

-Touchstone

david rudd said...

just to clarify, i'm not on a "side".

i was kind of under the assumption that we are all on the same side?

(by combining pomo and emerging, one can assume we are talking about those who consider themselves to be emerging christians/church)

i can't speak for anyone who has gone to any other blogs. i've only kept this here, and that is my intent.

however, the things you quote others are saying would not inaccurately describe my feelings about this thread.

ironically, in most matters of theology, i would be in a camp very near to yours, and many others who post here...

that said,

i think touchstone nails it.

wordsmith said...

Dr. Q: Propositional arguments can work, if predicated on the praxis of the incarnation.

???

Is it just me, or is that statement obtuse? I thought I knew English.

Phil Johnson said...

Touchstone:

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

jerryb said...

Touchstone,
The difficulty I have with your argument (and I am not a philosopher and I am talking about things I know not well) is that I think you skew the argument by demanding that knowledge must be measurable to be true. With that logic you can only have "facts" and not truth. You say that you know the baseball will hit the ground but believe that God exists. Do you really know that the next time you drop the ball it will hit the ground. No you do not. You only believe it will based upon the evidence that it has done so in the past. A wind could drive it away, a bird could snatch it or whatever. You get the point. So looking at the evidence for God, one must ask what evidence is good enough? Is intelligent Design proper evidence? Would a miracle be proper evidence? Would a voice from heaven be proper evidence? For the unbeliever there is very little evidence they will accept.
No one is as purely objective as they might think. So I cannot accept the secular ground rules for knowledge, because in the end they are biased against the existence of God.

David Rudd, would your father be the speaker who preached on the Book of Ruth at my Bible college in the late 80's? He did an awesome job of exposition. I still remember much of what he said.

Touchstone said...

Phil,

I salute your new-found epistemological humility.

;-)

To read a lot of the blogger in your theological area code (and this blog, even this post!), one would think one really *does* see God, and that man must simply walk by sight, because, well, duh, God is right there, just open your eyes, man!

I *believe*. I do not *know*, in the formal sense -- the sense where one uses the term 'epistemology'.

-Touchstone

Phil Johnson said...

Touchstone: "I *believe*. I do not *know*"

"I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day" (2 Timothy 1:12).

Touchstone said...

Jerryb,

Good points, thanks. The crucial difference here is that the phenomenon of gravity is *testable*, and 5 point Calvinism is not -- frequent protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

Note that this doesn't make Calvinism *untrue*; it very well may be. But it's not built on an objective epistemology (although it may be built on a very strong private/subjective epistemology, if we are seeking to be liberal with the term 'epistemology').

That puts our "belief" in the "Lordship doctrine" in a very different epistemic class than the baseball dropping from my hand. You are correct to say that we don't *know* that gravity will work as we suppose the next time we try the "drop test". However, we can point to a an enormous body of trial and obsrevational evidence that gives us a basis -- an *epistemological* basis for such a belief.

With the Lordship doctrine, on the other hand, we simply won't know until all of this temporal stuff is gone; it's not a testable thesis, and thus does not -- cannot -- stand on the same epistemic foundation as 10,000 tests with a baseball dropped from the hand (not mention millions of other related experiments).

This is what Paul means when he uses "see" in the passage Phil quoted; it's a manifest, physical phenomenon, subject to orderly, God-given physical laws that can be reverse engineered and understood, at least on a rudimentary level, in a testable, epistemologically solid way that knowing God cannot.

Again, this doesn't diminish the truth of God's existence or sovereignty in the least. It simply escapes the heuristic man has developed (epistemology) for acquiring and developing a shared body of knowledge. Saying you don't "know" God exists in the formal sense is no slam on you or on God.

That's how He designed things to work!

Phil's just not willing to give up the perceived apologetic capital that many think is conceded by such distinctions. We need to reject the secular arguement that factual=true, in the sense that if it's not factual/scientific, it can't be true. That's hogwash.

Instead, many in Christian apologetics take the opposite, counterproductive stance that asserts that knowledge and belief are really the same thing. Phil *knows* Christ rose again as sure as he *knows* a ball released from the hand will drop to the ground, and in the same way, perhaps?

Anyway, objectivity and testability are the hallmarks of epistemology -- that's how we "know we know what we know", and that's quite problematic for apologists committed to blurring any distinctions between belief and knowledge.

-Touchstone

Touchstone said...

Phil said:
"I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day" (2 Timothy 1:12).

Phil, this is pedantic word play, isn't it? Is this just a play at being cute, or are you saying Paul is offering an objective epistemological assertion here.

I've no doubt he's *aware* of what he beleives -- I'm *aware* of same -- but that's wholly irrelevant to the point you've been making, isn't it?

I think this is a good, meaty subject to address. Disappointed to see such hand waving here.

-Touchstone

Saturday Night Ideas said...

Well, I for one haven't gone off and pouted or spread whinies. I'm one of the dissenters, I guess, and I actually appreciate the way I have been talked to here. In general, everyone has attempted to honestly engage and I've actually felt some real concern for my spiritual well-being. I've been newly encouraged to kick it into high gear and get into the scriptures and work some of my stuff out. Which I don't mind being told, by the way.

I'm not one of those who think that there is no truth out there to be found. I agree that God did not leave us here simply so we could have a pointless and hopeless "conversation". But, I'm still more in David and Touchstone's camp here though when it comes to the "absolute certainty" issue.

But, after all, when I stand before Him (and that, folks, I am certain about), I want to be found to be a faithful follower, even if I might not get all the doctrinal issues figured out. I am certain that I belong to Him, even though I'll probably roll into heaven on the theological short bus.

I think I've probably maxed out on my discussion of this right now and should probably just listen. Thanks ya'll.

bs

jerryb said...

This will be my last post as I am still preparing to preach on 2 Cor. 13.5 because some "know" they are saved but aren't.

As far as Phil goes, Touchstone, I don't know how you "know" so much about what he is thinking, given your comments.

As far as the resurrection goes, I am MORE sure of the resurrection than I am that a baseball will hit the ground next time. Why? Because God said so in His Word, which Christ said is truth. I trust Him more than myself.

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

I just had one of those forehead slapping "V8" moments. It now seems to me that pomo camp isn't necessarily doubting God's word per se. That's what I had thought before. But now I think they are doubting God's ability to communicate it to us. So in other words, we humans are flawed and full of pride, and we speak different languages than the original, etc, so - the thinking then seems to be, God is not capable of overcoming all of that in order to convey truth to us. Therefore truth can't be certainly known.

If that's not accurate, somebody correct me. If that is accurate, then it is still unbelief in God (in this case it's unbelief in His ability to communicate to fallen creatures), right?

Touchstone said...

Jim,

I think that's a step in the right direction, at least in my case. It's not a matter of doubting the truth of God's existence or sovereignty. The truth is the truth.

But it's incorrect (in my view) to say that this is any way an indication that God *cannot* make communicate in an overwhelmingly clear and undeniable way. Manifestly, He can/could. If he can create the universe we call home, it stands to reason that he could make His existence and message absolutely unescapable -- in fact, He will do this eventually, right?

So, I think that "step" needs to be discarded. In no way does "epistemoligical humility" have bearing on God's *ability* to communicate or "prove" himself in terms of objective human knowledge. Rather, God *chooses* to reveal Himself as He wills, and His choices are somewhere between "spelling out 'YHWH Rules' in the stars" and "a completely undetectable, intractable God".

Which means that we must seek, discern, and choose what we believe. We can affirm the truth of God's role in creating, ruling and saving the world, but we can't put God in a laboratory and create a Discovery Channel documentary to prove it in a scientific/epistemologically rigorous way.

That's how God set things up. It exasperates many believers, I understand, but that's the way it is.

Or so I believe.

-Touchstone

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

Touchstone says: "God *chooses* to reveal Himself as He wills, and His choices are somewhere between "spelling out 'YHWH Rules' in the stars" and "a completely undetectable, intractable God"."

Ok, so I assume that you believe this can be variable for different people then. Some might "seek and discern" more than others, and so God perhaps gives them some additional biblical understanding that someone else who has not applied themselves to the bible as much, wouldn't have. If that's true, should the one with lesser understanding declare the one with more understanding as someone who lacks humility? Maybe the one with more understanding truly does have some additional understanding to be dogmatic about. Why, if he then communicates that dogma to others, does that make him lack humility?

Or are you saying that God *never* gives that much biblical understanding to anyone? In which case it seems like more unbelief in God again, this time it's unbelief in God's will to transmit truth to believers.

HeavyDluxe said...

Whoa... I got something 'right' and did so pithily. Must've been those Wheaties!

Touchstone said...

Jim,

I think we are theologically aligned here, for the most part. I believe, as you apparently do, that God reveals Himself in different ways and to different degrees to the elect than the non-elect. Scripturally, it's hard to construe things differently, I think.

So, I've no trouble with that kind of subjective/personal knowledge being granted to whom God wills, and affirm that that knowledge is "knowledge" in the sense that it is an understanding of truth.

The problem here is the word "epistemological". That's where things go off the rails. When emergents, or other believers (or atheists, I guess) talk about "epistemological humility", it is *not* a war against the truth, but merely an obligation to useful distinctions. Epistemology is the study of the *basis* for knowledge, and while (as I said above) we each may have a "private epistemology" that varies asccording to God's will for us to know, "private epistemology" is such a problematic term so as to be an oxymoron; implicit in the meaning of "epistemology" is the shared context of knowledge.

That means that while I may have special insight and understanding mediated through the influence of the Holy Spirit, I do not have an *objective* means of demonstrating this. Moreover, I simply have to rely on my belief that this discernment granted me by the Holy Spirit *is* in fact real knowledge; I don't have an objective, testable means of validating that apart from my own perceptions.

So, Phil is *sure* of the salvific power of Christ's shed blood and resurrection, as am I. What separates us is our view as to whether that conviction counts as an epistemically sound conclusion or not. I say it is not, and need not be; I've nothing to gain from pretending that such a conviction is equivalent to what is accepted as epistemically sound in an objective context. It need not be "proven" or "epistemologically rock solid" to be true. It's true and profound and earth-shaking in *spite* of the fact that it is not lab-certified.

Hope that makes sense, and sheds light on my earlier comments.

-Touchstone

Phil Johnson said...

Touchstone: "God *chooses* to reveal Himself as He wills, and His choices are somewhere between 'spelling out "YHWH Rules" in the stars' and 'a completely undetectable, intractable God.'"

See, here's exactly where our disagreement lies: You're claiming God's revelation is less clear and explicit than if He placed a message in the stars, but at least more clear than something that's "completely undetectable."

I, on the other hand, would say that the ways God has chosen to reveal Himself actually start with a message in the stars; include every word of the detailed, infallible, and verbally-inspired revelation given to us in the Scriptures; and culminate in the living, breathing incarnation of His Son.

That's a billion times more clear and explicit than what you are suggesting. Hence my certainty, and hence my contention that the real issue with most® postmodernist-emerging types is a lack of faith in the authority and truthfulness of Scripture.

Touchstone said...

Phil,

On physics forums over the years, the example of finding "YHWH was here" spelled out in the stars is often given as *objective* bit of data that would give even the most strident skeptic pause. The point being that such a phenomena isn't open to question on one level; Richard Dawkins would have to look in the telescope and say "Yeah, well... it *does* appear to spell out "YHWH was here"... and quite clearly too. Interesting!"

Dawkins may not make the leap to baptism from that, but all reasonable observers could agree on the observed message.

I understand the "poetic" point you are trying to make, but it's evasive once again, Phil; God's existence is not manifest in the way a constellation is; Dawkins grants that the stars spell out a message in English (?? Maybe it's in Hebrew??). Dawkins denies adamantly that God can be measured/tested/observed in a similar way to the configuration of the stars.

Thankfully, we aren't dependent on Dawkins' countenance for what we believe. But as far as epistemology goes -- the study of human knowledge -- it's a whole different ballgame. What you frame as a "billion times more clear" isn't evident at all in terms of conventional epistemology. It you could demonstrate it so clearly in terms of human epistemology, you'd be more famous that Einstein or Newton right now.

Your "clarity" is your own, and I happily accept it from you. But epistemology is not a private discipline, at least as it's been used in this discussion.

Certainty and epistemic strength go hand in hand, often, but not necessarily. You can be quite certain, and without epistemic basis for your certainty, no problem. You can even be *right*, and *certain*, and without epistemic foundation.

Epistemological rationales are not formulas for transcendant truths. They are simply heuristics that have been empirically successful in developing a working model of God's creation.

-Touchstone

John H said...

Yet someone who participated briefly here left the discussion and went to a different blog to complain that he was "bruised by ... theological gym-bunnies" over here.

Phil, to clarify, my bruises didn't arise from anything said in this thread (not even your slightly snarky comments about what a Lutheran in the UK can expect to encounter). It was the general "faith == 100% certainty" identification that had left me "feeling bruised", and which led me to post here in the first place in response.

I then left the discussion simply because I'd said what I wanted to say, you'd responded, and I had nothing further to contribute.

Now I'll let you get back to your bench-presses while I go sniff a flower somewhere... ;-)

JSB said...

Thought this from Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology was apt:

"It is one of the distinguishing doctrines of Protestants that knowledge is essential to faith. This is clearly the doctrine of Scripture. How can they believe on Him of whom they have not heard? is the pertinent and instructive query of the Apostle. Faith includes the affirmation of the mind that a thing is true and trustworthy. But it is impossible for the mind to affirm anything of that of which it knows nothing. Romanists indeed say that if a man believes that the Church teaches the truth, then he believes all the Church teaches, although ignorant of its doctrines. It might as well be said that because a child has confidence in his father, therefore he knows all his father knows. Truth must be communicated to the mind, and seen to be possible, before, on any evidence, it can be believed. If, therefore, we cannot know God, we cannot believe in Him."

Phil wrote:

"I, on the other hand, would say that the ways God has chosen to reveal Himself actually start with a message in the stars; include every word of the detailed, infallible, and verbally-inspired revelation given to us in the Scriptures; and culminate in the living, breathing incarnation of His Son."

Wonderfully put, Phil. I am teaching Psalm 8 this morning, the meaning and consequence of natural revelation, with a side trip to Romans 1:18 ff. to demonstrate that epistemic discernment begins, surprise surprise, as a heart issue.

And so you are right on again: "the real issue with most® postmodernist-emerging types is a lack of faith in the authority and truthfulness of Scripture."

This is true, and I lay most® of the blame on the self-appointed leaders/teachers who have collectively decided that, as one of them put it, "Inerrency is not where we're going to land the evangelical plane."

Look for a crash site near you.

Sled Dog said...

Phil,

No Jedi tricks. Not even any Jar-Jar Binks tricks.

Are there wacko people out there? Of course. All flavors. Ultra-fundies and pomos who appear fearful of saying day is night or night is day. I just keep pointing out your tendency to paint with a broad brush.

All in all, for me, your post created more questions than answers. I read a lot of different stuff, and one of my primary questions in whatever I'm reading is "where is this person coming from?"

And if you think I'm being unfair towards you, let me simply say that I'm toughest on those I expect the most from...just ask my kids! :-)

Phil Johnson said...

Sled Dog:

The problem with the "broad brush" complaint is that its too generic. In other words, you're painting with a broad brush when you use it.

But the broad-brush complaint is also too easy and convenient. There are exceptions to most truisms. They don't usually nullify the "true" part, though.

The truism here is that Christian faith is about the affirmation of truth, not the glorification of doubt. But most post-modern, post-evangelical, emerging, neo-othodox, and fringe evangelicals (and too many "mainstream" evangelicals) have lost sight of that and fallen in with the spirit of these postmodern times in which we live.

Broad statement? Yup. Generally true? Yup.

Even after you deconstruct it.

Touchstone said...

Phil,

How would you distinguish "glorification of doubt" from healthy skepticism and critical reasoning?

And, with respect to epistemology, isn't epistemology inherently skeptical? I mean, a shorthand intro to epistemology from my philosophy prof years ago was: "Answer this: how do you *know* what you know?"

It's an implicit feature of epistemology, this questioning of the basis for our conclusions. That's the whole goal of epistemology, to review and reduce our noetic underpinnings.

That being the case, I think the meta-narrative here is that you are antagonistic to the discipline of epistemology *itself*. Do I have that right?

Is it "sissified", or somehow unfaithful to pursue the question: How do we know what we know?

-Touchstone

phillycheese said...

There seems to be a misunderstanding of the pursuit of epistemology in this thread. As the last poster described, most belive that epistemological diputes occur over the idea of "how do we know what whe know" but acedemic epistemology is the discussion of the JUSTIFICATION of what we know to others. How are we justified in our beliefs or truth claims.

I find it humorous that so many who consider themelves "reformed" or who may be sympathetic to TULIP have difficulty in the idea of epistemic uncertainty. If we, as humans, are functioning from a depraved mind, body, environment, etc. then why would anyone think they could know something for certain? Isn't that what faith is all about? Any claim to apodectic certainty within any theological framework takes out the "faith" factor. And while Fideism isn't what i'm trying to proclaim, I do believe that epistemological uncertainty plays to the hand of the reformed theologian more than the post-modern.

Here's where I stand on the issue. I believe in certainty. I believe in objective truth. I believe these things exists, however, even though I can be sure of what I believe, I cannot justify my beliefs or the truths I know with 100% certainty to anyone else. Why? Because I am depraved. I am a completely unique individual and my point of reference for any form of truth will be different from anyone else.

I take Kierkegaards stance on biblical truths in that truth is subjectivity (not subjective). NOT THE BIBLICAL TRUTHS THEMSELVES, that is a misunderstanding of Kierkegaard, but the appropriation of these truths are subjective. We subjectively appropriate the objective truths of the Bible. Meaning that obtaining truth becomes an active, living thing. We have to appropriate truth in our own lives. We have to live it out. That is our proclamation and declaration of what we hold true. It's in the daily living out of what we know.

I'm getting long winded, I know, but if anyone is interested on a truely unique perspective on reformed epistemology, and his treatment of Calvin's sensus divinitatis and the natural knowledge of God, check out Alvin Plantinga's series on warrant. It's three parts that span over a decade of work.

Thanks for the post Phil. I like your name.

david rudd said...

great post, phillycheesesteak.

I find it humorous that so many who consider themelves "reformed" or who may be sympathetic to TULIP have difficulty in the idea of epistemic uncertainty. If we, as humans, are functioning from a depraved mind, body, environment, etc. then why would anyone think they could know something for certain?

this rings so true for me. the deeper i found myself in the reformed tradition, the more i understood the fallenness of man. that logically led me to be more of a deconstructionist, not less...

mind you, i'm not deconstructing God's truth. i'm deconstructing man's take on it so i can get a little closer to the T-truth.

there is a difference between deconstructing the Bible and deconstructing the many presuppositions we approach the Bible with... it is a difficult task.

jerry b., likely it was my father. he is a great expositor. for what it's worth, he'd back me in this discussion :)

jerryb said...

David, Wow, I must admit I am surprised your father would be with you on this one. I realize you would be forming your views, but for him to be with you would be a huge shift in his thinking, given where he has been. Is it in the water or something? Honestly, do you think where you live has impacted your journey?
Also if sanctification comes thru truth (John 17) are you not short circuting the process of sanctification in the lives of believers?

david rudd said...

jerry,

i think you have misunderstood my position on all this...

(possibly due to the "ships passing in the night" type of dialogue that goes on)

i haven't really been trying to argue for my ideas regarding certainty. i've only been suggesting that statements like the one that started the post do not further dialogue.

this post could have been much better had it not begun with a misreprentation of the "pomo/emerging" view of certainty.

phil seeks to make his point regarding certainty by setting up an opponent who holds nothing to be certain.

most (if not all) post-modern's i know would acknowledge that they do hold things to be certain. they would however shy away from that sort of terminology.

the statement i disagreed with from the get go was this:

ever knowing with any degree of certainty or declaring with any kind of authority that anything is true.

count the absolute qualifiers there:

"ever", "any", "any", "anything"...

putting that kind of burden on the opposing viewpoint makes it very easy to win the argument, but very difficult to win a friend...

i'm certain that my father would agree (although, he wouldn't add the ironic humor that i do) that i don't have to agree with the postmodern to properly represent him and discourse civilly with him. that's all i'm saying.

i don't think it's in the water.

i'm pretty sure that living in a blue-collar midwestern town doesn't lend itself toward "emerging" or "postmodern" thought... we're barely modern here!!

Phil Johnson said...

David Rudd quotes Phillycheesesteak:

"If we, as humans, are functioning from a depraved mind, body, environment, etc. then why would anyone think they could know something for certain?"

. . . and David adds this hearty amen:

"this rings so true for me."

But then, in a comment immediately following that one, he says,

David: "phil seeks to make his point regarding certainty by setting up an opponent who holds nothing to be certain.

most (if not all) post-modern's i know would acknowledge that they do hold things to be certain."


So: If you point out that postmodernist principles are hostile to certainty, you're going to be accused of setting up a straw man. But if you think you know actually do "know something for certain," you're going to be derided as someone who arrogantly ignores the ramifications of depravity.

Help me out here. How is that not a perfect example of precisely the kind of irrational pomo doublespeak I'm complaining about?

PS: Regarding the questions about my own personal opinions about epistemology; I'll think about taking that subject up in a future post. The title of this post is meant as a reference to some shopworn pomo-skeptic rhetoric, not an invitation to a philosophical discussion of epistemology, the justification of belief, and whatnot. That's a tangent that we don't really need to launch after almost 100 comments have already been posted.

A hundred comments on a Friday post? Wow. Must be a slow week in the blogosphere.

Habitans in Sicco said...

"statements like the one that started the post do not further dialogue. . . . very easy to win the argument, but very difficult to win a friend . . .--david rudd

i'm curious: is "dialogue" the supreme, all-important goal here, or is the truth itself sometimes vital enough that you should stick to your position even if someone threatens to quit the dialogue if you don't soften your opinion?

and, while we're on the subject, is there any point of truth you would think is important enough to defend even if the cost of defending it is that you lose "friends"?

'cos your whole argument here seems to be that pomos won't like us if we plainly point out what we think is wrong with their opinions

and while i always feel real bad when people don't like me, scripture does say that will happen to anyone who is faithful to the truth

Dr. Qohelet said...

david rudd and Sled Dog have it right. Phil has built a strawman to light ablaze in his initial given on postmoderns:

Postmodern wisdom suggests that humility would actually keep us all from ever knowing with any degree of certainty or declaring with any kind of authority that anything is true.

Most postmoderns, at least in the academic world would say that you can speak with authority and conviction about truth. Caputo, for example, will even speak of truth in religion. However, this truth is different the knowledge that one gets from science (as touchstone pointed out) and works on different principles.

Now, if you go talk to a bunch of frosh stoners, you can find the type of folks you're talking about, but you aren't going to find them among theologians or philosophers working in a postmodern paradigm.

Dr.Q

JSB said...

The kind of “truth” and “certainty” Phil is talking about are the very things the “postmodern paradigm” rejects. Sure, you can find academics yakking about “truth” these days, but it is not the correspondent, foundational variety that the church has been built upon. It may be “pragmatic” or based upon a “coherence” theory of truth, but it is decidedly non-objective and non-propositional.

So far from creating a “straw man,” Phil has ID’d the core issues and that’s making some folks a bit squirmy.

Sheesh, the whole enterprise of post-modern, post-evangelical theology is based on this rejection. See, e.g., the work of Nancey Murphy. The idea is that, in epistemology, foundationalism is dead and a “holism” (a regathering of the fragmented mess modernism has made) is the deal of the day. Language itself is not referential, but “useful.” IOW, one cannot approach theological truth claims from a cognitive-propositionalist direction anymore, and that renders OBJECTIVE TRUTH unknowable. (This is the claim)

So Phil is quite right to characterize pomo beliefs as including these: “dogmatism is inherently arrogant, diversity is always honorable, and propositional truth-claims don't ultimately matter much.”

Wentzel van Huyssteen (Princeton Seminary, and a specialist in epistemology) agrees with Phil, stating that “all postmodern thinkers see the modernist quest for certainty, and the accompanying program of laying foundations for our knowledge, as a dream for the impossible.”

So let’s not pretend there is no real issue over the nature of truth here. It is very real, admittedly so, especially in the academy.

The problem is non-specialists are serving this horseradish to congregations in the name of Christ, and people are downing it whole.

phillycheese said...

Phil,

Phil here. I appreciate your concern for my ability to understand your posts and its intention, however anytime you are going to have a discussion on epistemological humility, it's naturally going to delve into a philosophical discussion on epistemology. I know that the intent is to discuss postmodern ideals and the emergent church but I'm truely suprised that it took this long to get into a philosophical discussion on epistemology.

Also, I appreciate you using my quote to sweep the entirety of postmodernism's thought with broad strokes. I'm flattered. But i get the feeling that a lot of postmodernist wouldn't agree with me as you maybe think they do.

I noticed that you used only a fraction of what i said and didn't even address the main point of my comments. Being that I never claimed that there aren't truths that are objective or certain. I stated that our ability to reach that same certainty and justify it to others is flawed by our depravity. Therefore you have faith. Our obtaining of truth is a process of subjective appropriation of the T ruth that God has given us. It may or may not be certain to us, but regardless, there always will be an element of faith. Not fideism, but a small dose here, a large dose there.

Jim from OldTruth.com said...

phillycheese said: "I find it humorous that so many who consider themelves "reformed" or who may be sympathetic to TULIP have difficulty in the idea of epistemic uncertainty. If we, as humans, are functioning from a depraved mind, body, environment, etc. then why would anyone think they could know something for certain?"

Why isolate just the "T" (total depravity)? What about the "I" in the TULIP; that's the part where God *overcomes* man's depravity. Do you doubt that God is able to overcome the hurdles involved with communicating His truth? That is the very point of doubt in which the pomo camp seems to be questioning God. They don't believe He's able or willing to overcome obstacles of communication. That's still a form of doubting God however.

Phil, great point above about the doublespeak. I don't see how pomo thinkers can give themselves the right to think ANYTHING is certain, and yet some of them seem comfortable being certain and dogmatic about God's existence and the person of Christ, etc.

phillycheese said...

Jim From Oldtruth.com stated:
Why isolate just the "T" (total depravity)? What about the "I" in the TULIP; that's the part where God *overcomes* man's depravity. Do you doubt that God is able to overcome the hurdles involved with communicating His truth?

I don't doubt Gods ability to overcome the hurdles. What I doubt is your ability to overcome them with any form of certainty and justify it to others. I think the point of irrisistable grace is that it is God doing the proclaiming and changing, not us. If you were responsible for this task as a depraved human being we would all be in a lot of trouble.

Jim From Oldtruth.com stated:
They don't believe He's able or willing to overcome obstacles of communication. That's still a form of doubting God however.

No one has said thay doubt God in this way. Especially me. Not only is he willing and able, he obviously has overcome these obstacles. I think I have stated and restated that the communication of truth that I have a problem with is not from God to you or God to me, but from me to you or you to me. Once again this, in my opinion, bolsters the strenght of the reformed position on salvation. It's God who saves. Not us. It's God who is able to declare to our hearts and minds his truth through his Word and by His Holy Spirit. Not us.

Sled Dog said...

I don't follow how I'm broadbrushing.

Bottom line, your original post said "any", later in the meta you wrote "many". That was all that I was concerned about. If that's too picky, well, so be it. I was never trying to change your mind about your original hypothesis.

By the way I am not pomo, emergent, neo-orthodox, et. al. More of a sometimes dismayed evangelical (as opposed to being an always dismayed evangelical).

Mrs Pilgrim said...

Hey, Phil. Thought I'd drop by and share this very quickly:

I did look at the blog you linked to that "Greg" character. Wow. I left one comment at first, asking what he DOES know about Jesus, and all I got was a smart-alecky response. Nobody even answered my question as of this moment.

I gave them back another one, although I don't think it'll do any good. Funny how people can hear the kind of vitriol he spewed against Christians and not consider it "hate"...but challenge him and you need a time-out!

Incidentally, I tried earlier to share I Cor. 2:14-16 here, but Blogger ate my comment. I thought it might be applicable: we have the "mind of Christ" and so CAN know things with perfect certainty even despite our inherent flaws; God can override that as easily as He can sanctify us, yes? (Or am I terribly offbase and need to be ignored? I defer to more mature Christians.)

Just a couple of thoughts. They REALLY hate you at that other blog, Phil, with a passion that is fueled by self-righteousness and arrogance such as they would attribute to Christians. (But what do you expect from people who reject rational thought?)