Friday, November 27, 2015

Introduction: Four Concerns about The Gospel Coalition's View of Truth

          First, along with so many others in the church today, I thank my God through Jesus Christ our Lord for the association of leaders and churches of The Gospel Coalition (hereafter TGC). This association is a strong standard-bearer for the gospel at a time when the gospel is in so many ways under attack, forgotten, or abandoned. On TGC council are members who are widely loved and respected as important leaders in the church: we read and benefit from their books, eagerly listen to their sermons, and rely on their insights. The leaders of TGC are truly gifts of Christ to the church.

            However, while I appreciate the strong stance TGC takes on the gospel and truth generally, I am concerned about certain things written about truth itself at their website under the “Vision” statement as well as in TGC booklet, Can We Know Truth?, authored by Richard Phillips.[1] Particularly, I am troubled by the following: first, there is Phillips’ concluding recommendation that in relating the gospel to postmodern unbelievers, we should not preach or reason but simply give them a Bible and invite them to get back with us if they have any questions[2]—what seems to my mind a sort of “try it, you’ll like it,” relativistic approach to evangelism; second, I am concerned about the epistemology behind this approach to evangelism, particularly, as there seems to be a “bait and switch” strategy at work—that is, TGC seems to bait with a correspondence theory of truth but actually fishes with a coherence theory, which, I believe, is quite different from the biblical understanding of truth; third, I am concerned that the TGC in thus adopting a coherence theory has by logical implication framed its belief about biblical inerrancy within the same theory and, thus, has: (1) conferred on that belief an immunity from outside attack at the cost of no longer having a basis in a verifiable, external reality (the standard historical and scientific claims must abide by); and (2) departed from the framework of the correspondence view of truth which is so critical to the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, particularly as part of the rationale behind the church’s need to take a strong stand in that regard; fourth, I am concerned, more generally, about the manner in which TGC subtly (if not confusingly) both criticizes and befriends certain tenets of modern and postmodern philosophy; more specifically, about TGC’s cluster of skeptical claims, namely, that (1) due to human finitude truth is subjective,[3] (2) because of sin “humans are no longer able to know truth truly at all,”[4] and (3) that there is no “objective epistemological ground” between believers and unbelievers that “does not require Christians to ignore the lordship of Jesus.”[5] These claims and the epistemology behind them, as I hope to demonstrate, are, again, inconsistent with biblical assumptions.

            In sum, these four concerns are interrelated and all pertain to the urgent and timely issue of epistemology (how we understand knowing): the absence of reasoning or preaching in relating the gospel to postmoderns (the first concern), the internalization of a correspondence theory of truth within a coherence theory (the second concern), the departure from the epistemology of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (the third concern), and the denial of a reliably knowable universal truth between believers and unbelievers (the fourth concern).

A Silent, “Try It, You’ll Like It,” Subjective Approach to Evangelism

            As for the first concern, before making his recommendation of evangelizing postmodernists by simply giving them a Bible, Phillips tells how Judy Telchin and then later her parents came to believe in Christ (p. 21). All these conversions involve someone giving an unbeliever a Bible, inviting them to read it, and then see for themselves whether or not the Bible is true. The paradigm for evangelism here is (to state the obvious), first of all, silent in the sense that on the front end and with respect to the gospel no one is preaching to or reasoning with an unbeliever from the Scriptures; secondly, it is subjective or relative in its appeal as the unbeliever is invited to see for themself whether the biblical gospel is true.

            To be clear, that our sovereign Lord at times uses this approach of private Bible reading in making himself known to unbelievers (he did so in my own case) is not what I find objectionable. The problem is when offering someone a Bible is presented as the method for evangelizing people in our postmodern times. That is, even in such a context, I would suggest that the Bible still enjoins, generally speaking, both gospel proclamation (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; 2 Tim. 4:2) and reasoning with people about the Christian hope that is in us (1 Pe. 3:15; Acts 17:2-4, 22-31) as the abiding norm for evangelism.

            Quite frankly, I don’t see how TGC council reconciles this  paradigm for evangelism with actions of some of its own members (that is, their use of reason, evidence, and proclamation in relating to the lost).[6] Needless to say (and to the glory of God!), there seems to be a whole lot more going on in the TGC’s ministry and among churches in their association than just handing out Bibles. Accordingly, if TGC’s own actions show their recognition of the importance of these things, why would they support a booklet on truth that has as its concluding recommendation a silent, Bible-distribution approach to evangelism? 

The Gospel Coalition’s Claim of Correspondence for Truth Is Actually Internalized within a Coherence Theory of Truth

            With all that said, however, my second concern goes deeper. It has to do with the epistemology behind such a recommendation. Ordinarily, when one says (as the council does) “we affirm that truth is correspondence to reality,” this means that propositions can be objectively and verifiably tested against reality and thus proven to be true or false. It also implies that truth is in some sense universal and accessible to everyone.[7] No matter what group, culture, or background one may belong to, the same reality is there and reliably knowable. We might call this “court room epistemology” or everyday, common sense knowing, because of its assumption that whenever the truth of a matter is under question, we can often gain the public clarity we need through facts or evidence.

            On the other hand, if only a specially qualified group of people can know truth (because they know things others don’t, especially because how they know things is different), then truth is not what corresponds to reality but what coheres with what those particular people believe—that is, their presuppositions as a group. Such an approach to truth reflects a coherence theory of truth, which may be defined as, “truth is what coheres or is consistent with everything else we—not as the public or people in general but as a private or particular group—believe.”

            However, this presents a problem. Whatever its value in other contexts (such as religion), where public truth is concerned, such as in a court of law or everyday life, the coherence theory does not work. The reason is obvious: by definition such a theory does not claim the kind of neutrality, universality, or objectivity necessary for those contexts. Coherence truth is private or “for members only.” Hence, it cannot—in its claim to knowledge and by definition—include everyone. What would happen, for instance, if a defense attorney employed an argument based on a way of knowing unique to himself or the defendant? How far would he get in a court of law? His conclusion might be true for him and his client (his private club, in that sense), but it would not be true for the rest of those involved in the trial: the attorney for the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the public at large.

            It may be helpful to recall that the coherence theory was formulated specifically due to a prior rejection of the correspondence theory.[8] Indeed, the coherence theory serves for many (especially in philosophy) not only as a counter to the correspondence theory but also a worthy substitute for it. This does not mean, of course, that there is no coherence of beliefs within the framework of a correspondence theory. Nor does it mean, on the other hand (quite importantly in this context), that there is no claim of correspondence to reality within the framework of a coherence theory. (As I will explain shortly, this is where I believe TGC’s own claim to correspondence belongs.) It does mean, however, that with a coherence theory, at no point along the range of what it claims to know (even when it is most confident) does it propose for its knowledge the kind of correspondence to reality which, consistent with the theory so named (and, again, to which coherence is opposed), is objective, verifiable, and accessible to all.

            This is why, of course, knowledge based on coherence is called “a web of belief.” Knowledge of this sort—in contrast to the groundedness of correspondence—is, as it were, suspended in mid-air. Such knowledge, though held together, has no connection to the earth in the sense that it has no foundation in what is generally, reliably, and verifiably knowable for everyone. A coherence theory, therefore, is an approach to truth which accommodates what diverse groups, collectives, or cultures believe sans any direct, objective, and universal epistemic justification in external reality.

            Hence, this theory of truth is consistent with knowledge regarded as subjective and relative. It is, indeed, pluralistic or perspectival in nature. This is because its basic assumption is that, for any particular group, its way of knowing (distinct from what it knows that way) uniquely and necessarily conditions what it counts as knowledge. Consequently, its knowledge is not shared by other groups. Put differently, a coherence theory holds that there is no one way of knowing available to everyone. In order, then, for Group A to convince Group B to adopt its beliefs, its appeal to truth can only be indirect. That is, Group A appeals directly neither to what it knows (based on its way of knowing) nor to something objective and knowable by all (since, of course, it doesn’t believe that things are known that way) but to its way of knowing (its presuppositions). With a coherence theory, then, if Group A wishes to persuade Group B to accept its truths, it does so by, in effect, making the following proposal: “Please try our way of knowing, and then, perhaps, you will accept what we know—that is, become convinced of and embrace our truths.” 

             With that said, I wonder if notwithstanding its explicit identification with a correspondence theory of truth and rejection of “truth as nothing more than the internally coherent language of a particular faith-community,”[9] TGC actually supports a coherence theory that includes an internal claim to correspondence. To make this case, I begin with Phillips:

The purpose of this booklet, then, is not to present an objective epistemology that anyone—Christian or not—would adopt....Wouldn’t it be better, some will ask, to meet our unbelieving neighbors on an objective epistemological common ground? That answer is that no such objective ground exists...[10]

 For the moment, I have intentionally omitted important qualifiers in this quotation, which I intend to include and address shortly. However, I wish to underscore in the quotation that in context the denial of an “objective epistemological common ground” is not what unbelievers are espousing under the sway of what Phillips elsewhere calls “today’s relativist hegemony.” Rather, this is Phillips himself speaking. That is, at this point, Phillips is not accommodating himself for the sake of the gospel to a subjective or relativistic age. This means (or so I argue) that what is both fundamental and critical to the correspondence theory of truth itself, namely, the implied assumption of a reality which can be known and verified by all, is not part of Phillips’ approach to truth. However, once this assumption is rejected, some other theory of truth than that of correspondence has to take its place. As I hope to show, next, that theory is one of coherence.       

            Now for the qualifiers I left out from the quotation: after rejecting “an objective epistemological ground” which is the same, whether one is a Christian or not, Phillips offers an alternative to that ground, which is an approach to truth based on the Christian faith itself. The latter, he says, “reflects the core beliefs of our gospel faith,” “validates our experience as Christian believers,” “presents how we as Christians answer questions regarding the knowledge of truth,” and honors “the lordship of Jesus.” Here the implication seems clear that if in presenting the gospel to unbelievers Christians assume that there is “an objective epistemological ground” between believer and unbeliever (that is, make a direct appeal to the truth), then they are, in that particular engagement, failing to honor (at least to some extent) their Christian faith and their Lord. And, as for the unbeliever with whom we are speaking about the gospel, there is apparently no basis for communication or persuasion apart from getting them to first presuppose Christian beliefs in general. (That is—and in a sense—they need to believe in order to believe.) Thus we have something quite similar to my earlier illustration of the coherence theory in action. Group A says to Group B, “Please try our way of knowing, and then, perhaps, you will accept what we know—that is, become convinced of and embrace our truths.”

            As for how, specifically, TGC and Phillips internalize their own claim to correspondence within a coherence theory of truth, it seems to go something like this. Because of finitude and sin, humans cannot know truth.[11] However, when someone is regenerated, they are able to understand the Word of God whose perfect knowledge alone corresponds to reality. The regenerate, therefore, have in this way unique access to objective truth; however, this comes not directly but indirectly. It is mediated through God and the Bible as the Spirit imparts understanding to the heart. Consequently, truth gets defined as what coheres to what God says in Scripture (again, which is known subjectively by the Spirit) and any claim of correspondence to external reality is located within that coherence. Conversely, those who are not regenerate (thus lacking the internal principle necessary for knowledge) have no reliable, epistemic access to objective truth.

            This means that there is a significant ambiguity in Phillips’ statement: “Prior to giving our witness to Christian truth, we will often have to present clear Christian views about truth itself.”[12] If by a Christian view of truth, Phillips means a correspondence view of truth (a knowledge, in a sense, accessible to everyone the way other things ordinarily are) as supported by the Bible, that is one thing. (That doesn’t seem to be what he is saying.) If, on the other hand, by a Christian view of truth (or “our witness”), he means (or implies) that truth is itself entirely relative to one’s subjective presuppositions or perspective, that is another. If he means the latter, he is saying something philosophical not biblical. He is also, quite significantly, conceding considerable ground to relativism itself—albeit, in the name of a Christian form of relativism. In that case, for instance, those postmodern unbelievers who say, “No thank you,” to our invitation as Christians to, “Please try our way of knowing,” will tend to walk away feeling—precisely because of this approach—justified and even confirmed in their own relativism.

            Now my claim that Phillips is enlisting a coherence approach to truth is further confirmed by his account of a conversation between James Boice and a woman on an airplane. As an unbeliever, the woman had objections to the Christian faith.[13] However, Boice kept asking her, “But is it [the Christian faith] true?” Phillips asks us to suppose that she was a relativist and did not believe in truth as a common ground. In context, he is imagining for us a problem we may face in talking to postmodernists about the gospel. And since we have already noted that Phillips himself does not believe in truth as a common ground, this is a bit puzzling, but let us continue. He then asks: “How, then, are Christians to proclaim truth in a world that no longer believes in it?” Phillips continues: “The answer to the challenge of our times is surely not to turn aside from our biblical witness to argue complicated theories of epistemology and hermeneutics.” Apart from what might be a questionable assumption that arguing “complicated theories of epistemology and hermeneutics” constitutes turning “aside from our biblical witness”—not to mention that he is from the outset already significantly vested in such “complicated theories”—Phillips’ encouragement (as I highlighted at the beginning) is for us to simply give this person a Bible, tell how God has met our own subjective need for truth by sending his Spirit to provide what is written there, including what it tells us of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, who gives understanding to sincere seekers of truth from God’s Word. However, again, is this not basically saying to that person, “Please try our way of knowing”? And, as I already indicated, is that not what relativists or those who support a coherence view of truth say in commending “their” truth to others?

            Of course, it is a wonderful thing, when someone is willing to receive a Bible from us, especially when they are intent on weighing whether or not the gospel is true. However, as a general strategy for bringing the gospel to postmodern unbelievers, I wonder: Is that sufficient? Furthermore, if we do persuade such people to essentially “believe in order to believe,” what kind of converts will they be? Did they believe because the Bible and the Christian faith are true (Boice’s concern)? Or did they believe because they experienced it as true? Did they separate reason from faith in their conversion? Did they put their minds on hold, suspend their judgment, in order to believe? 

            In addition, Phillips says early in his book that “it will not suffice [emphasis mine—jnp] to hold forth our Bible and walk friends down the famous ‘Romans Road’ series of evangelistic verses.”[14] He explains that due to the relativism of our times, we will also need to answer questions as to why we should accept the Bible as true or why we should think what is true for us is true for others, etc.[15] Now I must confess that when I first read this reference to “the famous ‘Romans Road’ series of evangelistic verses” I wasn’t sure what this meant. I found on the internet that it involves a series of verses from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to support the following truths:

1. Everyone needs salvation because we have all sinned (Rom. 3:10-12, 23).

2. The price (or consequence) of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

3. Jesus Christ died for our sins. He paid the price for our death (Rom. 5:8).

4. We receive salvation and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:9-10, 23).

5. Salvation through Jesus Christ brings us into a relationship of peace with God (Rom. 5:1; 8:1, 38-39).
As I read these bulleted points, it occurred to me that if one were to study all the gospel messages recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, these “Romans Road” points are all either explicitly or implicitly expressed there. The only difference is that in the apostolic presentation of the gospel, we find a consistent pattern of appeal (summarized in 1 Cor. 15:1-8) to the fulfillment of Scriptural prophecies as well as to their own eyewitness testimony as apostles to argumentatively support the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth is Messiah and Lord. Hence, the “Romans Road” approach to evangelism is an elaboration of appropriate conclusions related to and even inseparable from this central conclusion of the apostolic proclamation of the gospel. As such (I trust this is fair), Phillips may as well have said, “When it comes to evangelizing those who are postmodern, it will not suffice to preach what the apostles preached in The Book of Acts or what Paul commends as the gospel with its evidence and proofs in 1 Corinthians 15. We should, instead, hand them a Bible and invite them to experience the truth for themselves.” This also means when Phillips says (as noted above) that “in many cases” the “Romans Road” approach “will not suffice,” what in the end he really seems to mean is that it “will not do.”

            Admittedly, at the risk of a simplistic reduction of Phillips’ argument, I wonder if, even in our postmodern times, there is no relevance or direction given us in Paul’s sacred charge to Timothy: “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2)? That is, does Paul say, “Hand out the Scriptures” (though, if possible, that would certainly be an important supplement to preaching the Word)? Such a charge would seem to recommend, again, a silent approach to evangelism (to use D.A. Carson’s phrase, a “gagging of God”). It seems to mean something like, “Don’t talk to people about Jesus, especially if they are relativists. Let them get the gospel on their own, subjectively, by reading the Scriptures and the help of the Holy Spirit.” However, what Paul says to Timothy with this charge to “preach the Word” (or what Peter says with his, “be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you”—1 Pe. 3:15) seems to be a direct counter to any prescription for a silent or “try it you’ll like it” approach to evangelism. It is, notably (in Paul’s case), even more than directing Timothy to use words or speak to others directly about Jesus—even more than making a claim supported by reasons (though it surely includes as much)—it is, indeed, proclamation

            Hence, it seems to me that the explanation for why there is in Phillips an abandonment of the “Romans Road” (or, as I propose, apostolic) approach to evangelism or of preaching and reasoning itself is that activities of this nature are logically consistent with the correspondence theory of public truth (which Phillips rejects). However, a coherence theory (which Phillips accepts), as a non-public, private, or exclusive approach to truth, calls for a different approach altogether. It is obviously more subjective in nature and logically implies a manner of relating to people which is more indirect, less confrontive, and gently encourages people to get things on their own. Hence, instead of the urgent and passionate, apostolic call (such as one observes consistently in Acts) to consider what the Scriptures say about Jesus as the Messiah as well as the apostles’ own testimony to the same (all accompanied with persuasive reasoning, etc.), under a coherence approach (as we see with TGC’s recommendation), it is the Christian perspective itself which is presented by handing someone a Bible and praying they will have a believer’s subjective experience of the gospel as truth.

The Gospel Coalition’s Adoption of a Coherence Theory of Truth Undermines What It Means to Believe in an Inerrant Bible

Before I address my third concern, it might be helpful to lay out some groundwork on which, I believe (at least, in the fundamentals), TGC would agree.

            In Can We Know the Truth?, Phillips’ quotation from Herman Bavinck that “the finite does not grasp the infinite” (p. 15) and his point (often associated with Cornelius Van Til) that human reasoning and biblical content are “analogous” to (that is, similar to but not the same as; see p. 14) God’s reasoning and who he really is as God are things often heard among Christians, like myself, who are Reformed. The motive of magnifying God as the infinite God in clear distinction from finite humans with respect to knowledge is, of course, not only commendable but appropriate for us as Christians. However, I am sure TGC would agree with me that it is critical in this regard that we speak as Scripture speaks. And though the Bible declares things like, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways!” (Rom. 11:33), it also assumes everywhere within its pages that God is knowable as he has made himself known through Scripture and his Son. It also assumes that we are, therefore, accountable to know him. In addition, the Bible never says that God’s reasoning is different from (or not the same as) our reasoning. Hence, when he says, “Come, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18), God is neither patronizing nor playing with us. For all bibically revelational and practical purposes as believers, then, it is appropriate to think of God as one who reasons the way we do. That assumption is critical to epistemic confidence in one’s relationship to God (that is, that one is walking in the truth or reality of who God truly is — 2 John 4).
            What this underscores is that in God’s communication to people through the Bible certain basic beliefs are critical and must be held together. If we fail to uphold all these beliefs in their integrity, then there is a risk that this communication will break down. These beliefs are: first (as just stated), that God is knowable and has revealed himself through the Bible; second, that the Bible is God’s inerrant Word and true in all that it says (what Scripture says, God says); and, third, that humans can know God through his Word. If because of philosophy or theology, for instance, we conclude that God is by definition unknowable, then this will reduce our regard for the Bible as his Word as well as our confidence that we can know him. Or, if because of a God-denying misuse of science or history, we conclude that there are errors in the Bible, then, again, we will tend to progressively lose confidence that the Bible is the Word of God and that we can truly know God. Finally, if we believe that we as humans cannot know truth or have knowledge in general, then this, also, would cause a loss of confidence that we may know God. This is because, if we are ill-equipped (whether by nature or because of sin) to receive or know God’s Word, what does it matter if God is knowable or has made himself known through an inerrant Bible? In sum, communication between God and people may break down, depending upon artificially created problems (usually derived from philosophy), at any of these three levels of belief which pertain to the nature of God, Scripture, or human knowing.

            As I understand it, when the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy issued their three Chicago statements (1978, 1982, 1986), they were concerned (especially in their first two statements) to address and defend the three beliefs just highlighted as requisite for full integrity in the communication between God and people. The main focus of the council, however, was on biblical inerrancy (the second belief). However (as just indicated), they were not unaware of critical issues pertaining to human knowing or epistemology (the third belief). For instance, in their 1978 statement on biblical inerrancy they write:

This authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own [emphasis mine — jnp]; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the church. ("A Short Statement," section 5)

 Then with their second statement in 1982 on biblical hermeneutics, we read the following:

First, in contrast to contemporary relativism it is declared that truth is absolute. Second, as opposed to subjectivism it is acknowledged that truth is objective. Finally, in opposition to existential and pragmatic views of truth, this article affirms that truth is what corresponds to reality. (Article VI)

Additionally, in that same statement in one of their denials they address the problem of relativism:

WE DENY that Scripture should be required to fit alien preunderstandings, inconsistent with itself, such as naturalism, evolutionism, scientism, secular humanism, and relativism. (Article XIX)

            I remind TGC council of these things with which they are undoubtedly familiar in order to stress that if I am right in my claim above that TGC has embedded its own correspondence theory of truth within a coherence theory and thereby adopted a Christian form of relativism, then implicitly TGC has departed from the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy with respect to the epistemology which in their three statements frames belief in biblical inerrancy. As far as I know, TGC has not explicitly addressed this difference but, to my mind, it seems quite significant.

            If under a coherence theory we respond to this world’s charge that the Bible has errors by simply affirming that everything in the Bible is true and without error because it is God’s Word and if we, thus, exempt ourselves from applying the same tests for truth we ordinarily apply when truth is under question in our everyday world, then we are effectively saying to people (at least, this is what they will hear) that we have accepted a certain religious view of reality which has no more basis in fact or universal reality than an empty, fictional world someone has imagined in their own head. Consequently, we confirm the cultural cliche that Christianity is not about facts but “faith.” And this, in turn, tends to mean: what people do in accepting something as true even though they have no basis in reality for it.

            Ordinarily, if someone in our world claims to have a reality uniquely their own, such as the Jimmy Stewart movie character named Elwood with his invisible, large, rabbit friend Harvey, do we not say that they are lost in illusion or their own reality? And is this not because we believe there is a neutral, universal reality we as humans share in common which serves as the ground for this determination? Now if a special knowing available merely by the Spirit in Christ—that is, not neutral nor available to all and not grounded in any sense (what I will consider later) in ordinary knowing—is required for faith in Jesus Christ, are we not saying that believing in and walking with Jesus is a kind of illusion (like Elwood and his friend) assured to us by the Holy Spirit? If so, how is this different from a “reality” or “truth” a person has or attempts to convey to others, let’s say, based on a subjective experience of “God” from a non-Christian religion or perhaps a drug-induced “trip” (what Francis Schaeffer was always concerned about)? 

            When the apostle Peter says, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pe. 1:16) and when the apostle John speaks of the Word made flesh as “that...which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands” (1 Jn. 1:1) does this not indicate that the apostles of our Lord clearly did not exempt the truth of the gospel they preached from the ordinary, common sense, universal, and objective verification generally applied to any truth claim in our world? And is this not, therefore, an implicit, divinely authorized stand against any account of knowing—any epistemology—which renders the Bible immune to the same kind of test? If regeneration and the work of the Spirit and the view that “God says it, so it is true” had been the only recourse the apostles had against the charge that their message had errors or was not true, would we not see this somewhere in Scripture?

            As you know, this is why Francis Schaeffer denied that the Bible is a “religious book,” if by that we mean that the Bible is providing an experiential, subjective, and “upper-story” truth (that is, truth that is factually, publicly, and universally non-verifiable). For instance, in his No Final Conflict: The Bible without Error in All that It Affirms, Schaeffer writes:

If we try to separate the religious passages in the book of Genesis from those which touch on history and the cosmos, the religious passages are relegated to an upper-story situation. They have been removed from any connection to space-time verification, and that means no historical or scientific study can refute them. But it also follows that no studies can verify them. In short, there is no reason to accept the upper-story religious things either. The upper-story religious things only become a quarry out of which to have our own personal subjective, existential, religious experience. There is no reason, then, to think of the religious things as being other than in one’s own head.[16]

Admittedly, what Schaeffer is dealing with here concerns conclusions drawn in liberal theology based on modern scientific method, as well as existential directions first in philosophy and then in theology which developed from what was perceived as the absence of God and the failure of reason. However, as I have been arguing, in its rejection of an objective truth accessible to everyone, a coherence theory applied to the Christian faith also reduces the truth which is the object of that faith to a subjective, “upper-story” experience. Having said that, I recognize that on the terms TGC employs for that experience, the objectivity of truth is assured to the believer subjectively by the Holy Spirit based on Scripture. But in the big picture (and as I will demonstrate further in a moment), this objectivity is significantly different from that for which Schaeffer throughout his life argued. And, more importantly, it is different from the nature of truth as revealed in Scripture.

            For instance, when Moses teaches the people how they may “know [emphasis mine—jnp] the word the LORD has not spoken” (Deut. 18:21-22), does he say they should consult merely the inner confirmation of the Spirit in their heart? Does he say, “It is true, because God says so and God cannot lie—follow your inner witness”? Does he not, rather, apply an ordinary, common sense, and objective test, as he says, “If the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken” (Deut. 18:22)? And does this not imply that however finite and sinful the people were, they could understand what had been presented as prophecy and they could know historical reality sufficiently and reliably enough to know the difference between whether a prophecy comes to pass or not? Is this not a test from God himself, involving an exercise in neutral knowledge and ordinary reality, which stands outside Scripture itself and which serves as an objective test, for the same?

            With that said (and not to get ahead of myself), when TGC describes modernism as a view that “unaided human able to know truth objectively,” does “unaided human reason” mean “reason without Scripture”? If so, is this not precisely what Moses is requiring the people of Israel to do (in the situation just mentioned)? That is, in this context where the question was whether or not a specific word claimed as from God truly is so, Moses does not point the people of Israel to Scripture or another prophetic word as an aid for reason to determine such. He commands them to use their “unaided”—in the sense that no Scripture was helping or could help them—reason in the following ways: (1) for understanding what the prophecy meant; (2) for observing and figuring out whether the prophecy came true or not; and (3) for concluding that if the prophecy came true it was from God and if it didn’t, it wasn’t from God. The logic for the positive case goes like this:

Major Premise: If a prophetic claim comes true, then it is from God.

Minor Premise: Prophetic claim A came true.

Conclusion: Therefore, prophetic claim A is from God. (The claim is legitimate.)

And the logic for the negative case is the following:

Major Premise: If a prophetic claim does not come true, then it is not from God.

Minor Premise: Prophetic claim B did not come true.

Conclusion: Therefore, prophetic claim B is not from God. (The claim is not legitimate.)

Their assignment, then, from God through Moses was to determine—based on observation and reason—the universally accessible, objective truth as to whether or not a certain prophetic claim truly was so. There was nothing inappropriate, in this particular case, about using “unaided reason” (reason apart from Scripture) to test whether prophetic claims were truly from God. They didn’t have (again, in this particular case) Scripture as either a test or an epistemological condition by which to make this determination. Furthermore, it would have been a matter of disobedience if the people had not used their own observation and reason as the Lord told them to in this case. Hence, what this amounts to is that by God’s own instructions, a prophetic claim, which if true is God’s truth or potentially written Scripture itself, must, nonetheless, pass a truth-test in external reality based on human reason and observation. Notably, this requirement is not “modernism” or “rationalism” but an ancient, divinely prescribed method for discerning whether or not a prophetic claim is truly from God.  

            Apparently, this sort of thing is what Francis Schaeffer means by “the truth which is behind the truth of Scripture.”[17] He even makes the controversial claim: "Truth is not ultimately related even to the Scriptures."[18] He then defines truth:  "truth is that which is in relationship to what exists and ultimately to the God who exists."[19]  So what is Schaeffer claiming here? Aren't the Scriptures God's self-disclosure as the God of truth? Do they not give us objective reality? No doubt, Schaeffer would affirm as much. And, therefore, as surely as God Himself is truth, even the Creator who makes the conditions necessary for truth, aren't the Scriptures as God's Word so ultimate as truth that nothing is behind or foundational to them? That they are themselves as God's Word the ultimate reference point in, for, and as reality — and therefore, there is no other reality behind them? At this point, Schaeffer would say no. Why?

            Now this is, it seems to me, a critically important question. There are respected and well meaning leaders in the church today who are, thankfully, speaking up for truth but who are claiming that there is no truth but the Bible and, hence (by implication), no truth apart from or behind the Bible. They equate the Bible with truth in such an exaggerated sense that the Bible is viewed as having the only content which qualifies as truth in general or as all that can be known with certainty as truth. In other words, the only objectivity there is for truth is in and by the Bible alone. Hence, we are back to a correspondence theory internalized within coherence. That is, when they support a correspondence view of truth, they don’t mean “truth is what corresponds to reality” but “truth is what corresponds to God’s Word.” Now the latter is certainly true, but it does not account for the broader view of truth which Scripture itself everywhere and clearly supports. Consequently, however seemingly spiritual and God-glorifying it sounds to claim, in effect, that “truth is what merely and only corresponds to God’s Word,” such a claim amounts to an unbiblical, human contrivance. It is important, therefore, for us to understand that this position has three serious problems: (1) it overstates the Bible's own claim to be truth; (2) it misrepresents or contradicts the Bible’s own standard of verification for its truth (such as, Moses’ test in Deut. 18:21-22); and (3) it indirectly and ultimately undermines the Bible's own real-world or public status as truth.

            For this reason, when that part of modernism which has a realistic epistemology claims there are errors in the Bible based, for instance, on what actually happened in history or what it believes is true in science, their approach to truth itself is not wrong. That part of what they are doing is similar to Moses’ test for what is not true prophecy or Peter’s test to show that with his gospel he was not cleverly inventing fictions. What is objectionable about modernists are things like their self-worship, unbelief, rejection of Scripture, and lack of objectivity—not their belief in truth and the attempt (through reasons and evidence) at achieving objectivity itself. If modernists of this stripe truly considered everything and were not actively resisting belief in God and idolatrously worshipping their own minds, they would see that there is solid evidence, for example, that Jesus was raised from the dead. And they would also see that the “errors” in Scripture they so glibly point out are, for any reasonable person, often explainable.  

            In sum, what an immunity to attack on biblical inerrancy gained through a coherence theory does is diminish the persuasive, establishing power of both the Bible and its gospel as truth. This applies not only to outsiders whose salvation we seek but also, the church itself. One recalls here Schaeffer’s quotation from J. S. Bezzant:

When I am told that it is precisely its immunity from proof which secures the Christian proclamation from the charge of being mythological I reply that immunity from proof can ‘secure’ nothing whatever except immunity from proof, and call nonsense by its name.[20]

That this immunity is gained through an epistemology which is, as I have called it, a Christian version of relativism does not alter the point: removing the truth of the gospel from the realm of universally knowable truth (court room epistemology, every day knowing, etc.) does that truth no favor but actually undermines it as truth.

            That is, biblical inerrancy has always been about whether in having Scripture we indeed have God’s infallible truth, where fallibility is measured by what we are ordinarily able to verify as true or false. Christians who are taught that there is no universally knowable reality, particularly, as a test of biblical truthfulness, will also know intuitively that such a Bible thus disconnected from reality could be the product of human imagination. In addition, they will know, similarly, that all their beliefs based on the Bible (their Christian worldview) are no more verifiable than other secular or religious beliefs about the world. Hence, instead of, “How firm the foundation [laid for their faith]” they will know the words should be (as certain postmodern Christians believe), “How infirm the foundation.” My point is that biblical inerrancy as framed by a correspondence view of truth (what we see in the statements issued by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy) has as part of its central aim the destruction of any approach to faith or God’s Word which removes the Bible from an ordinary, reliably knowable connection with external reality. Douglas Groothuis puts this eloquently:

When objective truth is removed, the community becomes merely self-referential and ultimately autistic. It has its web of beliefs; it engages in various practices. But it cannot be said that the community reflects objective realities. This leaves members of the community with no compelling reason to adhere to these beliefs. What are these beliefs about, if not something outside of the community that gives it its compelling relationship to reality?[21]

             Admittedly, this is only anecdotal but in my experience as a philosophy professor at a conservative, Reformed Christian college which supports biblical inerrancy—where it was also generally believed (though not stated in their founding documents) among faculty and students that truth is subjective and knowledge is entirely relative to one’s perspective—some of our best and brightest Christian young people, like a small but steady stream, were giving up the faith right under our noses. No doubt things like that happen at Christian colleges but the point is that if we have adopted an epistemology that justifies, in terms of knowing external reality, a groundlessness whether with belief or unbelief—when, in essence, we are convinced that the Bible on which the Christian faith depends is divorced from a verifiable, objective, and ordinary reality—only confirmed to our hearts as truth by the Holy Spirit—then, it should not surprise us that our students are losing their faith. “They have,” as Douglas says, “no compelling reason to adhere to these beliefs.” If we keep telling them what they can’t and don’t know—all the problems with knowing itself—problems foreign to anything Scripture says—why are we surprised that one day they throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know if my faith has to do with anything real. So excuse me while I go my way and spend my time entertaining a different and more interesting fantasy.” This is why we need—and must have—for biblical inerrancy and the Christian faith based on God’s Word the correspondence approach to truth. As the church, I am sure TGC would agree with me that we cannot afford to play the philosophers’ games about something so infinitely precious as truth. Groothuis issues an important and solemn warning here:

Therefore, the correspondence view of truth is not simply one of many options for Christians. It is the only biblically and logically grounded view of truth available and allowable. We neglect or deny it to our peril and disgrace. Truth decay will not be dispelled without it.[22]

            We have now come to my fourth and last concern, as stated in the heading below.

The Gospel Coalition Has Both Criticized and Befriended Certain Tenets of Modern and Postmodern Philosophy and in Doing So Has Compromised a Biblical Understanding of Truth

Boice, Sproul, and Schaeffer

            First, a more general comment. In his Can We Know the Truth?, Phillips enlists for various contexts the help of James Boice, R. C. Sproul, and Francis Schaeffer. While I am thankful that Phillips includes them, I am not quite certain why. For readers unfamiliar with these names, it might seem that this is a gesture of respect, even deference, on Phillips’ part. But it also may seem that Phillips, perhaps unintentionally, is implying that Boice, Sproul, and Schaeffer would to some extent countenance Phillips’ beliefs, such as, truth is subjective, or Christians should employ a “try it you’ll like it” approach to evangelizing postmoderns, or that there is no objective epistemological ground between a believer and unbeliever. As no doubt TGC council members know, this certainly is not the case. For example, James Boice opens his booklet, Does Inerrancy Matter?, with a quote from someone who had attended one of his conferences on biblical inerrancy. In that quote, negative attention is called to the relativistic, “try it, you’ll like it,” attitude reflected in the comments made by various people in the audience. These people didn’t see much point in defending biblical inerrancy. And they did so precisely because they understood truth as relative. Understandably, for them, defending inerrancy was a moot point. On the other hand, when Boice speaks to them about how the Bible is without error, he does so with a belief in objective truth and no doubt similar to what we find in his booklet on that topic: “This [biblical inerrancy—jnp] is established by treating it as any other historical record, as, for instance, the works of Josephus or the accounts of war by Julius Caesar.”[23] That is, from Boice’s standpoint, there is a reliably knowable, potentially testable-by-all, objective reality behind the claim that the Bible is without error. It isn’t merely an internally coherent belief assured by the Holy Spirit to believers in Jesus. It isn’t true merely because God says so. Obviously, then, for Phillips (who begins and ends his book with Boice) to seemingly associate Boice—whether as a gesture of unity and respect or to lend credence to Phillips’ own denial of such an objective ground—is at best misleading. As for R. C. Sproul (along with John Gerstner and Arthur Lindsley), he and these others authored Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics, which is itself a classic, textbook refutation of the very presuppositionalism Phillips assumes in his own view of truth. And, finally, Francis Schaeffer’s entire corpus of writings amounts to (or assumes) a strong polemic on behalf of the very “objective epistemological common ground” which Phillips says does not exist. Curiously, on the other hand, it seems that the one person to whom Phillips is most indebted in his view of truth is never mentioned at all: Cornelius Van Til. 
The Modern-Postmodern Framework

            With that said, I wish to begin this fourth concern by a consideration of the manner in which TGC frames its understanding of truth, particularly, with the historical, modern-postmodern controversy over truth. In the TGC “Vision” statement, we read:

For several hundred years, since the dawning of the Enlightenment, it was widely agreed that truth—expressed in words that substantially correspond to reality—does indeed exist and can be known. Unaided human reason, it was thought, is able to know truth objectively. More recently, postmodernism has critiqued this set of assumptions, contending that we are not in fact objective in our pursuit of knowledge, but rather interpret information through our personal experiences, self–interests,  emotions, cultural prejudices, language limitations, and relational communities.

Similarly, Phillips also frames his discussion of truth in the same modern-postmodern terms:

We happen to be living in a historical moment of tension between two models or theories regarding the knowledge of truth: the modern and the postmodern.[24]

I acknowledge, first, that based on Scripture TGC is clearly critical of both historical trends. My concern, however, is that this way of framing an investigation of truth tends to imply to a certain extent that these are the two options we must somehow negotiate with in our understanding of truth. That is, any discussion of truth (even with Scripture as the final arbiter) seems compelled to do its buying and selling based significantly on a closed market of ideas represented by the modern-postmodern controversy.

            Now I am well aware that many academics today are quite taken with this narrowly focused, modern-postmodern narrative, as if it tells the whole story of reason and truth. Is it not, however, rather simplistic? For instance, why is it that TGC recognizes nothing historically in our understanding of the concept of truth prior to the modern period? The manner in which TGC narrates the “crisis” of truth makes it seem as if the correspondence theory of truth has had only one face: modern philosophy. Surely TGC does not hold that the modern period has some special claim on that theory. Does the premodern period—or, better, mankind’s common sense in general—not count?

            I hasten to add that I am aware that TGC intends to support a biblical version of correspondence truth. It would not be fair, therefore, to claim that TGC believes the correspondence theory somehow equates only with modern philosophy. But what puzzles me about TGC’s depiction of this “crisis” for truth is that it almost seems TGC is claiming the church itself is somehow involved in it—that because of our epistemological times, something about the church’s own epistemology (not just its method of relating to postmoderns) must change. That is, could it be that whereas Francis Schaeffer would say, “There is no problem of epistemology for the Christian,” TGC members are, perhaps, clearing their throat and replying, “With all due respect, Sir, we believe Christians do have a problem of epistemology”? For instance, the trilogy of TGC’s propositions I am examining under this fourth concern, namely, truth is (1) subjective because of finitude; (2) not truly knowable because of sin; and (3) not something epistemologically shared as common ground between believers and unbelievers. Do Bible-believing Christians in America or even worldwide generally have such notions? And where would they get them, if they didn’t have them? Does TGC believe they would learn them from the Bible? Do these three propositions have some other source than philosophy?  
            Another thing: is there not a certain partiality in TGC’s telling of the modern-postmodern narrative? Is there not more favor shown to postmodernism than modernism? Isn’t modernism, for the most part, the bad guy in their account? And postmodernism, at least by comparison, the not-so-bad, somewhat-useful guy (as long as he doesn’t get too out of hand)? Has modernism no positive features (for instance: results like refrigerators, cars, and vaccines)? Again, have we not painted ourselves in a corner with a false dilemma? Is there, for instance, no other paradigm for the use of reason than what is on offer in modernism? Does modernism really get to set the terms in that regard? And—that they do get to set the terms—is that not why if a Christian stresses reason or objectivity in persuading unbelievers of the truth of the gospel they get labelled as a “rationalist” or “modernist”? And if they are overly confident about knowing something, they are perceived as having failed to learn the lessons of postmodernity? Have these two historical trends in Western philosophy not become for us as Christians a kind of limiting, interpretive overlay in handling issues pertaining to truth (the place of reason and evidence, subjectivity and objectivity, the nature of facts, etc.)—held in check only by Scripture when we are absolutely pinned to the wall by certain unacceptable conclusions, such as, modernity’s God-denying and autonomous use of reason or postmodernity’s denial that truth exists?

            What am I getting at? Why not begin and stay with Scripture—even exhaust it as the authoritative resource for understanding the concept or nature of truth—particularly before we turn to what is happening in philosophy? Why does it seem that we as Christians are being encouraged by leaders we trust and respect to pay philosophy’s dues? Must we tip our hats to the philosophers as the experts on truth, as if what they have to say about truth as a concept is our ultimate authority? Did Jesus or the apostles ever have such concern for what the philosophers say about truth? Or when has the church throughout its history shown such deference to philosophy, as it seems TGC is doing? And since, “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture,”[25] how does TGC biblically justify their deference to philosophy for an understanding of the nature or concept of truth?

            In one of Phillips’ concluding statements, we find the following: “The answer to the challenge of our times is surely not to turn aside from our biblical witness to argue complicated theories of epistemology and hermeneutics.”[26] Is it not true, however (and as I’ve already noted), that much of what Phillips has written about truth (such as, that truth is subjective and that sinful humans cannot know truth at all) is indeed steeped, even made possible, precisely by such “complicated theories”? Moreover, that Phillips states his view of truth in this manner without argument or proof does not mean that such is obviously true, indefeasible, or non-controversial. For instance, when he says that apart from sin human knowing (pertaining to truth) is “subjective,” “partial,” and “selective,” what are Christians to make of such a statement? Again, where would they go in Scripture to verify this? What would the early church make of such a statement—particularly, since (as Paul recognizes) not many of them were “wise” by the standards of their philosophical age (1 Cor. 1:26)? And what about those “little children” who were not “wise and understanding” and yet were people to whom our Father, because of his own good pleasure, revealed the things of the kingdom (Matt. 11:25-26)? What would those people—so simple and uneducated—have done if Jesus had spoken to them this way about truth? My point is that if Phillips and the council members of TGC are relying on the philosophers to argue for the subjective nature of truth (prior to sin), the inability to know truth at all (due to sin), or the complete absence of common epistemological ground between believers and unbelievers, then truly (again) it would seem that through their leadership the Lord’s flock is being led into the very “complicated theories” Phillips mentions.

Phillips’ Misunderstanding of the Framework Itself

            In addition to these problems related to TGC’s discussion of truth in this limiting modern-postmodern framework, there are also, as I understand it, some significant problems with the way Phillips represents this framework itself.

            First of all, Phillips in several places confuses postmodern with modern ideas. This is evident, for instance, when he says, “Here postmodernity prudently points out that even if there is real truth, humans may not be able to know truth truly.[27] With this statement, Phillips seems not to have considered that postmodernity entertains no hypotheticals of this nature about the knowledge of reality. The reason for this is that postmodernity has fundamentally rejected the existence of reality. It is the modernists who, for the most part, hold that external reality exists but that our knowledge of such is, first, subjective, and second, problematic in the sense that it cannot be directly checked against external reality itself. This is true because many of the modern philosophers held that all knowledge is mediated through the mind (its ideas or internal conditions), and the mind (internal reality) itself is so substantively different from the body or matter (external reality) that we have no assurance that there is a correspondence between them which could yield reliable knowledge.

            In another place, Phillips says, “postmodernity correctly points out that actual people are finite and therefore have a limited, subjective understanding of truth.”[28] Actually, postmodernity is non-essentialist in its thinking. Consequently, it does not hold that humans are “finite” or “limited” or “flawed.” Such would amount to a metanarrative concerning human nature. When Lyotard speaks of postmodernity’s “incredulity toward metanarratives,” he means that postmodernity does not believe that there is anything essentially, abidingly, or ultimately true about anything. All beliefs, accordingly, are humanly constructed and without transcendent, metaphysical status. Nothing has substance in itself. This is what is meant by the postmodern saying, “All truths are fictions.” Hence, one will not find postmodernists making a claim about human nature, such as, “humans are finite” or “flawed.”[29]

            Phillips also says,

The postmodern junta now governing Western culture holds this relativism as its sole absolute: no one has the right to say that he possesses the truth absolutely so that others are absolutely wrong. There may be ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth,’ but the postmodern mind dogmatizes against anyone claiming dogmatically to possess the truth (except the postmodern dogma against said dogma).[30]

Actually, what Phillips is describing here is a belief that characterized modern philosophy before postmodern philosophy ever came along. Subjectivity with its relativism is the hallmark of modern philosophy. More precisely, the reason “the postmodern mind” on its part “dogmatizes against anyone claiming dogmatically to possess the truth” is not because truth is subjective and relative, as if this comes about through or is only distinctive to postmodernity. That is, we must distinguish between the modern claim, “truth is subjective and relative because it is centered in the mind of the subject and cannot be verified against external reality,” from the postmodern claim, “truth is subjective and relative because it is centered in the collective mind of a culture or language and cannot be verified against external reality because such does not exist.” Though closely related in undermining truth and similarly relative in outlook, they are still different claims. The first still recognizes a foundation in reality, though it denies any reliable way of knowing it. The second denies such a foundation altogether. This is why the latter claims “there is no center” or “no foundation” or that “language speaks us.” The latter is held to be true because language has no metaphysical reference, any more than there is some ultimate meaning behind humanity or existence.

            A second problem with Phillips’ representation of the modern-postmodern framework is that he does not distinguish precisely what failed when the modernist hope was shattered by the world wars of the twentieth century. The hope, metaphysically speaking, was that beginning with ourselves as humans (without reliance on God) we could redeem the world, find the ultimate answers in life, discover and establish our own ethical standards, etc. Truly, that hope failed as it was destined to do from the start because of its rejection of God. However, in more mundane matters, the hope that through reason, observation, and evidence we could as humans make progress in other areas (such as science, medicine, and technology) did not and certainly has not failed. The problem with modernity’s approach to truth is not the use of reason, observation, and evidence per se. (Scripture itself employs these things to support faith.) However, it is when such things become an idol or displace the biblical God that there is a problem. In sum, what failed about modernity was its proud, metaphysical quest to find ultimate meaning, value, and redemption for the human race apart from God. That the historical period known as “the Enlightenment” thus so grievously misused reason, observation, etc., in the process of “advancement” does not mean that these things (reason, observation, etc.) are themselves essentially bad or suspicious, particularly (in this context) with respect to the biblical case God himself has made for the truth of the gospel.

            A third problem occurs with Phillips’ statement, “Christians may be cobelligerent with postmodernity’s assaults against modernism.”[31] What about Christians being cobelligerent with modernism against certain postmodern tenets—such as, that contra postmodernism there is truth and that reason and evidence are important in arriving at it?  Phillips also quotes Carson who rejoices over postmodernism’s “launching very heavy artillery against the modernity which, across four centuries, developed in such a way that increasingly it taunted confessional Christianity” (p. 10). But how did postmodernism assault modernism? By a denial of the reality of truth itself—by claiming, as already stated, “All our truths are fictions.” Is this helpful to the Christian faith? When postmodernism (as Carson says) challenges modernism’s arrogance for insisting “that human reason is the final arbiter of truth” (p. 10), unsurprisingly it renders reason as empty or fictional in its exercise as the truth it seeks. What is there to rejoice in here? That modernism misused reason in its God-denying self-worship is undoubtedly true. But, again, does the sinister misuse of something entail that it is itself sinister? And in an age increasingly irrational, shouldn’t Christians, for example, follow the lead of the apostles of Christ (as demonstrated in The Acts of the Apostles) and take care to honor the use of reason, observation, and evidence in persuading unbelievers of the truth of the gospel?

            This is, to my mind, what is wrong with Carson’s comparing an alliance with postmodernism to the Western Allies’ pact with Communist Russia against Nazi Germany in World War II. The analogy breaks down because in that context as long as Nazi Germany was defeated, it did not matter who the Allies worked with to get this done. But if Communist Russia had somehow made its conflict with Nazi Germany an occasion to also and at the same time defeat the Allies, an alliance with them obviously would not have been a good thing. This is what I see occurring with postmodernism’s attack on modernity.[32] In denying that there is transcendent truth, postmodernism is equally concerned to defeat religions like Christianity which believe in such. If we truly understand what postmodernism is about, we will realize that there is nothing in its basic tenets to celebrate, side with, or enlist to defeat modernity.[33] Both modernism’s autonomy and rejection of God and Scripture and postmodernism’s denial of ultimate reality are enemies to the Christian faith.

            A fourth problem in Phillips’ representation of the modern-postmodern framework occurs when he says,

Almost incidentally, postmodernism has also criticized Christian thought. D.A. Carson has catalogued a number of strengths in the postmodern critique, even when it is applied to recent evangelical approaches to theology and apologetics.[34]

Here, it seems to me, Phillips fundamentally misunderstands the postmodern stance to Christianity. Postmodernism’s agenda is nothing less than to think out the implications of “the death of God.” And one of the most important influences behind that agenda is Friedrich Nietzsche who clearly identifies which God supposedly “died”—namely, the Christian God. It is true that the deconstruction of logocentrism one finds in philosophers like Derrida is certainly much broader, even more philosophical, than the Christian God. But it certainly includes any logocentrism, including the eternal Logos of God who upholds both the world of matter and meaning. Again, Nietzsche adamantly insists that all philosophical efforts to establish morality or ultimate meaning in life are merely the “shadows” of the Judeo-Christian God (whose existence he rejects). Postmodernism’s criticism of Christian thought, therefore, is not even almost “incidental” but central to its task. (If one is inclined to doubt this, I suggest inquiring of Christians who have been in secular graduate programs with a specialization in Continental philosophy.)

            A fifth and final problem occurs when Phillips says,

Even when modern-thinking Christians have sought to use rationalism to support the Bible’s teaching, thoughtful Christians have found that the rationalist approach to absolute truth lines up poorly with Christian humility, charity, and our teaching about the human problem of sin. As the Christian witness has moved into the twenty-first century, therefore, we have rightly sought to distance ourselves from the rationalism of modernity.[35]

First, I wonder: who are these “modern-thinking Christians” to which Phillips refers? What books have they written? What have they said that supports modernism? Is Phillips clear about what modernism is and what its true problems are in relation to the Christian faith? Is he talking about people like C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Lee Strobel, Norman Geisler, and Ravi Zacharias? What practical or concrete behavior demonstrates what it means for us as Christians to “distance ourselves from the rationalism of modernity”? Certainly, we should distance ourselves from modernity’s God-denying reliance on reason but is that the same thing as distancing ourselves from reason itself in presenting the biblical case for Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah?

            Second, as I intend in what follows to defend the apostolic use of reason and evidence in preaching and establishing the truth of the gospel, I will sort out later the difference between an apostolic, holy boldness in making the case for Jesus as the Messiah and the unholy and arrogant “rationalism of modernity.” It will be sufficient to say here that when Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35), he is implying, for one thing, that no matter what philosophical trends are in the air either in the first or twenty-first century, both the biblical case for his Messiahship and its method of presentation (inclusive of preaching and reasoning with unbelievers as both he and the apostles exemplified, respectively, in the Gospels and Acts) remains the same for all places and times. Christian humility is measured not by human standards based on issues for knowing invented by philosophy (particularly, as mixed with the teachings of Christianity) but by the fear of the Lord and a self-distrusting submission in every respect (including epistemology) to his holy Word.

[1] As it is reasonable to assume that among the members of TGC council there were disagreements on the topic of truth and since Phillips’ booklet intends to represent not merely Phillips himself but the entire council, I trust my readers will bear in mind that when I refer to Phillips, I am not talking about him personally (his personal views or way of handling this topic) but about TGC he represents. Also, this booklet currently may be purchased at or obtained free online as a downloadable pdf.
[2] Can We Know the Truth?, pp. 22-23. Please note that my claim about what is found in Phillips’ booklet is implied by the absence within its pages, for the most part, of any positive prescription for bold preaching to or reasoning with postmodernists about the truth of the gospel.
[3] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 14.
[4] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 14.
[5] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 8.
[6] One obvious example of this is Tim Keller’s outstanding and important work, Reason for God. My understanding is that much of the material for this book originated from Keller’s responding to questions from (and reasoning with) unbelievers in meetings specifically designed for that very purpose.
[7] In his Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, TGC council member John Piper seems to recognize this universal aspect of truth in several places, for instance, when in contrast to this aspect he characterizes relativism as the belief that “there is no objective, external standard for measuring the truth or falsehood of a statement” (p. 97). Also, in a message entitled, “The Challenge of Relativism,” Piper says: “The claim that there is no one standard for truth and falsehood that is valid for everyone is rooted most deeply in the desire of the fallen human mind to be free from all authority and to enjoy the exaltation of self.” Additionally, in What Ever Happened to Truth?, TGC council member Al Mohler writes, “It [the truth of the gospel] is objectively, historically, and universally true” (p. 59). Now this may be a misunderstanding on my part, but I think this means that Mohler believes that in some sense even unbelievers can understand the gospel even if they reject or disobey what they know.
[8]As those familiar with Western philosophy are probably aware, the coherence theory of truth is generally regarded, particularly in its influence on contemporary thought, as originating with epistemological idealists in the modern tradition like Immanuel Kant. In his phenomenal-noumenal distinction, for instance, Kant believes we can only know things as they appear to us (the phenomenal) and not how they are in themselves (the noumenal). That is, we have no direct access to external (non-mental) reality. This means that there is no objective truth which is accessible to us as knowledge. Reality is conditioned by the mind such that all we have are relative and subjective perspectives or interpretations and never direct knowledge of reality itself. Put another way, knowledge is mediated through the mind and there is no way to verify that knowledge, thus mediated, actually corresponds to (or accords with) external reality. Hence, the emphasis with respect to truth becomes a matter of how beliefs hold together or cohere (as an internal, mental reality) rather than how they are or are not true to external or objective reality.
[9] This quotation is from the statement on truth at TGC website.
[10] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 8.
[11] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 15.
[12] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 7.
[13] Can We Know the Truth?, pp. 22-23.
[14] Can We Know the Truth, p. 7.
[15] In the end, Phillips’ recommendation that we simply hand someone a Bible implies that in relating the gospel to a postmodern unbeliever we actually do not answer these questions about the Bible’s authority or the objectivity of truth.
[16] Francis Schaeffer, No Final Conflict: The Bible Without Error in All That It Affirms, p. 14.
[17] The God Who Is There, pp. 144-145.
[18] The God Who Is There, p. 144.
[19] The God Who Is There, p. 145.
[20] Francis Schaeffer, No Final Conflict: The Bible Without Error in All That It Affirms, p. 15.
[21] Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism, p. 152.
[22] Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism, p. 110.

[23] James Boice, Does Inerrancy Matter?, p. 27.
[24] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 8.
[25] The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter one, section ten.
[26] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 22.
[27] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 14.
[28] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 9.
[29] If anything, this appears to be a theological projection on postmodern thought.
[30] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 11.
[31] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 10.
[32] We also should not assume that much of the scientific world (as reflective of modernism), for instance, has ever paid that much attention to postmodernism.
[33] To be clear, I agree with Carson that postmodernism (I would suggest: as a latter day development of modernism) offers an important insight about how our subjective circumstances (history, culture, language, etc.) influence our perception of truth. But it is important to stress in our postmodern or relativistic times that objective truth can be known, that these factors do not absolutely or exhaustively determine the possibilities for what can be known.
[34] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 9.
[35] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 9.

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