Same as it Ever Was
It’s not a stretch to suggest that many Americans today seem to believe our age is the first time a pluralist society has existed. Furthermore, it seems that the conclusion drawn from this assumption is, therefore, that truth-claims and exclusive appeals to one’s own faith are outdated and bigoted concepts. However, this modern-day chauvinism is grounded upon a false assumption. Alister McGrath points out that the “Christian proclamation has always taken place in a pluralist world, in competition with rival religious and intellectual convictions.”
In fact, many books in both the Old and New Testaments were written as polemics against the competing religions that Israel and the early Christian community faced daily. McGrath comments:
“Ancient Israel was acutely aware that its faith was not shared by its neighbors. The existence of other religions was simply a fact of life for the Israelites. It caused them no great difficulties, in that they believed that theirs happened to be right, whereas others were wrong. The same pattern emerges in the New Testament. From the first days of its existence, Christianity has recognized the existence of other religions and the challenge they posed. …Christianity was born amid religious pluralism…”
The early church faced the lions, became burning torches in Nero’s garden, and other such fates, because they actually believed the truth of what they were proclaiming. Therefore, they proclaimed that the Christian message was true and rejected false teachings. David Wells asks:
“Why were [the early Christians] so adamant about the preservation, appropriation, and propagation of this doctrinally framed teaching? The answer is that it is the ‘truth’ (2 Cor. 4:6; Eph. 1:13; Col. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:15; Tit. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2 Pet. 1:12; James 1:8; 3 John 4) It is only by coming to know this ‘truth’ that one comes to know God, for he can be known only through Christ who is the center and object of this teaching (Tit. 2:4; Heb. 10:26; 1 Pet. 1:22; cf. 2 Tim. 3:7).”
In The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, C.H. Dodd “showed in a convincing way that the apostolic preachers all followed a broadly accepted outline of key facts concerning the life and ministry of Jesus Christ when they presented the gospel to unbelievers.” Furthermore, this content-filled faith which proclaimed that Jesus Christ alone was the truth, was proclaimed “in the midst of a world that was more religiously diverse than any we have known in the West until relatively recently.”
Is it not, therefore, arrogant (or, at least, misguided) to suppose that our modern-day culture is the first to deal with the issue of pluralism? It is important for Christians to maintain that “the faith once delivered” is a faith in what “really happened” in time-and-space history. It would be a destructive revision of history to suggest that early Christians were bringing to the world merely a subjective philosophy or worldview based on what they “wished” had happened. “It would be a remarkable example of cultural chauvinism if we supposed that our faith about what really happened, shaped as it is by our cultural perspectives, must necessarily displace that of the immediate witnesses” (Newbigin). Yet, on what basis can Christians proclaim that they have “truth to tell?” On what foundation can Christian truth-claims be made and defended?
The Christian Worldview’s Foundation
From the very beginning, the Christian faith has proclaimed and defended the position that it is a revealed religion. Never has it declared itself to be a speculative philosophy. It has always submitted to a higher, self-disclosing authority. Ronald Nash says that Christianity’s “touchstone proposition” is that “Human beings and the universe in which they reside are the creation of the God who has revealed himself in Scripture. The basic presupposition of the Christian world-view is the existence of the God revealed in Scripture.” This is both the ontological and epistemological foundation for the Christian faith. An appeal to any other authority than the living God, is an appeal to human speculation and vain autonomy. Carl Henry correctly observes that:
“All merely human affirmations about God curl into a question mark. We cannot spy out the secrets of God by obtrusive curiosity. …Apart from God’s initiative, God’s act, God’s revelation, no confident basis exists for God-talk. …If we are authorized to say anything at all about the living God, it is only because of God’s initiative and revelation. God’s disclosure alone can transform our wavering questions concerning ultimate reality into confident exclamations!”
Christians are therefore not arrogant because they claim to “know” the truth. Instead, Christians confess to be humble servants of the one true God who has graciously revealed the truth to them and has called them to be witnesses in the world to that truth. Furthermore, this same God has given Christians his Spirit so that they might have eyes to see and ears to hear what he has revealed. I hasten to add that it is not simply by “revelation-in-general,” that human beings come to this epistemological foundation.
Instead, it is the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible through which God has specifically revealed himself, and not simply “in Christ.” Francis Schaeffer has brought attention to the fact that “the Reformation said ‘Scripture Alone’ and not ‘the Revelation of God in Christ Alone.’ If you do not have the view of the Scriptures that the Reformers had, you really have no content in the word ‘Christ’…” This is important to point out, because without the proper epistemological foundation, truth shifts to preference and utter subjectivity. Indeed, this is what has happened in far too many quarters. To be sure, God was most fully revealed in and through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And yet, without the proper authoritative source and correct interpretive lens, we cannot know or understand anything meaningful about him.
The Results of a Wrong Foundation – or - Shifting Sand
David Wells writes that, “Truth is now simply a matter of etiquette: it has no authority, no sense of rightness, because it is no longer anchored in anything absolute.” This certainly addresses the issue of why religious pluralism is running rampant. Carl Henry says that “The West has lost its moral and epistemic compass bearings. It has no shared criterion for judging whether human beings are moving up or down, standing still, or merely on the move only God knows where.” Henry goes on to suggest that:
“Once the living God is banished, both Jesus Christ and the Bible become cognitive orphans. Not only are history and nature rendered godless, so that they can be assimilated readily either to mechanical determinism or to chaos, and not only is mankind rendered godless, so that humanity is free to play deity or to consider itself mere soulless specks of cosmic dust, but also the most basic referents of Christianity become embarrassing enigmas.”
Gene Veith concurs in his suggestion that today’s apathy toward truth is because “there is no universal consensus about what is true.” He contends that the postmodern culture “teaches that meaning is created by a social group and its language. According to this view, personal identity and the very contents of one’s thoughts are all social constructions.”
Thus, the postmodern person will want to shed any oppressive understanding of truth that “seeks to restrict” one’s autonomy to construct the world as he or she sees it. Postmodernism advocates relativistic variety and rejects restrictive structures that tyrannize individuals with “rules or criteria” for making or defending “truth-claims.”
This philosophical underpinning can be clearly seen in the debate over the exclusivity of salvation through Jesus Christ. Until the participants of the debate can agree about what their epistemological foundations are, there will be no way to even begin the debate or dialogue. While both parties will appeal to an authority for their position, the Christian will point past autonomous reason to God himself. However, while the other participant is “free to reject the authority of Scripture, [he or she] will only substitute some other authority in its place.” Ronald Nash reveals that this is precisely what happened to the philosopher, John Hick. Hick once embraced at least some aspects of orthodox Christianity. However, once he gave up the epistemological foundations for those beliefs, he drifted away from orthodoxy into the pluralism he now embraces. The abandonment of truth in the secular world has certainly made powerful inroads into the church. David Wells comments,
“Without this transcendent Word in its life, the church has no rudder, no compass, no provisions. Without the Word, it has no capacity to stand outside its culture, to detect and wrench itself free from the seductions of modernity. Without the Word, the church has no meaning. It may seek substitutes for meaning in committee work, relief work, and various other church activities, but such things cannot fill the role for very long. Cut off from the meaning that God has given, faith cannot offer anything more by way of light in our dark world than what is offered by philosophy, psychology, or sociology. Cut off from God’s meaning, the church is cut off from God; it loses its identity as the people of God in belief, in practice, in hope. Cut off from God’s Word, the church is on its own, left to live for itself, by itself, upon itself. It is never lifted beyond itself, above its culture. It is never stretched or tried. It grows more comfortable, but it is the comfort of anesthesia, of a refusal to pay attention to the disturbing realities of God’s truth.”
This has certainly happened to much of the church at large in our own culture. Christ’s church has mirrored the culture instead of leading it. The result is that instead of clinging to the touchstone proposition of the Christian faith, the church’s anchor has been lifted and many of God’s people are epistemologically adrift. The result is that the polls taken now show that there are as many people in the church as there are outside of the church who reject the notion of objective truth. Yet in the face of this retreat from truth, the contemporary culture has not faced up to the logical consequences of a world and worldview without objective and absolute truth.
What is Truth and How is it Tested?
It is, of course, not enough to show that the culture and the church have strayed from their roots. The issue of what truth is and how a truth-claim may be tested now needs to be addressed. The essential nature of truth’s relationship to faith ought not be abandoned for relativistic pluralism.
Elton Trueblood says:
“If any religion or any part of religion is not true, we ought to give it up. To maintain the appearance of a faith merely because it is socially useful, or comforting, though believed to be false, is to deny what is asserted. If a religion is not true it is evil! If God is not, then prayer is a waste of good time and wholly indefensible. If there is no life after death, the sooner we find that out the better. In any effort to deal with religion philosophically, we must try to understand what we mean by truth. If we have differing or ambiguous conceptions of the nature of truth, further fruitful discussion will be impossible, for we may be arguing for different positions without knowing it.”
Therefore, it makes sense that we ask the question, “What is truth?” Winfried Corduan provides a helpful way of understanding this question. He writes,
“…there is some kind of reality that is constituted independently of what we say about it. In other words, either my car is in the parking lot or not; either the geometry of right triangles follows the Pythagorean theorem or not; either God exists or He does not. This reality is a given. Our statements are true if they correspond to the reality in question; they are false if they do not correspond. We call this the correspondence theory of truth…”
In other words, regardless of what reality might be, if something is true, it corresponds to that reality. For Christians, the truth proclaimed relates to God because he is ultimate reality. Because truth is ultimately grounded in the person and character of God, truth is absolute or objective, unchanging, and universal. This absolute, unchanging and universal truth corresponds between a belief, a judgment or proposition, and a fact or state of affairs. Again, it is important for the Christian to respond to the charge of being arrogant with the humble claim that it is God alone who is omniscient. It is God who knows “all the truth about everything and knows it perfectly. As creator of all, he is the ultimate source of all our knowledge, so that our attempts to know truth are dependent on him and bear witness to him.” Thus, the Christian freely and humbly admits dependence upon the living God for his or her epistemological foundation.
Nevertheless, it is one thing to assert that one’s proposition or religious belief is true while quite another thing to test that truth-claim. How does one test a religious or philosophical truth-claim? Ronald Nash suggests five such tests: reason, experience, outer world, inner world, and practice. While all five are extremely helpful in evaluating a worldview, the limitations of this post prohibit examining all of them. Therefore, only the test of reason will be considered.
Nash says that by referring to the test of reason, he is referring to “logic or the law of noncontradiction.” The law of noncontradiction states that A cannot be B and non-B at the same time and in the same relationship. What this means is that when two contradictory truth-claims are stated and compared to one another, if one is true, then the other one is necessarily false. Nash says:
“Since contradiction is always a sign of error, we have a right to expect a conceptual system to be logically consistent, both in its parts (its individual propositions) and in the whole. A conceptual system is in obvious trouble if it fails to hang together logically.”
This test obviously will not be as useful for those religions or philosophies which make no universal truth claims. However, Carl Henry points out that “Logical inconsistency sacrifices plausibility; a logically inconsistent system cannot be valid or true.”
Furthermore, any repudiation of the law of noncontradiction is purely artificial and temporary. Aristotle showed that the law of noncontradiction is indispensable for significant action, significant thinking and significant communication to take place. Any argument against the law actually assumes it. In order for significant action to take place one cannot therefore do and not do a certain task at the same time and in the same relationship. If significant thinking is to take place then one cannot affirm two contradictory propositions as true. Finally, if significant communication is to take place, then words and propositions cannot be contradictory or have infinite amounts of meaning. More importantly, the use of logic is not the use of a human invention or meaningless word-games. Ronald Nash writes:
“‘The true nature of logical conclusions has not been arranged by men, rather they studied and took notice of it so that they might be able to learn or to teach it. It is perpetual in the order of things and divinely ordered.” For Augustine, the truth of propositions like ’2+2= 4′ does not consist simply in the mental act of making this judgment. Rather, its truth lies in the eternal reality which makes the judgment true. The truths of logic are not empty tautologies devoid of any reference to being.”
Moreover, this is not merely a law of thought, but has a direct relationship to ontological reality. Nash suggests:
“The denial of the law of noncontradiction leads to absurdity. It is impossible meaningfully to deny the laws of logic. If the law of noncontradiction is denied, nothing has meaning. If the laws of logic do not first mean what they say, nothing else can have meaning, including the denial of the laws.”
Thus, a truth-claim, to be considered true, must actually correspond to reality or to the way things really are, and must not contain contradictions within the system. Once again, the test of reason can only serve as a negative test for truth. “…[T]he absence of contradiction does not guarantee the presence of truth.” However, as one of five tests for truth, it is extremely useful.
The Christian Worldview
Having laid the foundation for the importance, indeed the necessity of truth within the Christian worldview, it is now appropriate to consider what the truth-claims of Christianity are. There is no use speaking passionately about truth or why Christians claim to know the truth, if the content of that truth is absent. Once again, Christianity purports to correspond with reality as it has been revealed by a personal and omniscient God.
It’s important to point out that, historically, Christianity has claimed that it is an internally consistent worldview without logical contradictions. When weighing worldviews, one must look at the beliefs of Christianity and competing truth-claims to evaluate which one actually corresponds to reality and is therefore true. At this point, one may ask if there really are differences between the world’s religions and philosophies, or are they all essentially saying the same thing. It is my contention that all religions cannot all be true. Though, from a distance, there are similarities, under closer inspection one notices the superficiality of those similarities. In reality, there are significant differences between them, which include crucial foundational issues. Gary Phillips and William Brown point out:
“The nature of God, of matter, and of man are all defined differently by various religious systems. Therefore, when man confronts God, nature, and self, the worldviews that arise will be different. Is life after death a new sphere or level of personal existence, or are we simply absorbed into a transcendental impersonal force? How do we come to know God? Is it through asceticism…, through mysticism…, through the works of self-discipline, or by grace through faith.
What about Jesus Christ? Is Jesus an eternal being, or was He a created being? Was He truly God and truly man, or was He exclusively human? Did He die for the sins of mankind (Christianity), did He die a disillusioned and misunderstood itinerant rabbi (Judaism), or was He taken up into heaven without dying at all–and therefore is not a Savior (Islam)?”
If two truth-claims contradict one another, they cannot both be true in the same way and in the same relationship. Therefore, it is now important to consider the criteria to be employed in examining a worldview.
To consider the Christian worldview, I will examine the five worldview elements drawn from two of Ronald Nash’s books and will additionally consider the person and work of Jesus Christ.
God, Metaphysics and Epistemology
The first area to consider is how a worldview understands God. Christians believe in much more than the “existence” of God. The God that Christians believe in is the God who has revealed himself in the Old and New Testaments. Even though I am a United Methodist and believe we have a rock-solid doctrine of God, perhaps the most comprehensively and clearly described doctrine of God can be found in the Westminster Confession of Faith. It says:
1.) There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory most loving gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
2.) God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things and hast most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleaseth. In His sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to Him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all His counsels, in all His works, and in all His commands. To Him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them.
3.) In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, not proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.
The Christian God described above in the Westminster Confession of Faith is not only different than, but actually in contradiction to other worldview conceptions of God, if indeed they have one. For example: atheism asserts the non-existence of God. Polytheistic religions believe there is more than one God. Pantheism contends that God is all and all is God. Islam and Judaism deny the Trinitarian understanding of the Christian God. Therefore, the glaring contradictions between these worldviews seem self-evident. They could all conceivably be false, but they can't all be true.
The second area of focus is called metaphysics, which deals with ultimate reality. “These beliefs include answers to such questions as: What is the relationship between God and the universe? Is the existence of the universe a brute fact? Is the universe eternal? Did an eternal, personal, omnipotent God create the world? …[I]s there any purpose to the universe? Are miracles possible?” The Christian response to some of these questions is that God did create the whole universe out of nothing. In fact, Christians believe only God is eternal. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, Christians affirm that God is our personal Creator who is not a remote deity far away. God in his transcendence is not the same as his creation, yet in his immanence he is close at hand, participating in his creation. These are important elements of the Christian worldview to maintain. These metaphysical truths about the Christian worldview also contribute in distinguishing Christianity from its competitors.
The third ingredient in a worldview is perhaps the hardest to understand, although every person implicitly holds beliefs on this subject. This third area has to do with one’s view of knowledge and is called epistemology. The subject of epistemology basically asks the questions: “how do we know what we know?” or “is knowledge possible?” For the Christian, knowledge comes from God’s self-disclosure concerning himself, the world, and humankind. Furthermore, God “is a God who created men and women as creatures capable of knowing his mind and will and who has made information about his mind and will available in revealed truths.” While Christians confess, they do not have complete knowledge about God, it is maintained that Christians have true knowledge about him. Therefore, the Christian worldview categorically rejects skepticism. Christians steadfastly affirm that knowledge about God, the world and humankind is possible. The foundation of God’s self-disclosure, once again, reminds the Christian to walk in humility because it is God’s graciousness, and not one’s own autonomous reason, which allows him or her to know anything at all.
Ethics and Anthropology
Christians readily confess that they do not have a monopoly on ethical living. Everyday there are believers and unbelievers living moral lives. However, Ron Nash shows that in relationship to worldview thinking, the question of how one justifies his or her ethical beliefs and conduct is quite another question. He says:
“ethics as a worldview factor is more concerned with the question of why that action is wrong. Are there moral laws that govern human conduct? What are they? Are these moral laws the same for all human beings? Is morality totally subjective…, or is there an objective dimension to moral laws that means their truth is independent of our preferences and desires?”
The Christian worldview claims that why one “ought” to behave in a certain way and what conduct is permissible or impermissible is grounded in the character of God. Christians claim that it is God’s good, righteous and holy character upon which the Christian ethic is grounded. Furthermore, Christians assert that God has revealed laws, rules and principles by which Christians are to live. There is no dispute, therefore, that unbelievers live ethical lives. The Christian responds, however, that only belief in the Christian God can truly justify ethical behavior. The unbeliever either borrows from the Christian worldview or lives by personal preference. Christians further maintain that because of God’s general revelation to all humanity, there is no reason to believe that the ethical systems of other religions should be totally different from Christianity’s. Arthur Holmes has said that “all truth is God’s truth wherever it be found.” However, Holmes does carefully follow up that statement by reminding his reader that, “We do not affirm that everything men take to be true is God’s truth.” This statement is important to understand. Though all truth is God’s truth, not every credal statement or worldview ethic is a representation of that truth. Christianity claims to properly have the fullest revelation of God’s self-disclosure.
The second area we want to look at is anthropology. Nash suggests that every worldview should include a “number of important beliefs about human beings. Examples include the following: Are human beings free… Are human beings only bodies or material beings? …what is the human soul or mind, and how is it related to the body? Does physical death end the existence of the human person?” Quoting William J. Abraham, Nash considers what the Christian worldview believes about human beings. Abraham states:
“Human beings are made in the image of God, and their fate depends on their relationship with God. They are free to respond to or reject God and they will be judged in accordance with how they respond to him. This judgment begins now but finally takes place beyond death in a life to come. Christians furthermore offer a diagnosis of what is wrong with the world. Fundamentally, they say our problems are spiritual: we need to be made anew by God. Human beings have misused their freedom; they are in a state of rebellion against God; they are sinners. These conclusions lead to a set of solutions to this ill. As one might expect, the fundamental solution is again spiritual… [I]n Jesus of Nazareth God has intervened to save and remake mankind. Each individual needs to respond to this and to become part of Christ’s body, the church, where they are to grow in grace and become more like Christ. This in turn generates a certain vision of the future. In the coming of Jesus, God has inaugurated his kingdom, but it will be consummated at some unspecified time in the future when Christ returns.”
Christianity purports to know where human beings came from, why human beings are here, and what will happen to human beings after death. The questions of origin, purpose and destiny are answered by Christians by pointing once again to the God who has revealed himself. For a worldview to be taken seriously, it must deal adequately with the human condition. Christianity claims to offer the most realistic analysis of the fallenness of the human condition, and only Christianity knows how this fallen condition has been solved.
The Person and Work of Jesus Christ
Who was Jesus Christ? Was he just a good moral teacher? Was he merely a failed political revolutionary? Perhaps he was a lunatic who just didn’t know what he was doing. Or maybe, he was a con-artist looking to trick people into believing he was more than just a human being. Christians proclaim to the world that Jesus Christ was truly human and truly God. Furthermore, Christians claim that Jesus Christ was the Lord and Savior of the entire universe. What someone believes about the person and work of Jesus Christ, orthodox Christians believe, sets the pace for how one will live in this world and directly impacts issues related to eternity. Even pluralists such as John Hick feel the weight of the question about Jesus Christ’s identity. Hick says:
“There is a direct line of logical entailment from the premise that Jesus Christ was God, in the sense that he was God the Son, the Second Person of the divine Trinity, living in a human life, to the conclusion that Christianity, and Christianity alone, was founded by God in person; and from this to the further conclusion that God must want all his human children to be related to him through his religion which he has himself founded for us.”
Indeed, this is precisely what Christians have believed for 2,000 years. Norman Geisler reiterates this point. He says, “Orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus of Nazareth was God in human flesh. This doctrine is absolutely essential to true Christianity. If it is true, then Christianity is unique and authoritative. If not, then Christianity does not differ in kind from other religions.” Though a thorough investigation of this point is outside the scope of this post, Geisler provides a good outline for what the Christian apologetic is on this point. He writes:
“The basic logic of this apologetic for Christianity is: (1) The New Testament is a historically reliable record of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ… (2) Jesus taught that he was God Incarnate… (3) Jesus proved to be God Incarnate by fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, by a miraculous life, and by rising from the grave… Therefore, Jesus of Nazareth is Deity.”
Therefore, what one believes about who Jesus Christ was and what he accomplished through his life, death and resurrection has profound implications for one’s worldview. One may believe Jesus was not God Incarnate, not the Savior of the world, did not rise from the dead on the third day, and not Lord of all. However, in believing that, one holds contradictory beliefs from what orthodox Christians embrace. Both beliefs may be false, but only one can be true.
It has been the goal of this post to show the necessary relationship between truth and the Christian worldview. Because Christianity claims to be a revealed religion, it is actually a sign of humility and obedience for believers to embrace, proclaim, and defend their Christian faith. To avoid or reject this responsibility is the real sign of arrogance because it reveals that one presumes to know better than God. John Hick properly understood the implications of confessing that Christianity alone was and is the fullest disclosure of God's self-revelation. What other response could possibly be more appropriate than to confess with one’s mouth and believe in one’s heart that Christianity is true, and not merely preferable? Christians believe that if Christianity is not true, then it is merely one religious preference among many. However, Christians have historically proclaimed, from the beginning, that they are the humble stewards of the one, true, and living God’s self-disclosure.
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.