Although the Bible is not a philosophy book, it does presuppose some ideas about truth which fit foundationalism better than postmodern epistemology. Passage after passage are clear that truth is what corresponds to reality, rather than making truth relative to a linguistic community. Here is a minor sampling:
Ps 119:160 “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.”
Prov 8:7 “My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness.”
John 16:7 “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away.”
Rom 9:1 “I speak the truth in Christ — I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit.”
1 Tim 2:3-4 “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
These passages do not show that one can know something omnisciently (as the postmodern antithesis insists on), but rather that finite individuals can say something that corresponds to objective reality and this can be known and transmitted to other finite knowers.[i] Even Paul (as he moved from culture to culture) did not need to preface his “truth” to suggest it was only applicable to his own community. Rather, Paul made claims to truth that were objective and could be known by others e.g. Acts 26:25
“I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable.”
The Bible also speaks to being able to have knowledge of the truth, even with certainty. The following passages are indicative of knowing something or some proposition to be true.
Luke 1:3-4 “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
John 10:38 “…that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”
John 21:24 “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.”
1 Tim 4:3 “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.”
1 John 5:13 “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
Jesus’ words are littered with references to truth, such as John 8:45 “Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!” Does Jesus stop telling the truth or soften his message so that his audience will not be offended? Does he let them off the hook that possibly his “truth” does not translate over to their culture or linguistic group and give them a “bye”? No, he does not. Carson rightfully states, “When we reflect on how many of the emerging church leaders warn against using truth categories, can we help but sense the huge gap between their position and that of Jesus?”[ii]
The most direct of these “truth” statements is when Jesus proclaims, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) McLaren wants to claim that he affirms this statement without giving a reason why one should. His character Neo states, “I really believe he is the truth. He is reality; he is authentic; he is genuine and real and not fake or false in any way.”[iii] I am not sure what McLaren means when he says Jesus is reality. Does he mean to claim that he is ultimate objective reality (which he denies we can know)? He breezes past that sentence to begin describing authenticity and truthfulness, which no one doubts about Jesus, but this is not the intent of the passage. If it was, Jesus would have said (like many other passages), “I tell you the truth”. McLaren also owes us an explanation for how one could know that Jesus is the “truth”; even the book this passage is taken from was written by John in a different linguistic community than we are in. Without a metanarrative, we seem hopelessly lost.
It is important to analyze some serious problems if Christianity were to move in the direction of postmodernism (as McLaren thinks should and will happen). First, there becomes no room in postmodernism for truth propositions, but rather an emphasis on stories. While this should not become an either/or in regards to truth and experience, McLaren’s pendulum has swung too far in one direction. In fact, the New Testament has an enormous amount of emphasis on truth propositions of how one should behave or believe (doctrine), as well as propositions that one must believe if they are to be followers of Christ (see John 11:27,42; 14:10). Deacons are told “They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.” (I Tim 3:9) In a very anti postmodern command, elders too are instructed to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9)
Secondly, as postmoderns encourage listeners to conclude that truth claims from the various religious traditions are no more than a personal preference, religion itself becomes much easier to relegate to the margins.[iv] The natural inclination in a pluralistic postmodern mindset is to say that your religion is true for you, but not for someone else. Christianity just becomes one of the various menu items one can choose without any “real” meaning, much like what color you like. How does one determine if one religion is better than another without basic beliefs unavailable to postmodernism? Also, what do we do with God from a postmodern epistemology? He seems to be just a construction of the Christian community. This seems to be against what Jesus meant in John 14:6 as he speaks to ultimate reality and truth in himself, one that transcends all cultures.
Lastly, biblical illiteracy is sure to follow (if not already prevalent). As mentioned above, the many truth propositions will deemphasize the Bible as the authoritative revelation of God. How will a postmodern Christian claim that the Bible is authoritative if it is not God-breathed and true? The harder doctrines will go out the door. As an example, McLaren himself is clear that he does not believe in the doctrine of hell. He makes multiple attempts to explain it in a way that is not offensive to our politically correct culture, such as heaven and hell being the same place, but just different perspectives.[v] Jesus himself speaks more on this topic (see Matt 24:51, 25:31-46) than anyone else, is very descriptive and uses language that is very divisive (sheep and goats). How can one ignore or dismiss the doctrine? Even in other passages, the Bible speaks of the wrath of God as every bit as personal as the love of God.[vi] Moral claims will also be affected as they are avoided because they are portrayed as ultimate truth claims from the Bible (e.g. McLaren’s non-stance on homosexuality). Under postmodernism, morality becomes a social construction rather than objective truth.
McLaren is a very dynamic writer and considered the most influential in the Christian postmodern movement. He appeals to the postmodern shift in our culture, especially the younger generation. I began by analyzing McLaren’s assessment of modernism and found it reductionistic and in many cases historically inaccurate. What becomes apparent is that postmodernism is a branch of modernism rather than an evolution of humankind. McLaren’s criticisms of the church are indicative of one very conservative branch of Christianity and inappropriate to apply to all of the church. At the root of McLaren’s suggestions is the change of epistemology from foundationalism to postmodernism. Strong foundationalism (which is not proposed by any living philosopher) is rightfully rejected; however a weak foundationalist position where one can be less than certain about beliefs is far from dead. On the other hand, postmodernism has a difficult time avoiding the relativism charge or in the best case becomes irrelevant because it is a construction of a specific community (and not applicable to those outside the community). It seems clear from biblical passages that a correspondence theory of truth is presupposed in that there are objective truths and we can know them (albeit not omnisciently). Lastly, it was shown that the implications of moving Christianity to a postmodern approach can be devastating due to lack of emphasis on truth propositions, which can lead to dismissal of the Bible’s claims (including doctrines and morals). Christianity itself loses it claim to truth and is relegated to the margins.
One may be tempted to dismiss the postmodern movement as all bad, but there are a few good things about postmodern Christianity that McLaren professes. One, he is attempting to read our culture and to relate to it. Understanding the shifts in our culture is important to communicate the gospel effectively, much like Paul did in his travels. Secondly, the emphasis on authenticity is commendable in our faith and obedience. McLaren astutely recognizes that many say they are against organized religion because of the hypocrisy and religion of rules and laws, rather than love.[vii] Lastly, even with evangelistic problems mentioned above, it is a movement that is concerned with sharing the Gospel with the lost.
The primary problem with postmodern Christianity is that it recognizes some changes in the culture and advocates that we become postmodern (i.e. like our culture), rather than adopting the gospel to make it relevant, understandable and pertinent. Unfortunately, this leads potentially to the demise of Christianity by giving up its claims to objective truth (revealed to us by God). Rather, it would behoove the church to respond to the culture without the weaknesses of adopting postmodern epistemology. I will conclude with one such description of a church by Carson.
What we should strive for, surely, is a church that is full of teaching (doctrinal, ethical, historical, spiritual), rigorous in its discipleship, and patently faithful in its exercise of godly discipline – and at the same time a church in which believers know how to communicate with nonbelievers, a church whose public meetings, however full of teaching and discipline they may be, are authentic in all they do, welcoming and warm to strangers, and careful to apply the Scriptures to all of life, with contemporary probings that are simultaneously faithful to Scripture and culturally penetrating. At one level, the church will be saying that you have to become a Christian to belong; at another level, that church will be so authentic in its communication, so warm in its acceptance of people as people, so genuine in its belief and conduct, that outsiders are attracted.[viii]
[i] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church, 192.
[ii] Ibid., 213.
[iii] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, 65.
[iv] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church, 99.
[v] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, 91.
[vi] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church, 169.
[vii] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, 73.
[viii] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church, 153.