Earlier this year, Pastor Matt Recker from Heritage Baptist Church in New York City authored a series of blog posts dealing with “New Evangelicalism and the New Calvinism.” The past several issues of In the Nick of Time have interacted with Pastor Recker’s posts, expressing both agreement and disagreement (though the strongest note has been one of agreement). These interactions are now winding toward their conclusion, but a couple of topics remain to be addressed.
One of the most important has to do with The Gospel Coalition’s accommodation (as Pastor Recker sees it) of postmodernism. In its Theological Vision for Ministry, TGC subscribes to a correspondence theory of truth, then recognizes that human knowledge of revelatory truths is “always necessarily incomplete.” The TGC statement concedes the impossibility of “purely objective knowledge,” but insists that this impossibility “does not mean the loss of truth that corresponds to objective reality, even if we can never know such truth without an element of subjectivity.” Pastor Recker critiques this statement on two grounds.
First he notes that “it fails to define truth with the clear Biblical statement that truth is the Person of Jesus Christ and the Word of God (John 14:6; 17:17).” The verses he cites, however, do not seem intended to offer a definition of the truth. In John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the . . . truth.” But He also says, “I am the . . . road.” Does this assertion imply that the word road must always be defined first with reference to the person of Christ? Even Gordon Clark (upon whose philosophy Recker’s critique relies) insisted that Jesus’ claim “must be taken to mean, I am the source of truth; I am the wisdom and Logos of God; truths are established by my authority.” To cite these passages as theological authority, one would need to show that one has rightly understood and applied them.
Contrary to Gordon Clark (and, apparently, Pastor Recker), some version of the correspondence theory is indispensible for defining truth. The problem consists, not in defining truth as correspondence to reality, but in determining where reality lies. Cornelius Van Til argued rightly that ultimate reality lies in the mind of God, so that propositions are true only if they correspond to what God knows. This form of correspondence helps us to understand what Jesus meant by saying that He is the truth and that God’s Word (which discloses His mind) is truth.
Pastor Recker’s second objection is that The Gospel Coalition’s statement recognizes a level of subjectivity in all human knowledge of the truth. Pastor Recker sees this recognition as a concession to postmodernism. It is, however, exactly the opposite. Far from tilting forward into postmodernism, The Gospel Coalition is leaning backwards into premodernity.
Premoderns understood human finitude and sinfulness. Consequently, they entertained no illusions about the possibility of gaining abstract and objective knowledge. They understood that ultimate reality was completely outside of their experience, and they knew that they had to rely upon some non-empirical starting point if they were to have any true knowledge of the world. In short, they began with a commitment to revelation, received in faith.
In other words, premoderns denied that knowledge existed at the level of sensation. The information provided by the senses was easily misconstrued, and therefore could not be trusted. In order to know the real world (which was transcendent, ordered, and moral), they had to begin with truth (or better, Truth), received through revelation. All sensation and even perception had to be judged by revelation before it could eventuate in knowledge.
By leaning backward into this premodern metaphysical dream, The Gospel Coalition is actually staking out a very conservative position. It is explicitly rejecting postmodern nihilism (after all, D. A. Carson, the principal founder of TGC, is probably the best-known evangelical opponent of postmodernism). The position of TGC is that reality is objective, but human knowledge of reality is not. We always know in ways that are perspectival and situated, but that are nevertheless corrigible to reality itself.
To its credit, The Gospel Coalition also recognizes that truth functions at other levels than the explicitly propositional and analytical. While insisting that Scripture is “pervasively propositional and that all the statements of Scripture are completely true and authoritative,” TGC nevertheless insists that the truth of Scripture cannot be “exhausted in a series of propositions.” According to TGC, the purpose of Scripture is to “convey God’s will and mind to us so as to change us into his likeness.” In doing so, Scripture speaks in “narrative, metaphor, and poetry which are not exhaustively distillable into doctrinal propositions.”
Pastor Recker is uncomfortable with this discussion and characterizes it as “weakness.” He should be reassured. Scripture is not given merely to communicate abstract knowledge about God, but to communicate God Himself. Its goal is quite definitely to change the reader into His likeness. To do that, it has to speak in ways that go beyond the propositional.
Reality is both transcendent and ordered, but it is also moral. Because reality is moral, we are obligated to respond to it rightly. A correct or ordinate response is one that corresponds to the requirements of reality, and because it corresponds, it is true. The response may take the form either of an action, or, more fundamentally, of an affection. Because responses should correspond to the requirements of reality, both feelings and conduct can rightly be judged as true or false.
Truth is not only cognitive, but also affective and conative. In order to shape affection and conduct, revealed truth must go beyond the discursive (though the discursive is essential). It must “convey God’s will and mind to us so as to change us into his likeness.” Scriptural revelation accomplishes this end by speaking in “narrative, metaphor, and poetry which are not exhaustively distillable into doctrinal propositions.”
God wants more from His people than their intellectual agreement. He wants their obedience and, most importantly, their love. Consequently, He does more than to disclose information about Himself (though He certainly does that). In the Bible, He puts Himself on display as He really is. In its pages we encounter Him, and we are changed by that encounter.
In short, The Gospel Coalition is properly erecting barriers against at least two dangers. The first is the danger of confusing one’s understanding of the truth with the truth itself. The other is the danger of substituting intellectualism for a life-altering knowledge of God Himself. These barriers should be seen as bulwarks of conservatism rather than as concessions to postmodernism.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Psalm 71:5–9: The Aged Saint’s Reflection and Hope
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
My God, my everlasting hope,
I live upon thy truth;
Thine hands have held my childhood up,
And strengthened all my youth.
My flesh was fashioned by thy power,
With all these limbs of mine;
And from my mother’s painful hour,
I’ve been entirely thine.
Still has my life new wonders seen
Repeated every year;
Behold, my days that yet remain,
I trust them to thy care.
Cast me not off when strength declines,
When hoary hairs arise;
And round me let thy glory shine,
Whene’er thy servant dies.
Then in the hist’ry of my age,
When men review my days,
They’ll read thy love in every page,
In every line thy praise.