Monday, 3 March 2008

Is the Christian Story True


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The above verse from the poem The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats describes very well, if rather pessimistically, the Postmodern condition. "Things fall apart" because there is no centre to hold together. From that it can be construed that Postmodernism is a mindset in search of a paradigm. It is my intention in this essay to discuss how, if possible, truth can be determined; to ascertain the basic elements of the Christian story; and then to address the possibility (or not) that one can exist without the other.

What is Truth?

  • Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" John 18:37-38a (NRSV)
    Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6 (NRSV)

    …and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." John 8:32 (NRSV)

From the above, it would be reasonable to assume that the biblical writers thought that Jesus saw himself as 'the truth' and that he had come into the world to testify to himself; that everyone who belonged to him would listen to him, and it is only through him that there is access to the Father. Knowing the truth brings with it, freedom.

The continuing debate, it would seem, in postmodernist circles is the question of the nature of truth. What does it mean for a statement to be true? The traditional view that truth is objective and universally knowable is now treated by many, both in academic circles and in the world in general, with some derision. One of the main reasons for this, it would seem, is the implication of conflict, and by this I mean that claims of absolute truth are, by definition, divisive, so that one group convinced of their 'rightness' can manipulate or overpower another group that are in disagreement with them (Nietzsche's 'will-to-power). Alister McGrath makes this point in A Passion for Truth and quotes Oxford literary critic Terry Eagleton who states:
  • Post-modernism signals the end of such 'metanarratives' whose secretly terroristic function was to ground and legitimate the illusion of a 'universal' human history. We are now in the process of awakening from the nightmare of modernity, with its manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back pluralism of the postmodern, that heterogeneous range of life-styles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalize and legitimate itself…[1]

Dave Tomlinson, in his very personal polemic against the certainties of evangelicalism, talks of a paradigm shift where:
  • …reference points and the things they (people) take for granted have changed;… In my view the central issue in this paradigm shift has to do with the nature of truth; it is a move which characterises evangelicalism, to an understanding of truth as something more provisional and symbolic, and therefore less able to be put into hard and fast statements.[2]

Tomlinson later on claims that the move from evangelical to post-evangelical has to do with "a difference in perception of truth", which is influenced to some degree by "cultural development".
[3] Although the statements are made in the context of evangelicalism, there is no doubt that the underlying principle is the same for most areas of society.

One of the natural 'children' of 'absolute truth' is 'certainty' which, as shown above, is potentially divisive. It does seem to be a fear that human nature cannot deal with absolutes anymore (if it ever could), so that the dispersal of the metanarrative to become the domain of the individual is the only possible remedy. So instead of the metanarrative explaining everything (the big picture), it is broken up into small, individual, narrative, snapshots that only relate to each other as part of the 'album of life'. This rather poetic metaphor also illustrates the natural inclination within postmodernism to reduce everything to maxims or aphorisms, each in isolation to the other, so that knowledge can be easily managed and digested, but where the principle of 'non-connectedness' is the only relevant prevailing view.

Before discussing what exactly the Christian story is, and whether it has truth-claims within it that are relevant, it is necessary to discuss various aspects of truth and their claims. The three main views are, the correspondence theory, relativism and pragmatism.

Correspondence View of Truth

This view was held by the vast majority of philosophers and theologians throughout history until recent times. It holds that any statement is true if, and only, if it corresponds to or agrees with actuality. The statement "the car in my garage is blue" is true only if there is a blue car in my garage and is therefore corresponding to an objective state of affairs. This view presupposes a basic law of logic called the law of bivalence (or the law of the excluded middle) which affirms that "ether A or non-A"[4] i.e. there is either a blue car in my garage or there is not. Another basic law of logic called the principle of contradiction[5] states that "A cannot be non-A in the same way and in the same respect" i.e. it cannot be true that there both is and is not a blue car in my garage. So declarative and propositional statements are subject to verification and falsification. It is possible to construe from this that the truth of a declarative and propositional statement can be found within the statement itself.

There is a distinction between declarative statements that make claims about objective reality and those that are making assertions without any objective referent e.g. "my team is the best!" Maybe they are, but the principles of verification and falsification cannot prove or disprove that statement because it is not a matter of truth but of preference (even if they did win the cup!), and this is important when it comes to the matter of religion. It can be observed that nearly all religions make truth-claims about, the nature of an ultimate reality, the origin of humanity, the fate of humanity and the path to salvation or liberation. As has been stated above, the problems start when these truth-claims contradict each other; the law of bivalence precludes them both being right.


The basis for relativism is 'subjectivity'. The truth of a statement depends on the beliefs or views of an individual or community. Therefore, for a statement to be true, it only has to be believed by a person or group and doesn't have to correspond to objective reality. The ramifications for this view are many and varied. One extreme example to make the point:

  • …the attractiveness of a belief is all too often inversely proportional to its truth. In the sixteenth century, the radical writer and preacher Thomas Müntzer led a revolt of German peasants against their political masters. On the morning of the decisive encounter between the peasants and the armies of the German princes, Müntzer promised that those who followed him would be unscathed by the weapons of their enemies. Encouraged by this attractive belief, the peasants went into the battle, filled with hope.[6]

The outcome was, of course, terrible for the German peasants, thousands were slaughtered and hundreds maimed. Though their belief had been "relevant" and "meaningful" to them, it was misplaced - the peasants in Müntzer, and Müntzers in the inviolability of the 'cause of truth'. However, maybe this kind of 'belief in truth' can only be posited when it comes to religion and religious belief, and I discuss this in more detail below.

It can be claimed then that relativism is a matter of preference and it is this that determines what is true. A Christian can say "Jesus is Lord" and a Muslim can say "Allah is Lord" and under the law of relativism both statements are true if both Jesus and Allah mean the same thing. However, when the truth-claims of both religions are iterated it can be seen that the two words don't mean the same thing, as Jesus is the Word made flesh to Christians and, according to Muslims, Allah cannot be incarnated. Another way of looking at it, is that if each is seen within his own narrative, then both statements can be true. George Lindbeck in his seminal work The Nature of Doctrine outlines his theological theories of religion and doctrine as follows:

a) cognitive-propositional approach
b) experiential-expressive symbolist approach
c) cultural-linguistic approach

His main thesis is that the last of the above approaches offers the best perspective for the operation of doctrine. He states that:

  • The function of church doctrines that becomes most prominent in this perspective is their use, not as expressive symbols or as truth claims, but as communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action …Thus oppositions between rules can in some instances be resolved, not by altering one or both of them, but by specifying when or where they apply, or by stipulating which of the competing directives takes precedence.[7]

Hence within narrative theology, where the story can be a vehicle for truth, the criteria is the particular narrative one chooses. But no one narrative can be set over another, for fear of repression, but the pre-determined rules are applied in order that each narrative is seen to be true to itself. It must have internal or 'intrasystematic' consistency. So, looking at the bigger picture, there can be agreement without harmony. Lindbeck illustrates the difference between intrasystematic truth and ontological truth by referring to Hamlet and discussing the statement: "Denmark is the land where Hamlet lived". This statement:

  • …is intrasystematically true within the context of Shakespeare's play, but this implies nothing regarding ontological truth or falsity unless the play is taken as history.[8]

Therefore the facticity of a statement is not dependent upon some outside referent, but on the language that has evolved and how it functions within a narrative or culture. McGrath, in his critique of Lindbeck's work says that he appears to suggest:

  • …that the cultural-linguistic approach to doctrine may dispense with the question of whether the Christian idiom has any external referent. Language functions within a cultural and linguistic world; it does not necessarily, however, refer to anything. Doctrine is concerned with the internal regulation of the Christian idiom, ensuring its consistency.[9]

If this is so, then there are serious ramifications for the future of Christianity.


Sometimes this view can be implied in relativism. It is the view that a belief is true only if it works for a particular person. So one religion can be 'true' for me if it 'works' for me, and 'false' if it doesn't work for someone else. Again we can posit that this is more correctly called personal preference and to correlate truth with preference linguistically demands a huge stretch of the imagination. However, if there is no such thing as 'truth', then preference is all that we have.

What is the Christian Story?
Biblical Narrative

Historical-critical methods of biblical study which have been so all-encompassing within theological academia throughout the modern period have themselves become subject to criticism. Endeavouring to create a cohesive whole by breaking the bible down into its constituent parts has failed largely because the bible does not readily lend itself to that kind of scrutiny. Historically and archaeologically it is difficult to claim categorically one way or the other that such and such an event is proved true or false by archaeological excavations or scrutiny of extant texts. Chronology is a major problem as no-one can agree on what happened when, especially as names of important figures appear to be subject to change depending on whose writing[10].

Before the modern period, most Christian theologians, it would appear, had read the bible as a "realistic narrative". So the history of the world, past, present and future, is detailed within the pages, from creation to the last judgement. Hans Frei felt that the last two hundred years Christian theology had been engaged in a distortion, whereas before that time: "Christians had thought of the grand sweep of biblical narratives as defining the real world",[11] now:

  • …all across the theological spectrum the great reversal had taken place; interpretation was a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story.[12]

This distortion, which begins with contemporary human experience, rather than the biblical narrative does a disservice to the bible, according to those who hold this view. Frei believed that those who develop theology that way, beginning with existential questions arising from the human situation, will treat the biblical stories as either historical material needing affirming, or abstract truths and moral proclamations. Retelling the stories as they are, without any systematic attempt at apologetics, we can see the overall picture as we have it in its final form. Working with the final form of the text has its attractions. However, there are caveats associated with it, the most important being that in the end all it can be is just 'retelling' and not 'telling'. In other words the propositional aspect is jettisoned, there is no need at all for an overall meaning. And this is contrary to the teaching of the bible which does make truth-claims and has within its overall narrative a complicated collection of narrative and non-narrative material. By restricting the Christian story to a recital of God's redemptive acts in history, we are in danger of forgetting that the individual is invited to respond to the story in an intensely personal and involving way:

  • Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above". NRSV John 3:3
  • For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. NRSV John 3:16

Grenz and Olson suggest a solution to this by quoting G. E. Wright who states that real events in history are involved in biblical theology but that they do not in themselves constitute the whole biblical event:

  • Rather, event plus interpretation are the constituent ingredients of history: "In the Bible an important or signal happening is not an event unless it is also an event of revelation, that is, unless it is an event which has been interpreted so as to have meaning"[13]

As we have seen, proving that an event happened is notoriously difficult with the passage of time and this is where the historical-critical methods have been inadequate. Discarding the possibility of an event occurring just because it has not been verified, is not a sound basis for study. But also it can be posited that grounding one's beliefs on such a foundation is equally as foolhardy.

However, to move on from that position within biblical studies to one where the narrative itself is the only delimiting factor is possibly one step too far, but it is one where the straightjacket of historical-critical studies has been removed and this can only be good for the future of theology, and in particular, biblical studies. Narrative theology (and the word 'narrative' is yet to be defined satisfactorily) needs to develop its method of study and begin to answer some of the questions that it raises e.g. how is truth determined; is it found within the stories; what kind of truth is it? Also, leading on from that, can meaning be construed from the truth; if so what is it and how is it interpreted?

Returning to Hamlet as a final example; in the same way that the statement "Denmark is the land where Hamlet lived" can be taken as true within the context of Shakespeare's play, the statement "Jesus is the Saviour of the world" (1 John 4:14) is true within the context of the biblical narrative. But as Alister McGrath states, this does not imply ontological truth or falsity unless (in this case) the bible is taken as history. The antipathy to the metanarrative, the 'big story', has eased society into pluralism, but not the "laid-back pluralism" that Eagleton claims (see above). Tolerance is inculcated through fear and as a result, the absolutes inherent within the biblical text have to be redefined to fit the current mode of thought. However, if the claims of the bible are ultimately found to be not only 'true' but 'relevant', all the redefining in the world will not change the fact.

The biblical narrative shows the Christian story to be both anecdotal and propositional. In other words the 'truths' found within the biblical story claim to correspond to a reality outside the language of the bible and therefore are open to verification or falsification. The context of story for the declarative statements only enhances their cognitive properties and gives them a certain resonance that proclamations in isolation could not do.

Church Tradition
Francis Watson states:

  • The primary reading community within which the biblical text is located is the Christian Church. …The primary function of holy scripture is to be read publicly in the context of communal worship.[1]

Whether one agrees with that or not, the principle is that it is within the Church community that the bible is read and interpreted. Neither the Church nor scripture can autonomously survive and therefore are co-dependent. It is because of this sometimes uneasy relationship that Christianity has survived to this day. As to how the word 'Church' is to be defined, there is not room here to speculate; except to say that the term 'institutional church' probably does not cover it.

From the rather ignominious beginnings as a sect within Judaism, Christianity grew organically and became a more ordered and independent body during the period 70-110 CE:

  • At this period… the institutional ministry takes over the task of preserving and transmitting the apostolic tradition, encapsulated in creedal forms, together with an incipient canon of apostolic writings…[15]

The fact that the institutional Church has held the creeds and writings down through the ages has given it an authority that has become self-perpetuating, in that when the authority of scripture is set up against the authority of the Church, the latter will generally win out. Because of the interpretative element that is required in order to make sense of scripture, it will always be subject to the authority of the Church. Alister McGrath states:

  • For in part, the authority of Scripture rests in the universal acceptance of that authority within the Christian church. To recognize Scripture as authoritative is not the judgment of a group of individuals; it is the witness of the church down the ages.[16]

But when the Church abuses that authority, it has rested upon small groups of individuals to establish once again the criteria in which the tenets of the Christian faith should rest e.g. Luther, Calvin. But each reassessment causes one more schism and so with the passing of the centuries the Christian story has become confused amidst strife and controversy.

Christian theologians have the task of interpreting not only the Christian message, but also giving expression to the many ways in which Christians understand and act out their religion. Within the Church tradition attempts have been made (especially in the last few decades) to unify all the disparate groups. It will not be successful without a radical redefining of the Christian Gospel message. If, as George Lindbeck suggests, the 'rule' theory is used, it will obviate the need to define the meanings of words, as each word will mean different things to different people. In the ecumenical movement, this already happens to some extent; the definition of the word 'salvation' for a Roman Catholic is substantially different than for a Protestant non-conformist, but it can be used by both parties without fear of contradiction.
Taken to its logical conclusion, construing meanings for words in this fashion can bring harmony and coherence. But, as has already been implied, any referent outside of language will be not only unnecessary but improper:

  • However, it is perfectly possible to have an entirely coherent system which has no meaningful relation to the real world. Christianity is not simply about interpreting the narrated identity of Jesus, or giving a coherent account of the grammar of faith. It is about recognising the truth of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. It is about the recognition of the truth of the gospel, and thereby the recognition of the need for Christian theology to give as reliable an account as possible of his identity and significance.[17]

Speaking from the perspective of an evangelical within the Christian Church, Alister McGrath certainly has a 'passion for truth'. But, to me he highlights an important issue, one that is vital for the future of Christianity. The Church can and should re-contextualise the gospel message for each generation, but fundamentally re-defining it for the sake of acceptance and harmony can only be deleterious, because in the long run all that will happen is the Christian faith will be reduced to a human construct based on the vicissitudes of language. And if this is all it is, there is no need to be concerned with intrasystematic consistency.


The Christian Story has a message and it has claims to truth. They are open to verification and falsification. I would posit that the truth-claims are relevant and have meaning. The 'story' is both anecdotal and propositional; in other words the story of God's redemptive acts in history, first through Israel and then through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, are to be understood as having a resonance which demand not to be restricted to language.

The Starting Point for Belief

How much one is prepared to accept as a presupposition varies from person to person. Christians are asked to except a 'story' which, on the surface seems both ludicrous and illogical. The rational approach has largely failed because some things cannot be empirically verified. The testimony of the first century apostles was clear:

  • ..and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ-- whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. NRSV 1 Corinthians 15:14-15

Therefore the witness of those in the first century who believed in the literal 'truth' of the gospel message, is logically the place to start. If, in fact, there are reasons to doubt the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, these should be seriously examined in the light of the evidence. And if one aspect of it can be falsified then it is in the best interests of humanity that the truth of the matter be revealed.

The starting point for belief is first of all discovering the 'place of certitude' from where the framework for revelation is set in place. Karl Barth, whose "work provided a conceptual basis for the use of story as the vehicle of the divine-human encounter"[18] emphasised, especially in his early years, the event of Jesus Christ as one part of the tripartite nature of God's Word interacting with humankind. The other two parts were the written word and the preached word. This gave rise to the two-dimensional concept of revelation - objective (incarnation of Christ as an historical event) and subjective (in the present, in the experience of individuals and communities).

This framework or paradigm is comprehensive and necessitates activity and not passivity on the part of the 'believer'. The only way at this juncture that Christians can be sure of what they believe is by faith - of which the bible speaks volumes. The Hebrew word 'emuwnah and the Greek word pistis both have the underlying notion of steadfastness and conviction. This idea conveys more than just blind faith but less than complete knowledge.


The problem of biblical Christianity is that it deals in 'certainties' and in today's fragmented and deconstructed climate that is not a 'politically correct' term. However, as I have claimed, absolute certainty does not necessarily mean absolute knowledge, but certainty combined with humility gives a sense of total and absolute trust that is free of hubris and thus a true definition of the biblical Hebrew and Greek understanding of faith.

Is the Christian story true? The claims of the bible have to be examined and the witness of the Church throughout history acknowledged. Whether the truth-claims correspond to reality is unclear on the face of it. I have tried to show that relativism and pragmatism cannot be posited without substantially changing the fundamentals of the Christian gospel message. For those who subscribe to the correspondence view of truth, the Christian story is more than the vehicle for truth, it is true for them and it is the truth. For those who choose Christianity as a matter of preference, then it is just true for them, and nothing further can be claimed. But seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, whose aphoristic Pensées lend themselves to the postmodern mindset, made this observation:

  • Their error is all the more dangerous because each man follows his own truth: their mistake is not in following a falsehood but in failing to follow another truth.[19]

In other words truth cannot be posited unless it has a correspondence to reality and it would be better to call it something else, e.g. 'preference'. But as far as the Christian gospel message is concerned it cannot exist as truth unless it is true in actuality.

[1] A. E. McGrath, A Passion for Truth - The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism, (Leicester: Apollos/IVP, 1996) p. 187
[2] D. Tomlinson, The Post Evangelical, (London: Triangle/SPCK, 1995) p. 87
[3] Ibid, p. 90
[4] T. Honderich (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) pp. 94 & 256
[5] Ibid, p. 164
[6] A. E. McGrath, A Passion for Truth, p. 190
[7] G. A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, (London: SPCK, 1984) p. 18
[8] Ibid, p. 65
[9] A. E. McGrath, A Passion for Truth, p. 150
[10] For instance, is the biblical Shishak the same person as the Shoshenk of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs. If so, which one, and if not, are there other possibilities? See David Rohl's thesis in A Test of Time, The Bible - From Myth to History, (London: Century, 1995)
[11] Quoted in W. C. Placher, "Postliberal Theology", The Modern Theologians, ed. D. Ford, second ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) p. 345
[12] Ibid
[13] S. J. Grenz & R. E. Olson, 20th Century Theology, (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 1992) p. 276
[14] F. Watson, Text, Church and World, Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994) pp. 3 & 4
[15] The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Editors B. M. Metzger & M. D. Coogan, (Oxford: OUP, 1993) p. 89
[16] A. E. McGrath, A Passion for Truth, p. 97
[17] A. E. McGrath, A Passion for Truth, p. 153-4
[18] Grenz & Olson, 20th Century Theology, p. 275
[19] B. Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995) p. 139

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