Certainty — A Place to Stand
A Pou Sto
Point of Reference Beyond Self
In the first chapter of this book, I referred to Archimedes, who sought a place to stand in the universe. He said that if he could find a place to stand, he could “move the earth” with a lever. We need a place of certainty to stand, a point of reference beyond the self. Pou sto is the Greek term for “a place to stand.” Only God can provide that ultimate perspective for where to stand on certainty; the place that he provided was the Word of God. God has eternal viewpoint; humans have finite viewpoint. Only God’s total transcendent viewpoint can give certainty because it is absolute, universal, and exhaustive. Human knowledge is by nature derivative, but God derives his knowledge from no one. God’s knowledge is absolute, but human knowledge is dependent. God has never learned anything because he always knew everything, thus there is no fact independent of God. Unless there is comprehensive knowledge somewhere, there can be no certainty anywhere because absolute knowledge is inextricably interrelated. Finiteness cannot lead to infiniteness. Without universal knowledge from God, human knowledge will forever be a fragmented viewpoint. Humans cannot examine all reality comprehensively and look at all possible relationships of information. We cannot begin with ourselves by detailed induction, for discovery of ultimate reality would take infinite capacity. The process of discovery will perpetually trap us in a process of discovery without ever coming to conclusion about all inclusive certainty. We can never know any ultimate truth for sure, if we begin with ourselves.
God’s knowledge, however, is coextensive with all that there is. Biblically, there is no brute fact, no fact that does not relate to God’s purpose for creation. There is no ultimate certainty without God’s disclosure of himself. God does not reveal himself exhaustively in the Bible, but he reveals himself truly. Only complete universal knowledge is capable to verify certainty; therefore, God’s universal knowledge is prior to man’s finite knowledge. Man’s knowledge will always be equivocal, but God’s is univocal. Most people are unwilling to humble themselves to this fact; consequently, they remain in despair of ever reaching certainty. Because there is no fact in the universe independent of God, we must choose between uncertainty or the Word of God as the source of certainty.
Evidence derived from the assumption that God spoke in his Word provides certainty. Every presupposition is the ultimate belief system that one takes. If we take a presupposition different from revelation, then all that remains is possibility or probability, not certainty.
No Place to Stand
If we human beings begin with ourselves, we have no place to stand (pou sto). We are like the jackass who would not cross the bridge to the other side. Then non-Christians must reject Christ of necessity because they have no adequate universal knowledge; they cannot get beyond their finiteness. In the final analysis, God’s revelation of himself must be self-authenticating because only an infinite God can be an adequate witness to himself, the only being who possesses ultimate universal truth.220
Admittedly, this is argument in a circle, but it is the only case where arguing in a circle is valid, because only God is sufficient testimony to himself. Human beings are completely inadequate to apply any human test to determine whether truth about God is valid. If we invite people to test Christianity without revelation, we open the door to false methodology to determine ultimate truth. They would begin with humanistic bias, and would not start from a clean slate. Human autonomy is not ultimate and can never become the ultimate arbiter of truth. All we can do is flounder in our limited, incomplete, imperfect, partial, inadequate, and narrow perceptions.
McLaren says that Martin Luther’s words “Here I stand” are “the first statement uttered in the modern world.”221 McLaren’s postmodernism cannot accept modernism’s premise of logic, objectivity, and reason because the interpreter distorts meaning. This acceptance of the premise that the fallible person is the starting point in understanding Scripture is McLaren’s fundamental flaw. He bases his construct on doubt in counterdistinction to the biblical view that rests on confidence in knowledge about God’s revelation. McLaren says,
How do “I” know the Bible is always right? And if “I” am sophisticated enough to realize that I know nothing of the Bible without my own involvement via interpretation, I’ll also ask how I know which school, method, or technique of biblical interpretation is right. What makes a “good” interpretation good? And if an appeal is made to a written standard (book, doctrinal statement, etc.) or to common sense or to “scholarly principles of interpretation,” the same pesky “I” who liberated us from the authority of the church will ask, “Who[”] sets the standard? Whose common sense? Which scholars and why? Don’t all these appeals to authorities and principles outside the Bible actually undermine the claim of ultimate biblical authority? Aren’t they just the new pope?222
These assertions have been addressed by Christian scholars many times over. There is clear reason to believe that it is possible to know something about literature apart from lurching in self-impressions about a text. Let us look at this point by dealing with self-evident truth.
Is there such a thing as a self-evident truth? The issue that lies at the bottom of this question is the nature of truth. There are two essential views of truth: (1) coherent and (2) correspondent. The correspondent view maintains that assertion of truth must match factuality of the assertion. This means that we can correct falsity by measuring an asserted truth with facts and can know objective truth. Radical perspectivalism is not able to check its validity against something else. All perspectives are interpretations and cannot be independently true of the interpreter. There is no vantage point to make a judgment about truth or error in this view. However, biblical truth accurately accounts for what is real.
God makes truth “evident” to all (Romans 1:18–20). We can know enough truth to be accountable before him. Truth is plain and apparent from God’s viewpoint because the Greek word for “evident” means “cause to be seen, very clear, patent, conspicuous.” On the other hand, McLaren believes that the Bible is mostly narrative, so we cannot know things for sure, and that it does not produce a clear theology. He believes that evangelicals bought into modernism (foundationalism) that brought about concepts such as “authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute, and literal.”223 This is another false premise, because it does not follow that narrative always produces uncertainty. The narrative of David’s adultery with Bathsheba has a moral message. Psalms 32 and 52 draw the implication of his sinful adultery and murder.
Personal stories (narratives—“Why I am . . .”) are rickety underpinnings for overthrowing evangelical theology. McLaren needs unending uncertainty to deliver him from the certainty of modernism.224 He wants to float in a sea of subjective relativism because he must reject both reason and the Word of God; his dialectical process will not allow him to come to conclusion about truth. That is why he ran pell-mell into mysticism, and escapes from the authority of Scripture in spirituality. Mysticism enables radical emergent thinkers to reject propositional truth and systematic theology.
Postconservatives wish to avoid concrete knowledge of God with all its certain and attendant implications. They need an uncertain salvation, uncertain Jesus, and uncertain knowledge for a postmodern generation; their social kingdom emerges in time. This deliberate ambiguity that values the vague and detests the certain, clear, and objective is at the heart of emergent thinking. It is vacuous of content and definition. Emergent people would rather light candles than hear clarity of Bible exposition.
Postmoderns dethroned objective truth as the arbiter to determine whatever certainty there might be out there. Reality for them is non-rational. Emotion, intuition, and personal and relational ideas rest at the root of their existential thinking. Truth is not objective but relative, indeterminate, and participatory. There is no such thing as a dispassionate, independent knower or universal, timeless, objective truth that transcends culture. Truth for them is not culturally neutral or eternal. Each culture or community has its own limited truth that it shares in finite stories. Postmoderns cannot trust reason and logic. In other words, they live in unadulterated skepticism. All that remains is a world of conflicting opinions.
The biblical claim is that we have an absolute criterion of truth that transcends community, perspective, opinion, or thinking of the finite. This criterion functions above the practical within the world of limited human viewpoint. The unifying center for Christianity is that God spoke into time and space and gave people universal, eternal, infinite, absolute truth. This objective truth evaluates the validity of all other claims to truth. This fact lies beyond the capacity of people to reason beyond themselves to the universal. Christianity transcends the finite capacity to approach truth.
Although training, culture, and many other factors influence biblical Christians, they come to truth that is logical and objective. God revealed truth in propositions that we can readily understand. Thus, we can truly understand correct doctrine and come to certainty about truth, as we saw in the previous chapter. Christianity is far more than a “personal encounter.” Objective truth governs our experience. Experience is not the grid for determining truth as Stanley Grenz claims.225 True Christianity goes far beyond the subjectivity and uncertainty of postmodernism.
How We Know What We Know Is True
Believer and unbeliever disagree over biblical truth, not because of facts but on assumption about how to find truth. How do we know what we know is true? All approaches to truth ultimately come down to an assumption about how to find truth (epistemology).
A pou sto is an ultimate place to stand to find ultimate truth, absolute truth. Modernism took its stand on philosophy (rationalism) and science (empiricism). Postmodernism finds both systems inadequate; in fact, it finds all systems inadequate, including Christianity. To them, all systems break down in their search for certainty. They begin from a presumption of skepticism. Their skepticism goes to both means and end.
The biblical methodology for finding certainty is deductive revelation. The Bible proclaims that Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:5, 9). The Father draws people to come to him (John 6:45), making him the initiator of presupposition for finding truth. God initiates revelation to each person individually, for he sends the Holy Spirit to convict (John 16:8, 9) humans of the right presupposition. Therefore, God is the cause of our methodology for coming to truth.
Fundamental to the issue of certainty is the problem of the universal and the particular. We in our finiteness cannot come to an adequate universal to explain all that is necessary to come to universal certainty. We would need to be infinite to do that. God is the only sufficient and infinite being who can see all things in their completeness; thus, only God can establish a universal.
The universe has an overwhelming number of particulars. No one can claim to have inductively studied everything in the universe qualitatively and quantitatively equally, and with total dispassion, not leaning to one view or the other until coming to a completely dispassionate and objective conclusion. That is a practical impossibility. It is “the sole providence of universals (all-encompassing concepts) to give particulars their meaning.”226 If that is true, then how can finite beings find a true universal?
Only God can provide absolute comprehensive meaning for all possible particulars. No human method is big enough to cover all contingencies of creation. God is absolute, so all contingencies flow from him. God’s being determines truth, and nothing is true in itself. There is no law that governs God—he is the absolute universal. A thing is true based on whether or not it is consistent with God. Because God is the infinite reference point, Christians can assert certainty about particulars. A human being cannot begin with self, whether it is with philosophy or science, because neither of those systems is a complete universal. We can never find unity of truth in the diversity of the world. That is why postmodern skepticism throws up its hands in despair. This is the point of 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16.
God is the universal, the infinite reference point for Christian certainty. All facts integrate under this umbrella. Man became his own pou sto after the fall. He turned into his own reference point, wanting autonomy from God (the essence of sin). The price for this finite autonomy is loss of certainty. By exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25), man confined himself to the finite. Man’s understanding became the measure of all things, yet from God’s viewpoint human understanding was depraved (Romans 1:28) and darkened (Ephesians 2:1–3; 4:18). The scientist has to assume a method for finding answers in the universe. The fundamental method is materialism (in which the only reality is a physical universe). Presupposition of that method is one’s belief system. If there is anything metaphysical, then the method preempts the scientist from finding anything beyond the physical. This mode of operation maintains an open mind toward further discoveries—but strictly in the material realm. Conclusions must remain tentative and provisional because of the finite approach. Brute facts, uninterpreted facts, always remain out of reach for the finite scientist. Chance is always irrational.
The Anti-Biblical Paradigm
The assertion that the Bible is the Word of the absolute God is either true or false. If it is true, then it is true regardless of personal opinion because truth is a property of propositions. It does not rest on culture, subjective opinion, or personal perspective. As Groothuis says, “The statement ‘The world is spherical’ was true even when the majority of earthlings believed their habitat to be flat.”227
The following is the biblical view of truth: For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar, as it is written:
“That You may be justified in Your words,
And may overcome when You are judged.” (Romans 3:3, 4)
The Bible is more than narrative; it is propositional and systematic as well. It is the believer’s responsibility to understand the truth of Scripture in a logical and coherent way because the Bible is correspondently inerrant (completely and factually without error).
God gave his revelation to communities, but communities were not the source of revelation. Belief that communities are the source of revelation confuses cause and effect; a community does not reveal truth but receives truth. Whether anyone knows a given truth does not affect its truthfulness.
When postevangelicals attempt to reduce truth to language perspectives and render the Bible subjective, they reduce truth to something uncertain. This treachery of distorting biblical revelation will render Christians incapable of hearing God’s Word accurately and will keep them from sharing the gospel aggressively.
For example, Stanley Grenz believes that evangelicals should not articulate the gospel in a propositional manner. His view is that we should see the gospel in personal experience with God in a community context. Doctrine applies only to a given community. If this is correct, then one community cannot correct another community. If we did not obtain theology from Scripture but derive it from community and experience, it would not be possible to come to objective truth, and Christians would then wallow in competing perspectives. On the other hand, only propositions can convey truth. Scripture gives truth for everyone, both within and without community. God’s Word is more than propositions, but without propositions the ideas God wants us to know of him are without meaning or purpose. Without objective truth, evangelism, missions, and theology would not have purpose.
The biblical paradigm is didactic (the key word in the pastoral epistles— didache), not dialectical. God fixes and presets principles of revelation in didactic truth. Satan did not want didactic truth but dialectical process (Genesis 3:1–6). God said, “You shall not” but Satan whispered, “Has God said?” This was a temptation to become “like God” by rationalization. Postconservatives want transformational (dialectical) ministries. They try to move the church from didactic propositions to dialectical process orientation—the very tool Satan used to deceive Eve. This is extrapolation (picking and choosing and then redefining) of truth into a relationship paradigm. Aversion to the closed didactic paradigm of inerrant, inspired revelation is at the philosophical heart of radical emergent thinking. Their massive philosophical presupposition of dialectical theology moves them away from evangelicalism. “There is a way that seems right to a man, But the end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12).
Paul warns believers to avoid the antithesis that is involved in the dialectical process: “O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20).
Christianity rests on what God says, not on how people think.
Postconservatives reject the correspondent view of truth (in which propositions must conform to facts); instead they hold to the coherentist view of truth (where beliefs rest on other beliefs and propositions are not justified by derivation from foundational propositions). The coherentist view merely holds to the comprehensiveness of the idea, the cohesive consistency of propositions.
Hundreds of passages in the Old Testament use words that carry the idea of correspondent truth. The primary terms for “truth” in the Old Testament (emet, Isaiah 45:19) and in the New Testament (alethia) both carry correspondent meaning. In addition, many passages explicitly contrast true propositions with falsehoods. Repeatedly, the Old Testament warns against false prophets whose words do not correspond to truth (Deuteronomy 18:22). Facts make a proposition true because there is a correspondent relation between a proposition and relevant fact.
The dialectical view of truth rejects correspondence and presumes personal assertions. Yet postconservatives’ assumption that their “assertions” are true destroys the dialectical approach to truth, for they assume a didactic form of argument to establish their dialectic. We can never have confidence or a certainty of truth by the dialectical process. The didactic view of truth puts us in contact with reality. Truth has consequence and falsity has consequence. Didactic truth holds to a clear notion of antithesis; belief and unbelief stand as polar opposites. If something is true, then its opposite is untrue. Postconservatives hold antipathy to this kind of antithesis because they are relativists about propositional truth, about conclusions of truth. Truth always corresponds to reality and postmodernism always results in skepticism. This has been true from the days of Protagoras, Socrates, and Plato. Postmodernism itself has a corresponding truth—that there is no consensus on truth. Postmoderns abandon knowable absolutes and conclude that we mediate all truth through the subjective perspective of the knower.
Brian McLaren believes that systematic theology should be an “ongoing dialogue in search for truth.”228 That is a combination of a dialectical belief system with the philosophical instrumentalism of William James, who held that the process of finding truth was more important than to discover truth. As well, McLaren holds to a coherentist rather than a correspondent view of truth.229 According to him,
Jesus taught us that the way to know what God is like is not by determining our philosophical boundary conditions/definitions/delineations before departing, but rather the way to know is by embarking on an adventure of faith, hope, and love, even if you don’t know where your path will lead.230
This is foundational dialectical instrumentalism. McLaren maintains two fundamentals of the faith, “to love God and to love our neighbor,”231 which, of course, are not fundamental in the normal sense of the term but are primary life goals for the believer. Doctrine reduced to these two is reductum ad absurdum when it comes to claim for truth.
Before the introduction of dialectical thinking, people thought in terms of antithesis and carried a unified field of knowledge, the law of logic called the law of non-contradiction. Dialectical thinkers do not think in terms of cause and effect but in terms of synthesis. They seek truth in synthesis rather than antithesis. Synthesis undermines the whole idea of certainty and of how we know what we know (epistemology). To them, there is truth in thesis and antithesis. This makes all assertions of truth relative. This dialectical methodology assumption is at the heart of postconservative fallacy. Synthesis as over against antithetical methodology forms pseudo-Christianity. Instead of setting Christianity in stark contrast to heterodoxy, postconservatives offer a synthesis with other religions via dialogue, and that synthesis leads to an emergent view of truth.
The Bible presents logical consistency regarding truth, a coherence of truth that is true to facts. The problem is that man is finite and cannot come to truth as a whole, so his views are tentative and provisional if he comes to truth through his finiteness. Dialectical and coherent thinking is true if we begin with finiteness. There will always be a dynamic tension between thesis and antithesis; both are inadequate as a self-contained approach. Indeed, humanity is in an endless process of discovery if there is no objective starting point, no pou sto. No unbeliever can justify or warrant any view as true. Any approach to ultimate truth by finite humans is foolish. The problem is that mankind stands in enmity (antipathy) against God. There is a massive difference in worldview originating from that enmity. “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20).
The Bible presents truth in an objective sense and not in the way one constructs understanding or how one interprets a position. Postmodernism perceives truth not as objective but as personal, subjective, and pragmatic.
McLaren believes that not only should methodology change, but the message should change as well.232 He represents himself as offering not only a high change in method but a high change in message as well.233 The ongoing change of mission demands that we change our message.234 This requires “new content” and “new truths.”235 He says, “These new messages are not incompatible with the gospel of the kingdom Jesus taught, and asserts that the Holy Spirit will guide them into new, previously unknown truth.236 This has major implications for the closing of the canon of Scripture. There is a significant distinction between the progress of doctrine and revelation of new truth.
Universal, absolute knowledge raises the question: Where is the starting point for this universal knowledge? The presuppositional approach to truth rests on the premise that God alone can reveal himself because he is transcendent, but that people are confined to the immanent world around them. The presuppositional approach is not mystical in its methodology because it submits itself to verification by logic and evidence. Yet Christianity is a call to final truth, not to a probable theory. It rests on one assumption—that the Bible is the Word of God. All other approaches to truth rest on assumptions of philosophy, science, mysticism, subjectivism, skepticism. Every chain of argument begins with a starting point. That starting point is self-evidencing.
Any approach to truth that does not begin with the Word of God will result in a relative view of truth, a relative ethic, and will negate the possibility of certainty. Humans, even in an unfallen or in an eternal state, will never carry infinite understanding. We will always have something to learn about God. Sin added further incapacity to understand universals.
Man needs spiritual birth to understand spiritual things; otherwise, he remains spiritually dead. He cannot in himself come to truth or know truth. Certainty eludes him without universal revelation from God. In his finitude, chance becomes prevalent, contingency rules, and nihilism and skepticism are the result. There is no neutrality in the non-Christian, for he holds the bias of human viewpoint against God. Belief in a non-biblical worldview precludes knowing God. The Bible constantly challenges human autonomy as an adequate way to certainty.
Both Scripture and Jesus Christ are self-attesting. People dead in trespasses and sin cannot attest to the truth that is in Christ because they do not have the capacity to do so. They are pure soul and without spiritual capacity (1 Corinthians 2:14). Neither do they possess the valid tests of truth, Scripture, or Jesus himself. That is why they need “the foolishness of the thing preached” (the gospel message) to believe (1:21). That witness does not come in persuasive words of human wisdom but in the demonstration of the Spirit and power. This boils down to the self-attesting Word of God versus the self-attesting autonomy of the self-commended autonomy of rebellious mankind.
As God is self-contained and self-sufficient, so is his Word self-contained and self-sufficient (1 Corinthians 2:11). The God of the Bible can only be self-revealed and knowledge of him depends on his self-disclosure (Matthew 11:27; 1 Corinthians 2:11). It is self-attesting because only God is a valid witness to himself.
Self-attesting Scripture is an argument in a circle, but it is necessarily the case because God is the final source of ultimate truth if he is absolute. If we apply an extra-biblical test, such as philosophy or science (rationalism or empiricism—modernism), then we limit God to the finite capacities of people. This test would assume that it already knows by the assumptions of philosophy and science what God can and cannot reveal. No, the necessity of God’s absoluteness requires that he reveal himself independently of the finite creature. That is the only way people can possibly know the God of the Bible. Who God is determines the conditions for knowing him. We are left with Anselm’s presupposition—“I believe in order to understand” (credo ut intelligam). However, this belief requires God’s revealed content. “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3).