How to get at the truth
How to get at the truth
I have set out here, very briefly, what seem to me to be some of the key intellectual and practical commitments that need to be made if we are to achieve a more realistic Christian faith. The intellectual commitments are essentially matters of faith. They are an acknowledgement of the fact that Christianity has to do with a serious and real engagement with the God described in the biblical traditions and that this ‘Truth’ is not rational; it can be incorporated into Christian discourse only as a largely unargued presupposition. The practical commitments relate to the way in which the church handles the Truth that has been entrusted to it, how we ensure the ‘truthfulness’ of Christian discourse.
Each of these commitments needs in principle to be elaborated and defended, not merely abstractly but in the context of one or other of the various implicit dialogues in which we are involved. To assert, for example, that God exists brings into view a debate that is largely foreign to the biblical writings or, for that matter, to modern evangelical discourse. In relation to secular thought, however, such an assumption becomes extremely difficult, and in other contexts the claim that this God is almighty or personal introduces a different set of disagreements which are virtually impossible to resolve on any sort of rational or philosophical basis. Here, however, I only wish to outline some of the basic ideas or assumptions that underlie this work and which may not always be properly explained or justified.
1. Intellectual commitments
1. The existence of an almighty God who interacts meaningfully and purposefully with his creation. It is appropriate to speak of a personal relationship, one of dependence and worship, with such a God.
2. A special ‘relationship’ between this God and the descendants of Abraham over a period of approximately 1400 years, out of which emerged the particular and (eschatologically) decisive option of Jesus as messiah and saviour. In accepting this, however, one must also accept that because of its historical particularism and religious favouritism this relationship is thoroughly problematic. This arrogation of a universal God, which is both religiously and philosophically offensive, cannot simply be ignored by the church: it must be part of Christian self-understanding.
3. The broad reliability of the biblical texts as a record and exposition of Israel?s experience of God. These texts I take to be generally amenable to informed scholarly interpretation, and indeed to intelligent lay interpretation given an adequate ‘historical-critical’ framework.
4. The belief that mankind, individually and corporately, is in need of ‘salvation’. This ‘salvation’ consists in the restoration of Israel as a unique people in which God dwells by his Spirit, and rather more importantly from our perspective, in the extension of membership of this people to the whole world on the basis of faith in Israel’s messiah. Salvation is through an apprehension of the grace of God and should not be allowed to degenerate into any form of ideological conditioning. What we are saved from is a fundamental (ontological) alienation from God, which manifests itself secondarily as human sinfulness.
5. The option of Jesus Christ, which has become since the resurrection in principle a universal option and which carries with it a real and final accountability. I take it to be inherently reasonable to assert, as a matter of faith, that the story about Israel’s messiah has an absolute applicability, and that in some real way all people will find that they must answer to God for their loyalties and behaviour.
2. Practical commitments
1. A commitment to the Truth must be accompanied by a no less vigorous commitment to truthfulness in all respects. The evangelical church has become so sure of its grasp of ultimate Truth that in many respects it has stopped thinking. Such complacency must, in the end, undermine and bring into disrepute the Truth that the church seeks to uphold.
The concern for truthfulness covers all areas of thought and expression, but a special emphasis should be placed on how Scripture is used. On the one hand, dogmatic statements must be recognized as provisional - secondary to and contingent upon the much more complex and difficult content of Scripture. On the other, we should not allow faith to elevate Scripture above truth: faith can never make the assertions of Scripture either more or less true. Only on the basis of this sort of intellectual commitment can the larger, more controversial and offensive claims be made about the rightness of the biblical view of God and the uniqueness of Christ. The pursuit of intellectual integrity, moreover, should not be restricted to the evangelical intelligentsia; indeeed, the more pressing need at the moment is for the naked gospel of Jesus Christ to find expression in the churches. It is ordinary Christian discourse that cries out for integrity and credibility.
2. Traditional evangelicalism defines itself largely by means of its beliefs. A more appropriate self-understanding would construct itself around a lively sense of the historical and experiential reality (the practical commitment of baptism, the experience of the Spirit, the worship of God, the speaking of truth, the exercise of forgiveness, the search for unity) to which both Scripture and doctrine, in their different ways, point. The evangelical mind is too much in the grip of a stifling ideological, even mythological, commitment and needs to recover instead a sense of the reality of things.
3. A crucial requirement for reading the Bible well is that we consistently ask first what was being said to the original hearer or reader, and only once this has been established to ask in a rather critical and historically sensitive manner what is being said to us. The Bible is not a two-dimensional text from which an all-purpose, universal truth can be read by anyone at any time: it has historical depth, it is thoroughly contextualised, and this complicates things. The Christian mind must incorporate this third dimension, must reach back imaginatively to hear Jesus speak to Israel or Paul address ancient Christian communities. Dogmatism is a poor substitute for this work of the Spirit-filled, Christ-centred, imagination.
4. There must be a fundamental commitment to be able to proclaim?to learn how to proclaim?the kingdom of God with a sense of conviction and integrity. This cannot be taken for granted. Too many Christians are unable to speak about their faith because they struggle to find a way of speaking that does not sound puerile or implausible or fraudulent. The work of evangelism and apologetics has frequently been hamstrung by its reliance on irrationality and dogmatism - the hope that people will somehow come to believe despite the fact that what is said does not sound very believable. By embracing open standards of truth (and accepting the intellectual risks involved) we put ourselves in the position of being able to mount a more plausible defence of a Christ-centred worldview and a more compelling critique of secularism.
5. The church needs to develop a rhetoric that speaks both to insiders and to outsiders. The failure of the church to communicate to those on the outside is a further symptom of the loss of intellectual integrity and of the corruption of truth within evangelical thinking. Much can be done to mend the situation simply by learning to speak the truth about Christ to those who have not been innoculated with the presuppositions of evangelicalism.
6. If changes, perhaps quite deep changes, need to be made to the way in which we think and speak about our faith, this should not be to the detriment of a passionate and effective life in the Spirit. This life, this vitality, in its various manifestations, has been one of the best fruits of the modern evangelical movement. Perhaps more to the point, Christian discourse should always be prophetic, in the proper sense of the word. It arises as much from an engagement with God as from the interpretation of a text, and although modern prophecy is often either over-politicised or simply banal, I would argue that it remains a necessary part of Christian discourse. The church must find ways to speak directly from God - but this too must be done with integrity.
7. By restricting the ideological and cultural definition of evangelicalism we allow for the continuing possibility of a constructive and purposeful ecumenism. ?Evangelical? should always be a cross-denominational category, not a sectarian label; and an evangelical commitment should be open to finding Christlikeness not only across the spectrum of Christian traditions but also across the other cultural and social partitions that divide up the church.