by Robert C. Kurka
Logic . . . reason . . . rationality . . . truth.
While such terms were fairly common—and desirable—depictions of biblical faith in the literature of 19th- and 20th-century Christians (especially restorationists), they are increasingly being abandoned by theological writers during this new millennium. In fact, in today’s religious climate, if a conservative theologian ventures to talk about “absolute truth,” chances are he may be ridiculed by the evangelical academy, or at least those “younger evangelicals” (to use the late Robert Webber’s designation) who deride such language as the antiquated baggage of a bygone modernism.1
The irony of this change in intellectual scenery is staggering. For the past 50 years evangelical scholars have struggled to demonstrate the rationality and reasonableness of historic Christianity in the face of a liberal academy that dismissed such in the name of modern science. Stone-Campbell theologians like Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University’s Jack Cottrell and Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary’s James Strauss have labored to educate a generation of believers who would promote biblical Christianity with a logical and historical rigor that would defuse the critics who considered such as hopelessly outdated and irrational.
Their efforts have unmistakably contributed to more scholarly and refined apologetic efforts, especially in the recognition of the place of worldview in one’s receptivity of the gospel. Now, however, it is precisely this “rational Christianity” that is under attack—certainly, by those in secular academia, but even more importantly, by those who claim the label of orthodox Christianity. What has happened?
A NEW WORLDVIEW
The answer is that the modern worldview that ruled Western culture for more than two centuries has essentially been replaced by a new, postmodern one. In simple terms, the unbridled optimism that modernity had in human reason and technology proved to be an untenable position in a 20th century devastated by world war, greed, poverty, disease, and ecological devastation.
Moreover, the certitude of naturalistic science and the alleged autonomy of number theory had given way to the “mysteries” of relativity, quantum mechanics, and Gödel’s Theorem. Additionally, a burgeoning global awareness revealed the existence of many diverse cultural perspectives, causing many to question, if not openly reject, the notion of “Western superiority.”
Consequently in this new intellectual and “politically correct” environment, claims of truth are increasingly viewed with skepticism, and often denounced as the product of a Western chauvinism. For a conservative Christianity that has struggled to earn a place at the table of respectable thought, the cultural rejection of reason appears to be a serious setback. Right at a time when we were showing signs we could master the game of rational argument, that game has been largely discarded.
There are some contending that the “death of truth” is not necessarily a bad thing. A postmodern-oriented, “post-conservative”2 evangelicalism has been emerging that chooses to embrace the new ethos, not only because it is more relevant to conversation with the present culture, but also because it is thought to be more aligned with the premodern worldview of the Bible. In essence, the past generations’ fascination with “truth and proof” were wrong-headed to begin with (i.e., capitulations to an arrogant modernity and a departure from the genuine spirit of biblical Christianity).
Many Christian Standard readers have probably encountered this “new/old theology” in literature and multimedia venues of emergent church voices such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell. However, in order to more accurately assess the biblical and historical wisdom of traveling in this postmodern direction, it is necessary to take a brief look at the academic, theological book these emergent pioneers cite in their pilgrimage away from a Christianity that became way too modern.
In 2001, a rather small volume (for theological studies) appeared on the academic scene, giving perhaps the most cogent articulation of a “new,” more postmodern direction for evangelical theology. Beyond Foundationalism,3 coauthored by well-known Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz and Biblical Seminary’s John Franke, was a trend-setting work that called upon conservative professors and pastors to make a break with the failed, modern, foundationalist approaches to knowledge that had dominated the 20th century, and to embrace a less-reason-oriented nonfoundationalism of the kind championed by philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein.4 In short, evangelical theology had become “seduced” by modernity’s fascination for rationality and “indisputable facts,” resulting in a faith that was little more than a system of intellectual arguments, rather than the dynamic, Spirit-driven community of its formative days.
This indictment clearly has profound implications for restorationists who have emphasized Christianity’s rational content and reproducible “patterns” of the Christian faith in both individual conversion and polity of the church.5 In actuality, the entire notion of restorationism entails the belief there are “norms” in Scripture that delineate an “authentic Christianity” that stands judgment over two millennia of nonbiblical alterations.
If the nonfoundationalist critique is correct, we Stone-Campbell heirs have been building our case for New Testament Christianity primarily upon the philosophical assumptions of the 19th and early 20th centuries rather than the teachings of the Bible. Early Christians were not shaped by this slavish adherence to human reason, but more by the less predictable leadings of the Holy Spirit. Did not the apostle Paul himself say, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18)? For members of a movement that was launched to “restore the ancient order,” the criticism brought by Grenz, Franke, and the nonfoundationalist camp does more than merely suggest a slight modification of our approach to theology; in essence, it calls into question the very concept of restorationism!
Admittedly, this Stone-Campbell theologian has more than a few “bones to pick” with the Beyond Foundationalism agenda, because I believe it contains some serious biblical, theological (also, philosophical), and historical errors. I will discuss these in the second and third parts of this essay.
However, in all fairness, this new theological proposal does have some legitimate—and biblically supportable—contentions that need to be taken seriously by restorationists, and all others committed to a scripturally driven Christianity.6
1. It is virtually indisputable that some 19th- and 20th-century evangelicals (and restorationists) were “partakers of the tree of modernity” in their overzealous attempts to argue for the faith’s intellectual credibility against an academy that had largely discounted Christian belief as primitive, prescientific superstition. Ironically, reason had come to be seen as antithetical to trust in Christ and the Bible, and there was an understandable impulse to counter the alleged irrationality of conservative Christianity. Consequently, this period was marked by a quest to “prove” the truth of the Bible (especially through evidentialist apologetics) in a manner that would “match” the rationality of modernity.7
Unfortunately, in their attempt to convince their secular critics that biblical belief was not built upon unfounded subjectivity, these devout Christians appealed to truth standards that had largely been formulated by their antagonists, in which human reason—not divine revelation—was the source of knowledge.
The Grenz/Franke approach calls us to appreciate the Scriptures as the “Spirit’s voice” rather than a mere apologetic instrument, allowing the sacred text to construct a new perspective of reality for the believing community as well as perform its “spiritual formation” task. This in turn, will promote a reading of the Bible that is canonical and holistic, and less tied to defending narrow, divisive, denominational affirmations. The biblical story must truly be allowed to set the theological agenda, not vice versa. This can only be good news to Stone-Campbellites.
2. Beyond Foundationalism reminds evangelicals of the importance of church tradition in interpreting Scripture. The authors are not calling for a two-source view of authority (as in Roman Catholicism) where tradition can take precedence over the biblical text. Rather, they recognize there is wise counsel to be found in the writings of “Christians past” for us today, as we seek the meaning of God’s Word.
3. Professors Grenz and Franke call for new and fresh efforts to speak the gospel in the cultural context of our present generation—a postmodern one—going beyond previous endeavors that merely attempted to “define” biblical ideas to a nonbelieving audience.
4. The new, nonfoundationalist theology squarely focuses on the unique Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Echoing a “trinitarian renaissance” that has become a prominent feature of recent evangelical theologizing,
Grenz and Franke rightly remind conservative believers that this difficult but cardinal belief sets the Christian faith in bold relief against the canvas of world religions. The Trinity doctrine’s “mysterious” character should surely caution evangelicals against placing too high a premium on human reason.
5. Trinitarian theology—a poignant recognition of the “communal character” of God—is also the basis for human community, particularly as seen in the people of God, the church. For nearly 500 years, Protestants have given much attention to the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) but very little attention to ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). We have emphasized how an individual is brought into right standing with God, but given short shrift to how these believers are shaped into a new redemptive community.
The Bible, on the other hand, places the church community firmly in the center of the divine drama. Unfortunately, this “corporate Christianity” became largely lost after the Reformation, and most decidedly with the advent of modernity and its emphasis upon the autonomous individual.
The Stone-Campbell Movement is a somewhat notable exception in this regard among evangelicals. In our concern to restore first-century Christianity, we have understood better than most the prominence of the local church and her sacraments in the Christian story.
6. Finally, the nonfoundational project “recovers” the importance of eschatology. This is not to be understood in terms of the Left Behind type of sensationalism that calls Christians to abandon this world in hopes of a future kingdom. Rather, Grenz and Franke remind conservative Christians that the Christian community is to live in ways that proclaim God will make all things new at the end of time. Thus, we construct new models of human relationships that better reflect this future community rather than the isolated ghettos of modernity.
Clearly, there is much to commend in Beyond Foundationalism and the nonfoundationalist approach in general. Certainly, it is hard to argue that evangelical and restorationist Christians have too often appropriated an understanding of truth that more resembles the narrow definition of modernity rather than a “living truth” incarnated in Jesus and the early church.
But does this mean that “truth talk” is hopelessly modern and needs to be abandoned? In the next two parts of this essay I will contend that while it is time to move beyond modernity’s understanding of truth, Christians must never let go of the concept. Long before modernity, in fact, long before the church began, truth was. And this is why we cannot embrace this “new” evangelical theology.
1 Modernism, or modernity, refers to the mind-set that dominated much of the intellectual environment throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Marked by the belief that there was absolute truth and this truth was primarily knowable through science and quantifiable methods. In this view, a universal, human reason and rationality were trusted to be accurate, objective, and sufficient interpreters of reality (God was not needed!). During modernism’s first 100 years, adherents were generally optimistic about humanity’s ability to positively transform society. This optimism began to wane by the 1950s, after two devastating world wars cast serious doubts on modernity’s promise.
2 Whereas modernity emphasized that truth was objective and knowable to the human mind, postmodernism recognizes the subjectivity of knowledge, noting that people are biased and “blinded” to realities that lay outside their cultural boundaries. Postconservative theology, then, represents an attempt by evangelicals to seriously recognize this postmodernist critique. While postconservatives will still largely affirm the key beliefs of historic Christianity, they do so upon the basis of these tenets’ inclusion in the Christian story, not because they can be proved “true” in some scientific sense. Unlike their Bible-believing forebears, who placed a high priority on the inerrancy of Scripture, postconservatives are less troubled about resolving alleged scriptural “difficulties,” and more content to accept the text as the Christian community’s historic, unique, and very human understanding of reality.
3 Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).
4 Foundationalism (at least the type being challenged by Grenz and Franke—there are other forms of this epistemological approach) is the modernistic belief that there are objective, indisputable sources of truth (e.g., God, history, reason) and these are knowable to the human mind. This philosophic approach assumes we can use language to accurately describe things the way they are (“correspondence theory of truth”). Nonfoundationalism, in contrast, contends that these “objective sources” (and the language to describe them) are really the construction of a particular culture; given our “cultural filters,” no one can actually say they know things as they are.
5 Any of a number of Restoration Movement histories chronicle this theological approach, including the fine volume by James North, Union in Truth (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1994).
6 These “commendations” are based on arguments made throughout Beyond Foundationalism, notably pages 33-272.
7 For 18 years (beginning in 1893), readers of Christian Standard were given a strong (and sometimes, bitter) dose of evidentialist argument in J.W. McGarvey’s weekly column, “Biblical Criticism.” Courses in evidentialist apologetics have been a “staple” in our Bible colleges until fairly recently. Today this type of approach is seen in the less acerbic works of Josh McDowell (e.g., Evidence Demands a Verdict).
Robert C. Kurka is professor of theology and church in culture at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary. This three-part article represents a revision of the author’s more technical essay that appeared in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. (See Robert C. Kurka, “Before ‘Foundationalism’: A More Biblical Alternative to the Grenz/Franke Proposal for Doing Theology,” JETS 50:1 [March 2007] 145-65).