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The Truth that is in Jesus [Thawed out Thursday]

Ok, so we've noted the danger of fiting Jesus into a pre-fab system of truth. We don't want to do that.  But Missy has asked the $64 000 question.  It's basically this: What do we do when speaking to a non-Christian - isn't it desirable at least sometimes to bring Christ to them according to their preferred programme??

I'm not going to be able to answer this very well.  But I'm just going to give some thoughts as they occur and then I'd love if others chimed in with how they go about this.

My first thought is this:  If we're doing evangelism then we are necessarily relating Christ to non-Christian thought-forms.  Even if all we do is read out the sermon on the mount it will be heard from within a pre-existing mindset.  What's more it will be heard as remarkably similar, if not completely continuous, with human philosophies.  Think about it.  We all live in a universe made by, through and for Christ and which proclaims Him in every detail. Everyone is working with the same conceptual raw materials and can do no other than come up with some re-arrangement of Christian truth.  When the pure stuff is brought to bear on discussion people will say 'Yeah, yeah.  That's just like X.'

But is it?  And is it ever true to say to a person 'You know it is just like X.  And I'll add Y and Z to your X and we'll build towards saving knowledge of Christ.'

Well let's think about the nature of truth.  Paul says we find truth in Christ - hidden in Him in fact (Eph 4:21; Col 2:3).  Jesus says He is truth (John 14:6) and even goes so far as to say that God's word (which He also calls 'truth') when not related to Him, leaves people in terrifying ignorance.  (John 5:39f; 17:17).

Truth is relative.  It stands in strict relation to Christ the Truth (good name for a blog I reckon).  His subjectivity is the one objectivity.  What is there outside of Him in Whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden?  Rearrangements of Christian reality yes - but because of that re-arrangement they are rendered blasphemous falsehoods.  The true test of a proposition is not its conformity to an abstract notion of reality or reason or scientific law.  The true test is its relatedness to Jesus.

It is simply not the case that discrete parcels of truth lie around the universe largely intact.  It is even less true that sinful humanity has some capacity (or inclination!) to assess these propositions, divorced as they are from Christ.  It's outright Pelagian heresy to imagine that such 'discrete propositions' and such 'objectively assessed' truth will lead a person to Christ.  Christ leads us into the truth.  Study of abstract truth does not lead us to Christ.

Now, what about non-Christian philosophies?  Can a Christian take a sentence from Homer (either Simpson or the poet!) on their lips and use it to testify to Christ?  Of course!  But in doing so they have vindicated Christ not Homer.  They have not given testimony to the rightness of that proposition in its own context.  They have commandeered it and pressed it into Christ's service - the service it should have always rendered.  This is precisely the language of 2 Corinthians 10:5 - taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.

In this verse Paul paints the picture of these renegade 'thoughts' that have gone AWOL from Christ.  We arrest them and press them back into the Lord's service.  But what we don't do is grant these thoughts a civilian existence, as though they'll do the Lord's service no matter what uniform they're wearing.  No.  Either they're in obedience to Christ (explicitly wearing the uniform) or they're a pretension setting itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5).

Ok, but now we're back to the inescapable problem.  Here is a non-Christian with all their presupposed notions of truth that can only lead them to error.  Now here comes Christ the Truth.  And we've already conceded that the non-Christian cannot but hear Christ according to their presupposed notions.  So what do we do?

Well here's one tempting response.  Simply oppose everything they say.  They buy into post-modernism - we counter with modernism.  They're comfortable with irrational claims - we respond with rationalism.  They say 'truth is relative' - we insist 'truth is absolute.'  They indulge in immorality - we preach morality.  Well you may well get a discussion going.  But have you brought them to Christ?  Or to the 1950s?

Tim Keller ministers among the groovy lefties of Manhattan.  What's his approach?  Traditional religious values?  No, as he likes to say the bible is not left wing or right wing - it's from above.  Whatever we say into these debates must make that clear.

Another thought.  Jesus did not come onto the world stage addressing 'universal human concerns'.  He wasn't born into the Areopagus as the Ultimate Philosopher.   He did not open with: 'We all know the truth about relationships, money, power etc.  I've come to bring you the ultimate experience of these.'  No.  He comes specifically and almost exclusively onto the Jewish scene, addressing Jewish hopes and concerns.  He comes as Messiah into a very specific, encultered setting which He had been meticulously preparing for Himself for centuries.  A people had been formed, a law had been given, a land, kings, prophets, priests, the Scriptures.  And the understanding, ideals, hopes and problems of this people are actually quite strange to the natural ear.

They worried about ceremonial cleanness and atoning sacrifice; about land and exile; about Sabbath and the throne of David.  They were a particular people with particular patriarchs and a particular God called Yahweh who was (and is), among other things, their tribal deity.  They were concerned about His particular promises - His covenant - and their particular fulfilment.  The Jesus-shaped hole at the heart of Israel was a very peculiar shape indeed - at least to modern sensibilities.  It is, in many ways, very different to what contemporary evangelists consider as the Jesus-shaped hole of today's 'enquirer'.

And so when the LORD incarnate comes as His own Prophet, He does a couple of peculiar things that we modern evangelists don't really do.  First He comes in fulfilment of the Scriptures.  All the Gospel writers do this but Matthew especially introduces Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament.  Here is the One at the centre of this history and this people and these hopes.  Do we present Jesus like that?

The other peculiar thing Jesus does is to begin by saying 'Repent and believe the gospel.'  That's not His punchline - that's His opener.  'Repent and believe the gospel' He commands.  And then He unpacks the life of the kingdom.  On those terms He speaks of relationships, money, power etc.  First the beatitudes - the gatehouse to the kingdom - then a description of this kingdom life.

What would evangelism look like that followed this pattern?  Something like this I think: "You've been speaking to me about love / freedom / fear / power / addiction / sexuality / abortion / capital punishment / healthcare / education / the state / animal rights / whatever.  Jesus has a lot to say on those issues but I'm going to have to back up from our discussion and give you a bird's eye view.  Let me give you the bible's view on X in three minutes."  If your friend isn't willing to do this then they're not willing to have a serious discussion anyway.  Present your biblical theology of the issue with Jesus at the centre.  Now Jesus is your non-negotiable.  He is the vantage point from which you address the subject.  He is not in question - everything else is.  Even use language like "For the sake of argument, work with me on this.  I'm describing Christ's universe - He made all things, He came into the world to reconcile them etc etc...  Doesn't that explain perfectly what we find when it comes to X?'

What you don't want to do is say 'X is absolutely true.  Now please investigate Jesus and I hope you find that He fits the criteria already established by X.'  I find Karl Barth's warning on this particularly salient:

The great danger of apologetics is “the domesticating of revelation… the process of making the Gospel respectable. When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it and peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it inoccuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control.” (II/1, p141)

More Barth quotes here.

Anyway I've got a few more things to say but I've rambled on too long.  Maybe a worked example or two would help.  Perhaps that's what I'll blog next.

But I'll leave it there for now.  What do you think?


0 thoughts on “The Truth that is in Jesus [Thawed out Thursday]

  1. John B

    "Here is a non-Christian with all their presupposed notions of truth that can only lead them to error."

    Do you think that there is any reality to general revelation? Does fallen man remain in God's image?

    You note that Jesus begins by saying ‘Repent and believe the gospel.’ For gentiles general revelation seems to provide the rational basis for understanding Jesus' saving revelation and following His commands.

    We should heed Barth's warning about the danger in apologetics of making an idol out of the Gospel. But I doubt that apart from God's grace in the universal Sensus Divinitatis any witness to Christ could be meaningfully received by non-believers at all.

    It seems to me that the task of apologetics, the spadework for the charisma of evangelism, involves a lot of listening and engaging with non-Christian thought, which, providentially, includes truth, as well as falsehood.

  2. Glen

    Sorry I haven't been replying to comments for the last week - I've been on holiday...

    Hi John,

    I think general revelation is real and comprehensive. I believe it proclaims the word of Christ in unmistakable clarity. Don't forget I've coined the term christocentric panapocalyptheism :)

    I believe that we remain in the image of God and we cannot erase God's revelation in all of creation, though we want to. But without erasing it or annihilating it we twist and distort it and knock it out of its orbit around Christ, re-centring it on other things (ourselves!).

    So there are whole matrices of truths that are acknowledged by the non-Christian and very much resemble the reality of the Scriptures, but when you dig down you find that for the non-Christian they are actually orbiting around something entirely different.

    There is no harm in granting the validity of their insights on a million issues. But definite harm can come in trying to bridge from that system to the gospel.

    In these discussions I always find it helpful to parallel salvation and revelation (which are so closely twinned in Scripture). I can wholeheartedly agree that non-Christians can "do good" in limited but real senses. So in one limited sense I can and do rejoice with non-Christians in the 'good things' that they do. But I would never say to a non-Christian "What you've already done is good and takes you part of the way. But you need to build on that by co-ordinating it with Christ's saving work." To say that is to betray the gospel. Instead I ask them to re-interpret all of what they've done in the light of Christ's work and invite them to begin again trusting His work alone which only then gives rise to our good works. And these are done with a completely different orientation.

    Similarly - I don't say to a non-Christian "What you know is true and takes you part of the way. But you need to build on that by co-ordinating it with Christ's saving truth." To say that is, again, to betray the gospel.

    Instead I ask them to re-interpret all of what they know in the light of Christ's truth.

    Non-Christian thought includes truth in just the same way that non-Christian morality includes goodness. i.e. in a real but limited way. But we ought not to co-ordinate this with saving truth/grace in a Thomist "nature + grace" kind of way.

    must get off to bed, feel free to come back at me...

  3. John B

    Thanks Glen for that very helpful answer. Some ground between Aquinas and Barth seems right to me on this one. Most of the church seems to have settled somewhere between “nature + grace” and "Nein".

  4. Glen

    You're probably right about 'most of the church'. And we might well find that the actual practice of evangelism between me and your average apologetics-lover does not differ as much as our stated theologies of revelation. Or, for that matter, the rhetoric we use about those theologies!

    But still. I can't help thinking that if the revelation-salvation link holds then 'somewhere between Barth and Aquinas' equals somewhere between Augustine and Pelagius. But maybe that's just me and my Barthian rhetoric coming through :)

  5. John B

    If I'm understanding rightly, you're equating Barth with Augustine on this point. But they seem to me to have held to quite different views. (Maybe Barth is more Augustinian than Augustine!) The latter held that man possesses by nature an intuition, enabled by the divine Word, that acquires data about God by observation of the phenomenal world. Aquinas' developed his idea of the analogy of being from Augustine's thought, but where the latter regarded natural intuition as very limited, Aquinas was too optimistic about man's abilities. But both of them agreed that salvation depends upon the revelation of the person and work of Christ Jesus.

    With your recent fine series on Irenaeus and Athanasius as encouragement, I've been rereading the latter's "On the Incarnation". The third chapter, "The Divine Dilemma and Its Solution in the Incarnation" is the best treatment on the question of the relationship of general and special revelation that I've seen. Here's a link to the chapter:

    The third paragraph in your first comment above provides a great concise summary of Athanasius' views on revelation where you write: "we twist and distort it and knock it out of its orbit around Christ, re-centring it on other things (ourselves!)."

    But it seems to me that Barth's complete rejection of the reality of general revelation lacks any support in antiquity.

    "Invisible in Himself, He is known from the works of creation; so also, when His Godhead is veiled in human nature, His bodily acts still declare Him to be not man only, but the Power and Word of God." ~Athanasius

  6. Glen

    Hi John,

    I'm not equating Barth and Augustine on the issue of revelation (or on the issue of salvation). I'm saying "Barth is to revelation what Augustine is to salvation" - ie they are both champions of sola gratia - one in the realm of revelation, the other in the realm of salvation. Therefore just as, in salvation, we resist not only Pelagianism but semi-Pelagianism. So in revelation we should resist not only Thomism but semi-Thomism (Brunner?).

    I'm not well versed enough in Church Dogmatics volume 4 to weigh in on the much debated question of Barth's view on general revelation. But I do think that you can heartily agree to his "Nein" and also hold a view of general revelation something like what I outline here and elsewhere on the blog.

  7. John B

    Hi Glen,

    I like your use of Aristotelian deductive reasoning to equate Barth and Augustine with the principle of sola gratia. Even Thomas would be happy with this approach! Thanks! This connection clicks for me.

    The error that trips us up regarding *salvation* is Pelagianism, either in its pure or mixed forms. It's counterpart with respect to *revelation* is gnosticism. It also has multiple forms, bibliolatry being one of them. Gnosticism arises when revelation is detached from creation. So for me, I find more doctrinal difficulty with Aquinas on salvation than I do with him on revelation.

    I don't know much about Barth, and gladly acknowledge that there are differing well-considered opinions about his views on general revelation. I've only picked up on him here, as you're using him as an authoritative witness to support a position against a distinction between apologetics and evangelism.

    So, Barth aside, do you think that apologetics is a necessary discipline for defending and commending the Christian faith to non-believers? Is apologetics a necessary preparation for evangelism?

    I'll look into the blog archives to see more about your views on general revelation.

  8. Glen

    Hi John,

    Definitions are all important here but I wouldn't want to see apologetics as a necessary preparation to evangelism. The Lord's word authenticates itself.

    But I'm sure my conversations with unbelievers will sound very similar to apologists' conversations at many points.

    The biggest discussion on the blog I've had about this was here:

    Here's a quote of a typical comment from me:

    "Perhaps it would help to define what it is I’m opposing:

    I’m opposing the kind of apologetics that says:

    * Everyone naturally knows (or should know) X
    * X leads to Y (according to laws of logic that are also naturally known, self-evident and binding upon all)
    * Y is a bit like Jesus
    * You should believe in Jesus

    While I’m at it, I’m also against a kind of worldview survey that says:

    * Worldview A self-contradicts here (according to laws of logic that are naturally known, self-evident and binding upon all)

    * Worldview B self-contradicts here (according to laws of logic that are naturally known, self-evident and binding upon all)

    * You should try Worldview C (Christianity!!) – it’s self consistent (according to laws of logic that are naturally known, self-evident and binding upon all). Please don’t ask too much about that cross stuff – I know it’s not consistent with the aforementioned logic, but… cough… look over there!

    Now if someone “trusted in Jesus (or – shudder! – Christianity)” at one of these meetings, I’d be very interested to stop them on the way out of the lecture hall (for where else would such a meeting be held?) and ask them on what basis they now “trusted Jesus.”

    What would they say?

    That’s my problem.

    I think we should proclaim Jesus Christ from the outset. And of course in proclaiming Him we will touch on all of life – all of creation even. But we do so with Christ and Him crucified setting the agenda from the outset. The direction of travel is from Him downwards – it’s revelation. The direction is not a slowly ascending ramp. That is pelagianism."

  9. John B

    Thanks Glen. I'll definitely look into the earlier discussion here on the blog. Also, I just realized the meaning of "Thawed out Thursday"! I've visited the discussion on the original post, which is also very helpful.

    I do see apologetics as ordinarily a necessary preparation for evangelism. (Though of course Barth is right when he says that "God may speak to us through...a dead dog.") While I think apologetics is necessary, I'm with you in opposing the kind of approach to it that you've described.

    Reason is necessary for belief, but faith is created only by the Holy Spirit. Aquinas is too optimistic about reason; and most interpretations of Barth sound fideist to me. Presuppositionalism seems like the right approach to apologetics in light of the realities brought about by the Enlightment.

    All Christians are called to defend and commend the faith to others, but only a very few are called to the office of an evangelist. In one of your posts (19 Oct 2009) you contrasted "up-hill" and "down-hill" approaches to sermons. Yes! Evangelistic preaching is down-hill, from Christ to us. The evangelist preaches faith into our hearts. Christ sends the Holy Spirit by this means. But the apologetic task is more basic. We encourage one another to lift up our faces and look up to the One who has been lifted up that we may have eternal life in Him.

    I'm convinced that the ordo salutis is not all that orderly and linear, because we're "simultaneously saint and sinner".

  10. Glen

    My second favourite essay on apologetics, after Nein, is Van Til's "Why I am a Christian." I've got a lot of time for presuppositionalism.

    Very good to chat John. Thanks :)

  11. John B

    Glen, I'm glad to hear of your openness toward Van Til and his apologetic.

    Van Til was a strong critic of Barth's theology. Barth is said to have nicknamed Van Til "Man-eater" ("Menschenfresser").

    In a letter Van Til wrote this account of his meeting with Barth: "Last spring I heard the great Barth lecture three evenings at Princeton. At one of them, as they were rushing him out, Dr. Hendry of Princeton said to him: 'Here is Dr. Van Til.' Barth looked at me as though I were a Frankenstein Monster and said, 'are you Van Til? Are you Van Til? You have said many bad things about me.' But (patting me on the shoulder) 'I forgive you, I forgive you.' I was so flabbergasted that I didn't have presence of mind to say anything but admit to the great crime of being Van Til."

    Van Til was delighted to receive this absolution from Barth, who had earlier conveyed the message through a mutual friend, "Tell him he is a bad boy. He's not going to heaven."

    I think that Barth and Van Til provided examples for us of approaching differences with *both* conviction *and* humility.

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