Conservative Christians believe that God’s Word can solve most any problem. Of course, having the Answer Book can breed a bit of arrogance. Recently I met conservatives who, when discussing alternate views on women in ministry and God’s knowledge of the future, confidently declared that their opponents simply “don’t believe the Bible.” As if their interpretation of the Bible was the only possible way to read it!1
Sometimes their arrogance makes conservatives unteachable. Not long ago a fellow walked out near the start of my sermon and, when asked about it later, replied that he had some Bible knowledge and would not condone my message by his presence. I wonder how this man will ever learn a new thing if he rejects every idea the first time he hears it. I also wonder how he could object to my completely orthodox sermon!
Conservatives often leave the impression that it is not enough to have the right answers if they do not say them forcefully. They must leave no doubt about what they believe, not only in foundational doctrines but also when it comes to more tangential topics like baptism, female pastors, and events surrounding Christ’s return. Any hedging—saying “perhaps” or “quite possibly” rather than “Thus saith the Lord”—or appreciation for another point of view smacks of weakness that leads to liberalism.
Unlike conservatives, whose greatest fear is not knowing the right answer, postmodern innovators dread being caught without a good question. They leap at every opportunity to get lost in the mystery of God. One leader explains: “I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.”2
While conservative Christians are reluctant to express doubts for fear of being judged weak or out of the faith, postmodern innovators tend to outdoubt each other in vulnerable competitions of “keeping it real.” Where conservative preachers might stress the proofs for God’s existence, postmodern pastors are likely to confess the various times they doubted God or his Word.
While their honesty is refreshing, some postmoderns can be so humble that they mumble. After hearing them share their doubts and questions about the Christian faith, one might wonder what they still believe. What are we to make of a preacher who says, “For all we know, the tomb is empty”? Or a teacher who questions the biblical account of Jesus because of something he read in the Gnostic gospels? It is one thing to acknowledge that God is larger than our conservative box; it is another to suggest that our core beliefs are up for discussion.
It doesn’t help when postmodern innovators punt many of the important questions into the inscrutable realm of mystery. Earlier this year I attended a conference on the missional church. When asked for a definition of the term missional, a leader of the conference mysteriously proclaimed that the concept was too lofty for him to explain. Then he asked us to accept his inability to define it as proof that he understood it, implying that anyone who could put words to it would prove that they did not get it. So if we think we know, we don’t; and if we don’t know, we do. At this point I realized that I had just lost two days of my life to a cause that even the leaders knew little about!
This article will explain why modern conservatives and post-modern innovators disagree so strongly about the value of ques-tions and answers. We will examine the difference between modern and postmodern perspectives on truth and then combine the best insights of both into a biblical way forward.3
How Firm a Foundation
The modern world desperately wanted a solid foundation for knowledge. They had just endured the wars of religion (1618–48), where various denominations destroyed each other over their differing interpretations of the Christian faith. Roman Catholics killed Calvinists and Lutherans, Lutherans and Calvinists fought the Catholics and each other, and everyone beat up on the Anabaptists, who had the misfortune of being pacifists.
Weary Europeans realized that their religious wars were a dead end. Those committed to their denominations ultimately agreed to disagree, but the majority of Europeans sought to unite everyone around what they shared in common. And they could if they began with human reason rather than divine revelation. Because the Christian groups disagreed about where to find revelation and how to read it, starting with revelation would only end in more battles. But if they began with what every mind could discover, they might find enough common ground to transcend their petty squabbles and get along.
Europe’s quest for shared knowledge assumed that its target must be objective rather than subjective, universal rather than local, and absolute rather than relative, changeable, and uncertain. These modern thinkers would consider a belief to be true only if they were absolutely sure that it was true for all people. Anything less would leave room for relativism and land Europe back in its religious mess, where each tradition thought that its truth was better than the rest.
This high bar for knowledge prompted modern philosophers to place a lot of weight on proof. Only by proving their beliefs beyond all doubt could they say with certainty that they were acquiring knowledge that transcended Europe’s religious divisions. They achieved this certainty by paying attention to the foundation of their knowledge. Led by René Descartes, who emphasized reason, and John Locke, who stressed what people learned through their five senses, the modern world said that we should begin our quest for knowledge with beliefs that are self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses.
Self-evident beliefs are things that are obviously true, such as 2 + 2 = 4. Most people do not count on their fingers or mentally do the math when they hear this equation, for it is self-evidently true for them. Incorrigible beliefs are beliefs that cannot possibly be doubted. One such belief occurs when you dismount from a Tilt-a-Whirl. As the world chases its tail in ever tightening circles around you, only one belief remains constant: you’re dizzy, and you know it. Dizziness is one of life’s few incorrigible beliefs, for unlike most beliefs, it is awfully hard to deny when it comes.
Besides these rational starting points, modern philosophers said that we may also begin from an empirical foundation. While making allowances for the limitations of our senses, we nevertheless believe that what our eyes and ears report is reliable. And so besides beliefs that are self-evident and incorrigible, moderns say that we may also believe anything that is evident to our senses.
From this secure foundation, we may infer other beliefs, such as the sky is blue, a triangle has three sides, and if your wife is unhappy, it’s probably your fault. If we can logically trace each one of these beliefs back to our foundation, and if our foundation is indubitably true, then we can declare with confidence that we know them (see chart next page).4
Unfortunately, modernity’s need for rational and empirical proof led many to dismiss belief in God. They could not prove God, for his existence did not seem self-evident, indubitable, evident to the senses, or deducible from this foundation. No one had ever seen God, and the presence of evil gave reason to doubt him. Since any-thing that could be doubted should be, many modern philosophers concluded that they had no choice but to give up belief in God.
Modern Christianity responded in two vastly different ways. Liberal theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher rescued belief in God by grounding it in religious experience. He declared that God is nothing more than our subjective “feeling of absolute depen-dence.” Schleiermacher said that people may express their feelings in different ways—for example, Judaism speaks of retribution and Christian-ity emphasizes redemption—but at bottom everyone is describing the same ineffable God.5
Modern conservatives realized that Schleiermacher’s empha-sis on feeling recovered belief in God at the expense of allowing anyone to believe anything they felt about him. Princeton theolo-gians Charles Hodge, Alexander Archibald Hodge, and B. B. Warfield returned to modernity’s “objective” foundation, but this time they argued that reason actually proves key elements of Christian-ity. They thought that modern thinkers were right to believe only what they could prove but wrong to believe that the Christian faith lacked proof. The followers of Warfield and the Hodges developed logical arguments that should persuade any rational, honest per-son that God exists and that the Bible is his revelation. In this way they hoped to meet and defeat modernity’s skepticism on its own terms, demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that the Bible was the objective, universal, and absolute Word of God.6
Keeping It Real
Postmodern innovators are not impressed. They shake their heads at modernity’s arrogance. Did modern thinkers—both secular and Christian—really presume to prove their beliefs? How could they forget that we are finite? Because our perspective is limited, we can never be certain that we know the absolute truth about things. And that is a good thing, for as we witnessed during the modern world, those “in the know” often used their superiority to oppress others.7
Postmodern innovators counter this dangerous hubris of modernity with a humble emphasis on the subjective, local, and relational nature of knowledge (see chart opposite page). Against the modern idea that we directly perceive the world as it is, postmodern inno-vators correctly observe that everything we see and hear is filtered through our unique perspective.
For example, consider the evidence of global climate change. People may agree that polar ice caps are melting, but some disagree sharply about what that means. Most conclude that the world is warming and that if we do not stop polluting the atmosphere with carbon emissions, we will suffer catastrophic consequences. A few others suggest that the present warming may be cyclical, and even if it is not, global warming may produce enough benefits to offset its problems.9
This diversity of opinion prompts postmodern innovators to concede that all knowledge is local. Just as members of the Sierra Club interpret global climate change differently than the bosses of Exxon Mobil, so our knowledge of everything is to some extent determined by our community. Black people see the world differ-ently than whites, men than women, Christians than Muslims, and wealthy Westerners than the poor in the developing world. Knowl-edge does not come in one size fits all, but like a good suit, is tried on and tailored to each community’s taste.
There are some obvious benefits to this postmodern perspec-tive on knowledge. First, it reminds us of the Christian teaching that we are finite and fallen, and so we should be suspicious of all claims to knowledge. Scripture warned of our sinful tendency to oppress others long before postmoderns discovered that “Power is knowledge.”10 Second, it supplies a harsh remedy for those who use the power of being “in the know” to victimize others. Few things are more unsettling to an oppressor than to learn that his views are so conditioned by his culture that others need not concede his superiority.
However, there is also great danger. If modernity was over-confident—“we can know whatever we can prove”—postmodern innovators often lack confidence—“since we can’t prove anything, we really don’t know anything.” If everything we claim to know is interpreted through our own unique viewpoint, how can we know whether our interpretation is correct? How can we tell whether our perspective breaks through the clutter of competing claims to con-nect with reality, describing the world as it really is? At the end of the day, aren’t we left with only our interpretations of reality rather than reality itself?11
Perhaps revelation can solve our problem. We may not be able to rise up and apprehend reality, but God may stoop to our level and reveal the truth to us. Some postmodern innovators insist that this does not get us off the hook, for there is no way to tell whether any purported revelation is really from God. According to John Caputo, all we know for sure is that we believe that we have received a revela-tion. But this belief conflicts with the beliefs of other faith commu-nities, many of whom doubt our revelation. So we should humbly concede that our supposed revelation does not give us a corner on the truth but is merely one perspective among many.12
Even if revelation could prove itself, postmodern innovators remind us that it does not accurately describe God. Because God transcends us in every way, he must accommodate his revelation to what our limited minds can grasp, using small concepts and bite-sized words to convey his unfathomable majesty. This infinite distance between God and us leads John Franke to conclude that “even revelation does not provide human beings with a knowledge that exactly corresponds to that of God.”13 Franke elaborates on what he means by “not . . . exactly corresponds” with an illustration from Merold Westphal, who explains the gap between God and his revelation with a “homely example”:
I tell my son not to suck on quarters, and he asks why. He has no access to my language about viruses and bacteria, so I break through into his language with a message he needs: “There are little bugs on coins, so small you can’t see them, but they can make you very sick if they get inside you.” This account does not correspond to the real as I understand it, but it is the “truth” so far as he is able to receive it, and he ought to believe it and act on it. My teacher, Kenneth Kantzer . . . told us, “The Bible is the divinely revealed misinformation about God.”14
While I appreciate Franke’s and Westphal’s emphasis on divine transcendence, doesn’t their “high view” of God unintentionally land us in pious agnosticism? If what I know does not exactly cor-respond to what God knows and if his revelation amounts to misin-formation, then I cannot say that I know anything about him. Peter Rollins pursues the logical outcome of their claim and concedes the point. Because our words are “never speaking of God but only ever speaking about our understanding of God,” Rollins recommends “believing in God while remaining dubious concerning what one believes about God.”15 When “asked how I could possibly believe that my own religious tradition was true,” Rollins replied that “the only answer I could give to this question was, ‘I don’t.’ . . . I was quite confident in asserting that my own religion was not true.”16
Perhaps this is why some post-modern innovators are not eager to evangelize those in other religions. If you are not confident that your beliefs are truer than anyone else’s, then you wouldn’t want to press them upon others. One leader explains: “Is our religion the only one that understands the true meaning of life? Or does God place his truth in others too? Well, God decides, and not us. . . . People are rightfully afraid of any religion that will not accept its place at the feet of the Holy Mystery. If the Christian God is not larger than Christianity, then Christian-ity is simply not to be trusted.”17
Granted that modern Christians are overconfident in their abil-ity to prove the truth, but must postmodern innovators eat so much humble pie? Is there a third, more biblical way between these two extremes, one that is appropriately modest yet claims to know spe-cific truths about God and his world?18 Against the modern project, I concede that there is no way to irrefutably prove my beliefs to any-one else. But against what many postmoderns assume, this does not leave me without access to universal, true-for-everyone knowledge. I possess truth even though I can’t prove it. Here’s why.
Truth without Proof
Modern thinkers (both secular and Christian) and postmodern innovators make the same mistake: they start with themselves. Both groups claim to know only what their minds can prove. They differ in that, while moderns naively suppose that they can prove a lot, postmodern innovators recognize that our limited minds cannot prove anything.
Neither group leaves enough room for God. Many moderns are nontheists because they cannot deduce God from their rational and empirical foundation. Some moderns do believe in God, but only because they mistakenly think that their arguments prove his existence. Postmodern innovators also believe in God, but they are so bothered by the limitations of their perspective that they do not seem to know much about him.19
But why begin with ourselves? If starting with ourselves leads either to naive arrogance or humble ignorance, perhaps we are beginning in the wrong place. What would happen if, rather than start with ourselves and attempt to reason up to God, we made God the foundation of our knowledge?
Alvin Plantinga observes that true beliefs need warrant to count as knowledge. It isn’t enough to be right about what we believe; we also need a cred-ible reason for what we are right about. For instance, consider a hurricane that was successfully predicted by a weatherman and a witch. Although it turns out that both were correct, most Western-ers would say that only the weatherman had knowledge of the event, for Doppler Plus Next Rad Storm Team radar supplies a stronger (and overhyped) reason for belief than a crystal ball.
What warrant does Plantinga suggest we need for our beliefs? Simply this: if we have good reason to believe that our minds and sensory equipment are functioning properly and that we are in a suitable environment for them to detect truth, then we may justifi-ably believe whatever we perceive in the world. And what reason do we have to believe this? Our belief in God. Only if we believe that there is a God who made us to flourish in this world do we have warrant to trust what our eyes and ears report is going on around us. According to Plantinga, those who do not believe in God cannot claim to know anything at all.21
But how can I start with belief in God? Isn’t this fideism? In case you have misplaced your Introduction to Philosophy notes, I remind you that “fideist” is the worst thing you can call a think-ing person. It’s like saying “liberal” to a conservative, “right-wing fundamentalist” to a liberal, or “Hello, waiter” to an Ivy Leaguer. Fideism means that you’re flying blind, that your faith is a wishful leap into the abyss. Fideists don’t have any good reason for believ-ing what they do; they just believe and hope for the best. They may get dumb lucky and guess right, but the odds are heavily stacked against them.
Is my foundational belief in God a desperate stab in the dark? No, for I do not merely wish that God exists. I know it. And so does everyone else. Despite the arguments that skeptics raise against God’s existence, the apostle Paul declares in Romans 1:18–20 that everyone knows there is a God, and any who claim ignorance “are without excuse.”
When I lived in Beijing, I tried for two years to persuade my Chi-nese friend to believe in God. I told Sun Yi that there must be a wise and powerful Creator who made our beautiful world and grounds our concept of right and wrong. But her atheistic upbringing had conditioned her to deflect my best arguments. If the complexity of the world demands a world-maker, then doesn’t the grandeur of God require a God-maker? If God is necessary to ground moral-ity, then why is communist China less corrupt in some ways than “Christian” America?
Our conversations ended in stalemates, leaving me frustrated that I couldn’t come up with better arguments and Sun Yi smugly confident that she had held her own. Then my Bible study led me to Romans 1, where I learned that all people have some basic knowl-edge of God. “Hmm,” I thought, “maybe I’ve been going at this all wrong.” So the next time she asked why I believed in God, I simply turned the question back on her.
“Sun Yi,” I said, “it doesn’t matter why I believe in God. But tell me, why do you?” I’ll never forget her response. “Oh,” was all she said, but her smiling eyes met mine, and we both knew the game was up. Romans 1 had called her bluff.22
Here is the point: our foundational belief in God—which according to Romans 1 everyone shares—supplies the necessary and sufficient reason to trust our deliverances of reason. Because we are finite and fallen, we must critically evaluate whatever we think we know, but these limitations do not prevent us from learn-ing much about the world. While we could be wrong—and so we remain open to correction—we are justified in believing that water freezes at thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, autumnal trees shed their leaves in a blaze of color, and listening to Mozart is more inspiring than the opening rounds of American Idol. Regardless of how many people might disagree, our belief in God justifies our inclination to believe that what our minds report is actually true. As Lewis and Plantinga made clear, without this prior belief in God, we would lack warrant to know anything at all.
A Word from God
But how do we know that Romans 1 is true? And what about our many beliefs that transcend what our minds can discover? For these we need a second foundational belief, this time in revelation. As with God’s existence, I cannot prove that the Bible is God’s Word, but then again, I do not have to. John Calvin wrote that Scripture is self-authenticating, by which he meant that “it carries with itself its own credibility in order to be received without contradiction, and is not to be submitted to proofs or arguments.”23
Calvin believed that the Bible proves itself to be God’s Word, that “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.”24 Just as snow is obviously white and sugar is indisputably sweet, so those who read Scripture should recognize that it is the Word of God.
However, our sinful condition prevents us from perceiving the voice of God, which is why Calvin says that God sends his Spirit to overcome our blindness and enable us to believe what we should have seen all along. He writes: “For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.”25
Here is the point: because everyone should recognize that Scripture is the Word of God, I am justified in believing what it tells me about God, Jesus, and the way of salvation. I do not need to play the modern game, withholding belief until I produce an objective, uni-versal, and absolute argument that the Bible is God’s Word. Neither need I succumb to postmodern timidity, humbly mumbling that my perceived revelation is not necessarily truer than any other. I can justifiably know that the Scriptures are God’s Word, for when I read them, the Holy Spirit opens my ears to hear the voice of God. That is reason enough to believe, even without proof that can go public.26
But what about the postmodern objection that God’s transcendence prevents me from rightly understanding him through his revelation? I agree that I will never completely comprehend God or his revelation, but this does not prevent me from knowing God truly. Calvin said that God speaks to us like a mother talks to an infant, with lots of coos and aahs and goochie goos.27 There is much about a mother that lies beyond what an infant can comprehend, and yet what a child does understand—that he or she is cared for by a loving adult—he or she knows correctly. Likewise, though God will always exceed the grasp of my finite mind, there remains much about him that I do understand. The perfect must not become the enemy of the good.
In summary, moderns are right to say that an objective, real world exists, while postmoderns are right to counter that no one has clean and unfettered access to this world. When we combine the insights of each, we conclude that though we interpret every-thing from our finite and flawed perspective, we are still able to accurately, though incompletely, access this real world.28 We may self-critically believe what our minds and senses tell us because we justifiably believe that we and our world are made by God. And we may self-critically believe what we learn from Scripture because we believe that it is inspired by God. Rather than give in to the modern extreme of arrogant certainty or the postmodern extreme of uncertain timidity, we may with humble assurance declare that even though we can’t prove it, we do know much.
Michael Wittmer (PhD., Calvin Theological Seminary), is associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a member of West Cannon Baptist Church, Belmont, Mich. Excerpt taken from Don’t Stop Believing by Michael Wittmer. © 2008 by Michael E. Wittmer. Used by permission of Zondervan (www.zondervan.com).