How do we know the Bible is objectively true?: Postmodernism and God's word

Of all the challenges to biblical authority we'll consider in this study, the movement called "postmodernism" is the most urgent.  For reasons we'll discover in this chapter, most of the people we are trying to reach with the gospel do not believe truth is objective.  They do not consider the Bible to be authoritative, or its teachings mandatory.  They see Christianity as "our truth," but not necessarily theirs.  They don't believe that biblical standards on ethical subjects are objectively relevant.

We can cite the arguments for biblical authority we've surveyed so far, building an argument from manuscripts, archaeology, and historical evidences.  But many will shrug their shoulders and say, "So what?"  How do we respond to this change in truth itself?  How can we promote biblical authority in a day when authority itself is questioned?

From divine to human knowledge

For hundreds of years, most of the Western world took for granted the idea that truth is objective.  The medieval world viewed the Church as God's authority on earth.  Church teachings and tradition governed the affairs of daily life.  Church leaders chose and controlled secular authorities.  "The Church teaches" is all most people needed to know.

The Reformation shifted authority from Church to Scripture.  "The Bible teaches" became the basis for faith and practice.  There was still universal agreement that truth is objective, though Catholics and Protestants differed in determining how such truth was to be determined.

In the post-World War II era when Baptists grew most rapidly, this view of authority still prevailed.  Few people questioned whether biblical truth was objectively right or wrong.  Moral standards were accepted, whether or not they were practiced.  Most people believed divorce and extramarital sex to be objectively wrong, for instance.  Whether we obeyed the teachings of the Bible or not, we knew that we should.  But such a worldview has largely been replaced by one which rejects completely the last sentence.  How and why?

The Reformation was not the only earthquake of its era.  While Protestants and Catholics were locked in a monumental conflict between two authority structures, similar tremors were sending shock waves of a very different sort--dealing not with spiritual truth, but with the way we know truth itself.  Their waves have still not stopped shaking our cultural foundations.

The following diagram may help you visualize two centuries which changed everything

    Rationalism                    Empiricism

    Truth comes from your mind            Truth comes from your senses


Truth comes from your sense impressions,

as interpreted by your mind

Now let's see, very briefly, where these ideas came from and why they still matter.

Rationalism: trust only what you cannot doubt

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a very sincere Catholic and a mathematical genius (you may remember something of "Cartesian" geometry from high school).  He wanted a way to show that his faith was as rational and logical as his mathematical knowledge.  Mathematicians work with the principle of doubt--they refuse to accept their conclusions to be true until they have tested them logically and empirically.

Descartes took the same approach to the rest of his knowledge and experience.  The trouble was, he soon discovered that he could doubt everything.  He could doubt that he was awake and not dreaming, that he was alive and not dead.  In fact, he could doubt even his own existence.  The one fact he could not doubt was that he was doubting.  If he was doubting, he must be thinking.  And he could not be thinking unless he existed.  The existence of the thinking self was the first truth which doubts could not deny.  Hence one of the more famous sayings in history: cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am").

From this foundation, Descartes worked out a very elaborate "epistemology" (a theory which explains how we derive our knowledge).  What matters to us is this idea: we should trust only what we cannot doubt.  Rationalism = truth comes from reason.

However, rationalism has a fatal flaw, one you may already have noticed.  If all knowledge comes from the mind, where do the senses fit in?  How does the mind get data with which to work?  Descartes thought that we were born with innate ideas, like our instincts.  But he never solved this dilemma to everyone's satisfaction.  Hence the second part of the story.

Empiricism: trust only what your senses tell you

The "rationalist" worldview evoked a strong reaction by those known as "empiricists."  These thinkers were convinced that our personal experiences are the basis for knowledge, not our unaided human reason.  John Locke (1632-1704) believed that the mind is born not with innate ideas (Descartes' position) but as a blank slate (tabula rasa).  He claimed that "all ideas come from sensation or reflection," our senses or the operation of our minds on them.  In other words, everything you know, your senses told you.

David Hume (1711-76) took Locke's ideas even further.  He claimed that no knowledge is indubitable, as it is all based on our subjective personal experiences.  Our minds think they find connections between causes and their effects, but we cannot prove that these connections exist.

Hume's famous analogy of the billiard ball illustrates his point: we watch the cue ball strike the eight-ball and knock it into the side pocket.  But can we prove that the cue ball "caused" the eight-ball to move?  Perhaps magnetic forces were at work, or unseen earth tremors, or the slant of the pool table, or other unknown factors.  Our minds connect the cue ball and the eight-ball, but we cannot prove beyond any doubt that this connection is true.

However, if this approach to knowledge is correct, what role does the mind play?  How are reason and senses related?

Kant: trust what your mind thinks your senses say

Now we come to one of the most important figures in Western history, and one of the least known to most of us.  His approach to knowledge has changed everything about how our culture sees itself, the Bible, and truth itself.  It's as if we breathe the very unseen air he created.  His ideas are so pervasive that we take them for granted today.

The man is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and his idea was simple: your senses furnish the "raw data" which your mind organizes into knowledge.

Kant discovered that your mind asks certain questions of all the data provided by your senses--how much? (quantity), what kind? (quality), in relation to what? (relation), in what movement or direction? (modality).  Your mind operates like the software resident on your computer's hard drive.  Your senses provide data as a keyboard.  The resulting "knowledge" appears on the screen or printer.

Kant's "epistemology" has been foundational for Western thinking ever since.  The good news was that it moved us past the mind/sense quagmire, clarifying the way our experiences and our reason relate.  The bad news was that it created another problem, one even greater for those of us who believe in biblical authority today.

Kant's system asserted that we can have certain knowledge only of the "phenomena" (those objects present to your senses).  You can be that you are looking at these words on this page, that you are holding a pen with which to take notes, etc.  But you cannot be sure of the "noumena" (that which lies beyond your senses).  You cannot be objectively certain if the ideas which your senses are conveying to your mind are true.  The way you interpret your sense data is personal and individual.

This distinction would prove critical for the shift in authority we'll survey next.

The trouble with "truth"

From Kant to today, nearly everyone in the West has believed that our minds interpret our senses, resulting in "knowledge."  When our minds interpret mathematical symbols, we get mathematical knowledge.  When our eyes convey impressions from a sunset, we get physical knowledge.  When our reason interprets the biblical words read by our eyes, we get biblical knowledge.  We'd assume that everyone understands such truth to be objective and authoritative, but we'd be wrong.

Here's the problem: my mind and senses are both individual and subjective.  My sense impressions may be different from yours.  And my mind may interpret such data differently than yours does.  I can call my computer keyboard "black," while you might call it "grey."  Who's to decide which is right?  I cannot claim objective authority for anything I "know," and neither can you.  While the "modern" world (from the Reformation to the 1960's or so) believed that truth was objective, the "post-modern" world (post-1960) isn't so sure.  And that's the era we inhabit and are called to win to Christ.

Perhaps you've been to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  If you've lived in the area, you likely know that the bridge is built directly over the San Andreas Fault.  Yet it is one of the safest places to be when an earthquake strikes.  The reason is that the pillars of the bridge are driven down into bedrock and bolted there.  So long as the bolts hold the pillars to the ground, the bridge will stand solid.

"Postmodern" advocates pulled the bolts holding the pillars of the "modern" world to objective truth, one by one.  Let's watch their wrenches at work.

We begin with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), considered the "patron saint of postmodern philosophy."  This critic of the Christian faith believed that the world is made up of individual fragments, which our minds reconstruct into a coherent view of "reality."  The "truth" which results is only a convenient fiction created by our language.

For instance, there is no such thing as "leaves," only "leafs."  How much do "leaves" weigh?  What is their color?  We turn the individual entities called "leafs" into an abstract category which exists only in our subjective knowledge.  According to Nietzsche, all universal "truth" is derived in the same way--we create abstract principles from particular experiences.  But these abstract absolutes are subjective, personal, and non-binding.

In a similar fashion, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) believed that biblical texts are not objective truth but the reflections of their authors' experiences.  The Bible is a religious diary, a collection of subjective beliefs.  For this assertion he is known as the "father of modern liberalism."  He defined religion as a "feeling of absolute dependence," an individual experience rather than objective, universal truth.  We should focus not so much on "Christianity" as on your Christian experience or mine.  Abstract doctrines are secondary and less essential to faith and practice.

For instance, Schleiermacher relegated the "Trinity" to the end of The Christian Faith, his extensive examination of Christian doctrine.   After producing 737 pages dealing with individual religious experience, he devotes all of 14 pages to the topic considered by most theologians to be at the heart of their subject.  The reason is that he sees the "Trinity" as an abstract idea, not a practical or personal experience.

From Schleiermacher, scholars moved this idea of individual, subjective truth into more general applications.  For instance, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) asserted that all meaning is circular.  We comprehend language by understanding its words, yet its words derive their meaning only in the context of their language.  Paul can claim "Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:11), but "Lord" might mean something very different to him than it does to you.  His belief explains his word, and his word expresses his belief.  Neither is objective, or necessary for you.

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) wanted readers to "fuse the horizons" between themselves and the author they are reading.  Meaning emerges only as the author and reader dialogue; but because each conversation is individual, objective meaning is impossible.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) likened speech to "games" in which social rules determine the use and meaning of words.  Since each "player" works from personal, subjective rules, language cannot possess objective authority.  If I "steal a base," you don't know whether I'm playing baseball or serving in the military.  My phrase means completely different things in different contexts.

Michel Foucault (1926-84) asserted that we use language to acquire and exercise power.  I'm writing this book to impress you with my knowledge and to control how you think about the Bible.  You are in turn reading it to acquire that knowledge which will enhance your authority as a teacher or believer, or to debunk its claims as a skeptic.  Biblical truth is a means to the end of acquiring and exercising power; all such authority claims must be rejected.

Jacques Derrida (born 1930) argued that no objective world exists, so language cannot be connected to any fixed reality.  Our words do not carry meaning--rather, they create it.  For example, am I typing these words on a laptop computer, a fancy typewriter, or a strange box which makes annoying clicks?  The answer depends on whether you ask my sons, my grandfather, or my preschool friend.  We cannot get beyond words to reality, for they create that reality for us.

Richard Rorty (born 1931) extends this view of truth to its practical consequences.  Since no objective reality exists, we must develop our personal ways of coping with the world as we experience it.  "Truth" is what works for us.  Language is a means of interpreting and coping with life.  Our goal should be a kind of utopia in which we have banished all power-driven, manipulative attempts to enforce one particular view of reality.  Then we will be free to live in a society built on tolerance.

Now, it's likely that you may not have heard of most of these people.  Their ideas may be foreign and new to you.  You're wondering what such an academic discussion has to do with the Bible today.  But whether you have read these scholars or not, their ideas have come to dominate your culture.  Their conclusions are accepted without question on most college campuses.  "Truth" is considered an outdated concept in most universities and academic discussions.  The purpose of education is to expose the false assumptions of the modern, church-controlled and reason-dominated era, and replace them with tolerance.

Perhaps you've traveled in Europe, and seen the empty cathedrals in most of her cities.  It is not unusual for half or more of the population to tell pollsters that they are atheists or agnostics.  They may hold membership in a state church by virtue of their birth and baptism onto its rolls, but they seldom if ever attend its services.  They do not believe church teachings to be necessary or even relevant to their lives.

Such a worldview is becoming more and more popular in America, especially in the thirty-and-under generation.  Spirituality is personal and subjective.  All roads lead up the same mountain.  It doesn't matter what you believe so long as you're sincere, and tolerant of the beliefs of others.  To suggest otherwise is to promote the kind of intolerance which produced 9-11.

Everyone "knows" that truth is subjective and ethics are personal.  No one has the right to force "their" truth on anyone else.  Intolerance is the cardinal sin of our culture.  So long as we affirm every person's right to see the world the way they want, all will be well.

A Christian response

How shall we defend the objective truth claims of Christianity and relate its good news to our postmodern world?  What good is our commitment to biblical authority in a culture which does not believe in authority?  How can we promote the truths of Scripture in a day when "truth" is questioned?

Postmodernism and reason

First, consider a logical response.

Centuries before Christ, a school of Greek philosophy known as Skeptics argued that there are no absolutes.  Of this, they were absolutely certain.  Their illogical worldview is behind the postmodern approach of our day, and still open to the same criticism.

If no objective truth exists, how can I accept this assertion as objectively true?  According to postmoderns, no statement possesses independent and objective truth.  And yet this statement is itself supposed to be independently, objectively true.  We are supposed to be intolerant of intolerance.  But we cannot make the absolute claim that absolutes are impossible.  Postmoderns cannot have it both ways.

A second rational response to postmodernism considers its rejection of objective ethics.  Since all moral truth is considered to be purely pragmatic and contextual, no objective position can be judged or rejected by those outside its culture.  If this is so, how are we to view events such as the Holocaust?  Within the interpretive context of the Third Reich, Auschwitz and Dachau were pragmatically necessary and purposeful.  And yet they stand as the quintessential rejection of that tolerance and inclusion which are so valued by postmoderns.  Postmoderns must choose between their insistence on inclusion and their rejection of intolerance.

I've noticed that postmodern relativism is popular where it is convenient.  People may tell me that I have no right to force my religious convictions on them.  But at the same time, they will force their legal convictions on those who wish to steal their possessions or plant a virus in their computer.  There are basic moral and legal standards which everyone affirms, whether they accept objective truth or not.  Murder is wrong, whatever we think of "personal" issues such as homosexuality or euthanasia.  Without such basic standards, our society would quickly descend into anarchy and chaos.  And we all know it.

It makes little sense to argue objectively that objective truth does not exist, or to apply such an approach only where it is self-serving.  But our culture seems to embrace such a contradictory worldview more and more each day.

Postmodernism and practical experience

If, however, our postmodern friends simply shrug their shoulders at our rational objections and say, "So what?" we can turn to a pragmatic response.  Here the postmodern rejection of modernity is in our favor.  The chief obstacle to faith posed by the modern, scientific era was its insistence upon empirical proof and scientific verification.  We were told that an assertion had to be proven either rationally or practically before it could be considered true.  Such a standard undermines all relational experience, including faith.

The postmodernist rejects such a materialist worldview, insisting that all truth claims are equally (though relatively) valid.  The result is a renewed interest in spirituality unprecedented in a century.  While this contemporary spirituality is unfortunately embracing all alternatives, Christianity can function at least as one of the options.

When I began speaking on college campuses 20 years ago, I was typically asked to address the questions of evolution and creation, world religions, and evil and suffering.  Students wanted to talk about scientific and rational objections to the Christian faith.  Now it is passé to rule out the Christian faith on such grounds.  My faith may or may not possess scientific, rational merit and evidential support.  But these questions are secondary.  Relevance and personal authenticity are the key today.

Students are open to Christian faith, eastern mysticism, Judaism, and New Age spirituality.  Our culture is fascinated with spiritual truth, the newer the better.  How can we make an appeal for biblical authority and lifestyle in a marketplace of spiritual competitors, each of which is relatively true?  By reversing the "modern" strategy.  In modernity we told our culture, "Christianity is true; therefore it is relevant and attractive."  We invited nonbelievers to accept the faith on the basis of its biblical, objective merits.  "The Bible says" was all the authority our truth claims required.

In the postmodern culture we must use exactly the opposite strategy: our faith must be attractive; then it can be relevant; then it might be true for its followers.  If we can show seekers of spiritual meaning that Christianity is attractive, interesting, and appealing, they will likely be willing to explore its relevance for their lives.  When they see its relevance and transforming effect in our lives, they may decide to try it for themselves.  And when it "works," they will decide that it is true for them.  They will affirm the authority of the Scriptures and its relevance for their lives, not in order to come to faith but because they have already come to faith.

Conclusion: remembering our future

Can such an approach be effective?  If we jettison our "truth first" approach to biblical authority and begin appealing to our culture on the basis of attractive relevance, will we abandon our Scriptural heritage?  No--we will return to it.

We live in a postmodern, post-denominational, post-Christian culture.  The first Christians lived in a pre-modern, pre-denominational, pre-Christian world.  They had no hope of taking the gospel to the "ends of the earth" by appealing to the Roman Empire on the basis of biblical authority.  The larger Greek world shared today's postmodern skepticism of any absolute truth claims, let alone those made on the basis of Hebrew Scriptures or a Jewish carpenter's teachings.

And so the apostolic Christians built their evangelistic efforts on personal relevance and practical ministry.  The result was the beginning of the most powerful, popular, and far-reaching religious movement in history.

I am convinced that we are now living in a culture more like that of the apostolic Christians than any we have seen since their day.  They had no buildings or institutions to which they could invite a skeptical world, so they went to that world with the gospel.  They had no objective authority base from which to work, so they demonstrated the authority of the Scriptures by their attractive, personal relevance.

We live in a day when nonbelievers will not come to our buildings to listen to our appeals on the basis of Scriptural authority.  But when we show them the pragmatic value of biblical truth in our lives, ministries, and community, we will gain a hearing.

Postmodernity offers us a compelling opportunity to "remember our future."  To remember the biblical strategies upon which the Christian movement was founded, and to rebuild our ministries on their foundation.  To move into our postmodern future on the basis of our pre-modern heritage.

Our ministry strategies must therefore change from programs to people.  Rather than staging religious events and waiting for the community to come to us, we will go to them on the basis of their needs.  We will find issues and problems in the community which we can address.  We will create need-centered ministries such as divorce recovery, survivors of suicide, single parenting, pre-marital classes, and coping with loss.  Our members will look for ways to meet the personal needs of their neighbors, colleagues, and friends.

Once we have earned a hearing through our compassion and personal engagement in our hurting culture, we then share the reasons why we care.  We explain the difference which biblical truth has made in our lives.  We prove that the Scriptures are true by their transforming personal effect.  And many of those we love and help will want what they see in us.

Our lives are the only Bibles many people will read today.  So we show them God's love in ours.  And those who reject "truth" but seek relevance will find what they are looking for in our faith.  They will come to believe in biblical authority because they have experienced its effect personally.  This was precisely how the first-century pagan world came to accept the truth of God's word.  It is how we can promote the Scriptures in the twenty-first century as well.

People today are looking for a faith which is practical, loving, and hopeful.  The tragedy is that our churches have not always offered them this biblical truth in a way which is attractive and relevant.  The good news is that we can.

 Discourse on Method, part 4.

 Essay Concerning Human Understanding II.1.2.

 See An Enquire Concerning Human Understanding (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1967) 49, 84.

 See Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (Indianapolis, Indiana: The Library of Liberal Arts, 1950 [1783]) 5-12.

 See Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967) 126-7.

 Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) 88.

 See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, trans. F. Golffing (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956) 255; 209-10; Beyond Good and Evil, trans. M. Cowan (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1955) 18-9, 100-1.

 Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1976) 131; see also Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 204-36.

 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. David E. Linge (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1976) xix.

 Philosophical Investigations 1.65.

 His most important works include The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House-Pantheon, 1971); The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972); and Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writing, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).

 Derrida's major works include Of Grammatology, trans. GayatriChakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); and Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

 Rorty's major work is Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).  He summarizes his pragmatic philosophy in "Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism," in The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).