Part 2: Response to The Gospel as Center, Chapter 2, “Can We Know the Truth?” by Richard D. Phillips
This chapter is, as the title indicates, about epistemology. I approached it wondering if there is such a thing as a “gospel epistemology.” That is, is there an epistemology intrinsically implied by the gospel? Haven’t equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians disagreed about epistemology since the beginning?
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. Which is not to say I agreed with everything in the chapter, but it was a more humble exposition of a Christian view of truth and knowledge than I expected given the first chapter (to which I responded in Part 1 of this series).
The chapter’s author, Richard D. Phillips (a Presbyterian) argues that a Christian epistemology must avoid two extremes—modern rationalism (I think he means its positivism) and postmodern relativism. Modern rationalism asserts that the human mind is capable of grasping reality with unaided reason. Postmodern relativism asserts that there is no objective reality to grasp. At least so says Phillips. (He never quotes representative modern or postmodern philosophers to support this allegations. Most of the support he gives refers to popular clichés by college sophomores or their adult equivalents.)
Phillips recommends, even urges, what Carl F. H. Henry called “biblical presuppositionalism” as the evangelical Christian epistemology. He doesn’t call it that, but anyone familiar with Henry’s theology will recognize it. The author does mention and quote Francis Schaeffer, also a presuppositionalist.
According to Phillips, an evangelical Christian epistemology “begins by affirming that truth corresponds to reality.” (p. 29) The basis for this presupposition, he says, is that the God of the Bible exists. (Of course one can believe in the correspondence theory of truth without believing in God, but Phillips doesn’t seem to think so.) Next, following Henry closely (without mentioning him) Phillips says this evangelical Christian epistemology will begin with two other, closely related presuppositions (that Henry called Christianity’s ontological axiom and epistemological axiom): God is and God reveals himself in Scripture.
“Christians insist that there is truth, that truth corresponds to God and his created reality, and that we may know truth because God has revealed himself to us in his creation.” (p. 31)
One piece of evangelical presuppositional epistemology that Phillips does not discuss, although I’m sure he believes it, is that, according to this approach to knowledge, these presuppositions are justified as rational and not irrational because the world view they lead to is more comprehensive, consistent and has more explanatory power than any competing world view. (For a very concise exposition of biblical presuppositionalism see Carl F. H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief.)
Phillips then continues by expounding and defending propositional revelation and the inspiration and authority of Scripture. He barely touches on inerrancy but clearly believes it is important. According to him, Scripture’s main purpose is to reveal true doctrines about God in order to glorify God by changing our lives. The Bible is both informative and transformative, but without the former it cannot be the latter.
For the last few pages of the chapter Phillips encourages evangelical, gospel-centered Christians to approach unbelievers with humility and love and not a triumphalist attitude of superiority. (If only some of his friends would take that advice with regard to fellow evangelicals with whom they disagree!) But the final word is that “Only the Bible can help us make sense of ourselves and God’s world.” (p. 34)
Overall, this is a good exposition of one evangelical epistemology. I have several questions about it.
First, how would Phillips and his Gospel Coalition colleagues respond to evangelical evidentialists who base the truth of Christianity not on the comprehensiveness, consistency and explanatory power of its world view but on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Presuppositionalism is deductive and rational; evidentialism (e.g., John Gerstner) is inductive and empirical. They don’t have to contradict each other; many evangelical apologists combine them. But does this chapter’s sole emphasis on presuppositionalism imply that presuppositionalism is the evangelical Christian epistemology?Second, are Phillips’ descriptions of postmodernism a straw man? Some would say so. He seems to equate “postmodernism” with popular relativism. He says that “the postmodern view rejects the reality of truth, positing an implicit (and in some cases explicit) relativism in which nothing is really and finally true.” (p. 27) Is that true? It would be helpful if he mentioned specific postmodern philosophers to support that statement. My own study of postmodernism leads me to believe postmodern philosophers are not of one mind about that. What they all agree about is that truth claims can very easily be misused to protect power and oppress the powerless. That doesn’t necessarily mean that no truth exists. And they distinguish between “truth” and “knowledge.” Phillips doesn’t seem to take critical realism into account as a middle ground between a correspondence view of truth and a non-realist view of truth. He treats all postmodernism as if it were non- or anti-realist both metaphysically and epistemologically.
A lot of my knowledge of postmodernism comes from John Caputo who I am convinced is not an anti-realist. He is suspicious of all ideologies and everything that inclines toward becoming a totalizing ideology. But he does not deny God or justice. He just doesn’t think anyone can claim to possess them.
Phillips’ treatment of postmodernism is the familiar and now tired, clichéd evangelical dismissal of all postmodernism as totally against Christianity. He says that “the postmodern unbeliever…simply denies that God exists.” (p. 31) The context indicates to me, anyway, that he thinks all postmoderns are like that. They aren’t.
Perhaps the most egregious of all over statements in the chapter is that “Clear majorities today, even among professing Christians, affirm the postmodern dogma that nothing is really, absolutely true.” (p. 27) I simply cannot believe that. My own experience of teaching (mostly) Christian students in three Christian universities is that their answers depend on the questions. On the surface they seem relativistic because that’s the stage of development they’re in. But just below the surface is a definite belief in objective right and wrong and objective reality. Most of them can’t express or explain it, but what they are is critical realists. They think absolute truth is beyond human grasp; it belongs only to God. But that doesn’t mean they deny truth. What they deny is the absoluteness of knowledge.
Overall and in general this chapter’s main claims about Christianity, truth and knowledge are mainstream evangelical. I don’t see them as tied exclusively to Calvinism. I do think you have to believe in absolute, objective truth “out there,” at least in the mind of God, to be a Christian. But I don’t think you have to believe in biblical, rational presuppositional epistemology to be an evangelical. Perhaps the point where Phillips I differ most is about the nature of revelation. He insist it is primarily (not exclusively) propositional. Or at least that all true doctrines are either directly or indirectly revealed propositionally in Scripture. For him, I take it, “doctrine” is revealed by God. I think of “doctrines” as the Christian community’s consensus beliefs based on revelation which is not primarily propositional. There are “truths of revelation,” but doctrines are our best attempts to understand and express them and therefore always open to reconsideration and revision in light of new and better understandings of God’s revelation.
In general, I have less objection to this chapter than I thought I would have before reading it. My most serious objection is to what I think are Phillips’ caricatures of postmodernism.