I don’t think that propositional truth has the power that some Christians think it does. In fact, despite the fact the propositions have their place in theology, I don’t think that truth is very effectively communicated in propositions. It is certainly not contextualized in propositions in Scripture. Modern conceptions of propositional truth are based on the premise that truth is encapsulated in timeless, context-free nuggets that can be transported anywhere and deployed as needed. But that is not a theological principle identifiable anywhere in Scripture. It is a Greek philosophical idea about ideals — truth being one among them.
Truth expressed in Scripture is relational, covenantal, and narrative. The commands of God expressed to God’s people need to be understood in context rather than as eternal commands with universal application. That does not mean that these commands have no enduring relevance or value. But it does mean that we cannot simply lift them from the text and use them at will. The degree to which we can apply them resides in the degree to which our experience aligns with the concerns that are in the context of the text in question. That is why it is important to find ourselves in the story of Scripture.
Can we discern a centering set (not simply a centred set) of convictions around which to order our Christian communities? Yes, of course. But should we try to infer a set of propositions that will land with impact on every community, irrespective of cultural context? That is a task not worth undertaking, because we will be faced with the problem of either speaking so vaguely that we say nothing, or else we will speak with specificity that fatally compromises the truth we purport to convey.
I submit that theological reflection and conversation (we need both) is better suited to developing the questions that need to be asked and issues to be confronted, questions and issues that emerge from a thoughtful reading of Scripture. The job of the believing community is to reflect on these questions and issues in order to determined how to live faithfully in light of them.
Here’s a brief example of how this might work. We might examine biblical narratives and instructions for insights into what a Christian posture toward governing authorities should be. We will derive insights into not only what governments were like, what faithful and unfaithful responses were. and also what instructions were given to believers. This will help us reflect on the dynamics at play today, aware as we are that as much is different as is the same. But to lift a verse from Romans 13 and insist that Christians should obey governing authorities as an absolute principle is fatally uncontextualized. It does not even reflect the faithful response of disciples in the book of Acts who disobeyed government because they were responding to the call to obey God rather than humans.
Rather than articulate a simplistic theology that suffers a death from a thousand exceptions, I believe it is preferable to do the hard work on the front end and articulate something that is appropriately modest and contextually specific, and leave grand absolutes alone. Here’s a thought: Propositional theological content is to Christian discipleship a lot like what Hostess Twinkies® are to healthy living. They won’t kill you directly, but don’t consume them expecting to derive much nourishment.
3 thoughts on “A Proposition About Propositional Truth”
Thank you Brian. As always, very intriguing and refreshing.
I hope I understand correctly: You are not saying there are no ethical absolutes discernible in Scripture, but that these absolutes are too general to be of much practical life and that their practical applications need to worked out by Christian communities.
The example re. relation to governing authority was helpful. Would it be possible to have you run us through another? Perhaps a thornier example such as one from sexual ethics? To engage in sexually intimate relationships outside of monogamous male-female marriage covenants is always wrong, correct? Or is it?
Good to hear from you Dilip! You have indeed heard me correctly. My concern is that principles discerned in biblical texts are read as timeless propositions, meaning that they are read as universal principles that can be deployed at the discretion of the reader. I do not believe that this is a faithful or credible approach.
I am following a Lenten devotional series right now, and today’s reading took me to the part of Hebrews 6 that I grew up being told was a warning against apostasy that was problematic because it seemed to conflict with an understanding of the eternal security of the believer. In this instance, reading apparently competing texts as universal principles places them at odds with one another and prevents Christians from appreciating them as part of a cohesive revelatory whole, which I believe they are.
I don’t think Christians will completely resolve all of the tensions, but the way we approach diverse biblical texts is important. To your question about sexual ethics, my reply evolved into something long enough that I decided to make it a blog post on its own. I had been thinking about this for some time, so I am grateful for your question that stimulated my thinking.
*much use in practical life