Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Recovering Orthodox Epistemology - An Open Letter to Conservative Evangelicals

Following the well-worn path taken by so many heretics of the past, the Emergent church has over-emphasized certain truths at the expense of others, even to the point of foolishly imagining that Truth itself is relatively irrelevant. Many conservative, Bible-believing Christians have rightly taken a stand against this absurdity. We have pointed out the errors of men like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt and Rob Bell, to name a few. But are we ourselves in danger of over-emphasizing certain truths to the neglect of their balancing counterparts?

I recently asked Phil Johnson a few pointed questions about the mysteries and paradoxes of the Bible:

"Don't we have to admit . . . that there are some things revealed in the Bible which man's creaturely and fallen mind can't quite comprehend? That is to say, in at least some cases, the logic which reconciles two apparently contradictory truths is with God alone? Who's to say God has given us ALL of His logical tools? . . . can't there be aspects of logic that remain incomprehensible to us?"

Phil responded:

"Yes, of course. But in light of what neo-orthodoxy and postmodernism have done with statements like those, it behooves us to be clearer than ever about what we affirm and what we deny regarding the inscrutability of God." (the rest of Phil's answer is here)

While I can appreciate this kind of caution, I want to be sure I don't surrender one drop of God's actual incomprehensibility, one finely braided strand of real paradox, or one iota of genuine mystery, by way of over reaction.

There is a real danger that our response to postmodern heresy might result in the loss of precious theology and a repeat of the tragic mistakes made by the rigid fundamentalism which stood as a reaction to the rampant liberalism of the early 20th century. If we really believe Truth is absolute, shouldn't we be striving for the pure balance of that Truth, rather than reacting against heterodox fallacies? Shouldn't theology be based more on the Word of God than on our zeal to quash the errors of heretics? The Word of God by itself, taken in balance and taught with conviction, will effectively destroy heresy.

That's why Paul, after writing one of the New Testament's most soteriologically comprehensive and Gospel-saturated passages, penned these words:
Titus 3:8-9 This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men. But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.
It's essential that we reiterate and properly define not only the central truths of the Gospel, but also the more delicate theological concepts that have been co-opted by the Emergents - the garnishes, if you will - and refuse to allow them to rob us of anything God has revealed about Himself. Rather than running from the concepts they over-emphasize, we should demolish their false ideas by recovering orthodox, Biblical perspectives on those very issues, and serve them up with the steam still rising from the plate.
Many of us are rightly affirming the absolute nature of Truth, the validity of logic, the meaningful use of language and the certainty we can have. That's good. But the balances to these important realities must also be affirmed, or we may find that we have rolled up one side of the hill and then down the other side. Consider the following Biblical concepts which have been accepted by orthodox theologians throughout the centuries . . .

1. Divine Incomprehensibility - God is knowable only as far as He as revealed Himself, and He is immensely infinite beyond our imagination. The unrevealed aspects are consistent with the revealed, because God is eternally consistent with Himself. So, we can KNOW GOD and KNOW ABOUT Him, but not comprehensively.

2. Mystery - The unrevealed aspects of God's ways are unknowable apart from revelation and leave us with unanswered (and unanswerable) questions. These questions do not NEED to be answered, or God would have answered them. We do still believe in the virgin birth, correct?

3. Paradox (or what some insist on calling "antinomy" - thank you, Dr. Packer) - At whatever point the Bible appears undeniably to teach two or more opposing propositions, we must accept all of them entirely, even in cases where no mortal has ever succeeded in reconciling them. Especially in those cases. Scripture teaches us that Christ is fully human, and it also teaches us that Christ is fully divine. Is this not an apparent contradiction which we must nonetheless embrace? We must view even the most apparently irreconcilable contradictions as resolvable using information contained within the realm of genuine mystery. Hence, nothing can be paradoxical to God, Who is omniscient. If we had sufficient information, we would have no paradoxes.

4. The Necessity and Limitation of Logic - Logic is the God-ordained ground of communication between God and human beings, and the format by which He conveys propositions. In God, logic is perfect and infinite. In man, it is marred and error prone. Truth is coherent, but we're not coherent enough to fully receive it. Rather than making logic invalid, these facts call us to ground more certainty in revelation than in our logic, and more faith in God's Word than in our own thoughts, and to stake our very lives on His Word.

The Emergents confuse incomprehensibility with agnosticism, while they make mystery into an excuse for doubting divinely revealed propositions, and they pervert paradox by denying the very ground on which it is created: an a priori commitment to absolute, logically consistent Truth. Their doubting is not any kind of "epistemological humility"- it's intellectual (and spiritual) suicide. Finally, Emergents repudiate logic while simultaneously angling the conclusions of their own humanistic reason against the Scriptures. It's an epistemological potluck on the village green, complete with half-baked chicken, stale heresy-crackers and the moldy rolls of relativism. I've also heard the salad isn't too fresh.

Theological problems are only one side of the threat posed by the Emerging Church. The other is a matter of lifestyle. Emergents are more winsome than we are, less rigid, less prone to legalism, better at speaking the language of people in today's Western culture, less likely to be mired in man-made religious traditions, and they're probably more active in works of mercy and acts of kindness than most traditional Evangelicals. Heresy with a sense of charity is always more attractive than a frosty-frozen orthodoxy which portrays itself as eminently righteous - and righteously indifferent. If we're not living the Christian life, we're partly responsible for the success of liberalism.
Titus 3:14 Our people must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful.
Ultimately, however, the emergence and success of postmodern philosophy is part of a horrific judgment which God has unleashed, as He gives a sinful world over to its own cravings and allows it to suppress the priceless Truth in unrighteousness. As this progresses, let us not be outdone when it comes to practicing the New Testament ethics of compassion, grace, generosity and good works. And let us not be outmaneuvered in the battle for a Biblically faithful, balanced epistemology that is glorious enough to include difficult paradoxes, unanswered questions, and a God big enough to be mysterious - and infinitely greater in wisdom than His most ingenious creatures. In short, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Friends, I plead with you not to surrender one tiny inch of ground to the Emerging church, theologically or morally. Let's love God and neighbor, glory in His mysterious mercy, and prove by our example that the Gospel is true!
Titus 3:3-7 For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.


  1. "Ultimately, however, the emergence and success of postmodern philosophy is part of a horrific judgment which God has unleashed, as He gives a sinful world over to its own cravings and allows it to suppress the priceless Truth in unrighteousness." Great point!

  2. Blaine,

    Of late I am increasingly aware of - and comforted by - the sovereignty of God in all things. Even heresy plays its part in His plan, and the theological errors which inevitably find their way into all of our heads play a role for OUR ultimate good. Every time I uncover another mistake in my thinking, and see it corrected by the Word, I find God's great glory and wisdom afresh. It seems impossible that God would respond so graciously to our wrongheaded notions - almost as impossible as God justifying the ungodly on the basis of faith alone, through the atoning work which He Himself accomplished (using human sin as a means of accomplishing it). But with God all things are possible, because He is that sovereign.

  3. Exactly. He is obviously patient with us. How many times have I looked back at a younger "me" and thought, "I used to believe that???" So glad God is transforming us into Christ's likeness!

  4. I thought your comment on Agnosticism was spot - on. There is something perhaps deeper. When I came to be KNOWN by God and KNEW IT in shock led to the Job 42:6 type Deep Repentance. I had been spitting in Jesus's Face for 'believing in God and Jesus' by my own mind and not Objectively WIthin the LIght of Truth. Woe is me! I said, "I had been an Agnostic Christian"..Emergent Church looks like the manifestation of people who are not willing to Pretend honestly to themselves but haven't come to Revelation. Apart from Revelation of some kind ...eventually the ugly weed's roots will manifest into what we are seeing. Spiritually - I see it as a Paradox - the True New Atheism is the Emergent Church...while new atheists might think it is something else.

  5. No man can put new wine in old wine skins; or put a new patch on old fabric.


Feel free to respond to anything written in the posts, or to the comments left by others. All comments are reviewed before they are published.

Please be charitable. If you disagree, do so with grace. Keep your words positive, focused, and on-topic. We don't expect everyone to agree, but we do expect everyone to treat everyone else with respect and grace, speaking the truth in love.