How Can Christians Proclaim Absolute
Truth in a Post-Modern World?

© Spotlight Ministries, Vincent McCann, 1998
www.spotlightministries.org.uk



Christian apologists have recognised that one of the most common objections to the Christian faith in today's post-modern and pluralistic world is the Church's claim to present absolute truth. It appears that in all areas of modern society the Christian idea of absolute objective truth is being viewed as intolerant, narrow-minded, and bigoted. For example, in 1995 Hanegraaff attended the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago. It was here that the concept of objective truth was attacked as a divisive doctrine and mocking laughter erupted at the mere mention of the words "the Gospel truth".1 Post modernism is having such an effect that even among students of theology the Church's claim to present absolute truth has become a difficult issue. Kreeft and Tacelli have found that in their many years of teaching apologetics, the most prominent concern, and source of embarrassment, among students is Christianity's claim of exclusivism.2 Allen observes that the claim that the Church makes to be the possessors of absolute truth is the chief obstacle in the way of modern people being convinced of the claims of Christianity.3 This paper will define what the Church means by absolute truth, identify the specific challenges that postmodernism raises, and suggest ways in which the Church can respond.

Many observers of postmodernism have commented that it is virtually impossible to give a full definition of this cultural trend.4 This difficulty is further reflected by the fact that scholars disagree among themselves as to what this phenomenon actually involves.5 Matters are further complicated by the fact that even noted authorities on postmodernism have to admit that the term 'postmodernism' is often applied to anything that the user of the term happens to like.6 But despite its ambiguity, the leading general features of postmodernism are possible to identify. Postmodernism is essentially anti-modern. This is seen in the fact that as a movement, it marks the end of modernity, with its emphasis on rational discovery and science which provided the foundation for an attempt to build a better world.7 McGrath defines postmodernism as: "the precommitment to relativism or pluralism in relation to questions of truth."8 An area popular in postmodern thought is the emphasis that each individual is part of a particular local human community and therefore truth should be interpreted in the light of that community.9 Since there are many different local communities the postmodernist believes that there are many different truths that can exist alongside one another.10 Postmodernism therefore challenges all metanarratives, whether they are political, social, theoretical, or religious.11 Christianity, as one among many metanarratives, is consequently considered to be an unacceptable way of interpreting the world and is rejected in favour of truth in the realm of the local.12 It should be noted, however, that despite the challenges that postmodern culture poses for the Church, Grenz observes that those who adhere to its philosophy are not particularly concerned about proving themselves 'right' and others 'wrong'.13 This attitude stems from their idea that because beliefs are a matter of social context, what might be right for one person, in their context may not be right for someone else; but what may be wrong for another person in a different context, may be acceptable to someone else in a different social context.14 Robinson observes that postmodern culture is not so much concerned about whether a concept is actually true or not but rather, is more concerned about whether it actually 'works' or not.15 Truth in postmodernism is therefore not concerned with absolutes. Instead it is concerned with the subjective feelings of each individual in a particular social context. Calver speaks of the confusion over truth in modern society.16 He points out how uncertainty prevails and that truth is reduced to what each person feels is true rather than anything absolute.17 Postmodern thinkers have given up the search for absolute all-encompassing truth because they have become convinced that all claims for truth rest on a multitude of conflicting interpretations.18 All interpretations of truth, including the Christian world view, are said to be equally valid inasmuch that they are equally invalid.19 At best, postmoderns believe that all interpretations of truth can only be judged on the basis of what may or may not work for each individual.20

The rise of postmodernism has both advantages and disadvantages alike for the Church in its attempt to make a response. McGrath recognises the difficulty that Christianity is faced with when the postmodern claim is made that asserts all truth's as being equally valid and there being no universal vantage point which allows anyone to decide what is right and what is wrong.21 Christians are therefore in the difficult situation of appearing narrow-minded when they respond that truth is found in God through Jesus Christ alone. Even the most detached reader of the New Testament cannot fail to gain the impression that the overall picture of Christian faith which it presents is intended to be absolute or final. It is indicated in general themes and by specific texts. For example, Acts 4:12 declares: "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved"; and Jesus' words in John 14:6 proclaim: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." It is difficult to ignore the negative evaluation of other belief systems which these texts suggest.22 Furthermore, what the New Testament states, the Church has tended to generally agree with throughout the ages.23 There can be no doubt that the predominant attitude of the Church through Christian history has been to regard the outsider as in error and outside the truth.24 Christianity does therefore not claim to be merely one truth among many, but rather, it claims to be the only channel whereby the truth is communicated.25 Although the postmodernist may protest at the claims for absolute truth that the Church presents, it can be pointed out that Christianity is not the only belief system that claims exclusivism.26 Those who would deny this are either being dishonest or are simply unaware of the facts. Zacharias points out how every belief system is implicitly exclusive. For example, even a cursory examination of Islam reveals the exclusive claims of this religion.27

Despite the difficult task that the Church has in proclaiming its message the present writer feels that no matter how inappropriate the truth of the Gospel may be in the present climate of popular philosophy, the Church, when attempting to formulate a response, cannot afford to compromise its proclamation that Jesus is the only true way to God. Similarly, Grenz has stated: "Our commitment to the God revealed in Jesus Christ compels us to stand squarely against at least one aspect or outworking of the radical scepticism of postmodernism: the loss of a 'centre'...In contrast to postmodern thought we believe that there is a unifying centre to reality."28 Grenz identifies this unifying centre as Jesus Himself.29 Although the Church must insist that truth can only be located and found in God, through Christ, this message needs to be presented in a way that is not bigoted or arrogant but rather in a sensitive and caring way.30

Although the Church should not apologise or feel embarrassed in its conviction that Jesus Christ is God's unique truth revealed to humanity, this does not exclude the fact that there are indeed some elements of truth to be found among other belief systems.31 Such elements of truth can be discussed to provide a starting point for Christians to build a bridge of relationship to the postmodernist. Nevertheless, the current stress on 'dialogue' can place a strain on the exclusivism which the Church has upheld in the past because with it there comes the potential threat to the traditional belief in the uniqueness of Christ and Christianity.32

One way that the Church can respond to postmodernism is by addressing its emphasis on subjectivism.33 Kreeft and Tacelli point out that subjectivism and relativism to truth are destructive to both intellectual honesty and life itself.34 The present agrees with this conclusion and believes that a belief system that depends upon one's own feelings as a standard for truth could lead to justification for evil against other human beings. Truth has to be absolute, identifiable and universal so that people can have a foundation for their lives. Lewis has stated that "if truth is objective, if we live in a world we did not create and cannot change merely by thinking, if the world is not really a dream of our own, then the most destructive belief we could possibly believe would be the denial of this primary fact. It would be like closing your eyes while driving, or blissfully ignoring the doctor's warnings."35

The postmodern world has advantages for the Church to proclaim its message that are now easier to communicate with the decline of modernity. Now that modernity is becoming moribund the Church can communicate its message in the common ground that is shared with postmoderns in the agreement that human reason has its limitations and that all knowledge is not inherently good.36 This lack of confidence that postmodernists have in human reason can prepare a way to explain the concept of sin and how human knowledge has become distorted through the fall.37 Apologists no longer have to contend with labouring under the Enlightenment world-view, with its limitations on human reason.38 Postmodern culture is therefore now open to rediscovering the idea of a spiritual dimension in the experience of humanity.39 Those who have grown up in the postmodern world, Generation X, are not content with intellectual philosophy but are open to spiritual experiences.40 Concerning the rediscovery of a spiritual aspect to life, the actress Joanna Lumley has said: "In the 1990's we're going to start finding our souls again."41 The collapse of the concept that the modern way is superior has led people to look back to the past for relevance and meaning, and consequently to the Christian faith.42

One way that the Church has appeared to be particularly relevant in the postmodern world, with its emphasis on subjectivity and new openness to spirituality, is in the area of the Toronto Blessing. In the Toronto Blessing it appears that many Christians have embraced a non-verbal form of religious experience and expression.43 Some prominent Christians believe that Toronto may have been used by God to help the Church to present its truth in a way other than in propositional terms. For example, Mike Starkey said in interview to Hilborn: "Toronto probably was God accommodating Himself to postmodern culture. It was positive in the sense that it was a thoroughly experiential thing which worked for people who live in an increasingly experiential society where logical, systematic argument is losing its force."44

But despite the new openings that the Church has in society Christians have the difficult task of bringing with them their close ties with modernity.45 Evangelicals, in particular, have always used the tools of modernity in their apologetic presentations to counter the challenges of secularism and demonstrate the validity of the Gospel.46 Typical of the Church's appeal to reason are the observations of Schaeffer who comments how Christianity rests not upon an abstract concept but rather on objective truth, or "brute facts". That is to say the God whom Christians worship actually exists and Christ's work really took place at a point of time in history.47 But traditional intellectual arguments alone are no longer able to satisfy today's society.48 Nevertheless, the appeal to reason, and the association that the Church shares with modernity, although bringing difficulties in presenting the truth that it seeks to proclaim, may eventually help to bring an element of balance in the present situation as the Church interacts with the postmodern world. Robinson observes that because the Church has never maintained the sufficiency of human reason alone, yet at the same time does insist that the truth that it presents is consistent with reason, Christianity may eventually help to lead postmodernity to more stable ground.49

One way that the Church is actually able to communicate the message truth which it believes itself to be the possessor of, is by preaching through stories. It appears that the traditional expository method of preaching does not seem to be suited to today's postmodern community. Hilborn has observed that many leading evangelicals, such as Graham Kendrick, Derek Tidball and Mike Starkey have recognised that the 'modern' age of expository preaching might well be drawing to a close.50 As a replacement to expository preaching many in the Church are therefore attempting to reintroduce the Gospel in the more "user-friendly" form of story.51 Postmodern society is open to listen to the stories and experiences of others. Christians, therefore, have an ideal opportunity to share the story of their faith.52 Evangelical scholars are now realising that because of the new postmodern society, which has become wary of straight rationalistic assertion, preachers would do well to use stories to communicate truth.53 It is recognised that truth in narrative form is able to be culturally relevant, biblically based, and have the ability to reach deeply into the human emotions.54 Evangelical scholars have also recognised that Jesus' own emphasis on narrative offers a constructive model of preaching for the twenty- first century.55 Jesus taught over sixty parables and parabolic sayings, making up about one third of His recorded words in the Bible.56 Although He did make more formal speeches these were relatively uncommon by comparison.57 Although Christ, as a Jewish Rabbi, was certainly capable of expository preaching, He wore His learning with dignity and when communicating to the common people He spoke in ways that were both relevant and stimulating.58 Like Jesus, therefore, Christians need to have a thorough understanding of Scripture but be able to communicate the truth of its message through story and in a way that is relevant to postmodern society.59 Hilborn believes that the expository side of preaching is still necessary but asserts: "it will function less as the framework of the sermon and more as its scaffolding. It will have to be removed from view before the sermon is preached."60

If the truth which the Church professes to possess is merely proclaimed, but not lived out in the lives of those in the Christian community, postmoderns will fail to believe its message.61 Due to their emphasis on community, postmoderns will expect to see truth lived out in the lives of a community of people who are in genuine relationship with one another.62 This emphasis on community also gives the Church the opportunity to present Trinitarian truth to postmoderns. Within the Trinitarian nature of God, there is community between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This truth of God's nature helps respond to the postmodern challenge and provides a point of contact. It affirms the diversity, difference, and mystery typically found in postmodern culture, but at the same time retains the order, unity and finality that is often denied by them.63 But while recognising the value of community life, whether in God or the Christian community, the Church should also stress the biblical theme of God's love and care for the individual, and the responsibility that each person has before Him to receive the salvation that He offers in Christ.64 Although doctrinal propositions are important in the Church they do have limitations because the story of the Gospel includes how God deals with people.65 Hilborn is convinced that this story of how God relates to people and how they relate to Him is the point whereby the Church may be able to present its message more effectively to postmodern culture.66 Christian truth, whether expressed in the community or individually, provides a basis for relationships and a firm foundation for family life; a basis for justice within the local community and wider society; a foundation for ethical and moral standards; and a basis for personal and collective honesty and integrity.67

In responding to the challenges that a postmodern world presents, the Church should make every effort to identify and adapt to contemporary trends and culture, where possible. But in its efforts to appear relevant it should not compromise its conviction that Jesus Christ is the incarnate truth and only way to God. If this message seems unpopular Christians should not feel embarrassed or uncomfortable because it is God Himself who has made this fact known. Truth needs to be centred somewhere, to provide stability, and Christians should not give in to the pressures of society and compromise their belief that Christ is the centre of truth. Cultural trends have come and gone throughout history but the basic message of Christ as 'the truth' has remained for nearly two thousand years. In presenting its message of truth the Church should be able to communicate in a way that is relevant to its listener, using the medium of narrative, as Jesus Himself did. The Church should also be sensitive in applying its message, have an understanding of the postmodern mindset, and be careful not to appear arrogant. In dialoguing with postmoderns Christians can identify areas of agreement and utilise these for points of contact. The failure of modernity to provide sufficient answers for humanity's innermost needs has led people to experiment in the area of spirituality. Christianity is therefore able respond to this need in areas of spiritual subjectivity as well as providing the balance and solidity of propositional truth. Although it is essential that the message of truth is verbalised, one of the most notable strengths of the Church in the postmodern age is its ability to actually live out the truth that it proclaims in community life. Emphasis should also be put on the fact that God wants to work not only in communities but also in the lives of each and every individual.



ENDNOTES

1 H. Hanegraaff, "Is Jesus the Only Way?", Christian Research Journal. Summer, 1995, 50.

2 P. Kreeft and R. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Crowborough: Monarch, 1995), 342.

3 Allen, 17.

4 A. McGrath, Bridge Building: Communicating Christianity Effectively (Leicester: IVP, 1994), 223. and Tidball, 4.

5 S.J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 11.

6 D. Hilborn, Picking Up the Pieces: Can Evangelicals Adapt to Contemporary Culture? (London: Hodder And Stoughton, 1997), 6.

7 Grenz, 12.

8 McGrath, 223.

9 Grenz, 14.

10 Ibid.

11 D. Tidball, "A Beginner's Guide to Postmoderity", Alpha. May, 1996, 6.

12 Ibid.

13 Grenz, 15.

14 Ibid.

15 M. Robinson, To Win the West (Crowborough: Monarch, 1996), 217.

16 C. Calver, Thinking Clearly About Truth (Crowborough: Monarch Publications, 1995), 24.

17 Ibid.

18 Grenz, 163.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 McGrath, 224.

22 A. Race, Christians and Religious Pluralism (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1983), 10.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Calver, 22.

26 R. Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), 125.

27 Ibid.

28 Grenz, 164.

29 Ibid.

30 Calver, 24.

31 G. Kirby (ed. P. Sookhdeo), Jesus Christ: The Only Way (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978), 19.

32 Race, 11.

33 Kreeft and Tacelli, 363.

34 Ibid.

35 C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. As quoted by Kreeft and Tacelli, 363.

36 Grenz, 166.

37 Ibid.

38 McGrath, 225.

39 Tidball, 7.

40 Hilborn 13.

41 Robinson, 178.

42 Tidball, 7.

43 P. Richter, "Charismatic Mysticism: A Sociological Analysis of the Toronto Blessing", in S. Porter (ed.), The Nature of Religious Language, 126. As quoted by Hilborn, 144.

44 Hilborn, 148.

45 Grenz, 162.

46 Ibid.

47 F.A. Schaeffer, One Race, One Gospel (Minneapolis: Worldwide Publications, 1967). As quoted by Calver, 23.

48 D. Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1989), 17.

49 Robinson, 191.

50 Hilborn, 155, 160.

51 Ibid., 186.

52 Tidball, 7.

53 Hilborn, 154.

54 Ibid., 186.

55 Ibid., 155.

56 Ibid., 154.

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid.,160.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid.

61 Grenz, 169.

62 Ibid.

63 Hilborn 280.

64 Grenz, 167-168.

65 Hilborn, 273.

66 Ibid.

67 Calver, 50-51.



BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allen, D. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction. Westminster: John Knox Press, 1989.

Calver, C. Thinking Clearly About Truth. Crowborough: Monarch Publications, 1995.

Grenz, S.J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Hanegraaff, H. "Is Jesus the Only Way?". Christian Research Journal. Summer, 1995.

Hilborn, D. Picking Up the Pieces: Can Evangelicals Adapt to Contemporary Culture? London: Hodder And Stoughton, 1997.

Kirby, G. (ed. P. Sookhdeo), Jesus Christ: The Only Way. Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978.

Kreeft, P. and Tacelli, R. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Crowborough: Monarch, 1995.

McGrath, A. Bridge Building: Communicating Christianity Effectively. Leicester: IVP, 1994.

Race, A. Christians and Religious Pluralism. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1983.

Robinson, M. To Win the West. Crowborough: Monarch, 1996.

Tidball, D. "A Beginner's Guide to Postmoderity". Alpha. May, 1996.

Zacharias, R. Can Man Live Without God. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994.





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