Written by R. Todd Mangum
Thursday, 10 April 2014 00:00
We take back not one iota the truths with which we started three blogs ago:
Is truth “pluralistic”? Hard to say and may depend on what one means; but falsehood definitely is.
Truth — including and especially metaphysical truth about Jesus’ being Lord — can be known by human beings; this is stated explicitly in Scripture, and, when it is, this “knowledge and understanding” is credited actually to a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit (on the person’s mind, heart, soul) in the metaphysical realm.
Not only is the Lordship of Christ discernible as a truth principle, affirmation of this truth is crucial for an overall perspective that is accurate or at all credible in forming a general worldview.
Truth has an antithetical quality — that is, truth statements (in this case, about the Lordship of Christ) assert a point positively that must be affirmed over against rival points of different perspective that are false.
The biblical portrayal does not imagine the world as consisting of a vast mural of truthful perspectives in which the truth of Yahweh or the Lordship of Christ adds a slight hue of additional nuance; rather, on the contrary, the biblical picture suggests a world consisting of a sea of falsehoods and rival swill, against which the small-but-sturdy vessel of truth rows to the sure arms of the one-and-only Lord Creator God.
To these very conservative and traditional sounding points, we have added in the last blog this additional point, which adds a qualification, a nuance:
All truth statements — including truth statements about “absolute” (metaphysical) principles — are inherently non-absolute. That is, all truth statements are inherently contextual statements, subject to qualification by context; and as context changes, either the statement or the understanding of the statement, likewise needs to be adjusted accordingly.
All that in view and in mind, what now should we think and say about our own global, pluralistic context, in which the Person and claims of Christ are set unavoidably in comparison, contrast, and competition with other worldviews, other prophets and prophecies, and other devout religious convictions? How, specifically, should the adamant anti-idolatry and anti-other-gods statements of the Old Testament, as well as the insistence-on-affirming-the-Lordship-of-Jesus-Christ diagnostic tests of the New Testament apply in today’s context? I propose several considerations — admittedly, from the perspective of one who is committed to submitting to the authority of Scripture as an evangelical theologian, and who has only limited experience dialoguing with studied leaders or representatives of people of other faiths.
First, I see nothing contextually that would impinge on the positive affirmations of Yahweh’s singular God-ship or Jesus’ distinctive Lordship. Yahweh alone is God; Jesus, God’s only Son, is only Lord. Not only are these principles true, the adamancy of exclusivity is not one whit qualified, diluted, or diminished by change of context.
A side note here, while we are ‘in the neighborhood,” it could be interesting, hermeneutically, to consider what implications this point might have for age-old debates about “authorial intent” and the degree to which an author maintains “control” over the “meaning” of his text. What if Paul or John never could have imagined that Christianity would ever spread or be so successful as to make the “tests” they assert not fully adequate? (To my mind, the answer and follow up response properly would be, “So what? That does not affect the full truthfulness of what they said at the time they said it — their truth statements are still thus ‘inerrant.’” And none of the contextual considerations we have noted are any surprise to God, who is ultimately behind the inspiration of their texts. He is not fazed by any of this at all. All that is required for proper authoritative application of His Word is careful, skilled interpretation conducted in a posture of submissiveness and due attention to context. What else is new?)
Finally, if contextual considerations require a more stringent consideration of (false) professions than John or Paul asserted, the reverse question is also implied, which we of course have not raised until now, but which forms one of the central themes of this very conference: if people’s confessing Jesus’ Lordship or Yahweh’s exclusive Creatorship is not a foolproof indication of authentic, true, proper fidelity and relationship to God (and it is not, right?), there is such a thing as false profession, more so in our day than in the prophets’, John’s or Paul’s.
A Speculative Question
Could the reverse also be true: that there could be people in our day who do not affirm exclusive fidelity to Yahweh or confess the Lordship of Christ who may nevertheless be subjects of the work of the Spirit of God?
This is a conjectural, speculative question — and should be treated as such. Let us right away acknowledge that. Biblical teaching addresses far more the assurances given to those who do profess aright the Deity of Yahweh and the Lordship of Christ than it does any speculative possibilities with those who do not.
That said, here is what I would observe about contextual considerations of the “exclusiveness” claims of Scripture that we have surveyed. The strongest, most condemnatory statements of Scripture towards other faiths and people of other faiths occur in consideration of those faiths being a threat or lure to the people of God. Yahweh, Jesus, and the prophets, disciples, apostles, and agents of the same seem to relate to people of other faiths differently — more winsomely, more receptively — when the element of threat or lure is not present. So, at least part of the bite of the prophets, and at least part of the warning of John and Paul, is rooted in the fact that the people of God are being either threatened with coercion to adopt these other faiths, to otherwise recant their faith in Christ, or are being lured to abandon Yahweh or commitment to Christ in order to adopt an alternative. But what if the element of threat or lure is not part of the dynamic in another context?
An illustration here may help. I confess to being a big fan of military history documentaries. (The History channel, the Military channel, and the “American Heroes” channel are all favorites of mine.) I always love it when a documentary closes with a final “where are they now” epilogue. After an hour or two examining the ferocity of battle at the Normandy invasion, the scene cuts to now-elderly American and German former-soldiers meeting for the first time since the war. For two hours, the viewer has watched footage of these same people desperately trying everything in their power to kill one another; now they hobble with canes and walkers toward one another, shake hands, and chat, somberly and seriously maybe, but exchange niceties on the very same ground on which the blood of their comrades-in-arms was spilt, at the hands of each other.
The Vietnam War is still a little too recent and the region still a little too “hot,” but, even there, some documentaries have an American journalist casually interviewing military leaders on both sides matter-of-factly recounting the strategies and tactics they had in mind fifty years ago in their respective efforts to kill one another. These exchanges sometimes take place with the respective parties in the same room, looking at one another, shaking hands, smiling, and chuckling awkwardly and nervously at points. Again, there simply is no question that the whole tenor of the conversation is very different than when they were actually in opposing armies actively engaged in battle.
The conservative evangelical is likely to observe at this point, “Yes, but as concerns rival faiths to Christianity, we are ‘still at war’ — Satan is still a grand counterfeiter, and the ‘armor of God’ is still very much needed.” Fair enough, and point well taken. But even if we assume a war footing is the appropriate posture in our current world, it is still the case that military commanders sometimes have strategic, non-hostile, conversations under flag of truce (e.g., consider “prisoner exchange” conversations; or conversations leading to agreement to suspend battle for a time in order to gather the wounded or bury the dead); and, even in wartime, the role of diplomats is invaluable, and they play a very different role — arguably a most important role in the final analysis — than the military commanders and generals.
So, in our day, with the threat of syncretism, compromise, and apostasy very real, is there a role for diplomats? Can we recognize value in holding some conversations with people of other faiths under “flag of truce,” in which the ground rules are fully understood and the dynamics of rivalry maybe even assumed, but in which the goal is finding common ground to secure common goals?
Those strike me as live questions, not theoretical ones; and in our day crucial questions, not abstract ones. Hence my interest and participation in a conference like the eastern region conference of the Evangelical Theological Society on interfaith and ecumenical dialogue, not to put too fine a point on it.
How about you? What do you think? It is not my normal practice to wait four blogs to ask you for your thoughts — but understand I was making a more protracted proposal, and that these four blogs were, admittedly, adapted from a scholarly paper. But, I really am interested in your response and thoughts.
The purpose of this blog will be to expand the influence of our faculty, maintain contact with our graduates, and invite other friends to think with us about important biblical and theological ideas.