This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series: The Post-Evangelical (Tomlinson)
Chapter 7 of Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-Evangelical is entitled, ‘The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Something Quite Like the Truth’. It’s about epistemology – how we come to know things.
Tomlinson suggests that what is going on is that many within evangelicalism begin with some vague feelings of discomforts about various aspects of their evangelical church. They are bothered about the chorus-singing, perhaps, or the dogmatic tone of the preaching, – and then develop deeper concerns about the credibility of the entire evangelical paradigm. Post-evangelicalism involves a shift to a new paradigm: a move away from the sense of certainty that characterises evangelicalism (there we go again), and a shift to understanding truth as something less propositional, more provisional and symbolic.
Evangelicals see truth in a rather absolute, literal way. Postevangelicals favour a more relative understanding. Evangelicals have a ‘scientific’ way of looking at things, and value precision, rationality, and so on. Post-evangelicals value a poetic way of looking at things, which tends to be imprecise, ambiguous, approximate, intuitive, and symbolic.
Post-evangelicals draw on post-modern thinking in regarding objectivity as illusory. The shift from evangelical to post-evangelical is not primarily a matter of surface culture, but it is rather a difference in perception of truth. One effect of moving away from the authoritarian certainty of evangelicalism is that people think for themselves more and search for truth more persistently.
The role of language is pivotal. Deconstructionalists such as Derrida question whether any language has an external referent. Evangelical expressions such as, ‘The Lord told me…’ could be decoded as meaning, ‘I want you to listen to what I am saying’. We may not go as far as Dupitt in denying that language about God has any external referent, but we should challenge traditional assumptions about the referential nature of language.
Given the difficulties with language, especially language about God, we are ready to see that metaphors are not simply figures of speech, but form and essential part of how we grasp reality. A metaphor is both untrue (at a literal level) and true (as some deeper level). ‘Time flies’ is true/untrue, and we can similarly agree that ‘God is/is not a heavenly father’. Evangelicalism is much to prone to absolutise such metaphors and deal too literally with the various anthropomorphisms with which God is described in the Bible.
Problems associated with attempts to describe God have been acknowledged for many centuries. Theologians have given primacy to the via negativa – which describes God in terms of what he is not, over the via positiva – which affirms features of God’s person. Human qualities are at best pointers to God, rather than descriptions.
We need to choose between naive realism, which assumes that God can be adequately describedin a near-literal way, and critical realism, which accepts that many realities must be understood through models or metaphors, rather than by direct observation.
So, for example, when we refer to the metaphor of the fatherliess of God, this has nothing to do with gender, but what it discloses is God’s personhood and his nurture, love and care for creation.
All things means that we cannot expect to gain, or transmit, ‘absolute truth’. Our understandings and descriptions of external realities are, at best, approximate and ambiguous.
The atonement needs to be looked at with critical realism. This doctrine has always been understood with the help of models, the most prevalent of which in evangelicalism is some kind of legal model. This has been criticised as being unworthy of God, since it presents him as morally inferior to the creatures he has made. But, from the critical realist perspective, much of the problem comes from taking metaphoric language to be real and actual. The traditional view, which says that by the cross sins were cancelled out, forgiveness was granted, and God’s attitude towards us thereby changes from wrath to mercy, is fraught with problems. No: God’s love always forgives, and the cross does not change God’s attitude towards us, but rather our attitude towards God, as we see his love unaffected by the worst that human sin could do – kill his Son Jesus Christ. Of course, this approach has problems and questions, but no more so than the legal theory.
Moving away from absolutes does not mean that ‘anything goes’. Ian Barbour speaks of the tensions that critical realists must embrace: faith/doubt; commitment/enquiry; confession/self-criticism.
Comment: This chapter has raised interesting questions about the nature truth and the limitations of language. We certainly do well to recognise the kind of language that has to be used, out of necessity, about God.
I am also interested by Tomlinson’s clear preference for ‘poetic’ over ‘scientific’ ways of thinking. It strikes that the majority of scholars in the evangelical tradition are trained in the sciences. Look at the educational backgrounds of people like Leon Morris, D.A. Carson, Alister McGrath, and you will see what I mean. It is my distinct impression that not only Tomlinson, but a preponderance of those populating the post-evangelical/emerging church scene, have a background in, or a preference for, the arts. Just a thought.
But, to critique this chapter more directly, there are many non sequiturs here. It does not follow, for example, that because descriptions of God as ‘Father’ are metaphorical, they exclude anything to do with gender. More obviously fallacious is the discussion about atonement: in mentioning evangelicals’ fondness for the legal model, Tomlinson has forgotten to mention the support that Scripture itself gives to this model (see the discussions elsewhere on this blog). The fact is that the Bible presents the atonement via a rich array of models, and Tomlinson would have done well to recognise this, rather than play one model off against another.
Once again, Tomlinson demonstrates just how uncritical is his rejection of evangelical ‘certaintism’. The fallacy here is that the fact that one cannot be certain about everything does not mean that one cannot be certain about anything. Or, put differently, the fact that we cannot know exhaustively does not mean that cannot know adequately.