The Plurality of Truth, Mortal Sin or Divine Blessing?

January 26, 2012 § 1 Comment


John Franke’s Manifold Witness, the Plurality of Truth is a bold attempt to recast Christian faith, Church and theology in a mold that is in accord with the best postmodernist deconstruction has to offer while remaining true to the exclusivist character of the Gospel of Christ. Franke argues against a monolithic understanding of truth and in favor of a multiplicity of views regarding truth. His arguments are anthropological (human knowing is always perspectival and incomplete), historical (there is no “one” tradition of the historical Christian faith), liberationist/deconstructivist (one theological construct tends to dominate and marginalize the voice of the Other), scriptural (the Bible evidences a plurality at every level), revelational (the trinitarian God reveals himself as plurality), cultural (the incarnation and the Bible are given in an embedded enculturated situation), missional (a plural witness is part of the missional character of the church and does justice to the mysterious object of our proclamation), and eschatological (our knowing will only be complete in the future).

The only reason that this book is not a tremendous eye-opener for me is that I have come to insights over the past two years that coincide with much of what Franke has to say. This is quite remarkable given the fact that I come from a reasonably conservative evangelical background with a lingering sympathy for the Reformed background of my ancestors. My passion was in the area of apologetics and thus my outlook on the world was a pretty modernistic one. Absolute truth is out there and we need to strive to grasp it. During my first quarter at Bethel Seminary John Franke gave a guest lecture in my Intermediate Hermeneutics class and I very well remember being intrigued with but at the same time wary of his ‘big T, small t’ approach (i.e. there is a big Truth, to which many small truths testify from their own perspectival vantagepoint). As I continued my studies various paradigm shifts took place. They were in the areas of hermeneutics, epistemology, and systematic theology.

As I was reading Franke I started writing down these insights and positions I have come to embrace and before long I counted six of them. (1) As a missionary I had come to appreciate the different ideas and traditions various denominations bring to the table. I had become a doctrinal agnostic long before I came to Bethel. I had come to realize that any human attempt to distill formulations towards the ultimate position of the Bible on a given topic is futile. (2) As I studied at Bethel I familiarized myself with liberation, Asian, black, and feminist theology. It became clear that a universal theology is not possible and will always oppress and marginalize minorities. I realized that all theology was contextual and that it made no sense elevating Calvin’s 16th century contextual approach to a status of divine inspiration. (3) Just recently it dawned on me that much of evangelical theology is not geared at serving the mission of the church but rather serves basic (perceived) needs of the faith community, such as protection, ethical segregation, doctrinal purity, security against biblical criticism and liberalism, etc. The goal of theology, however, should be to aid the Church in partaking in the Missio Dei. (4) Also recently I realized that both conservatives and liberals tried to work under the paradigm of the Enlightenment, the former antithetically, the latter synthetically, but both modernistically. An over-reliance on reason was used either to submit to or thwart the cause of the Enlightenment project. (5) During my class Epistemology I had come to embrace coherentism over against foundationalism and realized that our knowing does not proceed from one axiom to another but through paradigm shifts that occur instantly, rearranging various faculties of the mind in one new way of seeing reality. (6) Lastly I realized that Scripture does not present us with one perspective on a given theme or topic. There are for instance various ideas floating around in the New Testament era on the atonement. Trying to harmonize them is not doing justice to the testimony of Scripture but rather imposes a modernistic grid on the text. We need to live with ambiguity.

Needless to say that  from a cautionary approach I have come to embrace Franke’s approach wholeheartedly. It frankly surprises me that my own existential and theological journey has led to a point so far removed from where I once was. I now understand to be a divine blessing what I once considered to be a mortal sin. Franke provides an argument for plurality that does not destroy the notion of absolute truth or the ultimacy of the God of the Scriptures. For me it is clear that the direction he points to is taking us beyond the evangelical-liberal and the horizontal-vertical divides, toward a humble witness in faithful praxis and proclamation.

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