Home > Emerging Church, Karl Barth, Truth > Chuck Colson, truth, Truth, and the Emerging Church

Chuck Colson, truth, Truth, and the Emerging Church

Before I say anything else let me say this: Chuck Colson is a good man and a genuine Christian. While I disagree with him on a number of important issues (as I will below) his work in prison ministry and his own personal life testimony are living examples of the power of the Holy Spirit to transform people’s lives. So, if anything I say in the following comes across as anything but gracious my apologies.

In the most recent issue of Christianity Today, Chuck along with his assistant authored a piece entitled Emerging Confusion: Jesus is the truth whether we experience him or not. In it, Chuck takes a run at Emerging Church people in general. This isn’t the first time he’d done so, a fact he admits by noting that he had had an exchange with an emerging church leader (Brian McLaren – here). I would encourage you to read Chuck’s full column first before reading the excepts below.

#1) Though in their effort to reach postmoderns—who question the existence and knowability of truth—I expressed fear that they are coming dangerously close to teaching that objective truth does not exist

Here is the typical line about “postmoderns” – they question the existence and knowability of truth. But, this is a mischaracterization of the use of the term as far as I’m concerned. To be “postmodern” is to be living in today’s world. We live in a postmodern world whether we want to or not. Also, the values of postmodernism can better be described by what they are not rather than by what they are. I consider myself a “postmodern” because I reject the modern project and its hope for universal and independent knowledge built upon a self-evident basis (more on this later). While I affirm in full that we can know things as they are, this knowing is never without a social location. When I look at things, read things, and speak I speak as a 25 year old protestant middle-class male. This doesn’t mean I can’t speak of things as they are, but my knowing is always shaped by who I am as a person.

The debate is not as Chuck contends over the existence and knowability of truth, but over the nature of truth. After all, if someone doesn’t believe truth can exist and be known there’s no debate at all.

2) Of course, truth becomes relational when we come to Jesus, Truth himself. But our doing that isn't what makes it true. He is the truth whether or not we ever experience him. Scripture is never less than revealed propositional truth.

Here is where my disagreement with Chuck becomes most evident. Scripture is not revealed propositional truth – that is not scriptures original intent nor should it be used in that way. This way of reading the bible requires you to read it and then “derive the facts” from it. No, scripture is never less than the living testimony of God’s faithfulness to the world as shown in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Karl Barth and the signers of the Theological Declaration of Barmen had it right when they said that Jesus Christ is the one Word of God in whom we have to hear, listen, and obey. Scripture as the Word of God, is never less than that which reveals Jesus Christ, not propositions or even propositions about him.

3) The pastor, who lacks formal seminary training, offered not a sermon, but the story of his decision to "follow Jesus."

This line in the story as far as I can tell is either a pot-shot or just irrelevant. But here’s a few things to ask here. (1) When did formal seminary training become the be all and end all of someone’s ability to be a pastor? Don’t get me wrong, I’m seminary trained and believe its extremely helpful, but I’ve worked with a lot of people who aren’t and I don’t think one can take a shot at emerging churches by claiming that some of their leaders lack formal seminary training. (2) What’s a sermon? I preached a “sermon” one night which was my faith story about how I ended up where I am today and how I’ve seen God at work in my life. Does that count as a sermon or not? (3) When did deciding to follow Jesus become a bad thing? Last time I checked that was what Jesus asked people to do – “follow me.”

4) Theologian Donald A. Carson puts his finger precisely on the epistemological problem: Of course, truth is relational, Carson writes. But before it can be relational, it has to be understood as objective. Truth is truth. It is, in short, ultimate reality.

Here Colson makes an interesting move – he appeals to a self-evident universal. He makes the statement that before truth can be known as relational it has to be understood as objective. First of all, I haven’t a clue what that actually means. Does this mean that when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of someone they first known the proposition Jesus is Lord and then it can become relational? I don’t follow. He then collapses back on this statement, “Truth is Truth”. What? That doesn’t make any sense at all. In essence what Colson is saying is this: “Look, everyone knows what truth is, it’s self-evident.” This is an example of foundationalism – the appeal to self-evident propositions that are universally accessible to any rational person. But, foundationalism is long dead and has been well-critiqued.

So what is my solution? Truth isn’t propositional, truth is personal because Truth is defined by a person, Jesus of Nazareth, who said “I, I am the way, the truth, and the life”. Jesus Christ, as the one through whom all things were created (John 1) and as the image of the invisible God (Col 1) reveals who and what truth is – the truth is Jesus Christ.

Categories such as absolute, objective, subjective, etc. aren’t really helpful for a Christian because we have one Truth, Jesus Christ.

Again, to restate, my beef is not with Chuck Colson as a brother-in-Christ but with his misunderstanding of what Emerging Church-types are after.

For another critique of Colson from a slightly different angle, see Tony Jones’ post

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  1. June 6, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Thanks Brian, great critiques.

    A question I have in my mind now is: what is the difference between “experiencing truth” and “experiencing the revelation of God”? Does not the ultimate knowledge of truth come through God’s revelation, precisely the work of Jesus Christ? If that is true, maybe we should talk more about God’s revelation. I think it will take a big step for some of us to really believe that Christ is at work and that our experiences may include the reality of revelation.

  2. Evan Olson
    September 12, 2007 at 2:26 am

    If truth is truly relational, who are you to say Chuck Colson is wrong? After all, he cannot be truly wrong by your definition. If Chuck Colson experiences God as an objective truth-giver, how is that less truthful than your experience of him as the opposite?

    The contradictions abound. For example, you say “Scripture as the Word of God, is never less than that which reveals Jesus Christ, not propositions or even propositions about him.” You say the Bible is not about propositions and yet you have to make a proposition to say so.

    But I guess that’s the fun of being an emergent Christian. You get to impose your objective view of subjective truth on everyone else. But we can’t impose our objective view of objective truth on you. You dish it out. But you can’t take it.

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