This doesn't imply endorsement. I certainly don't agree with everything
Howard writes. But I think Willimon's article deserves discussion, and
Howard's review is a good start.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 3 Mar 1996 00:48:32 -0500
Subject: Re: Jesus' Peculiar Truth (long)
Please allow an old Schaefferian to put in an oar on the issue of truth as
raised by William H Willimon in his Christianity Today article "Jesus'
Particular Truth," March 4, 1996. pp. 21-22.
I agree with Willimon that knowing facts about God is not the same as knowing
God. Mere cognition is not relationship. Likewise, in contrast to Aquinas,
Willimon recognizes that our intellect is marred by our sin, just as is the
rest of who we are. Only by the gracious working of the Holy Spirit in our
heart can we receive Christ. But Willimon presses his points too far.
I really do not believe that there are varieties to truth. Truth is simply
accurate information about something that exists. All other definitions
mislead by centering in one way or another on humanity's perceptions,
experiences, thoughts, or acts of will. False meanings of truth include
focusing on arrogant or despairing human subjectivity, and slicing truth into
various epistomological compartments such as spiritual and religious truth,
artistic and mythic truth, and scientific and rational truth. Another common
mistake is to blend "Truth" with deity. This can be done by such turns of
thinking as granting truth a reality apart from particulars (Plato), viewing
truth as part of a monistic ultimate reality (Buddhism), or by personifying
truth as Jesus (Willimon).
All such concepts lead us astray from acquiring reliable information about
what and who is "out there", including ourselves. Truth is to be discovered;
it cannot be invented, asserted, felt, or met.
I am reminded of the story of a friendly cat that one warm day wandered into
a first grade classroom. As the children took turns petting the purring
feline, the teacher took advantage of the "teachable moment" to ask the
pupils about its appearance and behavior. Things went smoothly until the
children began to wonder about the cat's gender. Not wishing to get into
that subject, the teacher tried to move the attention of the class to other
things, but little Johnny was adamant that he knew how to tell whether it was
a boy cat or a girl cat. In resignation the teacher asked, "Okay, Johnny,
how can we tell?" "We can VOTE!" Johnny proclaimed.
Willimon claims that "the truth is a person, personal" and the person is
Jesus. This is an inversion of Jesus' claim to be "the truth." In saying
this in connection with being also "the way and the life," Jesus meant that
He is the prime, trustworthy source for reliable information about His
Father's provision for making people right with Himself. As the writer of
Hebrews points out, Jesus, who is greater than Moses, is the greatest of the
prophets. He spoke to the people for His Father by His words, actions, and
Willimon is correct in saying that what God through the gospel offers us is
"not absolute truth reduced to propositions," but rather Jesus. But
Willimon makes it seem as if we must separate Jesus from "absolute truth."
This is totally false and unnecessary. In John 9 a man born blind met
Jesus and was healed by Him. But he did not realize who Jesus was. Knowing
that this man had healed him, the former blind man concluded that Jesus must
be a prophet, a man sent by God. The healed man stood by his conclusion
about Jesus in the face of enormous pressure from the religious
establishment. But he did not know that Jesus was the Messiah. The man's
problem was not a moral one. It was an intellectual one. He lacked
information. So Jesus came back and told the man that He was the Messiah and
the man worshipped Him.
For more than twelve years now I have worked full-time to introduce people of
other cultures to Jesus Christ. Sometimes my international friends need
simply to be told the Good News, that is, reliable information about Jesus.
Once told, they welcome Him into their hearts. One man from mainland China
announced to me that he had come to the US "to learn the name of God." "In
my country," he continued, "we cannot learn his name. But here I can. I
believe he is the God of the Bible." Not surprisingly, this man believed in
Christ almost immediately after hearing the gospel.
Other international friends come to understand the gospel, but find the cost
of trusting in Christ too high. Some refuse because they realize they would
have to give up their independence or their sinful ways. Other times the
chief reason is relational. For example, a Chinese Malaysian woman told me
that if she stayed in the US, she would become a Christian because she
recognized that Jesus was the only way to be reconciled to God. But since she
must return to Malaysia with her husband, she dared not embrace Christ. If
she became a Christian, she would lose her children and her husband because
her Malay husband was, by law as well as heart, a Muslim.
Willimon claims that John is the only Gospel that "bothers much with 'truth'
talk." This is inaccurate. All four Gospel writers show concern to present
reliable information about Jesus. Luke introduces his Gospel by saying he
has "carefully investigated everything from the beginning' and has written
"an orderly account" so that the reader "may know the certainty of things."
Like Luke, Matthew and Mark carefully record the acts and teachings of
Jesus, including His propositional claims about Himself.
The Bible does not start with us, but with God, an always existing Person who
created the matter-energy-time framework of our earthly existence. This God
of the Bible created us with an ability to discover accurate information
about the universe, and holds us accountable for any failure on our part to
recognize His existence and honor His greatness through our day-to-day
experiences in His universe (Romans 1).
Moreover, Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:17 affirm that Christ also sustains
the universe by His word of power. Therefore, Willimon's supposition that
"objective, absolute truth" can somehow exist as something unindebted to and
separate from Christ and His willful, specific activity is erroneous. No
matter how humans "vote," Christ holds all things together. We are never
truly "on our own."
Willimon declares that we people "do not have the resources, on our own, to
think about matters like God, truth, peace, justice before knowing Jesus."
This extreme statement removes any common ground for dialogue, let alone
cooperation, between Christians and non-Christians in such matters as public
policy, education, and science. It overlooks the fact that while all people
are sinful, we also bear God's image. The concept of total depravity means
that all our actions and motives are tainted by sin. But this does not mean
that our actions and motives are nothing but depravity and falsehood.
Non-Christians and Christians can join together to outlaw slavery and to try
to find cures for cancer.
The Bible tells us that this same God has spoken to us in a way that we, made
in His image, can understand. He emptied Himself and became human, lived a
righteous life, died for our sins, and rose again to give us His life if we
will receive Him. He also caused about 40 humans to write a special record
of His dealings with us, focusing on the life, death, and resurrection of
Himself as the only begotten Son. This special record, the Bible, is
accurate and understandable to humans of all ages, levels of intelligence,
and ethnic and cultural backgrounds as thousands of Christian missionaries
over the centuries will attest.
Willimon would have us believe that "it is a mistake to talk to people as if
they are capable of knowing the truth if it is skillfully argued before
them." But surely Peter, Stephen, Phillip the Evangelist, and Paul, as they
proclaimed the gospel as recorded in the book of Acts, believed just the
opposite. So did the writers of the New Testament. Hence Peter claims that
his hearers may rely on his testimony that Jesus rose from the dead because
"we are all witnesses of the fact" (Ac 2:32). Paul declares in 2 Co 5 that
God has appointed him and his fellow believers to be His ambassadors whose
job it is to communicate His message of reconciliation with accuracy and
Of course, the response of the hearers of the gospel varies. In Acts many
rejected the gospel while many others welcomed it and turned their hearts
over to Christ. The latter did so only by the enabling of the Holy Spirit.
But as J.I. Packer rightly observes in "Evangelism and the Soveignty of
God," the biblical concept of evangelism is the faithful proclamation of the
gospel. No reference to results is appropriate.
Having raised all these objections to Willimon's article, I must conclude by
saying that I value his call that we Christians be cross-culturally
sensitive. He rightly describes the culture in which we live as toxic,
relativistic, morally chaotic, deceptive and deceived, anxious, dislocated,
and alienated from God, He is correct in observing that a reference to
"absolute truth" may not be the best way for us Christians to begin a
dialogue with children of this relativistic age.
However, even the most ardent relativist knows not to attempt to get to Japan
from the US by bicycle. And there is no way to introduce him or her to the
real Jesus without communicating absolutes.
Bill Hamilton | Chassis & Vehicle Systems
GM R&D Center | Warren, MI 48090-9055
810 986 1474 (voice) | 810 986 3003 (FAX)
firstname.lastname@example.org (office) | email@example.com (home)