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Issues Facing Missions Today: 43. A Question of Truth for the South African Church

Issues Facing Missions Today: 43. A Question of Truth for the South African Church

Proverbs 1:20-23 Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.  21 At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:  22 "How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?  23 Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.

Introduction

The mission of the Church involves the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the central truth of which is the good news that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and was raised on the third day from the dead.  The Gospel that we proclaim makes both historical and theological claims about truth.  Proclaiming the Gospel as truth, however, has any number of challenges—perhaps never so much as in our own day.  We see different understandings of truth today (Pontius Pilate is not alone in asking ‘What is truth’—Jn. 18.38).  When erroneous views of truth are entertained within the Church, however, the mission of the Church is itself under threat.  This matter, so much discussed in the West, is increasingly important in South Africa today, where a Neo-Colonial theology and ethic that denies any higher authority than the community itself in endless dialogue resettles long-held Christian convictions to obscure, under-developed homelands where they can fade away in increasing irrelevancy.

A Question of Truth

Truth as Factual:

The truth of Christianity is based on certain facts--facts that, if not true, undermine the foundations of the faith.  So, for example, Christians believe that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried.  He was raised on the third day, was seen by many after his resurrection, and ascended into heaven.  These beliefs entail several factual claims—claims that could be verified by eyewitnesses.  People saw him crucified, saw the test that he was dead when the Roman soldier pierced his side, and saw him placed in a tomb.  And numerous people testified that they encountered the risen Jesus at different times and places until he was taken up into heaven before another crowd of witnesses.  Of course, the claim that he was resurrected from the dead was doubted by many of those who did not see him and by those who did not believe the testimony of those who did.  The factual testimony became a matter of belief.
The first challenges to early Christian testimony about Jesus’ death and resurrection had to do with his resurrection: no one doubted that he was crucified.  What religion would not only acknowledge but testify to the fact that their leader was not only dead but was put to death by both religious and political authorities and that his death was for insurrection as a would-be king?  Thus, as Matthew’s Gospel tells us, when the Jewish priests heard that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, they paid off soldiers to testify that they were asleep at their posts when Jesus’ disciples came and stole his body (Mt. 28.12-14).  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a philosophical distinction between fact and truth was made that allowed some to disavow the fact of the resurrection while affirming the truth of the resurrection, expressed in terms of a ‘spiritual resurrection’ or an ‘existential truth’ (such as that there is always hope after tragedy!).  This nuanced view of truth says everything about the interpreter in our day and nothing about what happened around AD 30 in Jerusalem to a man named ‘Jesus.’  An applicant to a prestigious seminary recently asked the faculty interviewing him, ‘Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?’—to which one of the faculty replied, ‘It depends on what you mean by ‘the resurrection’.’  He might as well have asked, ‘What is truth?’

Later in the first and second centuries, the testimony that Jesus had died was also challenged.  The greater distance from the events and original witnesses, the more people could question the facts.  An early heresy, called ‘Docetism’ (from a Greek word meaning ‘it seems’) claimed that Jesus only seemed to die.  Some later (and related), second century Gnostic groups put out the idea that a man ‘Jesus’ died, but the divine ‘Christ’ was actually not on the cross.  They needed to invent this distinction because they believed that the material world was something other than god, a mistaken creation, and either irrelevant or evil—depending on which form of Gnosticism one has in mind.  Some centuries later, following this Gnostic teaching, the Quran claimed that Jesus did not die on the cross; in fact, it was claimed, he was taken up into heaven without dying at all.  This is, of course, a matter of making factual claims in order to suit a given theology, rather than affirming the eyewitness testimony of the facts and reflecting on their theological implications.  Note, however, that all such perspectives can be verified on the basis of the facts of the case: truth is understood as a matter of the facts.

Scripture affirms other facts than historical facts.  For example, Christians believe certain things about the world and God that are taken as facts even if not subject to historical analysis.  We believe in God, that there is one God in three Persons, that God made the world, that all authority in heaven and on earth is under Jesus' Lordship, that Jesus is coming again, that there will be a resurrection, and so forth.  Among these beliefs are beliefs that Christian ethics is based on God's plan for the world that He created.  So, for example, God made the world a certain way and not some other way, and therefore to live according to His plan or not to do so is the basic storyline of human history. If God created male and female to cleave together and become one flesh in marriage to fulfill the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, then Biblical sexual ethics is based on this understanding of sexuality and rules out alternatives.  This is not merely a 'belief' about something uncertain, this is a belief that makes a claim about the facts as they exist.

Thus, truth is understood in Scripture and by Christians to be about facts, whether historical or theological or ethical.  To say that 'we believe' is to say more than that 'we think': Christian faith is to stake a claim, to assert something as fact.  If we say that we believe Jesus rose from the dead, we assert an historical fact.  If we say that we believe in God the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, we make a claim that is equally factual but not historically verifiable.  It is a theological fact that, if not true, undermines all the rest of Christian faith.  Equally, there are ethical facts.  If God made the world a certain way, then we are to live within those constraints.  If God made marriage to be between a man and a woman, then, as Scripture consistently asserts, humans are not to have sexual relations with animals, engage in homosexual relations, commit adultery, and so forth.  This is not simply because this is our preference; we believe that this is because God made the world this way and that 'those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God,' as Paul says (1 Cor. 6.9-11).

Truth as Functional:

Another challenge to presenting the truth of the Gospel in our day and in the West is that truth is often considered to be less about the facts of a matter and more about something else.  On the one hand, expanding our understanding of truth as more than about facts is helpful.  So, for example, it is not just important to state that Jesus died on a cross but to understand the significance of this in terms of the theological fact that his death was for us.  It was sacrificial and redemptive.  Historical assertions and theological claims go hand in hand; they are inseparable. 

What good is it, for example, to argue that Scripture, which speaks of miracles from beginning to end, is without error—inerrant—only to deny that they occur today (Cessationism)?  In such a case, the facts of Scripture are affirmed but their relevance for life today is denied.  Scripture may be factually ‘inerrant,’ but its worldview is no longer functionally true.

Yet the helpful realization that facts are always interpreted facts does not mean that there are no facts.  Empirical philosophers such as George Berkeley needed to ask for the purposes of philosophical speculation whether a tree can fall in a woods if nobody observes it, but everyone else knows full well that trees do in fact fall over whether observed or not.  My relationship to the fact of such an event, moreover, does not affect the truthfulness of the event.  It may be very significant for me, especially if my house is in the woods and has been crushed under the tree.  There may be implications for me that the tree fell over, such as that I now have easy access to firewood.  And there may be important reasons to explore the causes for the tree’s demise, such as that the ground has shifted or there are termites.  Yet none of these additional matters pertain to the fact itself: the tree fell over.  Truth may include more than the facts of the matter; it may include the significance, implications, and causes.  Yet none of this is relevant unless it is also factual.  Truth may be functional, but it is also objective.

In ethics, the tendency in recent scholarship and in Western society has been to deny any concrete ethic, such as rules or norms.  This shift might be noticed in Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that morality was a construction of persons holding power in society and asserting their views on others.[1]  It was advocated by Emotivist philosophers, such as A. J. Ayers, who likened moral claims to nothing more than our individual preferences, since moral value adds nothing to facts.[2]  Thus, to say, ‘Homosexuality is morally wrong’ is, for Emotivists, nothing more than stating the (personal) fact that ‘I do not like homosexuality.’  For others, the focus in moral claims is on moral ends—the purpose of our actions—or on the character of the moral actor.  In such ways, morality has not been understood as having to do with the action itself.  Stanley Grenz saw three trends in moral theology over the past one hundred years (for Western Christians): [3]

1.       ‘Christian ethics … has shown a marked movement from ‘doing’ to ‘being’.
2.       ‘…Christian ethics has displayed a marked shift away from the focus on the individual moral actor to a relational ethic.’
3.       ‘A growing number of ethicists no longer see the task of ethical discourse as determining the proper response to ethical quandaries the moral agent faces in the here and now.  Instead they see their task as drawing from a vision of who we are to become and thereby setting forth an understanding of the moral quest itself.’

These trends represent some important developments for ethics, but taken as trends that are moving away from concerns about actions and rights and wrongs, they entail the trend of moving away from an objective, factual understanding of truth to a more function perspective.

Truth as Consensual:

In 1971, philosopher John Rawls published A Theory of Justice.[4] Rawls argued that groups may differ in their metaphysical arguments but still attain an ‘overlapping consensus’ on certain principles or core commitments that differing groups share.  A related but different perspective is that different groups may agree to disagree in order to achieve common goals.[5]  Rawl’s overlapping consensus seeks to establish core commitments, whereas the latter view seeks to establish common aims.

So take, for example, the current South African Anglican Archbishop, Thabo Makgoba’s view on how to handle the current dispute among Anglicans over homosexual practice.  His view appears to involve two important convictions about truth itself (though he does not state them in this way).

1. Objective truth can be used to subjugate people, whereas consensual truth (dialogue leading to consensus) is not oppressive. 

Makgoba says,[6]

We have taken the position that our differences over human sexuality are not such basic issues of faith and doctrine that they should be allowed to divide us. We have maintained a strong commitment to talking through the issues over which we differ. People who experience their sexuality as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered are God’s people, created in God's image, just as heterosexual people are, and in our Church we are committed to dialogue with one another over how we respond to the challenge of ministering to all of God’s people….

Now, I have to say that as Africans we have over the past two centuries been subjected to Western attitudes of cultural superiority, and I have no desire either to perpetuate such attitudes or to promote new attitudes which assume that we in Southern Africa have a monopoly on the truth. We should as a Province, therefore, be hesitant to preach to our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the continent. We should instead be offering them – and the Anglican Communion – our own model of dealing with difference: patient dialogue in which we wrestle with difficult issues for as long as takes to reach consensus on them. This must simply be an offer to act as a bridge -- we cannot, neither should we wish to, impose our model on anyone….

Not surprisingly—for such positions are never held consistently—Makgoba continues in his speech to attack views reached by Ugandan politicians (why not address views of the Anglican Church in Uganda?) on the matter of homosexual practice.  The openness to using ‘patient dialogue’ to come to the truth, it turns out, is predicated on the community engaged in this dialogue finally coming to the position Makgoba himself holds to be true from the beginning!

Makgoba holds a second conviction about truth that determines his approach to theology and ethics.

2. Core, Christian convictions about love and human dignity and rights can create consensus despite differing moral positions. 

To quote Makgoba,

As Anglicans in Southern Africa, we are calling for an intensification of the dialogue over our response as Christians to the debate over human sexuality, both within Africa and in the wider Anglican Communion. And as we wrestle with the theological, moral and legal issues of the debate, our behavior towards one another must be modelled on the imperative to love our neighbour. The persecution of anybody, including minorities, is wrong. All human beings are created in the holy image of God and therefore must be treated with respect and accorded human dignity.

Note, first, that both Rawls and Makgoba work with the notion that justice is not objective but arises from a particular community.  Truth is what the community says it is, what functions as truth for that community.  As such, truth is not only distinguished from facts but does not need facts; it might even oppose the facts.  Second, both believe that abstracted principles can hold together a group in which concrete differences in practice are maintained.  Third, the group’s overlapping consensus (Rawls) or continuous dialogue (Makgoba) is superior to conclusions about practices.

Some Responses to Such Confusions

One response to such perspectives is to claim that there is objective truth—truth is factual.  Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is either historically true, a matter of fact, or it is not, one might argue.  This was Paul’s position.  He says,

if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.  15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ-- whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.  16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.  17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  18 Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.  19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15.14-19).

Given Paul’s understanding of objective truth (whether applied to the resurrection or some other matter, such as a natural law ethic regarding sexuality and marriage), the question for someone like Makgoba is, ‘Why, in your understanding, are views on sexuality, as you say, ‘not such basic issues of faith and doctrine that they should be allowed to divide us’?’  After all, in Paul’s view, there were clearly issues that divided Christians from non-Christians.  As Paul says,

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral…. Do not even eat with such a one (1 Cor. 5.11).

Moreover, Paul writes as a loving warning, that fornicators, adulterers, soft men, and homosexuals (among other persons committing other sins) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6.9-10).  The truth about ‘basic issues of faith and doctrine’ (and ethics) is, for Paul, important enough to divide persons into camps of Christians and non-Christians—whether or not they attend church—and they are important enough that a loving person warns those who choose to deny the truth.
The difference between Rawls and Makgoba on the one hand and Paul the Apostle on the other hand is not only something that can be expressed in terms of objective versus subjective truth.  If we approach the subject from the standpoint of how people (interpreters, readers) get at the truth, we acknowledge that there is a certain degree of subjectivity involved.  That is, there may be objective truth, but interpreters do have their own perspectives.  This is to introduce the question of hermeneutics into the discussion: how do we access the meaning of someone else when we are ourselves different and subject to our own perspectives?

Truth and Hermeneutics

At this point, Alisdair MacIntyre is helpful.[7]  MacIntyre insisted that getting at the truth (at justice, at rationality, at virtue) depended on more than objective facts and communal dialogue.  Getting at the meaning of justice, he observed, depended on more than an abstract notion of what justice is (and we might add, what love is); it depends on the community’s tradition in which all such notions are imbedded.  So, for example, we know what we mean by love because, in our Christian tradition, love is shown to us in the story of Christ’s death for us on a cross.  Communities have traditions, determined by the narratives that give them meaning and help them to interpret the world as well as their virtues, vices, truths, and ideas.

For Makgoba, a contemporary community with highly abstract, core convictions needs to commit itself to dialogue and never to oppressing anyone else with its perspectives.  Such dialogue by necessity will not come to concrete convictions or conclusions, since to do so would be a form of intellectual and moral imperialism.  For MacIntyre, a contemporary community embracing such views will never reach any consensus so long as it ignores the imbeddedness of its core values, virtues, and truths in its own tradition, shaped by its essential narratives and authorities.  The orthodox Christian responds to this liberal view of rationality—which says, ‘Let us dialogue to reach consensus’—by saying, ‘This is our tradition, these are our authorities, this is what we believe.’  
Christian unity is not first a sociological but is a theological matter.

The Commandments of God for the People of God

Only on MacIntyre’s view can one accept that Biblical teaching is truthful.  Morality may well be the morality of given communities, but it may also be objectively true.  The Israelite ethic expressed in the Mosaic Law was for Israelites, not Moabites.  The Christian ethic expressed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was for the Christian church, not for devotees of Aphrodite down the street.  For the Israelites and for Paul—and for all the other Biblical authors and for Jesus!—morality was both objectively grounded in God Himself and was a matter of a community, formed by a particular narrative and tradition.  To claim that God made the world one way and not another way (such as that sexual relations were to be consigned to marriage between a man and a woman) was to claim objective (this is the way God made the world!), moral truth.  To recognize that the Christian community interprets sexuality differently from other communities is not to claim that ethics is relative but to claim that human beings interpret things differently because of the authoritative traditions in which they live and by which they are guided.

Makgoba, and other Anglicans like him,[8] speak of having ‘dialogue’ instead of ‘interpreting Scripture’ because they locate authority in a contemporary community rather than in the authoritative Word of God.  Appeals often heard in Africa about how to engage in dialogue through traditional, communal dialogue, indaba, rather miss the point: such dialogue, like the elders or judges at the town gates in Biblical times, entails coming to a conclusion based on communal laws and traditions, not on free expression and communal consensus per se.  This dialogue is inevitably unending (they are ‘always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth,’ 2 Tim. 3.7); it is unable to make assertions precisely because dialogue is wrongly understood to be a matter of communal conversation rather than hearing what the community’s authorities say.  They speak of reaching ‘consensus’ instead of understanding their ‘Christian tradition.’  They claim that revelation (truth) is ‘generated’ from foundational teachings that are subject to the community’s needs, desires, and designs.  They see truth as functional.  If anyone claims that Scripture is authoritatively definitive, they cry, ‘Colonial oppression!,’ rather than acknowledge that there is objective truth no matter how much human sin and limitations obstruct interpreters at times from reaching it.  ‘They know God's decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die-- yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them’ (Rom. 1.32).

Conclusion

Such misunderstandings of truth threaten not only long-held Christian convictions and practices.  They undermine the proclamation of the Gospel itself, since the Gospel makes truth claims—both historical and theological.  Moreover, they are ultimately inconsistent, since those demanding endless dialogue on some issues make absolute assertions about other issues (such as the claim that saying certain sexual acts are sinful is itself not loving).

The old, mainline churches of the West—including in countries such as South Africa—are not only dealing with challenges to the convictions they once held unequivocally, they are dealing with a challenge to their notion of truth itself.  They not only have flirted with philosophical notions that distinguish truth from fact to the point that facts are no longer considered important, they have succumbed to the ultra-imperial position that they are themselves the authority under none other.  They believe that they can, like Adam and Eve, determine right from wrong themselves, apart from God.  This was the major error of Colonialism, not first its refusal to include a wider group in dialogue, endless dialogue, that never comes to a knowledge of the truth.  In Neo-Colonial theology and ethics, dialogue is a tool to avoid any higher authority and so to exile the truth to some underdeveloped homeland or prison island.



[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (German: Zur Genealogie der Moral: Eine Streitschrift), pub. 1887.
[2] A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic, publ. 1936.
[3] Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997),  pp. 202-203.  See also Rollin G. Grams, 'The Case for Biblical Norms in Christian Ethics,' Journal of European Baptist Studies, Vol. 3.3 (May, 2003): 5-16.
[4] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971; rev. 1999).
[5] As, for example, in the important and helpful ‘just peacemaking’ consensus reached by pacifists and just war theorists in the work of Glen Stassen’s Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Pilgrim Press, 2008).
[6] Thabo Makgoba, ‘Address to Graduates of the College of the Transfiguration,’ (19 March, 2014).  Accessed online, 5 December, 2015: http://archbishop.anglicanchurchsa.org/search/label/sexuality.
[7] Two particular books by Alisdair MacIntyre are in view here: Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? (Univ. of Notre Dame, 1988) and After Virtue (Univ. of Notre Dame, 1981; 3rd ed., 2007).
[8] E.g., Gerald West, ‘Reading the Bible Differently: Giving Shape to the Discourse of the Dominated,’ Semeia 73 (1996): 21-41.