In making the shift in the 1980s and 1990s from a liberal theological to a more centered evangelical perspective (one that grounded my initial conversion experience in the 1970s), I have come to realize the importance of making actual truth claims in faith, however darkly our perceptual filters may be. This I view as an essential aspect of evangelical theology. That is, however much we evangelicals grapple with the tension between faith and culture, a foremost challenge is that of proclaiming and constructing our lives, as if it were absolutely true that Christ is the way the truth, and the life, in the final analysis, without equivocation or remainder. No doubt the gap between our varied epistemologies (our knowledge of faith) and core ontological claim of ultimately the Trinity remains unfathomable. That we are immersed in history I readily acknowledge. That we are confined to radical historicism as an absolute itself, I argue, is a form of highly tempting cultural idolatry to which a great deal of the contemporary church is captive.
I would agree that there is the temptation of arrogance in which our ontological claims about reality, which in faith center on God in Christ can become fused with our epistemological ones in conflating what we claim with what we profess to know in which faith is transformed into provable-like knowledge claims. That is a temptation of certain streams of evangelical or fundamentalist theology. Mainline Protestantism veers in the other direction, in the tendency to privilege culture over the universal truth claims of a rigorously argued and aesthetically sublime New Testament based Christianity which, in faith as the substance of things unseen, can brook no other discourse as final vocabulary. While we all interpret the faith from various selective perceptions, it is, on the core precepts of evangelical theology, the canonical biblical text with the revealed Christ at the apex and not our perceptions which grounds the truth claims.
The tendency toward ever intricate theological and intellectual parsing may well be inevitable Yet, there are some basic truth claims central to the faith that have been foundational to radical orthodoxy from its inception, which, while embedded in the various theological and cultural traditions that have housed the faith once for all delivered to the saints, transcend them in the very universality of Christ revealed as the Son of our Father God. In history such manifestations can only be partial, an important in sight as argued in H.R. Niebuhr’s (1951) classic text, Christ and Culture. This is an important insight that evangelical theology may overlook to its deep peril. Equally, if not more important from the viewpoint of a richly nuanced evangelical theology, is that such signposts toward the truth are human incarnations of God working out some of the fullness of his reality through the flawed instrumentalities of human vessels over time and place throughout the eons. More emphasis, I argue should be placed on the significance of these crystallized images as partial, but authentically-grounded revelations of the glory of God. To be sure, these require ongoing processing by contemporary dialogue partners so that something of their intended fullness may enter into new realities constructed in the desire to hear the Word of God again and again in ever new and authentic, yet recognizable ways as “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude, 3) whether in the 1st, 16th, or 21st century.
As we think and work through the various traditions that have given so much shape to our faith, I encourage caution in grappling with the temptation of viewing these traditions through the filter of culture as final vocabulary which has the capacity to cut the very nerve center of revealed truth. As I have attempted to argue above, there are some delicate tensions between historical thinking and the radical truth claims of faith as they are articulated and mediated throughout the Bible and 2000 years of theological and ecclesial discourse.
A critical challenge for evangelicals is to be aware of the way they may be tempted toward a conflation of their actual knowledge with what they believe in faith as truth. A crucial challenge for the Protestant mainline is caution against subsuming the core truth claims of even a most generous orthodoxy within an all encompassing absolute of a cultural prism (radical historicism) in which there is no critical remainder outside of traditions; more problematically outside of cultural interpretation itself. This is the pathway toward Feuerbach and ultimately to the atheism which has so captured the 20th century intellectual and cultural imagination in the radical rejection of revelation as synonymous with truth, however darkly our dimmed perceptions may be in seeking to account of it and conveying something of its power.
No doubt the reality is 1000 times more complex sublime than what I am able to describe about its ineffable and magnificent reality.