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philosophy historically and as distinct from other disciplines

Essentials of Christian Thought, part 4

The previous post in this series is here.

The key to this middle way, if it is truly a middle way between extremes, is divine self-limitation—the idea that the God of the Bible is vulnerable because he makes himself so out of love. p.139

… the personal God of the Bible is revealed there as the one “principle of all things,” “both cause and reason” for everything else’s existence. [Emil] Brunner also rightly emphasized that for the Christian this is no “theory of the world,” no rational, speculative hypothesis, but revealed truth of the “one word of God.” p.142

Whether or not one takes the Genesis narratives of creation literally, their theological meaning is obvious to anyone who approaches them without bias against personal theism: The whole world, the universe, everything outside of God, was created by God “in the beginning.” p.143

And, yes, God has mind, intelligence, thought, purpose, but his essence is not “Mind” (Nuos) as Greek philosophy conceived it. p. 145

According to the biblical narrative, then, there are two basic categories of reality—God’s, which is supernatural and personal (but not human), eternal, independent, self-sufficient; and the world’s, which is dependent but good, filled with purpose and value and governed as well as sustained by God. p.145

The distinct, singular personhood of God, the reality of God as a being among beings, not an all-inclusive, unconditioned, absolute Being Itself, is a hallmark of the biblical portrayal of God. p.147

By the free act of creation, by creating something outside of himself with limited autonomy, the God of the Bible has become a being beside other beings and limited by them in a limited way. p.149

… the difference between God and humans is character, not personhood. p.149

As philosopher Plantinga explained, the scientific search for truth assumes nature is not all there is. If nature is all there is, then truth itself is a chimera and our human faculties for discovering and knowing it are unreliable. p.151

As already explained, according to the biblical view of God and the world, the world has a relative autonomy over against God—by God’s own design. Yet neither nature nor history are independent processes operating entirely under their own laws and powers. p. 151

Modern Christian thinkers such as Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710–96), Horace Bushnell (1802–76), and C. S. Lewis, among many others, went out of their way to explode the myth that a miracles must be a divine interruption of nature—as if, in order to act in special ways, God must “break into” a world that operates like a machine alongside of, over against, and independently of God’s immanent, continuing creative activity. The biblical-Christian view of nature and history is the both are in some sens always already the activity of God. That is not to say that everything that happens in them is the direct, antecedent will of God; it is only to say that, from a biblical and Christian perspective, the very laws of nature are, in some sense, simply regularities of God’s general providential activity. And history is always being guided, directed, and governed by God—even when God’s human creatures, endowed with free will, rebel and act against God’s perfect will. According to a biblical-Christian worldview, God’s agency is always the principle and power underlying everything. p.152

That means, then, that a miracle is never a “breaking” of nature’s laws, a “violation” of nature, or a “disruption” of history’s story as if nature and history were normally operating under their own power and overcome by God “from the outside.” That is the myth about the supernatural and miracles imposed by modern naturalism. p.152

Rather, from a biblical-Christian perspective, a miracle is simply an event in which God acts through nature in an unusual way. p.152-3

The ultimate reality of the biblical narrative, God, is self-sufficient but also vulnerable. He is not dependent on anything outside himself and yet, at the same time, opens himself to influence by his own creatures. … God’s self-sufficiency is his freedom; his vulnerability is the product of his love. p.154

According to [Thomas F. Torrance], the Genesis creation narrative itself implies God’s entrance into time. p.157

Catholic Tresmontant affirmed that the God of the Bible, unlike the ultimate reality of Greek philosophy, is not an unchanging sameness but ever active life and action. p.157

For Cherbonnier, God’s immutability is simply his faithfulness, not his static being-ness without becoming or eternity without temporality. p.158

That is, the biblical story consistently correlates virtue and knowledge but not in the Greek sense of “to know the good is to do the good.” Rather, for the Bible and Christian thought generally, “doing the good,” by God’s grace and with faith, produces knowledge of ultimate reality as the ultimate good. p.162

But also, Brunner argued, the whole idea of an objective moral law, “right” and “wrong,” depends on ultimate reality being a personal God. p.162

For biblical-Christian thought, then, metaphysics and ethics are inseparable. p.163

Essentials of Christian Thought, part 3

This post continues from part 2, which is here. The following are more excerpts from Roger E. Olson’s The Essentials of Christian Thought.

For [Emil] Brunner, and for me, natural theology means only (1) that the biblical-Christian worldview better answers life’s ultimate questions than its competitors and alternatives, and (2) that eyes of faith for whom the Bible “absorbs the world” see the natural world as God’s good creation—”charged with the grandeur of God”—even if eyes of unbelief cannot see it as such. p.75

For biblical-Christian thought, in contrast with Greek philosophy, souls are created by God, they are not emanations, offshoots, of God’s own substance. p.81

Nearly all extra-biblical philosophies struggle with the [biblical] idea of a personal, related, vulnerable ultimate reality capable of being influences by what creatures do. p.84

Brunner believed God is revealed in nature and in the human spirit generally (general revelation). p.92

First, … nature and universal human experience, general revelation, yield only a “thatness” of God but not God’s “whoness,” personhood, and will. What humanity needs is to know God personally, not just God’s nature as ultimate reality. Second, according to Brunner, in complete agreement with most classical Protestant theology (and the Bible in Romans 1!), reason, or the use of reason, has been spoiled in humanity by sin. p.93

The reason the human person cannot use his own reason to arrive at a satisfying life philosophy or vision or reality is his own natural tendency to minimize evil—especially in himself. p.93

Brunner argued that “everyone who philosophizes does so from a definite starting point, upon which he, as this particular man, stands. The Christian philosophizes from that point at which God’s revelation sets him.” p.94

For Brunner, the God of biblical revelation is supernatural and personal but not human. p.95

God is both ontologically beyond and personally present. p.98

The point of this entire chapter is that there is a biblical, narrative-based metaphysic that contrasts with other metaphysical visions of ultimate reality, is not irrational, lies at the foundation of Christianity itself, and is being retrieved by Jewish and Christian scholars who are also separating it from extrabiblical philosophies that conflict with it. p. 99

Many scholars tend to define the difference between philosophy and theology as revelation—theology uses it and philosophy does not. There are, however, exceptions. “natural theology” is the rational exploration of the evidence of God in nature and universal human experience. “Philosophical theology” is philosophy that explores reasons for belief in God …. p.100

Brunner coined the term eristics for his own belief that, when set alongside alternative worldviews, Christian philosophy is superior. p.106

… the biblical narrative requires belief that God’s existence precedes the world’s not only temporally but ontologically. That is, the world is dependent on God, not vice versa. p.119

[Plantinga’s] conclusion, therefore, is that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. p.122

Humanism is simply any belief in the dignity and creativity of human persons, that human beings are unique and above nature, in some sense transcendent, capable of great culture achievements as well as terrible destruction. It places special value on humanity. … the real humanism is Christian humanism because of the biblical-Christian emphasis on humans as created in the image and likeness of God. p.123

functional naturalism—belief that although God exists and is person, he does not intervene in history or human lives, which are ruled by natural laws and explainable by science. p. 125

Classical Christian theism, born in the cauldron of philosophized Christianity in the second and third centuries in the Roman Empire, reached its zenith in Anselm and Aquinas. p.132

Gradually, Christian began to envision ultimate reality, God, along the lines of Platonic metaphysics—including the idea that God, being metaphysically complete and perfect in every way imaginable, cannot suffer or be affect by temporal events or creatures. The word for this was and is impassibility. p. 136

 

The next post in this series is here.

Essentials of Christian Thought, part 2

This post continues from part 1, here.

One characteristic of the book is that the “essentials” or “metaphysics” that Roger E. Olson elucidates are somewhat buried among the text dealing with the competing alternatives. What follows are excerpts that focus on the essentials of Christian/biblical thought itself.

A basic presupposition of this book is that the Bible does contain an implicit metaphysical vision of ultimate reality—the reality that is most important, final, highest, and behind everyday appearances. p.12

Ultimate reality is relational. p.13

Ultimate reality is personal, not impersonal, and humans reflect that ultimate reality in their created constitution—what they are. Here we will call that “Christian humanism.” p.17

Here metaphysics is simply another word for investigation into the nature of ultimate reality. p.19

… both Tresmontant and Cherbonnier argued very cogently that the biblical philosophy is holistic, not requiring supplementation by extrabiblical philosophies … and that the biblical philosophy is fundamentally contrary to Greek philosophies. p.22

in this postmodern age every philosophy is rooted in some story and tradition based on it, and that for the Christian “the Bible absorbs the world”—the biblical story, narrative, is the lens through which the Christian sees reality as God’s good creation (for example). p.23

belief in the supernatural (something above and free from nature and nature’s laws) is no more a matter of faith, “seeing as,” than belief in naturalism (that nature and its laws are all that are real). p.33

The biblical-Christian vision of reality is a “view from somewhere,” … that … better answers life’s ultimate questions than any competing worldview or metaphysical vision of reality. p.39-40

… Christian theology’s main task is not correlation with other, non-Christian worldviews or plausibility structures, but self-description of the Christian view of reality from within the Christian tradition-community inspired by the biblical story. p.41

… being Christian means, in part, seeing the world as the reality described, or presupposed, by the Bible. p.43

… [Hans Frei] argued that faithful Christians ought to take the Bible seriously as “realistic narrative.” In other words, the Bible ought not to be viewed either as history in the modern, literal sense (viz., a textbook of facts about history) or as myth (symbolic representation of universal human experience). Rather, a Christian should find the meaning of Scripture out outside it—whether in outer history or universal human experience—but inside of it. p.43

Frei’s point is simply that the meaning of the Bible is not outside of it. p.44

The Bible depicts ultimate reality—the highest, best, final, eternal reality upon which all else is dependent—as supernatural and personal but not human. Here supernatural simply means “beyond nature,” not bound to nature and nature’s laws, free over nature, not controlled by nature. Some people would prefer the word transcendent for all that … p.53

The Bible depicts ultimate reality as personal, which here means having intelligence, thought, iintentions, actions, and some degree of self-determination. It also means “relational”—being in relation to others, drawing one’s identity partly, at least, from relations with others. p.53

… the long history of philosophical metaphysics, from Plato in ancient Greece to Hegel in nineteenth-century German, has tended to depersonalize ultimate reality, to represent ultimate reality as impersonal, a power, force, or principle behind appearances. p.56

… the ultimate reality of the Bible, Yahweh, God the Lord, is personal in the primary, supreme sense, the pattern of true personhood, which human beings are personal in the secondary sense, copies of the pattern of true personhood. p.57

In Athens Paul articulated concisely what later Christian thinkers came to refer to as God’s transcendence and immanence—that God is both present within creation and exalted above creation as its source and sustainer who needs nothing. p.62

Summing up, the biblical view of ultimate reality is that it is not an it but a he. According to the biblical narrative … ultimate, final, eternal, all-powerful, all-determining reality is a personal being both beyond the natural world and dynamically present within it. This metaphysical vision has variously been labeled “personalistic theism” and “biblical theistic personalism.” At the heart of ultimate reality, the one unifying source behind and withing everything, is an intelligence, free agency, and independent will marked by loving-kindness and justice. p.63

The next post in this series is here.

Essentials of Christian Thought, part 1

The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality Through the Biblical Story by Roger E. Olson was published by Zondervan in 2017. It’s 256 pages long in seven chapters with as many “Interludes” but no bibliography or index. The author gives a video introduction here.

The intended audience for the book is those who accept the Bible as a guide “to the nature of ultimate reality” (p.11). Its purpose is to describe that ultimate nature (or metaphysics) according to the Bible. Much of the book is spent delineating differences between the biblical metaphysics and that of others. The author leans heavily on four authors (in order of the number of references):

Edmond La Beaume Cherbonnier (1918 – 2017), “an American scholar in the field of religious studies. He served as Professor of Religion at Trinity College, Connecticut”. Wikipedia

“Is There a Biblical Metaphysic?”, Theology Today, 15(4), January 1959, pp. 454–69.
Hardness of Heart, Doubleday, 1955.
“Biblical Metaphysic and Christian Philosophy”, Theology Today, 9(3), October 1952.
“The Logic of Biblical Anthropomorphism,” in Harvard Theological Review 55(3), 1962, 187-206.

Claude Tresmontant (1925 – 1997), “taught medieval philosophy and philosophy of science at the Sorbonne.” Wikipedia

A Study of Hebrew Thought, tr. by Michael Francis Gibson, Descle, 1960.
Christian Metaphysics, Sheed and Ward, 1965.
The Origins of Christian Philosophy, Hawthorn Books, 1963.

Emil Brunner (1889 –1966), “a highly influential Swiss theologian who, along with Karl Barth, is associated with Neo-Orthodoxy or the dialectical theology movement.” Theopedia

The Philosophy of Religion from the Standpoint of Protestant Theology, tr. by Bertram Lee Woolf, James Clarke, 1958.
Revelation and Reason: The Christian Doctrine of Faith and Knowledge, tr. by Olive Wyon, SCMP, 1946.
“Nature and Grace” in Natural Theology, tr. by Peter Fraenkel, Geoffrey Bles, 1946.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) “was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.” Wikipedia

Man is Not Alone, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

The next post is here.

Textual realism and anti-realism

Anti-realists always begin with reality – and reject it. Because, they argue, it is obscure, misleading, and subject to different interpretations. So anti-realists begin again, this time with an idea of theirs. Even materialists begin with an idea, the idea of materiality. Thus anti-realists substitute their ideas for reality.

In contrast, realists begin with reality and accept it. Because, we argue, it is reality whether we like it or not; it is sufficiently perspicuous; careful observation and reflection can overcome misleading appearances; and interpretations should be based on reality.

All of this applies to writings as well. Anti-realists turn away from the inherent meaning of the text in favor of their interpretations of the text. Realists accept the inherent meaning of the text, yet are also free to discuss its significance and application.

These considerations apply in particular to texts that are foundational for a people, such as scriptures and laws. Consider the Bible, as in these examples:

Dennis Bratcher’s Genesis Bible Study: “the text is primarily theology, telling us about God, humanity, and their relationship”.

“The aim of Theological Interpretation is to read the Bible as Scripture, that is, as somehow God’s transformative address to the Church here in the present. We may contrast this with the past two centuries of biblical scholarship whose interests have been primarily historical: that is, they were aimed at reconstructing the life, religion, and history of ancient Israel and early Christianity.”
https://hermeneutica.wordpress.com/essays/what-is-theological-interpretation/

If the Bible is primarily theological, then it is theologians who determine its meaning. What about the other aspects of the Bible, for example, the historical chronicles? Should ideas about theology replace the inherent meaning of the text as simply history? The anti-realist says, Yes; the realist says, No.

Many would agree that the theology is the most important aspect of the Bible, but the theology is related to or built on the history, the geography, and other aspects. Interpretation of these aspects should focus on their significance rather than replace them. The chronicles in the Bible are real chronicles prior to any theological meaning they may also have.

Textualism is realism about legal texts.

Textualism is a method of statutory interpretation whereby the plain text of a statute is used to determine the meaning of the legislation. Instead of attempting to determine statutory purpose or legislative intent, textualists adhere to the objective meaning of the legal text.[1]

Textualism is related to originalism. Originalists seek one of two alternative sources of meaning:

  • The original intent theory, which holds that interpretation of a written constitution is (or should be) consistent with what was meant by those who drafted and ratified it. This is currently a minority view among originalists.
  • The original meaning theory, which is closely related to textualism, is the view that interpretation of a written constitution or law should be based on what reasonable persons living at the time of its adoption would have understood the ordinary meaning of the text to be. It is this view with which most originalists, such as Justice Scalia, are associated.

Textual realism takes the text seriously as a form of communication, rather than a canvas for spinning interpretations. Without realism about texts, they will lose their significance and be replaced by canonical interpretations – which then become the new texts, and so they never escape the reality of the text.

Modern metaphors

This continues the posts here and here based on George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Philosophy in the Flesh (Basic Books, 1999).

Modern metaphors begin with René Descartes.

Knowing is seeing:
Visual Domain → Knowledge Domain
Object Seen → Idea
Seeing an Object Clearly → Knowing an Idea
Person Who Sees → Person Who Knows
Light → “Light” of Reason
Visual Focusing → Mental Attention
Visual Acuity → Mental Acuity
Physical Viewpoint → Mental Viewpoint
Visual Obstruction → Impediment to Knowing

The mind can know its own ideas with absolute certainty.
All thought is conscious.
The structure of the mind is directly accessible to itself.
No empirical research is necessary to establish certain knowledge of the mind.
The mind is disembodied. It consists of mental substance, while the body consists of physical substance.
The essence, and only essence, of human beings is the ability to reason.
Imagination is not essential to human nature.
Emotion is not essential to human nature.

Thinking is Mathematical Calculation
Mathematical Calculation → Thinking
Numbers → Ideas
Equations → Propositions
Adding → Putting Ideas Together
Sum → Conclusion

Faculty psychology:

  1. The world consists of an external realm of material objects and an internal, mental realm containing ideas, sensations, feelings, and emotions. The external realm is the objective world; the internal realm is the subjective world.
  2. The internal, mental realm contains a Society of Mind with at least seven members, the faculties: perception, imagination, feeling, will, understanding, memory, and reason.
  3. Each faculty is like a person with a particular personality.
  4. Perception is methodical and mostly reliable.
  5. Imagination is typically a reliable craftsman, who can be unpredictable at times.
  6. Feeling is undisciplined, volatile, and sometimes out of control.
  7. Understanding is always calm, sober, predictable, under control, reliable, and functions as a judge.
  8. Perception receives sense impressions from the outside and passes them to imagination, which combines them into images and passes them on to understanding, who judges how those images are to be assigned to concepts and thus produces propositions (judgments) and passes them on to reason.
  9. Reason has good judgment, is cool, controlled, wise, utterly reliable, and follows procedures explicitly.
  10. Memory is usually methodical and is expected to be reliable, though isn’t always, and functions as a warehouse keeper.
  11. Will is the only person in the society who can move the body to action. Will gets orders from reason and is subject to feeling. Reason and feeling struggle for control of the will.

Like time, events, and causation, the mind can only be comprehended metaphorically. [p.414]

Willard Van Orman Quine wanted to keep the “ontological furniture of the universe” to a minimum. “To be is to be the value of a variable.” The proper logic for philosophy is first-order logic. Logic should be extensional, rather than intentional.

Löwenheim-Skolem theorem: If a class of quantificational schemata is consistent, all its members come out true under some interpretation in the universe of positive integers.

Meaning holism: the arbitrary symbols of a formal language can only be meaningfully interpreted in an ultimately fixed way as a whole all at once, not one or a number at a time.

Consequence 1 – Ontological Relativity: Philosophical ontologies are relativized to the way that reference is fixed for an entire language.

Consequence 2 – There is no analytic-synthetic distinction. No sentences can be true just be virtue of the meanings of the terms in those sentences alone.

Consequence 3 – No part of a scientific theory can be confirmed or disconfirmed; only the theory as a whole can be confirmed or disconfirmed.

Consequence 4 – Translation is indeterminate.

Quinean formalist philosophy leads to an internal contradiction: It presupposes a correspondence theory of truth but, due to meaning holism, it leads to a coherence theory of truth.

Lakoff: The embodiment of meaning, as empirically required by second-generation cognitive science, locates meaning in the body and in the unconscious conceptual system.

Poststructuralist Philosophy makes four claims:

  1. The pairing between signifiers (signs) and signifieds (concepts) is completely arbitrary.
  2. Meaning is located in systems of binary oppositions among free-floating signifiers (différence).
  3. Meaning is historically contingent.
  4. Concepts are relative.

Cognitive science has shown all of these views about the nature of language to be empirically incorrect.

Lakoff: Most of language, however, is neither completely arbitrary nor completely predictable, but rather “motivated” to some degree. [p.464] Irony is possible (contrary to #2). Universals and meanings are widespread across cultures, but there is also significant relativism. [p.467]

Where Frege sought absolute, timeless universals of meaning, the poststructuralists … went to the opposite extreme, assuming that any account of meaning that was not timeless and universal had to be arbitrary and ever subject to change. [p.468]

Cognitive Semantics:

  • Concepts arise from, and are understood through, the body, the brain, and experience in the world. Concepts get their meaning through embodiment, especially via perceptual and motor capacities.
  • Concepts crucially make use of imaginative aspects of mind: frames, metaphor, metonymy, prototypes, radial categories, mental spaces, and conceptual blending. Abstract concepts arise via metaphorical projections from more directly embodied concepts. The metaphor system is not arbitrary, but is grounded in experience.

Syntax is the study of symbolization – the pairing of meaning with linguistic expressions. Each symbolization relation is bipolar: it links a conceptual pole with an expression pole (phonological forms).

Embodied truth: A person takes a sentence as true of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understand the situation to be. [p.510]

Classical knowledge

As with a previous post here, this post looks at George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999). This time the focus is on what they call “folk theories” but I’m calling classical knowledge since these have become so ingrained in Western thought. Starting with chapter 16 they look principles that came out of ancient Greek philosophy. Though they don’t mention it, these were influenced by the other source of Western thought, Christianity.

The Intelligibility of the World: The world makes systematic sense, and we can gain knowledge of it.

General Kinds: Every particular thing is a kind of thing.

Essences:
Every entity has an “essence” or “nature,” that is, a collection of properties that makes it the kind of thing it is and that is the causal source of its natural behavior.

Every kind of thing has an essence that makes it the kind of thing it is.
The way each thing naturally behaves is a consequence of its essence.

Substances:
A substance is that which exists in itself and does not depend for its existence on any other thing.
Each substance has one and only one primary attribute that defines what its essence is.

Metaphysics: Kinds exist and are defined by essences.

The All-Inclusive Category: There is a category of all things that exist.

The Elements: Things in nature are made up of some combination of the basic elements: [which in ancient times were considered to be] Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

What was considered the essence of being? There were several answers:

Thales: Water; Anaximander: Intermediate Material, Air; Heraclitus: Change; Pythagoras: Number

For Plato: Essences are Ideas (and Ideals)

For Aristotle: Ideas are Essences

Causes and functions

This post continues other posts (see here and here) on the relevance of Aristotle’s four causal factors.

Call the higher causes the final and formal causes, and the lower causes the efficient (mechanistic) and material causes. Aristotle argued that the upper causes are more important. Early scientists argued that we couldn’t know them regarding nature and so should only look for efficient and material causes.

The lower causes are synchronic, spatial causes expressed in theories, and are most appropriate for the natural sciences. The higher causes are diachronic, temporal causes expressed in narratives, and are most appropriate for the social sciences and history.

There are some parallels between the four causes and the psychologist Carl Jung’s four functions: sensing, intuition, feeling, and thinking, especially as modified by Myers and Briggs’ MBTI:

function groups: judgment perception
upper causes: final || feeling formal || intuition
lower causes: efficient || thinking material || sensing

Aristotle focused on the perceptual functions, sending and intuition (SN in MBTI), with formal and material causes in his philosophy combining matter and form, called hylomorphic (from Greek hylē, matter + morphē, form). The lack of judging functions may reflect Aristotle’s realism.

Modern science focuses on the efficient cause (the forces and mechanisms) and the material cause; it could be called hylodynamic after Greek hylē, matter + dynamis, power. Here the sensing-thinking (ST) personality dominates.

Intelligent design advocates are trying to return formal causes to science. They tend to focus on information theory and so the formal and efficient causes; such science could be called dynamorphic after the Greek dynamis, power + morphē, form. The intuitive thinking (NT) personality dominates.

Other possibilities include final causes/feeling. A telohylic (SF) science might be the detailed narratives of historians. A telomorphic (NF) science might be the wide-ranging narratives of a theologian. A telodynamic (TF) science lacks perceptive functions and would be suitable for anti-realists.

Pluralism

A previous post entitled Assertions contains the following “Motivating Example”:

According to the Gospels, there was an inscription above Christ on the cross which said (in English translation):

Matthew (27.37): “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. ” (ABD)
Mark (15.27): “The King of the Jews.” (D)
Luke (23.38): “This is the King of the Jews.” (AD)
John (19.19): “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. ” (BCD)

Note that the versions are composed of these phrases which appear in this order: (A) “This is”, (B) “Jesus”, (C) “of Nazareth, (D) “the King of the Jews.” Hence the capital letters in parentheses above.

What did the inscription say? If we insist that every true statement must tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” then at most one of these versions is true. If we expect every true statement to be consistent with the others though perhaps incomplete, then we would conclude that their union is the complete (or more complete) truth: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (ABCD). If we expect every true statement to contain the truth but may be partially inconsistent with others, then we would conclude that their intersection is the whole truth: “The King of the Jews,” (D) the version Mark has.

This illustrates the different kinds of truth: (1) a minimal, consistent truth; (2) a maximal, complete truth; and (3) a personal, partial truth. One can affirm all of them by adopting a pluralist position on truth.

What is pluralism? Also known as alethic pluralism, it is the position that propositions can be true in different ways. “‘Pluralism about truth’ names the thesis that there is more than one way of being true.” (Pluralist Theories of Truth) Alethic pluralism is different from a pluralism that is only personal or social or political, that is, is the existence of a plurality of beliefs or group identities within a society.

Pluralism is not relativism, though the two are often confused. For relativism, “everything is relative.” For pluralism some truths are absolute, that is, true in the eyes of everyone, and some truths are relative, that is, true in the eyes of some but not necessarily everyone. The existence of absolute truths enables people to have common ground. The existence of relative truths allows fruitful discussion and mutual respect.

Christians are pluralists by accepting the four gospels as canonical, rather than combining them into one unified account. Other parts of the Bible also have multiple accounts of the same events, for example: Gen 1 and 2; Exodus-Numbers and Deuteronomy; 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles. While a harmony of these texts is instructive, it is the plural accounts that are canonical, not any harmony.

True, good, and holy

Harry Lee Poe, in See No Evil: The Existence of Sin in an Age of Relativism (Kregel, 2004), regarding the third chapter of Genesis writes:

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (the good), and pleasing to the eye (the beautiful), and was also desirable for gaining wisdom (the true), she took some and ate it.” The little phrase “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful” is an ancient, three-legged stool for the highest virtues from the perspective of the Greek philosopher Plato. His philosophical system revolved around his concern for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

We could construct a diagram of this triad like this:

Beautiful

Good              True

The good life should lead to what is beautiful – happiness. Truth should lead to beauty – harmony. Put it all together and get a happy, harmonious life in a beautiful world.

But we all know that life contains what is unhappy, inharmonious, and ugly. This begins with the unhappy circumstance of being born, a trauma that universally produces crying from a helpless baby. Then the shadow of death hangs over the rest of life; it all ends in death which seems to mock any purpose or accomplishment in life.

A philosophy of life that doesn’t take death into account falls short. There must be something beyond life that makes life worth living, something beyond even a happy and harmonious life. That something is holiness.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!” And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4)

Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13-16)

God is holy. We are called to be holy. The diagram should be like this instead:

Holy

Good               True

The good life should lead to holiness. Truth should be in the service of holiness. On the way there may be happiness and harmony but the goal is holiness. And holiness may be ultimately reached beyond this life, so that no matter what we experience the goal can be realized.

Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14)