When Truth Is the Enemy of "Truth"

Donald Miller wonders why we're so afraid of anomalies that challenge our assumptions.

I’ve been reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and realizing its applicability to an ongoing conversation regarding biblical truth. Kuhn was no philosopher or theologian, he was a scientist, but he proposed scientific paradigms should be allowed to change through a term he coined as “paradigm shifts.”

A paradigm shift would occur when scientists encountered anomalies which could not be explained by the accepted paradigm. All of this seems rather obvious, of course, and yet just like in the theological realm, scientists are not quick to let go of their paradigms. In fact, Kuhn argued when enough anomalies accrue against an accepted paradigm, the discipline in question is thrown into crisis. The crisis will then give way to a new paradigm which is not to be confused with absolute truth, but a current understanding or interpretation of absolute truth, always threatening to be changed by more anomalies. The process was designed, then, to respect truth over interpretation, or truth over the human biases that might distort truth.

He kind of looks like a heretic to be honest.

In 1900, Lord Kelvin rather presumptuously stated, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics” ... five years after which Albert Einstein published his paper on special relativity.

Paradigm shifts should not be associated with relativism (which is different than relativity!). The idea is not that truth is changing, but that further study is changing our understanding of truth.

When Kuhn talks about paradigms in crisis, he isn’t kidding. Scientists who threatened existing paradigms (including Einstein) were called heretics and banned for years from presenting papers at certain universities. The tension in the sciences was much more ferocious than we are seeing in the evangelical church today.

When theologians throw out anomalies that threaten their paradigms, they respect their interpretation of truth more than truth, or worse, believe their interpretation of truth is actually truth. They use terms like "biblical" and "heretic" to convince themselves and others that their interpretation is the real truth and others are a threat to “the Gospel” or to God Himself. This sort of language isn’t helpful or respectful of anomalies, not to mention its behavior indicates a genuine intellectual threat that should be taken seriously, not dismissed as heresy.

What we are encountering in Christian culture today is a paradigm in crisis. Will there be a shift in the way we understand truth or read the Bible? Time will tell. But it would be arrogant of us to dismiss the anomalies. Dismissing anomalies rather than addressing them may be good for existing structures, including financial structures and power structures, but it isn’t good for truth. This does not mean anomalies have to be accepted but rather carefully addressed in a reasonable manner.

This article was not written in response to the new Rob Bell book. It was more inspired by Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, in which he seemed faithful to Scripture and to giving God more agency than man. I realized while I was reading the book that he was presenting anomalies that had gone unanswered by his critics and rather, was simply being called a heretic. In his book, Brian presents many anomalies. Each would have to be discussed separately and that would take up too much space for this blog. And besides, they are already presented in his book. On a personal note, more troubling to me as I read the book was the dismissal of him as a heretic, or the picking apart of one or two of the anomalies and the rejection of the others that should honestly be taken seriously.

What are the anomalies accruing against the widely accepted biblical paradigm? I realize that question is vague, because I have not defined that paradigm, but perhaps leaving it open will allow a wider variety of anomalies to be discussed.

I have several questions of my own:

  1. Is the Bible supposed to be used like a constitution? And if so, why isn’t it structured as such?

  2. How do we reconcile propositional truth with the language of Christ who claims to actually be truth?

  3. If to know Christ is to know truth, how do we give up the metrics we commonly use to decide whether or not somebody is a Christian? Do we create relational metrics, or simply give control over to God and just introduce people to the person of Christ?

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    Why do certain sects within evangelical Christianity claim their interpretation of truth as absolute, when their interpretation is fit with unanswered anomalies?

Thanks for considering these ideas and weigh in in the comments section below.

Donald Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz (Nelson) and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (Nelson). This article originally appeared on his blog and is used by permission.



Anonymous commented…

I can see where this is coming from but I think it is a massive generalisation at the same time.

Theological arrogance can come, totally from an ivory tower mentality when it comes to theology but also from a relativistic worldview that can find itself more content to ask questions than to necessarily build on any foundations. Even Jesus built on the traditions of his time, just like parables traditions are narratives and should be held in tension with a sensitivity of the spirit.

You can't have post-modern revolutionaries by virtue of the fact that they are post-modern, likewise theological 'revolutionaries' drawing from relativistic language aren't really post-modernists but something else, influenced by the world around them not by the spirit of God.


Anonymous commented…

I think its a bit much to generalise like this.

I hate out of the box theology as much as the next person but to call the questioner's questioner someone who is by default insecure is simply bad logic, if it is so then any point of disagreement is sourced from an individual's will to truth or power not anything else. Otherwise what is the questioner of the questioner's questioner? Are they feeling like their faith is in jeopardy too?


Anonymous commented…

I've noticed that in the neo-liberal protestant world, the general idea when writing is to speak vaguely about new "paradigms" without explaining them, underminepropositionaltruth in scripture, dismiss critics as if they have have presented no real arguments (or worse, as if their underlying motives are maintaining "power/financial strutcures"), and leave the reader with a series of leading questions that cast doubt on orthodox Christian doctrines (providing no answers, of course).

Since no answers are provided, I'll take a shot:

1) does anyone say that the Bible is 'to be used like a constitution'? Anyone? I'm not sure that anyone has reached this simplistic,stodgyconclusion. Orthodox Christian belief believes that the bible is God's self-revelation, and as such, what he has revealed about himself is infallibly true. It is not a rule book, it is the story of God's plan of redemption unfolding throughout history.

2) We see Christ as the fulfillment of the word of God. He fulfills the law & prophets, he atones for our sin, he redeems a people for himself.

3) What was proclaimed by Christ and his apostles was this consistent message, that salvation comes throughrepentanceand faith in Christ. Hard to read the NT honestly and come away with anything different.

4) This is an intentionally vague and leading question that, by design, is unanswerable. Unless he is willing to clarify, his vague references to "anomalies" aren't helpful to anyone. From a reader's perspective, there's no way to know whether they are actually "anomalies", or just things that are misunderstood? Of course, there actually are good answers to McLaren's "questions" (http://thegospelcoalition.org/... ). But the question under the question is this: is there absolute truth, and if so, how can anyone lay claim to it? And the bottom line is that spiritual things are by nature "hidden", so real "truth" about God can only be found in the self-revelation of God. Human reason, wisdom, morality, etc can only show us how our nature WANTS God to be. And while it is true that there can bedifferinginterpretations of the Bible as a whole, and that there can seem to us to be paradoxes in scripture, it is a quite different thing to begin to dismiss propositional truth claims as generally being invalid. The destination of that road is a self-serving religion where our personal ideals for society are the goal and God never offends our sensibilities.


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