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Book Review on Richard D. Phillips’ “Can We Know Truth?”

11 Jul

Truth Starts With God Himself: Review by David P. Craig

CWKTT Phillips

There is a crisis of truth in our postmodern times. However, as Phillips points out, “our society dogmatically rejects truth in theory but cannot live that way in practice…The crisis of the postmodern position is that it cannot believe or live out its own claims. Postmodernity has nothing to believe, including its own unbelief, despite the aching need of humans to know and believe.”

Phillips proceeds to give several practical examples of how modernism defined and developed its own epistemology (theory of knowledge), and how postmoderns struggled with modernistic thought and what has resulted from that is a full-blown relativism where “we can’t know truth.” Instead of downright playing down the postmodern critique of truth, Phillips argues that Christians can apply some of the strengths of postmodernism in four ways:

First, Christians should acknowledge the role that context plays in anyone’s understanding and belief. “Truth” is always held by actual persons, and those persons are deeply shaped by culture, language, heritage, and community.

Second, we should share postmodernity’s concern that truth may become more an object of power than a mans for enlightenment.

Third, if postmodern critiques cause Christians (among others) to challenge doctrines and views that have become traditional, we can be thankful for the opportunity to reconsider, reformulate, and restate teachings that may have become stale in our practice.

Fourth, Christians may be cobelligerent with postmodernity’s assaults against modernism.

The problems with both modernism and postmodernism essentially boils down to the same thing: they both deny the existence of God – Who is truth, reveals the truth, and is the way to truth through Jesus Christ (John 14:6).

Phillips writes, “Evangelical Christians, in particular, believe that truth derives from and is revealed by God. Thus, truth is authoritative. Here is where postmodernity parts company with historic Christianity, for the postmodern view rejects the reality of truth, positing an implicit (and in some cases, explicit) relativism in which nothing is really and finally true.” The author gives several examples of how this theory does not work in actual practice. Here is one example from the book:

“One professor made this point after his college class had united against him in insisting that nothing is ultimately true or morally wrong in an objective sense. The next day the professor informed the students that regardless of their performance on the exam they were all going to receive an F. The students objected in unison, ‘But that’s wrong!’ and the professor’s point against relativism was made. No one can live it, and therefore no one really believes it.”

The author articulates and expands on a third way of understanding truth based on what God has revealed to us in the Bible that is consistent with our experience – i.e., it corresponds to reality. He writes, “Christianity presents a legitimate third way over against the modern and the postmodern. With the moderns we believe that truth exists and is accessible, though we steadfastly reject that we can exhaustively know truth by our unaided reason. With the postmoderns we are skeptical that finite, fallible humans are the agents of truth, though we insist that truth is real and that we can know it. A successful Christian epistemology, then, not only responds to evangelical Christian belief but also enables us to communicate our doctrine of knowing to a world that both doubts and greatly desires to know truth.”

In this essay Phillips has brilliantly and cogently argued for the reality of truth, how one can know the truth, defend truth, and live by and for the truth. You will find many examples of how modernism and postmodernism fall short in their theories of epistemology, and how a Christian epistemology is simply the most logical way of discovering the truth – because our belief and practice emanates from the Way, the Truth, and the Life – the Lord Jesus Christ. The salient point is made by Phillips, “Love divorced from truth is not love, and truth divorced from love is not truth.” As Jesus perfectly modeled, spoke, and loved in truth, so must we. We are called to “speak the truth in love” just as we have heard it and experienced it in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

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