Donald Miller’s Evangelical “Anomalies”

bljChristian postmodernists love Thomas Kuhn. In his much discussed The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962), Kuhn suggests that normal science operates by way of paradigms: universally established (received) ways of understanding and interpreting the world that define the scientific community—its operating assumptions, how science is to be practiced, what counts as good science and bad, and so on. A paradigm is a grand conceptual scheme. In our own day, Darwinian evolutionary theory is the reigning paradigm in science.

Now the interesting thing about paradigms is how theoretically bad things have to get before they change. First, anomalies emerge–counterexamples that strike right at the heart of the paradigm. If these anomalies are severe enough, persist long enough, if the current paradigm lacks the resources to explain them, and if there are alternative paradigms on offer (that’s a lot of “ifs”!), actual paradigm-wars can break out. Eventually, a paradigm-shift may take place, resulting in a scientific revolution analogous to, say, the French Revolution in the political realm.

The “Emergent” Revolution

The emergent, postmodernist thinker, Donald Miller—author of Blue Like Jazz—sees an application here to the Christian context. On his influential blog Storyline, he writes:

I’ve been reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and realizing its applicability to the ongoing conversation regarding Biblical truth…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 (“When Truth is the Enemy of Truth,” Storylineblog.com [ link ]).

Naturally, that’s not a good thing. To intentionally ignore anomalies within one’s position, while having no adequate response to them, is (under certain circumstances) an epistemic–perhaps even a moral–failing. Miller continues:

They [i.e., the theologians] 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 it’s 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. ( link )

So the idea, I take it, is this. Evangelical Christianity is governed by a group of theologians, a threatened power block. They stubbornly defend the paradigm, but we find that they do so by ignoring relevant evidence (anomalies). The persecuted “insiders,” that Galileo-like, victimized minority, are the emergent postmodernists themselves (Miller, McLaren, Bell, and friends). And the anomalies are the points raised against the evangelical paradigm in such books as A Generous Orthodoxy, Blue Like Jazz, and Love Wins. Looking at things this way, one is rather softened up—emotionally and sociologically—to a possible paradigm-shift in the emergent direction. There’s nothing like allying yourself with a Galileo. You can scarcely lose; you get to be on the side of truth and secure the sympathy vote all at once.

Are Miller’s “Anomalies” Anomalies?

So what are some of these devastating anomalies? Miller lists four of which I’ll consider just two. Here are the second and third:

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? ( link )

Now the first thing to note is that these aren’t anomalies; they’re merely questions. Anomalies are recalcitrant facts—facts that resist explanation by the extant paradigm. But questions aren’t facts. So Miller’s (2) and (3) are, at best, the first steps on the way to properly identifying anomalies for the evangelical paradigm.

Secondly, if (2) and (3) do tend in that direction, then they presuppose answers of a certain sort. For example, if (2) really does lead to anomaly, then it must be the case that there aren’t the resources inside evangelical theology to “reconcile propositional truth with the language of Christ who claims to actually be truth.” But why think a thing like that? Miller doesn’t say. And in fact, my colleague Paul Franks and I have pointed out in at least two places (see here and here) how such a reconciliation might go.

The Jesus-is-the-Truth “Anomaly”

Like other postmodernists before him, Miller is no doubt thinking as follows. In John 14:6, Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Thus, Jesus must surely be affirming

(JC)      Jesus is identical with the truth.

But now think of all the propositional truths out there: that 2 + 1 =3, that the earth is greater than 6000 years old, and that the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. If (JC) is true, then (by Leibniz’s Law) Jesus is identical with these propositional truths. As we all know, however, Jesus is a person not a proposition. (Just in case you were wondering: it is no more possible for Jesus to be a mathematical, scientific, or historical proposition than it is for Barack Obama to be a prime number.)

Now if there is an anomaly lurking in the nearby woods, it would get its legs due to the inability of theologians to deal with this purported “tension.” I’m not a theologian—nor even the son of a theologian—but it strikes me as rather obvious that there is no tension here at all. The fact is: Miller hasn’t identified an anomaly (a recalcitrant fact); he’s only misinterpreted a fact—about what Jesus said of himself. A quick look at the context of John 14 reveals that Jesus isn’t asserting (JC), but rather

(JC*)    Jesus is the truth about the Father.

In what sense? Jesus tells us: his words correspond to the Father’s (Jn 14:10); his being corresponds with that of the Father (14:11); and his actions correspond with the Father’s will (14:31). The important thing to see here is that there isn’t the slightest incompatibility between (JC*) and our (or Jesus’) believing there are propositional truths. Hence, there’s nothing to here’s nothing to reconcile here. The whole train of thinking is a non-starter.

The Knowing Christ “Anomaly”

A related anomaly—or so Miller thinks—has to do with knowing Christ. “If to know Christ is to know truth,” he asks: “how do we give up the metrics we commonly use to decide whether or not somebody is a Christian?” Again, Miller doesn’t give us much to go on. He doesn’t tell us what these evangelical “metrics” are for telling whether someone is a Christian or not. I can only suppose he’s thinking of such things as giving a personal testimony, praying the sinner’s prayer, and so forth. And as we are all we aware, someone can give a testimony or pray a prayer (some do it repeatedly), and yet not be a Christian at all. At most, these sorts of things are suggestive but fallible tests; they’re scarcely essential to evangelical theology. So even if all the tests fail us, this doesn’t rise (even in principle) to the level of anomaly, which is designed to strike at a paradigm’s essential core. Paradigm-shifts don’t take place over such peripheral matters.

Still, there is a connection between what Jesus says in John 14, and how we might know whether we ourselves are Christians. Knowing “the only true” God (John 17:3) isn’t a matter of simply accumulating a list of facts about him or having religious experiences; it involves understanding the true nature of Jesus—his defining essence.

“Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ [9] Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? [10] Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:8-11)

In many ways, this is a truly baffling passage. For just think of who Jesus is talking to. Like the other disciples, Philip has followed Jesus for three years—I mean really followed him. Not a once a week Sunday morning deal (with a few Wednesday nights thrown in). He’d been with Jesus day and night, 7 days a week, for three years. That’s a total of 26,280 hours with Jesus.

Further, Philip knew things about Jesus we’ll never know in this life: what he looked like, the sound of his voice, his daily routines. Still further, they were personal friends. And yet Jesus says to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?” In other words, “Philip, you don’t know me.” Well, how can Jesus say such a thing? Philip knew Jesus personally (by acquaintance) and propositionally (by description). Still, for all Philip’s familiarity with Jesus, Jesus said there was a glaring gap in his knowledge.

Obviously then, Jesus has something else in mind here—a way of knowing him he expected Philip to have by now. What he lacked was a proper understanding: an acquaintance with the deep facts about the real essence of Jesus. Here it’s interesting to note all the things Jesus doesn’t mention: knowing that he was born of a virgin, that he cares about the sick, the poor, and the oppressed; that we should love our enemies. All important truths about Jesus. But these are not the most important things because they don’t define him. Where Philip went wrong is not that he tried to know Jesus by way of grasping facts about him; it’s that his factual knowledge was far too superficial.

Knowing “The Only True God”

If you’re going to think or talk about Jesus (/God) correctly, there is a first step. The very first thing you must do—the first thing—is to answer Jesus’ question to Philip: “Do you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:10). That’s how Jesus defines himself. Well then, how does Philip know whether he’s answered Jesus’ question correctly—that he does believe that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in Jesus? How do you or I know that? The answer (in context) is: you believe that only if you believe the two things that follow from Jesus’ statement:

  • The Knowledge Thesis: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also…Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:7,9).
  •  The Access Thesis: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

The first thesis actually follows from just one part of Jesus’ conjunctive claim: “The Father is in me.” That alone guarantees that to know Jesus is to know the Father. Jesus doesn’t make specific use of that second claim: “I am in the Father.” But it also has an interesting implication, namely, that “if you had known the Father, you would have known me.” It follows logically and inescapably that if you don’t know Jesus, you don’t know God the Father at all. You don’t understand or know Jesus unless you believe the Knowledge Thesis.

Secondly, you don’t know him if you don’t accept the Access Thesis. If Jesus is right, and the reason he is the only way to the Father is that “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” then if the Father were in other religious teachers, Jesus wouldn’t be the only way to the Father. But he says quite plainly that he is. What that means, amazingly, is that the Father is only in Jesus. He isn’t at work in any other religious teacher. Sometimes we like to say that we can learn things from listening to those in other religions. That’s very true; we can learn what they believe. But if Jesus is right, their teachings and the paths they set before us won’t take us to the Father; for the Father lives in and does his work only in Christ.

So we can ask ourselves whether we believe these things. Frankly, it’s not always clear to me that the emergent paradigm-busters do. At any rate, they could certainly be more unambiguously forthcoming on the matter. What we really need from them, I submit, are a powerful set of unassailable reasons, that is, real anomalies andgenuine intellectual threats” (as opposed to open-ended, unanswered questions) for thinking we need a new kind of Christianity. So far as I can see, those reasons haven’t yet emerged.

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3 comments on “Donald Miller’s Evangelical “Anomalies”

  1. Great, thanks for these points.

    I don’t want to come off as someone who just wields Aquinas as an authority figure (as some of us non-analytic philosophers are wont to do), but I think any Thomistic account of the transcendentals (being, unity, truth, goodness and beauty) has to involve the doctrine of analogical predication of God and creatures. So yes, I agree that Thomas understands truth to be a two-termed relation of adaequatio *for creatures*, but because God is simple he knows things through his own essence. So if we predicate this relation of adaequatio in God we have to remember that we do not mean the same thing as when we predicate it of creatures. The result, for Aquinas in q. 16, is that God is Truth itself. Of course, again, by “Truth itself”, I do not mean the unity expressed by numerical identity, as you correctly say would imply some odd conclusions. I mean transcendental unity (the tenability of which I realize could be controversial).

    So can I agree with your interpretation of John 14 as ” ‘conformity or equation’ between [the Son] and the Father”? Perhaps, if you’ll allow that conformity in God is radically different than the conformity between created intellects and the things they know.

    I know you have better things to do than to trudge through dry papers on Aquinas, but if you or your readers are interested in where I’m coming from here I have a working draft of a paper up on exactly this topic at academia.edu:

    https://www.academia.edu/7361638/Does_Aquinas_Hold_a_Correspondence_Theory_of_Truth_in_De_Veritate

    Thanks again, and all the best.

  2. Rich Davis says:

    Thanks, Joshua, for these excellent thoughts. It’s a pleasure to interact with you both here and in Philosophia Christi.

    So in De Veritate q. 1, art. 2, Aquinas tells us that truth consists in “the conformity or equation of thing and intellect.” Thus truth is a relation. More exactly, it is a two-termed relation: “…conforms with… .” The relata–i.e., what can fill the slots–are intellects and things. What we have, then, is really a form of correspondence.

    Now the passage you cite (ST Ia, q. 16, a. 5) falls nicely in line here. There Aquinas says, truth is “found in the intellect according as it apprehends a thing as it is.” So we can sharpen things up even further, and say that truth is the conformity of things in the intellect (e.g., thoughts, beliefs) with things as they are. In this connection, apprehension and conformity are distinct but co-extensive relations.

    By extension, then, what Jesus is saying in John 14:6 is that there is a “conformity or equation” between himself and the Father. That fits the context of the passage beautifully, don’t you think? But if so, then Jesus isn’t saying he is numerically identical with truth (or even Truth). He’s saying there is a conformity between Father and Son.

    So I’m not confident that your Phil Christi argument against correspondence will hold up. For that argument–the one you label (1)-(4)–makes use of an ‘is’ of numerical identity at step (2) before drawing its final conclusion: (4) Ergo, truth itself is not the correspondence of linguistic propositions and non-linguistic reality. However, as I think you’d agree, numerical identity isn’t in view in John, chapter 14.

    There is so much to say about Jesus’ profound statement! Thanks for moving things along, Joshua.

  3. Dr. Davis,

    I see you’re still thinking about Jn. 14 here! Thanks to you and Dr. Franks once again for engaging my questions and pushback in PC.

    It didn’t occur to me to clarify it at the time, but when I affirmed that “Christ is identical with the Truth,” I wasn’t talking about *numerical* identity (though I can’t speak for Donald Miller, I’m afraid). If I were, then I agree with you that I would be committed to saying that God was somehow identical with the propositional truths you describe here. The kind of unity expressed by the identity that I’m talking about is transcendental unity–not numerical unity. See Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 11, a. 1, ad 1 (re: unity) and Ia, q. 16, a. 5 (re: truth). On this view, “truth” would be predicated essentially of God and only analogously of creatures, which would deal with the obviously intolerable result of identifying God with a mathematical truth.

    But perhaps you deny that there is such a distinction between transcendental unity vs. numerical unity. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this matter, and my apologies for being unclear about this.

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