Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Colossians 2:1-4 and Epistemology

I get nervous about even using words like "epistemology" to talk about how Biblical authors thought about knowledge if only because of the blatant terminological anachronism. But I could not help this morning as I read Col. 2:1-4 but wonder about the way the Emergent/post-foundationalist Christian movement(s) handles Paul's words in this text. Here is the passage from the ESV, italicized where I think it presents a challenge:

"For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knoweldge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments."

I remember reading in the exchange between Tony Jones and Colin Hansen (here is the link to the last day of it, which has links embedded for the whole) that Jones wanted to press epistemological humility. But is this not exactly what Paul doesn't want to happen here, and that expressly for the sake of the spiritual well-being of the Colossians? Paul explicitly says that the mystery of God is Christ, and it seems best to connect the "knowledge" of that to the preceding reference to "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (1:27) and probably the larger Christological affirmations of Colossians, especially 1:15-20.

Just a thought, and I am curious for how those who tend to think "Emergently" would respond. I certainly hope I am not misconstruing anyone's positions.

9 comments:

Brian said...

I think you pretty much agree with Tony on this humility thing. First, and contextually, Paul was dealing with people in a polytheistic world. Their were many, many accepted paths to "God." (sounds a lot like today, huh?) Identifying this path with Christ makes sense. By the way, did you notice Paul says "Christ" and not "Jesus?" That is important. Finally, and in reference to my first sentence, define completely "Christ" and all the title stand for. Yeah, you will get many, many, and not opposing, ideas. Humility? I sure hope so. But then I don't speak for Emergent, just me. Not real heavy in the theology, but just how I see it.

George said...

What does it mean to think "Emergently?"

Norman Jeune III said...

I have a few thoughts here. First, I would say that what it means to think "emergently" is a question that both implies the multiplicity of perspectives that are present in the postmodern church, but is also a bit evasive in that it denies a common ethos. When Andrew refers to speaking emergently, I don't think he is suggesting that there is a comprehensive or uniform definition for this point of view, but in this context is referring to the very common characteristic of epistemological reticence, which is evidenced by the reference to Tony Jones.

Secondly, one of the reasons why Paul was able to make the statement he did was that he obviously saw Jesus' incarnation as God's revelation, which allows knowledge of God. I see a few important questions that stem form this for the modern church. First, what is the status of the biblical text? To what degree is it a reliable and authoritative mediator of God's revelation as it testifies to Jesus Christ? Should we seek to synthesize its contents into a tightly interlocking system? This last question is where I think a lot of the frustration comes on part of the emergent movement. They think it is too ambitious to take this wide span of historically contingent texts and attempt to render perfect and complete synthesis. So the questions might be restated as:

1. What is the status of the text.

2. Without, bringing our agenda's into play, what degree of coherence is actually present in the Bible?

3. Is total coherence (represented as a theological, synthetic super-structure) necessary for the text to testify to God's revelation (Jesus Christ) suffciently?

There is certainly much more that can be said, but these are just a few thoughts.

John L said...

Hardly a theologian, and have little idea as to what "emergent" means, but the way I read Col 2 is that Christ is perfect, and we're not.

Paul's clearly not calling us to be something we're not. We may feel the richness of "full assurance" but our vision is still dusky and dim. We still look through a glass darkly.

What's most confusing to me about this passage is the juxtaposition of "mystery" with "full...understanding." If we understand something fully, it is no longer a mystery.

Yet Christ is far more mysterious to me today than ever. The cross in its infinite wisdom continues to draw me deeper into itself, and father away from reliance upon my own understanding.

Journeyman said...

In answer to George's question (at least in part)let me provide some points to ponder.

The world is radically changing and the church must radically change with it
Emergents believe postmodernity represents a dramatic break with the past and that only an extreme transformation in the church can keep the church relevant and effective in this environment. What is needed, they say, is not just a change in methodology. We need a new kind of Christian.
Since the Church has been culture bound for so long we must reexamine and question every belief and practice in the Church, finding new ways to define and express these
Visiting emergent blogs, one will find that absolutely any doctrine or moral standard can be questioned. It seems at times that emergents are engaging in a complete reinvention of Christianity accompanied by a radical redefinition of Christian terms.
We have no foundation for any beliefs, therefore we cannot know absolute truth
Critics of the Emerging Church movement insist that emergents misrepresent epistemological foundationalism (the belief that we do possess some knowledge that serves as a basis for further knowledge) as requiring “bombproof certainty,” something contemporary foundationalists insist they do not hold to. What contemporary foundationalists do believe is that we can possess real knowledge that is so certain it requires extraordinary evidence to refute it. [13] D. A. Carson points out that emergent postfoundationalism is based upon yet another of their false antitheses, saying “In effect the antithesis demands that we be God, with all of God’s omniscience, or else forever be condemned to knowing nothing objective for sure.” [14] Additionally, emergents fail to consider the scriptural teaching of faith as something God-given which does possess supernaturally certain knowledge (Mt 21:21, Eph. 2:8, Heb 11:1). Emergents do not seem to realize that critiquing secular foundationalism is not the same as critiquing Evangelical foundationalism. In A New Kind of Christian McLaren’s fictional altar ego, Neo, says even Scripture is neither authoritative (in a “modern” sense) [15] nor a foundation for faith. [16]
Since we cannot know absolute truth, we can only experience what is “true” for our communities
Postmodern philosophers and theologians insist that truth is only known and validated within communities (“There are no Metanarratives only local narratives”). While this implies that truth is culturally relative and that true cross-cultural communication is impossible (those outside a community must first join a community before they can understand the community’s ideas), postmodern authors communicate to people of various communities simultaneously, apparently expecting them to all equally understand their intent.
Since we cannot know absolute truth we cannot be dogmatic about doctrine
Emergents see orthodoxy as “generous,” [17] that is, inclusive of many beliefs Christians have historically thought of as aberrant or heretical. Many leading emergents echo McLaren’s refusal to assert Christianity’s superiority to other world religions.
Since we cannot know absolute truth we cannot be dogmatic about moral standards
Absolute stands on issues such as homosexuality are viewed as obsolete. Activities such as drinking, clubbing, watching sexually explicit movies, and using profanities are seen by some emergents as opportunities to show those who are not part of the Christian community that postmodern Christians do not think they are better than them through any false sense of moral superiority. [18]
Since we cannot know absolute truth, dogmatic preaching must give way to a dialogue between people of all beliefs
Emerging Christians do not posture themselves before the world as though they were the light and the world were in darkness. Instead of “preaching” to the “lost” they join in “conversation,” with people of various beliefs. Conservative Evangelicals seem not to be truly welcome to contribute their distinctive content to this conversation since they represent the old, rotting corpse of “modernism.”
Since propositional truth is uncertain, spiritual feeling and social action make up the only reliable substance of Christianity
Emergents consider propositional truth a “modern” (and thus outmoded) fascination. Postmoderns think and communicate in narratives. [19] Since the pursuit of truth is portrayed as a never ending journey with no solid starting point, they consider the only legitimate measuring rods of Christianity to be experience and good works. Without a solid footing in revealed truth, however, emergents have no firm foundation for knowing which experiences are valid and which works are good (something they do not seem to notice).
To capture a sacred feeling we should reconnect with ancient worship forms
Trappings such as burning candles and events such as silent retreats are popular in the movement. Embracing these premodern forms further breaks their connection with “modern” Christianity.
Since sublime feeling is experienced through outward forms, we should utilize art forms in our worship
Many participants in the movement see appreciating art for art’s sake as a spiritual experience.
Through conversation with them, “outsiders” will become part of our community, and then be able to understand and believe what we teach
The postmodern approach is not to try to persuade people to believe, it is to try to befriend people into joining. This is commonly expressed as Robert Webber does when he says “People in a postmodern world are not persuaded to faith by reason as much as they are moved to faith by participation in God’s earthly community.” [20] There is a false antithesis in such statements, however. We do not have to choose between a purely cerebral attempt to talk others into believing correctly on the one hand and offering an open, unqualified invitation to our group on the other. The Bible teaches us to proclaim the gospel message with reliance upon the Holy Spirit to empower, illuminate, and convict (1 Co 2, 1 Thess 1:9). When such proclamation is absent, as it is in the Emerging Church movement, there is no prophetic voice coming from the church calling sinners to repent and believe the Gospel (Ac 2:38, 16:30-32).
All are welcome to join the “conversation” as long as they behave in a kind and open-minded manner.
Emerging believers reject any posture which hints at exclusivism. Dogmatic Evangelicals, however, are not treated as kindly in the conversation as others are (something many emergents admit).
The ultimate goal is to make the world a better place
The Emerging Church movement envisions a utopia in which the oppressed of the world are free, the poor are no longer impoverished and the environment is clean. This paradise is achieved through social activism. Many emergent leaders think it is selfish folly to live for the return of Christ.
The accomplishing of all of the above is seen by those in the movement as evidence that the Church is emerging to reach the culture, adapting to it. Critics of the movement see these things as signs that the Church is submerging into the culture, being absorbed by it.

That, in a nutshell is what it means to "think" emergently.

Curtis said...

One of my main concerns with many emergent thinkers is a refusal to acknowledge Jesus claim to be the Truth (and Life...and the Way...the only Way to the Father). Or, as Paul says here, a beautiful treasure chest of wisdom and knowledge for us to discover.

While I share the desire of my emergent friends to reach out to those in our culture and love my neighbor, I firmly believe that I also have Truth to offer them. Truth that can renew and transform them for eternity. I can't begin to imagine trying to pastor without that firm conviction.

The Scriptures continually declare that the first step to wisdom is a healthy "fear of the LORD". It seems to me that too many in the North American church have strayed on exactly this point. God is not taken seriously. There is little respect, awe, or reverence. And then we wonder why the church thinks and acts like it does.

If we were a people who truly feared the LORD would the result not be a pursuit of and acquiring of wisdom? And would not that wisdom be most clearly evident in our treasuring of Christ and a refusal to be ashamed of the gospel that has freed us?

Andrew Faris said...

Regarding what I meant by "thinking 'Emergently,'" Norm is much closer to the point than journeyman. The issue is that Emergents tend not to like to be nailed down (for better or for worse) but have a few broad defining characteristics. I did not really want this post to be the place to get into that, and Norm nailed exactly what I meant (I think he actually articulated my on thoughts better than I could have).

And Brian, I appreciate your reminder that there is more to Christ than we will ever understand. I am certainly not trying to brush aside the incomprehensibility of God. But I do think that Emergent types do overemphasize his incomprehensibility and underemphasize his knowability. My basic point here regards the language of Paul's writing: he is talking about the importance of having full assurance of at least some things about Christ and his work. I am suggesting that perhaps Paul was not as concerned about epistemological humility as Emergents are.

Jonathan said...

We must be careful not to jump too quickly into a discussion with emergent thinkers without first clearly stating what it is that they believe and what we believe.

To be a foundationalist does not commit your to to epistemic certainty. Rather, there are varying forms of foundationalism. It seems to me that what is often purported to be foundationalism is a simplified view of radical foundationalism. This is best understood as Descartes epistemology. However, this is not the view that has to be or (from what my limited study has shown) is what is held by contemporary foundationalists. The better position would be some kind of modest foundationalism. The difference between these two views would be (among other things) an extreme commitment to certainty. Descartes held that the foundational beliefs that other beliefs are built on are self-certain and guarantee the certainty of the other beliefs that rest on them.

The obvious problems with this position are what the emergents are reacting to in their philosophy. But, a modest foundationalist does not purport certainty in this way. Rather, a foundational belief for a modest foundationalist is simply a belief that does not rely on other beliefs for its justification. What modest foundationalism allows one to do is not get caught up in answering a whole bunch of questions at once. So, when I justify the foundational belief that the mug is green by my visual experience, I do not have to show how I got that belief. Modest foundationalism then is simply a description of which beliefs I have and their justification. It does not have to be how I came to all of those beliefs and a demonstration of their justification. (It should be noted that to say we do not or cannot always show how we justify a belief is a legitimate position; a position I think we all adhere to whether we know it or not.)

To start showing how we are justified in certain beliefs can often times get away from epistemology and into metaphysics and the debate over truth. It should be noted that the emergents walk a dangerous line with their love of 'postmodern' talk. As I said they are probably also playing with metaphysics and this is where we can really see the big split that postmodern philosophy posits. The group of people we often call postmodern could probably only be unified on one thing: they reject the objectivity of the subject. They reject a self. In doing this they allow themselves to be able to do and open themselves up to all sorts of things. This then bleeds into their epistemology and we are back around again to where we started with emergent epistemology.

But to fully assent to this position removes you completely from even the furthest edges of Christianity. If there is no self then why the h@#$ would you believe in a God?

John L said...

Andrew said, "I do think that Emergent types do overemphasize his incomprehensibility and underemphasize his knowability."

Perhaps it's not so much what we know about him as who we become in him.

Andrew also said, "I am suggesting that perhaps Paul was not as concerned about epistemological humility as Emergents are."

Probably so, which is why we follow Jesus, not Paul. :-)

Gordon Crosby once said, "We forget that Jesus, ‘though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.’ Our culture promotes a constant filling up, but our disciplines will draw us toward greater emptiness, so that we can be better prepared for obedience and, ultimately, for finding our place in God’s plan."