What is Truth? On the evaluation of the Truth of Doctrinal Systems

My buddy Matt, who I write on "Two Cities" Blog with recently wrote a great article on being Ecumenical. He is Church of Christ, I am Anglican, and we have a whole bunch of discussions about this kind of stuff. His article is posted here.

During the discussion, I wrote a reply about how we should evaluate the truth of doctrinal systems. I want to share that here:

1. I think we all agree that doctrine is important, yet as a MEANS not an END. It is one of many means, including spiritual and moral praxis, liturgy, relationships, sacraments, and so on, toward the means of union with God through Christ and the formation of Christ in us. I LOOOOOVE doctrine! I own and have read more systematic theologies than anyone I know of except some of my professors. I love doctrinal systems and analysis of the "Christian worldview". I could literally talk about it for days on end (and have). BUT...


Doctrine in isolation from the whole structure of catechesis, or even exalted above all other tools of formation, is death dealing. We do not live in our brains. We are not disembodied minds, but embodied souls- souls that include not only a cognitive aspect, but also affective and volitional aspects (i.e. mind, heart, and will).

Whatever context we put the study and debate of doctrine in, it MUST be put in the context of the whole of spiritual formation, in the midst of the Church, for the upbuilding of God's people.

2. I know you are sick of hearing this, and I am kinda sick of saying this, but I think we have to wrestle with the thesis put forward by William J. Abraham about what is truly "canonical" (i.e. the measuring stick) for Christian doctrine, versus what is our criteria for determining what is true. For those unfamiliar with Abraham, I am speaking of the central thesis of Abraham's book "Canon and Criterion". His thesis is that the canon, or list, of genuine Scriptural books is but one canon in a whole network of Christian canonical sources. It is the canon which provides the "source data" and the most reliable witness to the "foundational events" of the Christian faith, and as such, it does have a prominent place in our theological method. And yet, it does not self-interpret, nor does it exist without other canonical sources, such as the "canon" of the ecumenical councils, the "canon" of the liturgy, the "canon" of the sacraments, the "canon" of the saints and theologians of the early Church, and a few other canons.

These canons, in his view, were given as "means of grace" for our salvation and union with God, and instead we have neglected some altogether (in the case of every other canon except Scripture), and we have elevated the canon of Scripture above all of these other canons and in addition, have made it into something it was never intended for: a book of theoretical knowledge and epistemology. A good example of this is the battle over the Creation narratives of Scripture. In the modern era, we have ceased to care what these narratives mean and what purpose they serve for our spiritual formation, and instead we spend thousands of pages and millions of websites debating whether or not it gives us a scientific theory about how God made everything.

I think we need to recover Scripture as a means of grace, a tool to give us purpose and meaning and help us do life with God, rather than a textbook of obscure knowledge.

3. Regarding metaphysics and elephants, let me unveil the rough outline of a metaphysical / epistemological theory I have been brooding over for about 2 years. Many of my friends (including Bret, I think) have heard some of this.

A while back I first came across the distinction between "centered set" theories of truth and doctrine, versus "bounded set" theories in "The Mosaic of Christian Belief" by Olson. To put it briefly, a "bounded set" views truth as embodied in propositions, which can be collected, ordered, put into lists, and then exhaustively describe all that we need to know about a reality (whether that reality is God, a frog, or a subatomic particle). Truth is thus found within the boundaries of a propositional system, and is necessarily limited and comes from a single perspective. In contrast, a centered set theory sees propositions not so much as embodiments of truth, but arrows pointing toward or away from the truth.

Thus propositions are arranged around, and centered on, something (or Someone) that is true, like planets around a star. Propositions are more or less true to the degree to which they point to Truth, and to the proximity they are to the Truth (closer or further- for instance, a road sign five miles away from a city is more "true" than a road sign pointing in the same direction that is 500 miles away).

This insight of the "centered set" was added to in an indirect way through a lecture by Peter Kreeft at St. Matthias Church in Dallas (available free on his website), where Dr. Kreeft talked about God's love as the theological gravity that holds the universe together and beckons us to Godself. I actually got to meet Dr. Kreeft there and sit and talk to him for about 15 minutes. He is incredible.

To add to this, I had already struggled through enough relativist vs. absolutist debates to determine that they are both lacking. If everything is relative, it has to be relative to a stable "Something" (or better yet, Someone). It can’t be relative to nothing. Yet, if there is an absolute Something that everything else is relative to, it is not like we can exhaustively know or describe it. Especially not in propositions. Propositions cannot convey the full meaning of the reality of "Love" which most humans have a good working knowledge of, much less the reality of "God" which we have considerably less working knowledge of.

Furthermore, the various problems with correspondence theories of truth (which always seem to have a fatal flaw that deconstructs them and overturns their firm "foundation") and coherence theories of truth (I can have a perfectly coherent worldview of a mythical world that is not real at all), lead me away from these as adequate theories of what is "truth".

And furthermore, since both Jesus and the Spirit are called "Truth" in Scripture, and since there is an apparent lack of calling symbolic systems of belief "Truth" (although God's propositional revelation of law is often called "true"), it seems to me that Truth should not be thought of as residing in propositions per se. Propositions and verbal symbols can point to truth, but are not "Truth" in themselves. Truth seems to reside in persons, or in events, as they reveal true reality.

Taking all of this (sorry I am not tying all of the strings together very well here), it seems to me that "Truth" is relational, centered on a Person, rather than found in a set of propositions, or even in a Book (no matter how divinely inspired). Truth is an "end", and Scripture and the propositional systems derived from Scripture are merely "means" to point us to that "end".

Furthermore, one is closer to Truth as one is in closer proximity, just like a planet is closer to the Sun the tighter it orbits the Sun. The closer a planet is to the Sun, the more caught it is in the Sun's gravity and the hotter it becomes by sharing in the heat of the Sun. In the same way, the closer we are to the Son, the more caught we are in His "gravity" of Love, and the more we are "on fire" with His Divine nature.

And, also, the closer a planet is to the Sun, the harder it is to see it from different perspectives. It may well see the Sun from the X axis, but there is a Y and Z axis that is has no ability to see, except for the few times the X intersects Y and Z. I think this is a metaphor for how various Christians in various traditions can be in a tight relationship- a tight orbit- with Jesus and yet see Him so differently. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Baptists, Calvinists, Emergents, Charismatics, Pentecostals, and even Liberals are tightly in Love with the same Jesus, and yet there is so much Jesus and so many perspectives that we cannot grasp it all at once. And instead of sharing our perspectives, we have this foundationalist truth theory that causes us to argue instead... Like the three blind men who were taken to the Elephant, and instead of combining their perspectives, one argued that an elephant was a hose because he felt the trunk, one argued that it was a fan, because he felt the ear, and one argued that it was a tree, because he felt the leg.

This is not to say that anything goes. There is one Sun, one Son, one center of gravity. Jesus is not Buddha is not Muhammed is not Socrates is not Marx. The blind men argued about one Elephant, not about a car, a faucet, and a cat. Everything is relative... but to Jesus... not to nothing. Another way to say this is that Truth is polyvalent in its orbit around the Source of "gravity" that is Reality (a Triune relational reality of Divine Love, of which Christ is the outward visible "surface" of). Truth is not omnivalent (anything goes), nor is it univalent (single perspective).

This relational, orbital theory of Truth which can be described in terms of a "centered set" has the strengths of correspondence theories, because it does posit a solid, central, immovable absolute upon which all else revolves. But, it has the flexibility and multiple-perspective nature of coherence theories, along with affirming the insights of relativism without going to its absurd lengths. Furthermore, it does have a place for propositions, in that propositions are signs that point us to, and orient us around, what is really Real.

This theory of truth can co-opt the insights of other theories of truth, but as tests or pointers to probability, rather than as the definition of what is true. I generally think of four "tests" for Truth, which demonstrate greater or lesser probability that a set of propositions is true, which combine the insights of other "Truth theories" without being constricted to them. These tests can help us understand the PROXIMITY of a proposition to Truth (how close it is), and the ORIENTATION of a proposition in relation to Truth (whether it is pointing toward or away from what is Real).

Test 1: Is it conceptually clear? Does it clearly define and use terms in a consistent, non-ambiguous way? Does it define terms tightly enough to exclude what needs to be excluded, while also defining them openly enough to include all relevant data?

Test 2: Is it correspondent with reality? Do the propositions actually mirror the best data that we can gather about the reality under consideration? The closer to the event or reality the data is- in proximity, in time- the higher probability it is good data. Although, all of this is more or less probable, because absolute certainty and exhaustive knowledge of historical occurrences cannot be gained in this life.

Test 3: Is the symbolic system coherent? Does it contradict itself? Is it logical? The less logical flaws it has, the more probable it is.

Test 4: Is this system constructive? Does it construct a lifestyle or worldview that "works" and actually does what the system predicts will happen? Does it account for an incorporate new data and experience as we existentially encounter it?

This combines the best insights of bounded propositional theories of truth (test 1, 3), foundationalist / correspondence theories of truth (test 2), coherence theories of truth (test 3), and pragmatic theories of truth (test 4). These tests give us a more or less probable rating about the propositional system under consideration, and can help indicate how close in proximity and orientation a symbolic system is to what is Real.

This is a broad outline... with much to fill in... but I think there has to be a way out of the metaphysical impasse we have stuck ourselves in during modernity, without denying the great strides forward that the modern era has brought us in knowledge.

I do not know what to call it yet. A relational theory of truth? An orbital model of truth? Probability theory?

Comments are appreciated.
Copyright © 2006 Nathan L. Bostian
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.