Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

29 Jul 2016

What Should We Do with Imprecise Revelation?


A few weeks back I posted a piece on being conservative. In it I suggested that in every sphere of life there are foundational absolutes to be conserved. This is so because God is the immutable source and standard of all that is good and true and beautiful. There is in God’s truth system no genuine subjectivity of any sort: all things are as they are because God created them that way, not because they have some sort of reality independent of him. As Cornelius Van Til intimated on multiple occasions, every fact in God’s universe (propositional or non-propositional) comes to mankind pre-interpreted, that is, with a reality and meaning fixed by God before and apart from any input or response by God’s creatures. There is no such thing as non-foundational truth. All truth relates to God.

It was with this in mind that I became troubled a few weeks back to discover an article by Chris Cone warning believers to “Beware Objective Standards Where Only Subjective Ones Are Provided.” In his article Cone walks through sixteen qualifications for pastoral ministry discoverable in 1 Timothy 3 and suggests that each one is a “subjective” qualification. He writes, for instance,

  • He must be affectionate to strangers, or hospitable (philoxenos). How hospitable is hospitable? How generous must he be? What is the standard?
  • He must be didaktikos—able to teach. Are there differing degrees of teaching ability? At what point does one move from being unable to teach to being able to teach? Is there a hard and fast line? If so, what constitutes that line?
  • He must not be a bully or violent person (plektes). At what point can one be described as a violent person? One act of violence? Two?
  • He must be gentle (epekeis). What is the standard for gentleness? Paul was gentle among the Thessalonians (1 Thes 2:7). Was he gentle to the Corinthians? He certainly threatened to come to them not in gentleness but with a rod (1 Cor 4:19­–21). Was he gentle with the Galatians? He called them foolish and even heretical (1:8, 3:1). Are there exceptions to the rule of gentleness? If so, in what contexts and cases is non-gentleness acceptable?
  • He must be peaceable (amachon, lit., not contentious). Jude exhorts believers to contend or struggle earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). Paul describes us as being at war (2 Cor 10:3–5; Eph 6). He adds that we should be at peace inasmuch as it is up to us (Rom 12:18), yet implies there are instances where it is not up to us, and we will find ourselves in contentious situations.

Cone is correct, of course, to point out that the material in 1 Timothy 3 is neither as specific nor or as comprehensive as we would like it to be. It does not contain in its words alone all that we need to make a crisp decision whether a pastoral prospect is generous or stingy, gentle/peaceable or violent, able to teach or unable to teach, etc. And Cone’s advice not to invent binary standards to make the choice simpler is a worthy concern.

What troubles me is Cone’s apparent solution to the thorny problem of “the one and the many” that he offers in this essay. The problem of the “one and the many,” in brief, is the problem of relating the very many particulars of human experience to transcendent universals (or in the Christian system, the universal that is God himself). Van Til introduces the problem this way on page 10 of his Introduction to Systematic Theology:

When man looks about him and within him, he sees that there is a great variety of facts. The question that comes up at once is whether there is any unity in this variety, whether there is one principle in accordance with which all these many things appear and occur.

Van Til goes on to suggest that (among those who accept that an answer to this question may be had) there are two basic answers to this problem:

All non-Christian thought, if it has utilized the idea of a supra-mundane existence at all, has used this supra-mundane existence as furnishing only the unity or the a priori aspect of knowledge, while it has maintained that the a posteriori aspect of knowledge is something that is furnished by the universe. In distinction to this, Christianity says that there once was no a posteriori aspect to knowledge at all.

To summarize, any truly Christian epistemology views all revelation/truth as absolutely objective and foundational. All revelation means exactly what God meant, irrespective of what the human reader and all of his experiences brings to the interpretation process. Now this does not mean, to be sure, that God’s revelation is comprehensive. We regularly encounter gaps in our application of Scripture that call for discernment/wisdom and above all the full use of the analogia scriptura. And even after the most exhaustive use of these tools we may yet be wanting in our pursuit of the application of which God is most approving. And that’s OK—to suggest otherwise would be to dismantle the Creator/creature distinction and demote God to not-God.

But what Van Til further insists is that we can never treat this gap between God’s knowledge of a thing and our knowledge of a thing as an area of neutrality or subjectivity in God’s truth system. To be subjective, according to Merriam-Webster, is to be “characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than independent of mind.” That is, it falls to the “subject” (i.e., the creature) to complete the gap in meaning that God has chosen not to disclose. But this can never be. As Van Til continues, God alone is the principium essendi of all knowledge, and any suggestion of subjectivity in the realm of epistemics is, in Van Til’s words above, an instance of “non-Christian thought.”

Far be it from us to suggest that the gap between God’s knowledge of a thing and our knowledge of a thing be a matter of subjectivity, an area of divine ambivalence that a creature gets to fill in however he chooses. True, revelation has its limitations. It does not always give precise answers about what is good (ethics), what is true (epistemics), and what is beautiful (aesthetics). But this imprecision must never be interpreted as indifference in God or as a license for us to bridge that gap with personal preference. In every case it falls to the creature to more thoroughly search the whole revelation of the divine so as to close that gap, so much it lies within us, from above.

6 Responses

  1. Very good article,

    I have often wondered how Van Til was able to maintain this level of coherence and yet at the same time deny that we are able to possess any univocal knowledge of truth. I understand his concern in pressing for analogical knowledge but ultimately I think it undermines the quite valuable thrust of his system as a whole. As you point out, univocal correspondence of particular revealed propositions does not necessarily or even generally entail comprehensive knowledge.

    By way of clarification, you said “every fact in God’s universe (propositional or non-propositional)” comes pre-interpreted. I do not disagree with this, but I want to be sure I understand you correctly. I grant that facts and propositions are not the same thing, but do you simply mean states of affairs that are unexpressed in any kind of statement? If not, can you please give an example of a non-propositional fact?

  2. paul

    With all the accusation of inventing binary standards and practicing legalism made against past generations of Christians and perhaps a few unenlightened fundamentalist holdouts, it will be interesting to see where the invasion of relativism into the church eventually takes us. We live in a culture where even the objectivity of gender, Cone’s one objective characteristic, is being overthrown.

  3. I’m a bit late seeing this. Theologically Driven’s RSS feed seems to have stopped.
    In any case, I want to point out that there is a missing distinction here. These are not the same thing:
    1) Saying the work of applying Scripture to our situation must be conducted by the subject
    2) Saying God’s desire doesn’t matter.
    Cone affirms #1, as do I… and don’t we all? Nobody who bothers to apply Scripture at all affirms #2.
    “Subjectve,” as your definition shows, identifies who must do it, not who’s values, truths, desires, must control. If we insist that there is no continuing revelation, then there is no escaping the subjective in living the Christian life.

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    Kevin, what I mean by a non-propositional fact is that some facts come to us unstated. For instance, the Psalmist in Psalm 19 speaks of the heaven declaring that “God is glorious,” specifying that it does so without words or language. That doesn’t mean that the heavenly declaration cannot be rendered propositional; still, the revelation comes to us non-propositionally.

    My concern with Cone’s article (assuming I am reading it correctly) is that he permits the observer of the heavens (the “subject” who interprets its revelation and gives it propositional form), due to the imprecision of this non-propositional revelation, to supply his own meaning for the heavenly declaration. Maybe the heavenly declaration is something more like “God is super cool” or “God is distant and uncaring.” Who can know for sure? It’s not objective truth, so we can never have certainty.

    Of course, in this particular instance, we can’t do this because God puts propositional parameters on the meaning of the heavenly declaration–he tells us exactly what the heavens intend. But what happens when God doesn’t do this? Does this mean that his revelation has no objective meaning at all? Could the ocean, say, give to each of us our own private message? Or, can a psalm have one mood for person A and a different mood for person B? Is it true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or that symphony/cacophony are in the ear of the hearer? Cone seems to suggest a positive answer to all these questions, but I’m not sure I am comfortable with the conclusion of this path. All facts are instead pre-interpreted, even when I cannot easily access their meaning.

  5. Mark Snoeberger

    Aaron, you’re right, of course, that a subject is involved in all interpretation. But that’s not what Cone says. In the title itself he affirms that the Bible contains subjective standards. There is a great gulf, methinks, between (1) the subjective application of objective standards (what I am arguing for) and (2) subjective standards (what Cone is arguing for).

    Now perhaps Cone has made a semantic misstep, and if so, I’d be happy to concede it; regardless, I am very concerned that this kind of confusion is all over the place in evangelical interpretation.

    1. I’ve been chewing on this quite a lot over the past 24 hrs. The idea conveyed in the title ultimately fails to cohere because you have to equivocate at some point on “objective” and “subjective” or on “standards”
      I have no problem with attaching the term “subjective” to the *activity*/process we engage in when we strive to understand how to obey in particular situations the objective standard God has revealed. But the standard itself is objective.
      However, what often results from our process is another standard–a subjective one *derived from* the objective one.
      But the title characterizes *what we’ve been given as subjective,* not what we do with it.
      Probably mostly a case of right idea, not the best way to say it.

      But I think I understand your point about the larger evangelical problem. It’s one thing to acknowledge that there is a range of possible understandings of a text or set of texts, it’s another thing (!) to say there is no fixed meaning there in the first place other than what we give it.