The Evangelical Pursuit of Truth

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Defining Evangelicalism as uniquely expressed in the context of the United States presents an elusive task. The label reads in different settings as a political, social, ecclesial, or theological term. Because there are no membership cards, elected leadership, or agreed upon infrastructures, the boundaries of US Evangelicalism are murky. The contesting of the Evangelical label has led to profound divisions in the US ecclesial landscape and has often led to the inability for healthy and healing conversations across these differences. Given this ambiguity and these profound dissimilarities, is it possible for US churches to engage in healthy conversations and provide spaces for healthy dialogue?

Truth Possessed

One barrier to the possibility of healing conversations may be the assumption of the ownership of truth. Evangelicals often perceive themselves as the inheritors of a received and even immutable tradition. In this article, I specifically use the nomenclature of big “E” Evangelicalism. Big “E” Evangelicals refer to the iteration of American Christianity that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century and is built upon both ecclesial and sociological commonalities. Evangelicals stand as staunch defenders of an orthodoxy that must be preserved at all costs. Evangelicals place themselves in the line of orthodoxy that traces back to biblical times—the chosen line of Abraham, the chosen people of Israel, the new covenant community of Acts, and the fulfillment of the missionary efforts of the apostle Paul. The early church and the martyrs of the church provide the template of faithfulness that should be emulated two millenia later. In the more modern history of orthodoxy, Evangelicals cling to the doctrinally faithful Protestant Reformers and the subsequent expansion of this orthodoxy through discovery and conquest of the “new world.” The great revivals, the great mission century, and the emergence of a great American Christendom all serve as examples of how a revealed and received truth has triumphed over a fallen world. Evangelicals possess the truth and therefore must fight for that truth.

In US church history, we witness the assumption of the possession of truth in a particularly Western and even uniquely American framing. The early iteration of American democracy was influenced by Scottish Common Sense philosophy which also played a prominent role in the formation of American Protestantism. Scottish Common Sense philosophy asserts the human capacity to attain common knowledge through rational thought. Evangelical theology rooted in Scottish Common Sense philosophy assumes a level of reasonableness and perspicuity. Even as the culture around them changes, Evangelicals assert a positive self-perception of the thought processes that formed their theology. The fundamental theological assertions of Evangelical faith would serve as non-negotiable tenets of orthodox faith. Truth to the Evangelical was and is a possessed truth, outlined by historical orthodoxy, and defined by the rational mind of the US Evangelical. Possessed truth should not be challenged, nor should it yield its lofty position to any challengers.

One potential positive byproduct of this sense of a shared assumption of truth possessed is the possibility of unity that transcends denominations. Evangelicals can integrate the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches that trace their heritage to the Protestant Reformation; the passion of the Pietists, Puritans, and Pentecostals; the mission emphasis of the Moravians and the Methodists; and those who claim to seek guidance from the Bible only, such as the Baptists and the Brethren. All these threads will claim orthodoxy in belief and practice and yet still share the same ecclesial space as the common heirs of Christian orthodoxy and the protectors of that orthodoxy.

However, the flip side of a truth possessed mentality is the potential for the arrogance of faith. If orthodoxy is owned, then the goal of faith is to convince another of your orthodoxy and for the other to accept that orthodoxy as their own. Taken to the extreme, evangelism and the communication of the gospel can become the battle of messages rather than the transformation of souls. The assumption of truth possessed emerges as a potential problem for healthy conversation if the topic is theological, but even more problematic if the topic is social, cultural, and political.

The assumption of truth possessed in Evangelical theology is compounded by Evangelical sociology that seeks to preserve the faith in a secular culture. The Christian worldview (a truth possessed) would need to take a stand against the onslaught of a secular worldview. The boundaries of the Christian worldview would need to be preserved at all costs.

Missiologist Paul Hiebert distinguishes between two different approaches to the Christian gospel: the bounded set versus the centered set. Evangelical theology, with its assumption of a truth possessed, would operate with bounded set assumptions, those that would assert the importance of doctrinal boundaries in determining insider or outsider status in the Christian faith. Certain doctrinal positions that have been derived using rational thought provide hard boundaries for Evangelicals. While a centered set approach would emphasize the direction of the individual in relation to Christ, a bounded set approach would emphasize the boundaries that would exclude individuals from insider status.

The individual who follows the line of reasoning offered by a truth possessed modality could deduce that their perspective (presumably obtained using reason and logic) produces the definitive position for the entire community that perfectly mirrors the biblical perspective. Since the individual gained this understanding through reason and logic, all other options can be eliminated. If the Evangelical understanding of a particular doctrine is derived from following the Evangelical line of reasoning, then that particular theological conclusion would hold a greater primacy. Truth possessed would trump any argument and stifle attempts at conversation and dialogue.

Truth Pursued

The path forward, therefore, may not be returning to the bounded set assumptions of the previous iterations of US Evangelicalism. Truth possessed does not allow for healthy, healing conversations. Instead, truth possessed sets up boundaries that create a battle of ideas where the powerful prevail. Instead of assuming the power and privilege of truth possessed, could the church take on a posture of truth pursued? This approach does not minimize the reality of truth—truth is still there. But it calls for a humility that says that we don’t own the truth but that God is the author of truth.

In history, those who have held to a truth possessed approach have often generated despotic regimes. Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung provide examples of a truth possessed model of leadership. They owned the truth of what was right and good, and they sought to apply that “truth” even to the detriment of the people. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, would be more reflective of a truth pursued approach. They pursued just governance and sought the fulfillment of a just society.

In the courts, truth possessed approaches are evident in adversarial court systems, where each side claims a version of truth and where the goal is to convince others of their version of truth. (Although there are some limited examples of truth pursued jurisprudence in which both “sides” are charged with finding the truth.) A truth that is possessed must be transferred by any means necessary. Truth possessed often results in conflict and contention. This adversarial system does not work in a truth pursued modality. Instead, there is the common calling to pursue truth and to discover truth, not to fight over whose version of truth is superior.

Truth pursued acknowledges the reality of truth. Truth exists. Jesus is the living truth. However, no human owns Jesus, and no human should claim to solely own or possess the entirety of truth. Instead, we are charged to follow and pursue Jesus and to follow and pursue truth. Discipleship is the pursuit of truth. The life of the church should be the pursuit of truth. If Christians and Christ’s church were to see themselves not as the possessors of truth but the pursuers of truth, how would that change us? Would that soften our political positions or our culture warrior status? Truth pursued requires a humility to acknowledge the God of the Bible, the God of history, and the God of truth. Could that humility deconstruct a broken history and construct a way forward?

Soong Chan Rah thumbnail

Soong-Chan Rah is Fuller’s Robert Boyd Munger Professor of Evangelism. He has authored or co-authored over a half dozen, and many award-winning, books including The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, and Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith. He is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Defining Evangelicalism as uniquely expressed in the context of the United States presents an elusive task. The label reads in different settings as a political, social, ecclesial, or theological term. Because there are no membership cards, elected leadership, or agreed upon infrastructures, the boundaries of US Evangelicalism are murky. The contesting of the Evangelical label has led to profound divisions in the US ecclesial landscape and has often led to the inability for healthy and healing conversations across these differences. Given this ambiguity and these profound dissimilarities, is it possible for US churches to engage in healthy conversations and provide spaces for healthy dialogue?

Truth Possessed

One barrier to the possibility of healing conversations may be the assumption of the ownership of truth. Evangelicals often perceive themselves as the inheritors of a received and even immutable tradition. In this article, I specifically use the nomenclature of big “E” Evangelicalism. Big “E” Evangelicals refer to the iteration of American Christianity that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century and is built upon both ecclesial and sociological commonalities. Evangelicals stand as staunch defenders of an orthodoxy that must be preserved at all costs. Evangelicals place themselves in the line of orthodoxy that traces back to biblical times—the chosen line of Abraham, the chosen people of Israel, the new covenant community of Acts, and the fulfillment of the missionary efforts of the apostle Paul. The early church and the martyrs of the church provide the template of faithfulness that should be emulated two millenia later. In the more modern history of orthodoxy, Evangelicals cling to the doctrinally faithful Protestant Reformers and the subsequent expansion of this orthodoxy through discovery and conquest of the “new world.” The great revivals, the great mission century, and the emergence of a great American Christendom all serve as examples of how a revealed and received truth has triumphed over a fallen world. Evangelicals possess the truth and therefore must fight for that truth.

In US church history, we witness the assumption of the possession of truth in a particularly Western and even uniquely American framing. The early iteration of American democracy was influenced by Scottish Common Sense philosophy which also played a prominent role in the formation of American Protestantism. Scottish Common Sense philosophy asserts the human capacity to attain common knowledge through rational thought. Evangelical theology rooted in Scottish Common Sense philosophy assumes a level of reasonableness and perspicuity. Even as the culture around them changes, Evangelicals assert a positive self-perception of the thought processes that formed their theology. The fundamental theological assertions of Evangelical faith would serve as non-negotiable tenets of orthodox faith. Truth to the Evangelical was and is a possessed truth, outlined by historical orthodoxy, and defined by the rational mind of the US Evangelical. Possessed truth should not be challenged, nor should it yield its lofty position to any challengers.

One potential positive byproduct of this sense of a shared assumption of truth possessed is the possibility of unity that transcends denominations. Evangelicals can integrate the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches that trace their heritage to the Protestant Reformation; the passion of the Pietists, Puritans, and Pentecostals; the mission emphasis of the Moravians and the Methodists; and those who claim to seek guidance from the Bible only, such as the Baptists and the Brethren. All these threads will claim orthodoxy in belief and practice and yet still share the same ecclesial space as the common heirs of Christian orthodoxy and the protectors of that orthodoxy.

However, the flip side of a truth possessed mentality is the potential for the arrogance of faith. If orthodoxy is owned, then the goal of faith is to convince another of your orthodoxy and for the other to accept that orthodoxy as their own. Taken to the extreme, evangelism and the communication of the gospel can become the battle of messages rather than the transformation of souls. The assumption of truth possessed emerges as a potential problem for healthy conversation if the topic is theological, but even more problematic if the topic is social, cultural, and political.

The assumption of truth possessed in Evangelical theology is compounded by Evangelical sociology that seeks to preserve the faith in a secular culture. The Christian worldview (a truth possessed) would need to take a stand against the onslaught of a secular worldview. The boundaries of the Christian worldview would need to be preserved at all costs.

Missiologist Paul Hiebert distinguishes between two different approaches to the Christian gospel: the bounded set versus the centered set. Evangelical theology, with its assumption of a truth possessed, would operate with bounded set assumptions, those that would assert the importance of doctrinal boundaries in determining insider or outsider status in the Christian faith. Certain doctrinal positions that have been derived using rational thought provide hard boundaries for Evangelicals. While a centered set approach would emphasize the direction of the individual in relation to Christ, a bounded set approach would emphasize the boundaries that would exclude individuals from insider status.

The individual who follows the line of reasoning offered by a truth possessed modality could deduce that their perspective (presumably obtained using reason and logic) produces the definitive position for the entire community that perfectly mirrors the biblical perspective. Since the individual gained this understanding through reason and logic, all other options can be eliminated. If the Evangelical understanding of a particular doctrine is derived from following the Evangelical line of reasoning, then that particular theological conclusion would hold a greater primacy. Truth possessed would trump any argument and stifle attempts at conversation and dialogue.

Truth Pursued

The path forward, therefore, may not be returning to the bounded set assumptions of the previous iterations of US Evangelicalism. Truth possessed does not allow for healthy, healing conversations. Instead, truth possessed sets up boundaries that create a battle of ideas where the powerful prevail. Instead of assuming the power and privilege of truth possessed, could the church take on a posture of truth pursued? This approach does not minimize the reality of truth—truth is still there. But it calls for a humility that says that we don’t own the truth but that God is the author of truth.

In history, those who have held to a truth possessed approach have often generated despotic regimes. Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung provide examples of a truth possessed model of leadership. They owned the truth of what was right and good, and they sought to apply that “truth” even to the detriment of the people. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, would be more reflective of a truth pursued approach. They pursued just governance and sought the fulfillment of a just society.

In the courts, truth possessed approaches are evident in adversarial court systems, where each side claims a version of truth and where the goal is to convince others of their version of truth. (Although there are some limited examples of truth pursued jurisprudence in which both “sides” are charged with finding the truth.) A truth that is possessed must be transferred by any means necessary. Truth possessed often results in conflict and contention. This adversarial system does not work in a truth pursued modality. Instead, there is the common calling to pursue truth and to discover truth, not to fight over whose version of truth is superior.

Truth pursued acknowledges the reality of truth. Truth exists. Jesus is the living truth. However, no human owns Jesus, and no human should claim to solely own or possess the entirety of truth. Instead, we are charged to follow and pursue Jesus and to follow and pursue truth. Discipleship is the pursuit of truth. The life of the church should be the pursuit of truth. If Christians and Christ’s church were to see themselves not as the possessors of truth but the pursuers of truth, how would that change us? Would that soften our political positions or our culture warrior status? Truth pursued requires a humility to acknowledge the God of the Bible, the God of history, and the God of truth. Could that humility deconstruct a broken history and construct a way forward?

Written By

Soong-Chan Rah is Fuller’s Robert Boyd Munger Professor of Evangelism. He has authored or co-authored over a half dozen, and many award-winning, books including The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, and Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith. He is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

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