John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Truth and Discernment

I recently saw a video clip of a Christian leader who was literally screaming because a Christian organization was advertising a series of seminars featuring a Jewish rabbi teaching on the Old Testament (as Christians refer to it). Admittedly, he was trying to be funny, and he may very well have had a point. But whatever point he may have had was lost on me when he started hopping up and down, red in the face, yelling at people because -- in his opinion -- Christians cannot learn anything about the Bible from a person who denies that Jesus is the Messiah. His line of reason was this: the whole Bible is about Jesus; therefore, if you deny the centrality of the historical Jesus, your interpretation of the Bible will be wrong.

I thought of him when I read this paragraph from the preface to Plantinga's book:

[John] Calvin understood that God created human beings to hunt and gather truth, and that, as a matter of fact, the capacity for doing so amounts to one feature of the image of God in them (Col. 3:10). So Calvin fed on knowledge as gladly as a deer on sweet corn. He absorbed not only the teachings of Scripture and of its great interpreters, such as St. Augustine, but also whatever knowledge he could gather from such famous pagans as the Roman philosopher Seneca. And why not? The Holy Spirit authors all truth, as Calvin wrote, and we should therefore embrace it no matter where it shows up. But we will need solid instruction in Scripture and Christian wisdom in order to recognize truth and in order to disentangle it from error and fraud. Well-instructed Christians try not to offend the Holy Spirit by scorning truth in non-Christian authors over whom the Spirit has been brooding, but this does not mean that Christians can afford to read these authors uncritically. After all, a person's faith, even in idols, shapes most of what a person thinks and writes, and the Christian faith is in competition with other faiths for human hearts and minds. (Engaging God's World, p. x)

Plantinga is saying (and here he is in good company with folks like John Calvin and C.S. Lewis) that Christians need not avoid listening to the wisdom of people who aren't Christians. There are those -- apparently like the hopping mad Christian leader in the video -- who think Christians can only learn from other Christians. After all, one could apply his premise to almost any field of study. I believe that Jesus is not only central to the Bible but to all of life. Therefore, if a person denies the centrality of Jesus, what can they teach us about any field of study? Psychology? Biology? Chemistry? History? Literature?

If taken to its logical conclusion, this line of reasoning leads us to only listen to other Christians and believe that we -- and only we -- have cornered the market on truth.

Plantinga seems to be saying that there's truth to be found in our world. Christians ought to be on a search for truth, but they must know that some of it lies beyond the boundaries of Christendom. And then he hints at what is perhaps the single biggest missing ingredient in the lives of many Christians. He says, basically, this search for truth among the wisdom of non-Christian people will require discernment on the part of Christians.

Ah, discernment. We're not very good at that. And we've managed to arrange our world so we don't have to be. I can listen to a Christian radio station -- where I know they'll never say or play anything objectionable. I can read only Christian books and only associate with Christian people. Our local church will distribute literature telling me where all the boundary lines are and what constitutes acceptable Christian behavior for those who aspire to leadership positions in the church (no smoking, drinking or going to R-rated movies). Heck, they'll even print up an easy-to-read voter guide telling me which candidates stand for the official Christian position. Christian leaders will tell me which issues I should be outraged over and which movies are Evangelically acceptable (Evan Almighty, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.).

The average Christian sitting in the average church isn't brimming with discernment. And I have to wonder if that's not a problem we created and are perpetuating.