Tuesday 10 November 2009

Peter Hicks and Henry H. Knight on Evangelicals and Truth

Peter Hicks, Evangelicals and Truth: A Creative Proposal for a Postmodern Age (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), 240pp., ISBN 0851114571.

Henry H. Knight III, A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 253pp., ISBN 068700960X.

[The following book reviews were first published on London School of Theology’s website in May 1998.]

The titles of these two books share three significant words: ‘Evangelical’, ‘Truth’, and ‘Postmodern’. Like so many others recently [sic] (e.g., Carson, Grenz, McGrath, Middleton and Walsh, Wells), Hicks and Knight recognise that we live in the twilight of modernity – in a ‘postmodern’ world – with the challenge to provide a basis for evangelicalism’s insistence on truth, but in a way which moves beyond a reliance on Enlightenment norms.

Hicks begins with a brief survey of the issue of ‘truth’ (From Plato to Postmodernism). In part 2 (Evangelicals and truth yesterday and today), he analyses what significant figures in the story of evangelicalism have said about the philosophy of knowledge and truth. In part 3 (Evangelicals and truth tomorrow), he explores what distinctives evangelicalism may offer today in face of the collapse of truth.

For Hicks, God himself is the basis for truth, and God communicates truth to men and women in a variety of ways – personally, experientially, and verbally. Further, we must let go of the claims of absolute certainty which the Enlightenment sought to establish, and work with a more ‘multi-dimensional’ view of truth related to every part of our creaturehood – factual, moral, personal, practical, spiritual… He writes:

‘The understanding of truth as something broad, and the holistic nature of our relationship with the truth, means that we can satisfactorily incorporate into our concept of truth the range of emphasis covered by evangelical and other thinkers. We do not have to make a choice between truth as propositional and truth as personal; it is both. It is historical, and it is existential. It is factual, and it is relational. It is particular, and it is eternal. It is doctrine, and it is life.’

Knight begins with a summary of the nature of evangelicalism, before dividing his book into three parts: (1) postmodernity and the truth of the Gospel; (2) revelation and the truth of Scripture; (3) redemption and the character of God. So, when it comes to Scripture, for instance, must Scripture be ‘propositional’ to be true (as some evangelicals nursed in the arms of modernist philosophy might insist)? Knight offers an alternative approach in keeping with how narrative, metaphor and other literary forms make truth claims about God, ourselves and the world.

Does Christian truth have a future in the postmodern world? It does. But not on rational and propositional grounds. Knight advocates a ‘critical realist’ approach to truth: that is to say, truth claims do correspond to reality (‘realism’), but only by continued reflection on the provisional nature of those claims (‘critical’).

Both books offer excellent surveys of past and current thinkers (Hicks is stronger on historical figures, while Knight gives more place to contemporary theologians). Both books give a strong place to the Christian community, tradition, spirituality, and the role of ‘signs and wonders’.

And both books come highly recommended. There is much to agree with and disagree with here, but no-one will be able to evade the challenge of engaging with the issues outlined.

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