“It is impossible to know the meaning of any written text.” If this is true, log off the web now. If not, read this commentary to find out about self-refuting arguments.
I mentioned that I spent last evening and all of this morning with a very, very dear group of people—about 15 adult men and women—who are very committed to Jesus Christ and His gospel. I mentioned earlier that they were a strange group of people; I guess that’s the wrong way to put it. They’re not strange as a group of people but they come from a rather strange world. At least it was strange to me. The irony is that these folks actually, in a sense, probably saw my world as strange because it was very different from theirs.
Let me give you a picture of my world, by and large, at least as it touches this particular issue. My world is a world in which thinking matters, in which there is such a thing as truth, in which truth can be known and in which we use thinking to assess ideas to determine whether they are true or not. There’s really not much room in my thinking system for comments like, Well, that’s just your interpretation, or just your opinion, when the emphasis is on “just.” Of course it’s my interpretation. Of course it’s my opinion, but it’s not just those things in that I’m not simply sharing my point of view, I’m sharing my reasons why I have a point of view.
Now it could be that my opinion or my interpretation is mistaken, but the only way for me to find out whether it’s mistaken or not is to get at the reasons I draw the conclusions which form either my opinion or my interpretation. I don’t believe that all opinions are equal. I don’t believe that all interpretations are equal. I don’t believe that all cultures are equal, or all morals are equal. I think there are value differences and so do you, every single person who is listening to me, even if you deny such a thing. You’re not telling the truth.
So I believe in a world in which there are these distinctions, and these distinctions are possible to determine. We use a number of different tests, if you will, to determine this. I use the same tests everybody else does, I just do it a little more self-consciously than many.
I also come from a world in which there are a lot of people like me who believe in clear thinking and also believe in the orthodox doctrines of Christianity—the virgin birth, miracles, the resurrection of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of the work of the cross, Jesus as God, the revelation that God gives through nature and through the Scripture, the Trinity—all of these things that have been a part of Christianity from its beginning. I happen to believe those things and so do the people I hang out with. Beyond that, these are bright people that I hang out with. They do thinking quite well. You can know that by simply talking to them for a little while.
I come from a world that affirms Christianity and affirms clear thinking, and the two are not at odds with each other.
Last evening I met a whole bunch of people who come from a different world. First of all, they are deeply committed to Jesus Christ and to the truth. Yet, they are in the midst of a world that doesn’t have the same commitment. They do have a commitment to Jesus Christ, the others in this world. But it’s not really clear who Jesus actually is. He certainly isn’t the man in the Bible. Because that Jesus is an invention.
They have a commitment to the truth, this group that they’re in but it’s not really clear what that truth is they’re committed to. It’s not even clear what truth is because there’s a very strong rhetoric that there is no such thing as truth—that truth doesn’t even exist—because truth is simply true for individuals who hold it.
In other words, truth is just a matter of opinion, and since everybody has their own opinion, opinions are mere opinions and there is something wrong with you if you think what you believe is more than just your mere opinion. If you think that Jesus is really God, and He really is the Savior of the world, and all must really believe in Him, and the Bible is really His word, then your opinion is not a good one because it’s not inclusive of all the other religions.
When this denomination has its national meetings and those who have a fire for the truth stand up for their three minutes to make their case in the face of tremendous opposition—people that are teaching and declaring and voting on issues for the denomination that go against everything that the Bible stands for—when they stand up to make their point clear and attempt to speak their point, not from their own opinion or their own authority, but from the only authority that matters, the Scriptures, and they read the Scriptures, this audience of men and women of the cloth laughs at them. The audience laughs. The audience snickers. There’s ridicule. Why? Because they are quoting the Bible.
I can’t relate to that. I have a hard time imagining what it must be like to be in a group of people that, when you quote the Bible, just laughs at you. (By the way, I’ve been in a group like that, like when I street preach at UCLA. I expect that there. I don’t expect it at a national meeting of a Christian denomination.)
It’s a stunner to me because these individuals, to a great degree, are by themselves. Although they are banning together now as orthodox Christians, they’re frightened to call themselves evangelicals because it’s such a negative label. Never mind fundamentalists. But Christians who want to follow the true Jesus by His true word. They’re finally banning together. Apart from that they’re just individuals being laughed down and shamed down in public by those who should be defending the gospel.
I really felt for these folks. I gave them my heart the last two days, trying to encourage them to know how to be able to respond to these attacks coming from other people of the cloth.
You see, the frightening thing is that it isn’t just a matter of standing against these attacks from other people of the cloth (if you were in the situation my friends were in it would be discouraging for you and it would be for me). But guess what else? All of these people were pastors . In other words, they have congregations. Christian pastors all over the country are standing up before their congregations and ridiculing the Christ of the Bible and belief in the Christ of the Bible. They’re ridiculing the truth of the Bible. They’re pointing to so-called evangelicals and saying: Your faith is simplistic and we know better now. Join the 20th century. There are no demons, there are no miracles, there are no god/men, there are no virgin births. Even the issue of sin is up for grabs.
But there is nothing that we’ve learned through science or philosophy or religion or any exploration of the world that has disproven the existence of spiritual things, that has disproven the existence of the soul, that has disproven the reality of miracles, that has disproven life after death, that has disproven anything taught in the Scriptures.
I want to develop these thoughts just a little bit further. The first is simply a snapshot of a circumstance that very dear Christians happen to find themselves in, a circumstance that is odd for me because I’m not exposed to that world. But once I’ve gotten a look into that world, I can see how much of Christendom is captured by it and the thousands of so-called Christian ministers who hold to this very non-Christian world view. And the thousands of Christian workers and lay people who have a hunger and thirst for the truth but are not going to get it in their church because their pastors don’t even believe there is such a thing.
As I’m reflecting on this, I’m thinking not just about those pastors out there who are under siege—like my friends this weekend—but the millions of people who are being sold a bill of goods with regard to Christianity. They wonder why Christianity doesn’t work and why it doesn’t change lives and why it doesn’t make a difference, and part of the reason is it’s so rarely practiced.
What’s been substituted in its stead is a man-made version that bears no resemblance (except for vocabulary) to the Real McCoy. Part of the reason is because people (I’ve mentioned this in different contexts, but I’m seeing it more forcibly now), even these so-called Christians who are ridiculing my friends, have abandoned the idea that there is such a thing as truth that can be known. Therefore, people are reduced in their understanding—especially about spiritual things—to mere opinions. And everybody’s opinion is as good as anybody else’s.
It really doesn’t work out that way because sooner or later you’re going to see that even these same folks think they believe things that are more true than what you believe. It’s always going to come out in some fashion.
This was a very similar situation to what I faced in New Hampshire about two weeks ago when I was there. I didn’t get a chance to talk about it much last weekend, but I ran into a young lady who had come from a college at the session I was teaching. We were talking about these issues and she said that her instructor happened to say in class that there is no objective truth, and the students were out there taking notes like mad. What’s wrong with this picture?
She, as a Christian, was stumped. Stymied. She didn’t know what to say. She was stopped in her tracks. How do you respond to that kind of thing? Not only do you hear it in places like the University of New Hampshire, but when I was in Portland in the spring, I had a young lady come to me who was from a Christian college in the area and her professor told her the same thing. Her professor told her and the students in the class—these students who are Christians, who come to a Christian school to be encouraged and built up and to learn how to go deeper in their faith and to know Christ and defend their faith—and here is a Christian professor at a Christian school telling them that there is no truth. There is no objective truth.
This is intellectual bullying. It’s called post-modernism. It’s also called deconstructionism. I’ve got a new term I just heard this week. When it’s in Christian circles it’s called post-conservative evangelicalism. Post-conservative evangelicalism. Yes, that’s the view that there is no truth. That’s the Christian view that there is no truth.
Now, if there is no truth, what are we to make of the statement in John 14:6 in which Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life,” if there is no truth? This is what we get in Christian colleges. I’ve got an article here written by Carl Henry in World Magazine , August 1995, entitled “Trouble at the Peak.” He’s looking at the problems in evangelicalism and he’s talking about post-conservative evangelicalism popping up in schools like Messiah College and Wheaton College and in Intervarsity Press who are sponsoring post-conservative conferences. Do you realize what this stuff is? This is a destruction. This isn’t deconstruction, not just that. It’s destruction of the notion of truth.
At the conference this weekend, as I talked with the pastors, one of them said to me: I can really see how this is a powerful tool to destroy Christianity because, if you go after the notion that there is no truth, then it doesn’t make any sense to talk about things being true or false or right or wrong. Because there is no such thing. It is much better than saying, “Here is a lie that you ought to believe and you who believe in Christianity are false in your beliefs.” At least that would be a point of view that there is something true and you Christians don’t have it. But what do you do when someone says, “Hey it’s meaningless to even talk about whether Christianity is true or not. It’s meaningless to even have the discussion because there is no such thing as truth.”
Now what? Now where do you go? Well, I spoke confidently this weekend and I’ll tell you why. Because not only was this point of view false, it was a point of view that could not possibly be true . It was necessarily false. I want to tell you why the statement, There is no truth, there is no objective reality—and all the stupidity that comes from that point of view which is now infecting the church at the highest levels—is not only false, but it is impossible for it to be true. That’s why I can be so confident.
[portion of comments were missing from tape]
We have at least one statement of objective reality: that there is no objective reality. So this beats itself up. If it’s false, then it’s false. In other words, given the statement that there is no objective reality, if it’s false it’s false and if it’s true it is necessarily false. That’s what I mean that it can’t be true. Because if it’s really true, then that itself is a statement of objective reality and, therefore, it falsifies itself.
They call that a self-refuting argument. It’s like me saying, I can’t speak a word in English. When spoken in English, that seems to beat itself up, doesn’t it? There are no English sentences longer than three words. Well, wait a minute. That sentence itself is longer than three words. There is no objective reality. That sentence itself claims to be a statement about objective reality. It’s called a self-refuting concept. It cannot possibly be true. It is false. If it were true, you would never know it.
I talk about the problem of the elephant. (I did that a few months ago.) Remember the illustration of the elephant? The eastern religious illustration about the blind men touching different parts of the elephant, and they all come up with mistaken understandings of what the elephant is really like? One pulls his tail and says the elephant is like a rope. One feels its side—the elephant is like a wall. They’re all mistaken. They all have a mistaken view based on their subjective experiences.
Now, does it follow from this that there is no elephant? Of course it doesn’t. In fact, somebody sees the elephant. It’s the king observing the circumstances and, because he’s observing from an objective point of view, he can point out the fact that the other people are mistaken. In other words, these kinds of analyses require, even for their utterance, an objective perspective. So how is it someone can utter then, there is no such thing as an objective perspective?
My further question to the professor is, do you really believe that? Yes, I do. Really? No kidding? Then, why are you telling me? In other words, if you believe there is no objective reality, then everybody has their mere subjective reality. You have your subjective reality, I have mine. Leave me alone in mine. All you can tell me is about your world, not mine. I have my own world.
I like Frank Beckwith’s approach, frankly, when a teacher says there is no objective reality. Frank says: Stand up in the middle of the class and say, “Class dismissed.” Why should anybody listen to a teacher who says they have nothing to teach you? That nothing they say is objectively true? That nothing is objectively real? That nothing can be counted on? Why are you taking notes on something like this? There are no correct answers to any test the teacher might give because there is no objective reality. How, in fact, can the professor give a test because doesn’t the test itself falsify his own statements? Because there are right answers and wrong answers that are objectively true, at least in regard to his point of view. Why take notes?
Professor, give yourself a test. That’s your reality. We’ll take our test, that’s our reality. We’ll get 100 percent as we test our own reality. Not only how can you justify giving a test, how can you justify charging us for this course? Professor, you ought to be embarrassed to take a paycheck. Because you have just told me that the only thing you can teach me is that nothing is true. Therefore, if that’s true, then nothing else is worthwhile that you might say.
As it turns out, the one thing you have to offer me is itself false, because it is self-refuting. Worse than that, if you really believed there is no objective reality, you wouldn’t tell anyone. You’d give us our money back and dismiss the class. You’d return your paycheck. You’d resign your useless post, because there is no truth to teach.
But you won’t do these things, will you? Why not? Because even you don’t believe what you’re saying. Which makes you a hypocrite. To add insult to injury, you’re a hypocrite, too.
Do you see how empty and vacuous these kinds of statements are? It’s just the case that there are things that are true and those things are discoverable, many of them, through the process of intelligent, rational discourse and disputation. Is there a guarantee that we’ll never be mistaken? No, there’s no guarantee of that. But can we have good confidence that what we believe is actually true? Of course we can, if we use our heads for what God gave them to us for. (I mean minds, not brains.)
That’s what protects us from this silliness—the intelligence, the rationality that God has given us to weigh the truth. He’s given us more than just rationality. He’s given us prepositional truth in His word.
That’s what protects us.