Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Jon Mackenzie

This is the third in a series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today is...

GD: Hello Jon Mackenzie and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

JM: Hey Guy. I am a white Caucasian male of medium build (11st 3os) and short height (5ft 7.5 ins). I was born in ’85 (making me 23) and yet I do not feel like a child of the eighties. My friends describe me invariably as a hyperchondriac (should that be ‘an’ hyperchondriac?) and, consequently, a pedant. I describe myself as a student – it has served me well as an appellation for the last 18 years so why change the habit of a lifetime? If you were to try and engage me in conversation, the following might be good loci from which to begin: theology, sport (almost any – I love football, cricket, golf, rugby (watching – not playing – refer to ‘medium build’), squash (playing), etc., etc.), I enjoy clever literature (i.e. I’m reading a lot of Will Self at the moment), spending time with friends, being active, sucking the marrow out of life. Having read this, you would probably describe me as a narcissist.

GD: Your blog is called "Mixophilosophicotheoligica", please explain.

JM: I first came across the phrase in a work by Eberhard Jüngel (God as the Mystery of the World, if you were wondering (pg 153, fn 1)). It comes from Abraham Calovius originally (a Lutheran scholar in the 17th Century) and doesn’t really mean much more than the mixing of philosophy and theology. Obviously, Jüngel and Barth are careful to avoid any ‘mixophilosophicotheologia’ in their theology. I tend to agree with them – theology doesn’t necessitate philosophy (or vice-versa). However, on my blog I am regularly mixing thoughts on both disciplines and so I thought that the name was quite fitting.

GD: So, it's got nothing to do with the horrible rabbit disease, myxomatosis. Now, what prompted you to start blogging?

JM: I really could’t say – I started blogging when I was about 15 I think just about life’s little exigencies (my old blog can be visited at but isn’t really worth visiting). I guess being a teenager, it was nice to know that I could feel as though I was making some difference in the world. The blog also introduced me to a whole network of friends who shared similar interests, etc., so I guess it gave me a certain amount of intellectual stimulation.

GD: Talking of intellectual stimulation, I remember your old blog where you made a rather desperate hint about doing a "proper" blog interview. You were afraid of being "left behind". You needn't have worried. Now, what are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological reflection?

JM: For myself, I am not the sort of person who sits down and has ‘great thoughts’ – I suppose not many people are. I am a firm believer in distraction. One of the primary reason why there tends to be less creativity within the word today is, I think, undoubtedly linked to the inability within today’s society to use distraction properly. So these days, people will listen to music, for example, as a distraction from various epiphenomena so that they can concentrate on something more fully – in my experience, distraction has to be used more constructively – I like to listen to music whilst working because it acts as something outside my thought-process which constantly impinges upon my thinking and causes my mind to wander – to think of things that, without the music to distract me, I would never have conceived. Another technique I used, particularly in Scotland, was golf – occasionally I would play a round on my own when I had to think through an essay topic. The golf gave me a distraction which actually focused my mind on the topic and actually mixed up my thoughts about my game with my essay (it also helped my round – I only ever broke 80 when I played a round with a particularly thorny essay topic at hand!). This is why I love blogging. You get distracted, you related disparate topics, it makes you a better-rounded individual. This is, I think, a theological strength. Theology is a creative endeavour and blogging (properly done) can only benefit it.

With regards to the weakness of blogging for theological reflection, I would say that the blogging ethos is not necessarily apt for theological reflection. Often on blogs, arguments break out which are more concerned with secondary issues (concern to be ‘right’ or at least not to be ‘wrong’, misunderstanding of positions, love of tendentiousness, etc. – I’m pointing at myself more than anyone else). Ultimately, it takes a certain type of self-relation to begin blogging (i.e. I think I have something valuable to say which other people should hear) and sometimes we little egos clash and there is little theological benefit. (Obviously this isn’t always true but I feel as though this is exhibited in my own blogging escapades!)

GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?

JM: I’m not sure how to tackle this one. Do you mean tangible influences, external influences, creative influence or simply in terms of good advice? I’ll try and cover the whole gamut: in terms of doctrinal directions, I suppose I have been influenced mainly by my parents and various people within the churches that I have attended. To this end, I suppose I would describe myself as ‘Reformed’ (although I’m afraid I’m becoming more and more Lutheran – when pressed, I term myself ‘Refutheran’). However, in terms of classical Reformed theology I would not necessarily be categorised as Reformed. The way I look at it is that the Reformers were those who were ‘most right’ in many ways – however, there are a plethora of other theologians who were ‘more right’ than the Reformers on certain issues. Before I am labelled a ‘post-modern’ I want to say, I am certain that I would be able to tie down some dogmatic (i.e. anti-post-modern) position which I held to – it’s just that my influences are a bit spread out at the moment. I look forwards to a time when I could evince my position more clearly!

Academically, I’d divide my influences up in two ways: lecturers and professors, and theologians whose writings have influenced me. My lecturers at St Andrews were those who were most influencial – particularly Steve Holmes simply because he convinced me that I didn’t have to be embarrassed by my background theologically. Reformed (small ‘r’) theology isn’t the joke that it is made out to be in the Academe. Alan Torrance and Trevor Hart were also influential here.

In terms of theologians my Doktorvater is the German theologian Eberhard Jüngel (a Lutheran). I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on his theological methodology and he formed a large part of my recently completed masters’ thesis. Beyond this, I enjoy the 20th-Century German-speaking theologians (Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Barth, Bultmann, Pannenberg, although not Moltmann as much). Also von Balthasar is a bigger and bigger influence. Then we’re back into earlier theology – Reformation thought (Calvin, Luther, etc.), Patristics (Cappadocians, Athanasius, Irenaeus, etc.), Augustine. If I had to pick three: Calvin, Jüngel, Luther (in Chronological order).

GD: An eclectic mix there. What impact has studying theology at St. Andrews & Cambridge had on your theological position?

JM: A great deal. St Andrews taught me that Reformed theology wasn’t an oxymoron. It also taught me that Reformed theology could be good theology. I think the biggest change on my theological position has been in terms of wiggle-room. Before I began university I was fairly hard-line and unaccommodating with regards to theology – i.e. if it’s not 100% believed, it’s not 100% right. I think I have learned more and more that theology is a human endeavour and, therefore, is liable to human error or even simply human limitedness. To suggest that the totality of what ‘is’ can be depicted in human language is simply absurd. Therefore, theology is undeniably a human attempt to talk about God – it isn’t simply ‘what is the case’. However, the paradoxical part of such a claim is that God himself came into the world to disclose himself. Thus, we should be confident that we CAN talk about God because he enabled it in Jesus Christ. The theologian walks a fine line between over-confidence and mute awe.

Cambridge has taught me that theology is not simply factual but that theology is additionally beautiful. It is not that theology is a boring endeavour done by those who could not function within society. Instead, theology is the greatest of occupations. Theology is beautiful because it seeks to encompass linguistically the transcendent God who is beauty. Theology, therefore, is the interplay between truth and beauty to the extent that the truth about God cannot but be appreciated in its beauty. This is why the Narnia Chronicles are so gripping – Lewis, a true medievalist, appreciated that truth isn’t just cold, hard Enlightenment fact, but that it compels, it provokes a response. Theology should be the same – if it doesn’t produce a response in the hearer, it hasn’t got to grips with its subject matter (God) in the fullest sense.

GD: Why do you think that Barth is once again grabbing the attention of the theological world?

JM: I’ll just tender this question slightly – Barth has been huge in Protestant theology for the last 40 years. I suspect interest in Barth in academia is dwindling now for a couple of reasons – firstly, academia works on principles of originality and (after 40 years) Barth studies is finally drying up (although it will never abate, I suspect) – secondly, people are discovering different theologians. Here’s the point – Barth has been instrumental to theology for this reason: he made theology possible after the Enlightenment. I don’t know if you’ve read Susannah Clarke’s book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it a fantastic allegory for the development of theology in the 20th Century. Basically, it describes a world where magic has become stale and purely theoretical before the arrival of a couple of ‘practical’ magicians arrive on the scene. The same is true in theology: after the rigours of modernist thinking, theology became simply theoretical – a ‘talking about’ theology rather than a ‘doing of’ theology. After Barth, who simply got on with it and wrote what he thought, rather than tendering it with methodological caveats, theologians realised that the Enlightenment critique was actually not to the detriment of theology, it simply clarified the theological task to a greater degree. Why is Barth great? Because without Barth, we might not be ‘doing’ theology now – we might simply be ‘talking about’ theology.

Barth is now dripping into evangelical thinking much more I agree. This is probably because we evangelicals are always careful to disagree with phenomena until they’re ‘out-dated’ and then we feel as though then we can see what all the fuss is about! I suspect that Barth could be very useful to evangelical theology. Barth teaches us how to ‘do’ theology. People may get het-up about his doctrine of scripture or alleged ‘universalism’ but that is to miss the brilliance of his theology – it was uncompromising in a time when theology had become a psychological study of innate human behaviour. It was Barth who suggested that perhaps theology was right and that God was really there.

GD: The recent book, 'Engaging with Barth' is a good example of "classic Reformed" theologians getting to grips with Barth (see here for an interview with co-editor, David Gibson). What is the subject of you postgrad thesis and why did you choose that particular area of theology? And how's it going?

JM: As a general rule, you should never ask a postgrad about his or her thesis unless you have a strong fortitude, lots of time and even more patience. I’ll try and keep it short. I have recently completed my masters thesis which will be worked up into a full PhD thesis I hope. My title for PhD thesis is “The Creative God and the Void called Subject: investigations towards a concept of Christian subjectivity”. The basic premise behind my work is that subjectivity has fallen out of philosophical and theological parlance (to their detriment). As a response, I’m trying to think what it means to be a ‘subject’ (most broadly an ‘individual’) within Christian theology – given that we believe that there is a God who is in control of the world. Ultimately, I am rejecting much of the modernist understanding of what makes us a subject and reversing it – the Enlightenment conceived of the subject in terms of positive ontological content (that just means ‘I’ am male, Caucasian, sporty, brown-haired, etc.) – I am using a modern philosopher who conceives of the subject as a void or precisely ‘nothing’. However, rather than just saying that I don’t exist, this language allows me to talk about a transcendental aspect of the subject – I am nothing because I don’t really fit into the empirical world – I cannot be described simply materially. I then go on to talk about the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (out of nothing) and talk about how the subject as a void allows us to express God’s interaction within the physical world. My main proposal is that this model actually fits into the Reformation understanding of the human person – so Luther’s distinction between inner and outer man, and the wider Reformation exploration of the Romans 7 man. Working with this language allows me to pass through a simple dualism of physical and spiritual (that is to say, spiritual and physical suggest two concomitant spatial ‘realms’) and suggest that we should think in terms of ‘actuality’ (what is the case) and ‘possibility’ (the options available to God). I’m sorry if this all seems a little incoherent – I’ll be working on making it a little more coherent over the next few years!

GD: What kind of am impact have theological studies had on your Christian life?

JM: I think they have made me more excited. Before I began studying I had almost got to a position where theology was superfluous – it had all been done before and you just pointed people to the right passage in the Institutes - job done. Now God feels much more of a reality to me in the sense that I find it much easier to conceive of him as an ‘actor’ within this world rather than just some remote static point which didn’t move. That is not to say I adopt a ‘process’ position (me genoite!) but to say that God being real is now far beyond a simple epistemological accession to God existing i.e. being ‘real’, but now far more real in the existential sense – I feel as though now I am living in a more tangible relationship with the living God who I can speak about and yet who transcends even my clearest exposition of who he is. My theology doesn’t make me a better expositor – but it does make me a better expector. That is a bad catch-phrase but I feel as though it comes closest to answering your question! Apologies!

GD: What do you hope to do once you studies are completed?

JM: Never suggest to me that being a student is a finite endeavour! I never want to lose the dream. Jokes aside – (tax payers insert joke here as a counter) – I envisage a life in academia. However, I hope to be more useful than simply life-long student – I see myself teaching in the future (be it in university, seminary, etc.). My long-term goal is to allow others to think of their faith in God in such a way that it is evangelical. I don’t see my role as a ‘higher level’ role – bringing others to a position where they can tell others – but rather to excite people about how great God is (even if that is through our own inability to describe how great he is!) so that the only response available is to go out and tell others about the revelation of God through Jesus Christ.

GD: If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you like to meet and what would you say to him/her?

JM: I imagine Luther would have been fun to hang around with. I wouldn’t necessarily have a burning issue to discuss (apart from possibly the communicatio idiomatum of course!) but it’d be cool to chat to him for a couple of days. If I’m honest, I’m happy enough talking to anyone about theology! The real object of my time travel fantasies would be far less ‘theological’ (I’m almost embarrassed to say). Winston Churchill. Pink Floyd in their hey-day. Cambridge when Fry and Laurie were in Footlights. (I have a strongest urge to meet Hugh Laurie!)

GD: Winston Churchill, Pink Floyd and Hugh Laurie aren't strictly a figures from church history, so I'm not sure that the Exiled Preacher Time Machine can accommodate you there, but Luther would be OK. Care to name your top three songs or pieces of music?

JM: No but I will make some observations: I really like Lily Allen’s music (although there are certain songs I would NEVER listen to). I would only listen to one opera which is Les pêcheurs de perles by Georges Bizet. The Beatles are over-rated. Jazz is actually better the older you get. Learn an instrument as a child – it IS worth it.

GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...

JM: Richard Muller’s book 'The Unaccommodated Calvin'. I’m presenting a paper at a Calvin conference at our church this summer on Calvin’s methodology. This book has been a real insight into the theological context of Calvin’s writing. It is a must read because we shroud Calvin in mystery, much of which is unhelpful.

GD: I've been reading Muller's 'God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius'. It was a challenging read to say the least. What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

JM: Two things: Dualism where we seem to think that the spiritual is a realm which exists side-by-side with the physical and which will end up in Christianity becoming more sterile and Christians distancing themselves from the world. How do we combat it? Read the Bible carefully to understand how the spiritual realm is quite simply the work of the Spirit within the world. We are physical beings – we are nothing outside the physical realm in some sense. However, as Christians, we know that there is more possible beyond the physical realm – the realm where the Spirit will work within the world according to the purpose of God through Jesus Christ. Secondly, promoting theology to a position it can never hold. In evangelical theology, there seems to be some assumption that theology is the ‘truth’ about God. However, often we humans mess up and so we must be able to conceive that our theology might not be accurate (even though we hold to it 100%). If there were a little more humility within evangelical theology, there might be a lot less misunderstanding between evangelical theology and much of which is unnecessarily opposed to it.

GD: Which blogs do you find most helpful and why?

JM: I guess I follow about 80 blogs (using bloglines) – some theology blogs, others blogs of friends and acquaintances. It’d be hard to list them. I follow Ben Myer’s blog as a rule simply because it is a useful hub for theological blogging. I do enjoy your blog – especially the willingness with which you engage with those who you disagree with, reading around the subject rather than making ad hominem attacks out of context. Sorry for being a creep! I used to love Alastair Roberts blog (alastair.adversaria) but unfortunately he’s packed in for the meanwhile – maybe when he’s ensconced in his PhD position he’ll bring it out of retirement. Alastair is another huge influence – I should probably have answered your questions better! Thinking back there was so much more I could have said which remains unsaid. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about myself to people who are probably bored of me by now. I hope there is something helpful amongst all the sludge.
GD: Thanks for dropping by for this chat, Jon. All the best with your studies!


Jon said...

That should be - I am a purple-white Caucasian male... [sic]

Gary Benfold said...

Is there an English version of this?

Exiled Preacher said...

This is the English version I'm afraid.

Gary Benfold said...


Ross said...

So Jon now you have "made it" a full interview with "The Exiled Preacher" I notice you didnt mention your spoof interview with Pastor Alan. Now I understand you better after all these years!

Thanks a great read

Ross Mackenzie

Exiled Preacher said...


Thanks for reminding me of the "left behind" interview with Jon and Les Daveys de France. I've updated the interview to include a link to that momentous event in the history of theoblogdom.

Rusty said...

Oh how my head hurts after reading this interview.

Exiled Preacher said...

Sorry about that, Rusty. May I suggest that you take an asprin and lie down in a dark room for hour. That seems to have worked for other readers.

Jon said...

Is there an un-dumbed-down version of these comments? My head hurts reading them...

Exiled Preacher said...

Jon, these comments couldn't be any more dumbed down.

I could understand what you were saying and I reckon that if I can anyone can with half a brain.

ione said...

If you think this is bad, you should read his other stuff. I don`t even bother trying to read it, just go straight to the lying down in a dark room bit :)

cath said...

I have a question (as well as a hurting head) if you don't mind me airing it so long after the event ...

Just wondering what are the practical implications of this comment here:
"... In evangelical theology, there seems to be some assumption that theology is the ‘truth’ about God. However, often we humans mess up and so we must be able to conceive that our theology might not be accurate (even though we hold to it 100%)."

Are we to conceive that every tenet of our theology might not be accurate? There was an earlier observation that God has after all disclosed himself - is it possible at all to have a 100% accurate grasp of that self-disclosure?

As well as: how can it be possible to know your phd title so long in advance? I didn't know mine till about 3 months before submitting it :)

Jon said...


I think what I'm trying to say here is that the theologian has to operate with a level of intellectual humility. As theology is a human endeavour it is liable to miss the point every once in a while. In that sense too the theologian is doing second-hand discourse about a first-hand experience (in the loosest sense of the word) so I am attempting to explain something with words which could miss the mark.

Having said that, our theology should be based on the assumption that God has revealed himself to us and so we can know that our theology is based on divine self-revelation.

The important distinction is to believe that what I hold to theologically is what I believe to be true but that I am willing to be corrected if I am shown to be wrong.

It's not simply that God revealed theology to us in toto but that he has revealed HIMSELF to us in Christ through the Spirit and our theology seeks to reflect that revelation - I'd be less epistemological than saying simply 'If God reveals himself then theology is either true or false' - theology is speculative in the sense that we work from the biblical truth towards a system of theological 'tenets'.

As for my title, in the UK (at least in humanities) you submit proposals for your PhD before you are accepted on courses so you necessarily know your topic before you begin.

Gary Benfold said...

Though she can speak for herself, I'd guess Cath's concern was whether you were embracing the old liberal idea that propositions about God are always wrong. There's a difference between not knowing truly and not knowing exhaustively which theology has not, perhaps, always followed consistently.

Guy - now we know why you understand it so easily. Those of us with whole brains, however...

Exiled Preacher said...

That would explain it, Gary. Sometimes half a brain is better than a hole.

cath said...

Yes - either whether propositions about God are always wrong, or, what kind of theological propositions it's safe to be "willing to be corrected on".

Not picking on you in particular, Jon - it's just this interview popped up in my feeds at a point when I've got time to pick it up!

It does bother me that the term "humility" in this context usually gets thrown in at the precise juncture where things start to get blurry between what we can know accurately, and what we can know comprehensively/exhaustively.

Which makes you wonder: is it possible to be simultaneously humble and 100% convinced of a doctrine which you have grasped with 100% accuracy? In practical terms, it would be good to know how that works out for the layman in the life of faith. Should a Christian, eg, be prepared to be corrected on the doctrine that there are three persons in the Godhead?

The thesis, not a serious point. As a UK humanities postdoc i couldn't have told you my title for years, nae worries but.

Jon said...

Gary - so propositions about God are always differentiated from God right. That is to say, God isn't simply a bundle of linguistic propositions. If that is the case then there is no problem with being humble about the extent to which our propositions about God are reflective of God. Call me a liberal but I find it hard to deny that. In defence of my therefore affirming that all propositions about God are false, I would simply clarify and say that I believe God is bigger than propositions concerning him. However, in practice, this is to affirm that God beyond the language we use to speak about him, i.e., he is greater than our attempts to describe him. Thus, the statement "God is love" is not as wonderful as the reality of God's love. One can tell someone of the love of God, but it is only until they have experienced the love of God that it becomes meaningful in some way.

However, I am convinced that my theological discourse is reflective of the reality of God. I attempt to conceive of God with human language. However, being proven wrong or being shown that there is a clearer way of talking about God will not cause me to doubt that the God I believe in is 'untrue' - theology is a second-level discourse about a first-hand experiential relationship with the living God.

Cath - With respect of the doctrine of the trinity, I think you're confusing what I'm trying to do. The problem is not encountered when we affirm that God is one ousia in three persons - the problem comes when we try to express that in human language. So I would always confess that God is three in one. Where I would begin to accept my fallability is in describing theologically what that looks like.

In terms of knowing, I'd be much more comfortable with rejecting an epistemology which becomes endangered by its debt to the Enlightenment. Knowledge in the biblical sense of the word is always personal and experiential. To know God is not to exhaustively cognise him in terms of propositions - this is the flip-side of your assumption. As a challenge to you, how can we avoid the inverse problem - that is, of ending up with a God who is simply a logical construction and is, therefore, reducible to the mind of the human knower who can 'know' him?

I appreciate the problematics in my positions - I don't want to risk adopting a position where I'm not affirming anything - (and if you talk theology with me, I'm certain you will realise I'm not going to concede one inch on much of what I hold to!) - what I am doing is trying to understand how theology works without becoming more (or less) than it is meant to be. My fear of your position is that it makes God to be dependent upon human language for his existence. That is to say, there seems to be little difference for you between the 'trinity' and the 'doctrine of the trinity'. For me, one is God, the other is an attempt to speak about God. Does that make sense? If there is a blurring between the two, then God is simply the doctrine of the Trinity and is thus reducible to language.

Exiled Preacher said...

Does John Frame help us here?

"Sometimes we dream fondly of a 'purely objective' knowledge of God - a knowledge freed from the limitations of our senses, minds, experience, preparation, and so forth. But nothing of this sort is possible, and God does not demand that of us. Rather, He condescends to dwell in and with us, as in a temple. He identifies himself in and through our thoughts, ideas and experiences. And that identification is clear; it is adequate for Christian certainty. A 'purely objective' knowledge is precisely what we don't want! Such knowledge would presuppose a denial of our creaturehood and thus a denial of God and all truth." (From The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John M. Frame, P&R, 1987, p. 65-65).

Gary Benfold said...

For clarity's sake, I didn't call you a liberal!

Now, you do say "In defence of my therefore affirming that all propositions about God are false..." If language means anything (and it does) you are affirming that all propositions about God are false. No; absolutely not. They may be inadequate, incomplete - all propositions about me are inadequate and incomplete. 'Gary is bald' - yes, but that's not the whole truth. 'Gary is a Yorkshireman' - yes, but not the whole truth.
'God is love' - it's a proposition about God which does not tell the whole truth (for after all, 'God is a consuming fire'). It is not the whole truth, but it is wholly true. It is not false in any sense - in and of itself.
The proposition 'God is love is the whole truth about God' IS false; but it is a very different proposition.

Guy - I don't know whether Frame is helpful or not. Quoting him is (to me) almost always like clarifying water by adding mud.

Jon said...

So what is your criterion of truth? A proposition that accurately mirrors reality?

My argument is simply that no proposition is that privileged. If it is, then God is reducible down to words. Interestingly enough, the biblical notion of truth is expressed through the person of Jesus Christ - "I am the way, the truth, and the life" - "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" - etc.

How do you conceive of the notion of Christ as truth?

Jon said...

Incidentally, in answer to your argument regarding incomplete truth - according to traditional theology (although I suppose not so much Reformed although I bet I could find some references to it in Heppe and Turretin) the statment "God is love" is conceived of through the notion of divine simplicity - that being the idea that God is what he is simply (i.e. undivided) and completely. Thus, God is love is actually 'true' insofar as it inheres in reality. So God is love is actually a statement that attempts to reflect the truth - that is not to say that it does not do this successfully, but to say that the statement "God is love" is not a patch on the real thing - the God who is love completely (and all of his other perfections).

Gary Benfold said...

"So what is your criterion of truth? A proposition that accurately mirrors reality?
My argument is simply that no proposition is that privileged. If it is, then God is reducible down to words."

Pardon me, but that's nonsense. If a true statement can be made about God, that does not make God the statement, or the statement God - which is what 'God is reducible down to words' would have to mean. It just means that the statement is true.
And the 'Biblical idea of truth' includes propositions: 'sanctify them through the truth; your word is truth.'

And of course the reality is in some sense (perhaps it would be better to say 'in all senses') greater than the words that describe them - that's always true. 'The furnace is hot' tells you something true about the furnace but it does not let you feel its heat. Friend, nobody ever said it did. The love of God is infinitely better than the words; nobody ever said it wasn't. I deny absolutely, however, (again) that any proposition about God has to be false. 'God is love' is true; so is 'God is consuming fire' and myriad other propositions.

Blessings upon you.

Exiled Preacher said...

We should not make too sharp a distinction between personal and propositional revelation. What we have in Scripture in not simply true propositions about God, but God himself in his communicative action. Through Scripture God reveals himself as love in Christ and makes his love a reality in our hearts by the Spirit.

I refer you to Tim Ward's "Words of Life", reviewed here:

Gary Benfold said...


"What we have in Scripture in not simply true propositions about God, but God himself in his communicative action."

I'm not sure what the second half of that sentence means. (Perhaps the Ward book would explain it.) God acts through his word; yes. God acts in his word. Yes. But Scripture is God himself in communicative action? What does that add to the statements I've made?

Gary Benfold said...

Let me explain my last comment. 'Jesus is God himself in human form.' 'Scripture is God himself in communicative action.' Those two sentenceds require very different meanings for the word 'is' (shades of Bill Clinton!) I'm not sure 'is' has a lexical range wide enough for the second sentence to make any sense at all? Can you persuade me?

Jon said...

You still haven't given me a definition of what you think truth is... I've offered my opinion. You are simply telling me my position is nonsense before having your cake (saying that there is no distinction between a proposition and its referent) and eating it (saying that 'obviously' God is something more than any proposition about himself.

Incidentally, your argument about truth being propositional would hold if we were in the Enlightenment "i.e. your word is truth = truth is propositional". Unfortunately, the scriptural notion of the word is very different - "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God" which simply brings us back to my question of what does it mean that the truth is a person. That is to say, God did not send us a book - he sent us a person, his son and THUS people wrote about him, to witness to him.

Let me tease out your definition of truth a little bit more - you claim that I am saying that every proposition about God is false - I don't think I have once hinted at that, all I suggested was that my convictions aren't 100% truth given that I believe them. Thus, I am not going to deny that a statement is true or false but I AM going to deny such epistemological freight to a statement that I won't consider the possibility that is MIGHT be wrong.

Interestingly enough, if you privilege language to that extent you should be reading the bible in the original language (and preaching in it) and you should not be engaging in theology at all because the statements contained within the bible are indistinguishable from the reality. As I understand language, it is changing all the time - sure the furnace is 'hot' but so is ones girlfriend, a car, etc. If God's truth is unchanging and language is changing then we reach an impasse. The statement 'God is love' is only useful in so far as we still speak English. Thus, meaning is more important than a notion of truth based upon some static reading of language (which becomes Platonic - again, not something which is necessarily biblical).

In many ways we will never reach an agreement about this issue. Before I close off, I challenge you to look carefully at your standard of 'truth-criterion' - if you think that your propositional truth theory is 'biblical' (and by this I mean, backed up by scripture) then look at the number of times you use a truth criterion which is Enlightenment-based:

You claim that my argument is nonsense - 1 Corinthians tells us that our message is foolishness. You seem to suggest that because my argument isn't logical it doesn't hold - so try explaining the notion that Christ is the 'truth'.

Jon said...

"all propositions about me are inadequate and incomplete. 'Gary is bald' - yes, but that's not the whole truth." Again, what is this mystical notion of truth to which you refer? Do you think that, given the time, we could reach the truth about you using simply propositions

You disapproved of Guy's example from Frame (which was an attempt at a theological concept of truth) simply because it doesn't appear clear to you!

You have a whole comment about the 'lexical range' of the word 'is' in answer to Guy's attempt to develop a theological notion of scripture.

I'm sorry if this appears disrespectful - I am trying to explain my position - but the pressure has to be upon YOU to show that your conception of truth is theological - so far, I have no understanding of how your truth-theory is anything other than a pragmatic realism (which isn't to say it is wrong!) - I just want to know how it is biblical!

You closed your post with this statement:

"I deny absolutely, however, (again) that any proposition about God has to be false."

I agree with you. If that is seen as an attack on my position I've obviously not spoken clearly.

What I am trying to say is: "I deny absolutely, however, (again) that any proposition about God has to be true." Which is completely different AND this is where my argument for more humility in theology comes in. A simple argument toward scriptural basis does not make one right (although, above, I believe that my position and (as I read it) Guy's is more scriptural) - we both affirm the scriptures! How then can we both be arguing different positions? Because theology is a human discourse about God and CAN be wrong.

Thanks for discussing this!

Gary Benfold said...


Thanks for the apology, but I don't think you're being disrespectful - it's OK. But - I do think you write like a philosopher, and I don't mean it as a compliment...

No, I didn't define what truth is. That's partly because it's difficult in writing to follow every trail. It's partly, to be honest, because I don't think it needs to be defined.

I did expect you to quote John 1:1 in response to my quote of John 17:17, but I'm sorry. Exegetically it won't do - it's plain in context that Jesus is not talking about himself as the Incarnate Word.

Do I think that, given time, you could reach the truth about me using simply propositions? Yes. It would be a lot of propositions. And it wouldn't be me. But it is possible in theory to describe me exhaustively by propositions.

Naturally, if Frame isn't clear to me, the fault's his, not mine! ;-)

As far as Guy's comment is concerned, and my query of 'is' - I just don't know what it can mean in that context. Saying it's an attempt 'to develop a theological notion of Scripture' doesn't explain it. I'm not, by the way, completely ignorant of the language of philosophy. I am impatient of the way that it is sometimes used rather to obscure than to clarify - the emperor's new clothes come to mind, and I'm not afraid to be the one shouting 'He's in the nuddy!' sometimes.

I interpreted 'In defence of my therefore affirming that all propositions about God are false,' - which is cut and paste from one of your posts - as meaning that you affirmed that all propositions about God are false - 'cos that's what you say! But, yes, you do clarify. And no, neither I nor God are merely a bundle of propositions.

You deny 'that any proposition about God has to be true'; but that's not at issue and never has been. 'God is not love' is a proposition, but it is not true. However, I affirm that a proposition about God can be wholly true without being the whole truth; and that, I think, is what you are taking issue with.

I'm all for humility in theology. As one who was completely taken apart recently by a young girl who knew more about the theology of baptism than I did, I'm even more humble than I used to be!

BUT humility is used in theological discourse almost as if it's a synonym of doubt. It is not humility, but arrogance, to doubt what God has said. (I'm perfectly happy to accept that this isn't your position!) Whatever you think truth is Biblically, 'What is truth?' is not a question with a good Biblical pedigree.

I've been glad to discuss this, Jon, and thanks for it. But I must withdraw - the weekend approaches and I've a great deal to do. The Lord bless you.

Jon said...

Thanks Gary -

Just to clarify: "'In defence of my therefore affirming that all propositions about God are false" meant that I wanted to defend myself from holding a position that logically lead me to affirm that proposition about God are false - sorry for the confusion.

Jon said...

Oh and re: John 17.17 the context seems pretty clear:

"Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified."

So the truth which sanctifies is linked to 'myself' viz. Christ. Again, agree to disagree.

Sorry for wasting your sermon prep and pastoral time with my 'philosophical' exigencies...!

Gary Benfold said...

You've not wasted my time, Jon; I can do that on my own! YOu gave me something to think about through a sleepless hot night.
re: John 17.17 - the three 'big' commentaries I have (Carson, Morris, Hendriksen) all recognise the link to Jesus the logos, as you'd expect; but all see truth here as referring to Scripture: Carson uses a phrase something like 'the book you now hold in your hand.' Of course, commentators are not infallible; but three heavyweights on the same side carries some weight, unless they're all shown to have the same ignorance or prejudice.

cath said...

Yikes gentlemen I'll just leave you to it. ("Having time" doesn't really translate as "hacking the pace"!) Basically: what Gary said. As meta, I'm surprised that the position i was querying didn't turn out to be more sophisticated (&/or defensible) than this, but don't want to spark off anything further as it looks like you're drawing to a close. Fascinating stuff, thanks for airing it.

Exiled Preacher said...

By the "communicative action" thing, I was trying to say that Scripture is more than just a set of propositions. Scripture is God's speech-act. We encounter the living God as he comes to us in his Word. As such biblical revelation is both propositional and personal, word and event. You'll have to read Ward or Kevin Vanhoozer's 'The Drama of Doctrine' for more on this.

Jon said...

Cath: I'm sorry I wasn't sophisticated enough! I'm a simple man at heart!

Guy: I agree with you to a point - the Bible is a speech-act. Where I begin to disagree is where speech or word is conceived of as simply proposition. Where are the pure propositions in the Bible? I'll look into the Ward and Vanhoozer. For me, the word is Jesus Christ and the scripture is the word of God in so far as it is a witness to Jesus Christ. In this way, Jesus is the word which breaks into our world from outside this world and pronounces justification to us and, on the cross, achieves this for us. Any notion of proposition seems too stultifying for the living word of God. I'm not wanting to deny the scripture, that is not my aim - I'm simply trying to treat theology properly.

I apologise if I'm too philosophical - I don't try to be. Thanks all for reading my thoughts and engaging with me. This is the sort of discourse which Reformed theology needs right now. I feel as though the discussion has clarified certain points in my mind and softened my ideas in other areas. Thanks.

Exiled Preacher said...

I didn't say that speech acts should be simply conceived as propositional statements. Propositions like "God is", "Jesus is risen" are obviously highly important in biblical revelation. But the beauty of speech-act theory is that it takes us beyond the basic locutions (words)of Scripture. What matters also is God's illocutionary purpose in speaking those words. He makes promises, issues threats, and commands obedience. More than that, Scripture is given its perlocutionary effect by the Holy Spirit as he enables us to believe the promises, heed the warnings, and obey the commandments. This takes us beyond a merely propositional view of biblical revelation to take account of what God is doing in and through Scripture - his communicative action.

I really do comment Tim Ward's "Words of Life".

Jon said...

Sorry Guy - I was reading you harshly bordering on the outright wrongly. I agree with you regarding the fact that there are 'propositions' in the Bible - I merely do not read them as philosophical propositions - i.e. simple epistemological affirmations - but rather as evangelical proclamation and that is simply in line with my reading of Jesus Christ as the word of God.

Cath - you can hardly write "As meta, I'm surprised that the position i was querying didn't turn out to be more sophisticated (&/or defensible) than this" without some desire to spark something else off!

Here's my problem with what you write:

The reason why you will never find my position 'defensible' is because your criteria for defensibility already precludes your position on the specific matter under discussion - we are discussing how language can be true - you already have an opinion on truth as defensibility and therefore nothing I can say will persuade you that your position is not wrong.

I have no problem than my position is not 'defensible' - I've already referenced 1 Cor - the message is foolishness. That obviously doesn't make me right but does prove that your desire for 'defensibility' isn't necessarily the swing factor in our debate.

However, that doesn't mean that what we believe is 'indefensible' - I'm simply trying to point out the extent to which you think that the 'truth' is rationally defensible. If you look at it theologically, the truth is something which comes into the world from outside the world and so any rational 'defensibility' of the truth is always going to look a little indefensible in some sense. Also, given that this truth is a person, defensibility of the truth is also a little bit different.

In terms of the defensive part of my argument, I think all I am trying to say is that theology is a human endeavour using human language and so it is 'liable to fall'. You are a phonologist so you work with language theory a lot right? I just don't understand how you can accept a position wherein language is privileged to a position of static Platonic perfection. Meaning in language changes therefore meaning in theology changes therefore theology could become meaningless which is why we still do it - if it didn't we'd have never bothered making any comments about the God of the Scriptures.

On this point, at least, I feel vindicated - no one has explained to me how a theological tenet can be 100% even though language can change in meaning. I've laid myself on the chopping board throughout this discussion - I wish someone from the opposing position would do the same and tell us how they conceive of theology/language/truth - rather than simply saying "It's partly, to be honest, because I don't think it needs to be defined." Which begs the question - why did we begin this discussion in the first place?

Gary Benfold said...

One final word - call me thick, but I've only just realised who you are; sorry about that. (Arguably, the name should have been a clue...) Say hello to your Mum and Dad for me.

Jon said...


Will do!

Exiled Preacher said...

I didn't realise that Jonny Mac was so famous that you'd heard of him in Bournemouth, Gary.