63: Tension Not Principles

In this episode John and Gregg discuss Gregg’s recent lecture at Swiss L’Abri, where Gregg began lecturing on his graduate thesis.  Gregg explains that his thesis concerns a problem within recent, biblical hermeneutics, on the part of several evangelical scholars, and that this problem is twofold.

First, some Christian scholars have preferenced the positive effect of the Holy Spirit over the negative effect of sin and finiteness, such that they then view Christians as being naturally better readers of the Bible than non-Christians.  Second, some Christian scholars have also preferenced the importance of biblical truth over the need (and indeed, command) to love our fellows as ourselves.

Gregg argues in his thesis that there are natural tensions in life and that the preceding represent real tensions for Christians, yet that Christians also should not seek to collapse these tensions into hierarchies (i.e.,  Spirit over sin, truth over love), but should rather seek how the conflict inherent within these tensions can be made productive.

To do so Gregg’s thesis employs two themes that dominate the work of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the themes of a) trust and suspicion and b) ontology (or being / existence) and epistemology (or knowing / knowledge).  Gregg saw three goals for the presentation: being clear enough to be understandable, presenting the problem in such a way that it was gripping, and being convincing about his solution.

Gregg began by explaining the problem of “false consciousness,” based on the work of Freud and Nietzsche, whose criticisms share much in common with those of the Old Testament prophets).  In this case, Christian false consciousness is a way of protecting ourselves from our practices of ignoring truth and disregarding people while claiming not to do these very things and insulating ourselves from any critique on the matter.

Gregg explained this issue in his presentation by noting that evangelical churches typically teach that biblical truth functions as propositions that are then used to form principles, principles that inform Christian theology and practice.  Gregg argued that, instead, biblical truth and human existence demonstrate off-setting tensions (confidence and humility, suspicion and trust, relationship and distinction, love and truth) that are not meant to be reduced to hierarchies because they offer far more truth when we allow them to remain as tensions.

Even more problematically, where Christians associate biblical truth with propositions that form principles, they typically hold the view that such principles do not contradict each other, and hold this view as an absolute.  So while Gregg agrees about the non-contradictory nature of biblical truth, those who hold such often hold it so strongly that they also do not allow that biblical truths should oppose each other, which is exactly what tensions are: truths that are opposed to one another.  So in a real way, viewing biblical truth as propositions often precludes accepting the notion that biblical truths act in tension with each other!

John resonates deeply with how Gregg went about presenting this information in the lecture.  Particularly, John notes that he came to L’Abri thinking that there was something wrong with himself–some inability on his part to “get” or “live out” Christianity.  But realized that a big part of the issue was that he had taken on ways of thinking (about himself, God, etc.) that did not make sense.

Gregg responds that this seems still to be the case with those who are at L’Abri now, particularly because the church has both a) undermined the credibility of Christianity to non-Christians (by ignoring other, truthful perspectives on humanity and the natural world) and b) tacitly bred mistrust in Christians toward the church (because the church claims to be relevant to human life yet its propositional view of truth is contradicted by the way the life really “works”).

3 thoughts on “63: Tension Not Principles

  1. John Poelstra

    Hi Joseph,

    Love your comments and questions on this and the other episodes. Your question comes up in discussion from time to time in later podcasts (not sure what order you’re going in). Here’s an episode where I raise the issue of questioning things and how to go about it:


    I don’t have a good answer for how to do this in the context of church. It’s one of the reasons I don’t go very often right now.


  2. Joseph Gagliardi

    This is so, so good.

    But I feel like this is doing what you both warned L’Brie does for a lot of people: ruins church.

    What do we do with this information and this intensive approach to asking hard questions? I want to ask questions like this and have conversations like this, but my church is not L’Brie – people either wouldn’t have opted into such an experience or would not feel prepared. Some of the questions and conversations you guys have would even be stumbling blocks for some people.

    I guess what I’m asking is, how can I convince people to see the value and opt-in to this type of rigor and truth seeking? If I see things articulated or performed in the church that strike me as off, should I say something or just be quiet?

    1. Gregg Monteith Post author

      Hi Joseph,

      Thanks so much for your vote of confidence: I am so glad that you perceive our content and approach to be so valuable. It is really great to receive such enthusiastic feedback.

      And I think that you have asked the cardinal question: How do we encourage other Christians “to opt-in to this type of rigor and truth-seeking”? My answer is severalfold. First, John and I continue to work on this, with the hope that each episode, each discussion may offer the content that someone out there has been needing / hoping to hear, or simply something that s/he may not have known was needed but, when found, is an alluring scent that draws them further in this direction. Second, I continue to ask God about this: What needs to happen to move this along? How can my church be more accepting of the need for such orientations? What do I need to do to further the pursuit of your love and truth (and why on earth can’t you speed this up)? Third, I think that we need to adopt a dedication to love and truth / truth and love as a lifestyle and not as an activity. In other words, these must become our guiding interests and chief pursuits, and the matters in which we most desire expertise and most find repose.



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