Propositionalism’s failure and its impact on the church


My previous two posts (here and here) looked at what many philosophers deem to be a special kind of knowledge, one which is the basis for the standard view of knowledge. It is called propositional knowledge. Here is a short recap.

Propositional knowledge requires three conditions. Propositional knowledge requires truth. You cannot know something unless it is true. It is never right to say, ¢â‚¬Å“He knows it but it is false!¢â‚¬. That lacks complete logic. You cannot know that George Jetson was the first man to step foot on the moon. The reason you cannot know that is because the facts indicate that Neil Armstrong was the first person to step foot on the moon. You know a proposition only if it is true. What we must now deal with is an understanding about what it is for something to be true. The simple and widely accepted answer to this is contained within the correspondence theory of truth.

Correspondence theories claim that true beliefs and true statements correspond to the actual state of affairs. This type of theory attempts to posit a relationship between thoughts or statements on the one hand, and things or facts on the other. It is a traditional model which goes back at least to some of the classical Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This class of theories holds that the truth or the falsity of a representation is determined solely by how it relates to a reality; that is, by whether it accurately describes that reality.] Additionally, a ¢â‚¬Å“proposition is true if and only if it corresponds to the facts. A proposition is false if it fails to correspond to the facts.¢â‚¬

A second condition for propositional knowledge is belief. If you know something, you must believe it or accept it. Belief in this case is being used in a broad sense. Any time you take something to be true, you believe it. This includes hesitant acceptance as well as fully confident acceptance. If you do not even think something is true, then you do not know it. In addition, it must be stated that you can believe something without it being true, having the facts to support it. Propositional knowledge requires belief, but belief does not require truth.

Philosophers also say that a third condition for knowledge is justification for the belief. What justification amounts to is of considerable debate. Justification is something that comes in degrees, meaning that you can have more or less justification. In addition, you can be justified in believing something without actually believing it.

The modern church has adopted propositionalism as the basis for understanding truth and knowledge within the context of Christianity. The Bible is understood propositionally. Belief is understood propositionally.

In the context of Christianity, however, we must deem propositionalism desperately lacking. In fact, Christians cannot beholden our knowledge of God in a propositional manner. Here’s why. By definition, propositional knowledge must contain verifiable facts. Does the scripture have facts? Yes, indeed. It is a fact, propositionally, that David was a king in Judah. It is a fact, propositionally, that Solomon was a very wealthy king of Judah. It is a fact, propositionally, that Jesus lived and a fact, propositionally, that Jesus died. It is not a fact, propositionally however, that Jesus walked on water. Though I believe that He did, it is not provable or factual.

The basics of our faith are not factual, propositionally; they are beliefs. We cannot factually verify that Jesus walked on water. We cannot factually verify that it was an angel of death who killed all the first-born of Egypt in Exodus. We cannot factually verify many of the miracles of scripture. They are beliefs, not facts.

However, to equate truth as propositional means that we must deal with truth through the lens of an epistemologically propositional framework. To do so destroys our Faith.

Does that mean that there is no truth? No. Does that mean that there is not such a thing as absolute truth? No. I believe in truth and in absolute truth, which is found only in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Yet to define knowledge and truth through one particular framework means that we have to take the good and bad that framework brings. For a Christian, propositionalism cannot work.

The second implication for the church is that propositionalism potentially distorts the gospel. Belief in a propositional framework is used in a broad sense. Any time you take something to be true, you believe it. This includes hesitant acceptance as well as fully confident acceptance. In addition, it must be stated that you can believe something without it being true, having the facts to support it. Propositional knowledge requires belief, but belief does not require truth. To adopt the gospel with hesitant acceptance and equate that to the biblical definition of belief distorts what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. Belief in Christ is not an acceptance of facts It is a emotional, mental, and physical response to the calling of God upon a person’s life. If even the demons “believe” and are still bound to an eternity in Hell, then belief has to be more than acceptance of facts; it is a movement towards God as a response to God’s calling.

The framework that best exemplifies biblical truth and biblical salvation, then, is a relational framework. Salvation is a response to Jesus wooing us relationally. Truth, biblical truth, is found only in a relationship with Jesus and the revelation of the Spirit (I Cor 2:14). Therefore knowledge and truth are best described as relational, not propositional.

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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