Provisional truth is something I’ve sometimes preached about, and it has always been discomforting for those (few) who were paying attention. What they want, and what would be comforting for me also, is absolute truth. But, to slightly reword a sentence from William James, “We must be content to regard our most assured conclusions concerning matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future experience.”
Scientific fact is one thing. Theological fact is another. Our most solid reasoning, experimentation, evidence and peer review, backs up scientific fact as irrefutable, given what we currently know, and there’s the rub. What we currently know. Each time we add a bit of verifiable knowledge to the pot, it changes the whole stew. It’s what enables some people to discount scientific fact as just another opinion, no better than their own. Well grounded theories are dismissed with “It’s just a theory, no one really knows,” as if theory and uninformed guesses are pretty much the same thing. Operating from that set of assumptions, one can claim anything they want as their own private fact.
Theological fact gets even more complicated. It can rarely, if ever, be anything other than provisional. As a Christian preacher, I believe that our provisional truths point reliably toward the absolute truths that are hidden in God, but, along with Paul, I’m doubtful that we can see them except as in a mirror and dimly. It’s an argument unacceptable to many who demand to know now what the absolute truth is, and are willing to accept the word of anyone who claims to have it. Some claim the absolute truth that God is a hoax because God cannot be subject to scientific verification. Some claim the absolute truth about God they have coaxed out of scripture, which they assert to be inerrant. The historical record of competing claims to know the absolute truth is wobbly at best. No one view can endure for more than a few years, and each appears to be in unreconcilable competition with all others, but that doesn’t seem to dissuade their true believers.
Lower case ‘o’ orthodox Christianity, for the most part, holds that scripture is a genuine bearer of God’s truth without having to be scientifically or historically factual in every way, which is way too fuzzy for those who want the certainty of a fifth grade arithmetic text. Yet, it took centuries for the priests and rabbis of our paternal roots to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as Hebrew scripture. In like manner, it took several centuries for the Church to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as scripture in what we now call the New Testament. Unlike the sciences, theology cannot turn to the laboratory to conduct controlled experiments whose results are made public for peer review. But that doesn’t mean that writings and teachings cannot be subject to examination and evaluation. It’s the very task of theology. It may be that authentic scripture, inspired by God, is still being written. Every now and then someone says that it has. The Koran and the Book of Mormon are two examples that have been accepted by many, but rejected by orthodox Christianity as inconsistent with what what God has revealed God’s self to be through the progressive revelation of provisional truths that we have learned can be trusted. In like manner, the so called Gnostic Gospels have been instructive for what they say about the communities they served, but rejected as scripture because they are inconsistent with what we have learned is trustworthy about who Jesus is.
The test of consistency is a good one, but it has serious limitations. If every new truth had to be consistent with the old truths, we would still live on a flat earth, so to speak. Sometimes the Church has acted as if we do. However, the essential characteristics of the consistency of Godly revelation are change and direction of change . It’s always changing, so the new and challenging always have to be looked for, and it reliably goes in the direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency. Reliable scripture always speaks to the people of the time of its writing in terms they can understand given the vocabulary available to them and the cultural setting in which they lived, but it also pushes the limits of meaning in the uncomfortable direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency. Speech that claims to speak for God but goes in the opposite direction has to be suspect.
We’ve come to accept the canon as a reliable revelation of the nature of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two. Two thousand years of theology have informed and guided our expanding and deepening understanding within the context of the times and places we have lived, but it has always been an uncomfortable understanding that has pushed us into unfamiliar territory. For all of that, no matter how respected a teaching has been, none has been accorded the authority of scripture. Somehow we have recognized that it’s all provisional, but, walking in faith, we are confident that it points more or less in the right direction.
If you would like to wade in with your own thoughts, please do so in the comments, or drop me an email.