A Review of Larry Christenson’s teaching,
“The Nature of Biblical Truth” (March, 1977)
by Peter W. Dunn
22 May, 2002
Introduction: Why look at a 25-year old Teaching?
Last Fall, a certain pastor asked me to come on staff at his church: I was to be involved in the biblical training of church plant pastors and to act as a theological consultant to the church. During the four months on staff, I raised issues concerning doctrines and practises that I felt were not in line with biblical teaching. This pastor refused to accept my advice. Every time I tried to bring Scripture to bear upon a particular problem, I was told that I was “one-dimensional”. I was always puzzled by this claim. Finally, the pastor mentioned a tape by the Lutheran pastor and writer Larry Christenson. This tape was promoted by Bob Mumford during the Shepherding Movement. The message was given in 1977. Thus, it would seem to have had a formative effect on this pastor’s thinking as a Christian and a pastor, for twenty-five years later he is still recommending Christenson’s teaching and citing it as important for understanding the doctrine of the Bible. Christenson’s teaching exacerbated the division between me and the pastor to the point where I was left no choice but to step down.
Let me state I had heretofore never come across Christenson’s view of Scripture or anything like it in my twenty years of studying and teaching theology in evangelical institutions and secular universities (in Canada, USA, Europe and Africa). I therefore consider it highly idiosyncratic. This alone does not make it incorrect. But the uniqueness of any teaching should cause a moment of pause; Paul warns Timothy (1 Tim 4.1-2): “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.” Thus, we can expect that novel doctrines conceived by demons can enter into our churches, doctrines which have nothing to do the Faith handed down to the saints once for all. Demonic doctrines create confusion, doubt and bad behavior. Thus, new or unique doctrines must be weighed more carefully than the old stalwart teachings of the church.
Larry Christenson’s “The Nature of Biblical Truth”: Basic Thesis
Larry Christenson says that the nature of Biblical truth is paradoxical. This is the basic thesis of his message. At one point, he states that the advice given in Proverbs 26.4-5: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Such contradictions are replete in Scripture, says Christenson:
This is the Bible. Have you ever had anybody say to you, “The Bible is full of contradictions?”
“Oh no it isn’t—it’s the Word of God, no contradictions.”
You know what I say? You bet it is. That’s the way it’s put together. It’s loaded with contradictions. That’s the nature of biblical truth; it comes to us in paradoxes.
Christenson arrives at this conclusion by focussing on (1) apparent contradictions like Proverbs 26.4-5 and (2) on the necessity of applying biblical truth to differing situations. He says further that God’s truth is like a ring. God presents us with parallel ends of the ring at different times, but these parallel truths appear to us contradictory. He says God does not intend for the Bible to make literal sense to our limited logic; so from our standpoint, the truth in one situation appears to contradict the truth in another situation. According to Christenson, a paradox consists of two biblical truths which seem to contradict each other because our small minds are incapable of understanding God’s truth. We humans cannot solve these paradoxes intellectually or logically. This point of view causes Christenson to make absurd statements.
For example, he says regarding the doctrine of eternal security: It is possible to lose one’s salvation (Heb 6 and 10; John 15.1) and it is impossible to lose one’s salvation (John 10.28). He teaches that all men will be saved (John 12.32; Col 1.19-20); and some will be condemned for eternity (Matt 25.46). He maintains that the Bible teaches that everyone will be healed when prayed for (Mark 16.18) and that some will not be healed (2 Cor 12.7-9; 2 Tim 4.20). He teaches that born-again Christians cannot sin (1 John 3.9), but they must repent of their daily sins (1 John 1.8-10).
Larry’s Christenson’s Situational Epistemology
Christenson maintains that biblical truth changes according to the situation. For example, he says that eternal security is a concept intended to comfort the person unsure of his salvation; the passages of the NT which refer to losing one’s salvation apply to the person caught in grave sin. Yet he holds that two doctrines are a paradox and are both true, despite the obvious logical contradiction between them. He believes his teaching will foster ecumenism as we all just learn to accept one another’s doctrinal differences. But does anything go for Christenson? No, he draws the line on people who say the right things, but in the wrong spirit. But once we reject absolute truth and replace it with situational truth, then who is to say if a teaching is anointed? Good biblical interpretation is a much-needed plumb line in charismatic churches, because we must have solid criteria for distinguishing between a demonic spirit, our own minds and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Bible, as correctly interpreted and applied, provides arguably the most important criterion for judging doctrine, but Christenson’s teaching effectively eliminates the Bible as a plumb line. Thus, the senior pastor becomes the final judge of what truth is acceptable in the church, for no one may correct the senior pastor from Scripture because such a one will be “coming from the wrong spirit”.
Christenson’s view of Scripture leads to intellectual laziness. Rather than digging deep to understand the historical and literary context of a passage of scripture, he takes them out of their original context and pits them against one another. Then he says, you see, it can’t be reconciled and therefore biblical truth is paradoxical. This leads to hazy thinking on important issues where it is necessary often to take a stance. Neutrality is a myth. For example, if I were to say that the Baptists are right, that once you are saved you are always saved, but the Arminians are also right, that it is possible to fall away, I am helping nobody. Truth on this issue is possible to attain, but it takes serious digging, and I am afraid that Christenson’s approach actually discourages the work necessary to grapple with this and other difficult issues.
Still worse, Christenson’s view is anti-intellectual. He gives the story of how a child asks in Sunday school what Jesus did in the years between twelve and thirty where the Bible seems silent. The teacher responded, “He was preparing a special hell for people who ask those kind of questions.” This is a very strong discouragement from asking tough intellectual questions. He states: “God is not interested in solving our intellectual problems with his truth. He wants us to be able to live the Christian life … He is not interested in, he has not given us the Scripture for reason of satisfying our intellectual curiosity about spiritual things. He just isn’t.”
So then what is the purpose of the Bible? It provides situational truth, which the Holy Spirit applies to different seasons in our lives. God may decide to tell us one thing, and then six months down the road, tell us to do something that contradicts what he told us before because that is the nature of biblical truth in the thinking of Christenson. But need it be said that such a view can lead to serious heresy? This is seriously flawed epistemology, which can and does lead to problems in the church. The church whose pastor accepts Christenson’s approach can never rid itself of any false doctrine or heretical practice. These are situationally true and we mustn’t stigmatize any teaching because it has its moments when it is true. Thus, there is no need for a plumb line, since nearly anything can be true, depending on the situation. There is no way then that the Scriptures can be applied to such thinking to bring correction. The answer would be, “You are being one-dimensional; this is God’s truth for this situation, and the truth that your talking about is for another situation.” Or worse, “You have a religious spirit.” Thus, a pastor holding Christenson’s view could agree with me doctrinally yet still refuse to do anything to bring biblical truth to bear on a practice or doctrine in the church.
Is truth situational? I teach in my classes in biblical interpretation, that the Bible needs to applied in context, according to the exigencies of the culture and of the situation of the Christian community. Thus, I agree that the application of Scripture needs to be contextual. But that does not mean that the truth changes too. Rather, I teach that we need to be sensitive in our application of the timeless principles taught in Scripture. For example, the Bible teaches us salvation by faith. But for the Jew, salvation by faith means accepting Jesus as Christ, while continuing to be a Jew through circumcising male babies, observing the sabbath, and holding feast days. But for the gentile Christian, it means accepting Jesus as Christ, while remaining culturally a gentile. Thus, the application is different, but the timeless principle of justification by faith remains the same. The truth remains changeless; only its application changes.
Biblical Truth a Circle?
One alarming aspect of Christenson’s view that God’s truth is a ring is that the Bible itself is silent on the subject. Nowhere does the Bible itself state explicitly or even imply that truth is a circle or ring. This is not to say that the Bible is absent of teaching on the subject of truth. A search for the word “truth” in a Bible software program will come up with hundreds of “hits”. Perhaps one of the most important is Jesus’ own claim, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” If we want to know what truth is, we can study Jesus, for his teaching and life as portrayed in the Gospels leads us into all truth.
The concept of truth as a circle or ring, however, is predominant in Taoism, the leading religion of China. Taoism comes to the West especially through the martial arts, and thus, has an influence on that convergence of influences and beliefs known as the “New Age” movement. It teaches that for every truth or idea, there is an equally important opposite; this juxtaposition of truth is called “yin” and “yang”. In Taoism, understanding and accepting the circle of truth is essential to achieving harmony and balance in life.
There is no circle of truth in the Bible because there is not an opposite truth for every truth. It is incorrect to portray biblical truth in the form of a circle and to suggest that it comes to us in the form of paradoxes/contradictions. Biblical truth, in fact, is better characterized as progressive and coherent than as paradox (see below).
Apparent Contradictions not Paradoxes at All
The theology I have learnt through my teachers and readings is that the Bible does not contradict reason. Rather it is in accordance with reason though at times it transcends reason (but not at the same time contradicting it).
The paradoxes that Christenson mentions, however, are not such at all. A little digging would show that biblical truth is not logically contradictory on the points he mentions: Paul says, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues” (1 Cor 14.5); and Paul ask the rhetorical question demanding a negative answer, “Do all speak in tongues?” (1 Cor 12:30). There is no paradox here at all. Paul maintains that tongues are good thing, so that he would wish that everyone spoke in tongues, but tongues are not necessary for everyone. The main tenor of Paul’s argument is that tongues are inferior in nature to prophecy, and hence, we should seek to prophesy rather than to speak in tongues.
Christenson gives the example of works righteousness. But Paul’s saying that we are saved by faith not works does not contradict James’ affirmation that faith without works is dead (James 2.14-24). A little digging shows that Paul means “works of the law”, e.g., circumcision; James however is speaking of “good works”, which Paul also affirms (e.g., in Eph. 2.8-10, good works and salvation by faith are both affirmed).
Some biblical doctrines transcend human logic, such as the Trinity (a doctrine that Christenson curiously fails to touch upon); it is admittedly difficult to understand that God could be three in one. But the nature of biblical truth is not paradoxical or contradictory as Larry Christenson maintains. It is rather consistent and complimentary (that is the Bible reveals many sides to the truth which are all necessary for the complete picture), that is, when it is interpreted according to the nature of God who inspired the biblical writers. God’s nature is complex but understandable to the human mind; that is why he created us in his image, so that we could reflect his glory and his will here on earth. If we could not even understand his nature, then we could never be a royal priesthood, his representatives on earth. He is characterized by mercy and justice in perfect balance, and so the Bible, when understood properly, also balances these two important virtues.
Another View of the Bible as Progressive and Coherent
Here is a different approach to the nature of biblical truth which I wrote only a few months ago:
The story of Christianity summed up above (first paragraph) is told in the Bible. The Holy Bible is a collection of different writings written over a period of a couple thousand years by several writers. It was written in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. It consists of two parts—what Christians call the Old and the New Testaments. The books in the Bible are progressive and complimentary: (1) The books of the Bible are progressive, because they build on one another and as time went by, the authors of the Bible revealed more and more about God and His plan to save humanity. (2) The books of the Bible are complimentary, because they do not contradict each other but rather they agree in their essential content with one another. Thus, as the various books of the Bible were written, it came to tell a unified and coherent story. We Christians believe that the Bible is not merely a human document. Yes, it is written in human language by human authors who were subject to their cultures. But these writers were also influenced and inspired by the God whose story they were telling.
Christenson would probably say that I am right too and that his view of Scripture and my view of Scripture are a paradox. But in my view, Christenson is wrong and his teaching, while it makes some interesting and useful points of application, is not particularly helpful in understanding the nature of scriptural truth.
The teaching of situational truth leads to confusion. There are no clear lines of truth, because truth is only true for a season and then it can change to its opposite. This teaching also leads to doubt. We can never know for sure what the truth is because it can and will change from one moment to the next. Nothing is stable. How can we believe a God who speaks so equivocally. Not only so, but this teaching leads to bad practice in the church, for the Bible loses its role as the rule of faith and practice, for it is applied and interpreted according to the whims of the pastor holding Christenson’s views. Thus, every manner of false doctrine may enter a church with such a pastor at the helm.
I said earlier that the doctrine of demons causes confusion and doubt and leads to bad behavior in the church. I maintain that this idiosyncratic teaching of Larry Christenson is inspired by demons and it must be rejected.