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John R. Franke. Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009).

Introduction

In December of last year, I approached John Franke about the possibility of interviewing him about his latest book Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth. John and I then succeeded in what can only be as a very odd journey to the completion of this interview. Originally slated for January, it is now April and only now has the interview been completed.  Despite the interesting road we traveled on, John and I have become friends and I have found him to be a most gracious and thoughtful of interview subject. I will be meeting John today (first time in person), and he will be speaking at my church tonight (4/6).

The interview itself came out much shorter than originally intended, nevertheless, in my view, it functions as an excellent primer for reading Franke’s book, and for orienting our perspectives, expectations, and thoughts on the major issues presented in Manifold Witness, issues that are, for the time being, going to be at the forefront of Christian discussion into the near future–at the very least.

In regards to Franke’s book, I think that Christians, and in particular Evangelicals need to take a serious look at what Franke is proposing here, whether or not one is inclined towards his view. The pointed reality of the matter is that Christians in the modern era have simply not adequately dealt with the myriad expressions of Christianity either as they have been manifested in their own age (the Modern era), nor have they done so with diversity of historic expressions of the faith–and this Franke accomplishes. Franke’s book also provides significant philosophical weight to the increasingly popular philosophical language of the “centered-set hermeneutic” and “theological interpretation”, the Scriptural hermeneutic that emphasizes reading the Bible within the bounds of the Church’s ongoing understanding of Scripture throughout history.

Thus, it is my hope, that this interview will serve to give the ideas in this book, and the serious challenges it poses to our conceptual, theological, and hermeneutical frameworks, will give this book its due. We cannot simply keep dismissing via the power of labeling, but encounter it as serious theologians by engaging the issues understanding how Franke’s ideas  support and critiques the church and her understanding of truth and expression of faith.

Interview

Matthew (Blogger): Among Christians there is much misunderstanding and curiosity about the Emergent movement. Can you briefly explain your view of the movement and your relationship to it?

Franke: I identify with the emerging church through an organization called “Emergent Village”. We view ourselves as a node in a larger conversation about the emerging church.

John R. Franke

Dr. John R. Franke: Professor of Missional Theology at biblical Theological Seminary

In a sense it’s more of a conversation than a movement. We call it a generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love the world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Quite naturally, a conversation has emerged out of this friendship and we simply want to share it with the wider church as well as the world and invite others to join in, regardless of their ecclesial commitments. We have articulated a set of values and practices that we hold in common and that serves as our informal “order and rule.” If anyone wants to understand the commitments of Emergent Village, the best place to start is with these values and practices. I have been involved with this community and its leaders for over ten years since attending my first event in the spring of 1999 when they were known as the Young Leaders Network.

Matthew: In the Forward controversial author and Emergent leader Brian McLaren notes that you are an avid believer in the Reformation slogan semper referendum. To many, semper referendum–quite ironically–denotes a “drawing back” to antecedent theological beliefs. Yet, for you, it means a continuous evaluation and/or dynamic re-thinking of what the Church believes in order to garner more sufficient theological perspectives. Are these views reconcilable? How do you believe semper referendum should be applied in our postmodern context?

Franke: The notion that the church is “always reforming” is connected to the idea that this reformation takes place according to the Word of God. Taking the Word of God seriously as the basis for our reforming work means both looking back at the activity of the living Word through Scripture and its appropriation in the history of the Christian tradition as well as assessing our current situation through Scripture and its appropriation in present and ongoing life of the global Christian community.

The idea of continual reformation encompasses the past, present, and future activity of the living Word and reminds us that true reform is not something that can be accomplished once and for all but is instead something to which we must continually aspire. This is because the Word of God is God’s work and activity, not ours. As such it eludes our comprehension and control. This points to a theological non-foundationalism that has some affinities with the postmodern intellectual climate but also serves to situate the notion of continual reformation within a distinctly theological setting.

Matthew:
Can you flesh out, a bit more, how non-foundationalism “serves to situate the notion of continual reformation within a distinctly theological setting”? Or, why is non-foundationalism, rather than foundationalism, a more appropriate epistemological framework for the ongoing work of theology.

Franke: It’s important to understand non-foundationalism in primarily theological terms rather than philosophical. I would say that non-foundationalism is proper because the subject of theology is the living God and the knowledge of this God never enters into our control, but is always the result of the free grace of God. Foundationalism suggests that we are able to secure the knowledge of God at certain points once and for all and hence have no need for continual reformation on the notions that are so secured. Theological non-foundationalism resists this tendency and affirms that we are always dependent on God for our knowledge of God and that we can never simply rest in the supposed certainty of past formulations.

Matthew: Is it true to say then, that your position is a critique of what Enlightenment Rationalism construes truth to be, and then by extension, a critique of the attempt to adopt that perspective into the Christian understanding of truth?

Franke: Yes. I think that forms of Enlightenment Rationalism have exercised undue influence in the practice of Christian theology, both evangelical and mainline, and I have sought both to critique those perspectives and to work at constructing an alternative that is more faithful to Scripture and the breadth of the Christian tradition.

Matthew: A major point of emphasis in the Emergent movement is that the church has failed to engage culture adequately. Rather than mere criticism, many in the movement have made positive suggestions for moving the churches cultural engagement forward into ostensibly uncharted territory.

In what way(s) do you believe Manifold Witness, with its articulation of truth, can help the church see its way in engaging postmodern culture? Accordingly, can the reconceptualization of truth as “plurality” become a roborant to the Church’s mission? If so, how?

Franke: It helps us to see that plurality, as a manifestation of the eternal life of God, is normative for the created order and hence not something to be feared. As I say in Manifold Witness, plurality is a good thing—it should be embraced rather than resisted. It is the manifestation of our creation in the image of God as well as our creaturely finitude. In some ways, postmodern theory can be helpfully viewed as a philosophical meditation on the Christian doctrine of creation.

What I’ve tried to do in the book is provide a theological context in which to appropriate postmodern thought without capitulating to some of its more radical aspects, such as the denial of ultimate truth. The affirmation of plurality is particularly helpful to the mission of the church in that it can help deliver us from our cultural and intellectual myopia and enable us to appreciate and learn from the voices of others, including those who have often been marginalized in our society.

Matthew: In your book you frame what I call a “divine epistemology” by stating “Only the living God has knowledge that transcends the limitations of time and place that are characteristic of finitude” and that because “God has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, we can affirm the reality of ultimate or transcendent truth even as we acknowledge the interpretive character of human knowledge”.

Will you outline the philosophical framework this statement exists within? Does the Genesis 3 narrative play into this at all, and if so, how?

Franke: In the book I make a distinction between small t truth and capital T Truth. Small t truth is what humans engage in and all of our conceptions are shaped by it especially as it provides the reality of finitude.

Capital T Truth is what we might call ultimate or transcendent truth. This conception of truth belongs only to God. What I suggest is that as Christians we put the matter in the following way: the small t truth is that capital T Truth exists but is not available to us, but only to God.

All of our assertions are shaped by the reality of finitude. The Genesis 3 narrative certainly adds another dimension to this reality, but is not central to it. Even apart from the fall, human knowledge is circumscribed by finitude. The reality of sin in the world shapes our response to finitude, but is not primarily responsible for its limitations. An excellent philosophical resource from this perspective is: Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001).

Matthew:On page 16 of Manifold Witness you make an interesting statement, that I thought, given the current debates about postmodernism was quite relevant. You state, “God knows comprehensively”. Is there a reason you do not say “exhaustively”?

Franke: I have no problem saying that God knows exhaustively as well as comprehensively.

Matthew:Your statement “that the living God is revealed in Jesus Christ refutes the claim that transcendent truth does not exist, the particular character of revelation challenges the presumption that transcendent truth is simply self-evident to human perception and readily available to us” carries with it myriad implications for our understanding of the Incarnation.

Do you believe that the reality of Christ’s human and divine nature challenges the mainstream Christian notions of truth?

Franke: Yes. I think most mainstream notions of Christian truth are shaped more by the intuitions of the Enlightenment than they are by the theological implications of the incarnation. Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to suggest a way of thinking about truth that is shaped by the theological framework of the Christian tradition and then explore its implications.

Matthew: Your critics, and critics of the Emergent movement, often dismiss you as simply being “postmodern” or subjecting the “absolute claims” of the Gospel to relativism. In particular, Albert Mohler, reviewing your work on his blog states that Manifold Witness is nothing more than “a postmodern form of theological liberalism”.

Specifically, and I think most importantly, Mohler attacks your view of Trinitarian diversity and Hermeneutics. Mohler bases his critiques on two defining points. First he argues that “biblical Christianity” has always emphasized the unity of the Trinity, not its diversity and that by pursuing its diversity you create a illegitimate plurality within God that fundamentally contradicts the biblical emphasis on Trinitarian unity.

Second, Mohler sees your Scriptural hermeneutic stated as “the speaking of the Spirit [in Scripture] is not solely bound to the intention of the biblical authors” as a capitulation to postmodern relativism.

Mohler believes that if we accept the trajectory implied in your understanding of Scripture the church “would be freed from accountability to the actual words and propositional statements of Scripture” and as a result, believers whenever they reject parts of Scripture may simply claim that they are “being led by the Spirit into a new and different understanding of Scripture”.

Would you like to respond to Mohler’s critiques?

Franke: Responding fully to Mohler’s criticisms would take more space than we have available. I’ve heard that he has agreed to participate in a session on my book at this year’s national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta. So hopefully we’ll have time to discuss this more fully on that occasion. Until then, here is a brief response.

First, on the question of Trinitarian unity in diversity I would suggest that the Bible clearly bears witness to both, and that this has been part of orthodox Trinitarian theology. In the book I clearly acknowledge the unity of the Trinity as well as its diversity while an emphasis on the plurality. The life of the one God is lived out in the plurality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are one not because they are the same, but because of their interdependent relationality.

In other words, in the midst of their unity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit remained distinct from each other. Hence, plurality is an integral part of the divine life. Perhaps Mohler is right that the tendency has been to emphasize the unity of the Trinity, but the plurality has always been part of orthodox formulations. What I’m trying to do is talk about both together in a way that is faithful to historical conceptions of the Trinity while developing what I believe to be an underappreciated aspect of orthodox teaching.

Second, the notion that the speaking of the Spirit in Scripture is not bound solely to the intent of the original author arises not so much from postmodern theory, although there is certainly some resonance here, as it does from a close reading of the biblical texts themselves. I particularly have in mind the ways in which the New Testament makes use of the Old.

It seems clear to me and to, dare I say, the vast majority of biblical scholars, that the writers of the New Testament are not simply concerned with the original intent of the Old Testament authors and that in fact, their use of these texts frequently move beyond any construal of the supposed intentions of these writers.

Ultimately then, the reason for the assertion about the speaking of the Spirit in Scripture comes from a commitment to the authority of the Bible and not from any sort of capitulation to relativism. Moving in this direction is not an attempt to free the church from its accountability to the words of Scripture but rather an attempt to call the church to such an accountability and the realization that living out the authority of Scripture is not an exercise in reductionism in which certain parts of Scripture are constantly emphasized, depending on the tradition, while others are ignored.

As for the charge of liberalism, I am astonished that a book which affirms orthodox teachings concerning the Trinity and Christology, and an affirmation that the canon of Scripture is the Word of God and “truth written” can be dismissed as “liberal.”

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If you would like to purchase Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth, click the “add to cart” button below.

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John Franke: Bibliography

________. The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature, Task and Purpose. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).

________. Barth For Armchair Theologians. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).

Stanley J. Grenz & John R. Franke. Beyond Foundationalism. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007).
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One Response to “Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth, An Interview with John Franke, BookNotes

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