Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Iron Joe and "Propositional Truth"

We sat at narrow tables in the large classroom and soaked in his words. He spoke with authority and conviction. He had barbed comments for those who didn't see things the same way he did, be they from a different theological tradition or within the school's administration. Occasionally his soft heart would shine through and endear him to those who listened carefully. But most often his steely demeanor justified his nickname "Iron Joe."

Iron Joe taught us a lot about the Bible and theology. His affect on the way I think is ongoing. But as my horizons have widened so too has my perspective on some of the things Iron Joe held with such ironclad conviction. One of his mantras is that the Bible is "propositional truth."

Railing against the emotional drivel that sometimes passes as serious theological reflection, Iron Joe would tell us that we had to study the Bible, study it well, in the right way so that we could begin to plunge the depths of our incomprehensible God. And we did that by recognizing and learning the propositional truth presented in God's Word, the Bible. In Joe's theological world, the Bible is full of objective, verifiable truth that can be, in essence, taken off the shelf, handled and examined, and then returned safely to its home.

Joe is not alone in this approach to the Bible. On any given Sunday, thousands of preachers around the country and the globe present sermons, not dissimilar to Iron Joe's lectures, that present the truth in propositions - points in an outline, principles to be memorized and appropriated.

And the Bible is reduced to a medical manual, which can be taken down to address a specific malady with easy how-to steps to follow. Or it is reduced to an encyclopedia in which any odd curiosity can be researched and debated. Or it is a users manual with an index (we'd call it a concordance) that gets searched on the occasion of something breaking.

But is the Bible "propositional truth"? Certainly some parts are. The letters of Paul, Peter, James, and others are clear and concise statements of belief, often with neatly drawn applications. But much of the Bible is messy and downright disturbing. And it is written in genres that lose their punch when they are reduced to neatly packaged statements.

In the movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams' character makes fun of the American Bandstand approach to poetry because it negates the power of the poem by fitting it into a formula. The propositional truth approach to the Bible can do the same to the powerful narrative unfolding in its pages.

The vast majority of the Bible is narrative. Much is the written account of the great oral tradition, the stories told for generations around bedouin campfires. And the Bible contains much poetry, the honest and authentic cry of the soul to a God who is baffling. Compared to the prose and poetry, proposition is a small percentage of the Bible.

The thing that gives the story its power - its ability to capture us - is lost when we try to reduce it to principles and propositions. We need to let the Bible be read for what it is, a compelling and arresting story of betrayl, conflict, redemption, and hope.


sara said...

Oh the many things that "Iron Joe" said...

I would agree with you that the bible is an amazing unfolding story of redemption and hope and truly wonderfully powerful...and that it should be seen as so.

But I also think that Gods uses all styles of preaching to get his powerful words across.

I think that "iron joe" and many like him have helped changed lots of lives with there "propositional truth" methods. And i don't think it necessarily reduces the bible either.

I truly think that God uses those neatly packaged statements just as much as he uses the powerful driving to the core of a person statements.

I guess i think that God is capable of using all types of ministry...from the "bull horn man" (which i do not agree with) to the Billy the "Iron Joe" and those like him-to those of us post-modern hippies and losers.

I don't think that there is just one way, or the one style, or the one method of examining and preaching the bible.

There are a variety of people out there who each learn things differently and there are some people that need the iron joes, and some that need the bull horn man, and some that need the post modern hippies and losers...

I think thats where i find the beauty of all of our differences in methods, preaching, veiwing ect...that God chooses to use each of those things in different ways to draw different people into a relationship with him.

So, that's what i think abotu through myself out on the line...please be gentle..

Anonymous said...

You Know, rumor has it that Iron Joe has softened in his olden years.

kevin said...

in what way do you communicate the narrative aspect of scripture to not make it seem neatly packaged and formulated?

Robb said...

This post is not about Iron Joe per se. (On a personal level, his impact and influence on my has been profound, the recent strain in our relationship not withstanding.) It is about the limitations and imbalance of seeing the Bible as only propositional truth. I am all for valuing the diversity of approaches, but I also see this as an area where there has been a gross imbalance. And I think that this imbalance has done us a great disservice in being able to connect with postmodern thinkers. About the question of how, some ideas on that are coming in a future post.

centuri0n said...

If your point is that the Bible is not "only" propositional truth, I think I'm with you. If you are saying, however, that somehow story trumps proposition, or supercedes proposition, I think you have made a terrible mistake.

I say that because you said this:

And the Bible is reduced to a medical manual, which can be taken down to address a specific malady with easy how-to steps to follow. Or it is reduced to an encyclopedia in which any odd curiosity can be researched and debated. Or it is a users manual with an index (we'd call it a concordance) that gets searched on the occasion of something breaking.

Seeing propositional truth in the Bible does -not- reduce it down to a "medical manual" or a cook book. It also does not reduce it to a book of trivia. See propositional truth in the Bible means that the stories we find there -- as well as the poems, and the straight historical narratives, and the letters -- tell us something specific.

The mistake is thinking that the Bible is about us. The Bible is -not- about us. Your name is not in there; my name is not in there. The Bible is about God.

It says this in one place:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

And this in another:

the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

And this in another:

When your son asks you in time to come, 'What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?' then you shall say to your son, 'We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.

These passages tell us that the Bible is about God and not about our petty circumstancial issues. The Bible is given to us so that we may know God. When it is used for something else, its point is missed entirely.

The question you are asking in your post here ought not to be "is the Bible either story or proposition?" It ought to be "do we receive the propositions delivered by the story?"