Relational vs Propositional – A False Dichotomy

Last week I posted an entry entitled “Emerging Knowledge of the Truth.” I wanted to answer one of the responses without leaving it buried in the comments of that post.
Mark Gstohl, professor at Xaveir University, wrote:

I’m not really sure why evangelicals have to insist on propositional truth so much. Is the statement “God is love” relational or propositional?
What about 1 John 2:2 (know that one given Calvinists fits)? Is that relational or propositional?

If these “propositional truths” are not experienced by the hearers, can they really be understood?
I know that if one doesn’t experience them, they’re still true. However, How might they be verified other than through experience?

Hi Mark,

In regard to your questions, your response sounded as if you read a either/or dichotomy into my post. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. I tried to stress a both/and approach. I looked at human relationships as we evangelize, because the original question pertained to our relationships with others, but the same holds true with an individuals relationship with God. I see people err on both sides. Some seem to emphasize the importance of propositional truths without respect to relationship or experience. Others tend to pursue a relationship or experience with God void of propositional statements or doctrinal grounding. I believe both approaches fail to follow the biblical model.

You asked, “If these ‘propositional truths’ are not experienced by the hearers, can they really be understood?” My answer would be “no.” I tried to make that point in my original post by decrying the either/or. Propositions without relationship produces dusty useless head knowledge and dead cold orthodoxy. Experience without doctrinal grounding results in meaningless feelings and flights of fanciful absurdity.

You asked which category “God is love” fits. By definition, the statement itself sets forth a proposition. All statements do. When a reader encounters the proposition, they begin to experience it, at least at some level. I insist that if the truth doesn’t go any further than a proposition on a screen, then the naked proposition possesses no value. Only when the propositions open the door to experience in the life of the believer do these propositions build a healthier relationship with God.

At the same time I do not understand how God can be known, experienced, and related to without encountering and interacting with propositions. I believe God reveals himself through scripture. Placing the Bible on a shelf and mindlessly walking a labyrinth without propositions to contemplate doesn’t enhance our relationship with Christ. Attempting to build a relationship with someone we know nothing about through self-reflection and introspection ends in narcissism.

You said, “I’m not really sure why evangelicals have to insist on propositional truth so much.” I can’t speak for all evangelicals, but as for me, I want to focus on propositions, because they serve as a means to an end. I know many who view knowing propositions as an end in and of itself. I disagree with that assessment. I like the Westminster Shorter Catechism which expresses the chief end of man as, “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Doctrinal propositions ought to cater to the conflation of these two goals into one. As we see and savor the supremacy of Christ and learn of his goodness, his majesty, his compassion, his patience, his power, his omniscience, his wrath, his justice, his dignity, his simplicity, his complexity, his resoluteness, his courage, and a thousand other attributes of his character, person, essence and work, our relationship with him grows through this doctrinal knowledge; not apart from it.

4 Comments

Don,
Thanks for the reply! I’ve just heard about this Emerging Church movement and I’ve read a lot about how Southern Baptists are reacting to it. I know as a theologian I should be more concerned about technicalities, but I love Dr Bob Mathis’ reply to a search committee when asked what he thought about the Bible. He answered, “I’ve always thought it was true.”
All the hair-splitting that’s done by some evangelicals makes life pretty frustrating sometimes. I know you don’t speak for evangelicals but I do know that you have a better understanding of what makes some of them tick than I do.
I really appreciate and respect your kind spirit. That’s why I asked you about it. I knew I’d get a thoughtful, respectful response.

Grace,

MG

Don,

For a more in-depth look at the importance of relation juxtaposed with propositionalism, I’d recommend Donald Miller’s latest book, “Searcing for God Knows What”. His style is very conversational and he makes a convincing case for the importance of relationship in evangelism, soteriology and the gospel. Indeed, he makes it fundamental to theological anthropology.

rick

Don, I don’t want to just say “dittos” to what you wrote, but as a pastor I gotta get my 2 cents in. I must say I believe I agree with you, I struggle with how to communciate at times, but your essay on this has captured much of what I believe about prop truth and relationships. I think the both/an approach is how I see the Gospel. I do fear that for some they are attempting to build a wall, where there should be a bridge. BTW, I am looking for to some good New Orleans Coffee in July…Hope we can meet up.

P.S. Don has been helping me with my church’s website. He is easy to work with and very helpful. http://www.naturalstepsbaptist.org

Jeff