In some sense, this is a charter post for Parchment and Pen as it expresses so much of what we are about. Have a great Fourth of July weekend.

Googling for truth can be a dangerous task. Who knows what one will find? How do you know who to trust? Before Google, before the Internet, before twenty-four-hour world news, before the introduction of our globalized culture where alternative truth claims are literally at ones fingertips, people could be much more confident that the truth claims to which they adhere were an accurate representation of reality. Why? Because we did not have any other alternatives to confuse the issues. The naiveté that this intellectual isolation provided, while quite comforting, is no longer a luxury that we can afford to entertain and expect to have an audience in the real world. Truth is no longer simply a matter of going to the local parish on the corner and inquiring of the pastor. It is much more complex and confusing. Today, people are Googling for truth, looking for answers, and bewilderment is the most common result. Thousands of alternatives present themselves at your front door at every turn. After a while you just don’t want to answer the door anymore. Is there a method of discovery that produces hope and assurance, without having to retreat back to naive isolationism of the past? 

It is no secret that our culture today is undergoing a massive paradigm shift with regards to the way people come to know truth. The atmosphere of the intellectual landscape has changed. Confidence, certainty, and dogmatism have been replaced with doubt, skepticism, and agnosticism. Truth claims are held in high suspicion. Those still working under the old paradigm of truth are thought by this new generation of thinkers to be naive at best and power mongering manipulators at worst. Within the philosophical and theological communities, this new generation goes by many names: Post-fundamentalism, Post-Christian, Post-Liberal, and the most common Post-modernism. While these names may not be sufficient to completely convey the ethos of this generation, they all have one important element in common—they are all “post” something. The culture is moving beyond where it was before.

Suspicion. This is a good, rich, and sad word that is only needed because of humanity’s moral downfall. To be suspicious means that you are in a “state of uncertainty or doubt.” Or better, “Suspicion is the positive tendency to doubt the trustworthiness of appearances and therefore to believe that one has detected possibilities of something unreliable, unfavorable, menacing, or the like.” Synonyms for suspicion are doubt, mistrust, or misgiving. Our culture is in a perpetual state of uncertainty about truth; our culture is suspicious—suspicious of you and suspicious of me. Why? Because Christians claim to have the truth about the most important questions in life. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the truth. We have presented ourselves at the front door, and our message of exclusivity is falling on deaf ears.

While the problem is no secret, the solution is harder to come by. Because of these epistemological difficulties, the focal point for theology is no longer Bibliology as it once was, but Prolegomena. Prolegomena is the theological discipline that focuses on issues that need to be covered before truth claims can be asserted and debated. Prolegomena deals with the “first things” of theology. Methodology, theological systems, epistemology, and sources for truth are all issues of Prolegomena. Because the world does not work with the same assumptions that it used to, we must create common ground before we can reach our culture. This common ground must first and foremost deal with the issue of suspicion. The distrust that people have for you when you approach their door with a Bible opened to your favorite verse is real.

Not only this, but this disarming must have a subjective component to it as well. You and I are not speaking from a megaphone from our isolated island of naivety (at least we shouldn’t be). We are affected by the change as well. I have seen much confusion and suspicion among believers in recent years. People are leaving organized religion in droves, and the denominations are depleting in numbers. I, myself, find it hard to know who to trust.

What I want to propose in this short essay is a method of theological inquiry that should go a long way in disarming both the skeptic out there and the skeptic within. It is called “irenic theology” or the “irenic method” of doing theology. The word “irenic” is taken from the Greek irene which means “peace.” Irenic theology is learning about truth in a peaceful manner, accurately representing the opposing belief even when you disagree strongly. In many ways it is the opposite of a dogmatic methodology which seeks to tell people the “truth” by positioning itself as the only true option.

Requirements of the Irenic Method

Willingness to learn, adapt, and change: The Reformers brought theology out of the dogmatic slumber of the dark ages. They challenged the unfounded traditions and abuses of the past, giving the church a bright light of hope as the Gospel was rediscovered. They also sought to prevent the church from ever revisiting the difficulties proclaiming the principle of Semper Reformanda which means “always reforming.” The Reformers knew that truth must always be tested and ready to be reformed. This understanding presents our search for truth as a journey that will not end until Christ comes for the church (1 Cor. 13:12). We must be willing to reform as well. The irenic method demands that we approach our study ready to alleviate ourselves of any sacred cows that might have crept in without warrant. We must be willing to reform our theology if the evidence makes such a demand. This is easier said than done, but it is necessary nonetheless.

Willingness to take a risk: When you present all views accurately, the best arguments from all positions are presented so that people have the chance to make up their own minds, knowing both the strengths and weaknesses of all relevant positions. In short, learning and teaching theology in an irenic way gives people the chance not to believe so that they might truly believe. There is risk involved in irenic theology, especially for teachers. Those being taught may or may not identify with or be convinced of your particular persuasions. But it does not fair well before the Lord for us to sweep the other options under the rug in fear of the possibility of desertion. People will find out the other options in a Googling generation. Once they do, you will have lost their trust and will not have an audience with them any longer. They will see you as manipulative, naïve, or, at best, misinformed and incompetent. Irenic theology demands that the risk be taken.

A broad knowledge base: No longer can people study in isolation, seeking to confirm their prejudice with what they read or whom they listen to. We must be willing to challenge ourselves and expand our thinking. If you, as a Protestant are going to present the Roman Catholic view on Transubstantiation, irenic theology demands that you allow for no straw men arguments. In other words, you should know enough to present their case so well that if the strongest apologist for their position were to be in your audience, he or she would give you a thumbs up, affirming the accuracy of your information and appreciating your peaceful tone. There is an old folk tale that has been spread more times than I can count about counterfeits currency. Some would say that just as those who investigate counterfeits only study real currency in order to identify counterfeits, so should Christians only study the truth in order to identify untruth. This is a very modernistic illustration which is not only untrue, but will hardly serve as a justified model for discovery in a postmodern world. The first fallacy is that the illustration is simply untrue. Counterfeit investigators do study every type of counterfeit that is known. Second, this illustration arrogantly assumes that they are already in possession of the truth against which to measure the false. It necessarily requires that you do not examine the options. Therefore, it seeks to keep you in isolation. This is fine and good if you actually do have the truth, but who is to say that you do? Any number of rival truth claims can use this illustration to keep there people in naive ignorance. For many who follow this methodology, they are in for a rude awakening. We must be willing to study broadly and consider deeply the alternatives if we expect to have and produce intellectual honesty. Without it, how do we expect to stand before God with integrity?

Benefits of Irenic Method

Your beliefs will be more real: No longer will you believe something simply out of a subjective emotional conviction that can be shared by all people of all world religions, but because of an honest wrestling with the issues. God gave us our minds and He expects us to use them. He has no favor for the naive (read the Proverbs). His desire is for us to see the truth and be convinced of it. 

You will have degrees of conviction: Without an irenic method, all beliefs carry the same degree of conviction. They are black and white. You either believe them or you don’t. There is no in-between. While the irenic method will give you greater conviction on many things, it will also demand less assurance with other things. You will see that often, because of the strengths of the arguments for alternative truth claims (such as in eschatology), the evidence demands that we be very timid about setting them up as tests for orthodoxy or holding to some things too strongly. If God’s revelation is clear, then we speak with the same clarity. If God’s revelation is not so clear, we represent it as such. Being Christian does not mean that we know it all or have a secret decoder ring when it comes to difficult issues. We have to look to the evidence and take a stand, even if that stand says “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.”

You will have a hierarchy of beliefs: As Roger Olson puts it, “Beliefs matter, but not all beliefs matter equally.”[1] The irenic method demands that we see that some beliefs are more important than others. In other words, all doctrines are not worth dying for on a hill. Once we begin to see this, we will have gained an audience because Christians will all be speaking the same language. While disagreements may still exist, people will see that there is a center of peaceful unity upon which we all agree. The list on Google suddenly gets much smaller. The person and work of Christ is the center of our theology and must be spoken of by all Christians with unity and conviction.   

You will have disarmed all skeptics: No longer will you or others see our faith and other Christians in the likeness of a used car salesman, but as those who truly care about the truth. People will see that we have entrusted them with the ability and confidence to make their own decisions. All talk of knowledge being manipulative will necessarily cease for it will find no basis in reality.

Our world is confused. They feel betrayed and manipulated, but this does not mean that they are not seeking for answers. Don’t underestimate people’s ability to spot a fake. Ask yourself continually if you are a fake. Don’t be afraid to learn. Christ has not given us such a faith that demands blind adherence. Pursue truth will all your being. Trust that God is not afraid of questions and doubt. He is pretty big. I think He can handle honest doubt better than naïve commitment. Pursue theology irenically.


[1] Roger Olson. Mosaic of Christian Beliefs (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 33


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    22 replies to "Googling for Truth: The Importance of Irenic Theology in our Postmodern World"

    • bethyada

      One of the benefits of this approach is that you do not have to have an opinion about an area you are not well versed with.

      I can have no opinion about eschatology, or hold credobaptism loosely knowing that it is what I have been exposed to but have not thought about deeply.

      It is also important to note that degree of conviction may not correspond to the hierarchy of beliefs. It is possible to be well informed and highly convicted about minutia one happens to find interesting.

    • mbaker

      “It is possible to be well informed and highly convicted about minutia one happens to find interesting.”

      My sentiments exactly, regarding so many Christian blogs. Being an ‘expert’ in one field doesn’t mean we can automatically disqualify another, and it seems that so often happens, much to the detriment of complete knowledge.

    • Bible Monkey

      A lot of research classes in college today just send you to the internet instead of their library. Or if you go to the college library it’s to use a computer…for Google or any chosen search engine. That seems to be setting a precedent.

    • bZirk

      Michael, are you familiar with David Weinberger? Well, Google him! Sorry I couldn’t resist that.

      He’s a fellow at the Berkman Insitute at Harvard Law and fast becoming one of the leading authorities on how Web 2.0 is changing the way we think. He is a proponent of order from disorder — obviously an evolutionist. But I still think he’s worth reading if for no other reason than he makes some great points about how technology is changing the way we think. Oh sure some of it you already know, but not all of it.

      I know you probably have a long reading list, but I thought I would urge you to add this. I’ve actually been developing a piece about it for a while, but I would love to hear what you think.

    • bZirk

      Sorry I forgot to list the books I’m referring to — Everything is Miscellaneous or Clue Train Manifesto.

    • Rick

      “It is no secret that our culture today is undergoing a massive paradigm shift with regards to the way people come to know truth. The atmosphere of the intellectual landscape has changed. ”

      I think this should be one of the first lines of your new book, and this post/essay should be one of the chapters.

      Well done.

    • Jeff

      I have been way too reluctant to dig deep in my investigations about truth … way too ignorant about varying beliefs across denominations in my Christian Faith and between Christianity and radically different religions for that matter. Thanks for helping others (me) to learn more … particularly about methodology and learning styles to grow in belief … and I appreciate your willingness to give time to differing views.

      I’m still trying to find the right balance between knowledge and “faith of a child” … between being prepared and being completely dependent on Christ … between being deliberate, intentional and waiting on the Holy Spirit to animate in the appropriate moment … between being and doing. People’s lives hang in the balance of these important interactions. The search for knowing what a life of Faith is suppose to look like is quite confusing to say the least. Again … all this to say thanks for contributing to my growth.

    • Dave Z

      Standing up and cheering in my living room.

      I just posted on the “Why is God Silent” thread about how I appreciate your willingness to slaughter “any sacred cows that might have crept in without warrant” though I used a different metaphor.

      Christians (or anyone else for that matter) lose all credibility when we make bold assertions without the ability or (even worse) the willingness to back them up.

      One of your best posts!

    • Dave Z

      In addition, a lack of real understanding of other points of view allows arrogance to raise it’s ugly head. Serious consideration of other POVs have helped me to realize how much I don’t know. It has also made me very skeptical of claims of “better understanding.”

      It was much simpler when speaking the “truth” was simply echoing what I had been taught. It’s much more difficult to really investigate and think it through and understand it. I only hope the sacrifice of “simpler” ends up producing a more accurate understanding of truth.

    • Marcus

      Thank you, Michael. Excellent post!

    • […] disagree, we don’t bear false witness against each other. (For one thing, it’s simply too easy these days for people to refute you, as C. Michael Patton argues over at Parchment and Pen.) “Do not judge, so that you may not […]

    • Nazaroo

      First, encouragement:

      Your paragraph on Prolegomena was extremely helpful, clear and concise. I don’t know how historically accurate it is, but perhaps that doesn’t matter, as long as this is how academics view it now.

      Minor quibble:
      The Google box in the face at the top was utterly annoying, but I can’t believe that was your intent.

      Major Contention:
      The rest of your discussion seems like a self-sell of easy-going uncommitted reliosity, carefully leaving out any hardcore Christianity of the type found in Apostolic times. My how we’ve strayed from the days when men would endure torture and death for their faith, or risk death to save their friends, the highest example of “love” Jesus gave.

      I’m no braveheart, and don’t want to be drawn and quartered over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But not every mainstream Christian doctrine can be so easily dismissed as a “hypothesis”, held in the hand to be admired, but not worn as a badge announcing one’s loyalty in war.

      peace
      Nazaroo

    • C Michael Patton

      Thanks Nazaroo,

      Can you be a bit more specific with your critique and engage the article directly a bit. I am interested to see which part of this evidences a non-comittal attitude.

      Thanks.

    • Nazaroo

      Glad to oblige: I’ll take this as your thesis, you can correct or adjust:

      “It is no secret that our culture today is undergoing a massive paradigm shift with regards to the way people come to know truth. The atmosphere of the intellectual landscape has changed. Confidence, certainty, and dogmatism have been replaced with doubt, skepticism, and agnosticism. Truth claims are held in high suspicion. Those still working under the old paradigm of truth are thought by this new generation of thinkers to be naive at best and power mongering manipulators at worst.”

      I understand the picture you’ve painted quite well. But I don’t feel this is the universal reality-picture.

      As someone over 50, raised as an atheist by the Western Educational system, and who became a Christian as an adult, after extensive scientific training, my perspective is quite different.

      Of the things you list in your paradigm shift, only agnosticism appears fitting in the sense of a shift toward. This was inevitable, as scientific method found agnosticism an integral and essential component of all scientific methodology and inquiry.

      The rest is irrelevant, since this particular shift SHOULD have happened, while in fact it has taken 100 years to happen, and still has hardly had any impact on the thinking of modern man. He only thinks he is ‘scientific’. What modern man really engages in is pseudo-pop-science at a high-school level, and most of that is just urban mythology.

      A direct interaction with youth shows they (naturally) long for stability and confidence, and eagerly adopt whatever “truth-packages” are offered, with almost no trained scientific acumen or self-defence in place. Kids are not skeptical, except as an external display. Instead they are ridiculously credulous, just like their parents.

    • Nazaroo

      My reply (cont.)…

      Your description of the misfortune of those who believe in objective truth is not a real reflection of the world, but merely one of academia, which has always been an unrealistic circus of patent self-worshipping nonsense.

      That is, academia may pat itself on the back for rejecting out of hand all truth-claims, but real people in the real world carry on making necessary truth-decisions without their approval or any concern for it.

      The “new generation of thinkers” appears to be the dregs at the bottom of a barrel long drained of any essential creativity. The best technological advances we presently have were developed in the 1960s, including computation (and all the accompanying mathematical machinery), nuclear power (an obvious 60s technology), solid-state electronics (the only recent advances are in further miniaturization and quality/efficiency.

      Just about every scientific field is wallowing in a stagnant quagmire of obselete ideas and wrong notions about their own subjects.

      No one takes science seriously, except to depend upon it for their i-phone and game-pods. The internet has become a gigantic “run a criminal network behind your parents’ back” gag.

      Thats the challenging reality that Christian ministers would face in the 21st century if they existed. Pardon my methodological agnosticism.

      peace
      Nazaroo

    • Nazaroo

      Your section, Requirements of the Irenic Method, seems to be rather a statement of the general scientific method of inquiry, with some philosophical observations thrown in for sales purposes.

      The last third, Benefits of Irenic Method is a list of alleged benefits, which prompted my first post “seems like a self-sell of easy-going uncommitted reliosity”[sic] (meant to spell religiosity).

      You are so busy selling a friendly non-mathematician/physicist version of scientific inquiry that there wasn’t much left for Christianity, in my view.

      Its all fine when doing initial investigations to use scientific methodology. But at some point (*before* you go public) you have to make your mind up on many important key issues/doctrines. Then you are back to preaching the gospel as you understand it and are able to live it.

      There’s no science really involved this latter effort to convert and save souls for Christ.

      peace
      Nazaroo

    • bZirk

      Michael,

      I was remiss in saying that I LOVE your piece. I printed it out for my husband, and I know he will love it too.

      Thank you.

    • Vladimir

      The way I understand Prolegomena and Irenic Theology/theological method is more or less correct as Michael has presented it. In other words it is Presuppositional apologetics exponded by the late C. van Til.

      The paradigm shift is however not new. The shift in fact is continually aberrant and changing. “The whole world lies in the Evil One.” The truth (the traditional truth), i.e., according to the true and living God, has not flinched one iota from the get go. Hence the Scriptures state “the word of my patience.”

      Nazaroo is right about this:

      “He only thinks he is ’scientific’. What modern man really engages in is pseudo-pop-science at a high-school level, and most of that is just urban mythology.”

      Conversation at almost any downtown coffee shop willl confirm this.

      On any given Sunday about 700 verses are read in the Liturgy. The world view and assumptions/presuppositions are Scripture centered and defined. Doubtless the Catechism (whether Orthodox or not) may and does serve as Prolegomena.

      But ultimately, the hocus-pocus, the historically unfounded fantasies of the unregenerate is still simply witchcraft, a lie, and darkness. Only God can pierce thier madness – even if our methodological approach is correct. Even seminaries and theological books begin here.

      Vladimir

    • Lisa Robinson

      Man, this is barking so much up my alley right now. I have become increasingly disenchanted with the material written to refute arguments. Too polemical and condescending. Holding on to a sacred cow and telling someone else there sacred cow is false without first engaging the reader will not go very far in addressing issues. It has really made me examine the way I address challenges to the faith in a way that honors God and respects the other person.

    • Lisa Robinson

      Nazaroo,

      While I agree with your statement here

      you have to make your mind up on many important key issues/doctrines. Then you are back to preaching the gospel as you understand it and are able to live it.

      I would push back on this one

      You are so busy selling a friendly non-mathematician/physicist version of scientific inquiry that there wasn’t much left for Christianity, in my view.

      I don’t believe that a softened approach necessitates a softened view of Christianity. I see it as the tool to demonstrate respect for other person and recognition that there is a reason they want to believe the things they are holding on to. We would do best to understand and acknowledge why that is so first, which means getting their side of the story. Then have them reconcile contradictions with historic orthodoxy by presenting the facts. That by no means undermines Christianity but rather staunchly supports its.

    • Dave Z

      Good points Lisa.

      I think we also have to be sure we’re holding onto and presenting the essential tenets of the faith. Error exists within Christianity, not just beyond the borders. Exposure to and consideration of other points of view can help strip away our own misunderstandings, often developed and reinforced by isolation in a particular faith tradition.

      To someone from eastern Kentucky, “taking up the serpent” may seem a normal or even an essential element of faith. But such an attitude may change upon exposure to other points of view, including the science of textual criticism, which raises serious questions about the long ending of Mark, the passage the tradition is drawn from.

      To apply the principle more broadly, though few of us handle snakes, we all have our error – none of us are perfect in knowledge and understanding, but we can grow towards that through an honest and irenic approach, even within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity.

    • Addie

      I have just read this post and I have to say, as a Christian just returning to the faith, it has bothered me quite a bit that I Google information. I have spent an obscene amount of time believing garbage because they put forth a somewhat strong argument that I identified with at the time. That’s why the Scriptures are that much more amazing to me now. I can cross-check and reference interpretation to decipher God’s truth. If I pay attention to Him rather than my own misguided needs, I get a lot further in my faith. I know this sounds basic to some of the Christians on here with longer roots than mine, but I am truly amazed and grateful for those precious, unfailing Words of my Lord, Jesus Christ! I will admit, I was led on a wild-goose chase back to the faith because of utilizing the internet as my own personal theology concordance. I feel like my first lesson was ultimate humility. People will believe almost anything when they’re desperate for answers. This is the biggest danger of the internet, I think. They are being exposed to the bad before they are exposed to the good (the truth).

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