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On the nature of truth: Contra the New Calvinist Kellerite model

Tim Keller has pioneered within Reformed circles certain missiological practices and strategies. At the heart of the major differences in practice is a different way of looking at the nature of truth, of what truth actually is.

What is the nature of truth? Truth if it is by God must of necessity be absolute and eternal. In circles associated with Tim Keller however, truth seems to have a nature more in line with that propounded by post-Wittgensteinian modernity/ post-modernity than biblical Christianity. Briefly, the difference seems to be that certain segments at least hold to the idea of nature (ontology) of truth as being anthropocentric (man-centered) although they do hold to a theocentric (God-centered) teleology of truth. In line with that is the denial or at least neglect of the archetypal/ ectypal distinction in theology. Secondly, truth becomes seen in a pragmatic and utilitarian manner. Thirdly, truth seems to be seen as primarily intellectual not spiritual. Fourthly, there is a denial that truth can sometimes be intended by God to kill and to judge not to bring life. Fifthly, there is a functional denial of the sovereignty of God in conveying the truth. We will look at all these points in turn.

Anthropocentric ontology of truth

God's truth is absolute and eternal. What this means is that God's truth has equal validity for all cultures everywhere. What God says is true, and there are no degrees of truth whatsoever. The truth is trans-cultural, trans-ethnic and trans-national.

In some parts of the New Evangelical Calvinism however, there is a post-Wittgensteinian modern/ post-modern focus on truth as being conditioned in some sense upon culture. Truth is split platonically into the substance of truth (the idea) and the form of its expression. It is then emphasized that the substance of the truth must not change, but its form and expression should. The idea of contextualization is birthed from this idea of the relation of truth and culture, something expounded by Tim Keller in his appropriation of it from liberal circles[1].

As I have shown, Keller's concept of contextualization is based upon a false view of the relation between truth and culture[2]. Biblical truths cannot be known apart from its redemptive historical context. There is no such thing to be known as some non-inculturated Gospel. Therefore, the Gospel cannot be abstracted as some substance apart from its form. Rather, the Gospel in its entirety (form and all) must be brought in all its strangeness to bear upon every culture.

Further reflection upon this problem of contextualization has shown me that the problem lies with a fundamental denial or neglect of the archetypal/ ectypal distinction. This distinction states that there are basically two types of theology. Theology that pertains to God alone is archetypal theology (theologia archetypa) and theology that pertains to us is ectypal theology (theologia ectypa)[3]. Ectypal theology is a reflection of archetypal theology, but they are not the same. God alone knows archetypal theology, while ectypal theology is communicated to us from God, thus functioning as the univocal point of contact between God and Man. As it pertains to the debate over contextualization, the supposed "kernel" of the Gospel that Keller believes can be abstracted from its cultural context and then contextualized into another culture can be said to be archetypal theology. The problem becomes clear since archetypal theology is not something anybody but God alone knows. We only know archetypal theology in its reflection in ectypal theology. The entire practice of contextualization thus is a practical denial of the archetypal/ ectypal distinction, which is a step towards the denial of the Creator/ creature distinction.

Back to the nature of truth, if truth that we can know is archetypal, but truth in expression is culturally-conditioned, truth is its totality in its nature must be anthropocentric, since in its totality it is dependent upon culture. Reformed theology has two types of truth, and thus we can say that ectypal truth is culturally conditioned, yet because it is a reflection of archetypal theology which is not culturally conditioned, truth transcends culture altogether. The denial of the archetypal/ ectypal distinction makes truth therefore anthropocentric in its nature. Now, saying it is anthropocentric in nature does not mean that it is necessarily anthropocentric in its authority, focus and goal. Rather, truth can be seen as theocentric in its authority, focus and its goal as it strives to be in New Evangelical Calvinist circles. So truth is from God as its source, but in its conduit is from Man who expresses it. The anthropocentricity therefore comes out in discussion of truth in its conveyance, whereby truth is discussed very much in terms of its expression by the proponent, and in terms of reception and perception by the receiver of said truth, something which underlie all the other points of critique which we will be looking at.

Truth as pragmatic and utilitarian

The New Evangelical Calvinist anthropocentric ontology of truth, while maintaining its theocentric epistemic focus, has ramifications for how one deals with discussion about truth and doctrine. If truth is seen as necessarily conditioned by culture in its form, then the form of truth caters to the needs of Man. Truth therefore is pragmatically shaped and utilitarian in its form. While the substance of truth is from God, the form must be adjusted to meet the needs of Man.

It must be said here however that such a view of truth is not exactly seeker sensitivity in the mold of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek. Rather, the needs of Man are those seen as real needs coming from the yearnings of the heart, not controlled by pop culture and the entertainment industry. The substance of God's truth must be changed in its form to meet these real needs of Man. That said, it is very similar to seeker-sensitivity in that there is a pragmatic and utilitarian slant to truth. But it is objected, there is no compromise of the Gospel message. After all, the Gospel message in its full substance is brought to bear upon the real needs (as opposed to felt needs) of Man.

The problem with such an approach to truth is that it is not biblical. If indeed God is God, He is the determiner of meaning. His archetypal truth is the ground for all (ectypal) truth. We do not therefore see what our "real needs" are, and then see the Scriptures as relevant to meet those real needs. No, Scripture defines what we need. There are felt needs, there are real needs, and there are ordained/ prescribed needs. Just because something may not seem to be a "real need" does not make it any less important! The Scriptures are to govern our experience, our tastes, every aspect of our being. Do we think we know better than God what we truly need? Does the creature in his sinful state knows more than God what he actually needs? It is true that since we are created by God, some of God's prescribed needs for Man will coincide with what we think we really need. For example, Man need significance, belonging, something to salve the conscience. All of these we do need. But we need more than that! Scripture tells us we need to know God and His Word. Our prescribed need to know God's Word in depth and detail, and thus to know God as He has revealed Himself, may not seem like a real need to many people, but it is our need as ordained by God.

New Evangelical Calvinism, because of its pragmatic and utilitarian view of truth, slants the truth of Scripture towards the end of salvation. As Evangelicals, the Gospel is seen as important, which is good. But the Gospel is placed on such a pedestal that all other biblical truths and doctrines are placed in secondary or even tertiary positions of relative non-importance. Therefore, the real needs New Evangelical Calvinists see are those pertaining to the subject of "the Gospel." Everything must be "Gospel-centered," by which they mean everything is to be oriented towards conversion from sin to faith in Christ. Whereas Reformed Christianity holds to the idea of the pattern of sounds words and Tota Scriptura, the elevation of the Gospel, as defined by the goal of the conversion experience, skews their idea of what Man actually needs. That is the goal, and therefore all truth must be oriented towards that goal, instead of the truth determining what the goal should be.

In such a scheme, truth is no more treasured primarily because it reveals God and His purposes. Rather, it is treasured primarily for its value in describing God, in saving souls, and in making people mature in Christ. The penultimate has become the ultimate, the benefits has become the goal, and in so doing God's truth is devalued. Ironically, by focusing on the practical benefits and effects of God's truth, they get less of its benefits, and in so doing impoverished themselves.

Truth as primarily intellectual

If truth is anthropocentric in its ontology, and it functions in a pragmatic and utilitarian manner, then truth in se apart from its usefulness must be seen as mainly intellectual. Just like secular (i.e. no sacred) knowledge from the sciences and the arts, knowledge is just a collection of intellectual facts. Knowledge of God's Word refers to intellectual comprehension of God's truth as revealed in the Bible. While acknowledging that we are to love God with all our mind (Mt. 22:37), love of God with one's mind is seen in purely intellectual terms.

Now, this phenomenon is not of course unique to the New Calvinists. But sometimes there can be many paths leading to the same error, and this is one of them. The only difference between the New Calvinists and anti-intellectuals is that the New Calvinists do place some premium on doctrine and deeper knowledge of God's Word. There is an emphasis on reading the Scriptures to know who God is, but for them studying the Bible is not enough. Rather, very much like the pietists, one studies the Bible intellectually, and then one pays heed to its truth separately devotionally through a separate time of either prayer or meditation.

The problem with this approach is that Scripture contains no such dichotomy. Nowhere in Scripture is God's Word treated as mere knowledge. God's Word is living and active (Heb. 4:12), and it has its perlocutionary effect in bringing about what God desires it to do (Is. 55:11). God speaks through His Word, and there is absolutely no such distinction between the two Greek words used for 'word,' ????? and ??µa, here, contrary to some especially in the Word-faith circles[4]. Where the Scriptures are read and are heard and are proclaimed, there God is speaking, and He continues to speak now today though His Word.

There are of course two types of ectypal truth, sacred and common/ secular. Common truth are certainly intellectual in nature. But sacred truth or God's truth is spiritual first, then intellectual. In fact, there is no real bifurcation of the spiritual and intellectual in God's truth. What is intellectual is spiritual and what is spiritual is intellectual. People in the Old Testament encounter God, and they came to know Him and His laws and decrees and statues. When they know His laws and decrees and statutes, they faced the God of the Covenant who obliged them to keep it. People in the New Testament encounter God in the person of Jesus Christ, and Jesus' teachings were communicated to them. There are no (mediated) encounters apart from knowledge, and no knowledge apart from an encounter (mediated) with God.

If all truth is spiritual and intellectual, then all of God's truth is spiritual, including hard doctrines like reprobation. There should not be an aversion to proclaiming all truth, as long as they are taught and proclaimed truly.

Denial of truth as judgment

The New Evangelical Calvinist view of truth as pragmatic and utilitarian is very common. If truth functions with an a priori teleology for the salvation of souls, then everything must be geared towards that goal. Instead of seeing the ultimate goal as the glory of God, the saving of souls (a penultimate good) is made the ultimate goal, and exalted over God's glory. To be sure, the New Calvinists are interested in magnifying God's glory, but their idea of what constitutes magnifying God's glory is assumed by them a priori, and as such they read this unreflective tradition of theirs into Scripture.

Such being the case, New Evangelical Calvinists reject the very idea that the truth can be meant to condemn people. The Gospel after all means "good news," they say, and thus we should not make good news into bad news. To such, we respond that such is a partial truth. The Gospel is good news to Man in general because now Man has a way out of sin, condemnation and eternal fire. The Gospel is good news to Man in particular however only when it is received with faith, while it is bad news to those who remain unrepentant (Jn. 3:18, 2 Cor. 2: 15-16).

It will be objected that it is one thing for the Gospel to condemn those who reject its message, and another that the Gospel intends to condemn those who reject its message. That is true. And we reply that the Scriptures do teach that God does intend the Gospel to condemn those who reject it. The Gospel in Isaiah's time for example was intended to condemn, although it was really good news (Is. 6:9-10). Christ Himself said that He came for judgment (Jn. 9:39), with His parables functioning in that capacity of condemning those who cannot see, while granting life to those who do (Mt. 13:10-15). Now, to be sure, I am not saying that God intends the Gospel to condemn people, or that we must proclaim the Gospel as bad news. Besides the views of extreme groups, such is a caricature that does not reflect well on those who twist the biblical position. Rather, it is to say that God does intends the Gospel to save some, and to condemn others. We of course do not proclaim the Gospel as condemnation, because God has not told us who the elect are and who the reprobate are.

We proclaim and freely offer Christ and the forgiveness of sin. That is what we should do. But because our goal is to offer Christ regardless of the offence, to offer Christ regardless if people will receive it (even though we hope they receive it), we should not tailor the truth to make it more amicable to our audience. True, we should not offend them needlessly, but it is one thing not to cause needless offence, and another thing to soften much needed offence. This brings us to our last point: a functional denial of the sovereignty of God in conveying truth.

Functional denial of the sovereignty of God in conveying truth

Faith in God has the element of trust, in fact trust is very important in true faith. If one trusts God that He is sovereign in salvation, then even one's evangelistic thrust should be bold in proclaiming God's truth, without being overly concerned or worried over whether one is stumbling others needlessly.

Holding to the anthropocentric ontology of truth however will lead one towards a hesitancy in affirming the sovereignty of God in the manner of sharing God's Word. Since form is human, there is always the concern of how the form of sharing or witnessing may turn the audience away. Instead of turning to God's Word as the authority on how one should share and proclaim God's truth, one studies the audience and attempt to "meet them where they are at." Now of course, knowing one's audience is important; nobody is denying that. But the audience is to be considered secondarily only after God has been consulted in His Word. Ultimately it is a matter of who is the primary determiner of how truth is conveyed. Is God the primary determiner, or is culture? Is God sovereign over the conveyance of truth, or is culture sovereign?

The New Calvinists loudly proclaim the sovereignty of God over all things. I do not doubt they think they do believe that God is sovereign over all things. But some of them have a blind spot on culture, unconsciously picking up from the culture the platonic idea of God's truth as an idea, a substance, of which the culture gives it its form. When worked out in the practice of contextualization and seeker sensitivity-lite, it results in a functional denial of God's sovereignty over the conveyance of His truth.


The problems concerning the nature of truth are found at least in certain segments of the New Evangelical Calvinism, notably in the Kellerite movement. While deeming itself sensitive to the times, it consciously and subconsciously absorbs the prevailing philosophy of language, and thus results in a sub-biblical philosophy of ministry. May they see the error of their ways, and embrace the fullness of God's truth. Amen.


[1] Tim Keller, Contextualization: Wisdom or Compromise (Unpublished paper presented at Covenant Seminary, n.d.)

[2] Daniel H. Chew, The Problem with Contextualization: A Critique of Keller's Idea of Contextualization. Accessed at

[3] Willem J. van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought”, WTJ 64 (2002): 319-35

[4] Gordon H. Clark, The Johannine Logos (Jefferson, Maryland: Trinity Foundation, 1972, 1989), 46-58