John R. Franke. Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth. Abingdon Press, 2009. 152 pgs.
The purpose of this review will be brief exposure to a volume whose purpose and context lie, for the most part, outside of the Reformed world. Much of Franke’s approach to theology as a whole can be summarized by the sub-title alone, “The Plurality of Truth.” I should also mention that this book is meant for a popular-level audience and is not a scholarly, academic work, so the intention of addressing real problems that our peers in the pew may face is certainly admirable. Finally, the book sends out a specific signal by having Brian McLaren write the foreword and dedicating it to Stanley Grenz. Some of you may know McLaren from books such as A New Kind of Christianity, where he ruffled a lot of evangelical feathers over the beliefs stated in that piece. Perhaps his most popular work is Generous Orthodoxy, which is mostly a collection of wholly unorthodox beliefs that lie completely outside the Christian tradition (both Protestant and Catholic). But you don’t have to take my word for it; Generous Orthodoxy can be found on Google Books to read for yourself.
Franke’s choice of company aside, his concern is completely valid: If we believe “in one holy catholic and apostolic Church” (to quote the Nicene Creed), what accounts for the pervasive, diverse beliefs we see in the Church from its very beginning? If we speak of the unity of the church while her members seem to be anything but united, of what aspect of the church do we refer when speaking of “unity” if not the beliefs of her own members? Franke opens on page 3:
“What has prompted the question time and again has been the attempt to come to terms with what I believe to be one of the most significant challenges facing Christian theology in the contemporary setting: the sheer, existential reality of Christian plurality…The fact is that Christians disagree with each other on a host of significant theological questions that are accompanied by a dizzying array of answers.”
The topic is both massive in its scope and systemic in its reach. The unity/plurality question touches on epistemology, theology proper, ecclesiology, and almost any other topic related to the church. Franke has chosen to tackle this problem in less than 150 pages. Certainly there is nothing wrong with tackling big questions for a popular audience in a book that size (see J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism), but such a project demands extreme precision and clarity.
Franke does manage to comment on many of the historic Christian topics – Christology, theology proper, inspiration, doctrine of Scripture, etc., but these topics are usually stated in a way that leaves the reader wondering how Franke would apply his theme of Manifold Witness to some of the details of those topics. For example, on page 75 Franke comments on the Christian doctrine of Scripture. He says,
“This assertion that Christian belief and practice are governed by the Spirit who speaks in and through Scripture means that Christian belief and practice cannot be determined merely by appeal to either exegesis of the Bible carried out apart from the life of the believing community or to claims of guidance from the Spirit that contradict the witness of Scripture.”
Fair enough; normative biblical interpretation shouldn’t occur outside of God’s church and Christian practice should never contradict Scripture. Franke goes on, “The reading and interpretation of the text is for the purpose of listening to the voice of the Spirit who speaks in and through Scripture to the church in the present.”
This may initially sound fine, but questions should begin to arise such as, “What does it mean to listen to ‘the voice of the Spirit’? Is it listening to something more than the words of Scripture itself?” Franke doesn’t clarify but continues, “The Bible is a central element of the Christian community because it is understood as the means through which the Spirit speaks.”
Again, nothing immediately glaring in this example that seems to go against what we want to affirm. But why call Scripture “a central element of the Christian community”? Why use language that understands Scripture as “the means through which the Spirit speaks”? This may seem like splitting hairs, but why not use language found in Scripture itself, understanding all Scripture not as a means to the Spirit’s speech but the words of Scripture as actually God-breathed. Scripture is so much more than “a central element of the Christian community”, it is God speaking and the (not “a”) foundation for everything we believe and do. Franke subtly uses seemingly non-committal, neo-orthodox language for a popular audience when given the opportunity to communicate the crucial message of the priority of Scripture. The reader who is expecting a true assessment of Christian truth will be met with this kind of approach on every page of Manifold Witness.
When an author offers a defense of plurality as a system of truth, it’s usually very difficult to critique that position in a way in which the author would sympathize. This is mainly because it’s difficult to grasp whether the author understands his or her approach of plurality as applying universally (which would then be inconsistent with plurality as non-universal) or whether the author understands the pluralistic position as one position among many others that are equally valid, including the supposedly equal position that there is ultimate unity of truth (rendering the plurality position as mere opinion and preference, easily discarded if a preferable opinion arises).
The problem of Christian disagreement is certainly not new within the Church, and the proposed solution of plurality is also not new. It’s also not the case that the fact of Christian disagreement means there are no clear answers to Christian points of disagreement on substantial issues. Christian plurality existed well before Franke noticed it. The Church will always need to sort out what is essential to the Christian faith and what is not. The question is not whether believers in the Christian tradition will disagree (we will, of course), the question is how to go about resolving those disagreements both methodologically and attitudinally . Franke believes one resolution is understanding plurality as foundationally a good thing to be sought after. The Reformed tradition has answered that question differently. We believe differences of opinion are to be worked out under the ultimate authority of Scripture. There will always be different interpretations of Scripture by different individuals, but the solution is to let Scripture consistently guide that plurality of beliefs.Pluralism