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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Is Subjectivity Always a Bad Thing?

It's interesting what you learn when you start asking questions and seeking answers. I'm coming up on the first anniversary of this blog (July 20), and it's been an interesting year of learning. Not just learning things in response to my questions, but learning what others think. Sometimes, I have learned very painfully what others think of the questions I ask. And sometimes I find out that some people just don't want to hear any questions asked.

What always amuses me, though, is how people want to figure out what box to put me in so they can label me and then dismiss my thoughts. And the funny thing is that many times, I've never even heard of the boxes until I'm put in them.

Take postmodernism, for example. Several months ago, I started seeing the word "pomo" used on some blogs. It took me a while to even find out what the word stood for. I figured out really quickly that it was used in a rather derogatory way, but finding out what it was short for was just the start of my learning.

Once I found out that "pomo" was short for "postmodernism", then I had to find out what postmodernism was. I have found that the concept of "postmodernism" has very different definitions, depending on who is doing the defining. To a lot of Christians, "postmodernism" is the evil trend in our culture to deny any absolute truth and leave everything up to "personal interpretation". It seems to be characterized by those opposed to it as something that resists truth and certainty, and instead wants to leave all options open.

While I have no interest in defending postmodernism, I'm not necessarily sure it's all that its critics say it is. But whether or not it is, it seems easy for people to want to shove me (and people like me) into a box labeled "pomo" and then dismiss us as being an enemy of the Gospel. Well, ok, so maybe they don't go that far in their assessment (at least not to my face), but the responses I get sometimes on other blogs (and an occasional comment that will pop up here on this blog from people other than my regular commenters) indicate that my questions cause major doubt in their minds as to my dedication to the absolute truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the responses that so frequently heads this direction is an accusation that I am advocating for subjectivity, and therefore am rejecting the objective truth of God's revelation. So I wanted to take a moment to talk about subjectivity and how it relates to our Christianity. In order to do so, one must sort through some implications of subjectivity as that term is used in theological discussions.

Subjectivity, in most discussions of this nature, appears to be rejected as a postmodern approach of lack of absolutes. In other words, as I have pointed out in the recent discussion on the role of Scripture (part 1, part 2, and part 3), and as some comments showed in reply to my thoughts, many think that I am advocating for something so subjective that there is 1) no accountability, and 2) no canon (measure) with which to evaluate the legitimacy of the experience or belief.

There is this polarization of two extremes: One purports to be a completely objective, propositional approach to theology. This is the approach that thinks that anything we know about God can only be known through reading the Bible. By coming to the right conclusions as to what the text says, we are left with clear statements of propositional truth (i.e., either true or false, but no room for in-between). The other polarized position is a rejection of all objective truth, and just going on feelings or "being led by the Spirit" in a way in which no one is permitted to question our experience because "God led me" or "God told me".

As most of my regular readers can predict, my response to that is that there is a middle ground between the two polar opposites. And that leads us to the question in the title of this post: Is subjectivity always a bad thing?

Recently, I began reading a book by Carl Raschke entitled The Next Reformation. I have not gotten very far into the book, so I'm not prepared to comment on the book overall. But one quote jumped off the page at me. (This is from page 19 of the paperback version)

The theme of subjective truth, properly understood, has been far more congenial to the expansion of the gospel through the ages than any canon of propositional certitude. When evangelical believers undergo conversion...and offer their own lives to Christ in a personal profession of faith, it is rarely the result of anyone having convinced them through careful and flawless reasoning that Jesus is their Savior. It is usually because God ministering as the Holy Spirit has grappled with them in their private depths of confusion and doubt and given them a whole new inner lease on life. Paul may have convinced a few Athenian citizens that the "Unknown God" they were worshipping was in fact the living Creator. But Paul himself was not drawn to Christianity because some philosopher offered a better argument than the Stoics, Cynics, or Epicureans of his time. Saul of Tarsus became Paul the apostle because the resurrected Lord encountered him on the road to Damascus, said only a few soul-wrenching words to him, and left him speechless and dumbstruck.
In other words, the very experience of conversion itself is subjective. Yes, there is objective truth involved, but it also includes a subjective experience. I know of few Christians who would be willing to deny that. And yet, somehow, once a person is saved, we want them to shun all subjectivity and subscribe to a series of propositional statements in order to show "maturity" in their faith. Especially to most cessationists (sorry, Gordon, and other regular readers who are still cessationists), the idea of personal experience becomes very mistrusted. If someone claims to be "led by God" toward a certain decision, some Christians mock that and claim that this "leading" denies the sufficiency of Scripture as the "rule" for our lives.

One of the points that I made in my posts about the role of Scripture is that, while Scripture claims to be "profitable", I do not see a claim by Scripture itself to be "sufficient". When we say that Scripture is "sufficient" for making decisions, living a life pleasing to God, etc., we rule out the subjective experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And I think that this is making a huge mistake.

As a means of definition, allow me to quote from Webster's New World Dictionary for the terms "objective" and "subjective":

objective -- of or having to do with a known or perceived object as distinguished from something existing only in the mind of the subject, or person thinking; hence, being, or regarded as being, independent of the mind

subjective -- of, affected by, or produced by the mind or a particular state of mind; of or resulting from the feelings or temperament of the subject, or person thinking, rather than the attributes of the object thought of
While these definitions may make it sound like subjectivity is something to be steadfastly avoided, we must remember that part of the experience of the believer is a renewal of the mind, and a partaking of the mind of Christ. Thus, the very subjective experience of the believer is, itself, subject to the Spirit of God.

The necessary conclusion of the cessationist argument is that any subjective experience recorded in Scripture is not a model for us today because we have the full revelation in Scripture. Yet in many situations, we see people being led in Scripture based on a relationship with God that surpasses mere words on a page.

For example, God led Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the land which God would show him. Abraham's servant gave praise to God (Genesis 24:27) for leading him in the search for Isaac's wife-to-be. Romans 8:14 talks about us being "led by the Spirit of God". The book of Acts records several situations where believers sought God's leading in a particular situation. For example, in Acts 15, we read in verse 28 that the leaders of the church determined that a particular consensus decision "seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to [them]". This is just to mention a small handful of examples.

Another point worth making at this juncture is the information from God in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:33 and shown to be applied to the New Covenant in Hebrews 10:16) that there was coming a day when he would write His law on our hearts. This is in contrast to the law that was written by God on stone (and given to Moses to give to the people).

The fullness of revelation (according to Hebrews 1:1-2), as I have mentioned before, is Jesus Christ Himself. And Paul references "Christ in you, the hope of glory" in Colossians 1:27. So, if the pattern in Scripture is an experience that includes both objective and subjective, culminating in a personal indwelling of us by Jesus Christ, why should our position be any different? Why should this point in the story of God's interaction with man be anything less than what went before us?

This in no way advocates a system where there is no accountability for what someone claims God led them to do. We continue to have ways of testing what is said and done (i.e., against the written revelation given to us, against the testimony of the Spirit within us, etc.), and we must use those tools given to us. But at the same time, we should not shun the work of the Holy Spirit in leading those of us who are children of God through whatever means He chooses to use.

Until next time,

steve :)

18 comment(s):

Hi Steve,

I was reading your comments on subjectivity and postmodernism and felt like was in familiar territory. I recently graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Religion from ASU where I regularly discussed postmodern ideas in the classroom. And you are on to something when you say that postmodern thought is not merely an attack on absolute truth. But I did encounter many people who attacked the Christian belief in absolute truth with ideas of relativity and subjectivity. Postmodernism aside, I wanted to share a discovery I made in college. I also regularly confronted ideas of relaitve truth which were used against the gospel. During this time I made a discovery about the absolute truth. Since Jesus is the absolute Truth and He is alive, we are in a living relationship with the Truth. And any relationship is both objective tangible and real as well as subjective, dynamic and relative. Those who attack the gospel with relativity have only an empty threat, because the question remains relative to who or what- we know! Jesus, the living word. Jesus said that what we have and experience in Him is relative to what we ask from Him. Matthew 7:7 Another example of relational truth is the act of being guided into truth as in John 16 where Jesus says we need the Spirit of truth.

in summation, I think that subjectivity is not an absolute evil; rather subjective and/or absolutist claims simply need the guidance of the Holy Spirit

Josiah Davis

By Anonymous Josiah Davis, at Sunday, July 16, 2006 3:26:00 PM  


All I can say is AMEN. Without questions, how can we even come to know who Jesus is? I am 56 years old and have been in trouble most of my life for asking questions. Most of the time it because of questioning man not God. However, even in the scriptures Job and David are just two examples of those who questioned the working of God.

The fact that we ask is evidence of a desire to learn. And yet, we can have full assurance of the faithfulness of God based on the truth of His word.

Terry Cheek
Gilmanton Iron Works, NH

By Blogger Terry, at Sunday, July 16, 2006 4:02:00 PM  

For years I have been in the other camp but the older I get the more I see things not quite so black and white. To extend your analogy, the scales have begun falling from my eyes.

How do we know we are God's children? The Spirit bears witness with our spirit. Can't get any more subjective than that.

And what about God's call into the ministry? There is a lot of subjectivity as part of our faith journey. We evangelicals have been in collective denial for a generation or two.


By Blogger Tom, at Sunday, July 16, 2006 4:10:00 PM  


Another excellent post. Very well said. One of the most difficult things I need to do as a Bible teacher is to hit that balanced truth -- of Scripture as absolute and our Lord as a very personal Lord working those absolutes in our lives -- very subjectively.


Bless you,

By Blogger Iris Godfrey, at Sunday, July 16, 2006 4:51:00 PM  

Good post Steve,

It should be noted that subjectivity is not relativism though. Subjectivity is where the One absolute Truth is related in various ways to different people vs. Relativism, being a belief in many, relative 'truths' depending on your viewpoint.


By Blogger Modern Day Magi, at Sunday, July 16, 2006 9:49:00 PM  

Josiah, great to see you comment here, brother. And it was great to fellowship with you and your sweet wife tonight (among many others).

Terry, welcome to the blog. Thanks for your contribution. Glad the post resonated with you.

Tom, I think your "collective denial" comment speaks volumes. Wish I had thought of that! ;) Seriously, I'm with you on the scales falling off. Frankly, I have never felt freer or more alive than I do now. Praise God!

Iris, I always appreciate your encouraging comments. Thanks for affirming this delicate balance.

MDM, great comment. Ironically, I was just reading some of your posts about Scripture right before you commented here! I'm actually surprised you don't disagree with me more here, but maybe I haven't fully understood your posts.

Your additional comment is very important here, and I appreciate the addition. I think a lot of times when "subjectivity" gets used disparagingly, what is really meant is "relativism".

Thanks for the comment.

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Sunday, July 16, 2006 9:57:00 PM  

Steve, I probably ought not to get involved in this discussion as I am leaving town tomorrow and will be gone for a few days.

You may be surprised to know that I would cautiously agree with you concerning the leading of the Spirit. I do believe that the Spirit of God can speak to believers, impressing upon their hearts how God would have them to make certain decisions, etc.

Having said that, let me qualify that by saying that I do not believe the Holy Spirit will ever tell us anything that is contradictory to Scripture (and I am not implying that you believe that either.)I believe that the more grounded a believer is in the Scripture, the more attuned to the leading of the Spirit they will be.

Neither do I believe that the Spirit is in the business of revealing "new truth". I believe that doctrinally, the Bible is completely sufficient for us to know what God desires for us to know.

I am not sure if this view is entirely in the box of subjectivity. I still believe in the absolute authority of Scripture but I have experienced too many times the leading of God's Spirit in practical matters to ignore or deny that He does so.

God bless and I will catch up when I get back.

By Blogger Gordon Cloud, at Sunday, July 16, 2006 11:21:00 PM  

Gordon wrote: You may be surprised to know that I would cautiously agree with you...

Hey, I'll take what I can get ;) hehe

Have a great time out of town, Gordon. We'll look forward to you returning safely and soon.

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Monday, July 17, 2006 7:58:00 AM  

Gordon has eloquently written very close to my position.

Theology should never be subject to our own whims, as humans by nature are ficle. This would create a situation of relativism.

Where subjectivity is important to the Christian walk is knowing that God is dealing with each believer where they are at, and just because GOd is dealing with an issue in one believer, this does not mean all believers should have to all conform indentically, all at that same time. This does not mean the Truth of God ever changes but that we are all at different points in our walks with Him. To continue that analogy, it should not surprise us that we each have a different set of scenery around us. J

ust because God may never call me to be a missionary to Cambodia (a lose example since God may have that planned for my future, I dont know) does not mean He will never call anyone to go there preaching the Word.

Anything, subjectively arrived at, or revealed by the 'spirit' should and indeed must be tested by the word and if found contrary, then the Word is true. The Spirit does guide believers, but believers will never be guided by the Holy Spirit away from what is found in Scripture.


By Blogger Modern Day Magi, at Monday, July 17, 2006 4:29:00 PM  

MDM, thanks for the continued discussion. I'm not sure if I am a bad communicator, or if people are agreeing with me on this point yet feel like the point needs to be made repeatedly, but I have tried many, many times in these discussions to emphasize that checking a word or thought against already given revelation (i.e., the Bible) is quite important.

In fact, the very last paragraph of this post was an attempt to once again be clear on that. Did it somehow come across as ambiguous or unclear?

I think we're all on the same page here, but for some reason, I always get the impression that people think I'm being soft on the use of Scripture as a test.

If anything, the whole discussion of subjectivity has more to do with those decisions and situations which are not directly addressed in Scripture.

Some people take the position that if it's not addressed in Scripture, then anything goes. I think this is a fairly unwise way of looking at things.

For example, Scripture gives some general guidelines about marriage (i.e., most would apply Paul's statement to not be "unequally yoked with unbelievers" to marriage as one application), but does that mean that I am free to marry any Christian woman I choose to? Or does God guide through circumstances to a particular woman for me to marry?

Or, perhaps a better way to ask the question, is it possible that God would lead me away from a particular woman with regards to marriage, even if she was a Christian (therefore meeting the "Scriptural" criteria)?

This is how I saw it play out in my life: When I was dating, I dated several Christian women, but did not pursue a marriage relationship with them for various reasons. However, when I met the woman who is now my wife, there was no question, almost from day 1. We both knew very quickly that this marriage was God's design for us.

This could be nothing but subjective leading of the Holy Spirit. There were no Scripture verses to look up to find out which specific woman I should marry. But as I was walking in the Spirit in my daily life and being accustomed to understanding His promptings, when it was right, I knew it.

Now, I could just say that I made a wise decision, based on common sense, etc., or I could choose to give God all the glory for that decision, believing that He led us together. And in doing so, my outlook on the marriage is much more focused on protecting this gift from God.

On the other hand, if I (now that I'm married) thought that the Spirit was leading me toward another woman right now, I would be able to reject that completely on the spot because I know what God has already revealed about my responsibility in this marriage. I would have no basis on which to say that God was "subjectively" leading me in something which is contrary to His existing revelation.

I'm rambling a bit, but does this make sense? I guess a lot of this relates to the use of the word "sufficient". If the Bible is sufficient for all decisions, then I think I would have to be forced to say that all other decisions not covered by Scripture are completely left up to me. Somehow that seems more focused on me than on God.

(I make this last point, because often discussions about subjectivity, [especially with those of the Calvinistic persuasion] result in me being accused of being more focused on myself than on God. I have never understood that accusation.)

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Monday, July 17, 2006 4:56:00 PM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger Modern Day Magi, at Monday, July 17, 2006 10:33:00 PM  


I think you portrayed your point well, and I mostly agree with you.

I believe that scripture IS sufficient for all truth and authority for believers. Just because something isn't explicitly mentioned in Scripture does not mean it is not there eg meeting and deciding to mary your wife (she was a christian so you were equally yolked even though there are many faithful christian women who were not to be your wife) or the Trinity etc.

If there is something with absolutely no biblical support (either explicit or subtle) then it is probably not of God. The Spirit guides believers, but always in accordance with the Word of God.

To avoid being circumlocutive I do agree with this post and did not mean to contradict what you said just add a comment in agreement with you.


By Blogger Modern Day Magi, at Monday, July 17, 2006 10:36:00 PM  

MDM, thanks for the clarification.

And bonus points for using the word "circumlocutive"!! ;) hehe

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Monday, July 17, 2006 10:40:00 PM  

What always amuses me, though, is how people want to figure out what box to put me in so they can label me and then dismiss my thoughts.

Yeah, we already know your an Arminian, pomo, and a bibliolater to boot...but we love ya anyway man, well as soon as you wise up and repent. ;o)

Great post. I have nothing of value to add, other that my lame forebearing-pleading (foolish?) attempt at humor.


By Blogger Broken Messenger, at Monday, July 17, 2006 11:17:00 PM  

Too funny, Brad!!

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Tuesday, July 18, 2006 6:36:00 AM  

Great post Steve! Once again so clearly and articulately written...I don't know why eveyone is so afraid of swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction occasionally...fear I suppose......just because I believe in a subjective experience doesn't have to mean I reject the Bible or absolutes...why can't there be something in the middle?!?!? though we'll never find it without pushing the envelope..:)
thank you for clarity

By Blogger Jada's Gigi, at Tuesday, July 18, 2006 11:49:00 AM  

PS...I find the "boxes" amusing when applied to me...well they rarely find one to

By Blogger Jada's Gigi, at Tuesday, July 18, 2006 11:51:00 AM  

< stairwayoflight >

hi, my opinions are very strong, but here goes. i do not believe this is an area where we are called to be "balanced." the world is waiting for passionate, love-sick lovers of God, who's only aim is like Paul's--to know him and make him known. not know about him, but *really* know him.

my conviction is that the scriptures call me to a relationship. like stephen, we can all see the majesty and glory of God's throne; the veil has been taken away. you can have as much of Jesus as you want.

i am serious about scripture, because the Holy Spirit uses it to correct me, lead me in righteousness, and most importantly, reveal the sufficiency of Christ to me that i may have faith to walk in his fullness. i have a black NASB which i love, but i could never walk by the Bible alone. no, i need the reassuring presence of Christ to guide me through life.

i attended 3 years of Bible college. i love my word. and i had some subjective experiences at that point. God told me to fast and pray. i did, and as i prayed the room filled with the sound of a blowing wind. other times i was overwhelmed with God's thick presence, i could not stand or even speak. but at the end of my 3 years, i was asking to hear God's voice, and i had a vision of God polishing my dim eyes, drilling cores of stone from my ears, and chiselling stone layers from my heart. he had given me the key; i was not hearing God or moved by the Spirit appropriately because i was resisting the Holy Spirit. this is why stephen was murdered by his audience, because he could see the glory, and in their hard-heartedness they could not.

i can not change my Bible. if i am truly guided by the Bible, i will be guided into a relationship with God in which i have more intimate access to him than moses, as it says in 2 Corinthians 3. prophets were not allowed to see the "form of the Lord" in the Old Testament, but moses was. we can too.

now, i am hooked on the Father's love. i am more persuaded than ever of the beauty of monotheism. only those who have learned to feed on God alone, will become free of the idolatry of this age. the Bible is not our source, it leads us to God, who is our source. the scriptures use the greek words "logos" and "rhema," a simplified explanation would be to say that rhema means words in speaking, in a way not implied by logos.

my conviction is that we are to live moment by moment feeding on the words from God's mouth. many of the occurrences of what we attribute to the written Word are actually "rhema," which may imply a prophetic experience, eg. Hebrews 4:12.

the prophetic and personal experience realm has been such a blessing. no i don't stand in church and shout "thus saithhhh tha La-ord!" but people are drawn to Jesus. my friend doesn't attend church. but one day our friend heard a rushing wind sound in his truck, then i was filled with the Holy Spirit. my friend next to me said he felt the truck starting to heat up, he felt heat coming from me. "Is that the Spirit?" he asked. now he is reading a New Testament I gave him.

my friend mark prayed for an athiest's headache at school. she was hit with God's power and fell down, she could see an angel in a vision (side note: this is a good place to look!). even unbelievers can walk into the living presence of Christ and feel it. lets not take it away from the church.

instead of asking God how we can bring our experience to the high and holy level of biblical teaching, we have brought our teaching down to the level of our experience. the call of the real Christ always comes to us as it did to Peter in the boat, from just beyond our means. "Come!" how we have despaired and remained in the boat. the call to the supernatural life is the call to ultimate faith. it is living entirely upon the means of another.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thursday, August 10, 2006 7:35:00 PM  

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