Roger Olson, “Why I am an ‘Evangelical Arminian Christian’ Part 1: My First Principle: Authority is Truth (over Status)”

, posted by SEA

*Here begins a series of essays about “Why I am an ‘Evangelical Arminian Christian’.” I begin at the beginning—with my fundamental principles of thought.These essays will appear every few days over the next few weeks.*

1) My First Principle: Authority is Truth (over Status) (by Roger E. Olson)

Philosopher/theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) quipped that “He who begins by loving Christianity more than Truth, will proceed by loving his sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.” Even committed Christians must place truth above every other commitment. Of course, when handling truth, a Christian, following Jesus and recognizing his or her own finitude and fallenness, must handle it with love and humility.

Unfortunately, truth is often subordinated to status—even among Christians. Here “status” means “position of privilege and/or authority.” That might be an office or a custom (among other things).

Without love of and commitment to truth we are lost in the plays of power.

Of course, someone will be asking “What is ‘truth’?” That is a distinct, if not separate, question. Some will not think so, but I do. Above all I believe truth is; it is not merely a chimera. And, along with that, I believe some approximation of knowledge to truth is possible, however rare and difficult to measure.

The search for truth is never ending, but over it all should reign commitment to it.

What that means, in practical terms, is this: Once I believe I have grasped a truth I should believe it and adjust my life to it. I should not suppress it or deny it. Nor should I hide it—except out of love when revealing it would be more harmful to persons than keeping it to myself.

But here is the more important practical point: when truth matters, and it should be revealed, it trumps all other authorities.

I am a teacher; I teach students. In some senses, in some situations, I have “official authority” over my students. However, if a student has truth on his or her side I ought to submit to it, acknowledge it, adjust myself to it. My authority of status is a lesser authority than truth.

Many may agree with me up to this point but hesitate or even object when I say that truth should trump everything except love. Love should govern the expression of truth but not the acknowledgment of truth. So, in a sense, even love is trumped by truth.

Truth is what is the case. A belief is true insofar as it corresponds with reality. That is the whole point of epistemology of whatever variety: to decide what is real by whatever means are possible and available.

Once the search for and commitment to truth as reality is surrendered, power trumps everything.

Unfortunately, a common human habit is to establish authority by status rather than truth. This habit reveals itself whenever truth is suppressed by power.

My obligation, then, is to set aside my privileges of power, of status, of office, of position, of age, of experience, and adjust to truth whatever its source may be. If something is true, I have no right to suppress or deny it just because it (or my acknowledgement of it) calls my status into question.

This is why I am uncomfortable with hierarchies of all kinds. Leadership is necessary, but status of mere position, office, authority divorced from truth, is dangerous. This is well illustrated in the Bible by the story of King David and the prophet Nathan. In fact, I would argue this is the main point of the story for us, for everyone who reads or hears it. A king, a president, a parent, a professor, ought always to listen and submit to truth—whoever offers it. Unfortunately, often, those with status protect themselves from Nathans and their truth and even punish them if their truth is inconvenient.

Of course, everyone knows about and decries the notable case of Galileo and the Catholic Church of his day. Galileo proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the earth revolves around the sun—an inconvenient truth for the Catholic Church. (And Protestants were no more eager to embrace it.) Galileo was persecuted for revealing that inconvenient truth. Most people admit that the church of his day should have adjusted to it the moment it knew he was right. It did not. (Let’s not debate the details of the case.)

And yet, people with status within hierarchies continue to resist inconvenient truths, especially when they are revealed by people without status.

I believe that truth, insofar as it is known, trumps every other authority. Love should govern the manner and timing of truth’s expression, but not truth itself.

Of course, all this begs the question “What is ‘truth’?” but that is a distinct question. Before that matters we must commit ourselves to the authority of truth above status. That means the “flattening” of all hierarchies based on status rather than on leadership committed to truth.

[Link to original post and comments at Roger Olson’s blog]