Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured Review: MANIFOLD WITNESS by John Franke [Vol. 3, #13]

“The Body of Christ,
Recognized by the Diversity of its Parts”

A Review of
Manifold Witness:
The Plurality of Truth.

by John R. Franke.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Manifold Witness:
The Plurality of Truth.

by John R. Franke.
Paperback: Abingdon, 2010.
Buy Now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

“… One can defend objective truth or relativism only by assuming that it is possible for human beings to take up a ‘view from nowhere;’ since I don’t believe in ‘views from nowhere,’ I don’t believe in objective truth or relativism … Too often appeals to the objective truth of the gospel have served as a means for the church to evade its responsibility to live faithfully before the world. In short, Christians insisted that the gospel was objectively true regardless of how we lived. The paradigm I am advocating frankly admits that all truth claims require for their widespread acceptance the testimony of trusted and thereby authorized witnesses.”

-Phil Kenneson

John Franke - MANIFOLD WITNESSSuch is the gist of Kenneson’s essay “There’s No Such Thing As Objective Truth, And It’s A Good Thing, Too,” which presents in a few short pages an ecclesiological apologetic, asking that the church “live in such a way that our lives are incomprehensible apart from this God.” Locating the church as the embodied, gathered body of Christ – seriously, and in all its fullness – places a responsibility on the church to order its life together as an expression of the politics and economy of God. This economy is lived and placed, in time and space; it is particularizing, and it is communal by nature; in these relations, the Kingdom of God is made known.

It is within this contextual – and lived – understanding of the church (especially thinking through the ramifications of abandoning objective truth) that reading John Franke’s new book Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth has been especially exciting.

Manifold Witness comes in the Living Theology series, of which editor Tony Jones gives the premise of inviting theologians to write about ‘something they’re passionate about, something that they think the rest of the church should be passionate about too.” So when Franke begins the book, he is being questioned as to whether or not he “believes in truth” and so begins his argument for living communities that reveal the diversity and fullness of the body of Christ, situated in particular contexts of time, place, and culture, in dialogue with the traditions of the past and also with one another. From these diverse manifestations comes the ‘plurality of truth,’ as different communities discern the shape of the kingdom in their particular contexts.

‘Plurality,’ as such, is a good postmodern concept which accounts for a diversity of peoples coming together in an (often ‘global’) conversation; one of Franke’s major points is that pluralism should not be mistaken for ‘relativism,’ with its attendant ‘view from nowhere.’ Rather, in fact, he suggests that

“the tradition of the church may be viewed as a series of local iterations and instantiations of Christian witness or as local theologies, closely related to different cultural conditions.

Plurality, not uniformity, characterizes the story of Christianity, which did not move in one direction from Palestine to Europe to the rest of the world but rather was a multifaceted and multidirectional movement” (28).

This is not – as relativism might suggest – to ignore the divisions of the church as inconsequential; rather, this model of truth that embraces pluralism/local bodies, reveals that it is in perceiving a local truth as the only truth, an objective truth, that marginalizes other manifestations and creates division.

Acknowledging that “all human knowledge is understood as finite and limited, that is to say, it is situated in particular circumstances, and these circumstances have a significant effect on the character and content of that knowledge,” (15) our communities, through the discernment of the Spirit and the grace of God, must act in humility with respect to our truth claims, and seek the interests – and truth – expressed in other manifestations of the kingdom. There will be discernment (self-criticism and deconstruction, which Franke discusses in some detail), and there will also be a unity in the vast diversity of the body of Christ coming together.

“The church is the image of God. It is a socially constructed reality that lives and functions as the body of Christ in the world in accordance with the event of the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ and in anticipation of the ultimately ‘real’ world as it is willed to be by the Father” (78).

The gospel of John provides an idea of the situated nature of the revelation of God to the creation: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… without him nothing was made that has been made.” Even in the beginning, there is God, and there is a means of language by which to communicate with God, the Word. The Incarnation of the Word, and the continuation in the church as the body of Christ are all means of speaking about and to God. Franke spends as much time with the diverse voices of scripture (four Gospels, after all), marginalized voices from communities outside the story of Western Christendom, and the Trinitarian theology of God to further support a model of truth which embraces multiple perspectives, specific places and contexts, and a wondrous diversity of parts in the body:

“A proper conception of the Word of God leads to the plurality of truth. The one truth is, and can only be, expressed in plurality. This is consistent with an understanding of God as Trinitarian unity-in-plurality and plurality-in-unity, the Trinitarian and contextual nature of revelation, and the manifold witness of Scripture to the revelation of truth” (115).

Manifold Witness asks above all else for the church to be the church, a community that by its very life together embodies the kingdom of God on earth, in all its fullness, in which God’s reconciliation includes all things, and in which the body of Christ is recognized by the diversity of its parts, each in relation to the other.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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