Examining Bruce Charlton’s Theory of Knowing Christian Truth

I do not know how many people lean toward the Romantic Christianity espoused by Bruce.

[I use his first name because of our long association and my personal concern for him.]

I suspect many people are sympathetic to his approach, which downplays history and formal church and theological organization in favor of a direct / personal apprehension of Christianity. If many are sympathetic to his doctrine, it must be analyzed.

I think that his approach identifies some real problems but provides a mistaken solution. And since I once had something similar to the religious confusion that he says he once had but has transcended, I continue to interact publicly with his doctrine.

Some, of course, will say I am beating a dead horse. Not so. The horse is very much alive to many people. If it is dead to you, read no further.

I have copied below the entirety of Bruce’s post entitled Me-Here-Now versus History – what kind of Christian are you? My comments are left-justified; his post and Scriptural quotes are indented and highlighted as quotes in the WordPress way.



Christians will find themselves – sometimes again and again – at a point where there is a stark awareness and apprehension of Me-Here-Now – a situation of direct and ‘intuitive’ knowing; rooted in a personal and first-hand experience, and a person to person relationship – typically in relationship to Jesus Christ.

This contrasts with traditional church-based knowing; which is rooted in historical discourse and ‘scholarship’ of various types; and is therefore second-hand (or third-/ fourth-/ fifth-hand…).

Church-knowing is indirect knowledge-about… rather than experience-of. It is something we learn and strive to remember… rather than apprehend with instantaneous clarity and conviction.


According to the Bible, a non-Christian starts becoming a Christian when he reads and believes what the Bible – -especially the Gospels – – says about Jesus. The Gospels are a true and accurate written account of what really happened in specific places at specific times.

According to the Bible, when some people learn more and more about Jesus by reading the true accounts about Him, the Holy Spirit begins to work in them, giving them spiritual life. Others do not so respond, evidently because the Holy Spirit chose not to work in them. This gives the new Christian, inter alia, the ability to have true faith (knowledge, agreement, trust) in Jesus.

Romans 10:14—17:

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

Ephesians 2:1—5:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…

This process is both Me-Here-Now, and “church-based.” It is church-based in the sense that the church has preserved the true Writings about Jesus and also because the church, when doing its duty, presents the Words of God to mankind. It is also “scholar-based” in the sense that Christian scholars over the millennia have translated the original writings into languages we can understand, and also preserved and amplified our understanding of the meanings of the words of Scripture. It is also “Scripture-based” because the primary source of our knowledge of Jesus is Scripture. The primary source is not church authorities or traditions, or scholars (who only point to a reality that they do not control.)

Nor are we at the mercy of church officials or even scholars. What they say about Scripture is not validated because of their authority. They must make a case that the words of Scripture have a specific meaning. Like scientists, they have no authority in themselves, but must demonstrate publicly, using accepted modes of reasoning, that an object of study has certain properties.

But the process is also Me-Here-Now because the reader must understand and believe for himself. He must see Jesus through the words of Scripture and come to trust in Jesus.



Because modern Men are self-aware, because we are conscious of our own consciousness; we distinguish these two ‘ways of knowing’ whereas at times in history these would have been regarded as aspects of a unity…

Indeed they were not distinguished, because the individual was then immersed in the group’s thinking; and often had experienced none-other; his beliefs were spontaneously and unconsciously those of the social group, and these beliefs were apparently stable, apparently ‘eternal’.

Man in the past did not distinguish even the possibility of himself having direct and personal knowledge that diverged from knowledge he absorbed insensibly and by training and education from his society.

Therefore in the past – when Men’s consciousness was different; the basis of Christianity rooted in a church was natural, inevitable, and right.


There have always been heretics within the Christian community. Even in the First Century, the Apostle Paul wrote:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.  [2 Cor. 11:13—15]

Even from the beginning, the Christian community was defined by adherence to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles who preserved it. These teachings were believed, not because “this is our way,” but because the witnesses said “this is what the Lord taught.” At first, Christian teaching came from men trained by Christ; later the teachings were preserved in written form. After the last eyewitness of Christ died no Christian knew Jesus by direct personal contact. They knew Him through the writings about Him.



But Now we experience self-validating truth for-ourselves, intermittently; in flashes, or ‘epiphanies’; yet brief because we are then in a state of self-awareness that of-itself interrupts that which is being-observed.

As soon as we know we are knowing – that consciousness slips-away into mere knowing that we know…

But anyone who has known by this kind of directly-apprehended, wordless intuition; is aware of its utter distinction from those vast masses of external and historical ‘knowledge’ which constitute ‘a religion’ or ‘a science’ or ‘literature’…

The question then arises; why should we believe secondhand church-knowledge?

Such a ‘why’ question would not have occurred in the past – but now it has; and it demands an answer; that is, assuming we are to give some version of church-knowledge absolute primacy* over all other contesting knowledge-claims…


This has to do with confidence that what you have read or heard is true. If you have no awareness of reasons to doubt what you have read or heard, you just believe it. But if doubt arises, you have difficulty. Skeptics and outright enemies of Christ are more numerous than ever and their doctrine is spread abroad more than ever, so many people are confused. They know Christian teaching, and they partly believe it, or they want to believe it, but they are also aware that it might not be so. They partly believe it, but they are also aware of possessing some measure of a contrary belief. This is the cause of the state which Charlton describes as “knowing you are knowing:” Being aware of your belief because you are also aware of its opposite.

These days almost all Christians are aware of plausible-seeming reasons to doubt. The innocent state of naïve belief without the knowledge of doubt is impossible to retain once it is lost.

Because, in fact, the world is full of liars and false doctrine. Many things that many people believe in naïve, child-like innocence are not so.

Therefore there is no alternative to seeking reasons. If something is true, it will survive being tested.



For a Christian, we see on the one hand an enormous, heavy, complex system of historical claims which constitutions a denomination or church; all of which includes the claim that this is (in some essential fashion) the unchanging truth, and our job is to worship and obey.

[Our] job as a church-Christian is primarily to learn-about this body of historical material – and submit-to it.

Therefore, Me-Here-Now and (what feels like) direct knowing; must be fitted-into – and submit-to – this mass of external stuff.

 For a church-Christian; Nothing we might ever possibly experience, think, say or do – past, present or future – can ever affect the directionality of that relationship.

The Church – and therefore History – is absolute and primary; we our-selves are contingent and secondary.

(And the same applies if, for instance, The Church is replaced by Scripture, or Tradition – it’s all History, ultimately; all external – all given-us by a particular body of Men, all based-on historical claims.)


What is “absolute and primary” is What Really Happened, and What Jesus Really Taught. At this point I and my fellow Protestants have an advantage. We do not place plenary authority in any visible organized Church or any specifically articulated Tradition. The church is doing its duty when it places the Word of God (the Bible) before people. It is the knowledge of the person, the work and the teachings of Jesus that saves people from the punishment for their sins. And this knowledge comes from reading / hearing the words of the Bible accurately given and correctly explained.

This is the only way mankind can receive Jesus and be saved. Jesus does not hold office hours. He is known primarily through the Written Record.

But the Bible also teaches that those who have faith in Jesus through knowing and believing Scripture do have a direct personal connection with Him. A connection, through the Holy Spirit, that does not supersede Scripture, but supplements it. For example:

John 14:16, 17:

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.

John 15:26:

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me…

The church has a necessary function. It administers salvation. But it does not have authority like a civil ruler or even as an exceptionally learned scholar. The church is not “absolute and primary.”



So, this is the crux. We have our own most intense, most real, most true and most important convictions – rooted in (what feels like) a direct-knowing of reality…

Or we have (what feels like) a secondary, second-hand, submission to (what purports to be) a vast bulk of mixed historical claims – cross-referencing the validity of authority, scriptures, traditions and practices, beliefs etc.


Human authorities disagree with one another. This engenders confusion. And if these authorities have authority over us yet what they say seems fake then we have the anguish of being called to be hypocrites.

But if the Bible is the Word of God it is the ultimate Authority, and human religious authorities are legitimate only to the extent they understand and agree with Scripture. This the better solution to the problem of authorities who are confusing and fake.

The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have different solutions to the problem. But they are on the right track: find out who or what has the real authority.



These two possibilities (for many perhaps almost all) people have separated, their combination was a consequence of unconsciousness – and now we are conscious – and they have been split apart by this consciousness.

Thus Romantic Christianity became a possibility, and the decision concerning ultimate authority became a necessity.

We can either acknowledge or deny the crux – but denial is dishonest.

What to do we do; where place our primary loyalty, where look for salvation? By submission and obedience to History (i.e. Our Church)?

Or; do we instead start the process of re-knowing, re-learning, re-making Christianity from the basis of the primacy of intuition, direct-knowing, heart-thinking (whatever we call it)…


The Bible has some things to say about the process of knowing and learning. For example:

1 John 4:1—3:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.

Acts 17:10,11:

The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.

1 Thessalonians 5:19—21:

Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.



(Which is (for Christians) intuition of the divine within us (as we are children of God), and our apprehension of the Holy Ghost without?)


Scripture says that we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26, 27), but not that we are divine. Scripture says we are sinners in need of salvation.



The crux is: Do we trust our-selves and personal-knowing primarily; or [do] we trust… whatever we have been told by our favoured historians concerning church-history, and organize everything else around that?

Is Christian faith to be rooted in the Here-and-Now experience – or in curated historical claims?

Romantic of Traditional?


Christianity is to be rooted in the true historic record of what God has done in Christ, as recorded in the Bible. Historians and other teachers do not have primary authority. They have authority only when their teaching accords with the words of Scripture. And since Scripture is not written in “code” (unless the type of writing clearly indicates that it is, e.g. parts of Revelation), the meaning of Scripture is found by using public knowledge of the ancient languages and ancient history and cultures. Just as it is for every writing, ancient or modern.



*Note: ‘Primary’ and Primacy’ are used here to indicates which comes first and is foundational. It is not a matter of either/ or Romantic versus Historical Christianity – but which is primary and foundational; about which judges and discerns the other. Thus a Romantic Christian may be a full church member and believer – but at root he will have intuitively-discerned and evaluated the truth of the church’s claims (at least; those which are of core importance to him), and consciously chosen to accept them. The Historical-Church Christian may experience intuitive direct knowing, but will accept or reject such insights in accordance with his primary obedience to the church – therefore no personal knowledge could ever (as a matter of principle) challenge or overturn the church’s instruction and teaching. What a church-Christian experiences and knows here-and-now, will only be allowed validity when it supports the church’s ‘historically-based’ understanding; and any other insights will be rejected as erroneous or evil.


It depends on what you mean by “intuition.” Although he has not acknowledged it clearly, Bruce uses the word as if intuition means something validated internally, with no direct reference to any knowledge that originates outside of the individual, such as, for example, knowledge obtained through a teacher or a religious creed.

This is a false understanding of intuition. All forms of knowledge, even intuitions, can be mistaken and therefore need confirmation that comes from outside ourselves. I have pointed this out to Bruce and he has not responded to my satisfaction. But I think it invalidates his theory of Christian knowledge.


7 thoughts on “Examining Bruce Charlton’s Theory of Knowing Christian Truth

  1. Thanks for this pertinent and highly charged (in a good way) discussion. Clearly, Romantic Christianity and Historical Christianity need each other. Without individual converts intuiting the reality of Christ, there is no Church and no history; without the Church to spread the Word there is no way to reach potential Christians. So I understand the question to be the ancient one: To what extent is the individual responsible for judging the ontological and moral applications of Christ’s truth? And where does that responsibility stop and the authority of the Church begin? I would not presume to answer it, though my guess is that individual responsibility is absolute — but that doesn’t mean that all judgements are valid, and that is where the Church comes in, not as a dictator of Truth, but as the repository of those things that individual truth may not deny, as in the Creed. It’s an unending dialectic that should not be dissolved either in the name of individual intuition or Church authority.

  2. So, this is the crux. We have our own most intense, most real, most true and most important convictions – rooted in (what feels like) a direct-knowing of reality…

    Or we have (what feels like) a secondary, second-hand, submission to (what purports to be) a vast bulk of mixed historical claims – cross-referencing the validity of authority, scriptures, traditions and practices, beliefs etc.

    This is indeed the crux of the debate. No doubt about it. Everything else derives from this. However, it is expressed in a way that tips the balances to the first option. Let me try to express in a neutral and more productive way.

    When it comes to Christianity, in case of conflict, it is better to follow (second-hand) traditions or to follow one’s own intuitions, feelings, reasonings and convictions (which are first hand).

    1) First, I don’t think Christianity gives you a choice. If you are a Christian, you have to believe the traditions coming from the Apostles. (In Protestantism, this means following the Bible while in Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental churches means following the Bible plus traditions outside the Bible). This is included in the definition of Christianity.

    Let’s call everybody who claims to follow Christ “Christer”: This includes Christians, Muslims (who follow Isa, that is Jesus, through Mohammed), Bahai religion, some minority religions of the Middle East and elsewhere, Mormons, people who follow Christ and don’t belong to a religion, etc.

    Christianity is not the only way to follow Christ (although we Christians believe it is the true way). But if you want to be Christian, following Christian traditions is a must, the same way that, if you want to be a Buddhist, following Buddhist tradition is a must. This does not prevent you from having a personal experience (a mystical experience, a personal relationship with Jesus, meditation, private thoughts, prayers, and personal reflection) but this is framed and interpreted according to the traditions received (both in Buddhism and Christianity and also in other religions or ideologies)

    But, for the sake of argument, let’s put this aside. Let’s suppose that Christian have a choice. What then?

    2) Second, even then, I don’t think most of us have a choice. Many people don’t have intuitions or mystical experiences or we really don’t think that our private thoughts are the be-all and end-all of religious truth. Many of us are willing to trust others in an indirect way.

    This includes most Romantics bloggers, which are relying on second-hand experience. The ideas written by Dr. Charlton in his blog are picked up by the other Romantics in a second-hand manner. If religious Romanticism is alive one thousand years from now, the Romantic ideas will have passed a long chain of transmission and will be second-hand. As Chesterton said, the fact that things are old is because they have stood the test of time. New ideas have to proof that they are good enough to last.

    And we are talking about brainy people (like Ortho guys and Romantic guys), which are a minority. The vast majority of people are not brainy people. They don’t have any chance to discern religious traditions by themselves, let alone to have first hand convictions about religious matters (except the very rare people that have had a private revelation, such as the girls in Fatima). They usually follow their parent’s traditions.

    So it seems to me that, if God wants to communicate with humanity without using second-hand traditions, he is doing a really bad job. The number of people that have “real, true and important convictions – rooted in (what feels like) a direct-knowing of reality” is a tiny minority. Most people are not be able to receive the message. They will be damned because of ignorance.

    But I could be miskaken. For the sake of argument, let’s put this aside.

    3) Third, what criteria has to be used by the majority that have to distinguish between second-hand traditions and the minority that has to distinguish between second-hand traditions and private convictions?

    I think that feelings are not a valid criteria. If the criteria is having intense, real, true and important convictions – rooted in (what feels like) a direct-knowing of reality, this can be claimed by lots of people having all kinds of contradictory convictions and private experiences. If this is the criteria, Buddhism would be true and false, Christianity would be true and false, Islam would be true and false and lots of more things. This is a inapplicable epistemology because it goes against the principle of non-contradiction.

    Mohammed had a revelation in the cave and part of this revelation was that Jesus was not the Son of God and was not crucified. But lots of Christians throughout the history have had revelations that have the opposite content. So, if both are true, Jesus is God and is not God at the same time. It depends on the person. This is relativism and is self-refuting so it is obviously false.

    I don’t think that trying to analyze each aspect of religion on your own is valid. For example, about Jesus being crucified. Christianity says yes and Islam says no. What is the historical evidence? About the concept of God in different religions, what are the rational arguments. You can do this for big topics, but, if you question everything, you won’t have enough time in life to find all the answers.

    I think that the most promising way is to assume that, if God wants to communicate with humanity, he wants to do it with some mainstream traditions. Otherwise, most people wouldn’t receive the message. So you can analyze these traditions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.) and see what is more rational. If you choose Christianity, you can analyze the versions (Protestantism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, etc.) and see what is more rational. Following a second-hand traditions will be more promising than trying to rely on your feelings or reinvent a religion by yourself.

    Is it trusting second-hand traditions so bad? We do it all the time in all kinds of areas. The fact that DNA produces proteins is a fact that I have never experienced by myself. I learned it from a textbook, which was based on another textbook, which was based on a scientific book, which was based on another scientific book, which was based on a research paper, which was based on an experiment, which somebody (I don’t know his name) carried out I don’t know where or when. Life is short and we know 99% of what we know in a second-hand way. I don’t know why religion has to be different.

    • Thank you, imnobody. This is well said.

      I especially appreciate your point that to be a Christian, following Christian tradition is necessary. I would just add that it is not always sufficient. The experience of mankind is that traditions change over time, and therefore some traditions are either inaccurate or even downright false. Tradition must be tested; Scripture says to test all things and hold fast to the good.

  3. Pingback: Further Study of Bruce Charlton’s Theory of Christian Epistemology – The Orthosphere

  4. The disjunction between the Me Here Now intuition and Tradition – “history” (which is to say, all that everyone before you has reported on the topic in virtue of some Me Here Now moment of his own) – is a false dichotomy. The two do not contradict. This is obvious, and it is a bit painful to find myself forced to articulate the point.

    I have enjoyed many Me Here Now moments, in which it seemed to me inarguable that Truth had been revealed to me – that Truth had revealed himself to me. 99% of them occurred in the context of formal traditional liturgy, in response to texts from Scripture (or glosses upon them, in, e.g., prayer and hymnody) therein reiterated for me a thousand times.

    Saint Thomas did not realize that all his theological labors were as straw because he had a private revelation apart from and controverting the Tradition that they all consistently supported. On the contrary, he had that realization *because he had a Me Here Now moment when celebrating the Traditional liturgy of the Mass.” That experience did not convince him that the arguments of his theological career were wrong. On the contrary, it showed him that they were correct! Indeed, far more correct than he had ever known, or could possibly express; thus, his ascent to holy silence.

    Here’s the thing. If your Me Here Now revelation is at odds with the Tradition, odds are it is whacked somehow. If you find ex post facto that it agrees with the Tradition, then you are pretty likely to be on safe ground. Why is this so? *Because the Tradition is constituted entirely of Me Here Now moments, recorded, discussed, reconciled, and so forth, among a community of earnest brilliant erudite disciplined seekers, far more competent along many dimensions of competence to discern truth from falsity, than you are by your own poor self.*

    The Catholic Church is amazingly conservative about private revelations. She does not rule them out altogether, for that would be silly. But she does wait a few centuries, to test them, and see if they do in fact fit the rest of the Me Here Now revelations that constitute the Tradition.

    Relying on Me Here Now *and not testing its disclosures against the Tradition* is fundamentally Pelagian. It hangs for its justification upon the supposition that I right now am competent to adequate comprehension of the Eternal One, whereas all those other guys who came before me are pretty weak reeds. When it is put in those terms – which are nowise pejorative, but rather simply accurate, on the account of the Romantics themselves – it looks absurd. It looks that way because it is that way.

    Perhaps Bruce and his cohort have never had a Me Here Now moment in church. If so, that is a sad shame. I have to say that it suggests to me that they have not been doing church properly. It would sufficiently account for their skepticism about church. But it does not at all escheat church of her authority to conduct Traditional rites in the Traditional way, as conduits of Truth, in confidence that that way (vitiate as usually she is, somehow or other) would likely engender entirely orthodox (and, thus safe) Me Here Now intuitions among her congregants, that facilitated their salvation.

    If you are *not* experiencing Me Here Now intuitions in the liturgy at church from time to time, then the likelihood is that you have been doing it wrong somehow. The liturgy is a product of centuries of hard testing. It is far less likely to be wrong than are you.

    If you find yourself in disagreement with the Body of Christ, it is a safe bet that you are hellbound.

  5. Pingback: The Advent of Christian Mysticism | Σ Frame


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