May 19, 2010

Theology and Truth

Paul HeneburyBy Dr. Paul Henebury
Veritas School of Theology

Theology, if it is anything, is the search for and categorization of truth. As committed Christians we assert that biblical truth sets the standard of what is the truth – it is our ultimate authority. We must always allow God to say what He has to say and be scrupulous in not changing His stated intent by our reinterpretations.1 Vanhoozer addresses this rule well:

Doing justice to an author – arguably the most marginalized other in the postmodern community! – means recognizing what the author has said and done in a text, rather than foisting one’s own opinions and ideas onto a text. I take this to be an implication of both the Golden Rule and the ninth commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”2
The Bible interpreter should always be aware of the fact that God is “looking over his shoulder.” Given the dullness of our sinful minds there always remains the danger that we will wander off from the truth we are reading. J. H. Thornwell remarked, “We are as likely to go wrong from misapplying a true principle as from adopting a false one.”3 There is no way in biblical terms to divorce the fact of truth from the claims of truth. This is to say that truth does not only make statements it also demands an appropriate response. That appropriate response is worshipful dependence upon its Source – the God of all truth. Hence, the performing of truth is what theology is all about, so that there is a fraternity of truth with wisdom and knowledge.4

Let us have a definition of Truth. According to Roger Nicole, “Truth is that firm conformity to reality that proves to be wholly reliable, so that those who accept a statement may depend on it that it will not turn out to be false or deceitful.”5 Truth in evangelical circles is usually thought of as relating to propositional verities.6 But it also includes more than what is believed. Truth in the Hebrew worldview of the Old Testament, involves commitment; it is something which must be acted upon. Truth (emeth) connotes “reliability.”7 This is passed on in the Greek New Testament term aletheia and its grammatical variants.

This is not to give the impression that there is but one meaning of the word in the Bible. Thiselton, for example, identifies five ways in which it is employed.8 Wolterstorff thinks the words “true” and “truth” present problems when trying to find a constant definition.9 Carnell held that there were three types of truth: what he called ontological truth, by which he had in mind the dictum “whatever is, is true.”10 Secondly, there is propositional truth which he defined as “Whenever judgments conceptually house the real, they possess the quality of truth.”11 To these he added a third kind of truth, which he termed personal rectitude. It may be debated whether this really constitutes a third type of truth, or whether it is a personal participation in the first two. For all that, he was on to something when he suggested that,
If one ought to be transformed by the fact that he is dependent on powers greater than himself, truth as personal rectitude has no existence until one morally and spiritually conforms the whole of his life to this relation. Essence and existence are untied by the right moral decision.12
This orientates the discussion in the right direction, since, for the Christian, God is the Source and measure of the truth.13 The nature of the triune God, who is faithful and His words trustworthy, propels the concept of truth away from a mere formal study of propositional correspondence to an actual state of affairs, into a personal participation. Peter Hicks has written, “Because truth is rooted in God, it is personal and dynamic.”14 A little further on he observes, “The truth in the Bible is bigger than rational demonstration. It is personal, moral, dynamic and life-changing, as well as propositional and factual. Supremely, God is truth.”15

Correspondence and Coherence

At this point we ought to add that for any obedient Christian the choice between a correspondence theory of truth and a coherentist view is clear. The coherence theory of truth states that something is true if it coheres with other groups of truth-claims. When this is established, there is “epistemic justification” – it is true. In evangelical circles this theory of truth has been adopted by such scholars as Stanley Grenz16 and by Emergent Church leaders like Brian McLaren.17 The main problem with this theory is that it cannot even be proposed unless the correspondence theory is valid! Apart from that it becomes the assertion of truth without an underpinning referent. Truth needs to be transcendent if it is to be universal. And if it is not universal it cannot be communicated as anything other than a personal preference. As Nicholas Wolterstorff spells it out,
You can make up whatever new concept you want and call it “truth”; but that does not give you a new concept of truth. It just gives you a new concept to which, since you made it up, you can attach any word you wish, old or new. I do not get a new concept of duck by making up the concept, say, of a small hairy animal with a bill and a tail and webbed feet, and announcing that this is a new and improved concept of duck.18
Opinions, especially whimsical ones like the above example, can never attain the accolade of “true” by themselves. Any truth-concept that is not anchored securely in what really obtains falls prey to the much larger problem of its disconnection with the world that God has made and has put us in.19 When it comes down to it, a biblical theory of truth, as well as tracing truth back to the being and character of God, will incorporate aspects of the coherence view (as well as the pragmatic view) within a broad correspondence outlook. That is just to say, if a proposition corresponds to what actually is the case, it will manifest coherence with other states of affairs as they are seen from a Christian-Biblical standpoint. And because truth is relational – in that the doctrine of creation teaches that man is placed upon earth to interpret reality in accordance with revelation, it must have a practical value too.

Truth in John

The Apostle John was a man who believed in the importance of truth. In his Gospel he is continually concerned with it. He took special pains to preserve Christ’s teachings about truth. In his theology John was concerned with identifying truth with the Incarnate Son of God Himself. Truth exists because Jesus Christ (the Incarnate Truth) exists.20 The universe reflects its Creator. Even though the creation is tainted by the Curse (Gen.3:15f.), it still is a sphere in which the attributes of God are discernable. So John wants us to realize that truth exists because God exists. For example, when one reads the famous words of Jesus in John 14:6; “I am the way, the truth, and the life; noone comes to the Father but through me,” it becomes clear that truth for Him is not an end in itself, but a means to the end of knowing God.21

Of the twenty-seven occasions that John makes reference to truth in his Gospel, perhaps the most poignant is found in its last use. In John 18:37-38 Jesus is before Pilate and on trial for His life. The contrast between the two men is striking. Pilate appears perturbed, Jesus is composed; Pilate’s conscience bothers him, while Jesus conscience is clear and His manner unruffled. In fact Jesus seems to be probing the very soul of His captor. He tells Pilate, “…for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice.” This searching statement of Christ provokes the famous riposte, “What is truth?” Here we have a contrast, (and it is the one which John wants us to make), between the two different views of truth held by Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate.

Pilate’s View of Truth

For Pontius Pilate the truth is not fixed. It has a degree of uncertainty about it. It is not absolute, nor is it objectively true (i.e. true no matter how I feel about it). Perhaps we are reading too much into his words, but we think we sense a note of skepticism in them. What we are more sure about is the fact that Pilate was not sufficiently interested in the truth to take Jesus’ words seriously. He is disturbed by Jesus, but his view of truth prevents him from hearing the Voice of truth when it addresses him (See John 8:42-43).

With such an attitude Pilate would not find himself out of place among many modern Americans – especially the young. They too ask rhetorically, “What is truth?” After all, the argument runs, aren’t there many “truths” around nowadays? Do not other people have their truth, and cannot we learn from them? Surely we can no longer claim that we, the “Christianized” West, have a monopoly on the truth? In such a world as ours it is simply not acceptable for anyone to say that they know the truth and that they use it to judge error. Thus anyone who says that Biblical Christianity is completely true or that Jesus is the only way to God had better be ready to face the consequences. There is always an aspect of martyrdom associated with witness-bearing.22 The “enlightened mind” of the contemporary man-in-the-street pronounces truth is relative. How many times do we hear slogans like, “That’s true for you but it’s not true for me”, or, “truth is what you make it”? In such company, Pilate’s statement would be seen as the remark of an enlightened and liberated free-thinker. Perhaps his question was nothing more than a throwaway remark. But it revealed a deep-seated suspicion about truth claims; and many similar opinions are held today.23

Jesus’ View of Truth

So much for Pilate. What about Jesus? Well, there can be no doubt about His attitude to the question. “Every one that is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn. 18:37). Clearly one cannot make a statement like this and hold to an uncertain view of truth! No, Jesus believed in and taught an absolute view of truth. He would never have been in agreement with those who assert that each of us must discover his or her own truth. Indeed, His answer to Philip in John 14:6 shows that in Christ’s view it was impossible to come to truth independently of God. So, if we say that Jesus believed in the objective outward nature of the truth we are stopping way short. Take a look at these statements of the Lord:
If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free… if the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. (Jn.8:31-32, 36).
Notice how Jesus not only stresses the truth, but also how He locates truth in Himself! There is the closest possible affinity between Jesus’ nature and the nature of truth. Men may call falsehood by the name of truth but according to Jesus all that is really true bears within it some relation to Him. This is especially so with the “Big” truths like the answer to the questions about God, the Cosmos, the meaning of life, and about what happens after death. In these matters Jesus is saying that the answers are not to be found in a nicely argued set of premises, they are to found in His words. Why? Because He is the Source of Truth. Now that is why He told Pilate “…every one that is of the truth hears my voice.” The same phenomenon can be seen in the following assertions from John 8:
Why do you not understand my speech? even because you cannot hear my word.

You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning (see verse 40!), and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of lies.

And because I tell you the truth, you believe me not. Which one of you convinces me of sin? And if I say the truth why do you not believe me?

He that is of God hears God’s words: you therefore hear them not, because you are not of God.24
What is happening here? Jesus is confronting the Jews with their attitude to the truth. And that is nothing more or less than their attitude towards Him! A. T. Lincoln has shown that there is a “lawsuit motif” running through John’s Gospel and centered on the process of truth.25 John 18:38, which is the last mention of truth in the Gospel, brings the question of truth down to one of ethical and spiritual decision. “Making a truth claim is both a relational and propositional affair, involving persons and procedures.”26 There is where a good theologian must keep it.

1. For a full explication of the moral obligation of a good hermeneutical methodology see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). Vanhoozer expresses this in covenantal terms.
2. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 34.
3. James Henley Thornwell, “Discourses on Truth,” in his Collected Writings, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 2.457.
4. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 49.
5. Roger Nicole “The Biblical Concept of Truth” in D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (eds.), Scripture and Truth, 288.
6. See John V. Dahms, “The Nature of Truth,” JETS, 28/4 (December 1985), 455ff.
7. Anthony A Thiselton, “Truth,” in Colin Brown, Gen. ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 3.876.
8. Ibid, 874-877.
9. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “True Words,” in Alan G. Padgett and Patrick R. Keifert, But Is It All True? The Bible and the Question of Truth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 38-39.
10. Edward John Carnell, Christian Commitment: An Apologetic, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1957), 14.
11. Ibid, 15.
12. Ibid, 16.
13. This view is also known as “Ideational truth.” Cf. Harold O. J. Brown, The Sensate Culture, (Dallas, TX, Word, 1996), 52.
14. Peter Hicks, “Truth, Nature of” in W.C. Campbell-Jack and Gavin McGrath, eds., New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 722.
15. Ibid, 724.
16. See, for example, Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 71. See also Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001).
17. Brian L. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 159.
18. Wolterstorff, “True Words,” 37.
19. It is not our aim to enter into the matter of critiquing theories of truth. For a good discussion of the issues involved see J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 110-127.
20. “In John…truth is first and foremost a theological, and perhaps even more accurately, a Christological concept.” – Andreas Kostenberger, “What is Truth? Pilate’s Question in Its Johannine and Larger Biblical Context,” in, Idem., ed., Whatever Happened to Truth?, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 21.
21. Hicks, 722.
22. See Vanhoozer’s chapter, “The Trials of Truth” in First Theology, 337-373.
23. Paul Copan, True for You, But Not True for Me, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998).
24. John.8:43-47.
25. A.T. Lincoln, Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel, (Peabody, MA: Hendriksen, 2000).
26. Vanhoozer, 373.