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Probe Ministries > Theology and Philosophy > Worldview and Philosophy > Truth: What It Is and Why We Can Know It


Truth: What It Is and Why We Can Know It Print E-mail


Written by Rick Wade

The Loss of Confidence

Download the PodcastDid you see the movie City of Angels? Nicholas Cage plays an angel named Seth who has taken a special interest in a surgeon named Maggie, played by Meg Ryan. Maggie’s lost a patient on the operating table, and she is very upset about it. Seth meets her in a hallway in the hospital, and gets her to talk about the loss. Here is a snippet of the conversation:

Maggie: I lost a patient.
Seth: You did everything you could.
Maggie: I was holding his heart in my hand when he died.
Seth: He wasn’t alone.
Maggie: Yes, he was.
Seth: People die.
Maggie: Not on my table.
Seth: People die when their bodies give out.
Maggie: It’s my job to keep their bodies from giving out. Or what am I doing here?
Seth: It wasn’t your fault, Maggie.
Maggie: I wanted him to live.
Seth: He is living. Just not the way you think.
Maggie: I don’t believe in that.
Seth: Some things are true whether you believe in ‘em or not.{1}

What did he say?! “Some things are true whether you believe in ‘em or not”?? Are you kidding?!? That’s crazy talk these days! I have a right to my own opinion, and if I don't believe it, if it’s not my opinion, it’s not true . . . for me, anyway.

The meaning of truth has changed in recent decades. Whereas once it meant statements about reality, today it often means what works or what is meaningful to me. This kind of language is heard primarily in the context of religion and morality. We have lost confidence in our ability to know what reality is. So much emphasis has been put on knowledge through sense experience that anything outside the boundaries of the senses is considered unknowable. Moral and religious discussions frequently end with, “Well, that’s your opinion,” or the more colorful, “Opinions are like belly buttons. Everyone has one.” It’s assumed that opinions can’t be universally, objectively true or false. Each person is his or her own authority over what is true. Truth is a personal possession which is why people get so offended when challenged. A challenge is taken personally. “This is my truth. Don’t touch it!” Strong challenges are even taken as a sign of disrespect.

What does it mean when truth is lost? In philosophy, the result is skepticism or pragmatism. In society in general, one sees a degeneration from skepticism to hypocrisy to cynicism. First we say no one can know what is true—that’s skepticism. Then someone says “I have the truth” but then speaks or acts in a way not in keeping with that “truth” (if truth is uncertain, it can change with my moods)—that’s hypocrisy. Then we stop trusting each other—that’s cynicism. In politics, power and image are what count. In matters of morality, there is no standard above us; social consensus is the best we can hope for, or “human solidarity,” according to Christopher Hitchens. Justice has no sure footing. Might becomes right.

Elsewhere I have written that we don’t have to give in either to the demand for absolute certainty or to the skepticism of our day.{2} We can be confident in our ability to know truth even though not exhaustively. In this article I want to look at the nature and ground of truth, for these are of utmost importance in regard to the question of reliable knowledge.

Truth: The Significance of Its Loss

Let’s look more closely at what it means to lose confidence in knowing truth. One problem is that we become closed up in our individual shells with each of us having his or her own truth. Theologian Roger Nicole notes that the loss of truth means the loss of meaning in language; if we don’t know whether a proposition means what it seems to mean or its opposite, then language is impotent to convey reliable knowledge. And we get caught up in contradictions. As Nicole wrote, those who deny objective validity “presuppose such validity at least for their denial!”{3}

Problems are also created in the realm of morality. Historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto wrote this:

The retreat from truth is one of the great dramatic, untold stories of history. . . . For professional academics in the affected disciplines, to have grown indifferent to truth is an extraordinary reversal of traditional obligations; it is like physicians renouncing the obligation to sustain life or theologians losing interest in God—developments, formerly unthinkable, which now loom as truth diminishes. The trashing of truth began as an academic vice, but the debris is now scattered all over society. It is spread through classroom programmes, . . . In a society of concessions to rival viewpoints, in which citizens hesitate to demand what is true and denounce what is false, it becomes impossible to defend the traditional moral distinction between right and wrong, which are relativized in turn. Unless it is true, what status is left for a statement like ‘X is wrong’ where X is, say, adultery, infanticide, euthanasia, drug‑dealing, Nazism, paedophilia, sadism or any other wickedness due, in today’s climate, for relativization into the ranks of the acceptable? It becomes, like everything else in western society today, a matter of opinion; and we are left with no moral basis for encoding some opinions rather than others, except the tyranny of the majority.{4}

One of the worst problems for a well-ordered society is cynicism. First we say there’s no truth. But then we hypocritically push our views on others as though we have the truth. Then people stop trusting each other. "You say there are no fixed truths, but then you push your claims on me." The result is cynicism.

Some people claim that truth claims are suspect because the words we use are changeable; they can't carry fixed, eternal truths. If we don’t think it’s possible that words convey truth, then words lose their objective meaning, and we start giving them our own meanings.

The loss of confidence in knowing truth is significant for Christians, too, who, without realizing it, adopt similar patterns of thought. When such confidence in knowing truth is weakened, one cannot have confidence that the Bible is the true Word of God. Its authority in the individual’s life is weakened because what it says becomes questionable. Evangelism becomes a matter of sharing one’s own religious preferences, rather than delivering God’s authoritative Word. Bible study becomes a sharing of opinions with none being normative. Each has his or her own opinion and no one is supposed to say a given opinion is wrong.

Truth in Scripture

What is this “truth” thing we talk so much about? My dictionary has such definitions as genuineness, reality, correctness, and statements which accord with reality.{5} Truth can also be a characteristic of persons and things. Someone or some thing that is true is genuine or in keeping with his or its nature. And truth can refer to quality of conduct. The Bible speaks of people doing the truth rather than doing evil (cf. Nah. 9:33; Jn. 3:20, 21).{6}

To help in considering all these matters, let’s look at truth as understood in Scripture, and then at truth considered in philosophical terms.

What does the Bible teach about truth?

In the Old Testament, the word most often translated true, truth, or truly is ‘emet or a cognate.{7} This word is also translated “faithfulness.” Let’s consider the matter of faithfulness first.

For the Israelites, Yahweh was “the God in whose word and work one could place complete confidence.”{8} For example, God said through Zechariah: “I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God” (8:8). Nehemiah said to God: “You have acted faithfully, while we did wrong” (9:33). “The works of his hand are faithful and just,” said the Psalmist; “all his precepts are trustworthy” (111:7).

‘Emet also means truth as over against falsehood as when Joseph tested his brothers to see if they were telling the truth (Gen. 42:16), and when the Israelites were warned to test accusations that people were worshiping other gods to see if they were true (Deut. 13:14). Commenting on Ps. 43:3—“Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me”—theologian Anthony Thiselton says that “Truth enables [the writer] to escape from the dark, and to see things for what they are.”{9}

We shouldn’t conclude by these two uses of the word that on any given occasion “truth” always means both faithfulness and the opposite of falsehood. However, there is a connection between the two. Theologian Anthony Thiselton says the connection depends “on the fact that when God or man is said to act faithfully, often this means that his word and his deed are one. He has acted faithfully in accordance with his spoken word. Hence the believer may lean his whole weight confidently on God, and find him faithful.”{10}

Thus, in the Old Testament, truth is a matter of both words and deeds. “Men express their respect for truth not in abstract theory, but in their daily witness to their neighbour and their verbal and commercial transactions,” Thiselton says.{11}

In the New Testament, there is an increased focus on truth as conformity to reality and as opposed to falsehood. The Greek word alētheia means, literally, “not hidden.” When Peter was sprung from prison by an angel, he didn’t know if it was real (or true) or a dream (Acts 12:9). John the Baptist bore witness to the truth (Jn. 5:33). Jesus used the phrase “I tell you in truth” four times to emphasize the correctness of what he was about to say (Lk. 4:25; 9:27; 12:44; 21:3). When Jesus said “I am the truth,” (Jn. 14:6), He was identifying Himself with what is ultimately and finally real.

Truth in the New Testament isn’t disconnected from how we live, however. We are to walk in the truth (2 Jn. 4; 2 Pet. 2:22), and we are to obey the truth (Gal. 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:22).

One mustn’t oversimplify scriptural teaching on truth. However, it’s safe to say that truth in the Bible means having the correct understanding of the way things really are, and living in accordance with this understanding.

Truth Considered Philosophically

Let’s look at truth now from a philosophical perspective, first as what is real, and then as true statements. This is important, because these are the terms according to which non-Christians think about the matter.

First, truth is a characteristic of reality. In short, if something is real, it is true. Or put philosophically, if something “participates in being,” it is true. When we say that the God of the Bible is the true God, we mean He really exists and really is God!

By analogy, we might ask if a plant we see in a room is a true or real plant. We want to know if it is organic, and not plastic or fabric. If we say a person has exhibited true love, we’re saying the person’s actions weren’t motivated by anything other than concern for the object of the person’s love.

Second, truth is a characteristic of accurate statements or propositions. Sentences which express true meanings convey truth. This is what we typically think of when we speak of truth.{12}

We often divide truth in this sense into the categories of objective and subjective. When we speak of objective truth, we mean that a statement truly reflects what is real, or really the case, apart from ourselves as knowers. And whether we believe it or not. Such truth is public; others can verify it. When we speak of subjective truth, we’re speaking of truth that comes from us individually, where we ourselves are the only authority. For example, “My leg hurts” is subjective in the sense that I am the sole authority. Or if I claim that “French vanilla ice cream is the best tasting kind there is,” that is a subjective truth claim."

Both truth as what’s real and truth as objectively true statements are in crisis today. First, postmodernists say we can’t know what’s ultimately real. In academia this means there is no framework for integrating the various areas of study. In everyday life it results in fractured lives as we find ourselves having to conform to different situations without any integrating structure. French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard had this to say about postmodernism: “[Postmodernism] has deconstructed its entire universe. So all that are left are pieces. All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces—that is postmodern.”{13}

We can rearrange the pieces in a number of different ways, but there is, as it were, no picture on the front of the puzzle box to guide us.{14} Such a view of truth leaves one unwilling, or unable really, to say what is true about anything of importance, and, as a result, forces one into the rather mindless tolerance demanded today. Dorothy Sayers had this to say about such “tolerance”:

In the world it calls itself Tolerance; but in hell it is called Despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.{15}

Second, although truth as true statements is still acknowledged today, some important matters are considered subjective which should be acknowledged as objective, such as statements about God and morality. Christians believe we can know what is ultimately and objectively real and true because the One who is ultimately real and true, God, has revealed Himself to us.

A Foundation for Knowledge of Truth

Now we finally get to the key idea of this article.

Christians claim that they have the truth, a claim that is met with scorn. We are tempted to point to the Bible as our basis for the claim, but critics claim that we’re jumping the gun. If no one can have confidence in knowing truth, then what good is the Bible? It isn’t the source that’s the question; not yet anyway. It’s the very possibility of knowing truth that is questioned. How are truth and the possibility of knowing it even possible?

In a nutshell, we have what philosophical naturalism has given up: we have a metaphysical basis for knowing truth, a basis in what is.

You see, for the naturalist, there is nothing fixed behind the changing world. Three things need to be the case about the world for us to know truth: that it is real; that it is rational; and that there is something fixed behind it. And we need to be able to connect with what is around us with our senses and our reason.

Here’s the key point: Knowledge of truth is possible because of the creating and revealing work of the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. I’ll return to this below.

It is not enough that Christians to simply throw their hands up in despair over this. We have a message that is true for all people. But it may not do to just point to the Bible as our source for true beliefs if the very possibility of knowing any enduring truth is in doubt. Upon what basis can we believe we can really know truth?

To have true knowledge of the world outside our own minds, there has to be a solid connection between our thoughts and the world. The world has to be rational, and we have to have the proper sensory and mental apparatus necessary to comprehend it. Christianity provides such a connection between our minds and reality outside us in the person of the Logos of God.

“In the beginning was the Word,” John wrote, the Logos (John 1:1; cf. Rev. 19:13). In Greek philosophy, logos was the impersonal principle of cosmic reason which was thought to give order and intelligibility to the world. John’s Logos, however, is not impersonal; a Person, not a principle. The Logos—Jesus of Nazareth—is the intelligent expression of God or the Word of God (Jn. 1:1,14; Rev. 19:13). He is not secondary to God, but is God.

The significance of this for the possibility of knowing truth is this: knowledge is possible because of the creating and revealing work of the Logos. Remember that Jesus, the Logos, is not only the One who reveals God to us, but is also the creator of the universe (Jn.1:3; Col.1:16,17; Heb.1:2). Because the universe came from a rational Being, the universe is rational. Further, there is no hint in Scripture that the world is an illusion; it is just what it appears to be: real. And because we’re made in God’s image, we’re rational beings who can know the universe.{16} Also, we can perceive the world around us because we were created with the sensory apparatus to perceive it.

But this is just knowledge of our world. What about knowledge of God? Not only has the Logos created us with the ability to know the world, He has also revealed Himself in a rational and even observable way. He is, as Carl Henry put it, “the God Who speaks and shows.”{17}

Because of all this, it is not arrogance that is behind the Christian claim that truth can be known. We claim it because we have a basis for it: Jesus of Nazareth, the Logos of God, the Creator, has made knowledge of truth possible, knowledge of this world and of God. Modern philosophy and theology denied God’s ability to reveal Himself to us in any significant way. But such ideas diminish God Himself. He made us to know His world. He gave us sense organs to know the empirical world; He gave us rational minds to engage in logical and mathematical reasoning and to engage in the many, many deductions we make every day of our lives. He also made us to know Him, and He revealed Himself to us through a variety of ways.

It’s no wonder that the naturalistic philosophy of our time is incapable of having confidence in knowing truth. It has lost a metaphysical ground for truth. Jesus of Nazareth is not only our source of salvation; He is also the Creator. And because of this, we can have confidence in our ability to know truth in general and truth about God in particular.

Notes

1. City of Angels, DVD, directed by Brad Silberling (Warner Home Video, 1998).
2. Rick Wade, "Confident Belief," Probe Ministries, 2001, www.probe.org/worldview--philosophy/confident-belief.html.
3. Roger Nicole, "The Biblical Concept of Truth," in D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds., Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 287.
4. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Truth: A History and Guide for the Perplexed (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), 165-66.
5. Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th ed, s.v., "true."
6. John V. Dahms, "The Nature of Truth," JETS 28/4 (December. 1985), 455-465. This is parallel to Carnell's triad of ontological truth, propositional truth, and truth as personal rectitude. See Edward John Carnell, Christian Commitment: An Apologetic (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1957), 14-17.
7. Nicole, 288. I am indebted to Nicole's and Thiselton's (cf. note 8 below) studies for much of what follows.
8. Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978); s.v. "Truth" by A. C. Thiselton, III.877, quoting Alfred Jepsen, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, I:313.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. See Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, Vol. 5, God Who Stands and Stays, Part One (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1982), 336.
13. Jean Baudrillard, quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, Ill.: 2000), 169.
14. See Groothuis, 170.
15. Dorothy Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969), 4; quoted in Groothuis, 170.
16. As Henry says, "As creative, the Word of God is the ground of all existence; as revelatory, it is the ground of all human knowledge." (GRA, 5:334) Also, "The Logos is the creative Word whereby God fashioned and preserves the universe. He is the light of the understanding, the Reason that enables intelligible creatures to comprehend the truth." (GRA 3:212).
17. The subtitle to Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, Vol. 1.

© 2009 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Rick WadeRick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at rwade@pobox.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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