Whence Truth? - Truth Defined: Part 2
In our last blog, we saw the importance of truth and the need to define it properly. In that blog, we noted the following,
Theologically speaking we see an important connection between truth and God. Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God. Truth is the self-disclosure of God himself. It is what it is because God declares it so and makes it so. All truth must be defined in terms of God, whose very nature is truth. (cf Groothius) Truth is not a cultural invention but is received. It is not something to which we can be agnostic or apathetic. It must transform our lives.
We began to articulate the correspondence theory of truth which is, I believe, the only option for the biblical Christian to hold. Quite simply, this means that truth is correspondent to reality. The truth is determined by how a propositional statement relates to the world, and whether it accurately describes it. Truth corresponds to reality. Aristotle articulates this when he wrote,
To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true; so that he who says of anything that it is, or that it is not, will say either what is true or what is false. (Metaphysics, bk 4, ch 7)
This common-sense view of truth relies on a couple of easily understood pieces of logic. The law of noncontradiction (something cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect) and the law of excluded middle (any statement and its denial cannot both be true). We’ll get into these toward the end of our blog series.
As we expand our grasp of the nature of truth, we come to recognize that a biblical understanding of truth involves at least 10 things. I will list them here and explain some of them below and the rest in other blogs. We’ll draw some conclusions within these blogs that are apologetic in nature and thus we will touch on epistemology (how we know what we know) as well as metaphysics (the nature of reality) and ontology (the nature of a thing). I apologize for the philosophical nature of some of this stuff, but we need it in order to understand the truth properly.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m indebted to the books I mentioned in the last blog by Groothius and Lawson for the categories below as well as many others for my explanations.
Truth is divine and therefore must be revealed to us
Truth is objective
Truth is absolute and authoritative
Truth is singular
Truth is universal and immutable
Truth is eternally engaging
Truth is antithetical and exclusive
Truth is unified and systematic
Truth is an end in itself
Truth is authoritative
Let’s take a look at the first 3 of these.
1. Truth is divine and therefore must be revealed to us
It’s simple really, all truth is God’s truth. Whether in nature, philosophy, aesthetics, morality, or theology, truth is truth because God has made it so. Truth is from above. It is, as Lawson says, not of this world. Truth is, then, that which corresponds to the reality that has been created by God and reveals him and his truth.
This also means that humanity has been created by God to be truth-receivers. This is part of our image-bearing. God made a real world, and he reveals the truth about himself in and through that world. This world includes human beings who are specially created in order to receive the truth. (cf Phillips)
These things have immediate implications. Our culture says - “You do you” or “Whatever” or “You have your truth and I have mine.” But none of these statements reflect the nature of truth as it comes from God. Truth is not constructed or invented. Society cannot determine the truth. Polls cannot tell us what is true. Our feelings cannot dictate what is the truth. What we believe is not necessarily the same as what is true. Beliefs and systems of beliefs may be the result of human invention, but the truth comes only from the disclosure of God who makes himself known.
Only God is true and therefore truth can only be known by divine revelation. This includes both special and general revelation. Truth is found in both God’s word and in the world around us because God has chosen to reveal the truth in these ways.
Let me ask you a question. Which statement is more true? 2+2=4 or Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God. The answer is they are equally true. The latter statement has stronger implications than the former, but they are both equally true. Any time truth is found, whether in science or theology, for example, God and his truth are found on account of God choosing to reveal that truth to us. This is why we are told in Romans 1 that people know the truth about nature and from nature and it tells us more than just stuff about our world. It tells us the truth about God yet we readily exchange the truth from God and of God for a lie. We suppress it and change it from worship of God to idolatry. This sinful exchange clouds the truth all the more.
2. Truth is objective
We noted above that truth is dependent on God and his revelation and therefore is not dependent on any person’s feelings, desires, or beliefs. This means it is objective, not subjective. It lies outside of us.
Actually, truth is subjective to God and objective to us. Truth is not dependent upon anyone, other than God Himself, and therefore truth is objective. It is not discovered by personal feelings nor determined by private intuitions.
One of the implications of the objectivity of truth is that it is propositional. (A proposition is “any language that states a truth claim – whether expressed in a sentence, an utterance or a belief.” - Groothius) It is conveyed in narrowly defined words that have rational definitions and is stated in precise terms that communicate real meaning. Words mean something in regard to truth. Therefore, the truth is black and white. It is definite, definitive, and conclusive. Truth is not abstract, vague, or nebulous. It is accurately stated by the fixed meaning of words and can be observed, discussed, studied, analyzed, believed, proclaimed, and defended.
To suggest that truth is objective is quite controversial in today’s culture for two reasons. First, our culture sees truth as something that is socially constructed or a result of power structures or language games. Thus we can never have THE truth, only localized truth, or my truth. This is known as perspectivalism. Second, our culture believes that even if THE truth were to exist we would be unable to communicate it effectively in language. Thus truth is simply a contingent creation of language. Wittgenstein and later Derrida were quick to point out that languages are self-enclosed and self-referential systems thus they cannot refer to anything outside of themselves.
These sound like devastating critiques, but they are really quite easily repelled. As to the first issue, we need to admit with Nietzsche that we all look at things from our own perspective. No one, as Van Til would agree, is objective in the sense of standing in a neutral place able to observe things without any bias. There is no brute fact to use Van Tillian terminology. BUT if our definition of truth in the last blog is correct and if it is explained correctly in this and the next blogs we realize something quite devastating to this perspectival view of truth. First, it sets up conditions regarding epistemology and truth that it itself cannot meet, for it itself is a perspective on things and thus cannot be absolute. Therefore no perspectivalist can dictate his theory as one to be followed for it is but one of many perspectives. The circle is vicious here. But we can do better. Second, a perspective concerns something and refers to reality either successfully or unsuccessfully. We may have a perspective, but the truth does not have a side. It doesn’t have a gender or a culture, or an ethnicity. Truth is free from these encumberments. Either our perspective matches reality or it does not. If it does it is true. If not, it is not true.
As to the role of language, Groothius notes, “Language is God’s vehicle for conveying truth, although it may be clouded in much of our experience.” Let me quote from the philosopher John Searle who, to my knowledge, is not a believer. He wrote, “We arbitrarily define the word “cat” in such and such a way; and only relative to such and such definitions can we say, “That’s a cat.” But once we have made the definitions and once we have applied the concepts relative to the system of definitions, whether or not something satisfies our definition is no longer arbitrary or relative. That we use the word “cat” the way we do is up to us; that there is an object that exists independently of that use; and satisfies that use, is a plain matter of (absolute, intrinsic, mind-independent) fact.” Very clearly then, language is a tool that helps us communicate truth, but does not determine what is true.
3. Truth is absolute and authoritative
A couple of things help us to understand these two terms. First, truth is invariant, meaning that it is true without exception or exemption. Second, it is not relative or revisable. This means that truth is true for everyone, everywhere, no matter who they are, where they live, what their past or present experiences are, etc. Put simply something cannot be true and not true at the same time and in the same way. (This violates the law of noncontradiction)
This is a problem for a society that has denied God’s influence, or even his existence. Without God, there cannot be any absolutes. Without absolutes, there can be no objective, universal truths. Without absolutes, the truth becomes subjective, relative, and pragmatic. Without absolutes, truth gives way to mere personal or cultural preferences. But to the contrary, all truth is absolute because God is absolute truth. (cf Groothius)
This has a few important implications.
First, the claim to absolute, objective truth does not mean that I am able to have perfect, inerrant, or unlimited knowledge. It is possible for me to gain adequate knowledge of objective truth, but I am not God and thus cannot have perfect, inerrant, unlimited knowledge. But, I do not have to have divine knowledge of something to know something as objectively true. I can know the truth without being omniscient. Herman Bavinck reminds us that this is the simple reality of our finitude. He writes, it is “impossible for God fully to reveal himself to and in his creatures, for the finite does not grasp the infinite.”
Second, the claim that there is absolute, objective truth does not mean that I am objective as a knower. I have a perspective as a knower, but it is possible for me as a situated knower to obtain objective truth. A claim, a propositional statement, is either true or not on its own merits.
Third, the claim that there are multiple ways to understand something - how the universe came to be, the details of the end times, quantum mechanics - does not mean that truth is not authoritative and objective; that truth is not out there to be discovered and articulated. We must remember how we learn things. It takes time, trial and error, and a lot of work. It also means honesty, integrity, and a high level of morality in knowing. Finding the truth is a lot of work and is highly complex. So we set to work to find the truth knowing that it is out there to be discovered. When contradictory statements are made the only way forward is to put these ideas against each other to determine their validity, their truth. (cf Carson)
Fourth, the claim to absolute, objective truth does not mean that all truth is discovered in the same manner. There are many means by which we come to know the truth and what tools we use depends on what aspect of truth we are after. This is pretty simple to demonstrate. A sociologist and a molecular biologist and an astrophysicist are after the same thing - the truth about the world around them. But the truth each one is seeking is vastly different from the other. Thus they cannot use the same methods of study to get to the truth. To put it differently, there are different aspects of truth to be known and thus different ways to discover the truth.
We should probably leave it there. We’ll pick up 4-10 or 4-whatever next time. Let me conclude with a quotation from Steven Lawson which highlights the importance of what we are discussing,
Truth does not stammer or stutter. It speaks with the supreme authority of God Himself. It always makes demands upon us and never offers mere suggestions. It never presents just one more option to consider. It is never intended to be simply interesting. It never speaks to tickle our curiosity. Instead, truth speaks with the voice of sovereignty. Truth roars with the sound of many waters, drowning out every other voice. Truth is commanding, arresting, and directional. It has the authority to order us. Truth must, therefore, be heard. It demands our undivided attention. We cannot pretend that truth has not spoken. We cannot act as if it will go away. We cannot live in denial of truth. It lays hold of us by the lapels and draws us close. It summons us and mandates our complete compliance. Truth is binding upon our lives. Truth demands our response.
Soli Deo Gloria