April 13, 2024

Truth Matters

John Wesley Taylor V

At Jesus’ trial Pilate asked a key question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

If we were to pose that question or its counterpart, “How do we know what is true?” to a cross section of contemporary society, we would encounter a range of responses:

“It has been that way for a long time.”

“Well, everyone agrees.”

“I feel strongly about it!”

“It all fits together so beautifully.”

“Look, it just works.”

“She’s the expert, and she surely must know.”

Limitations in the search for truth

We recognize, however, that each of these criteria for determining truth presents inherent limitations.

Every tradition, for example, must have a beginning. How did the first person know what was true? Is the majority always right? After all, at one time all but eight people believed that it could never rain (1 Peter 3:20).

What happens when two people feel strongly about the same thing, but in opposite ways? What if we were to start with a false premise? Would our beautiful harmony make us dead wrong? Something may work, but is it necessarily correct because it works? Think deceptive advertising.

Who is going to be the authority? How do they know what is true?

Perhaps we can empathize with Thomas’ predicament: “We don’t know anything for certain!” (cf. John 14:5). Before we hastily discard any of these criteria, however, we should note that each is of value and can contribute toward a better understanding of truth. The point, however, is that not one of these approaches can guarantee truth.

What about research?

One of the more pervasive truth criteria is that of empirical evidence. This approach is frequently expressed in such statements as “It’s supported by research” and “It’s scientifically sound.” Certainly research, with its systematic methodology and its checks and balances, such as peer review and replication of findings, is one of the more promising avenues through which we can approximate truth.

We would be naive, however, if we did not recognize the limitations of research, several of which are highlighted in Scripture. Do we truly perceive what is out there, or could it be that we “see through a glass, darkly”? (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV). Could appearances, at times, be deceiving? (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7).

Furthermore, data must be interpreted to become meaningful. If I place four dots on a page (Figure 1), what do they represent? A square? A circle? A combination of these? A sign to stop? Or a sign to proceed? Clearly data do not speak for themselves. They must be interpreted.

But that interpretation is influenced by our worldview. The story of the 12 evaluators in Numbers 13 reminds us that it is possible to look at the same data and yet arrive at quite different interpretations because of differences in worldview.

One further limitation of research: Is all the evidence ever in? Might we “know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:9, NRSV) and that partial knowledge lead us to faulty conclusions?

The biblical response

What, then, is the answer? How can we know what is truth?

Regrettably, the clamor of the crowd distracted Pilate, and he turned away before Jesus could answer his question. As is often the case with God, however, Christ had answered the question before it was asked when He stated, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). For the Christian, then, truth is a Person.

That is not all. A few hours before His encounter with Pilate, Christ had prayed, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17). In the biblical worldview, then, the Word, whether written or incarnate, is truth.

This implies that knowledge of truth is both intellectual (learning about God, His words, and His works) and relational (knowing Christ personally
and experientially).

Implications of the biblical perspective

What are the implications of this perspective? There are several key concepts.

Truth begins with God, not with human beings. James wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), and John added, “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

This means that although we can develop interpretations or applications of truth, we do not ultimately create truth. This does not imply, however, that we are mere passive recipients. God desires us to actively discover and, at times, recover truth (John 5:39; Job 12:7; Prov. 2:4, 5).

Because truth resides in God and God does not change, truth is stable. The Bible speaks of “the God of truth” (Isa. 65:16) and asserts that “truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21). It also states that God is eternal and unchanging: “From everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Ps. 90:2) and “I am the Lord, I do not change” (Mal. 3:6). As a result, God’s truth is constant. As David confirmed: “The truth of the Lord endures forever” (Ps. 117:2).

Human beings, therefore, cannot destroy truth. They can choose only to accept or reject God’s truth. Ellen G. White reminds us: “Those who have the sanctifying power of the truth upon their hearts will exert a persuasive influence. Knowing that the advocates of error cannot create or destroy truth, they can afford to be calm and considerate.”1

All truth possesses unity because it comes from the same Source. While not all that is consistent is true (given that we might start with a false premise), that which is true is internally consistent. Truth will always be in harmony with itself wherever and whenever it is found. Any contradiction either denotes error or highlights a problem with finite understanding, serving as a call for further study and reflection.

Truth is infinite because God is infinite. The frontiers of our understanding are also the horizons of our ignorance. We can visualize our knowledge as a circle, surrounded by the vast universe of what we don’t know or, much less, understand. Our only contact with that universe, however, is at the circumference of our circle. Beyond that circumference, we don’t even know that we don’t know.

When the circle of knowledge is small, the circumference is also small, and we might be led to believe that there are only a few things that we do not yet know. As the area of the circle begins to expand, perhaps through learning or research, so does the circumference and our points of contact with the unknown. Consequently, the more we learn, the more we realize how much there is yet to learn, and the more humble we should be.

We must continually grow in knowledge and understanding of truth. It is not sufficient to stand, anchored in the truth. According to Scripture, we must walk in the truth (2 John 4; 3 John 3, 4). To walk denotes movement and progress. Ellen White counsels, “Let no one come to the conclusion that there is no more truth to be revealed.”2

How presumptuous it would be, then, for anyone to declare or act as if he or she possesses all truth! A Christian will never possess all truth. After all, God’s truth is infinite, and we are finite. Nevertheless, through study and experience, and through collaboration with other truth seekers and by divine guidance, the proportion of error should begin to drop away, with the goal that ultimately all that the Christian possesses is truth.

Because God is the source of all truth, all truth is ultimately God’s truth. If something is true—even if it is the truth about the untruth, it is an extension of God’s truth, and we must recognize and highlight that connection.

At the same time, we must also acknowledge that Christians do not have a monopoly on truth. Nonbelievers also discover truths. “[God] makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45) because He wants all “to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). What then is the difference between the believer and the nonbeliever? The believer in God acknowledges and values the Source of that truth.

How do we obtain truth?

Fundamentally we are enabled to acquire truth because God takes the initiative, sharing true facts and principles with us. Divine revelation is the channel through which God reveals truth to human beings. Reason, research, and reflection are gifts from God to understand truth, while faith is a wholehearted commitment to accept God’s truth.

There is a problem, however. Paul speaks of those “who changed the truth of God into a lie” (Rom. 1:25, KJV). While God’s truth cannot be destroyed, it can, in fact, be distorted. When an object is viewed through a warped lens, our perception of that object is deformed, although the object itself has not changed.

How does this misrepresentation of truth occur? There are at least two possibilities. First, this distortion can result from Satan’s direct manipulation of God’s truth. Paul’s encounter with the fortune-telling slave girl (Acts 16:16-18) illustrates how a statement of truth can be subverted to cause people to arrive at false conclusions.

Second, God’s truth can be distorted when we adopt a secular worldview, a perspective that removes God from the equation (2 Cor. 4:4). The result in either case is false conclusions regarding God’s revelation of truth, and this is tragic!

The good news is that God is again proactive. He provides the “Spirit of Truth” that will guide us “into all truth” (John 16:13). It is the role of the Holy Spirit to deflect Satan’s attempted distortions of truth and to rescue us from the false assumptions of a secular worldview. As a result, we are enabled to arrive at correct conclusions regarding God and His truth. The prophet Isaiah writes, “When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him” (Isa. 59:19).

There is an additional safeguard—the community of faith. While popularity polls do not determine truth, “every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor. 13:1, NIV). Acts 15 records that when the early Christian believers needed to decide which matters were essential, they came together, discussed, and prayed, and under guidance of the Spirit reached a conclusion.

A final matter

Paul writes that “wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth” (2 Thess. 2:10, NIV). It is not enough, then, to know the truth. We must love the truth.

What does it mean to love the truth? It means that we must live the truth, incorporating it into the fabric of our lives.

The result? “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Free from false assumptions, from misplaced interpretations. Truth as it is in Jesus offers the only freedom. “If the Son sets you free, you really will be free” (John 8:36, NASB).

At the end of earth’s history, God proclaims: “Open the gates that the righteous nation which keeps the truth may enter in” (Isa. 26:2). In the final analysis, truth matters!

1 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 281.

2 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 35.