Truth

TRUTH (אֱמֶת, H622; ἀλήθεια, G237). Scripture does not directly address the question of the nature and tests of truth which has received so much philosophical attention. Indeed, the cognitive conception of true knowledge appears to be secondary to, and derivative from, the more fundamental conception of moral truth ascribed to persons and their acts.

Biblical terminology



The cognitive conception is more explicit in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. Truth is related not only to fidelity and justice but also to knowledge and to revelation. This is partly due to the intrusion of Greek culture with its more theoretical interests into the Jewish world, partly due therefore to the Greek language. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the Greek language and thence the New Testament use of ἀλήθεια, G237, reflects a Platonic dualism of form and particular, and thereby a Platonic or even Gnostic epistemology. In the first place Greek philosophy is far more varied than this implies: there was no one Greek epistemology. In the second place the Biblical writers shape the meanings they intend by their own careful use of language. Undoubtedly, writing for a Hellenized culture with its conflicting truth-claims, they keep cognitive truth in mind. But their thinking is more directly shaped by Old Testament concepts, and most of all by the belief that the true God, ἀληθινός, G240, is not hidden, but acts and speaks with an openness that is wholly trustworthy (ἀληθής, G239).

Three concepts of truth

Biblical usage suggests three related concepts: (1) moral truth, (2) ontological truth, (3) cognitive truth. (2) and (3) depend logically on (1), and (3) depends logically on (1) and (2). In each case the basis of truth is in God, the source and standard of (1) righteousness, (2) being, and (3) knowledge.

Moral truth



Ontological truth

Arising from the concept of one who is wholly trustworthy is the further concept of one who is truly what he purports to be, rather than being a deceiver, living a fiction, or being an imperfect example. In this sense “the true light” (John 1:9) is to perfection the kind of light John the Baptist was in part and for which he prepared; “the true bread” (John 6:32) contrasts with the imperfect Manna; and “true worshipers” (John 4:23) contrast with those whose worship was still anticipatory. The Thessalonians, moreover, turned from their idols to serve “the true God” (1 Thess 1:9).

In this sense we speak of a “true man,” a “true scholar,” or a “true son,” meaning one who is true to an ideal, who perfectly embodies our standard. The Greek theory of universals saw all particulars as participating to some degree in their ideal forms; Christian thinkers like Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas equated these forms with divine ideas and decrees (eternal truths), and ascribed “ontological truth” to natural objects embodying them. This notion arises, however, not from Biblical usage but from combining the Greek theory of forms with the Biblical concept of the Creator who makes all things according to His perfect wisdom.

Cognitive truth

A further outcome of moral truth is that one speaks truth and not falsehood. In God, truthfulness stems from Omniscience, so that the attribute of truth refers in part to His perfect knowledge (Job 28:20-26; 38; 39). Since He is creator, whatever we know depends on Him. All truth is God’s truth. Our cognitive abilities are His creation, and the intelligibility of nature attests His wisdom. God’s knowledge is therefore archetypal and ours ectypal. What we declare true is such only insofar as it accords with the truth known perfectly to God alone. Ectypal truth is therefore contingent, limited, and provisional. We “see in a mirror dimly” and “know in part.” But archetypal truth is unlimited, unchanging, and absolute. Truth-for-man is still in the making, but truth-for-God is complete.

This is expressed in John’s Logos-concept and Paul’s discussion in the Colossian epistle of the Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” It is the Christ, by whom all things were made and are sustained, who gives intelligible order and purpose to nature and history. To know Him is to know the omniscient source of all knowledge—not to know all He knows, but to understand how wisdom and knowledge are at all possible. He it is who guarantees the trustworthiness of the truth we acquire.


Philosophical concepts of truth

Cognitive truth

If God is the ground of all truth, then whatever truths we know bear witness to Him. Recognizing this, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) constructed an argument for God’s existence from our knowledge of truthOn Free Will, ii. The mind apprehends certain universal and necessary truths that cannot change, including logical truths like “A is either B or non-B,” and mathematical truths. They are neither made true nor amended by the mind as if they were its inferiors; rather the mind willingly submits to being corrected and judged by them, as by its superiors. Truth exists independently of the mind and is superior to it. The mind fluctuates in its apprehension of truth, but truth remains forever the same. What accounts for its eternal, changeless, and universal status? Individual truths must participate in Truth-itself, the eternal and changeless God “in whom and by whom are all things.”

Augustine’s argument reflects his transformation of the Platonic theory of forms into a theistic context. There are no longer self-subsistent archetypes unified in the Form of the Good. The forms now are eternal truths (rationes aeternae) subsisting in the mind of God for whom all truth is one. They may still be known by recollection, for Augustine also adapts the Platonic theory of innate ideas and dialectical method, but any truth that men grasp is due to the Logos “who teaches within,” enlightening every man who comes into the world (Concerning the Teacher, and Soliloquies).

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) pursues the Augustinian direction by distinguishing three senses of “truth.” (1) A proposition is true when it states what actually exists, but (2) what actually exists is what it should be (“ontological truth”) when it conforms to (3) the archetypal idea in the mind of God (“eternal truth”). God is accordingly the eternal cause of all truth. Anselm also discusses “truth in the will,” referring to the concept of “moral truth” discussed above.

Thomas Aquinas (1223-1274) modifies this scheme by arguingDe Veritate, Q. 1 that truth is to be predicated primarily of an intellect and only secondarily of a thing, for a thing is called true (“a true man,” etc.) only insofar as it conforms to some idea. Natural things are what they are because of archetypal ideas in the divine intellect. Truth then is ultimately in the divine intellect. Insofar as it is in the human intellect, and men learn from natural things, truth comes ultimately from God. In God, truth means that His knowledge accords first with His essence and secondly with things He has created.

Aquinas therefore defines truth as the adequation of thought to thing, and applies this definition to both divine and human knowledge. By doing so, he lays the foundation for modern correspondence theories of truth.

René Descartes (1596-1650) was educated in the Jesuit school at La Flèche, and the influence of Scholastic thought remained with him. In this light, it is not surprising that he rests the trustworthiness of human reason and sense perception on the character of GodMeditations IV, V. The logical possibility of our achieving truth depends, he argues, on knowing that a God exists who would not deceive us. Error can never be blamed on God, but arises when the human will affirms or denies something which lies beyond the limited scope of human reason. Truth is insured by the careful, logical use of the created intellect. Truth depends on God.

Other Christian thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment took similar positions. Malebranche, Berkeley, Leibniz and others maintained in terms of their own philosophical schemes that all truth is ultimately God’s truth, and that our knowledge of truth depends ultimately on God. The classic correspondence and coherence theories were formulated in this manner, the former in the context of empiricist epistemologies and the latter more in a rationalist or idealist context. Non-theistic thought, detaching the theory of truth from these moorings, raises serious doubts as to the attainability of truth and its objectivity. Pragmatic and relativistic epistemologies are the reasonable outcome of naturalistic and other non-theistic philosophies. By the same token the rise of early modern science, with its confidence in the rational investigation of empirical findings, may be traced to the belief that a rational and trustworthy God created both an intelligible universe and finite minds that are reliable for their intended purposes. In these regards the Biblical conception of cognitive truth has pervaded and inspired Western thought.

Moral truth

in the Biblical sense of personal rectitude, has historically been overshadowed by cognitive truth. Səren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is largely responsible for its rediscovery. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript he distinguishes between the objective path to truth through historical or philosophical inquiry, and the “subjective” path. Grasping truth, he declares is “subjectivity.” Kierkegaard does not mean that truth is either private or relative. He means that the individual must approach truth as a whole person, in all his subject-hood, passionately involved and utterly authentic in his concern. This kind of response distinguishes the true from the nominal believer. It is what the New Testament calls “being in the truth.”

Kierkegaard’s conception of truth, like that of a Descartes or a Leibniz, has however been distorted by nontheists. In this case the result is the existentialist view which regards truth as wholly personal, so that there is no objective truth in the mind of God which is intelligible to finite minds. That is, moral truth is retained without cognitive truth, and one achieves moral truth by existential experience. Heidegger’s analysis (Being and Time, § 44) of truth as the “uncoveredness” of Being is extremely valuable, but his analysis of Being (Dasein) in terms of our own being-in-the-world tends to confine truth to self-discovery or personal self-authentication. The influence of Heidegger’s view of truth is evident on the one hand in the theology of Paul Tillich and on the other hand in the nihilism of Jean-Paul Sartre, both of which suffer from a loss of the Biblical and theistic conception of truth.

The insufficiency of either the cognitive or the existential concept of truth alone leads Herman Dooyeweerd to call for the elaboration of a truly Christian idea of truth which rejects the purported religious neutrality of theoretical truth and does justice to the Biblical concern with truth “in the heart,” thereby linking moral truth with theoretical truth. The ingredients of such an account are certainly present in Scripture and in subsequent Christian thought.

Additional Resources

Source 1

TRUTH. The word “truth,” alētheia in the New Testament and a variety of words, chiefly ’emeth in the Old Testament, always connotes (1) the interrelated consistency of statements and their correspondence with the facts of reality, and (2) the facts themselves. The former may be called propositional truth, and the latter, ontological truth.

The biblical use of the word has rich suggestive meanings that go beyond the literal connotations. When Moses (Exod.18.21 kjv) refers to “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness,” there is suggested integrity of character—a kind of reliability that goes beyond the literal meaning to include those aspects of personal behavior that seem to be implied by the love of truth. The concept of truth is assumed to be derived from the character of God and is the exact opposite of the concept of lying. “It is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrew6.18; cf. 2Tim.2.13; Titus.1.2).

Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John.17.17). And he promised, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John.8.31-John.8.32). In such sayings, “the truth” means the most important truth, that is, the gospel of the grace of God.

One of the saddest scenes in the Bible (John.18.37-John.18.38) is the one in which Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” and does not even wait for an answer. Jesus had said, “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Jesus’ words refer not merely to truth, but to the truth. Pilate’s question omits the article and expresses skepticism, not merely as to the gospel but as to the very concept of truth.

The gospel invitation to “believe” is always based on the assumption that the evidence is sufficient, and that it is a moral question whether one will accept the grace of God in Christ. Those who disbelieve the gospel are morally reprehensible in the sight of God (John.3.18-John.3.19, John.3.36; 2Thess.2.10-2Thess.2.12). Christ is the truth, as the sun is the light. Those who turn away from Christ, it is assumed, do so willfully and culpably.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


I. TERMS

II. GENERAL VIEW

1. Aspects of Truth

(1) Ontological

(2) Logical

(3) Moral

(4) Religious

2. Standards of Truth

3. Special Features in Biblical Writings

III. ANALYTICAL SUMMARY

1. Truth in God

2. Truth in Man

3. Truth in Religion

I. Terms.


II. General View.

No term is more familiar and none more difficult of definition.

With applications in every phase of life and thought the word has varying general senses which may be classified as:

1. Aspects of Truth:

(1) Ontological

Ontological truth, i.e. accurate and adequate idea of existence as ultimate reality. In this sense it is a term of metaphysics, and will be differently defined according to the type of philosophical theory accepted. This aspect of truth is never primary in Scripture unless in the question of Pilate (Joh 18:38). He had so far missed the profound ethical sense in which Jesus used the word that Jesus did not at all answer him, nor, indeed, does Pilate seem to have expected any reply to what was probably only the contemptuous thrust of a skeptical attitude. In Proverbs where, if at all, we might look for the abstract idea, we find rather the practical apprehension of the true meaning and method of life (23:23). Ontological reality and possible ideas of reality apprehending it are obviously presupposed in all Scripture. There is objective reality on which subjective ideas depend for their validity; and all knowing is knowledge of reality. There is also in the whole of Scripture a subjective idea, the product of revelation or inspiration in some form of working, that constitutes an ideal to be realized objectively. The Kingdom of God, for example, is the formative idea of Scripture teaching. In a definite sense the kingdom exists and still it is to be created. It must be kept in mind, however, that only vaguely and indirectly does truth have abstract, meta-physical meaning to the Biblical writers. For John it approaches this, but the primary interest is always concrete.

(2) Logical

Logical truth is expressive of the relation between the knower and that which is known, and depends upon the arrangement of ideas with reference to a central or composite idea. Truth in this sense involves the correspondence of concepts with facts. While this meaning of truth is involved in Scripture, it is not the primary meaning anywhere, save in a practical religious application, as in Eph 4:21; 1; Joh 2:4,21.

(3) Moral

Moral truth is correspondence of expression with inner conception. Taken in its full meaning of correspondence of idea with fact, of expression with thought and with intention, of concrete reality with ideal type, this is the characteristic sense of the word in the Scriptures. Here the aim of religion is to relate man to God in accordance with truth. In apprehension man is to know God and His order as they are in fact and in idea. In achievement, man is to make true in his own experience the idea of God that is given to him. Truth is thus partly to be apprehended and partly to be produced. The emphatically characteristic teaching of Christianity is that the will to produce truth, to do the will of God, is the requisite attitude for apprehending the truth. This teaching of Jesus in Joh 7:17 is in accord with the entire teaching of the Bible. Eph 1:18 suggests the importance of right attitude for learning, while 4:18 shows the effect of a wrong attitude in ignorance of vital truth.

(4) Religious

Religious truth is a term frequently met in modern literature, but it has no sound basis in reason and it has none at all in the Bible. All truth is ultimately religious and only in a superficial way can religious truth be spoken of as an independent conception. Least of all can religious truth and scientific truth be at variance.

2. Standards of Truth:

Philosophy has continuously tried to find tests for truth, and so has wrought out theories of knowledge--epistemologies, Not to go back into the Greek philosophy, we have in modern times such theories as (1) the Kantian, (2) the scholastic, (3) the Hegelian, (4) the pragmatic, (5) that of the "new realism"; and these include only such as may be defined with some clearness, for the tendencies of current thought have been toward confusion concerning all standards of truth and reality, and so toward widespread agnosticism and skepticism. This temper has, naturally, reacted on thinking in practical ethics and upon the sanctions of religion. There is thus in religion and morals a tendency to obscure the distinction between what is and what ought to be.

See Authority; Ethics; PHILOSOPHY; RIGHT; SIN.

In the Bible, the known will of God is final for man as a standard of truth, not as arbitrary, but as expressive of God’s nature. God’s nature is all-comprehensive of fact and goodness, and so is, all and in all, the source, support and objective of all concrete being. The will of God thus reveals, persuades to and achieves the ideals and ends of complete existence. The term "truth" is sometimes, therefore, nearly equivalent to the revealed will of God.

3. Special Features in Biblical Writings:

(1) The Old Testament uses the term "truth" primarily of God and applies the principle to man. The practical objective is ever prominent.

(2) The Synoptic Gospels and Ac use the term chiefly in popular idiomatic phrases "of a truth," "in truth," "surely" (compare Lu 22:59; Ac 4:27). In Mt 22:16 there is a more serious and comprehensive application, but it is in the flattering words of Pharisaic hypocrisy (compare Mr 12:14; Lu 20:21). To be sure, we are to understand that even in the phrases of common speech Jesus employed the term in all seriousness (Lu 4:25; 9:27).



(5) It is understood by many that in James, Peter, Hebrews, and possibly the Pastoral Epistles, the term connotes "the body of Christian teaching" (compare Jas 1:18; 3:14; 1Pe 1:22; 2Pe 2:2; Heb 10:26; 1Ti 3:15). The use of the article here cannot be conclusive, and instead of "the body of Christian teaching," it seems more correct to understand the reality of life values as represented in the gospel plan of salvation and of living. In a general way this would include "the body of Christian teaching," but the reference would be less concrete. James is too early a writing to employ the term in this so specific a sense.

III. Analytical Summary.

1. Truth in God:

(1) Truth is presented in Scripture as a chief element in the nature of God (Ps 31:5; Isa 65:16).


(3) God’s truth is especially noteworthy as a guaranty of merciful consideration of men. This is an important element in theology of the Old Testament, as it is a point guarded also in the New Testament (Ps 25:10; 31:5; 61:7; 85:10; 98:3; Joh 3:16; Ro 3:23-26).

(4) Equally is the truth of God an assurance to men of righteous judgment in condemnation of sin and sinners (1Sa 15:29; Ps 96:13; Ro 2:2,8). In general the truth of God stands for the consistency of His nature and guarantees His full response in all the relations of a universe of which He is the Maker, Preserver, and End.

2. Truth in Man:

As related to God in origin and obligation, man is bound morally to see and respond to all the demands of his relations to God and to the order in which he lives under God.



3. Truth in Religion:

The modern study of religion on an evolutionary hypothesis and the comparative study of religions have contributed to an extensive questioning whether there is any absolute truth in religion, or at least any standards by which truth in religion may be known. Isa 43 and 44 and Paul in Ac 17 and Ga 3 accord with modern findings that there is an element of truth in religions generally, and that God’s faithfulness pledges Him to bring the light of fuller truth to all men. This He does through the religion and the testimony of them to whom He has already come with this fuller light. This light is contained in the revealed word of the Old Testament prophets and of the New Testament witnesses to Jesus. In a definite way the Scriptures preserve these standards of religious truth. But always the attitude of the individual, as also of the group, determines the measure of apprehension of the truth and the certainty with which it is held. It is always important to keep in mind that truth in religion is not primarily an intellectualistic affair, to be cognized, but is essentially a voluntaristic experience and a duty to be done for the glory of God in the realization of the complete truth of God. Jesus Christ as the truth of God becomes the standard and test for truth in the religion of men. And this not in any objective and formal way of a series of propositions, to be accepted and contended for, but in the subjective way of experience, in a series of ideals to be realized and propagated. If anyone wishes to do God’s will, he shall be able to decide the truth of religious teaching, and the Son who is true will give the freedom of truth (Joh 7:17; 8:32).

Bibliography

  • R. Descartes, Meditations (1641), IV;
  • R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (1880), 26-30;
  • V. H. Stanton, “Truth,” HDB (1902), IV, 816-820; Anselm, Dialogue on Truth, in R. McKeon (ed.), Selections from Medieval Philosophers (1929), I, 164, 165;
  • L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1949), 66-70; F. C. Copleston, A History of Philosophy II (1950), 68-73, 164, 165;
  • T. Aquinas, Truth (1952 ed.), I, 3-51; Augustine, On Free Will, ii; Soliloquies; Concerning the Teacher; in J. H. S. Burleigh (ed.), Augustine: Earlier Writings (1953);
  • H. Dooyeweerd, New Critique of Theoretical Thought (1953), II, 571;
  • T. H. Roberts, “The Contribution of the Words אֱמֶת, H622, and ἀλήθεια, G237, to the Biblical Concept of Truth” (Unpublished thesis, 1956); E. J. Carnell, Christian Commitment (1957), 2-30;
  • M. Heidegger, Being and Time (1962), 256-273; Bultmann, Kittell and Quell (eds.), tr. G. W. Bromily, A Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1964), “Aletheia,” vol. I, 232-251.
  • Notes