The truth search: A Christian response

Postmodernism has announced the demise of objective truth. While modernism was founded on the premise that truth is achievable and verifiable, postmodernism maintains that truth is either a subjective social construction or that there is simply no such thing as attainable truth.1 Jean-François Lyotard proposed, for example, that truth is but an expression of the perspective of a given community.2 What individuals envision and accept as truth is thus dependent on the group in which they participate. This relativity extends beyond one’s perceptions of truth to its essence – a stance in which “there is no absolute truth.”3

Michel Foucault, a sociologist whose contributions figure prominently in the postmodern shift, posits that the concept of truth itself is dangerous.4 He asserts that “truths” are merely the agendas of special-interest groups with economic clout or political power, who use these ideas – packaged as advertising, propaganda, or mass media – to bully others into believing whatever the privileged find convenient. Finally, other postmodernists, such as Richard Rorty,5 argue that we should give up the search for truth altogether and be content with interpretation.

Consequently, for many postmodernists, truth has become elusive, a personal commodity at best. They prefer to think of “many truths,” a “diversity of truths,” or simply “truth for me.” Furthermore, postmodernism seems to be hostile to any perspective that clings to the existence of objective truth or rests on the idea of universal truth.

By contrast, the Christian worldview holds that God is trustworthy (1 Corinthians 1:9), and that His revelation of truth is objective and reliable (John 17:17; 2 Peter 1:19). God-centered truth is thus universal in scope – stable across time, place, and person (Matthew 5:18; Hebrews 13:8).*

At a time when postmodernism was but beginning to evolve, Harry Blamires warned that “one of the crucial tasks in reconstituting the Christian mind will be to re-establish the status of objective truth as distinct from personal opinion.”6 In this article, we will analyze the inadequacy of representative secular criteria for truth and seek to identify a Christian response to the truth search. We will also explore a number of implications of the Christian perspective, such as the unity and universality of truth. Finally, we highlight several issues that are closely linked to the search for truth.

Tell me the truth! – The limits of secular criteria

“What is truth?” (John 18:38). Pilate’s query has echoed through the corridors of time. It has become increasingly relevant in a world of growing confusion – a world steeped in strife and stereotypes, a planet concerned with relevance and rubbish.

From seamy alleys of the metropolis to cloistered towers of learning, one encounters a number of frequently-offered truth criteria:

1. Tradition. “It’s been that way for a very long time.…” We realize, of course, that a tradition must have a beginning. How did that first person know what was true? Ancient error does not become present truth through mere repetition.

2. Popularity. “Well, everyone agrees.…” Is the majority always right? There was a time when “everyone” believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. Another time, all but eight people believed that it could never rain. If we depend on opinion polls to assure us of truth, we run the risk of surrendering to the whims of the largest crowd, or of the group making the loudest noise.

3. Instinct. “Can’t you see? It’s obvious.…” Thomas Jefferson once declared that “all men are created equal” and called it a self-evident truth. It was not all that evident, however, to King George back in England or to slave holders among Jefferson’s own friends. There is an even more fundamental problem, however, with the “follow-your-heart” approach: The heart can be deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). If humans are inherently error-prone, can their instincts constitute an infallible guide to truth?

4. Emotion. “I feel so very strongly that this is truth!” What happens, however, when two people feel strongly about the same thing, but hold opposite opinions? With each side taking a stance that explicitly excludes the other, it would seem that both cannot be entirely correct. It is also altogether too easy for emotion to degenerate into mere wish fulfillment: “This simply must be true because I like it.”

5. Pragmatism. “But it works….” Something may indeed work right, but is it necessarily right just because it works? Should we, for example, use deception in advertising in order to market a product? Does the fact that our marketing scheme worked make our misleading statements true? If one were to accept this criterion, truth could become merely a function of expediency.

6. Empirical Evidence. “It’s supported by research and it’s scientifically sound.…” Do we truly perceive what is out there, or could it be that we see “in a mirror, dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12)? Could appearances, at times, be deceiving (1 Samuel 16:7)? We might also ask if all of the evidence is ever in. Might we know only “in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9), and could this partial knowledge lead us to faulty conclusions?

7. Coherence. “Everything is so consistent. It just comes together so beautifully.…” What if we were to start out with a false premise? Would our beautiful harmony make us dead wrong? Furthermore, is it possible to “force the evidence”? By persistent blows, could we eventually force a square peg through a round hole? Consistency does not, of itself, establish the truth of a statement. It simply allows that the belief may be internally possible.

8. Logic. “However, it sounds reasonable.…” Could logic become a systematic way of going wrong with confidence? In a syllogism, for example, the truthfulness of the conclusion depends upon the truth of its premises. The problem is that these axioms are often quite difficult to test. We assume that they are true, but we cannot use logic to demonstrate that they are so.7 The outcome? If our assumptions are in doubt, we cannot be certain about our conclusions. There is, of course, yet another side to the matter of logic. Just because one does not understand something does not preclude it from being true.8

9. Relevance. “It’s all so meaningful.…” If one takes this position, truth becomes quite relative. The pertinence of today may easily become the irrelevance of tomorrow. Furthermore, might error appear to be relevant? Let’s suppose that a close relative suddenly became ill and passed away before you could see her once more. Someone who was present, however, tells you that in her last moments, your relative mentioned you by name. Would that be meaningful? What if it is a complete fabrication, with the misguided intent to console you?

10. Authority. “He surely ought to know!” Who is going to be the authority? How does that individual know, after all? Obviously, not from authority, because he or she is the authority! As we have seen, however, each of the other criteria has a fatal flaw. Can any person then be considered infallible?

At this point, we may feel like Thomas: we don’t know anything for certain! (cf. John 14:5). It is important, however, to keep things in perspective. Before anyone abruptly discards these 10 measures, we should note that each is of value and can contribute toward a better understanding of truth. (How many of us, for example, have actually checked to see if the Earth is a sphere?) The point, nonetheless, is that not one of these criteria, in and of itself, can guarantee truth.

There is an even greater problem, however. All too frequently, we, as Christians, have accepted as truth criteria “a frame of reference constructed by the secular mind and a set of criteria reflecting secular evaluations.”9 Clearly, a Christian response to the truth search is urgently needed.

The Christian response

As is often the case with God, Christ answered the truth question before it was asked. He declared, “I am the…truth” (John 14:6). On another occasion, Christ prayed to His Father, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Furthermore, Scripture affirms that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), and that “all His works are done in truth” (Psalm 33:4 NIV).

Here, then, is found the Christian response to Pilate’s question. The Word – whether written, illustrated, or incarnate – is Truth.

God, in essence, desires to continually reveal truth to humanity. Knowing would be unattainable, were it not for the self-initiated, self-revealing nature of God (1 Corinthians 2:12). Divine revelation is then the channel through which God communicates facts and principles to human beings. This revelation of truth is foundational and includes:

These “words” of God provide an ascending order of revelation (2 Peter 1:19), in which later revelations do not displace the earlier avenues, but rather complement each manifestation with richer meaning. In the Christian worldview, for example, we recognize that the intrusion of sin has distorted our understanding of God’s truth revealed in His creation – both in nature and in human society. Consequently, the Scriptures clarify in detail the truth about the untruth.10

Ultimately, however, truth is a Person. Christ is the fullest revelation of truth – “the express image” of the divine (Hebrews 1:3; also 2 Corinthians 4:6). This revelation through Christ, anchored in Scripture (Luke 24:27; John 5:39) and expanded through a personal relationship with God (John 17:3), responds to the human condition in a way that surpasses any other presentation of truth.

Consequently, for the Christian, truth exists as a God-initiated revelation. It is authoritative, provided by One who has not only examined all the evidence, but also formed the evidence (John 1:3; Colossians 1:15-16). For this reason, the multitude, who had gathered to listen, observed that Jesus taught “as one having authority” (Matthew 7:29) – the inherent authority of the Word, as contrasted with the limited truth criteria of the world.

Implications of the Christian perspective

What does the Christian response to the truth search mean to the believer? What are the ramifications of this paradigm? There seem to be a number of implications:

1. For the Christian, truth is anchored in the supernatural. Truth begins with God (James 1:17), not with human beings. The Creator is ultimately the Source of all truth (John 1:17). Consequently, truth does not originate within nature, nor is it initiated by human beings. Men and women only discover truth.

2. Truth is eternal because it resides in God. Psalm 117:2 states that God’s truth “endures forever” (see also Psalm 100:5). What does this mean? Because truth is eternal, it existed before the human mind, and hence the mind can neither create nor destroy truth. We can only choose to accept it or to reject it, to abide in the truth or to abandon truth and reside in error.11 As Christians, we must remember that nothing can be done “against the truth, but for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8). Human beings simply cannot obliterate truth. The world had its best chance at Calvary, and failed notably. Our role, then, as Christians is invitational, rather than confrontational. We do not so much need to “defend truth” from annihilation, as to extend the invitation to accept God’s eternal truth.

3. Because God is the ultimate origin of truth and God does not change (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17), truth is unchanging. God’s truth is absolute and universal in scope – it is true for all time, place, and person (Psalm 100:5; Isaiah 43:9). With the pervasiveness of relativism in contemporary culture, many individuals have come to believe that truth itself is relative – a matter of mere opinion, of social convention. While circumstances do change and there is brokenness and fragmentation evident in many aspects of life, the Christian worldview is able to provide a framework that offers stability and security. As Christians, we can help postmoderns discover foundations for their lives, enduring ideals that can provide a basis for living. We can help them to understand that the solidity of truth contributes to a personal sense of identity, direction, and belonging.

4. All truth possesses unity because it comes from the same Source. Since God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), truth is one, for God is truth (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 31:5). Truth, therefore, will always be in harmony with itself wherever and whenever it is found. Anything that contradicts truth is error or reveals a problem with finite human understanding. There seem to be several inferences: (a) to know God is the key to seeing life as a meaningful whole; (b) while there is always the danger of starting with a false premise or of forcing the evidence, the greater the scope of evidence and the better its fit, the more adequate its justification as truth; (c) as Christians, we must avoid creating false dichotomies within God’s truth. These could include the severance of mercy and justice, the separation of piety and action, the disconnect of theory and practice, or the partition of faith and learning.

5. Truth is infinite because God is infinite. Our circle of knowledge is surrounded by the vast universe of our ignorance. The endless extent of God’s truth lies as yet virtually undiscovered. Just as the perimeter of a circle (our contact with the unknown) increases as the area of that circle enlarges, so the more we learn of God’s truth, the more we realize how much there is yet to know – and the more humble we will be. It’s when the circle is small, and our contact with the unknown is reduced, that we are tempted to think that we “know everything.” How presumptuous then it would be for us to declare, at any time, that we have now arrived, that we now possess all the truth. Christians, then, do not have “all the truth,” but ultimately all that they possess will be truth (1 Corinthians 13:12).

6. The Christian understanding of truth must be progressive. It is not enough to stand in the truth—we must walk in the path of truth (Psalm 25:5; 26:3; 43:3; 86:11; 3 John 4). This concept of “walking” implies new horizons. It is a call to learning and to growth. To change the metaphor, the term “rooted and grounded” (Ephesians 3:17) denotes that a plant is vibrant, receiving continual nourishment, growing in the truth (Ephesians 4:15; 2 Peter 3:18). While truth does not change, our relationship to truth must develop. We must recognize that our understandings of truth are but “works in progress” – that new dimensions of truth should progressively open before us.

7. Because God is the Source of all truth, all truth is ultimately God’s truth. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17; see also John 1:17). This implies that we must see every topic and every dimension of our lives as an extension of God’s truth. It also suggests that we must beware of exclusivity in the claim of truth. While Christians have truth, they do not, in the Christian worldview, have a monopoly on truth. Rather, because God makes His sun shine on the evil and on the good (Matthew 5:45) and would have all come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), non-believers also discover truth. What then is the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian? The non-Christian stumbles across tenets of truth in his or her journey through life, while the Christian recognizes the Source of that truth.

Considerations in the search for truth

The Christian perspective clarifies a number of issues particularly relevant to our search for truth. These include the role of research, the dilemma of paradoxes, and the matter of authenticity.

1. Engaging in research. Research is a focused and systematic search for truth. In our world, truth has become like a lost coin in the grass. Although covered with weeds, it is still a coin, and still of value. Our duty is to be the metal detectors of the world, to find coins of truth and lift them out from the rubbish of Satan’s lies.

Research is, in fact, a divine directive (Proverbs 2:4-5; Ecclesiastes 1:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 2 Timothy 2:15).12 It is true that we see but dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12), but just because the glass may be imperfect doesn’t mean that we should not seek to discover all the truth that it is possible for us to learn. Scripture, in fact, abounds with individuals of faith who exercised the spirit of inquiry (e.g., Job 29:16; Psalm 77:6; Acts 17:11; 1 Peter 1:10). For all, the intent is to identify truth – to “hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Truth loses nothing by investigation. Rather, both reason and faith are strengthened by the scrutiny of research and refined in the crucible of analysis. At the same time, however, we must acknowledge that inquiry has its limitations (Job 11:7), and that even a careful application of the scientific method is not a guarantee of truth (Psalm 64:6). Consequently, although we endeavor to safeguard the truth-value of our conclusions, we recognize that we cannot arrive at certainty based on empirical data. We can never state, “Research has proved….” Rather, we must speak in terms of evidence – indications that bear “witness to the truth” (John 18:37; 3 John 1:12).

2. Dealing with paradoxes. At times truths can seem to be contradictory. Whereas Greek-based logic saw the opposite of a truth to be false, Judaic thought is able to view truth as the tension between contrasting ideas.13 There seems to be biblical precedent for this tolerance of opposites. Paradoxes in Scripture include Christ’s humanity and divinity (Colossians 2:9; 1 Timothy 2:5), the relationship of faith and works (Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 2:12), as well as God’s mercy and justice, human free will and God’s sovereignty, and God’s love and human suffering, among others.

While we cannot overlook apparent contradictions, we must recognize that our perception is often limited by perspective. To illustrate, we might use the analogy of a mountain range.14 Although each view of the mountains may be entirely correct, each is still only partially true in reference to the whole. The fact that one perspective differs from another does not necessarily mean that either is false, only that each is incomplete. Only God is in a position to know truth in its entirety. This awareness calls for humility.

3. The need for authenticity. While the Christian worldview maintains that universal truth does indeed exist, it also recognizes the human constraint of partial knowledge and the potential for flawed interpretation. Consequently, no one can claim infallibility or a full understanding of any topic – not even a Christian.15

Accordingly, we, as Christians, must particularly model authenticity and humility. This includes recognizing the limits of our knowledge, being honest about our weaknesses, and expressing the tentativeness of our conclusions. It implies evidencing openness to correction and demonstrating a passion for continued growth. It suggests that as believers we must come together to build a dynamic, Word-based learning community as a key ingredient of the search for truth.

Conclusion

In sum, truth begins with God, and not with humans. It is revealed, and not constructed. It is discovered, and not determined by a majority vote. It is authoritative, and not merely a matter of personal preference. It is feelings that must conform to truth, rather than truth to feelings. Ideas are not true solely because they are practical; rather, they will ultimately be of value because they are true. In the final analysis, the arbiter of truth is the steadfast Word of the infinite/personal God.

As Christians, we must interact directly with the repositories of truth, revealed through Scripture, through the creation in all of its dimensions, and in the person of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, we must communicate confidence in the trustworthiness of the divine revelation of truth – a “more sure word… which [we] do well to heed” (2 Peter 1:19).

Finally, we must truly understand the relationship of truth and freedom. We do not so much need freedom in order to discover truth, as we must reside in truth in order to experience freedom. Truth, in fact, offers the only freedom.16 “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

John Wesley Taylor V, Ph.D., is professor of educational philosophy at Southern Adventist University, Tennessee, U.S.A. E-mail: jwtv@southern.edu

*All biblical passages quoted are from the New King James Version.

Notes and references

  1. M. J. Erickson, Truth or Consequences: The Promise and Perils of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2001).
  2. J. F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by G. Bennington & B. Mas-sumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).
  3. S. J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 8.
  4. M. Foucault, Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Translated by R. Howard (London: Routledge, 2001).
  5. R. Rorty, “Postmodernist bourgeois liberalism” in R. Hollinger (ed.), Hermeneutics and Praxis (South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).
  6. H. Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1963), p. 40.
  7. Imagine that the only black animals you have ever seen are dogs. You might assume that all black animals are dogs (major premise). One day you spot a black animal – “Here’s a black animal” (minor premise). Logical conclusion? “This is a dog.” Actually, it’s a bear!
  8. A corollary to this principle recognizes that there are statements that seem to inherently defy human logic: (a)?“Can God do anything? Could He make a rock that He couldn’t pick up?” (b) “All generalizations are false.” If it is true, then it is false; and how can something be true and false at the same time? (c) “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). (d) “Having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:10). (e) “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).
  9. Blamires, p. 4.
  10. “There are wonderful truths in nature. The earth, the sea, and the sky are full of truth…. But fallen man will not understand. Sin has obscured his vision, and he cannot of himself interpret nature without placing it above God. Correct lessons cannot impress the minds of those who reject the word of God” – E. G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, Publ. Assn., 1941), p. 107.
  11. This distinction is vital, for John 8:44 indicates that Lucifer did not abide in the truth, and therefore there is now “no truth in him.”
  12. “Instead of confining their study to that which men have said or written, let students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation.” – E. G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1903), p. 17.
  13. J. Paulien, “The postmodern acts of God.” Presidential Address to the Adventist Society for Religious Study, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.secularpostmodern.org/res_art9.php4 on November 25, 2007.
  14. R. A. Clark & S. D. Gaede, “Knowing together: Reflections on a holistic sociology of knowledge” in H. Heie & D. L. Wolfe (eds.) The Reality of Christian Learning (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
  15. Even when we speak of the infallible truth of Scripture, we cannot claim infallibility for any of our own understandings or interpretations of Scripture.
  16. As Rex Edwards (“Truth: The neglected virtue,” Adventist Review, October 11, 2007, pp.14-16) points out: Only when we know the truth about an airplane are we free to pilot it. Only when we know the truth of the science of medicine are we free to practice it. Only the person who knows the truth of engineering is free to build a bridge that will stand.