Bob Dylan said, “times they are a changing” … but does ultimate truth ever change?
It’s not a stretch in any sense to say that our postmodern world no longer believes in absolute truth. Objective knowledge and absolute truth are long since gone. Fragmentation, multi-culturalism, and rejection of any overarching meaning are now culturally normal assumptions. Truth is “truth” for the moment. It becomes “truth” for this group of people or that group of people, for this occasion or that occasion.
The postmodern mindset sees every cultural community or social group generating its own “story,” its own explanation of the way things are in an attempt to empower itself. White Anglo-Saxon males, for example, supposedly have their own story and their own truth. African Americans have their story. Women have theirs. And so none of these collective stories are true in any absolute sense. None are an accurate representation of reality. That’s because for postmodernism, reality isn’t real, and truth is, at best, painfully relative.
The roots of modern relativism and irrationalism can be found in the rationalism of the Enlightenment and, beyond that, the rationalism of ancient Greece. Though the Greek philosophers were perhaps more self-consciously religious than those of the Enlightenment, both spoke of man’s autonomous reason as a self-sufficient and absolute judge of what is and what can be. Once “reason” pronounced judgment … the matter was settled.
Is Truth Limited To The Mind Of Man?
Appeals beyond that autonomous reason to actual evidence, eyewitness testimony, or even divine revelation seem almost nonsensical. History, human experience, and even the very being of God were only real because human rationality said it was. Truth was never bigger than the human mind. “Which human’s mind?” was always the awkward question relativistic philosophers avoided at all costs. And ultimately, the very same relativistic philosophers were notorious for rejecting each other’s metaphysical systems. Just makes sense, right?
The truth is, Rationalism as a system of thought … in all its forms was and is inherently irrational. The choice of human reason as an absolute foundation for all intelligent predication and judgment ends up being radically subjective, arbitrary, and naïve. Seriously, how does the thought processes of a single finite human mind bear any relationship to reality at large? Especially given the materialistic presuppositions of Rationalism. Why should anyone trust what happens in the neural pathways of a randomly generated, cosmically insignificant biochemical unit?
The Greeks, again more self-consciously religious than their Enlightenment successors could at least speak of man’s participation in divine Reason. They spoke of the eternal Logos that structures reality. But this was an act of religious faith. (and of irrational faith at that!)
However, the universe never spoke personally to the Greek philosophers. Their Logos never took on flesh and revealed itself … at least … not the Logos that they thought they knew. Greek rationalism rested on a ladder made of water in a bottomless sea.
The Enlightenment rationalists had even less of a foundation to build on—as Hume, Kant, and Hegel made clear. They gave a deistic “nod” to a divine Architect that quickly degenerated into pantheism. But not just that … their anti-emotional rationalism provoked an entire Romantic rebellion. Man can’t live by reason alone, and autonomous reason in man’s mind alone can’t even account for its own existence.
God Is Truth
The Bible approaches matters differently. The Bible tells us that God is truth. He is absolute, uncreated Reality. God is self-existent and self-contained. He is internally self-defined. And this God is the Creator of everything that is real. His decree and providence uphold, determine, structure, and move all of creation. All of creation bears His signature and testifies unmistakably to Him as its Maker (Ps. 19; Rom. 1). All His works are truth and done in truth (Dan. 4:37; Prov. 33:4).
Because God is self-consistent and changeless, truth is objective (Jas. 1:17; Prov. 8:5-9). But because man is finite and a creature, he can’t know every fact in the universe. Which means there’s an awful lot of truth that lies beyond man’s present knowledge and even our ability to understand or interpret (Ps. 139:6; Isa. 55:8-9). On the other hand, because man is made in the image of God, he can understand all the truth he needs to in order to serve God properly: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).
Man’s knowledge, then, is entirely dependent on God’s self-revelation. The general revelation of God in our own nature and in creation around us is a clear and sufficient testimony to the reality of our Creator (Rom. 1:18-22). But from the beginning, God has also spoken directly to man in human language, in propositions that contain the real truth about God, man, and all of creation. Initially, this supernatural revelation came in the context of general revelation. So when God spoke originally to Adam, the first man, Adam knew with absolute certainty exactly who God was and precisely what He required of him. He knew that God’s word was truth (John 17:17).
Truth Is Propositional
The propositional nature of truth is something Scripture insists upon from beginning to end. The Bible reveals God’s truth in words, words that include or imply assertions about God, man, and the universe. Jesus, for example, repeatedly insisted on the historical accuracy of the Books of Moses (e.g., Matt. 19:3-8; John 5:45-47). He spoke against “vain repetitions” in prayer and worship (Matt. 6:7). Paul insisted that the language spoken in church, in worship, be clear, edifying, and easy to understand (1 Cor. 14). And in the Book of Acts, we are told that he went into the Greek-speaking synagogues and reasoned with the worshippers “out of the Scriptures . . . Opening and alleging” that Jesus was the Messiah. Paul reasoned to conclusions about objective reality from the words of Scripture. He believed without a doubt that the propositions of Scripture communicated real truth.
Truth and History
We have already seen that God’s word comes to us in the context of His creation. That is to say, God reveals His truth to man in terms of the material universe and its history. This crucial interplay between God’s word and history, between special and general revelation are major themes repeated in Scripture.
For example, in Deuteronomy Moses reminds the children of Israel that they were present at Mr. Horeb (Sinai). And that they saw the darkness and the fire and heard the voice of God. They also received from the finger of God stone tables bearing the covenant law (Deut. 4:9-13). Later Moses reminds them that they witnessed the miracles that surrounded the Exodus and the wilderness journey. He reminds them that they saw God drown the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. They are reminded that they saw God open the earth to swallow Dathan and Abiram (Deut. 11:1-7).
Moses isn’t speaking of visions, dreams, or upper-story spiritual experiences here. He’s talking about events that actually happened in history. Events which left their imprint and image on human memory.
This same binding of truth to history continues in the New Testament. At the close of the Book of Luke, the disciples see the risen Christ. He speaks to them with normal words and ordinary grammar. They touch His body. He eats fish and honeycomb as they watch. He tells them bluntly that He’s no ghost, “for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39). Paul approaches Christ’s resurrection with the same attitude. It really happened in space and time. Paul even went on to say that if it didn’t take place … Christianity is a lie (1 Cor. 15). Paul leaves no room for a spiritual resurrection only or one that merely took place in the hearts of the disciples. For them, Christ is risen, risen indeed.
Truth as Law
Because God determines truth, His truth necessarily makes covenantal demands on all mankind. Man’s proper response to this truth is much more than intellectual assent. Scripture requires us to know, love, obey and rejoice in the truth (1 Pet. 1:22; Zech. 8:16-19; 1 Cor. 13:6). To reject or hate God’s truth then … is to reject and hate God.
Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. And that all those who hate Wisdom hate knowledge and love death (Prov. 1:7, 29; 8:36). Knowledge, then, is a religious act. It’s a matter of faith. Not blind faith, though. God has revealed Himself clearly, unmistakably, and sufficiently. Faith receives that revelation and unbelief rejects it. Faith is obedient … unbelief is culpable. But the rejection of God’s revelation makes knowledge a tricky thing. How can we rightly know the Creator’s world when we don’t admit that He even exists?
Rebellion against God’s revelation leaves the mind “reprobate” and void of judgment (Rom 1:28) according to the Bible. As a result, those who hate truth then, find it difficult to make what seem like the most obvious rational judgments. They mistake blocks of wood and stone for God. They mistake living, breathing babies in the womb for “tissue.” In Nazi Germany, they mistook Jews for devils. Ultimately, those that hate God mistaking any and all creature-Creator distinctions.
Obedience to the truth, on the other hand, means blessings from the Creator. Those who believe His truth understand reality for what it is. They know God, who is Himself life and joy. They think, learn, and make practical applications of God’s truth (stewardship) as a matter of course. And it’s their heavenly Father’s truth … that is by definition … a glorious inheritance indeed.
Conclusion: Truth as Covenant
To sum up, God’s self-revelation, His truth, is not only authoritative but clear. It is revealed propositionally in holy Scripture. God’s truth makes demands on us, and it brings us blessings. It is genuinely an inheritance to enjoy and to communicate with our children. Truth is covenantal. We receive it, obey it, develop its implications, enjoy its benefits, and defend it as our inheritance in the context of our covenantal relationships with God and one another.
Consequently, knowledge of God’s truth ultimately involves other human beings made in God’s image. This knowledge also brings us back to the first words of the Dominion Mandate and to the full scope of the Great Commission.
“What the Bible tells us is propositional, factual and true.”
Francis Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (1972)
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