On this site, we try to condense discussions for the benefit of the reader. However, some subjects, such as truth and law, require that certain basics be covered, and those basics in themselves are somewhat length.
Brief overview of the following discussion: Coherence; meaning of words (philology and etymology); Biblical meaning; Jesus as Truth; subjective and objective truth; the “whole truth”; a Biblical study of truth; human and Biblical truth; playing God; the truth of Genesis 1-11; failure to study the Bible; telling the truth and not lying; the relevance of faith to truth; epistemology and truth; starting with assumptions (presuppositions); pragmatic value of functional truth; logic and truth; an enemy of God and His justice has no right to the truth.
- Summary Principles
- A Lament and a Challenge
- John 3:16 Is Enough for Me!
- “What Is Truth?”
- Truth, truth, and the “Whole Truth”
- Adding Complexity for Clarity: An Actual Study of “Truth” in the Bible
- Man’s Truth and God’s Truth
- “Playing God,” “All truth is God’s truth,” and Genesis 1-11
- There Is More News and It Is Worse!
- God’s Word Needs to be God’s Word
- Is “Telling the Truth” and “Not Lying” the Same Thing?
- Back to the Bible
- Some Conclusions
- Definitions of Truth; Pragmatic Value
- Working Away from Little “t” Truth
- The Relevance of Faith
- What About Epistemology?
- Everyone Starts with Assumptions
- The Role of Logic
- Exceptions to “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness”
- Sola Scriptura Is Not Enough to Apply God’s Truth
- The Pragmatic Test of Truth
- Further Reading and References
1. Summary Principles
The following are summaries of the discussion that follows. These statements involve nuances that are more fully discussed in the text. Please do not try to understand or draw conclusions from these positions, as “stand alones.”
- The concept of truth (and many Biblical concepts) is not well understood today because of a lack of attention to definitions that is found generally among pastors, teachers, and laymen alike.
Philosophers throughout all history have sought for an objective standard for truth. Getting away from subjectivity in truth has always been the great dilemma. But, God has solved that problem for Christians: they have an objective source – the Protestant Bible!
- Every Bible verse, for example, John 3:16, is fully pregnant with meaning, if a more complete understanding of the words is known.
- Truth is a Person or Persons (Trinity) who knows everything in the universe and its relationship to everything else.
Again, one of the great issues of truth throughout history has been the relationship of the subjective with the objective. In Christianity, we have that beautifully joined. God is fully objective (totally impartial in His understanding) while being a Person (subjective).
- Truth is the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. Any claim that God has spoken truth to mankind in any other way or by additional content is heresy (Revelation 22:18-19).
- “Telling the truth” by an individual person is fraught with difficulties that include unintentional mistakes, limited knowledge, finite senses (eyesight, hearing, etc.), and intentional deceit. No one can tell the whole truth except God.
- The large emphasis of the Bible is on truth from God, spoken as “Thus saith the Lord” in historical context and written by the Old Testament prophets or otherwise recorded as God-breathed through the writers of Scripture.
- Man can know the truth of the Bible. It is truth, not analogy.
- All man’s best efforts at truth are relative because he is finite.
- “All truth is God’s truth,” as it is often used by psychologists, is heresy. “All truth” is indeed “God’s truth,” but any claim to truth must always survive the test of a thoroughgoing Biblical hermeneutic.
- In every way that the Bible has been tested honestly and fairly, for example, archeology and evolutionary science, the Bible has been shown to be true.
- Christians deny the Word of God and its power by their actions. While God promises that the Bible has everything for life and godliness in every area of knowledge, too many Christians virtually ignore its knowledge outside of personal salvation.
- “Telling the truth” and “not lying” are the same from the subjective center of one person. They are the same for God.
- Man’s “truth” is always relative in that man’s knowledge is limited to the factors listed in #5 (above).
- Man’s testimony, even in the “trivial” things of life, like giving directions to get to a certain destination, is important to prevent harm to the other person, as well as to preserve his own character and reputation. In matters of truth and Scripture, he must give even more diligence, since these matters involve issues of eternity.
- Man’s “truth,” including the theories and empiricism of science, has great pragmatic (functional) value, in spite of its extreme limitations as truth. However, a Biblical worldview is the most pragmatic system possible for mankind. The Pragmatic Test of Truth
- Virtually all Christians need to wrestle with the concept of truth, relative to the Bible and to a determination of truth outside the Bible. Certainly, the concept of truth should be discussed more in churches with practical application.
- There needs to be a distinction between man’s “truth” and God’s truth. The words to use are subject to debate, but efforts at this nomenclature is imperative to giving the Bible the authority that Christians and the world needs.
- A definition of truth is “what is” or “everything that is to be known about an object and its relationship to every other object in the universe.” “What is” exists regardless of what we think of any part or whole in the universe. Thus, only God can know truth. But, man can know God’s truth that He has revealed in His Word.
- Faith has several definitions, and therefore, is misunderstood by most Christians. What an individual will accept as true is determined by his faith, not by “facts” or “proof.”
- Epistemology or “how I know what I know” is just another name for trying to arrive at truth.
- A corollary of #19 is that what one will accept as true is pre-determined by what one is willing to accept as true. This is subjective or personal truth. The only objective truth is the Protestant Bible.
- “Logic is the study of methods by which the conclusion is proved beyond all doubt.” Logic, rightly applied, allows the extension of the truth of Scripture beyond its actual words.
Logic has nothing to say about the truth of the propositions that are reasoned from, only the process by which conclusions are reached. Conclusions reasoned logically from truth are truth, also. But, propositions of falsehood which follow logical reasoning are still falsehoods.
- An enemy of God and His justice has no right to the truth from those who represent God and oppose this enemy.
- The fullness of Biblical application and understanding requires methods that lie outside of “sola Scriptura.”
2. A Lament and a Challenge
In general, I am greatly disappointed in theologians, preachers, and virtually all Christians who speak and write about epistemology and truth. By most standards relative to such things, I am a layman. As a layman, I wish to have things simplified. As a scholar, I wish to have things coherent. That is, I wish that all parts are consistent with the whole.
Coherency requires systematization. Coherency requires knowing and using precise definitions.
Now, certainly, I find great thoughts from the many Christian thinkers that I have read. For example, R. C. Sproul in his book, Knowing Scripture, states as a rule of interpretation of Scripture, “Determine carefully the meaning of words… with multiple meanings” (p. 79, 82). Wow! I marvel at the influence that Christianity might have in the culture of ideas on this one principle alone. Christians eschew definitions! Virtually all Christians! From the renowned Bible teachers and preachers to the professionals (physicians, Ph.D.s, lawyers, etc.) and the (formally) uneducated in the pew. (For more, see Hermeneutics.
Amazing! Aggravating! Appalling! Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “In (Christ) are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Paul said, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” And, these verses can be multiplied considerably.
Amazing! Aggravating! Appalling! Christians means “Christ-ones.“ Christ, as the truth. Christ, as the sum total of knowledge. Christ, as the omniscient One that He is. Surely, as Christ is all these things, His people ought to be diligent students of words and language, not intellectual first-graders!
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14, NKJV).
Oh, we know the Bible. Seminaries and libraries have thousands of volumes written by theologians from all ages from Augustine of Hippo to John Calvin to J. I. Packer. There is some great teaching there. Teaching from which I have benefited greatly.
But, in every age and among almost all theologians, there is a lack of definitions, especially precise and coherent definitions.
Do you know that there are at least four different uses of the word faith in the New Testament? Do you know that there are at least six different uses of the “will of God” in the Bible? Do you know that there are at least a dozen different uses of the word “law” in the Bible? Do you know that there are at least a dozen synonyms of the word “law” in the Bible? Do you know a Biblical definition of love? Do you know a Biblical definition of peace? For our purposes here, do you know both a biblical and secular definition of truth?
Christianity is in the ghetto in the United States, intellectually. If we do not rise to the occasion, Christians may be in the ghetto literally. And, that occasion, in my opinion, is one that requires a precise understanding of both philosophical and Biblical knowledge.
3. John 3:16 Is Enough for Me!
“Ah, you say. Don’t bother me with complexity. I simply want John 3:16 for myself and to present it to the unsaved.”
May I ask you to pause a moment. How does one understand John 3:16? “For God…” Who is God? How many gods are worshipped on this planet? For the true God, there are hundreds of names and characteristics of God throughout the Bible. “… so loved…” What is love? What is Biblical love? Do you know that you cannot know the love of God in its fullness, if you do not know the Law of God (Romans 13:8, 10; Galatians 5:14).
“… the world…” This word separates Christians of all times into those who believe in “free will” and those who believe in “election and predestination.” “… that He gave…,“ a fairly simple verb. But, it does raise the question, “What is a gift?” Does something that is a “gift,” have a contribution by the recipient? Is a gift that I help purchase or assist in its giving, truly a gift. If my son, Ben, gives me $5.00 to help buy his bicycle that costs $50.00, does he see the bicycle as a gift or something to which he contributed? With this example, we are back to the debate between “free will” and “predestination,” for a person with truly free will contributes his $5.00 towards the purchase of his salvation.
“… His only Begotten Son…” Son denotes a Father. “Begotten” complicates the relationship. “Only” complicates it further. For several centuries after Christ, theologians debated the issues of the Trinity, resulting in the Apostle’s, Nicene, Athanasian, Chalcedon, and other creeds crafted with thousands of hours of research and debate.
“…whoever…” “… believes…” “… not perish…” “… everlasting life…” I could pose similar complexities for these words, as well. John 3:16, simple? I think not.
I hear the argument coming, “One does not have to know everything about John 3:16 to believe it and be saved!” Well, I agree wholeheartedly, but will say three things about your proposal. 1) In spite of this long introduction, the issue before us is truth. Truth is the most important issue (below) that individual man or mankind itself faces. If truth does not exist, nothing else matters. If truth does not exist, anyone can do whatever they want and never be criticized by anyone else. If truth does not exist, it does not matter whether “God is love” and John 3:16, because one cannot know that they are true.
2) If one does not have to know everything about John 3:16 to be saved, exactly what does one have to know to be saved? I would have you make a list from 1-5 or 1-10 or 1-100 or however long your list is, but I challenge you to make a list. As you do so, you will find that it is not so simple after all. What did the thief on the cross know? For surely, he was with Christ that day in heaven.
3) Why will one person to whom you present John 3:16 accept it and another reject it? Why will the humanist vigorously deny it and work to persecute Christians? Perhaps, there is no way to make John 3:16 realistically simple. Perhaps, one might understand the Trinity and the cataclysmic destruction that resulted from sin with a little more contemplation of the words of John 3:16 from their fuller development throughout Scripture.
(I will not deny that hundreds of thousands have been saved through this simple verse and through a simple gospel. But, I will deny that any Christian can worship God with any fullness and reality [that is, according to Christ‘s directive, to worship God “in spirit and in truth”] without beginning to grasp the immensity of the verse’s meaning. And, that no Christian can understand John 3:16 without understanding many of the other verses that give a fuller meaning to the verse. And, finally, how can a Christian ever be satisfied with a stagnant knowledge of God and His salvation?)
4. “What Is Truth?”
On the issue of truth, many Christians and many non-Christians like to start with the question posed by Pilate to Jesus, “What is truth?” So, I might as well begin there. Some dilettantes deny that Jesus ever answered this question because He did not answer Pilate when he posed the question. However, Jesus answered it on many other occasions. I have cited one above. Another is, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). “When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you (John 16:13-14). All true Christians believe that Jesus is the truth.
So, philosophically, how do we understand and apply Jesus or the Trinity as the truth? Just this, truth becomes a Person or Persons – the Trinity. They embody truth. They cannot lie. So, our first principle of truth is that truth is ultimately subjective — that it is determined by a Person or Persons.
(The Trinity also answers another ethical dilemma, the problem of the one, the few, and the many. Righteousness for one requires righteousness for all. Or, what is right for one person is right for all people. Or, what is right for the individual is right for the family is right for a group is right for a city is right for a nation is right for the world.! But, that issue is for another time and place.)
Truth, then, is what God knows of an object or person. Truth is “reality” or Reality. But, we are not God, so what can we know of His mind.
It is amazing to me that otherwise great teachers, usually Christians, in many ages have erred on this problem. The Pietists, like the Gnostics, have sought for a “deeper” life and deeper relationship with God. The Scholastics attempted to integrate Greek philosophy with Scripture. Quakers sought the “inner light.” Many Scots held to “natural common sense.” Thomas Jefferson and the modern Neo-orthodox tried to determine what is and is not God’s Word in the Bible.
The only truth that we know of God is the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. For that reason, it is called Revelation. God revealing His mind to us. If God is truth, His Word is truth. And the only Word from God that we have is the Bible. The Bible, then, is the only truth that we can know.
“Ah,” you challenge me, “I know from nature that God is infinitely creative to the extent that the best minds with the best technology that modern science can devise cannot comprehend, understand, or explain all its intricate details.” Yes, but that only adds to your Biblical understanding that determined who the Creator is. So, Scripture always controls and directs our understanding of nature. And, that would be so of any other knowledge of God in nature.
And, these 66 books of the Bible answer the greatest dilemma that searchers for truth encounter: objectivity. As we will see later, truth on a human level is quite conditional to human frailties and intent to tell the truth. But, God has given us an extensive message that is totally external to ourselves to study, and He has prevented any addition to it. So, we have in its pages all that He intends to give us and our source of truth.
5. Truth, truth, and the “Whole Truth”
“Raise your right hand and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Everyone in the United States (with maybe the exception of a few atheists) who has ever testified in a court of law has said these words. But, can our testimony be truth?
Yes and no. And, herein, is the crux if the problem of truth, philosophically and practically, especially for the Bible-believing Christian.
Can man’s truth be equated with God’s truth? Obviously, not. Not only is man subject to lying, he is subject to unintended inaccuracy, illusion, mistake, and insufficient investigation. Yet, we are called to truth. “Therefore, putting away lying, ‘Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,’ for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25).
There seems to be a dilemma here. If man’s truth cannot be equated with God’s truth, then how can God call on man to tell the truth? How can our courts require of us “to tell the truth…?”
A friend of mine once wrote to me on this issue, using Truth and truth (upper and lower case t’s), to designate man‘s truth and God’s truth. He also used the qualifier, “empirical truth.” Francis Schaeffer wrote about “truth” and “true truth.” Many Christians who are psychologists and some others say that “All truth is God’s truth.” (See below.)
Who do we get around or through this dilemma? Can the knowledge of man be called truth?
First, as we reviewed earlier, the same word can have different definitions and uses. There is the truth of God and the truth of man. God cannot lie and always tells the truth. Man may try with all his effort to “tell the truth,” but will always be subject to considerable error, depending upon the situation, the strength of his senses, his intelligence, his memory, and other factors. No two people will tell the same “truth,” as witnessed by thousands of court testimonies. If God were “in the dock,” His testimony would always be the same. The testimony of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would always be the same.
6. Adding Complexity for Clarity: An Actual Study of “Truth” in the Bible
I am going to go out on a limb, defensible, I think. But, I will also make a demand to the minds of all thinking Christians, especially those in the role of pastors, teacher, and leaders.
My limb is a discussion of truth and falsehood as it is recorded in the Bible. You will need a concordance. This exercise can be done easily at a website where you can search the Bible in many different versions. Find all the verses in the Bible that contain the word “truth.”
The first thing to notice, consistent (coherent) with the Ninth Commandment, is that the large majority of commands to individuals (apart from communicating Scripture to others) is “not to lie” (“bear false witness,” “deal falsely,” “lying to his neighbor,” “does not lie,” “falsehood,” “deceitful tongue,” etc.), rather than to tell the truth.
At Biblegateway.com, a search of “truth” in the New King James Version showed 228 verses where the word occurred. A rough count reveals that only 20 referred to the truth of man (for example, Genesis 42:16, Proverbs 12:17, and Mark 5:33). Another 26 could be interpreted as referring to the truth of God (including His Word as Scripture) or the word of man (for example, Psalm 15:2, Proverbs 12:17, John 1:14, and Ephesians 4:25). Our exercise, then, leaves 182 that refer to the Word of God, as God actually speaking or His Word recorded in Scripture, (for example, Psalm 25:5, Isaiah 65:16, Matthew 5:18, and Romans 15:8).
This study is not precise. Anyone who does it will likely come up with different numbers. Indeed, as I go back over the list another time, I can see where I might change my mind. But the precision of the study is not the issue. The issue is the overwhelming emphasis that truth, as God discusses it, belongs primarily to Himself.
I believe that God is illustrating man’s truth over against His truth in the Bible. Now, I will yield to all the criticisms thrown at me hermeneutically, because only one verse is necessary to establish it as God’s word to man. But, there is a philosophical issue that cannot be so easily avoided. That issue is that by no standard conceivable is man’s truth comparable to God’s truth.
7. Man’s Truth and God’s Truth
Let me answer one objection immediately. Man can know truth. Some have argued that man can only know truth analogically. But, I deny that statement. Man can know truth because he can understand what God says in the Bible. When Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me,” I know that as the truth. I do not know the fullness of that statement as God does, but I can learn a great deal from the whole of Scripture about what it means. I can learn enough to rest in my salvation and expect the growth of my sanctification and eventual glorification.
But, apart from the Bible man does not know truth the way that God knows truth. Apart from Scripture, I do not know anything as God knows it. There is the story of the blind men who were brought to feel the elephant. One felt his trunk and thought that the elephant might be like a giant snake. One felt his hide and thought that he might be a large, living building. Another felt his ears and thought that he might have wings like a bird.
There are many, many other characteristics of the elephant. The trunk would have two holes at the end, it would taper, it would have different textures on the top and bottom, the tusks would be encountered at the junction to the head, etc., etc. The same variety would exist for all parts of the elephant. Then, beyond the senses of the blind men, there are the cells of all the different organs of the elephant. There are the sub-cellular elements, even genetic components of the cells themselves. On the macroscopic side, there is the elephant in relation to his habitat, in zoos, and how he might even influence the universe. What is the truth of the elephant?
The truth of the elephant and any object in the universe is everything of which it consists and its relationship to everything else in the universe. Anything else is “partial truth.” Truth with a little “t.” “Empirical truth.” Not “true truth.”
A simpler definition is that truth is what is. When Moses asked God whom should he tell the Egyptians that sent him, God said, tell them, “I am.” God has no other referent other than himself. To tell all that He is can be told only by Himself. And, even if God were willing to tell all of Himself, man’s finite mind could not contain the infinite mind of God. Man would have to be God to know all that He knows. Omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence cannot exist independently of each other.
But, I digress. Can we call any knowledge within man, apart from the Bible, to be “truth?” We need the Bible’s proportion here. Overwhelmingly, truth exists in God and His Word. Overwhelmingly, that truth is important. Overwhelmingly, that truth must be known. Overwhelmingly, that truth must be applied into every area of knowledge. Overwhelmingly, that is the only infallible, at all times and in all ways, truth known to man.
8. “Playing God,” “All truth is God’s truth,” and Genesis 1-11
I do not like the term, “playing God.” It usually refers to man’s use of technology. For example, genetic engineering in humans might one day be used to produce certain desired characteristics. Used in this way, man is not “playing God,” because he cannot even conceive of what it would be to mimic God. This term misses the real issue, man violating God’s commandments by setting his own ethical standards. The “playing God” is not the power of technology, but the thinking that I know better than God.
When someone, usually a psychologist, says “All truth is God’s truth,” they are truly “playing God.” What these psychologists mean, and actually say, is that man’s theoretical and empirical knowledge are on the same level as the word of God. They use the word, “integration.” Integration means the merging of equal authorities. There is not authority equal to Scripture, as we have been reviewing.
(Other scientists use “all truth is God’s truth” besides psychologists, but in my experience they do so far more commonly than anyone else.)
Now, I move from preaching to meddling. I am going to step on a lot of toes. Preachers, theologians, and Christian leaders have subtly adopted “all truth is God’s truth” when they allow the “science” of evolution to govern their theology.
I contend that there is no other reason than evolution to posit “theistic evolution,” “the gap theory,” “a pre-Adamic race,” “intelligent design,“ and other notions. There is no other reason than to attempt to gain intellectual credence with the avante garde and intelligentsia.
The major point is the authority and truth of Scripture as the very Word of God. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.” The unity of Scripture stands or falls as a unit. If the testimony of Scripture is not true on Creation and the Flood, how can it be defended as true on everything else?
I do not accept the argument that we did not know all that the Institute of Creation Research and other such scientists had developed until recently. First, there are still large numbers of supposed Bible-believers who still hedge on the Biblical account of creation. Second, from my reading of history, there has always been substantial scientific evidence to counter evolution, since Darwin coined the idea.
One example is archeology. In the 19th century and later, historians tried to use sources outside the Bible to disprove its historical dating and description of events. Some pastors and theologians hedged with “The Bible is true in all that it says regarding salvation and morals.” Archeology has eventually, and virtually always, eventually cohered to the historicity of the Bible.
Another example is the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These documents demonstrated unequivocally that the Bible of today is the Bible that has always been. The minor differences in the prior texts of those found are inconsequential.
Praise God that He gives us such evidences! But, is not “Thus saith the Lord” sufficient? What is this continuing nonsense that “the Bible is true in all that it says regarding salvation and morals,” but not history, science, or other areas.
If Christians deny the Word of God, why should we expect non-Christians to think it more than the collective writings of men?
(See References at the end here for more discussion of “all truth is God’s truth.”)
9. There Is More… and It Is Worse!
Christians deny the Word of God and its power by their actions. In seminary, students receive a considerable education. From my perspective, with a few exceptions, it is quite adequate, if not thorough. Yet, it is rarely descends to the pew. And, with a global accusation that may not be entirely fair, I point the finger at these post-seminarians for not educating their congregants. I am not sure why this situation exists. Certainly, the new preacher in a pulpit cannot begin by spouting Greek, Hebrew, and systematic theology. But, why cannot an education of his listeners be built over time? Why cannot he impart virtually all that he knows and learns to his people—at least his officers and those willing to learn?
It is amazing to me that of all the organizations in the United States, possibly the only group that does not expect or require a definitive education is the Church. And, what is more amazing is that such an education is the most important of any other organization! At minimum, American children get twelve years of primary and secondary education. Maybe college. Maybe professional graduate school. By contrast, what do they get in church? Some Bible stories and some moralizing, and not much else.
There are at least three failures. 1) The fervent study of the Bible. In general, Christians learn is the jargon of their church or group. That will frequently be all that they learn. That is about all that they will hear in Sunday School or from the pulpit That is about all that they will read. That is about all of the Bible that they will study.
2) They will not read books that expand their biblical understanding, systematize Biblical knowledge, or expand their range of ethical application. The current movement of “worldview” is a hope that Christians are expanding their range of thinking. But, even here they must be careful that it is balanced and that is biblical.
3) There is an easy entrance into churches and an easy residence there. Little is expected in the way of getting a Biblical education. Again, why does God’s own institution have no educational expectation of its members? This situation is severely deficient in an educated society and in the face of needed social and government direction today. The situation is literally damnable in its allegiance to God and His work for His people.
10. God’s Word Needs to be God’s Word
We are not to worship the Bible, but we should be consistent with in our practice with what it is. Why cannot the majority of Christians know some basic elements of systematic theology? Why cannot they know and apply Biblical ethics to their own profession, and to a lesser extent the professions of others? Why cannot they know how the Bible gives principles for civil government, the basics upon which the pinnacle of God-ordained civilization for a nation was established for the United States of America? Why should not every child by the time they graduate from college have a Biblical and theological education that has addressed every area at an appropriate lesser level that a seminary does for the pastor and theologian? Why not?
11. Is “Telling the Truth” and “Not Lying” the Same Thing?
The Ninth Commandment is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Let’s do the easy thing first. Who is my neighbor? According to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, my neighbor is anyone with whom I come in contact who has need. According to the Great Commission, my neighbor is “all nations.” So, I am not to bear false witness against anyone on earth and to present the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ to all peoples.
I contend that the command “not to lie” is both the same and different than the command “to tell the truth.” The issue turns on a definition of the truth. I would define truth as “what is” or “everything that can be known about every object in the universe in relation to all other objects.” “What is” exists regardless of our belief or interpretation of it. We could call this objective truth. With this definition, no man or woman can know truth. Yet, because God knows truth, we can know truth because He said it, and we can understand it because we are made in His image. (See prior discussion above… man can know truth.) So, the only truth that we can know or speak is that which is His own words. “The Lord is great and greatly to be praised.” The only sure way to praise God is to praise Him with His own words or “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” (See Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Section 6 at Link below.)
Truth is Personal, as we have already seen (above). For men and women, then, truth is an individual’s best effort to tell as accurately and as detailed as the situation demands (“what is”). Notice the relativity here. It is limited to one person. His effort should be “best,” not casual. “Be accurate”, that is, tell in needed detail. The truth is dependent upon the situation. For example, giving directions to a person who is going somewhere in a car is not as significant as giving testimony in a court of law… but it might be…
I recall a person, either by directions given to them or devised on their own from reading a map, who ended on a dead end street in a gang infested neighborhood where he was shot and killed. Or, wrong directions could get someone going the wrong way on a one-way street and place their lives in danger or cause them to get a traffic ticket.
These situations bring me to ask, “Is there such a thing as casual testimony?” 1) Certainly not in the sense of the credibility of the person who gave it. If the person to whom information was given believes that they were deliberately deceived, then the giver-of-the-information has given evidence of his character. This conclusion will stick with the recipient of the information, even if his mistake was accidental or from incomplete information.
2) Most, if not all information given by one person to another, has serious consequences. We have looked at directions by automobile. What about simply answering a husband’s question, “Where is my book that I was reading.” Casually, his wife may say, “It is on the couch where you left it?” But, if she was wrong, and he spends 15 minutes looking for it in other places, bumps his head, or strains his back looking under it, their relationship is not enhanced by her causal remark. (There are many other possible results but examples should be kept simple!)
What if I give wrong instructions to my grandson about putting together a toy train? He may shock himself trying to put the electrical plug into the socket. He may pinch himself trying to put the track together. With enough mistakes, he may begin to think that granddaddy does not really now how to put a train together, and later, that he does not know anything at all that is worthwhile.
(Just in the writing of this section, I have come to appreciate greatly the consequences for both the giver and the receiver of requested information. It seems there is really no personal testimony or advice that is truly casual!)
12. Back to the Bible
But, back to our original question, whether “not lying” is the same as “telling the truth.“ There is a level at which we cannot we cannot equate our personal truth with the truth of God. The fact that we have to resort to “true truth” or truth with lower case “truth” instead of an upper case “Truth” gives evidence of this necessary distinction.
This issue may be the most important one for Bible-believing Christians today. That psychologists and others can claim “all truth is God’s truth,” and not be labeled as being heretical in the way that they mean it, indicates an environment in which the concept of truth is little understood. Worse, it indicates an environment in which the authoritative truth of the Bible is weakly understood and applied.
There should be greater efforts at every level of teaching, preaching, and writing to distinguish the truth that man can know on his own and the truth revealed by God in His Revelation.
The most remarkable characteristic of man’s limited ability to know and communicate truth is its great pragmatic value. Most conversations between two or more people are clearly understood. I am to write this article and communicate some of my thoughts to you. But, this pragmatic value should not cloud the difference between man’s communication and understanding of truth and God’s communication and understanding of truth.
Indeed, one of the traditional tests of truth is its pragmatic value. Thus, revelational truth is the most pragmatic knowledge available. The Bible is not often talked about in terms of its pragmatic value. But, surely, as God’s truth, it is the supreme example of pragmatism. To elevate an old proverb to its highest application, “Father knows best!” (See discussion of pragmatism and science below.)
So, I would contend that as far as truth is personal, “telling the truth” and “not lying” are the same. However, in the larger picture of objective truth that only God can know, these two directives are not the same. Our “truth” with the best intentions and the best skills that we can muster, falls woefully short of “what is.” “Best” efforts and honest intentions can harm and even cause people’s deaths.
“Not lying” is a command that I can clearly fulfill. I know when I cross the threshold of information that 1) is uncertain in my own mind or a 2) a deliberate fabrication of what I know.
In “telling the truth,” I am limited to my own knowledge and capacities. What I can tell is a limited truth. I am not able to tell “the whole truth.” One only has to hear two or more witnesses in a court of law or just in causal conversation, the description of “what happened” in a particular incident to see the error or anyone reporting “nothing but the truth.” When I have worked in emergency rooms, the information that I have heard first hand from accident victims is barely recognizable in the paper the next day. Surely, whatever is reported is “subjective truth,” but nothing about one’s testimony totally and completely true.
And, is not man’s limitation, by his fallibility and finitude, the underscore of the Biblical commands relative to one’s testimony. ‘By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15; Matthew 18:16). Throughout the Law of Moses, witnesses are required. And, if a witness is found to lie, he is subject to the same sanction as the one who was accused would have been, had he been found guilty (Deuteronomy 17:19). And, if one has needed testimony and does not give it, he incurs guilt (Leviticus 5:1). Further, in capital punishment cases, the witnesses are to initiate the death penalty (Deuteronomy 17:7). Our witnessing is important!
The emphasis of this discussion is the infinite chasm between the truth that God knows and the truth that he has revealed and man’s ability to know truth. My purpose is not to minimize the force of the command “not to bear false witness.” Indeed, it should strengthen one’s resolve for “honesty, and nothing but honesty,” in any testimony. I would hope that the reader would sense the importance of his testimony in everything in life. A careless or thoughtless testimony can be the ruin or oneself or that of another.
13. Some Conclusions
1) There needs to be more discussion of what is and is not truth at all levels of discourse among Christians; distinctions between truth as God sees it and how man sees it. The chasm that exists must be emphasized and explored. Such statements as “all truth is God’s truth” must be condemned where necessary (and in my estimation, that is most of the time that it is used).
2) By corollary, the Protestant Scriptures must be held as the highest, purest, and most authoritative form of truth known to man. For the most part, I do not believe that at a practical level this declaration is active among “Bible-believers.” Examples have already been given. We do not study it in our churches at this level. We have no real expectations that Christians learn the Bible at more than a superficial and conversant degree. We have allowed empirical and theoretical science to supersede the Bible as authority in a number of areas, particularly evolutionary science and psychology. We have failed even to understand, much less apply, the broad range of ethics and law that the Bible provides (as our American and Reformed fathers did).
Historically, when the word, “science,” came to be limited to the natural and “precise” sciences only, a major step was taken away from the Scriptures as its own rightful authority as the Very Word of God. Theology was once called “The Queen of the Sciences.” Few would understand that phrase today. So, that position of Scripture and theology must be regained and taught to all Christians. When properly understood, the “science” of today should have no more effect than BB guns on lions. No wonder the influence of Christians today is nil. They have no Word from God for the general culture and the legal system!
3) The Bible, sound theology, and the broad range of Biblical ethics must be taught in homes, churches, Christian schools, Bible colleges, and seminaries. Our college students should be able to defeat soundly any anti-Christian professor whom they encounter in a fair debate. (Granted, they are usually not fair. The professor assuming, and being given, an authority that is unmerited fairly or philosophically.) Such ethics are the essence of a Biblical worldview.
14. Definitions of Truth; Pragmatic Value
The question for Christians is, “Can we subject the Bible to the same tests of truth, as other forms of truth?” Well — no. One reason is that there is no agreed upon definition of truth. And, even those that are given are inadequate. For example, here is one definition.
“Truth is the faithful adherence of our judgments and ideas to the facts of experience or to the world as it is; but since we cannot always compare our judgments with the actual situations, we test them by their consistency with other judgments that we believe are valid and true, or we test them by their usefulness and practical consequences.” (Titus, Smith, and Nolan, Living Issues in Philosophy, D. Nostran Company, New York, p. 209, 1979.)
This definition is full of subjective factors. How does one determine “faithful adherence?” Is there a more loaded term than “judgment?” What is a “fact of experience?” How does one determine “consistency?” What about: “world as it is,” “we cannot always compare,” “actual situation,” “believe,” “valid,” “usefulness and practical consequences?” And, is not one rule of definitions that the world being defined is not used it the definition (“true“ is used here)?
Surely, few would differ with the simple definition of truth as “reality” or “what is.” The great problem is how to measure or understand “what is.” For example, the leaves on a tree are green? I look at a tree and we all agree that it is green. However, with rose-colored glasses, it is not green any longer. For the color-blind or blind person, it is not green at all. So, the truth of green leaves has many variables. It is relative to certain conditions of the observer, yet the human race has always functioned quite well with green leaves and all the other color of objects.
Perhaps, the most deceptive aspect of an understanding of truth is a confusion of the pragmatic with what is indeed truth. The place of modern science is the best and most important illustration. Modern science has developed the internet, sent men to the moon and back, placed communication satellites in orbit, invented the plastic straw, placed electricity and other utilities in virtually all homes in the civilized world, etc., etc. Yet, science by definition never determines truth because its results are always limited to the parameters of its design. ( See Science and Technology.)
For example, the speed of a falling object is determined by the formula, S=1/2gt2. Yet, if a person jumps out of an airplane, his body will not continually accelerate, but reach a terminal velocity at about 120 mph. Why does he not continually accelerate, as the formula suggest. Because the formula exists only under experimental conditions that include objects falling in a vacuum at sea level. The formula is quite useful (pragmatic), but its “truth” exists nowhere except in the laboratory.
This awareness should encourage great boldness among Christians. If no one can agree on how truth is determined, then at a minimum the Bible starts on a par with any other claims to truth. But, based upon our faith, the Bible becomes the greatest and only truth that we have. Instead of starting with man’s truth, we start with God’s truth and determine every other claim to truth by that standard.
15. Working Away from Little “t” Truth
Christians need to work towards a vocabulary that allows distinction from the truth of Scripture to other claims of truth. Words that I have come up with are: fact, functional knowledge, pragmatic value, and empirical or practical truth. Henry Stob has suggested “natural truths” vs. “supernatural truths.”
I readily admit that I do not know what would be the best term. But, there is a serious need for discussions and papers on what is and is not truth, and how the Bible fits into those discussions. The Bible is unique and supremely authoritative, and it must be given its rightful place in the area of truth. Theology should be re-established as the “queen of the sciences.”
16. The Relevance of Faith
Central to the issue of truth is the concept of faith. Now, most Christians do not seem to understand that “faith” has an application that is far broader than the way that we use it in our Christian jargon. “Faith,” in its generic sense, is involved in every decision from the moment that we “believe” that we are able to get out of bed, that our car will start, that we will be able to get to work safely, that we will have a job when we get there, that every appliance that we use will work, etc., etc. Faith is simply action based upon knowledge with an expected outcome. In the examples given, we act on prior knowledge towards an intended result.
But, that result is not guaranteed. Sometimes, with a back problem, we are not able to get out of bed; our cars don’t start when we need them; we have an accident on our way to work, or we are fired when we get to work; and an appliance does not work when its on button is pushed. Yet, on a daily basis we act on our faith that those things will not happen, as they have in the past.
Faith in the realm of truth and religion is functions in the exact same manner, as generic faith. We act on knowledge towards an expected outcome. Reality (truth) determines whether that outcome indeed occurs. Reality determines whether our faith is true! (See Definitions of Truth, above.)
Among Christians, faith has too much of a mysterious, ethereal quality, when it is in reality quite concrete. One of the confusions is two phases of faith. There is “justifying faith,” in which the Christian accepts that Jesus Christ died for his sins and expects all the hope and promises that that God gives with that status.
Subsequently, there is “sanctifying faith,” in which the Christian lives his life, implementing more and more of his understanding of what God would have him to do. Now, obviously both these terms are included in “saving faith.” Yet, the application of “saving faith” to conversion (initial confession and interest in the things of God), and its application to the life of faith (sanctification) are decidedly different. “Saving faith” alone is insufficient to be applied to both areas without better understanding than most Christians seem to have.
Those two kinds of faith are quite concrete and focus on specific knowledge in each segment which Christians are to act upon.
The confusion about what faith is, and is not, is another of the major reasons that Christians are so weak and irrelevant today. They think that somehow they have to conjure up some sort of energy to motivate them to learn and to do rightly. That is really magical thinking and has nothing to do with Christianity. Brothers and sisters, you simply act upon what you know to do. If you act, it is faith. If you don’t act, then you only have knowledge, not faith. In saying “simply,” I do not mean that it is easy. But, you already know what to do, so act on that knowledge and your faith will grow. (I have written a whole book on faith, which will eventually be placed online – Link.)
17. What About Epistemology?
Epistemology is also central to these discussions. Epistemology is simply, “how does one know what one knows.” And, that simple definition assumes that one can know. If one can know, then one has some element of truth.
Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” For a simple phrase, it has profound assumptions. The thinker assumes that his own mind is trustworthy. He assumes that his senses (seeing, hearing, touching, etc.) give him reliable information. He is assuming his existence. When you are dreaming, do you think that it is real? Then, you wake up! How can you prove that you will not wake up from this “dream” of life?
It is not until you embrace the Bible that you know that your assumptions are true, or at least trustworthy. Albert Camus once said that the only logical conclusion in contemplation of any purpose of life is suicide. He was reasoning correctly from his presuppositions. Only when God says in His Book that what a person reads is true and understandable have your assumptions been proven, and you have arrived at truth.
18. Everyone Starts with Assumptions
Everyone starts with assumptions. Synonyms for assumptions include axioms, first principles, presuppositions, and premises. There are many words for such beginning principles, and the student new to this area, should see how many of these he can learn from the dictionary. Else, he will be hopelessly lost in trying to understand how one arrives at knowledge that is trustworthy and/or true.
Modern science, as we generally understand those words, starts with the assumption that the supernatural does not exist. Therefore, creation by God, the Flood, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the Virgin Birth, and other Biblical miracles are simply not “true” because of that assumption. There is no need for “proof,” for proof itself is based upon assumptions. Therefore, it is fruitless to argue among people with different assumptions. Before they will accept your proof, you have to get them to accept your assumptions.
Again, the Christian should gain boldness when he realizes that everyone starts with assumptions. Then, from the beginning he is on equal footing with any other knowledge that differs from Biblical knowledge. When he includes all the empirical evidences for the Bible and for Christianity, then he is powerfully armed for his own faith in God and to take on all others who would challenge this knowledge.
19. The Role of Logic*
“Logic is the study of the methods by which the conclusion is proved beyond all doubt” (Gordon Clark, Logic, Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation: 1985), p. 1).
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I:6).
This definition of logic and the statement of the Westminster fathers demonstrate how the Scriptures can be infallibly applied beyond its own words. For example, the word, “Trinity,” nowhere appears in Scripture. Yet, there are numerous Biblical texts that “prove beyond all doubt” that God is a Trinity.
We are briefly surveying areas related to truth, so we cannot go into much detail about logic. But we can make some brief statements. 1) Logic starts with premises (assumptions, above). The process of logic has nothing to say about the truth of these premises. 2) If one’s premises are true, and one reasons logically, then one’s conclusions are always true, infallibly.
We are not discussing “rational thinking,” which is a loose term to describe any number of processes by which conclusions may be drawn. (“Reasonable” is a synonym.) Logic refers to a formal system, which in many parts and process, is agreed upon by both believer and unbeliever.
It is important for us to review logic here because Scripture has principles that by logic extend “all things necessary” to areas not named by Scripture. For example, the Bible nowhere mentions the word “abortion” in an ethical sense. Yet, if the Bible states that the taking of all human life with the exceptions of self-defense, capital punishment, and just war, is murder; that human life begins at conception; then, abortion is murder.
If the premise from Scripture is true, and the conclusion is reasoned logically, then the conclusion is true, and therefore as authoritative as Scripture.
*Note: Here, and everywhere on this site I am consciously using “logic” in the academic, formal sense. However, “logic” may be used in in this way (#1) and in three others in various communications. There “are four senses (definitions) in which the word logic is used: (1) at the theoretical and symbolic level is a comprehensive term that refers to sets of axiomatic relationships, ‘an analysis and evaluation of the ways of using evidence to derive correct (true) conclusions,’ (2) in common speech at a nontechnical level is a synonym for words such as ‘workable,’ ‘reasonable,’ and the like¾a logical plan may be a workable plan, an illogical step may be a rash step; (3) (in) a formal presentation of an argument: that is, people engage in ‘logical argument,’ whether or not there are fallacies in the steps (that) they take; and (4) in common speech may refer to a set of propositions or even an outlook which may or may not be ‘logical’ in the first sense.” (D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Baker Academic. 2nd edition, pp. 87-88—very slightly modified by Ed for readibility).
20. Exceptions to “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness”
I remember in the 1970s when the story of Corrie ten Boom became popular among Christians. On the one hand, there was great rejoicing from her testimony. On the other hand, her story caused great angst among Christians, including myself. The dilemma was this. “How does one not reveal that he is hiding Jews (on anyone else) when the Germans knock on your door and ask, ‘Are you hiding any Jews?’”
But, if we had been Biblically knowledgeable, this situation poses no dilemma at all. The Hebrew midwives lied to Pharoah’s inquirers about how their babies were able to be born alive (Exodus 1:19-20). Rahab was honored for her hiding of the Hebrew spies which necessitated lying to the King’s officials so that they could report back to Joshua (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). God directed Joshua to deceive the men of Ai, in order to defeat them (Joshua 8). God directed Samuel to lie to Saul (I Samuel 16:2).
The principle that is derived from these examples where God directs lying to His people is that the enemies of God and His justice have no right to the truth. Where life is threatened immorally and for unbiblical reasons, those who threatened have no right to the truth.
Now, one must be very careful how this exception is applied. For example, once an enemy is captured or his threat is otherwise completely and finally thwarted, he becomes “your neighbor,” and he has every right to the truth that is due to him.
One does not always have to reveal everything to one’s neighbor. That is, being truthful does not mean revealing everything that one is thinking or that one knows. If several dishes of a meal are just unpalatable, one can always compliment the hostess for the “delicious dessert” or whatever portion was good.
We cannot deal with all the nuances here, but again God’s wisdom in our fallen state is revealed in “thou shall not bear false witness against they neighbor,” instead of “thou must tell the truth and the whole truth to everyone.”
21. Sola Scriptura Is Not Enough to Apply God’s Truth
One of the five “sola’s” of the Protestant Reformation was “sola Scriptura.” I believe that in our day, that principle has been carried to an extreme that has actually reduced the authority of Scripture.
Now, before I explain, the reader should remember all that I have said above. The only truth that man can know is Biblical truth. That is sola Scriptura. The Bible is infallible, inerrant, authoritative as the very Word of God, and fully sufficient for everything that we need for salvation and righteousness. So, what to I mean, “Sola Scriptura is not enough?”
Just this, in studying and applying the Bible, Christians need to understand hermeneutics, logic vs. rational thinking, theories of truth, the empiricism of science, principles of epistemology, languages, and other areas of knowledge that bring out the breadth and depth of Scripture that will remain hidden without these areas.
Perhaps, the Reformers assumed these other applications to Scripture. Surely, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others knew these areas with considerable competence. And, many seminaries train men for the pastorate and other vocations with many of them. Yet, there is a failure somewhere. The Bible is just not being taught with the fullness that changes people, societies, and nations.
I believe that sola scriptura, that the Bible is sufficient within itself, is the major problem with Christian influence today. The Bible is more than adequate as instruction for any and all problems of mankind, but not without application of all the “extras” that allow for its fullest expression and application.
Sola Scriptura rightly limits truth to God’s Word only. But, sola Scriptura must be accompanied by methods and knowledge outside of itself for all of its wonderful message to be known and implemented for mankind.
22. The Pragmatic Test of Truth
Basically, the pragmatic test of truth is “what works.” That is, whatever theory or practice has the best outcome is true.
But, “best outcome” is loaded with ethical (moral) value. Who determines that an outcome is “good?” Is the easy-divorce of today’s permissible society and agreeing laws “good?” Or, is the Biblical design marriage “good?” Are easily and legally obtained abortions “good?” Or, is abortion some form of murder where the “good” is punishment by the state of those who practice it? Is imprisonment of criminals, regardless of the crime, a “good” thing? Or, should restitution, a clear Biblical principle, be applied in cases of theft?
A Biblical worldview is the most pragmatic system that can ever be devised. Moreover, it is the only system in which there is not conflict between the individual, the family, society, the church, the state (at all levels), the world, and God Himself, when rightly understood and applied! See Davis and Van Til below.
There is no question that modern science and technology have great usefulness. Yet, neither determines what will be developed nor what will be applied in what situations! See Science and Technology.
23. Further Reading and References
Word searches are easy at Bible Gateway.
John Frame on Biblicism has a discussion of similar issues that are addressed here.
Order Gordon Clark’s book, Logic. You can order all his books there and read some of his shorter works from the Trinity Review, as well.
“All truth is God’s truth.” A great little book is Jay Adams’ All Truth is God’s Truth. It may be found at TimelessTexts.com
In Psychology and Christianity: 4 Views (edited by Eric Johnson and Stanton L. Jones, published by InterVarsity Press), Gary Collins has the chapter on “integration” (the application of “all truth is God’s truth), but he never defines the principles to know what is and is not “truth” in psychology, and therefore, never defines the method by which integration can take place. When one deals with truth and God’s Word, all things in play must be carefully and seriously defined and delineated!
Arthur F. Holmes has a great little book entitled, All Truth Is God’s Truth (InterVarsity Press) in which he discusses what in involved in the issues of truth. My only reservation about this book is that Holmes seems to fall short of a traditional understanding of the Bible as infallible, inerrant, and divinely authoritative.
Davis, John Jefferson. Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today. (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1993, pages 5-9.
Stob, Henry. Theological Reflections, (Eerdmans, 1981), page 39.
Van Til, Cornelius. In Defense of the Faith: Christian Theistic Ethics. (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), page 58.