What is Truth?
By David Funk
I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6)
Truth telling is hard work for those of us who follow Jesus. It wouldn’t be so hard if it merely consisted of making a statement in accordance with known and verifiable facts or abstaining from making statements contrary to known and verifiable facts. Truth telling is hard work for us because it consists also of the tone of voice someone uses, the motive behind what is said, and the character of the person who makes the statement.
This idea is a major shift for me, and one that has been a long time brewing. I tend very much to equate Truth with a statement in accordance with the facts (i.e. propositional truth). Two factors have caused me to broaden my understanding of what truth is.
First, it seems increasingly apparent to me that to equate truth with objective fact is more a reflection of our modern Enlightenment worldview than it is a reflection of what Jesus, Paul or Peter would have thought of as “Truth.” For them, truth seems to have been something like a relational reality. In their Bible (the Old Testament), they often read about God’s emeth, which in English is sometimes translated as “faithfulness” and at other times as “truth.” This is important: we use two words to express what for the ancient Hebrews was one concept. “Truth” and “faithfulness” are two sides of the same coin, inseparable from and incomprehensible apart from each other. There is still a vestige of this ancient understanding of “truth/faithfulness” in English: our word “truth” comes from the Old English word “troth,” as in “I am betrothed (promised, covenanted) to my fiancé.”
In their book entitled, Colossians Remixed, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat say it this way: “To say that God is true therefore means “that he keeps truth or faith with his people and requires them to keep truth or faith with him” (p. 45). Truth, then, is a decidedly personal, social and relational concept in the Scripture. To know the truth, and to be known in the truth, is fundamentally a matter of covenantal faithfulness, manifest in the concreteness of daily life within a particular community at a particular time.” It makes sense for the writers of the New Testament, steeped as they were in the Old, to recognize Jesus as “the Truth.” Jesus is the Truth because He is the perfect expression of God’s faithfulness to His people.
The second factor that has caused me to broaden my understanding of Truth is the hurt and hate that goes on in the name of defining true beliefs for Christians. Churches split, and brothers and sisters in Christ grind each other under their heels simply because one set of people understands the Scripture differently than the other, and each is convinced that it has the truth. Group A is convinced that Group B’s different understanding of the Scripture is evidence of obstinacy and/or sinfulness, and this is then used as an excuse for a break in relationship. Anger, contempt, malice, and sometimes outright hatred are the results. The history of the Church is too full of this, and I can’t help but think that this often grieves the Holy Spirit, and deeply.
A good friend of mine here in Calgary is a pastor named Mike. We get together every other week to check on each other and to build each other up. A while ago we spoke about truth telling, and afterwards he reflected on this conversation in his blog (http://theo-blogy.blogspot.com/). This is what he had to say:
“Christian truth without Christian love is not truth at all, but falsehood… Our understanding of truth as pure proposition operates in too much of an ex opere operato manner, that is, apart from the person who is actually telling the truth… We preach that Jesus is the way and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him, totally leaving out the fact that Jesus also claimed to be the truth. Not just to have the Truth, but to be the Truth. Truth incarnate. Truth as person. And we know that Jesus is God (at least we trinitarians know that) and we know that God is love. Now I'm not equating the two concepts (truth and love), but I believe that neither can separate them as we tend to do. Our truth-telling depends upon our person as much, if not more, than upon the propositional factuality of the speech in question.”
Of course there is such a thing as real error in doctrine and practice and in that case steps have to be taken to re-establish what is in accordance with Scripture. Even so, too often truth is divorced from its rightful relational context and relational violence is done in the name of the Truth, whose name is Jesus. At the end of a detailed study of the book of 1 John, Eugene Peterson concludes in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (p.10), that “What is required, if we are to take pastor John’s letter as guide to the cultivation of our identity as children of God, is to refuse ever to sacrifice our commitments as a community to Jesus’ love command in favor of a simpler and more readily achieved identity based on a common creed or a common cause.”
Lord, keep me from harming your bride with my lack of love.