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What is Truth?
& How do we Know It?
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version See also, What is Truth?
11/09/11 Trinity 12
Deut. 11:8-21; Ps. 139; 2 Cor. 3:4-9; Mk. 7:31-7
I have been reading Francis Schaeffer’s book, The Great Evangelical Disaster (ca. 1984), the disaster being... our Christian failure in truth-speaking going back 200 years.
In preparation for our ministry at with Chapman University, I want to raise again an issue concerning which I have spoken often. As Pontius Pilate put it, “What is truth?” That question will be in the wings at Chapman U. It is a question behind everything which Schaeffer writes. There is a truth, it is the Biblical worldview and Gospel of Jesus Christ, and we Christians need to learn how to stand up for it in public, and most of all, beginning right in our own families, churches, and denominations.
We have badly failed in that, says Schaeffer, because Christian leaders have so badly compromised their own stance to conform to the pragmatic and relative truth theories of our time. They have, in most cases, lost their intellectual, moral, and spiritual integrity to stand up and proclaim the Gospel in public. Even in their own churches. Christian pastors are scared to death to raise issues which might create strife in their congregations by holding their people to honest Biblical belief and practice.
Schaeffer does a terrific job of spelling out the disaster to which the book title points, but, he might have added catholic and charismatic also to his list of corrupted churches.
The students at Chapman are right at that age when young people are testing themselves, testing their ideas, testing their parents’ ideas, testing their teachers’ ideas – engaged, one hopes, in a quest for the truth of the matter. What is life about? What are the great issues of life? Are there any secure answers to those issues?
It was right at that age, my junior year at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, when I stopped along the walkway, and told the Lord that I wanted to be a Christian, but that He would have to make sense. I was convinced the Christian faith was true, and was intending to attend seminary and be ordained in the Episcopal Church, but the inroads of secularism hung heavy in the atmosphere at Trinity College – even in the mid 1950’s. So I needed answers to the secular domination at Trinity College.
God nail me with a bolt of lightning for my brashness. He gave me a firm "two thumbs up", responding almost immediately with the arrival on campus of the only person I have ever met who could have done for me what he did in convincing me that indeed, the Biblical worldview was the only viable and reasonable worldview there was. In the intervening years, I have steadily searched, and have found no reason to change my opinion.
The Biblical worldview is part of the truth which we must communicate as best we can to students at Chapman U.
Christians routinely understand and say that the Bible is the word of truth, that Jesus is the Word of God Himself, the ultimate and personal truth. So the Ultimate and Personal Truth was standing squarely before Pilate as he asked the question. But, as all through history since the Fall, truth must survive and live in a culture which is interested far more in pride, power, and pleasure than in truth – as with Pilate. If you are a truth-seeker and truth-speaker, you will have a decidedly hard row to hoe. You will be constantly confronting vested interests which will defy your witness.
We read of that problem in Deuteronomy this morning.
You shall therefore keep all the commandment which I command you this day, that you may be strong..., and that you may live long in the land which you are going over to possess.... Take heed lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, and the anger of the Lord be kindled against you...
Just as with Israel itself, America, the most intentionally Biblically founded nation on earth other than Israel, was immediately beset by negative forces to undermine its grip on truth and to substitute power-seeking in government. Then, over the 1800’s, Christians lost their ability to defend their faith, so that secularism and now paganism predominate in the public arena. They are not-so-quietly or stealthily intruding themselves into private and sacred realms as well.
The search for truth is becoming a forbidden activity – as with “hate-crime” laws. Think about that.
We Christians, says Schaeffer, have been so captivated by the quest for “feel-good” and relative truth that the search for truth is now labeled mean-spirited, and increasingly receiving the hard back-hand of the law. When truth becomes relative, it will soon become forbidden. Truth-seeking is too dangerous for tyrants. Why so? A freemarket of ideas is scary if your position is based on your control of power. Truth-lovers will reduce that concentration of power.
Let’s go back in history.
Truth-seeking got a serious boost with the Greek philosophers. They really did make dramatic and sustained efforts to discover answers to some of life’s deepest questions: What is truth? What is the meaning of the good? What is justice? But the Greek philosophers never substantially answered those questions, and never got very close to what we today call science. They developed some of the primary intellectual tools for logical truth-seeking, but they did not have the right worldview in which factual and empirical truth-seeking could flourish, i.e., the Biblical worldview.
Pagans typically considered the world of time and space, not as fallen-but-saveable, but rather as inherently defective – disorderly, and not the place of permanence or security. Permanence and security were to be found in the intellectual level, in the mind, which meant that basic reality was abstract, not personal. It was only with the coming of the Biblical worldview with a personal God, a saveable world, and the Gospel of Jesus that empirical truth-seeking could take off as it did in the West.
And even then it took centuries of steeping and marinating in Biblical culture.
But finally during the high middle ages, universities began to create a freemarket of ideas (or vice-versa). It was in this beginning of the free exploration of ideas that what we know as science developed, i.e., the combination of the Hellenic logical and abstract thinking with the Hebraic understanding of the goodness of space, time, history, and (most of all) personal relationships. That combination of the Hellenic and Hebraic had never before happened. Until the Middle Ages, among philosophers and theologians, the Hellenic tended to override the Hebraic.
Out of that stew of intellectual ferment developed a freemarket of ideas for science, a limited civil government for freedom in politics, an economic free market, and growing freedom of education of the masses. It inspired an entrepreneurial spirit, raising up a middle class, an industrial revolution, and the most efficient and just redistribution of wealth ever invented – freemarket enterprise under the law and grace of God. None of these things flourished in the pagan world, and will only disintegrate in our present neo-pagan world. As we see happening already.
So the same warnings apply to Western civilization as to the Hebrews entering their Promised Land: “Take heed lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, and the anger of the Lord be kindled against you...” We did not heed the warnings, not only from God, but from our own American founding fathers.
The development of science was a monumental step forward in the human race under the tutelage of God Himself. It signaled, you might say, the teenage of the human race. We were learning how to think on our own. God was increasing the depth and range of our freewill by educating us. God gave science to His people specifically to hone ever more sharply the two edges of the Sword of the Spirit – which I take to be Reason and Revelation, welded like paracletes, back to back.
Science can be used by anyone who will discipline himself to the rules of scientific discovery. But God gave it to His people to enhance their truth-seeking and truth-speaking. He gave it to us to enhance our ability to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to show why we believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior – not just truth about the world, but about Himself as well. The wealth of the industrial revolution was just an added extra. The real and important purpose of science was the building of the Kingdom. But we Christians dropped the ball and all but abandoned science – as a secular pursuit. We allowed the dividing of the Sword of the Spirit against itself, with the predictable results -- the house falls.
Science is not secular, it is Godly common sense paying attention to the details. The various sciences will differ according to the kind of truth they are seeking. Physics will not have the same rules as history.
We tend to do our daily observations and evidence collecting about things pretty much on the fly, not very carefully – a large part of the reason we get into trouble. If we begin paying attention to certain details of our lives, we can produce much better results. We become more sensitive to God, to ourselves, and to the needs of others.
Likewise, learning a science is simply learning how to pay attention to the details of some particular area of life – whether it be chemistry or how to be a parent or a spouse. Or a child. Having a science means simply knowing how to find out the truth about something. Anything at all. If you can come up with rules for finding the truth about something, you have a science. Theology once was, and still is, the queen of sciences, the rules for finding out the truth about God. We Christians need to rescue that reputation by first rescuing our own intellectual integrity.
What, then, is truth? You might expect a long, abstract and complicated response. But the definition of ‘truth’ is probably the simplest definition you will ever encounter – just two one-syllable words: truth is “what is”. And falsehood is “what is not”.
Even 3 and 4 year-olds understand what truth and falsehood are. They know what mother wants when she asks, “Did you put your hand in the cookie jar?” And if they did snitch a cookie, they will probably stop and think a moment as to whether they will give the true answer. They may not know the definition of the word ‘truth’, but they know what mother is asking for. They already have that most profound of all concepts, truth, the difference between what is and what is not, in their repertory. Pilate should have been sent back to his mother’s knee for a lesson.
And that leads to my primary point: truth-seeking is the royal road to God. It has as much to do with 3-year old Johnny as with being a philosopher or an academician. It has to do with honesty and accuracy – in whatever you are engaged. It has to do with relationships, living in the light. Being logically consistent and accurately factual is much more important in relationships such as family life than in the academic sciences.
If you do not live your life with logical consistency, if your word and your actions are contradictory, your relationships will erode and may collapse. It is relationships (more than academic pride or success) which drive us to consistency. Do I speak a clear word, and do I act according to my word?
God is called faithful and true precisely because He has gained a reputation for doing exactly that. He has given us evidence for being that kind of God. He behaves faithfully and truthfully. That is why people trust Him. God lives in the light with His creation, and is calling us to live that way with Him and each other. "Come, let us reason – together."
When many were leaving Jesus, He asked His disciples whether they would leave also. They replied, No, You have the words of life. He had the words of life and He lived that way. He had the power of life. Faithful and true. Jesus gives us the evidence we need in order to believe in Him. He drew the disciples to Himself to give them that evidence. Personal relationship is the only way you can get that kind of evidence. It takes that risk.
Truth is the royal road to God. That can be so only if reason and revelation are not contraries but allies. They are not only not contraries, neither reason nor revelation will even survive without the other. They require each other. You need your reason to interpret revelation from God just as you need your reason to interpret revelations from any other person. You have to know how to make sense of them -- using your reason.
And, you need revelation to maintain the integrity of truth-seeking, for it is only by revelation that we know that we have a moral obligation to be truth-seekers and truth-speakers. Without that moral obligation to seek truth, science quickly deteriorates into just another tool in the cynical power-struggle of life. That happened in Nazi Germany, in Soviet Russia, and it is increasingly happening here in America.
The solution to the problem raised by Schaeffer, the loss of theological integrity and moral courage by Church leaders, is a proper understanding of science, and of why God gave us science. Science is not a secular thing, it is a commitment by anybody to honest truth-seeking, going by the rules appropriate for whatever topic you might pursue. It can be engaged in by anybody, but God requires truth-seeking of His own people.
I have occasionally put the matter as: We must put truth ahead of God. That is not always a helpful way of stating the matter, but it does get people’s attention. It was what I was doing when, naively, I said to God, “I want to be a Christian, but You have to make sense.” I wondered then what God thought of that, but the sense of peace following said to me that He was giving me two thumbs-up. “Go for it!” And then the professor arrived. And my life’s journey began to be mapped out toward apologetics – explaining the faith reasonably.
In my own spiritual growth, it became quite evident that, with regard to truth-seeking and speaking, I, not God, was the problem.
It has to do with how we see the authority of the Bible. We need a testable Bible, a Bible we can put into the hands of people and say, “Here, read this, and test it out, see if God does not reveal Himself to you.” That puts the primary burden of proof right where it belongs, on God.
We can help by providing what evidence we can muster and explaining Christian doctrine, but only God can finally prove His own case to anyone. That is what Paul refers to as the “guarantee” given by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, the evidence of the presence of God.
We can show that the idea of God as Creator and Sovereign makes perfectly good theological sense, and that it stands head and shoulders, trunk and legs, above evolution as the explanation of the cosmos. So then, if the existence of God is not irrational, but a quite reasonable supposition, we can also show that it makes perfectly good sense to ask whether there is any evidence of such a God having actually revealed Him self to the human race. And lo, and behold, there does happen to be this Bible which tells exactly that story.
And we can invite inquirers into a community of persons who have made similar spiritual journeys and who are living the life given by the Incarnate Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. If Christians were all truth-seekers before they were position-defenders, there would be almost no division in the Church. We would manifest much more of that unity for which He prayed for His people in John 17.
It all makes perfectly logical sense. It all fits together, like the robe worn by Jesus, seamlessly.
But the only way we can find out that the Christian faith is true is if we are willing to find out that it is false. We must take that risk, or forever be locked into our prejudices and closed mindedness -- even if technically speaking, we are "right". We must say, “If I am wrong, I want to know. If there is evidence contrary to my faith, I want to know. Put it on the table!” Paul says that if Christ be not raised from the dead, then we cannot preach it. We must preach the facts, reality, truth. We must challenge each other to that openness and honesty, and challenge non-believers with whom we dialogue to the same intellectual, moral, and spiritual integrity in their search for reality.
We do not want non-truth-seekers in the Church. They cannot qualify. Non-truth-seekers will subvert the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are the wolves to which Paul refers who come to steal our freedom. That is why we have had so much subversion and corruption within the Body of Christ. A truth-seeking pagan may be closer to Christ than a truth-evading “Christian”.
Having lost their own grip on truth, many of our leaders have had no way to discipline those who violated Christian truth. That is why the Episcopal Church, (and many others) have self-destructed. Anyone who is not a truth-seeker cannot be a disciple of Christ. Truth is all that Christ has to offer. Therefore we must ourselves be truth-seekers so that we can reach out to other truth-seekers, and point them to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Truth-seeking is a long hard journey, a life-time journey. But it is the only way to know that you are worshiping the true God, and that you really do have a truthful position to defend. Testing the spirits to see if they are of God, as Paul enjoins, is one of the most important truth-seeking activities in which we can engage. God does not mind being tested by honest truth-seekers. He requires it. God did not mind my telling Him that He had to make sense. He knew that I needed His honesty and intellectual integrity better than I did. It was indeed the Holy Spirit of God within me urging me to make that request.
The great evangelical, catholic, and charismatic disaster can be turned around, and when it is, the whole public debate about the meaning of life will be changed. And the Lord will loose the faithful lightning of His terrible swift sword. And, His truth will march, on and on.
Let's pray... Almighty God, make us both humble enough and bold enough to be honest, open seekers after truth, and in that way to represent You to those we daily meet. Prepare the ground in ourselves and in those to whom we witness for You, that we incur not Your wrath, but Your blessings. In Jesus name. Amen.
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