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Guest column: What is Truth?

June 1999 | by Derek Thomas

When Pilate said, ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:38) he expressed a scepticism that has become commonplace in our own time. Post-modernity, to use the now-popular term, is roughly equated with a denial that there is any such thing as universal verifiable truth. According to the spirit of our times, there is only my truth and your truth, that which is true for me and that which is true for you; but there is no truth that is true for everybody. At least, that is the state of things on the popular level.

Of course, this is easily dismissed for, as the saying goes, ‘what is sauce for the goose is sauce for gander’! Whenever someone says, ‘there is no such thing as a universal truth’, all one needs to do, by way of a response, is to ask, ‘Is that assertion being put forward as a universal truth?’ If the answer is affirmative, the premise stands refuted on its own terms. If the answer is negative, then at best he has only asserted something that is true for him, but not for you.

Slippery customer

But post-modernity is a more slippery customer than that. It is a mindset that now pervades our schools and universities, carrying cynicism and disillusionment in its wake.

We may not hold much truck for intellectuals, agreeing with W. H. Auden when he opined, with tongue in cheek:

To the man-in-the-street, Who I’m sorry to say,

Is a keen observer of life,

The word ‘intellectual’ suggests straight away

A man who’s untrue to his wife.

Nevertheless their influence upon us is considerable. We hand over our children to such people who then, little by little, influence and shape their thinking, instilling doubts that grow to gigantic proportions.

Sea change

All of this is, of course, a sea change from the prevailing notions of the past two hundred years. For, ever since the Enlightenment, men like Rousseau and Kant, and the theorists of the French Revolution, have told us that man’s mind is the measure of all things, and that truth-claims are verified by analysis and scientific observation and experiment. For two centuries, man has believed that truth was out there to be attained and confirmed by the processes of human reason.

Knowledge of the truth – or ‘science’ to give it its true name – was supposed to be a stepping-stone in the evolutionary journey from chaos and barbarity to civilisation and advancement. This was the gospel according to modernity. It still holds on stubbornly in some quarters; the gurus of biological evolutionism are among the last to capitulate. But over the past thirty years or so, waves of scepticism, that question the very possibility of such certainty, have swept through the halls of learning and establishment. Thus post-modernity has come to birth.

Doing your own thing

One of the features of post-modernity is its annoyingly laissez-faire attitude to ‘doing-your-own-thing’. Religion, once regarded by intellectuals as the demon, is now accepted as a perfectly valid option, so long as it fulfils some private need in either the individual or in some modestly defined collective. In this way, the plurality of religions in this world is a thing to be welcomed, so long as none of them (especially Christianity) make any claims to being exclusive.

But that is precisely what Christian claims are: a call to embrace the crown rights of King Jesus – exclusively! There is no other Saviour but Jesus of Nazareth. He is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). It will not do, as some are currently suggesting, to say that when Jesus goes on to say, ‘No one comes to the Father but by me’, that this is only true as far as it goes; that we really do come to God as ‘Father’ through Jesus Christ, but that God can also be known in many other ways.

Universal relevance

This, of course, is so much sophistry, and will not square with any rational analysis of what Bible truth-claims are. If the claims made by Jesus of Nazareth are true – and we believe with all of our hearts and minds that they are – then a startling and liberating fact emerges. Jesus’ belief in the Bible (in his case, the Old Testament) was such that no accusation of fallibility could be countenanced. The Scriptures, quite simply, ‘cannot be broken’ (John 10:35).

As Leon Morris so clearly states, the verb used here means ‘that Scripture cannot be emptied of its force by being shown to be erroneous’. For Jesus, the Bible made truth-claims that have universal relevance. His understanding of the use of human language in the Bible is that its statements correspond to reality. What is said in the Bible is not a fantasy, or an illusion; nor is relative to the listener. The words of Scripture have objective validity and standing, because Bible words are more than human words. They are God’s words: ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:21).

Face value

That being so, it is absurd to claim that Jesus (and the apostles too) were making truth-claims that are valid and appropriate for some, but not necessarily for everyone. They themselves expected their words to be taken at face value. They intended Scripture to be received as God’s Word, as God’s cognitive instrument by which he governs his people. As Bacon wrote of Pilate:

What is Truth? Said jesting Pilate;

And would not stay for an answer.

In the same way, post-modernity fails to stay and hear the answer. This system is caught on the horns of a dilemma, one created by its own refusal to hear the exclusive claims of Christ, the Lord of glory and the sinners’ Saviour.