What is Truth?

What is truth?

Truth is a property that adheres to a proposition (the content of a sentence) if and only if the proposition corresponds to reality as it actually is. Propositions, as truth bearers, can be either true or false but they are not facts. Facts are neither true nor false; they just are. Facts are the standards by which the veracity of propositions are adjudicated. Nor are propositions sentences, which one philosopher defines as “a linguistic object consisting in a sense perceptible string of markings formed according to a culturally arbitrary set of syntactical rules, a grammatically well-formed string of spoken or written scratchings/sounds.” [1] Sentences would not be possible without propositions, but the two should not be conflated.

Does this understanding of propositional truth conflict with Jesus’ statement in John 14:6 that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” where he seems to intimate that truth is a person and not a proposition? Not at all. Truth in John’s Gospel (alētheia) corresponds to the Old Testament concept of ᾽emet, the Hebrew word for trustworthiness and reliability. This is clear because the duplet “grace and truth” in John (1:14, 18) correspond to hesed (love) and ᾽emet in the Old Testament. In the Hebrew corpus, something was determined to be ᾽emet to the extent that it corresponded to the facts (e.g., a truthful witness). As such, ᾽emet was frequently used to describe God and the character of his acts: he is the faithful one who can be trusted because his promises do not fail – he follows through in reality with what he verbally proclaims he will do and accomplish. Thus, when Jesus says he is the truth (alētheia) his readers would have understood him to be saying that he was the full revelation of the trustworthy and reliable God whose redemptive promises were now coming to completion. He was (and still is) the fulfillment of God’s promises to the patriarchs, to David, and the prophets. In other words, Jesus revealed the faithfulness of God’s character and the veracity of his promises. In this Jewish context, to come to know the truth (cf. John 8:32) was to know salvation from the slavery of sin and darkness (cf. John 8:34) that only Jesus could secure. [2] Such a salvation – nothing short of rescuing the world from the debilitating effects of Adam’s sin – was what the calling of Abraham and the Old Testament covenants were all about in the first place. Jesus’ statement that he is the truth is not an abstract utterance on the nature of epistemology but a soteriological revelation of the faithfulness of God. Even so, the fact that Jesus is completely trustworthy himself and proves the trustworthiness of the Father through his death and resurrection has an alethic component to it. God can be trusted because there is no falsehood, deceit, or evil in him; he is the faithful God whose promises will be fulfilled in history. [3]

If this is all true in reality then these are the facts to which Jesus’ words in John 8 and 14 accurately correspond, making his statements true and therefore trustworthy. For in the single sentence of John 14:6 [4] we have four propositions that truly correspond to reality: (1) Jesus is the way; (2) Jesus is the truth; (3) Jesus is the life; (4) no one can come to the Father except through Jesus. In this way we can see how propositional truth and relational-redemptive truth work in tandem to communicate God’s love and knowledge to us so that we might be saved. In fact, without propositions the beautiful good news of the gospel would not be knowable, since God has chosen to univocally and analogically reveal himself to us through human language, ideas, and categories of thought and action. [5] Propositions are necessary for truth and for the communication of truth, and they undergird all of God’s universal and particular revelation, even the revelation of Christ’s death on the cross that redeems us and reconciles us to God. Let us seek to have a deeper, richer, and more nuanced understanding of truth in its various dimensions instead of adopting flat, shallow, and exclusive definitions of this pivotally important issue.

Notes

[1] J. P. Moreland, “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 1 (2005), 78.

[2] For more on the parallels between the Old Testament and John’s Gospel, and the soteriological nature of Jesus’ statement see George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testamentrevised ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 300-305.

[3] That Jesus is referring to the means to salvation in John 14:6 is clear from the context. Jesus has just finished telling his disciples that he will be leaving them soon to prepare a place in his Father’s house for them. In response to Thomas’ question of how they might know the way Jesus is going, Jesus responds by saying that he is the way, the truth, and the life (apparently, and naturally, Thomas was probably looking for some kind of concrete direction of what to do). These three concepts (way, truth, life) in conjunction compose the means of salvation: Jesus himself is the only way to be saved from death and to truly come to know the Father.

[4] The editors of the UBS Greek text render John 14:6 to be a single, compound sentence even though most English translations break it into two sentences.

[5] Univocal language is where a word or phrase has only one possible meaning; in analogical language, words and phrases have univocal elements but also display differences. The opposite of univocal is equivocal, where a word or phrase can possess fundamentally different meanings depending upon grammar and context (e.g., I row a boat; a row of trees). God’s revelation to humanity is a mixture of univocal and analogical expressions so that we might come to true (but not exhaustive) knowledge of Him. If God were to only communicate equivocally to us, communication would break down and he would be unknown.

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