Biblical Truth (1): True or False?

Over the past month or two I’ve been reading through the New Testament book of 1 Timothy.

Biblical Truth (1): True or False?

It is a letter written by the apostle Paul to a younger man who had been entrusted with responsibility. Timothy had been left in Ephesus to teach the local church and to defend against false teachings. 

 In my reading I’ve been impressed by Paul’s emphasis on TRUTH. Over the next few blogposts I want to share some thoughts from this letter on the subject of truth. First we’ll consider the question:  

What is a Biblical view of Truth?

Philosophers have produced a number of different theories and definitions of truth. However, there is only one definition which sums up how we normally view the concept: “Truth is what accords with facts or reality”. If I arrived home to find my study window smashed and a football on my desk I would call my son and ask him for the truth. He would know immediately that I want to know what actually happened. This is the normal view of truth, and it is also the biblical view of truth.

In 1 Timothy Paul’s view of truth can be summarised under a few headings:

Truth is Authoritative (not Suggestive)

 Paul wrote to Timothy as “an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the commandment of God …” (1:1). The word “commandment” is an authoritative word and Paul emphasised by its use that the teaching he passed on to Timothy had divine authority. Another word Paul used constantly was the word “charge”. The Greek word translated “charge” occurs in one form or another seven times in this book. It is a military word referring to an order being passed from someone of high rank to someone of lower rank. Timothy was to charge, or “pass on the order from above” that certain people must “teach no other doctrine” (1:3). He was to charge those who are “rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches” (6:17). The point is that the truth to be conveyed was authoritative – it came from God and could not to be ignored.  

We live in what has been termed a Post-truth era. People often regard truth as not binding upon them. Objective facts are viewed as less important than subjective feelings. Scientific proof that a “foetus” is a distinct, living, human person is not regarded as important as the desire of a mother to do what she will with “her own body”. The DNA of a person, which scientifically confirms whether that person is male or female, is considered less important than the person’s own feelings about their gender. Uncomfortable truths are regarded as non-authoritative.

This is not the biblical view of truth. Truth is authoritative, not suggestive. To ignore truth is to run into difficulty in God’s world. An old illustration concerns a man who thought the laws of gravity could be ignored. When he jumped from a high-rise building, the few seconds it took for him to plummet to the earth were spent regretting his folly and the cost of disregarding truth.

Truth is Exclusive (not Inclusive)

 Paul instructed Timothy to pass on the order to some that they “teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables” (1:3). He said that some had “strayed” from the truth (1:6) and warned of those who would teach something different than the truth (6:3).

Clearly Paul recognised that there was a difference between truth and error. Truth was not a synthesis of all views; it was the antithesis to other views. All myths and erroneous teachings concerning religion stood in stark contrast with the truth from God. Timothy was himself instructed to “avoid the profane and idle babbling and contradictions” of false teaching (6:20).

Religious pluralism regards fundamentally different religious worldviews as being equally valid and acceptable. This is not a biblical view of truth. The first and ultimate claim of Christianity is that God exists (Genesis 1:1). The antithesis of this is to deny God’s existence. Having a biblical (and normal) view of truth affirms that these two contradictory statements can’t both be true. Where any religious belief differs from what is actual and real, at that point that religious belief is erroneous and false.  

Truth is Objective (Not Subjective)

Throughout Paul’s letter to Timothy he refers repeatedly to “the truth” (2:4; 3:15; 4:3; 6:5). He is not referring to personal subjective feelings but to universal objective facts. He does not say that the Gospel is true for him, as though pagan religions may be true for someone else. In fact, he states that God desires that all people “come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:4). And he says that some people are “destitute of the truth” (6:5). The point is that our beliefs and/or feelings have no impact on the truth. Facts are stubborn things; they don’t care about our feelings. 

Relativism states that every belief on a certain topic (or even about any topic) is as good as any other belief. This is patently false. Imagine two people standing on the footpath close to a bend in the road. Their view of oncoming traffic is restricted by hedges and trees but they begin to cross. On the opposite pavement a man with a better view shouts “Stop! There’s a bus coming fast!” One person chooses to believe the warning and stops; the other refuses to believe it and continues, holding on to their prior belief that the road was clear. Now, assuming the warning was true, one person lived and the other died. It cannot be said that the beliefs of both were equally valid. One belief properly reflected reality, the other didn’t, and there was a price to pay.

The biblical view of truth is that truth is objective. We can believe it or not but our beliefs have no impact upon the truth. Truth remains unshaken by our opinions. It is we who become the losers if our beliefs do not match reality.

Truth is Knowable (not Unknowable)

Twice Paul stressed that truth can be known. He stated that God’s desire for everyone is that they “be saved and . . . come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:4). He confirmed that there are some who “believe and know the truth” (4:3). On both occasions the word he used stresses the process of learning and suggests that full knowledge can potentially be gained.

Post-modernism claims that there is no such a thing as truth or that truth cannot be discovered. It suggests that because of different cultural backgrounds and varied life experiences no one can possibly have an understanding of truth. We each can only gain a little understanding of a little truth nugget perhaps but, even then, we interpret that according to our own biases.

The well-known, and often trotted out, Buddhist parable of the elephant and the blind men help us to understand this perspective. There are a number of versions of this parable but it goes something like this: Five blind men are holding onto different parts of an elephant. One holds the trunk and thinks the elephant is a snake. One holds the tail and thinks the elephant is a rope. Another leans against the side and thinks the elephant is a wall. Another holds a leg and thinks the elephant is a tree. The last of the blind men runs his hand along a tusk and thinks the elephant is a spear.The point is that each blind man interprets the little he discovers according to his own experience and could not possibly conceive of the whole truth.

The reason this describes post-modernism so well is because there is one thing absent from the story: a man that can see. But let’s suppose there is someone who can see. He could then describe perfectly what an elephant was and show how all their different experiences fitted together into one over-arching truth. Post-modernists have, as the modernists before them, rejected the notion of divine revelation. This is why they are blind men groping in the dark. However, the biblical view of truth is that it can be known because there is Someone who has all knowledge who has chosen to reveal the true over-arching meta-narrative to us. This brings me to the final point.

Truth is Revealed (not Rationalised)

 Paul wrote of God as “our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:4). He described the truth as something “to be testified in due time” (2:6) and himself as a divinely appointed “preacher and an apostle . . . a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (2:7). His point is that God’s truth is to be propagated. Timothy, if he communicated the truth, would “be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine” (4:6).  

The point here is that God has deliberately and decisively revealed truth to man. He revealed the truth of His existence in Creation for “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). He revealed the truth of our sin and guilt in the Commandments and in our Conscience for “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). He revealed the truth of His saving grace and infinite love in Christ for He is the “truth” (John 14:6) and the “truth is in” Him (Ephesians 4:21). We can know the truth of the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). And so we know the truth about God, man, Christ, and salvation because God has revealed it to us. We could never work it all out by ourselves. Thankfully we haven’t been left to ourselves.

Modernism includes the notion that humans can fully understand and have a complete philosophy of life apart from revelation. Starting solely from himself, man can work out everything. This has led to despair. Man can, and has, worked out many brute facts about this universe and how it works. However, human beings need more answers than rationalism can ever provide. We need to know where we come from and why we are here. We need meaning and purpose. We need to know that love and logic (for example) are real concepts and not simply illusions. And so, modernists reject all revelation but, being human, they still need meaning and purpose, and still use logic and experience love. Within their own rationalistic worldview there is no room for these wonderful realities.

The biblical view of truth is holistic. It is revealed by God, and it is understood by man through the rational mind that God has given, by the aid of the Spirit of God. The Bible, as coming from God, speaks not only of historical and scientific certainties but also of moral and spiritual realities. As the revelation from the God “who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2) it is true. And that truth is authoritative, exclusive, objective, knowable, and revealed to us for our eternal good.

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:3)