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What is Truth?

“And Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’ After this he went out again to the Jews and said to them, ‘I find no grounds for a charge in him.’”

(John 18:38)

 

Pilate’s iconic statement, “What is Truth?” is one that not only sets the context of his Roman culture, but speaks across the generations into the world in which we live today. The two dominant philosophical world views of the ancient Roman culture are that of Stoicism and Nominalism. Stoicism is the view that we are really more or less pawns in a much larger game where the gods and the fates control our lives. It is a view that we have limited freedom, but ultimately what is to come to pass will come to pass so there is no reason to get too excited or upset about the events of your life. In this perspective any form of transcendent truth is shadowed and unknowable, held in the hands of fate.

Nominalism follows very naturally with the Stoic view. This is the perspective that there are no such things as absolutes. In ancient times, Plato and Aristotle had argued for the existence of absolute and perfect “forms” that are the basis for all representations we experience on earth. Thus, we may draw a circle on a blackboard, but the circle is not a perfect one — instead it is a representation of the “perfect circle” that exists as a form — or we might say as a definition. The same idea can be applied to trees, dogs, ideas, etc… For Plato, those forms existed in a transcendental, spiritual world. For Aristotle, those forms existed within the thing itself. Either way, forms existed. But as we moved into the rise of Roman thought over Greek thought, the idea of forms was discarded and people held that these forms were simply names (hence nominalism) given to such things. There was no such thing, for example, as an absolute circle from which all circles get their meaning. Instead, circle was just the name we give to things falling within a certain class of entities. And thus, any concept of an absolute Truth was abandoned.

It should be easy to see Pilate’s displeasure at Jesus’ statement that he came to testify to the Truth. “What truth?” “Truth is just a name we give to ideas we prefer.” “If there is such a thing as absolute truth, it is unknowable, so why bother searching for it or listening to it?” One can almost hear the dismissal in Pilate’s tone when he finally responds: “What is truth?” This is not a question seeking an answer, it is a remark of a frustrated governor who is weary of the prospect of rebellious messiah figures, political maneuvering by the Priests, and what he would consider the superstitions of the people. He simply returns to the Jews and essentially says, “Look folks, you haven’t given me any basis on which I can charge him.”

Stoicism and Nominalism have more or less passed out of vogue, but today’s post-modern culture, while rejecting fatalism almost entirely, has embraced a rejection of absolutes. In  our culture truth is no longer seen as transcendent and as a result it finds its meaning in the self-definition of every person. This is not an entirely new idea, a contemporary of Plato was a man named Protagorus, sometimes seen as the first humanist, who is best known for his phrase, “man is the measure of all things.” Plato easily demonstrated the foolishness of such a thought, for who is the measure of man? Nevertheless, the words of Pilate are much the same of many in the western world today — what is truth?

The answer to the question is that truth is contained in the mind of God and that we can know truth by his self-revelation (Jesus came to testify to the Truth — the ultimate self-revelation of God!). We find that self-revelation contained in the Bible and contained in the universe around us that testifies to the glory of God (so long as we look at the universe through the lens of scripture). Loved ones, there is Truth and it is accessible to us — Jesus made it so. What is Truth? Look to Christ.

A Christian Hierarchy of Values

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of values in terms of what was worthwhile for individuals and society to pursue.  For Aristotle, the highest value was the knowledge of truth for its own sake.  Of course, Aristotle was an Empiricist, which means that his real interest in “Truth” has to do with what one can observe with one’s senses or through the use of observational tools.  Some might be tempted to simply label this, “science,” but such a label would shortchange both science and Aristotle’s view.  Much of science is based on the use of reason built upon basic presuppositions and Aristotle recognized that observation could be applied to things outside of the realm of what we would typically classify as science (metaphysics, for example).

Aristotle’s second value was the discovery of practical knowledge—what Christians and Jews typically refer to as wisdom.  This is the kind of knowledge that can guide one to live a life well and skillfully.  For Aristotle, this was exemplified in the Four Cardinal Virtues of Greek thought: Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation.  Finally, the value at the bottom of Aristotle’s list was that of learning to be skilled in Technique—what we would refer to as technical or vocational skills.  These are the skills by which one would earn a trade.

I began to reflect on these ideas for two reasons.  First, I heard a contemporary philosopher argue that our modern culture has turned Aristotle’s hierarchy upside down—that those who our society values the most (based on their paychecks) are those who demonstrate a high degree of skill in technique and those who are valued the least are those whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake.  Thus we live in a society where professional athletes, popular musicians and actors, and skillful doctors (again, technique with the surgical instruments) are the wealthiest class and preachers, teachers, and philosophers make up one of the poorest classes in society.  The second reason that I began reflecting on this idea is because I happened to be teaching on Augustine’s approach to the Four Cardinal Virtues of the Greeks.  Ultimately, Augustine affirmed these virtues as Christian virtues, but only when they were joined by faith, hope, and love—especially love.

Thus, I began asking the question, if I had to construct a hierarchy of values for the Christian life, how do I think that they would be reflected in the Christian life.  One might be tempted to begin, as Aristotle begins, with a knowledge of truth for its own sake.  Jesus said that his purpose in coming to dwell with men was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37).  God, of course, is the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16) and those who reject God suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).  In addition, those who have no knowledge of God (as truth resides in God) destroy themselves (1 Corinthians 1:34).  Also, the implication of scripture is that it is the knowledge of God that allows his people to be faithful (Hosea 6:6) and when there is no faithfulness in the land, it is joined by a lack of the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1).

Yet, it seems to me that a higher virtue sets the stage for the knowledge of the Lord.  When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus’ response is not to congratulate him on that knowledge, saying it was the highest virtue, but Jesus instead said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah” for this knowledge came from “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).  There are two things that need to be brought out from this verse in light of understanding Christian virtue.  First of all, the source of the knowledge of God is God himself, not something gained through a human pursuit—and if something has a source, or a precursor, it ought not be seen as the “highest” virtue.  Secondly, Jesus does not say, “virtuous are you,” but he says, “blessed are you.”  The Greek word for virtue, ajreth/ (arête), refers to one’s moral excellence or other attributes that make one praiseworthy.  Yet, blessedness, maka/rioß (makarios), has to do with one’s internal state as a result of their relationship to God.  Thus, Jesus can say, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake…”  Similarly, Peter’s blessedness does not come from anything he has done, but because of what has been done to him.

Now, we may be tempted to engage in a discussion of regeneration, but since the purpose of a hierarchy of virtue is to give us something of merit to pursue, such a discussion does not seem to have a place here as regeneration is something that God does in us which in turn precipitates a response of faith and repentance in the believer.  Our temptation, too, might be to jump immediately to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and to Peter’s instructions on how to build up our faith (2 Peter 5-7), but again, these seem to have their source in a virtue that is more primary.

And that brings us to the question, what then does the Bible present as primary?  The logical answer seems to be that the highest virtue is the fear of the Lord.  We are told in scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7).  The fear of the Lord gives life and health not only to the individual believer, but it is also a sign of a healthy church (Acts 9:31).  And then, out of the fear of the Lord proceeds the pursuit of the other Christian virtues.