If evangelical Christians have trumpeted anything throughout history, it has been truth.
Through the heresy-addressing gatherings of the great councils during the patristic era, the ad fontes (back to the sources) cry of the Reformation, the bold proclamation of the gospel during the great awakenings or the gauntlet of revelation thrown down before modernism, truth has been our bulwark.
But what do we mean by truth? If we, as Christians, cannot determine the answer to this question, all is lost, for the heart of our faith is the proclamation of the One who is not simply the way or the life, but the truth. Yet this is precisely what increasingly plagues us: what is truth? Are we subtly succumbing to “truthiness,” and thus actively reexamining what we mean by truth as never before?
There have been three major conceptualizations of truth throughout the history of Western thought. The first, and most dominant, has been the correspondence theory of truth. The idea is simple: If I say, “It is raining,” then it either is or is not raining. A person can walk outside to discover whether my statement corresponds with reality. This is by far the most common understanding of the nature of truth, and has left the strongest mark on evangelical theology. Of course, its weakness is that not everything can be verified by going outside. I might say, “There is a God.” Open the door—is my statement proven?
However, the greater dynamic of the correspondence theory is that whether we can validate something or not, what is true is that which does indeed correspond with reality—regardless of our current ability to actually make that correspondence. So while a triune God may not be discernible through the empirical method of science, the correspondence idea is that the triune God is true because there is, indeed, a triune God who exists in reality. This may take faith to embrace, but the faith is that this triune God corresponds with reality. If we could conduct an experiment that validated God’s existence, we would find him very much validated. To discount correspondence as a theory for truth because we cannot empirically verify everything is highly suspect, for that would make the empirical method the final determinant of all that is—or more to the point, it would elevate our five senses as the sole determinant of not simply truth but reality.
A second theory regarding the nature of truth is the coherence theory, which is the idea that truth is marked by coherence—meaning a set of ideas that do not contradict each other. The coherence theory of truth is much like a Sudoku puzzle. The numbers must align; there can’t be a violation of the internal rules; the completed puzzle must fill in all of its own squares. Imagine a system of thought, consisting of a tightly bound set of ideas that, when introduced, complement one another and hold no internal contradictions. Perhaps you might think of the ideas as a set of colors that do not clash when put side by side. The coherence theory of truth holds that truth is not only coherent but ultimately is a system of thought that “hangs together” in a superior way to other systems of thought. So one political theorist might consider democracy as “truer” than Marxism in terms of its internal consistency.
The dilemma is that such a view divorces itself from what may, in fact, be true. Think of the testimony of a witness during a trial: the story may make sense, and “hold up” under cross-examination. But that doesn’t make it true. The argument simply presents itself as a plausible narrative without internal contradiction. Granted, this is far better than contradicting itself. But it still is not sufficient. Further, the Bible goes out of its way to suggest that a coherence view of truth can—and will—prove grossly inadequate when it comes to the things of God, as it records God saying “my thoughts are not your thoughts, / neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8), and contends that the gospel itself can seem “foolish” to the human mind (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Thus a human perspective will always find aspects of God’s truth incoherent, though it remains profoundly true.
A third major contender for the idea of truth is the pragmatic theory of truth. When someone is being pragmatic, they are pursuing a course of action because it achieves an end result. So a pragmatic theory of truth maintains that something is true if it works. This is an appealing view, particularly when we consider Jesus’ words that we are to judge things by their fruit. However, determining what is truly fruit of the Holy Spirit, and what is done in the flesh—or even what is, in the end, evil—is tricky business. One need only think of the “final solution” of Nazi Germany. Hitler believed that the principal woes of Germany were found in the Jewish people. They constituted an “erosion of capital” and a “waste of space.” From this, the removal of “lebensunwertes Leben” (life unworthy of life) was elevated to the highest duty of medicine. “Of course I am a doctor and I want to preserve life,” maintained one Nazi doctor. “Out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind.” As a result, the “final solution” was their extermination. There can be little doubt of the workmanlike efficiency evidenced by the smoke which billowed from the furnaces of Auschwitz, yet there have been few enterprises more uniformly condemned as untrue—as well as rank evil.
So among the three candidates competing for our best understanding of truth, it would seem that the correspondence theory deserves its place of prominence in Christian and, more broadly, Western thought. But this is precisely what we seem to be losing, and at risk is our sense of revelation itself.
Where we stand on truth will determine the course of our life, particularly if we consider ourself a follower of Christ. Early in his life Billy Graham wrestled with whether he was going to embrace the Bible as the inspired, revealed Word of God and therefore the ultimate truth source for his life, or view it through eyes that dismissed it as a fallible book of human insight. He intuitively knew that this was no mere intellectual decision, but that it would alter the very trajectory of his life.
Billy’s friend Chuck Templeton was facing the same decision. Both were rising stars in the evangelical world, although most considered Templeton the better speaker of the two. But as Templeton looked at the Bible, he made the decision not to believe it, viewing it as little more than any other book. He then tried to convince Billy to take a similar position.
The resolution came while Billy was at a student conference at Forest Home, a retreat center in the San Bernardino Mountains near Los Angeles. Billy went for a walk in the surrounding pine forest. About fifty yards off the main trail, he sat for a long time on a large rock that was there, with his Bible spread open on a tree stump. Then he made his choice, ultimately and finally, praying: “Oh God, I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this Book by faith as the Word of God.”
And that, Billy would later say, changed everything.
I’ve been to Forest Home, and on a similar walk I accidentally stumbled on the very rock where Graham made his life-long values choice. I knew it was the same rock because there is now a bronze tablet on the stone commemorating his decision. Why such recognition? Because through that decision Graham was used by God to change the world. Graham says that single resolution gave power and authority to my preaching that has never left me. The gospel in my hands became a hammer and a flame. . . . I felt as though I had a rapier in my hands and through the power of the Bible was slashing deeply into men’s consciousness, leading them to surrender to God.
Sadly, the world never heard any more from Chuck Templeton. He ended up resigning from the ministry and eventually left the faith altogether. He was interviewed at the age of eighty-three, living with Alzheimer’s disease. Asked by a journalist about his youthful decision, he reflected back on his life, and said that he missed Jesus.
And then he broke down in tears, and could say no more.
Taken from Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges by James Emery White. Copyright(c) 2010 by James Emery White. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.