Sunday, May 30, 2004

Jumbled Thoughts on Truth 

At the moment I am partway through my posts on the subject of Scripture. At this stage I thought that it would be helpful to have a brief excursus on the subject of truth. Within this post I wish to give some scattered and disorganized thoughts on what I believe a Christian understanding of truth should look like.
In my previous posts I argued against an ‘immanentistic’ view of truth and the quest for detached objectivity in interpretation. I have maintained that the aim of Scripture is primarily that of deepening of our relationship with God so that we might know Him and not merely to inform us so that we might know a list of facts about Him. [Of course, we should be wary of creating too much of a distance between these two things.] All of this should challenge us to think more carefully about what Christians mean when they confess the Scriptures to be ‘true’ in their entirety. For this reason, I believe that it is helpful to give some attention to the question of what truth actually is. As some have observed, within modernity history is ‘the unquestioned locus of truth’ and ‘replaces canonical text as the locus of revelation.’1 This leads to a stress upon historicity as the test of truth. As Christians we should never uncritically adopt our society’s view of truth. I can see a number of grounds on which we should begin to question our society’s view of truth from a particularly Christian perspective. Modernity treats history as a ‘given’ and as a final point of reference. By exalting the truth of history in such a manner, the truth of Scripture becomes relativized. Christians, who should treat history as ‘gift’ and not as ‘given’, ‘know’ history in a very different manner to non-Christians. For the Christian Christ is ‘the Truth’. For the Christian, therefore, the Truth is not some abstract epistemological principle existing outside of time, nor is the Truth the bare impersonal facts of history.
To treat anything within the created world as a final point of reference is to deny the being of God. At best such an approach makes God merely another fact within the universe. As Cornelius Van Til observed, many of the traditional forms of apologetics achieve just that. Stanley Hauerwas writes:—
…[N]atural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves. The metaphysical and existential projects to make a “place” for such a god cannot help but “prove” the existence of a god that is not worthy of worship. The Trinity is not a further specification of a more determinative reality called god, because there is no more determinative reality than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.2
If the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob exists then the world which we inhabit is inescapable personal. As Van Til points out, ‘God is man’s ultimate environment.’3 Man’s knowledge of God is logically prior to his knowledge of anything else. ‘…[W]e cannot know ourselves in any true sense unless we know God.’
Because Christ is the Truth, truth can never be impersonal. Truth is known in relationship. Consequently, if we would know the Truth it is essential that we know communion with God in the Church. Those who believe that the truth of Scripture can be properly known outside of the context of the Church’s liturgy are mistaken. Thomas Torrance writes:—

While there is evidently no way through mere logical analysis or logical construction to understand the ordered field of dynamic onto-relations with which we are concerned in Christian theology, we do have access to the set of conditions within which the distinctive order they embody spontaneously manifests itself, and by indwelling that order we can come up with the anticipatory conceptions or basic clues we need in developing our cognition of it. These conditions are found within the church of Jesus Christ, the worshipping community of God’s people. It is there in the midst of the church, its fellowship of love, its meditation upon God’s self-revelation through the Holy Scriptures, its Eucharistic life, and its worship of the Father through the Son and in the Spirit, that we become inwardly so adapted to God’s interaction with us that we learn, as Origen used to say, how to think worthily of God, that is, in a godly way appropriate to God. Just as a child by the age of five has learned an astonishing amount about the physical world to which he has become spontaneously adapted—far more than he could ever understand if he turned out to be the most brilliant of physicists—so we may learn far more than we can ever tell about God within the fellowship of the church, insofar as the church, of course, is genuinely committed to responsible participation in the gospel. It is as within the communion of the Spirit we learn obedience to God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ, and instead of being conformed to the cultural patterns of this world are inwardly transformed through a radical change of our mind, that we are able to discern the will of God and acquire the basic insights we need if we are really to develop our knowledge of him in a clear, articulate way. That is to say, within the interpersonal life of the church as the body of Christ and its actualization of corporate reciprocity with God in the space and time of this world, we find not only that we ourselves are personally assimilated into the onto-relational structures that arise, but that our minds becomes disposed to apprehend God through profoundly intelligible, although non-formalizable (or at least not completely formalizable) relations and structures of thought. We are spiritually and intellectually implicated in patterns of order that are beyond our powers to articulate in explicit terms, but we are aware of being apprehended by divine Truth which steadily presses for increasing realization in our understanding. As far as I can see from the writings of the fathers, that is how classical patristic theology, such as we find coming to expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed and the conciliar theology that grew out of it, actually developed as it laid the foundation upon which all subsequent Christian theology rests.

It is, I believe, still within the matrix of the Eucharistic worship and meditation upon the Holy Scriptures, and evangelical experience in the fellowship and mission of the church, that the empirical and theoretical components in our knowledge of God are found fused together, in a kind of stereoscopic coordination of perceptual and auditive images, and thus provide us with the cognitive instruments we need for explicit theological understanding of God’s interaction with us.4

It is within the Church that the Truth forces itself upon us as we are retuned to the wavelength of reality.
If we are to follow a ‘personal’ understanding of truth we will soon observe a number of divergences from the manner in which the world generally conceives of truth and knowledge.5 We will notice that when the locus of truth shifts from depersonalized brute facts to the personal Christ, truth becomes far more than bare facticity. For Christ to be ‘true’ is for Him to be reliable and trustworthy. If truth is ultimately personal, then the promises of God become identified with truth in a very special way.6 Truth is also orientated towards the future. Christ is the Truth because in Him all of the promises of God are ‘Yea and Amen’. He is the reality of God’s future come into our present.
If truth is ultimately personal, ‘knowledge of the truth’ can never be mere cerebral apprehension of objects of knowledge. If we are to ‘know’ the Truth we must ‘do the truth’. Our relationship with the Truth is a living personal reality because the truth is ultimately a personal life. John Zizioulas observes that truth can never be primarily a matter of ‘epistemology’, as it is connected with life and not with being alone. For the Christian, life is not a quality added to some substratum of being — life is something that we are, not something that we have. Zizioulas writes:—
Christ is the truth not because he is an epistemological principle which explains the universe, but because he is life and the universe of beings finds its meaning in its incorruptible existence in Christ, who takes up into Himself … the whole of creation and history. Being is inconceivable outside of life, and because of this the ontological nature of truth resides in the idea of life.
By bringing together life and being, truth is seen to be both historical and ontological — both praxis and ‘being for ever’.
Any practical / theoretical division is impermissible. This division, enshrined in many seminaries and forms of theological education, separates ‘timeless truths’ about the being of God and other such things from the facts of history. Peter Leithart writes:—
[T]heology is often conceived as a theoretical science, which can, at some secondary moment, be “applied” to practical life. Theology is theory, and the process of “application” serves as a bridge to connect it to the practical lives of Christians and the Church. Heidegger better captured the flavor of Christian teaching when he wrote that “every theological statement and concept addresses itself in its very content to the faith-full existence of the individual in the community.” When I teach that the persons of the Trinity live in eternal perichoretic unity, I am not merely making an ontological, first-order claim about the nature of reality—though I am doing that. I am not teaching a “timeless truth” that has to be “applied” to the ever shifting realities of an historical community. Rather, I teach about the Trinity as a way of regulating the language and practice of the Church, especially her language and practice in worship. Properly, all teaching is application.7
How then can we know? It should be apparent by now that knowledge is ultimately found in communion. As N.T. Wright has observed, love is the supreme manifestation of knowledge. Knowledge, although it apprehends ‘something other than the knower’, is ‘never itself independent of the knower.’8 There is no such thing as a neutral, objective or detached knower. In the act of knowing God — or rather, being known by God — the knower himself is transformed. This should be recognized as a challenge to the subject / object distinction. With such a distinction, knowledge must always precede love and truth must always precede communion.9 The subject / object way of understanding truth separates thought and action, theoretical and practical. It also, as Zizioulas observes, sunders person from nature. By making created existence into an ultimate point of reference, one refuses to make being dependent upon communion. The ‘truth of being’ — treated as ‘given’ rather than as ‘gift’ — is granted priority over the ‘truth of communion’. The ultimacy of particularity is, Zizioulas argues, a consequence of the Fall, as following the Fall communion is no longer constitutive of being. The ‘ultimate content of truth’ becomes the substance or nature of things, without reference to anything beyond itself. Things are now treated as true in themselves and not in their relationship to God. A person is a being in communion and is a revelation of truth as a ‘mode of existence’. The person is both particular and in communion. In Greek thought personhood was something added to prior being. In Christian thought personhood is constitutive of being. ‘The mystery of being a person lies in the fact that here otherness and communion are not in contradiction but coincide.’10 True personhood can only exist when being is restored as communion. Christ is a person whose two natures are not divided but co-exist in communion without denying their ‘otherness’ to each other. As the Christian finds his life hidden with Christ in God, personhood is restored as constitutive of being.11 In the light of Christology and the restoration of our personhood in Him, the question of truth is no longer one concerned with the abstract individual and impersonal ‘nature’, but is always a personal question. How can we know the Truth? We know the Truth through the communion of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ. As we are brought into a participatory relationship with Christ, who is the Truth, we come to ‘know’ the Truth.
Because Christ is the Truth, truth can never be disembodied. Truth has been and is incarnated. History has meaning only because it is taken up in Christ. In creation man is constituted as a living being by the loving, creating will of God. Zizioulas argues that it is the ‘ultimate will of God’s love which unifies beings and points to the meaning of being’ and not ‘being as such’.12 It is the incarnate Christ who can be identified with the ultimate will of God’s love. The ‘personification’ of God’s loving will is Jesus Christ. Once this is recognized, we should appreciate that God’s loving will is seen in His creation of humanity and it is this loving will that will be consummated when all things are gathered together in Christ. Creation was always designed to be consummated in Christ. The consummation of creation is seen as all things are brought together in the incarnated Son.13 The Church is called to live out of the life of the incarnate Son. It is His true humanity that makes possible our true humanity. The manner in which we live our lives must always be held in relationship with the life of Christ. To live a ‘true’ life is not to accord to neutral principles of ethics that all men of common sense agree upon; rather the ‘true’ life is the life lived out of the live of the incarnate Son. Ethics can never be separated from their root in Christ.
Scripture is a revelation of Christ Himself and not merely a revelation of truths about Christ. From what has already been said about the priority of man’s knowledge of God, I believe that Scripture must be in some sense self-authenticating. Man can certainly know Christ truly in the Word. However, it is impossible for man to know the Word comprehensively because it is impossible for Him to know God comprehensively. The Truth will always retain its character as a mystery. Nevertheless, this is not a mystery that denies us true knowledge. Rather, it is a mystery that is compatible with true knowledge, although this knowledge is suffused with apparent contradiction throughout and is always incomplete. Even as God reveals Himself He remains mysterious and hidden. The Bible can never be treated as a closed revelation that can be ruled over by human logic. As it is the personal Christ — the Truth Himself — who is revealed in the Word, human logic will never be able to circumscribe or comprehend the truth of Scripture. Grammatical-historical exegesis, although it has its place (more on this in a future post, God-willing), will always have to recognize the fact that Scripture is not a closed system. As it is the transcendent God who reveals Himself in Scripture, all logic ultimately has to bow before the mystery. As Christians we should reject the false either-or of full certainty or radical skepticism. Man is created in the image of God and is, consequently, able to have true, albeit ‘analogical’ knowledge of God.
When we speak of God’s Word being ‘true’ we should beware of classifying Scripture according to some preconceived notion of what truth actually looks like. We need to pay attention to the fact that truth for the Christian is understood in relationship to the personal God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ and not in terms of the brute facts of history and the universe. Ultimately the Truth of God’s Word is seen in the fact that God is faithful and will not betray us. We can live by the words that proceed from His mouth and build our whole existence upon His promises. Indeed, this is essentially what faith is — faith is finding our true living being in the reality-filled promises of God, which are, in their full reality, nothing other than Christ Himself. As I intimated earlier, truth for the Christian is seen to be rooted in the promises and Word of God. The Word of God must, therefore, provide the final reference point and authority when we are seeking to determine truth. For the Christian there can be nothing more determinative than the voice of God in the Church. I am well aware of some of the problems that attach themselves to the doctrine of sola scriptura when it is approached in the individualistic manner of most evangelicals. However, I am convinced of the absolute necessity of at least some form of this doctrine. All of the words of man, insofar as they are true, point away from themselves to the Word of God Himself. Even the great creeds, confessions and catechisms of the Christian Church are not the Truth in themselves but are confessions of the One who is the Truth. Our words are not the Truth, Christ is. Torrance observes:—
Just as the gracious self-giving of God calls in question all forms of moral self-justification on our part, so it calls in question all forms of epistemic self-verification on our part. By the very act of putting us freely in the Right and Truth of God, justification tells us that we are in untruth. To seek verification on any other ground than that which God has freely provided for us is to falsify the gospel at its very basis, no less than to seek moral justification on any other ground than that which he has freely provided in the Righteousness of Christ. Hence justification or verification by the Grace of God’s Truth alone brings us with all our preconceptions and prior knowledge radically into question. By being put in the truth with God we are told that Jesus Christ is our Truth, that we have to look away from ourselves, our concepts and formulations, to him alone, and that therefore we dare not boast of a truth of our own. This applies, however, not only to all prior knowledge, for at every point in our ongoing theological thinking and speaking we have to let our knowledge, our theology, our doctrinal formulations, be called into question by the very Christ toward whom they point, for he alone is their proper Truth.14
The very act of being known by and knowing the Truth is one that transforms us. The transformation of the knower is essential if we are truly to know the Truth of God. Apart from the Spirit of God man cannot know the Truth, because the Truth is spiritually discerned. Individuals certainly know the working of the Holy Spirit. However, the Holy Spirit has been given to the Church as a whole to bring us as a body to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. If we would know the Truth it is essential that we belong to the Church. This is not to say that the voice of the Church is as authoritative as the voice of Scripture. Certainly not! Rather, it is to maintain that the Church is the place in which God chiefly transforms us into people who know Him. Much more could be said. However, these scattered thoughts will have to suffice for the present. Endnotes

1 John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Volume One — Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) p.859. (return)

2 Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001) p.15. (return)

3 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1967) p.42. (return)

4 T.F. Torrance, Reality & Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999) pp.48-49 (return)

5 Aaron Stewart made some helpful comments on this subject a while back. (return)

6 Being As Communion, p.68 (return)

7 Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003) p.44 (return)

8 N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992) p.35 (return)

9 Being As Communion, p.104 (return)

10 Ibid, p.106 (return)

11 Notice that personhood is restored as constitutive of being. Were covenant subsequent to creation, as many Reformed theologians argue, the relationship between personhood and being would be ruptured. This issue may appear to be minor to many, but it is perhaps one of the most important questions facing the Reformed churches today. The answer given to this question will have a determinative effect for the whole of the rest of our theology. It does not surprise me that many strongly oppose the idea that creation never exists apart from covenant as the denial of this idea is hardwired into many Reformed theological methodologies. (return)

12 Being As Communion, p.97 (return)

13 See my recent comments on Barth’s doctrine of election. (return)

14 Reality & Evangelical Theology, p.148 (return)

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