The Biblical Concept of Truth
Fiction, even fantasy fiction, is about truth–not literal factual truth, of course, but truth nonetheless. Fiction–even fantasy–moves us when there is something in it true to life, even if the events, monsters, etc., are fantastic. But what is truth? I offer as a starting place in the discussion of that question a sermon I preached at University Church, Athens, GA., on June 12, 2011.
“Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Eph. 4:25).
“‘What is truth?’ asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” So wrote Francis Bacon. In a day when the very concept of truth is under attack, how are we to understand and practice the exhortation to be truth speakers? If you are willing to stay for an answer, I will attempt one in the next few minutes.
The verse on which we are concentrating today stands at the beginning of a new section in the Book of Ephesians. Having taught us the Purpose of the Christian life (to glorify Christ), the Source of the Christian life (God and his grace), the Nurture of the Christian life (the spiritual gifts and ministry of the Church), and the Motive of the Christian life (to walk worthily of our calling in gratitude for his grace, our position, and our privilege; to live out of love for Jesus Christ), Paul now begins to teach us the Specifics of the Christian life. And the very first one of them is the necessity of speaking truth with our neighbors. Why does that come first? We already knew we weren’t supposed to lie. But when we understand this exhortation in its immediate context in Ephesians and its larger context in the biblical concept of truth, we will begin to see that it has a lot more to say to us than that; we will see why indeed it is the first exhortation in learning to walk worthily of our calling. This truth speaking is rooted in the source of truth, defined by the nature of truth, found in the context of truth, and it leads to the practice of truth.
I. THE SOURCE OF TRUTH: CHRIST
Truth speaking in the first place is rooted in the source of truth. Paul had already alluded in v. 21 to the fact that “truth is in Jesus.” Indeed, He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the Way to the Father, He is the source of anything that can be called the Christian life in general (for it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us; it is Christ in us who is the “hope of glory”), and He is also specifically the source of truth. It is because we know Christ that we can claim to know—or speak—truth. How is this so?
The source of truth is first the Decree of Christ. He is the eternal Logos, the Word of the Father, who was with Him in the beginning. He is therefore the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the Lord of Creation. It was He who said “Let there be light,” and there was light. It was He who said let there be a firmament in the heavens, and it was so. It was He who said let the sea and the land bring forth living creatures after their kind, and it was so. It was He who said of these things that they were good. He therefore defines truth through His Word. What He says, goes; what He says, is. What He decrees is the basis of truth, the ground of truth, yea even the cause of truth. What he decrees is true by definition, and not one jot nor tittle of it can pass away until all of it is fulfilled.
The source of truth then is the Decree of Christ. But in an even deeper sense, the source of truth is the Character of Christ. For his decrees are not arbitrary exercises of raw power imposed on a helpless world just because He can, but rather they flow from His very nature; they flow from Who He is. He is True, for He is faithful; He is True, for He keeps his covenant; He is True, for He does only what he sees the Father doing. He is just: He does what is right, even if it leads Him to a Cross. He is loving: He is true to His own, even when it leads Him to a Cross. His decrees, His mighty acts, and His personal sacrifice all flow from the same place in the heart of His character, which makes Him true to the Father, true to His Word, and true to His people. It is in this sense that the statement of v. 21, that truth is in Jesus, is the very foundation for any truthful living or speaking that we ourselves may be doing. So what then is this truth that flows from Him?
II. THE NATURE OF TRUTH
Truth speaking is rooted in the source of truth and it is defined by the nature of truth. “‘What is truth?’ asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” And the whole time the Answer was standing right in front of Pilate’s seat. The most basic, root meaning of the biblical words for truth (Heb. emeth, Grk. aletheia) is “faithfulness.” This is what flows from the character of Christ. People may be described as “true” if they are faithful, and faithful in every sphere of life: if they are faithful to the facts, if they are faithful to their covenants, if they are faithful to their friends, if they are faithful to their mission, if they are faithful to God, if they are faithful to His Word.
All these kinds of faithfulness are viewed as flowing from the same wellspring in the character of the individual. That is why the character of the Christ, who did only what he saw the Father doing, is the source of truth, of that kind of full-orbed and well-rounded faithfulness, in us. So “speaking truth” refers not just to technical accuracy of statement alone, but to the whole life of faithfulness and integrity that makes such truthfulness, even of content, possible. We have reduced truth in the modern world to faithfulness to the facts. But that is only a part of the biblical concept, though a necessary part. Post-Modern thinkers often make truth seem even less than that, when in fact it is much more, not less. Faithfulness to the facts is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of true speech. A statement cannot be true speech unless it is factually correct; but a statement can be factually impeccable and still not be true speech. Emeth, faithfulness, must stand behind the facts—even as it does in Jesus.
In this sense, the opposite of “truth” would be double mindedness; the opposite of the true man would be the double-minded man James describes, who is unstable in all his ways. It is easy to see why this is so. If I am single-minded, I am undivided in my loyalties. There is no ongoing competition for the throne of my heart; it belongs to Christ alone. When that is true, you can depend on it that I mean what I say. Why wouldn’t I? But if my loyalties are divided–if I am of two minds–then I must of necessity be unstable in all my ways, and therefore completely untrustworthy. For if I have two minds, then how do you know that the one which affirms A today will be the one in evidence tomorrow? Maybe the other “mind” will be saying B. If I have two minds, how do you know that the side of me which made a promise today will be the one in control when it comes time to keep it tomorrow? Worse, how do I know? You cannot. And I cannot.
A good synonym of this biblical concept of truth therefore would be “integrity.” What is integrity? Think about the resemblance between the word integrity and the word integer. It is not an accident. And what is an integer? It is a whole number. Integrity then is the wholeness–the single-mindedness in devotion to Christ, the Source of Truth–which makes truthfulness on our part possible. Christ modeled this virtue when He did “only what He saw the Father doing,” when His “meat and drink was to do the will of the Father.” That is the focus of faithfulness, the terminus of truth. And if Christ is in your life, He must bring a measure of this quality with him. To be conformed to His image is to be conformed to this. For then and only then will we be emeth, faithful; then and only then can we be trusted; then and only then will we be true.
III. THE CONTEXT OF TRUTH: THE CHURCH
Truth speaking then is rooted in the source of truth, defined by the nature of truth—and found in the context of truth. Biblical truth speaking is never simply truth speaking in the abstract. It is truth speaking which is faithful, not only to the facts but also to God and to our neighbor. It is therefore always understood in a social or relational context, involving not only how we relate to the facts but also how we relate them–and ourselves–to God and to each other. This truth telling, therefore, is most specifically to happen in the context of the Church. We are to do it because “we are members of one another.” This is not then just a repetition of the Command not to bear false witness against our neighbor, but an application of it to the more specific and focused community which is the community of faith, the Body of Christ.
So, why does such an application need to be made? Why wouldn’t we speak truth in the Church? It seems to me that there are at least two peculiar temptations to unfaithful speech that we encounter in the Church, and particularly there.
The first is Gossip. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most deadly weapons Satan has against the Church, one of the most deadly in his entire arsenal. I have known nothing that is more damaging to our ability to function as Christ designed us to, and I don’t know anyone who has been in pastoral ministry who will not tell you the same thing. What is Gossip? It is sharing information about our neighbor outside of the biblical parameters for the use of such information. And what are those parameters? They are found in Mat. 18:15-18, as Parker discussed with us a couple of weeks ago. If your brother sins, go and discuss it with someone else? If your brother sins, go and talk about it behind his back? NO! Go and reprove him in private. If he does not repent, there are further procedures that can be invoked; but most people mess it up and get the whole process off track right from the very start. It is at this point that an understanding of the holistic biblical view of truth that we have been describing becomes essential. For it does not matter that the information shared is accurate! It is no justification that the information conveyed is “true” in that merely secular sense. Factual accuracy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of truthfulness. It is possible for your words to be “truthful” in that limited and sub-biblical sense, but still to be unfaithful, to be “untrue” to your brother or your sister. You see, to speak the truth in the full biblical sense, we must not only be faithful to the facts, but faithful to them in such a way that we are also faithful to God, faithful to our neighbor, the one to whom we are speaking, and faithful to our other neighbor, the one about whom we are speaking. “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.”
A second peculiar temptation to untruthfulness that we encounter in the Church is in the area of our Testimony. Have you never been tempted to doctor yours just a little, just a wee bit, to make it more dramatic? To make it fit better with the theologically driven expectations of the congregation or parachurch group you were trying to impress and be accepted by? Or even to make it more “honoring” (!) to Christ? As Bacon reminds us, “Truth is a naked and open daylight that doth not show the masks and mummeries of the world half so stately and daintily as candle-lights. . . . Doth any man doubt that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?”
We have all heard testimonies with dramatic claims that, on closer examination, die the death of a thousand qualifications. I once heard a Christian lady loudly proclaim that she was “believing God for a painless childbirth.” Well, biblical faith is always in response to God’s word, trusting His specific promises. So where does He promise this? Doesn’t He in fact promise precisely the opposite? The lady’s “belief” then was presumption, not faith. And this was discovered after she was delivered–for she had obligated herself to produce a testimony which required, let us say, a certain artistry in its selection of words. No, of course she had no pain–had she not “believed” God for that? There was however a certain amount of–ahem–“discomfort,” though. So well meaning–so false! I ask you: What is the unbeliever’s response to such language likely to be? What does it do to the credibility of the Gospel? And so we tempt the enemies of God to blaspheme. “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.”
Do I need to belabor the importance of truthfulness in the Church? For there we are representing to the world the very character of Christ. There we appear as His people, as those supposedly being transformed into His image. The Church’s ministry, the support we are supposed to find there, the life we are supposed to live there: all this becomes impossible without trust. And trust is impossible without faithfulness, emeth, truth. And truth in the full biblical sense is impossible without Christ.
IV. THE PRACTICE OF TRUTH
All right, then, truth speaking is rooted in the source of truth, defined by the nature of truth, found in the context of truth—and it leads to the practice of truth. How then can we learn to do better at speaking the truth to one another in the context of the Church? Let me suggest three ways.
Do not Boast.
First, remember that Grace is by its very nature opposed to boasting. Eph. 2:9 has already taught us that salvation is by grace through faith alone, and that not of works “lest any man should boast.” Why is this truth relevant here? Because of the following dynamic that leads us to untruthfulness. We are not open and transparent with one another because we are insecure. And we are insecure because, in spite of the doctrine we say we believe, our self worth is still too much rooted in Self, in performance. So we have to play games with the truth in order to magnify our performance, our spirituality, to ourselves and others. Only when our self worth is rooted firmly as St. Paul roots it, in Christ alone and his Grace alone, so that His faithfulness begins to live in us, can we be able to be as open and transparent as biblical truth requires.
Do not Gossip.
Second: neither a Gossiper not a Listener be. We think if we avoid the first half of that equation, if we are not the active disseminator of the gossip, we are not gossiping—and we are so wrong! Not only must we be careful not to talk about our neighbors behind their backs, but we must not enable others to do so either. And there is a simple way to make sure we are avoiding both ends of the chain of Gossip. When someone starts talking about So-and-So in ways that we are not completely sure are appropriate, we should always simply ask, “Do you have So-and-So’s permission to be sharing this with me?” And if the answer is not an unqualified “yes,” the conversation needs to be gently but firmly ended right there. It will be an effective reminder of our mutual responsibility not only to speak accurately but to use information in ways that are faithful and true—not just to the facts but to God and our neighbor as well.
Trust in God.
Third, learn to trust the Father, and therefore to trust the Facts, which belong to Him. Did you hear me? It is because we trust the Father that we are able to trust the facts, which belong to Him; it is because we do not truth the Father that we are not able to trust the facts, which are His facts. He does not need us to shade or doctor the truth. He does not need us to pretend to be more confident than we are. He does not need us to pretend to be more spiritual, more sanctified, or in any other way better than we are. All these pretenses ultimately stem from a lack of faith. How is God–how is the Church–to help us with our real problems if we are not real about them? And we will never be real, we will never be true, until we have learned to trust Him. And why should we trust Him? Because He is the God of Truth, the very source and wellspring of that faithfulness which is the core and essence of the rich biblical concept of truth. And thus He supremely deserves our trust. Meditate deeply on His attributes, especially this one, especially as it is manifested in the life and death and Resurrection of His express image, His Son—and He will help you to learn to trust Him as He so richly deserves to be trusted!
In summary, then, truth speaking is rooted in the source of truth, the Lord Jesus Christ; it is defined by the nature of truth, faithfulness to God that expresses itself in faithfulness to the facts and to the neighbor; it is found in the context of truth, the Body of Christ, that pillar and support of the Truth, the Church; and it leads to the practice of truth through an eschewing of boasting and gossip and through trust in the God of truth. Because of the truth that is in Jesus, “therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.”
Well did Bacon say that “the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it; the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it; and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.” This is so because we were created in the image of Christ who is the Truth, and are being restored, conformed, to that image in Him. And therefore we can conclude with Bacon again, that “It is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.” “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.”
Here endeth the lesson.
OK. How does this apply to fiction? To Christian fiction (or fiction by Christians)? How does a fiction writer practice faithfulness? Be specific.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the foothills of NE Georgia. He is a past president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America with many years of pastoral experience, he has spent several summers training national pastors in Uganda and Kenya for Church Planting International. His most recent books are Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008), and Stars Through the Clouds (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), his collected poetry. His writings have also appeared in such publications as The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Philosophia Christi, Theology Today, Christian Scholar’s Review, Christianity and Literature, Mythlore, SEVEN: An Anglo-American Review, Christian Research Journal, Christianity Today, Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Modern Reformation, National Review, etc. His website is http://doulomen.tripod.com. He blogs at http://www.journalofformalpoetry.com.
For further glimpses of biblical truth, go to https://www,createspace.com/3562314 and order Stars Through the Clouds!