What is Truth?

37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.” John 18:37-38 ESV

In this famous passage from the Gospel of John, we find Pontius Pilate brushing off Jesus’s claims to truth with a flippant wave of the hand, “ah, so you claim to bear witness to the truth? Well, what is truth, anyways- and who cares?” In context, we see that Pilate isn’t an honest inquirer- he’s not actually asking a question, he’s rejecting an answer. You, however are different. If you’ve found your way here, then you are genuinely interested in the truth question. So, let’s set out to answer, as best we can, Pilate’s rhetorical question.

The truth question is an ‘ultimate question’. It’s a question that both informs our world-and-life view and is informed by our world-and-life view. A person’s ‘world-and-life view’ (most often shortened to ‘worldview’ today) is simply the way a person views the world and how they believe they ought to live in it. This includes their most fundamental beliefs, commitments, and values. The question ‘what is truth?’ falls smack dab in the middle of a person’s world-and-life view. The more we learn about the world, the better we can refine our understanding of truth, and likewise, the better grasp we have on truth, the better sense we can make of reality.

Now, life’s ultimate questions comprise the entire field of study for philosophers, so it will help us to see what the philosophers have to say about truth. In the field of philosophy, truth is a condition of propositions. A proposition is the cognitive ‘meaning’ which a sentence expresses. Propositions are ‘bearers’ of truth, they are truth-bearers. The sentences “I like to run”, “me gusta correr”, and “j’aime courir”, are different sentences from different languages but they all express the same proposition: I like to run. So, in considering truth claims, we look at propositions; propositions are either true or they are false. But what does it mean for a proposition to be true? Here we turn to consider theories of truth.

For the sake of brevity, we can boil down what the philosophers say about truth into four major theories:

  1. Correspondence Theories of Truth: Truth is that which corresponds to reality.
  2. Coherence Theories of Truth: Truth is that which coheres with itself.
  3. Pragmatic Theories of Truth: Truth is that which works.
  4. Postmodernist Theories of Truth: There is no truth; truth claims are just power plays; truth is what I’m allowed to get away with saying; truth is relative.

Postmodernist Theories
Of these theories, it seems that IV is most obviously false. Though we’ve labelled this family of theories “postmodern”, many of them predate the modern area and can be found in the mouths of philosophers all the way back in Plato’s day. We may say these theories are most obviously false because many of them are self-refuting, that is, when applied to themselves, the theories self-destruct. “There is no truth”, well, is that true? If it is true then it is not true, and if it is not true then it’s true, in which case it’s not true. “Truth is relative”, Well, is that claim itself relative? The statement is making an objective claim while denying that objective claims are true, “it’s objectively true that for everyone truth is relative.” Though more can be said against and in favor of this family of theories, it’s safe to say that IV is not helpful for answering our truth question.

Pragmatic Theories
While these theories can be helpful in finding truths, as a formal theory of truth, they are inadequate. The pragmatic bar is just too low to help us answer the truth question. The idea that “truth is what works” turns out to not work well enough. There are all sorts of things which can be close enough to truth to work, yet which are not true. The history of science is filled with theories which worked well enough for the time, but which turned out to be untrue.

Coherence Theories
Isn’t coherence necessary for truth? If you’re presented with a proposition which contradicts other propositions that you know to be true, that is, the new proposition does not “cohere”, fit, gel with, stick to, etc., the rest of the propositions you know to be true, then that contradictory proposition is not true. But while this theory works well as a test for truth, something still seems to be missing: reality. If your theory of truth is a giant web of beliefs which never has contact with reality, then in what sense is that web of beliefs true? Couldn’t a madman construct a coherent web of untrue beliefs?

Correspondence Theories
On correspondence theories of truth, a proposition is true if and only if it corresponds to, or ‘matches with’ reality. If a proposition is true, it is made true by reality; truth is about reality. If a proposition does not match reality, then that proposition is false, it is not true. As C.S. Lewis clarifies, “truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is.”[1] This understanding of truth seems to be the most obvious and most helpful. Others go further in seeking to flesh this theory out by arguing for facts as truth-makers; the facts of reality are what make truth-bearers, propositions, true. I’m partial to this truth-maker theory but more on that in works to come.

Truth and Christianity
As we saw in the opening passage, Jesus said that his whole purpose for coming into the world was to bear witness to the truth. Just one chapter earlier, in John 17:17, Jesus identifies God’s word with truth; God’s very own word is the truth itself. And even earlier, Jesus identifies himself with the truth (John 14:6). So, for Christians, who follow Jesus Christ, also follow Jesus’s lead in holding a very high view of truth.

So how might we answer Pilate’s question, “what is truth?” A Christian understanding of truth affirms that truth is that which corresponds to reality. But Christians believe that God created reality. So, for Christians, truth is that which corresponds to reality as interpreted by God. Since God spoke creation into being, God’s words about His creation are eminently true and trustworthy. As creator of reality, God knows his reality exhaustively and thus knows all truth, that is all propositions which correspond to His reality. God only speaks truth. God’s Word is the truth. What God says corresponds to the way that reality is because He is the Creator of reality.

Christians also believe that Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God, he is God in the flesh. The Apostle John says as much in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” “He” being the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ, has exēgēsato God, made God known. Biblical scholar D.A. Carson explains that “From this Greek term [exēgēsato] we derive ‘exegesis’” and he goes on to say that “we might almost say that Jesus is the exegesis of God.”[2]

So, if truth is that which corresponds to reality as interpreted by God, then in Christ we find the fullest revelation of truth, since Christ Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, and God is the creator of the reality which truth is about. The Christian proclaims “All truth is God’s truth.” Christ’s words are God’s words. God speaks truth. Christ’s words are the truth. So then, lovers of the truth ought to listen to the words of Christ and obey them. That’s the truth.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1970) 58.

[2] Carson, The Gospel According to John, 135.

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