What is Truth? (1)

What is truth?” Pontius Pilate’s unanswered question in John 18:38 (KJV) echoes down the centuries as a cry of moral panic, a desperate attempt to escape the horns of a pressing and unrelenting dilemma. The Roman prefect of Judaea sat in judgment on Jesus of Nazareth. To Pilate’s experienced forensic eye, the case against Him was obviously flawed. The constant shifting of his accusers made it clear this was nothing more than an attempt at judicial assassination. More troubling still were the words of his wife, which still rang in Pilate’s ear, warning him to have nothing to do with “this just man” (Matt 27:19, KJV). Most troubling of all was the dignity of the Man Who stood before him, silent in the face of accusation, speaking only to assert an authority surpassing Caesar’s.

Pilate must have longed to be able to follow his wife’s directions, discharge the prisoner, and dismiss the most disturbing case ever to have appeared on his docket.However, there were other considerations which could not be ignored, such as the harsh realpolitik of imperial service, and the ease with which the loss of Caesar’s favor could blight a promising career, or worse, make truth and justice seem like expensive luxuries. It wouldn’t be the first time Pilate had allowed political expediency to dictate a conviction. But this time was different, for this prisoner was different. The decision just wouldn’t go away. Even an attempt to hand the responsibility over to his old enemy, Herod, had failed. So Pilate stood at the center of history, with a choice to make.

Before he made it, he sought refuge in debating the nature of truth. Down the centuries, the same refuge has been sought by countless others faced with facts which they could neither deny nor evade. In the last 50 years in particular, Pilate’s question has become one of the slogans of the western world.

The way in which western society has viewed the concept of truth has changed dramatically through the centuries. From the early Middle Ages onward, truth was understood as something which had been revealed. People might not always have looked in the right place for revelation. Too often, they sought it in the decrees of popes and councils, and to many, the revelation of Scripture was simply inaccessible. Nonetheless, there was general agreement that truth came from authority – from God or from clever or powerful people.

The arrival of the Renaissance and Reformation in the sixteenth century resulted in a new way of thinking about knowledge. In many ways, this was a healthy thing, as the authority of the Church began to be challenged, received wisdom interrogated, and the Scriptures studied anew. Healthy though this impulse was, however, it ultimately developed into rationalism which saw truth not as the result of revelation, but as the fruit of reasoning.

As the Enlightenment began, men’s confidence in the power of reason increased. Reason could decipher the secrets of the natural world which was all well and good. Rationalism, however, also took hold in the religious realm, and the teaching of Scripture was undermined by an overweening confidence in the capacity of the human mind to figure out what God was like and to deduce how best to please Him. The rationalistic legacy of the Enlightenment continued right into the twentieth century – sometimes waxing, sometimes waning, but fundamentally underpinning the human search for truth.

This all changed in the middle of the twentieth century, as a profound cultural shift began to take place in the west. The Enlightenment, with its scientific discovery and social progress, had bequeathed to the modern period a confidence in humanity’s ability to apply reason and scientific method to identify truth and form conclusions about the world which were certain. Those conclusions were often wrong, and the “truths” which emerged in this period were often anything but true. Satan’s tactic of choice seemed to be to offer men false certainty. But in the years following the Second World War, his tactics shifted. Certainties were no longer popular, and absolutes seemed unappealing. Truth was no longer something which was revealed. Neither was it something which could be reasoned. Truth was old-fashioned and obsolete, and the very idea it might exist, still less be discovered, became the object of ridicule.

These ideas, which became known as “postmodernism,” emerged among cultural theorists in the universities of France. Their influence rapidly pervaded Western education and society, and people who had never heard of Derrida, or Baudrillard, or “scepticism toward the metanarrative,” imbibed the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth, without ever being troubled by the fundamental inconsistency of postmodernism. Postmodernism affects literature, art, architecture, and virtually every area of life. While some of its results – unreadable books, incomprehensible paintings, and shiny buildings – are not especially harmful, the effects of postmodernism on society have generally been far more corrosive. Its implication for the way in which Scripture is understood has been nothing short of toxic. In a postmodern world, any attempt to understand the objective meaning of Scripture must be abandoned. Only its subjective impact, what it means to me, has any importance. And this subjectivity goes beyond the interpretation of Scripture to the identification of it. The Bible, it suggests, is not objectively the Word of God; the bits of it which speak to me at a particular place and time are “God’s Word for me.”’ God’s Word for you might be something quite different.

The effects of this attitude toward Scripture are devastating, and we need to be on guard against adopting it. These ideas might sound like the sort of things which circulate in the wider world or in the confusion of emergent evangelism. There is no room for complacency. The pervasiveness of postmodern thinking means its impact can, all too easily, be felt in our assemblies and in our own souls.

In the face of this corrosive challenge to the certainty of God’s Word, we might wonder whether Scripture has any help to offer us. Could New Testament documents have anything relevant to say to the cultural dilemma of the twenty-first century? The answer, of course, is “yes.” While there are many Scriptures which attest to the truthfulness of God and His Word, nowhere are these themes more developed than in the Pastoral Epistles. In 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, the Apostle Paul passes the torch of testimony to a new generation. As he does so, he repeatedly draws our attention to the Scriptures. On some 70 occasions he refers to divine revelation, using terms like “the word, doctrine, the faith, the truth, the gospel, that which was committed, preaching, testimony, mystery, the form of sound words, that good thing,” and “the things that thou hast heard of me”(KJV). Every one of these expressions would repay careful attention, but their repeated occurrence in the brief compass of the pastoral epistles is striking. Truth is clearly a dominant concern of these letters. The sorts of terms which are used are also significant, for they describe something which is objective: the truth, the faith, the gospel. They describe something which has been entrusted: the deposit, the pattern, the good thing. And they describe something which is communicated: the doctrine (teaching), the preaching, the testimony.

In a world where even the possibility truth might exist is ridiculed, the teaching of the pastoral epistles is vital for the spiritual wellbeing of every believer. In coming articles (DV) we will examine ways in which these precious letters speak about the God of truth and the truth of God.