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09 October 2022

What is truth?

By Isaac Overton

Q.  What is truth?

    A.  Truth is that which exists in, and proceeds from, the mind of God.

Q.  What does it mean to say that God is truth?

    A.  To say that God is truth means that God himself exists as the ultimate ground and source of all that is, was, or will be; that his word perfectly determines, conforms to, and reveals that which exists; and that, in his Spirit, he perfectly, fully, and truly perceives all things. In addition, God’s truth is the ground and proof of his faithfulness, revealing him to be completely trustworthy.

 What is truth? Truth can be a slippery term, and the reason it’s often slippery is because we frequently use it to refer to a set of distinct but unstated concepts. Naturally, then, we need to have a set of definitions before us to answer our question, and so I’m going to try and set those definitions out in order. I think that there are basically three different concepts of truth that we need to get our head around.

Now, typically we as Christians tend to think of truth as that which is “objectively real.” The world around us seems to be increasingly eradicating this notion of truth, but it is crucially important. Take, for example, the statement that my house exists. Now it is “true” that my house exists whether I said it existed or not. So then, the term “true” here is referring to the objective reality of the house. The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck calls this the first category of truth, which is “truth or veracity in essence” (Bavinck, RD Vol 2, p.208). We might call this first category “objective truth”.

On the other hand, the term “truth” can also be used in reference to the things that we say – rather than the things themselves. For example, “my house exists” is a “true” statement, and yet the house and my statement are not the same thing. The statement that “my house exists,” is a verbal expression of truth which may or may not comport with the objective truth of reality (i.e. it’s either a true statement or a lie). Using the term in this way, then, denotes that it is not the existence of my house itself that is the “truth,” but rather it is my statement that is the truth. Bavinck calls this the second category of truth, which is “truth or veracity in expression” (Bavinck, RD Vol 2, p.208), we might also call it “propositional truth”.

Finally, there is also a third category of truth, which Bavinck calls “truth or veracity in knowing” (Bavinck, RD Vol 2, p.208). This refers to our inner perception, reception or rejection of either essential truths or statements of truth. It’s our “inner response” to word-truth when others speak to us, and it’s our response to objective truth which we see around us. It’s also the basis of the word-truth (or lie) that we speak to others. We might call this third-category perceptional truth. In all these different categories of truth, we’re using the same term the whole time, but we’re using it in reference to three distinct concepts. Trouble is, most people aren’t particularly self-aware of these distinctions in general use, and clarity in the discussion may thus suffer.

The world around us seems to be increasingly substituting the notions of perceptional and propositional truth for objective truth. The tragedy is that as the world is cut lose from that which is objectively true, the things that they now think and say are true are, in fact, lies. When a man says he is a woman, according to the world, objective truth is no longer relevant. If he says he’s a woman, then they too affirm that he’s now a woman. In this worldview, that which is true becomes that which the man perceives in his own mind and says with his mouth. It’s the very same problem that emerged in Eden – as Eve substituted her word, and Satan’s, for God’s word. When a man says he is a woman, he’s living a lie. He is increasingly losing touch with that which is objectively true – namely, God and his design and purpose for creation. Contrary to the objections, hatred, and “cancel culture” of the world, however, God has made him to be a man, and not every desire or statement in the world can change that objective reality.

Having said all of that, one might get the impression that truth is merely a matter of philosophy. Certainly to this point we’ve been exploring these questions in a more theoretical way. But one of the most important aspects of truth that we need to see is the fact that truth is not primarily propositional or philosophical, it is personal. Truth is first and foremost not about created reality or our perception of it, but about God himself. Our troubles with the idea of truth really arise because we have divorced the concept of truth from the personal reality of God’s existence. Truth is not some objective concept that exists over God. It is not some law of reality that exists beyond both him and us. Truth is rather the consequence of his being or existence. Please re-read that sentence, it’s very important. Truth is not an objective philosophical reality, it is a consequence of God’s existence.

The scriptures clearly teach that God exists. Every single page affirms this most basic of all assumptions. Psalm 14:1 is as clear a place to show this teaching as any other: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” God is the ultimate objective reality, and the creator of objective reality in the universe in which we live. To use Bavinck’s first category of truth, God is essential truth and the source of all essential truth in creation. Jeremiah 10:9 says “But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King”. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4). 1 Thessalonians 1:9 says that the Christians in Thessalonica “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God”.

The question, then, when it comes to truth, is not “What do you believe?”, it is: “Do you trust God?” We see this very personal exchange in living colour as Christ stands before Pilate. In John 18:33-38 we read: “So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not

from the world.” 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.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?””

Pilate asked the question as though he would have an answer, as though he was uncertain. But the truth was standing before him, speaking with him in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Here, then, is the central question when it comes to truth: What will you do with Jesus? We can talk about all manner of issues, whether it be gender identity, political activism, or the price of tea in China. But until we come to Christ, there will be no meeting of the minds, for unbelievers consistently “suppress the truth in unrighteousness”. How can you convince someone of the truth when they are doggedly committed to suppressing the truth? No, the question we must ever place before unbelievers is this: What will you do with Jesus? The answer a man gives to that question is the real measure of truth and falsehood in his life. So, what will you do with Jesus?