OK, I have been avoiding this a little, but perhaps it is time to dig into a few philosophical ideas about the nature of truth.
It is a long time since I studied philosophy as a student, so this may well be a little low rent- but I hope it’s relevance to our discussion about the nature of the Biblical truth will be obvious.
Thirteenth Century philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas said this “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality”, which is a posh way of saying that if what you say of an object is correct, it is true. Truth is a matter of accurately copying what was much later called “objective reality” and then representing it in thoughts, words and other symbols.
This kind of truth is the common sense kind- the see it, touch it, smell it kind. It is the kind of truth that we assume that the Bible uses.
Truth is primarily a property of whole systems of propositions, and can be ascribed to individual propositions only according to their coherence with the whole. In other words, truth is only testable when understood within a wider system of ideas and concepts. To understand what is true, we have to approach it from within a set of wider propositions.
Which is exactly what we do with the Bible, even if we do not always acknowledge it. We read the book of Revelation not with the cultural assumptions of a first Century Jewish follower of Jesus, living under oppression and well used to the literary format of apocalyptic writing, but rather from the truth system of a 21st C people, in the shadow of all those end times theories.
Or we read the Gospel of John and the book of Romans, then reinterpret the rest of the Bible from a perspective gained just from an understanding of these two books.
Truth is constructed by social processes, is historically and culturally specific, and that it is in part shaped through the power struggles within a community. So the truth we encounter is an amalgam of the culture and context we live and walk in, and is rarely neutral- rather it tends to be shaped by those who have the most power.
So we see the the Bible used to justify war, slavery, racism, oppression of minority groups.
Truth is what ever is agreed upon by a specific group.
There have always been groups whose readings of the Bible have been idiosyncratic and sometimes downright loony. The Westboro Baptist Church come to mind for example.
Truth is verified and confirmed by the results of putting one’s concepts into practice. So it is only when we test our ideas and concepts in real life situations, or scientific method that we can engage with truth. In this way, truth is self corrective over time.
A recent refinement, known as ‘negative pragmatism’- “We never are definitely right, we can only be sure we are wrong.”
These two ideas of truth as also closely mirrored in theological approaches to the Bible. The 19th C enlightenment sought to prove God, with the Bible as it’s source material. CS Lewis and his huge intellect might be seen as a logical outcome of Pragmatic theory applied to theological truth.
More recently, apologetics have become less fashionable. We have been forced to accept that arriving at a final understanding of truth is always going to be problematic. Alfred North Whitehead, said: “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that play the devil”.
Next, a wee trip through some of the philosophical heavyweights to see what they have to say about truth-
Truth is available to us as we apply our reason to external objects. But the ultimate arbiter of this external truth is- God. I think, therefore there is God.
Kant suggested that the problem with correspondence theory is that if an external object is to be ‘true’ then it has to be recognised, and considered internally- at which point it is no longer external, no longer objective. So our encounters with truth are changed by our own interaction with them- by the person that we bring to that truth.
For Søren Kierkegaard, objective truth has real limitations, in that it cannot shed any light upon that which is most essential to a person’s life- Objective truths(mathematical, scientific, physical) are concerned with the facts of a person’s being, while subjective truths are concerned with a person’s way of being.
He is also strong on the division between objective and subjective truth- objective truths are final and static, subjective truths are continuing and dynamic. Values, faith and ethics, according to Kierkegaard, can only be understood when filtered through an individuals subjective experience.
Some inconclusive conclusions…
So- where does all this take us to, in relation to the Bible?
For me, the philosophical approaches to truth open up the idea that any ‘facts’, when viewed from a human perspective are likely to be nuanced, complex and to serve hidden human purposes. If we believe that the Bible is a human document- even allowing for heavenly inspiration- then we have to accept that it is laden with these same questions.
There will continue to be those who will assert that the truth of the Bible belongs to God- and as such it is not contingent on our engagement with it, or understanding/belief of it- it just is. The trouble is that people who assert this often appear to be willing to commit themselves to a claim to understand this truth.
As for me, I am left with two useful starting points-
Karen Ward differentiates between ‘small theologies’ (or you could say small truths)- worked out in community, and ‘big theologies’ (big truths)- belonging to academia and the church hierarchy. In this way, I think that an idea of truth can be negotiated with your friends, in humility, and in respect of the tradition. Getting it all 100% ‘right’ is not an option, or even an aspirational goal. Rather we should expect to be teachable and open to transformation by the Spirit within us.
Then there is also that bit in Romans 14 where Paul talks about ‘disputable matters’-
1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
Paul is speaking to a church in the middle of a truth war, and he says, more or less- there are more important things to be getting on with…