Bible nasties 5- a little discussion about ‘truth’…

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.

Correspondance theory

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.

Coherence theory

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.

Constructivist theory

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.

Consensus theory

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.

Pragmatic theory

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…

Bible nasties 3- truth and scripture…

(This is a continuation of a series of posts (here and here) asking questions about the dark passages of the Bible. Forgive me if this is all old news to you theological types- I began writing this as a review of where my own thinking is up to….)

So, we come to that truth word. I am tempted to try to deal with this as a philosophical concept- but for now, lets stick to Jesus-

 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:32

What did Jesus mean?

When you read the full passage, the whole thing gets even more complicated- Jesus is in the middle of one of his regular arguments with the religious hard liners- the Pharisees. Firstly they try to catch him out by bringing him a woman caught in adultery- who by law (Biblical, scriptural law that is) should be stoned to death. (Check out Deuteronomy 22:22 for example.)

Leaving aside the fact that only the woman was brought to be stoned, not the man who was the other half of the coupling, what Jesus did here was to take an absolute unequivocal law- an absolute scriptural truth- and turn it upside down and inside out. The way he did this infuriated the religious folk, and thrills us as we read the story.

Next, Jesus claims to be the Light of the World, and the Pharisees try to challenge him using logic and truth- asking him to bring forth witnesses. Then there is a lot of isicussion about the nature of sin- all of it aimed at the very people who seemed to have got it all together in terms of scripture.

So- what sort of truth is it that will set us free when we get to know it?

The church tradition (Protestant Evangelical, slightly Charismatic, left leaning) that I grew up in would have suggested that the issue was that the Pharisees did not get the real truth- they were caught up in surface deep ‘goodness’- all of which may be the case. But this tradition has made a sport of ‘truth wars’ for generations- ever since the reformation there has been a constant schism followed by splinter followed by subdivision- each grouping claiming that their truth was truer than the last one.

And each one of these schisms has used the Bible (or rather their enlightened interpretation of the Bible) as evidence for their claims to truth. Which is just what the Pharisees did. Is this really the kind of freedom that Jesus had in mind?

Is this the kind of truth that he had in mind?

Because in this passage, and in all others, Jesus seemed to apply the truth with a distinct bias towards the poor and weak. It is one of the reasons that I am still captivated by him. The freedom he seemed to promise was from the tyranny of the law- the application of hard, rigid, unyielding truth- particularly when wielded by the powerful. This kind of truth he always (and I mean ALWAYS) seems to have turned upside down and inside out.

Which kind of brings us back to the issue of how we might read, understand and apply the words of the Bible- particularly those troubling aforementioned passages in the Old Testament.

It is probably worth remembering that what we know as ‘The Bible’ is a relatively modern creation- in terms at least of the canon of scripture that is gathered together in the way we understand it now. There is more about this here if you are interested, or check out this summary of the Biblical Canon from Wikipedia. In the pre modern area, Scriptural truth emerged from debates between learned monks, or was ruled upon by the hierarchy of the Church.

Interestingly enough, I was reading something about the early Ionan writings- from the time of St Columba. One of the books that has survived is the Collectio Canonum Hibernensisa collection of biblical Christian teaching and law making, written on Iona some time in the late 7th Century. What is striking about this book is that it often quotes contradictory sources- the was no concern to decide what should be the absolute final truth- rather the writer appears to expect people to look at the evidence, and work it out for themselves.

Does that mean that there is no truth, just debate leading to a thousand personal opinions that shift according to influence and fashion?

Well- some might suggest that this is the logical outcome of post-modernity as applied to religion. The pendulum swing may yet need to correct itself lest we deconstruct everything to it’s eventual destruction (if you will forgive the mixed metaphor!)

Interestingly enough- what I believe is happening in the emerging church conversation at the moment is that the deconstruction phase is over- we are starting to build again. People are starting to be more comfortable in stating what they have come to believe (rather than just questioning what they had once believed.) We see this creating some conflict- as in Rob Bell’s new book. Of course, such concrete statements (even id tentatively phrased) become targets for the  truth mongers. ‘Oh’ they say ‘I knew all along this man was a heretic/a universalist/un biblical.

I think that is why I started to write this series of blog pieces. I feel it is time to take my own stand on some of these issues- you could say, to find my own bit of truth.

But it needs to be the sort of truth that sets me free.

And if it is to be this, then it needs to be a Jesus kind of truth-


Biased towards the poor and weak

Driven by love and grace, not existing independently of these

Destablising and challenging- not always obvious

Encountered in stories, relationships and mistake making- not just(or even) in written lists of laws

Applied deeply, not just on the surface

Applied first to oneself, but softly to others- apart from those who wield power


How do we come to our understandings of God?

I have been thinking a lot about how we come to hold a set of beliefs and understandings towards God.

I have found Pete Rollins (part of the Belfast based IKON group) two books really challenging- he has this way of using parenthesis or slashes to convey something of the complexity and essential unknowabilty of our fumblings towards theology. Check these out if your head can cope with this;

One of the problems/blessings (to get all Rollins-esque!) of my particular personality is that I tend to see more gray than black and white. Where others see a simple issue- he is wrong, that is truth, this is what the Bible means by this, this is what is wrong with the world/the organisation/the church- I find myself always saying yes, but…

This is not always helpful. It can result in lack of clarity and prevarication. It can skew me towards a fence sitting position that has lots of questions, but finds no firm ground for to walk forward on. Kind of like some critics would categorise the emerging church do you think?

But how about theology? Is this not all about TRUTH? If we loose sight of the essential propositions that we hold in common, then all is lost, surely? This is how I was brought up. There were some gray areas, but these were overshadowed by the towering edifices of truth that we were given and encouraged to stand on like high stone walls.

So faith converted to theology (our theory and thoughts towards God) in this way;

Except, for me, this never really worked. I spend too much time with people to ever think that simple answers to complex human questions will suffice.

This sometimes leaves me at a place of dissonance with other more concrete but sincerely held theological positions all about me. At times it challenges my faith itself, but I have come to believe far from being a negative thing, this process of engagement, doubting and testing is in fact the very stuff of faith.

And that the ambiguities and difficulties brought to us by our reading of scripture and engagement with the wonders and mysteries of God will always result in a degree of uncertainty and struggle- and it is through honest engagement in this struggle that we encounter the Living God.

Or perhaps this just suits my personality, and so I make my theology accordingly?

This is the question that has been occupying my thoughts recently. Do we always tend to make an Icon out of our own perspective, and seek out others who will agree with us, and therefore make it seem more true, more dependable and therefore give it an illusion of universality?

Perhaps then, we form our theology a little like this;

If this is true, then does it matter?

Perhaps not. Perhaps this is a human trait- the gift of individual perspective.

Where It seems to become problematic is when we think that we are right, and everyone else is therefore wrong. It might be that you have been part of a group or denomination where version one of the theology-receiving model is enforced- leaving no room for any of your own exploration. This can be abusive and damaging.

So can the opposite- let us never be guilty of making God in our own image!

Which of course, unless you agree with me- you are/are not!

Choosing my religion

I was thinking today about the huge variety of Christian groupings and denominations. I get so tired of the antagonism and suspicion that we have for one another…

One of the inescapable facts that those outside the faith hit us with is the divided, sectarian nature of our denominations. Many of them split, then split again. Always there is the spectre of TRUTH looming over discussions- we share so much, but the devil (if you see what I mean) is in the detail.

Even within a particular denomination, it seems that there is considerable variation in emphasis from group to group, church to church.

So, assuming that we are looking for a spiritual home, how do we choose? What influences our eventual choice?

I suppose you have to return to TRUTH- but, beyond the core tenets of our faith, what might be true for me might not be so for you. Either we accept that most of us have got our choice of faith community WRONG, or perhaps God is prepared to deal with variation. Perhaps he even likes it!

So there must be other factors that influence our choice of church and its associated theology.

  • Background/upbringing? We are all someone’s children. Perhaps we follow, perhaps we reject and forge a rebellious path…
  • Influential friends? People we admire and are influenced by will of course leave their marks on the way we think about faith.
  • Past baggage? Most of us have had some bad as well as good experiences of church- either through leadership issues, or broken relationships. With this baggage on board, we are less likely to get on a similar train (to mix a terrible metaphor!) Neither are we likely to look favourably on the opinions of those who may have hurt us.
  • Personality type? We are all so different in the way we are wired. Some of us are more confrontational and risk oriented, and may thrive in a dynamic noisy atmosphere. Others are more contemplative, or organised- and will look for environments that fit.
  • Convenience/lack of alternatives? If you live in an isolated area or have limited mobility, then I suppose your choice is made for you! Locality locality locality…
  • Special interest? I think many of us look for something fairly narrow- a social or sociable agenda, the presence of lots of single available men/women, or good music. The rest, well so long as it is not too intrusive…

Increasingly, it seems that people are less likely to remain loyal to any particular brand. Everything is global, and the right to CHOICE is trumpeted everywhere. It remains to be seen what implication this will have to our churches.

What is clear though, is that diversity is here to stay.

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