I came across this question on Facebook the other day – “what site do you go to find the truth?” Because I know this young man to be deeply committed to Christ and to pastoring youth, I took the question to mean “what site most represents Biblical truth?” Immediately, I responded with a site that I thought offered resources and articles by those whom I thought investigated topics thoroughly, objectively and consistently. This of course was based on my understanding of how Biblical truth should be examined and attained. Afterwards, it dawned on me that not all would agree with me.
In the advent of relativism and post-modernism, the rallying cry of evangelicals is that truth is not relative. God’s truth does not change. Some would cite that the problem is that we are measuring God’s truth against shifting standards of our own making and compromising that truth (notice that I am avoiding labels). Yes, I do agree with that. I do hold to the fact that God Himself is truth (John 14:6) and His word is truth (John 17:17). As a theologically conservative evangelical, I do uphold that God has communicated His propositional truth in a written format which is the Bible. There is no subjective nature to what He has communicated.
The problem is that our truth is relative, or rather our measuring rod by which we understand truth. It is our epistemology, if you will. We will never be able to hold to an absolute, perfected standard by which we can most avowedly say “I have truth in all cases”. Now before you go condemning me as one on the outer rings of E-darkness, what I mean by that is we will always have some sort of subjective tendency to our approach to understanding truth . Why? Because we have a colander through which we sift our understanding of how to arrive at what the Bible is communicating. We have presuppositions and doctrinal affiliations and life experiences that all weave their way into the fabric of our understanding. In some cases, our understanding is sourced in extra-Biblical dogma and tradition that will dictate how we arrive at divine truth.
Any evangelical with a decent commitment to understanding what God has conveyed through His word, will contend that Biblical truth is the standard and our job is to understand what God is conveying. “Biblical truth” in itself then becomes relative because we apply whatever methodology we have considered to be the arbiter of WHAT God has communicated, HOW God has communicated and HOW He continues to communicate. Biblical truth according to God’s communication is accurate. Biblical truth according to our understanding is less than accurate. For this reason, I have even grown weary of the usage of the term “Biblical” because it generally means ‘according to my understanding based on my epistemology’.
What I am NOT saying, is that we cannot ascertain what truth is according to how God has revealed it. What I am NOT saying is that there is no way we can know the sine qua non of Christianity. God has not changed nor has His revelation nor His communication. He revealed Himself progressively throughout Scripture, ultimately pointing to His revelation in Christ. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). We cannot adjust the work and person of the triune God to accommodate our mortal sensibilities. Nor can we dismiss how God has spoken to us authoritatively which is His inscribed revelation, His written word. Some do this, I believe, to their detriment.
Therefore, we do need an objective standard by which to determine what is appropriate to the means of God’s communication. God did not condescend to reveal Himself to humanity so that we can apply whatever methods we deem reasonable to understand Him according to His communication to us. To reduce the relativism of our understanding, the ascertaining of truth must be grounded in the reality of how God has communicated to us. And I believe that communication is ensconced in language. That means, as we read the Bible, we have to employ a hermeneutic that is consistent with the divine author’s intent transmitted through the human author’s intent to understand the language.
One of the most aggravating components of our modern Bibles is the fracturing of communication through segmented pieces known as chapters and verses. What was designed to facilitate understanding actually can contribute to disjointed learning. The tendency to spiritualize that fragmentation further moves an understanding of communication away from the center of its intended truth. But as John Chrysostom espoused in reaction against overly allegorical renderings of the text, “attempts to understand must always be subject to the indispensable historical kernel that anchors the text in empirical reality”. The reality is what God intended and who He is. In his essay entitled The Biblical Concept of Truth, Roger Nicole argues that “the full concept of Biblical truth” involves three essential components to understanding the truthfulness of divine communication.
1) Factuality – the expression of truth that conforms to reality in opposition to lies or errors
2) Faithfulness – reliability on the person expected to perform according to a promise, in this case God.
3) Completeness – a summation that is definitive and provisional, which is specific to fulfillment in Christ
He contends that the three must be held in balance and stressing one over the other, or treating them in isolation, will lead to improper attention to the other strands. This suggests an imbalanced understanding of what God has intended. I do think this happens quite often because our subjective natures will motivate us to do exactly that, in my opinion.
So what do we do with our subjective tendencies to relativize Scripture according to our epistemology? First, I contend that we have to distinguish between dogma and doctrine, holding the former loosely and examining the latter critically. Second, never become so comfortably convinced in our determination of truth that we become unteachable, especially concerning the areas of essential doctrine. To be honest, it bothers me when some so arrogantly and adamantly insist they have a corner on truth, and particularly when they are based on standards that inconsistent with God’s mechanism for how He has communicated His truth. Third, I think we have to an increased awareness that our understanding will tend to be relative and subjective. That in of of itself will probably not completely relieve any imbalance on our part, but without it we might be rushing headlong down a dark and deviating trail. Fourth, never lose sight of the starting point of divine communication, which is God not our understanding. Lastly, have the humility to admit our fallibity and short-sightedness.
So instead of espousing a corner on Biblical truth, perhaps a more honest approach would be an investigator of Biblical truth, like the Bereans in Acts 17. I think that would be a really honest thing to do lest we confuse any error on our part with absolute truth on God’s part.