The Concept of Truth in the Inerrancy Debate
by Norman L. Geisler
(from Biblioteca Sacra, October-December, 1980)
How is it that evangelicals on both sides of the inerrancy debate can claim the Bible is wholly true and yet one side believes that there can be minor mistakes of history or science affirmed by the biblical authors1 while the other side denies that there are any mistakes whatsoever? Some even claim to believe in inerrancy to the point that every word of the Bible is true,2 and yet they hold that Jesus’ statement that the mustard seed is the “smallest of all seeds” is scientifically incorrect.3 Some claim that the Bible is “the only infallible rule of faith and practice”4 but hold that Paul was wrong when he affirmed that the husband is the “head” of the wife.5 One errantist put it bluntly when he wrote. “We can speak of the Bible as being inspired from cover to cover, human mistakes and all.”6
Is this duplicity? Are those who believe the Bible contains errors intentionally deceiving their constituency? Do they hold a double standard of truth? As a matter of fact, it is not necessary to come to any of these conclusions. Errantists do not hold a double standard but rather a different theory of truth.
Could it be, then, that the real problem is that a fundamental issue that occasions the difference between the two major camps of evangelicals on biblical inerrancy is that they are presupposing different theories of truth? This writer proposes that this is indeed the case. One thing is certain: Different theories of truth will make a significant difference in what one considers to be an “error,” or deviation from the truth. In fact, what counts as an error on one definition of truth is not an error on another definition of truth.7
Two Theories of Truth
A NONCORRESPONDENCE THEORY OF TRUTH
For the sake of simplicity of discussion, only one of several noncorrespondence views of truth will be discussed. One that is used by errantists may be called an intentionality view of truth.8 According to this view a statement is true if “it accomplishes what the author intended it to accomplish,”9 and conversely, a statement is false if it does not. Several corollaries of this view of truth may be stated.
- The first corollary is that a statement is true, even if some of its factual assertions do not correspond with reality, so long as the statement accomplishes its intended purpose.10 This means that factually incorrect statements can be true, provided they accomplish their intended results. For instance, the parental exhortation to a young child, “If you are good, Santa Claus will bring you presents,” is factually incorrect but, according to this view of truth, it could actually be true if it helps produce the intended good behavior in children before Christmas.
- A second implication of this point is that factually correct statements can be false if they do not accomplish their intended goals. Some parents are driven to negative psychology in saying, “That is bad; do not do that,” because their factual correct statement “That is good” was not accomplishing its intended result.11
- A third corollary of the noncorrespondence view of truth is that persons, not merely propositions, can be properly characterized as true.12 A person is true if he accomplishes or lives up to someone’s intentions for him, and persons are not true if they fail to measure up to someone’s expectations (whether the intentions are their own or another’s).
A CORRESPONDENCE VIEW OF TRUTH
According to this view, truth is “that which corresponds to the actual state of affairs,” to the way things really are. If this theory of truth is correct, then an “error” is that which does not correspond with the facts, with what is really the case.13 Several corollaries of this view may be observed.
- The first corollary of a correspondence view of truth is that a statement is true even if the speaker (or writer) intended not to say it, provided that the statement itself correctly describes a state of affairs.
- The second corollary is that one can make a true statement that is actually more than he intends to say. Everyone has had the experience of accidentally revealing more by his words, to his own embarrassment, than he intended to say. This writer once heard an unfair umpire say, “I umpired against that team once.” He obviously meant, “I umpired a game for that team.” Judging by his highly questionable calls, what he actually said was true, even though he did not mean to reveal as much.
- The third corollary of a correspondence view of truth is that, properly speaking, truth is a characteristic of propositions (or other expressions) about reality, but truth is not a characteristic of the reality itself.
- The fourth corollary is that reality, or that which is, is neither true nor false as such; it simply is. For instance, a lie can be real but the lie is not true. That is, someone’s lying can be the actual state of affairs. One would not say that the lie is therefore true. It is simply true that he is actually lying.
Therefore, strictly speaking, it is propositions about states of affairs which are true or false. Truth is found in the affirmation (or denial) about reality, not in the reality itself.
Of course “reality” or states of affairs referred to by propositions can be mental states of affairs (thoughts, ideas, etc.) or even other propositions. But strictly speaking, on a correspondence theory of truth, only affirmations (or denials) are true or false, not the reality about which the affirmations are made. Persons can be called true in the secondary sense that what they say can be trusted to come to pass or to correspond to reality. So they can be called true or trustworthy persons because their statements can be trusted to come to pass, or to correspond with reality.14
Some Implications for Inerrancy
It seems apparent that if one adopts the noncorrespondence (intentionality) view of truth he could easily (and consistently) hold that the Bible is wholly true (as God intends it) and yet the Bible could have many errors in it. For if truth means only that the Bible will always accomplish its intended purpose (regardless of factual incorrectness), say, “to make men wise unto salvation,”15 then it can do that with or without minor errors. Even incorrect maps can get one to the intended destination. In this view, there can be unintentional biblical errors in minor matters, without affecting the author’s main intention to save sinners. These minor errors do not reflect badly on the author’s (God’s) character, since they are not pernicious. In an intentionality view of truth one does not need an inerrant Bible; all one needs is a “reliable” and “trustworthy” Bible.
It becomes obvious that serious implications for the doctrine of inerrancy follow from each of these theories of truth.
IMPLICATIONS FOR INERRANCY IN THE NONCORRESPONDENCE (INTENTIONALITY) VIEW
With this view several implications follow for inerrancy, two of which will be discussed.
First, factual incorrectness in affirmations is not necessarily an error unless the author intended to affirm it.16 Accordingly neither the so-called “three-storied universe,” the “mustard seed,” nor affirmation about creation (versus evolution) are really errors, even if they are factually incorrect statements. For example, as long as Genesis 1-2 fulfills its intention, say, to evoke worship of God, then — any incorrect scientific affirmations notwithstanding — it could still be wholly true and without error. The same could be true of the Flood, of Jonah and the great fish, of Paul’s view of male “headship,” and of other biblical affirmations of this kind. On an intentionality view of truth these could all be factually wrong and yet the Bible would still be trustworthy.17 As long as the intention of God is being fulfilled through these passages, that is, His redemptive function, then it does not matter whether some aspects affirmed in them correspond with reality.
Second, on an intentionalist’s view, truth, properly speaking, can be personal and not merely propositional. Persons who fulfill someone’s intentions are true or genuine. In this sense Jesus’ claim, “I am the . .. truth” (John 14:6), could mean that He is the one who perfectly fulfills the Father’s intentions for Him.
It should be noted in passing that proponents of this view cannot claim that something is not true simply because it was intended by someone. If this were so, then almost everything ever written would be true, since surely almost every author intended to tell the truth, even though most of them make many mistakes.
In any event, the intentionalist view of truth discussed here holds that true statements are those which faithfully fulfill their author’s intentions. That is, it is not simply a matter of intention but of accomplished intention which makes something true.18 In the case of God’s truth one could say it always accomplishes what God intends (Isa. 55:11). The Bible, then, would be inerrant so long as it always accomplishes its purpose to “make us wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15).
IMPLICATIONS FOR INERRANCY IN THE CORRESPONDENCE VIEW
Inerrancy means “without error” or “wholly true.” On the correspondence view of truth, several implications are involved. First, it would mean that whatever the writer of a scriptural book actually affirmed is to be taken as true, even if he personally did not intend to affirm it. That is to say, the Bible could say more than its human authors intended it to, since God could have intended more by it than the authors did.19 Psalm 22 may be an example of this. David may have intended merely to describe his own persecution, whereas God intended to affirm the Cross in this passage. This is what many think happened to the prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-11) when they wrote of things that seemed to go beyond them (cf. Dan. 12:4).
Of course the fact that the authors could say more than they intended does not mean they did. One might hold that God supernaturally restrained the biblical writers from doing so in order that there would always be an identity between God’s intentions and the author’s intentions.20 In any case, an implication of the correspondence theory of truth is that one knows an author’s intentions by his affirmations and not his affirmations by his intentions. This is so because there is no way for one to get at the biblical author’s intentions apart from his expressions of them. A person cannot read a biblical author’s mind apart from reading that author’s writings.21
Second, on the correspondence view of truth an error can occur even when an author intended otherwise, because error has to do with his affirmations and not simply with his intentions apart from his affirmations. In short, mistakes are possible even if they are unintentional. Therefore to prove the Bible in error, one need not prove wrong intentions of the author (which is virtually impossible to do) but simply show that he made an incorrect affirmation.22 Hence any proposition affirmed as true by any writer of Scripture which does not (or did not) correspond with the reality to which it referred would be false and in error even if the author did not intend to so affirm.
For instance, if the Bible actually affirms that hell is geographically down and heaven is up, and if this is contrary to fact, then the Bible would be wrong regardless of what the author may have intended by the passage. Further, if the Bible affirms that God directly created all basic forms of life and if this is contrary to scientific fact,23 then the Bible would be in error. Likewise, if Paul affirmed that a husband is the “head” of his wife and if in fact God does not intend this to be so, then the Bible would be in error here.24
It should be noted in passing that the correspondence view of truth does not have any direct implications as to the beliefs of the biblical authors. They may have believed many false things just so long as they did not affirm any of these false beliefs in Scripture.25 For on this view of truth “whatever the Bible affirms, God affirms,” and God cannot affirm as true what is false.
What Is Truth?
At first one might think that the resolution of the problem as to which view of truth is correct could be achieved by a simple appeal to biblical usage of the terms for “truth,” namely, aletheia and emet.26 However, these and kindred terms are used both ways in Scripture. “Truth” is used of correspondence to reality in Proverbs 14:25; John 8:44-45; Acts 24:8, 11; Ephesians 4:25; and in many other places. On the other hand, God is said to be truthful) (Rom. 3:4) and Jesus said, “I am … the truth” (John 14:6), thus showing that “truth” is used of persons.
How, then, can the problem of the two views of truth be resolved? Is this an irresolvable impasse? This writer thinks not. For one view of truth is broad enough to include the other, but not the reverse. For example, a true statement will always accomplish its intention, but what accomplishes its intention is not always true. Lies and falsehood sometimes accomplish their intentions too. Hence only the correspondence view is adequate as a comprehensive view of truth. Further, if truth is only personal but not propositional, there is no adequate way of explaining the numerous biblical passages where truth means propositional correspondence?27 In fact, of the some one hundred New Testament occurrences of the word “truth” (ἀλήθεια) only one passage indisputably uses truth of a person as opposed to propositions or expressions about reality (viz., John 14:6). Some other passages speak of truth as being (or not being) in a person (e.g., John 1:14, 17; 8:44; 1 John 2:4), but the latter passage makes it clear that a person is not considered true because he “is a liar,” which involves false propositions (or expressions). In his second epistle John speaks of “walking in the truth” (v. 4) or of continuing “in the teaching” (v. 9) as though truth were personal, but then he explains that this means to “walk in obedience to his commands” (v. 6), which are propositional. Most of the other passages using truth in a personal sense employ words for truth in the adverbial sense of “truly,” not in the substantival sense of “truth.” At least one can safely say that the normal and consistent New Testament usage of “truth” is of truth in the cognitive, propositional sense. Truth is what can be known (Rom. 2:20), what can be thought (1 Tim. 6:5), what can be heard (Eph. 1:13; 2 Tim. 4:4), what can be believed (2 Thess. 2:12) — in short, it is used of propositions. And any passage where truth is used in reference to a person can be understood as meaning a person who speaks the truth or one whose word can be trusted (cf. Rev. 3:14; 21:5).
Even if some passages are best understood as meaning truth in a personal or practical sense, they still entail a correspondence view of truth. For the person or action must correspond to God’s expectations in order to be true. Furthermore the passages where truth is used propositionally cannot all be explained as truth in a strictly intentional or personal sense, that is, a sense that is not necessarily factually correct. Hence truth — biblical truth understood as primarily (or exclusively) personal or intentional does not accurately represent the teaching of Scripture about the nature of truth.
In Defense of a Correspondence Theory of Truth
There are two lines of argument for a correspondence view of truth — the biblical28 and the philosophical.
The ninth commandment is predicated on a correspondence view of truth. “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16) depends for its very meaning and effectiveness on the correspondence view of truth. This command implies that a statement is false if it does not correspond to reality. Indeed this is precisely how the term lie is used in Scripture. Satan is called a liar (John 8:44) because his statement to Eve, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4), did not correspond to what God really said, namely, “You will surely die” (Gen. 2:17).
Ananias and Sapphira “lied” to the Apostles by misrepresenting the factual state of affairs about their finances (Acts 5:1-4).
The Bible gives numerous examples of the correspondence view of truth. Joseph said to his brothers, “Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth”(Gen. 42:16).
Moses commanded that false prophets be tested on the grounds that “if what a prophet proclaims … does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken” (Deut. 18:22).
Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple, “And now, O God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father (that there would be a Temple) come true” (1 Kings 8:26).
The prophecies of Micaiah were considered “true” and the false prophets’ words “lies” because the former corresponded with the facts of reality (1 Kings 22:16-22).
Something was considered a “falsehood” if it did not correspond to God’s law (truth) (Ps. 119:163).
Proverbs states, “A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful” (14:25), which implies that truth is factually correct. In court, intentions alone will not save innocent but accused lives. Only “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” will do it.
Nebuchadnezzar demanded of his wise men to know the facts and he considered anything else “misleading” (Dan. 2:9).
Jesus’ statement in John 5:33 entails a correspondence view of truth: “You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth.”
In Acts 24 there is an unmistakable usage of the correspondence view. The Jews said to the governor about Paul, “By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him” (v. 8). They continued, “You can easily verify (the facts)” (v. 11).
Paul clearly implied a correspondence view of truth when he wrote, “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25).
The biblical use of the word err does not support the intentional theory of truth, since it is used of unintentional “errors” (cf. Lev. 4:2, 27; etc.). Certain acts were wrong, whether the trespassers intended to commit them or not, and hence a guilt offering was called for to atone for their “error.’9
To summarize, the Bible consistently employs a correspondence view of truth. A statement is true if it corresponds to the facts and false if it does not. Rarely are there even apparent exceptions to this usage.3°
If the biblical arguments are this strong for a correspondence view of truth, why is it that many Christians — even some who believe in inerrancy— claim to hold a noncorrespondence (intentionality) view of truth? Actually the reason is often quite simple: There is a confusion between theory of truth and test for truth. That is, often both parties hold the correspondence theory of truth but differ in their claims that truth is tested by correspondence, by results, or by some other method. In short, truth should be defined as correspondence but defended in some other way.
In summation, there are good reasons for insisting that a correspondence theory (definition) of truth should be accepted, regardless of the apologetic debate about how Christian truth is to be tested.
Several arguments outside biblical usage can be given in support of a correspondence view of truth.
Lies are impossible without a correspondence view of truth. If one’s statements need not correspond to the facts in order to be true, then any factually incorrect statement could be true. And if this is the case, then lies become impossible because any statement is compatible with any given state of affairs.3′
Without correspondence there could be no such thing as truth orfalsity. In order to know something is true as opposed to something that is false, there must be a real difference between things and the statements about the things. But this real difference between thought and things is precisely what is entailed in a correspondence view of truth.
Factual communication would break down without a correspondence view of truth. Factual communication depends on informative statements. But informative statements must be factually true (that is, they must correspond to the facts) in order to inform one correctly. Further, since all communication seems to depend ultimately on something being literally or factually true, then it would follow that all communication depends in the final analysis on a correspondence view of truth.
Even the intentionalist theory depends on the correspondence theory of truth. The intentionalist theory claims something is true if it is accomplishing what it intends. But this means that it is true only if the accomplishments correspond to the intentions. So without correspondence of intentions and accomplished facts there is no truth.
A certain irony is involved in the present debate about inerrancy which illustrates this point. Hubbard, who is apparently an intentionalist and errantist, recently criticized Lindsell, who is an inerrantist and correspondentist, for misrepresenting thefacts about the situation at Fuller Theological Seminary. He provided Lindsell with “a handful of errors”32 in Lindsell’s treatment of the Fuller situation. But why should these be called “errors” on an intentionalist’s view of truth? Surely Lindsell intended well and even accomplished his intentions in arousing awareness of the drift from inerrancy at Fuller. But this is all that one can expect on an intentionalist’s view of truth. In short, why should Hubbard complain about factual misrepresentation unless he really holds a correspondence view of truth? And if he holds a correspondence view of truth, then why should he reject the factual inerrancy of the Bible? The least to be expected is that he be consistent with his own view of truth.
There is more, however, that biblical Christians must expect and even demand. It is this: Every Christian should get his view of truth about the Bible from the Bible. And if this is the correspondence view of truth, as the foregoing discussion indicates, then it follows that the factual inerrantists are right. That is to say, the Bible is inerrant in whatever it affirms.
1 LaSor admits that “those portions where one passage is clearly in disagreement with another (such as the thousands in Kings compared to the ten thousands in Chronicles) cannot be explained as ‘textual corruptions– because otherwise “we could never again use the canons of criticism to support any text against the conjectural reading of liberal critics” (William S. LaSor, “Life under Tension,” Theological News and Notes ‘Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1976], p. 7). This means, according to LaSor, that clear contradictions (such as four thousand stalls in 2 Chron. 9:25 and forty thousand stalls in 1 Kings 4:26) should be accepted as part of the autographs.
2 In a letter to a radio listener Daniel E. Fuller wrote. “I believe that every statement in the Bible is totally without error and every word is equally inspired” (April 28, 1978, italics added).
3 Fuller claims that “although the mustard seed (see Matt. 13:32] is not the smallest of all seeds, yet Jesus referred to it as such” because “to have gone contrary to their mind on what was the smallest seed would have so diverted their attention from the knowledge that would bring salvation to their souls that they might well have failed to hear these all-important revelational truths” (Daniel E. Fuller, “Benjamin B. Warfield’s View of Faith and History,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 11 (Spring 19681:81-82).
4 From Fuller Theological Seminary’s “Statement of Faith,” Article III.
5 See Paul K. Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), p. 139.
6 Dewey Beegle, The Inspiration of Scripture (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), p. 138.
7 It is clear from the writings of the errantists that this is their belief. Hubbard wrote, “The nub of Lindsell’s quarrel with many of us who have been his colleagues is the interpretation of the word ‘error’ . . Many of us signed, and still could sign, Fuller’s earlier Statement without buying Lindsell’s definition of error” (David A. Hubbard, “A Conflict in Interpretation,” Theological News and Notes, p. 8). Rogers approvingly quotes Bavinck that “the purpose, goal. or ‘designation’ of Scripture was ‘none other than that it should make us wise to salvation.’ According to Bavinck, Scripture was not meant to give us technically correct scientific information” (Jack Rogers. “The Church Doctrine of Biblical Authority,” in Biblical Authority, ed. Jack Rogers [Waco, TX: Word Books, 1977], p. 43). In other words, since the Bible accomplishes this soteriological intention, then it is true.
8 This view could also be called a “functional” view of truth since it centers in the saving function of the Bible. Rogers and McKim write, “The authority of Scripture in these [Reformed] confessions resided in its saving function, not in the form of words used” (The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (New York: Harper & Row, 1979], p. 125). Again they state, “It is significant to note . .. that for the Reformation concept of the ‘reliability’ of Scripture in achieving its function of salvation, Terretin substituted a discussion of the formal ‘necessity’ of Scripture” (ibid., p. 175).
9 Fuller (Fuller to Geisler, March 29, 1978) and Hubbard hold this same functional view of truth, namely, that the Bible is true in that it is “able to make us wise unto salvation.” Hubbard contends that “error” in the Bible means “that which leads astray from the truth God is teaching” (“A Conflict in Interpretation,” p. 8).
10 Berkouwer makes it clear he holds this same intentionalist or functional view of truth. He wrote approvingly of Kuyper that “he was not at all troubled by the absence of accuracy and exactness precisely because of the God-breathed character of Scripture: the reliability of the Gospels was guaranteed by thispurpose of the Spirit” (G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, Studies in Dogmatics, comp. and ed. Jack B. Rogers [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975] p. 250, italics added). Berkouwer also stated, “The authority of Scripture is in no way diminished because an ancient world view occurs in it; for it was not the purpose of Scripture to offer revealing information on that level” (ibid., p. 181, italics added).
11 Rogers claims that the redemptive function of the Bible is the locus of truth rather than the verbal form (The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, p. 125). Broadly speaking, the intentional (functional) view is a species of the “pragmatic” theory of truth, along with its sister “personalistic” and “existential” theories of truth.
12 Of course neoorthodox theologians such as Emil Brunner contend that revelation is personal, not propositional (see, e.g., Brunner’s Revelation and Reason [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 19461, pp. 369-70). This neoorthodox view bears a strong kinship with the neoevangelical views of Berkouwer, Rogers, and others.
13 On a correspondence view of truth see Aristotle Categories 1. a.10-4.b.19 and On Interpretation 19.a.10-19.
14 Thiselton gives an excellent discussion of the various theories of truth and of the biblical usage of truth (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. “Truth.- by A. C. Thiselton, 3:874-902).
15 Fuller has stated this point very clearly. “I believe it is a necessary implication of II Tim. 3:15 that the Bible’s truth depends on how well it lives up to this intention, stated explicitly here. I know of no other verse which states the Bible’s purpose so succinctly as 11 Tim. 3:15” (Fuller to Geisler, March 29, 1978).
16 A thoroughly consistent intentionalist’s view of truth, in contrast to a correspondence view. is factually unfalsiflable. For no matter what facts are presented contrary to the affirmation, it is always possible that the author’s intentions were true.
17 Davis is more forthright than most errantists in admitting errors in the Bible (see Stephen T. Davis, The Debate about the Bible ‘Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977]). He tries to preserve the “infallibility” of the Bible in moral matters while denying its inerrancy in historical and scientific matters. But even here he runs into difficulty since some of his illustrations are “errors” and have decidedly moral aspects, for instance, the slaughter of the Canaanites (ibid., p. 97).
18 In this sense the intentional or functional view of truth is akin to or a kind of subspecies of a pragmatic view of truth. As James remarked, “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. … ‘The true,’ to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our believing” (William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking [New York: Longman, Green, & Co, 19131. pp. 201, 222, italics his).
19 Even Hirsch, who places strong emphasis on the intention of the author in interpretation, admitted that “the human author’s willed meaning can always go beyond what he consciously intended so long as it remains within the willed type, and if the meaning is conceived of as going beyond even that, then we must have recourse to a divine author speaking through the human one. In that case it is His willed type we are trying to interpret, and the human author is irrelevant” (E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967]. p. 126, n. 37).
20 Kaiser places great weight on this point. See his recent essay, “Legitimate Hermeneutics,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), pp. 117-47.
21 Phillip H. Payne makes an interesting point of this in “The Fallacy of Equating Meaning with the Author’s Intention,” Thrifty Journal 6 (Spring 19771:23-33.
22 Hirsch contends that there is no meaning apart from the author’s intention of that meaning (Validity in Interpretation, p. 58). But if this claim is not false it is at least in need of serious qualifications. First. It would seem to make all unintentional falsehoods meaningless statements, whereas it seems evident that unintentionally false directions can be clearly understood, even though they are wrong. Second, why cannot a statement be meaningful even if no human has affirmed it? As long as someone could affirm it, even as he reads it. it would seem to be a meaningful statement. In other words, is not its affirmability (not whether it has been affirmed) a sufficient condition for its meaning?
23 This writer believes the Bible does affirm creation and opposes evolution. See the excellent book by A. E. Wilder Smith, Man’s Origin, Man’s Destiny (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publications, 1968).
24 In this sense inerrancy as held by a proponent of the correspondence view of truth is a truly falsifiable position. All one needs to do to falsify the biblical affirmation “Christ rose from the dead” is to produce the body of Christ or good evidence of witnesses who saw it in decay sometime after the first Easter morning (see 1 Cor. 15:12-13).
25 It may even be possible for an author to reveal some of his beliefs through his affirmations without necessarily affirming those beliefs. First Thessalonians 4:15 may be an example (“we who are still alive …”). Paul did not affirm that he would be alive when Christ returned, but he seemed to believe (or hope?) that he would be alive at the Lord’s return.
26 The Hebrew word for truth (r1,415) is used in roughly the same way as the New Testament word. It occurs some 127 times. Often it is used of propositional truth. The Old Testament speaks of true /ces (Neh. 9:13), words of men (1 Kings 17:24), words of God (2 Sam. 7:28; Ps. 119:160), commandments (Ps. 119:151), Scripture (Dan. 10:21), and of the factually correct (Dent. 17:4; 22:20; 1 Kings 22:16; 2 Chron. 18:15). Also “truth” is used of God (2 Chron. 15:3: Jer. 10:10). of value judgments (Ezek. 18:8), and of actions (Gen. 47:29; Judg. 9:16). But even these can be understood in the sense of correspondence to what is or what ought to be. In short, truth is what can be spoken (Jer. 9:5), known (lsa. 10:19), declared (Ps. 30:9), factually investigated (Deut. 13:14), written (Neh. 9:13), or expressed in some way (2 Sam. 2:6), and is what would correctly represent that to which it refers. In view of this it is strange to read that “truth is not measured in the Old Testament by correspondence to a theoretical norm but by its ability to achieve its goal” (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 19791. p. 535).
27 See note 26 for Old Testament examples and the following discussion for New Testament examples.
28 These arguments are basically an elaboration and expansion on some of the same points made by Robert Preus (The Inspiration of Scripture [London: Oliver & Boyd, 19551. p. 24).
29 Of the five times 1111/ (“to err-) is used in the Old Testament (Gen. 6:3; Lev. 5:18; Num. 15:28: Job 12:16; Ps. 119:67). The Leviticus and Numbers references clearly refer to erring unintentionally. Further, the noun riRri, Is used nineteen times and all but two are of unintentional errors (Lev. 4:2. 22.27; 5:15. 18; 22:14; Num_ 15:29. 25 [twice], 26, 27. 28, 29: 35:11 [twice]; Josh. 20:3, 9). Only Ecclesiastes 5:6 and 10:5 could be understood as using rt.nli to refer to intentional errors.
30 John 5:31 (RSV) appears to be an exception. Jesus said, “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid” (dkriel)c). This would seem to imply that Jesus’ factually correct statements about Himself were not “true.” This, however, would be nonsense on even an intentionalist’s definitions of truth, for surely Jesus intended truth about Himself. What is meant here is that a self-testimony was not established as true. Or. as the NW puts it, such “testimony is not valid,” despite the fact that it is true, since it is only by the testimony of two or three !other] witnesses” that every word is established (Matt. 18:16: cf. John 8:17) and not by one’s own word. Elsewhere Jesus clearly said, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid” (John 8:14). meaning that it is factually correct, even if they did not accept it.
31 Part of the confusion rests in the fact that errantists sometimes confuse “lying” which is always an intentional falsehood and “error” which is just a plain falsehood. Rogers and McKim seem to make this mistake when they said that “error, for Augustine. had to do with deliberate and deceitful telling of that which the author knew to be untrue” (The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, p. 30. italics added). Besides the fact that Augustine is not speaking of a mere error but a lie in this context — a crucial fact which Rogers and McKim mistakenly overlook — their use of the word untrue in the last part of the sentence belies a correspondence view of truth which Is at odds with the intentional view they are proposing in the first part of the quotation.
32 See David A. Hubbard, Theology, News and Notes (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary. 1976), p. 26. Hubbard’s comment is especially strange in view of the fact that he explicitly rejected Lindsell’s view of an “error” or untruth (ibid.. p. 81.
Geisler, N. L. (1999). Truth, Nature Of. In Baker Encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (pp. 741–745). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Truth, Nature of.
Pilate asked: What is truth? Philosophers from Socrates to the last century answered: Is it absolute? Is it knowable (see AGNOSTICISM)? And does it correspond to a referent or, in the case of metaphysical truth, does it correspond to reality?
The Importance of the Nature of Truth.
The nature of truth is crucial to the Christian faith. Not only does Christianity claim there is absolute truth (truth for everyone, everywhere, at all times), but it insists that truth about the world (reality) is that which corresponds to the way things really are. For example, the statement “God exists” means that there really is a God outside the universe, an extracosmic Being. Likewise, the claim that “God raised Christ from the dead” means that the dead corpse of Jesus of Nazareth supernaturally vacated its tomb alive a few days after its burial. Christian truth claims really correspond to the state of affairs about which they claim to inform us.
The Nature of Truth.
What Truth Is Not … Truth can be understood both from what it is and from what it is not. There are many inadequate views of the nature of truth. Most of these result from a confusion between the nature (definition) of truth and a test (defense) of truth, or from not distinguishing the result from the rule.
Truth is not “what works.”
One popular theory is the pragmatic view of William James and his followers that truth is what works. According to James, “Truth is the expedient in the way of knowing. A statement is known to be true if it brings the right results. It is the expedient as confirmed by future experience.” That this is inadequate is evident from its confusion of cause and effect. If something is true it will work, at least in the long run. But simply because something works does not make it true. This is not how truth is understood in court. Judges tend to regard the expedient as perjury. Finally, the results do not settle the truth question. Even when results are in, one can still ask whether the initial statement corresponded to the facts. If it did not, it was not true, regardless of the results.
Truth is not “that which coheres.”
Some thinkers have suggested that truth is what is internally consistent; it is coherent and self-consistent. But this too is an inadequate definition. Empty statements hang together, even though they are devoid of truth content. “All wives are married women” is internally consistent, but it is empty. It tells us nothing about reality. The statement would be so, even if there were no wives. It really means, “If there is a wife, then she must be married.” But it does not inform us that there is a wife anywhere in the universe. A set of false statements also can be internally consistent. If several witnesses conspire to misrepresent the facts, their story may cohere better than if they were honestly trying to reconstruct the truth. But it still is a lie. At best, coherence is a negative test of truth. Statements are wrong if they are inconsistent, but not necessarily true if they are.
Truth is not “that which was intended.” Some find truth in intentions, rather than affirmations. A statement is true if the author intends it to be true and false if he does not intend it to be true. But many statements agree with the intention of the author, even when the author is mistaken. “Slips of the tongue” occur, communicating a falsehood or misleading idea the communicator did not intend. If something is true because someone intended it to be true, then all sincere statements ever uttered are true—even those that are patently absurd. Sincere people are often sincerely wrong.
Truth is not “what is comprehensive.”
Another idea is that the view that explains the most data is true. And those that are not as comprehensive are not true—or not as true. Comprehensiveness is one test for truth, but not the definition of truth. Certainly a good theory will explain all relevant data. And a true worldview will be comprehensive. However, this is only a negative test of whether it is true. The affirmations of that view must still correspond with the real state of affairs. If a view was true simply because it was more encyclopedic, then a comprehensive statement of error would be true and a digested presentation of truth automatically would be in error. Not all long-winded presentations are true and concise ones are not all false. One can have a comprehensive view of what is false or a superficial or incomplete view of what is true.
Truth is not “what is existentially relevant.”
Following Søren Kierkegaard and other existential philosophers, some have insisted that truth is what is relevant to our existence or life and false if it is not. Truth is subjectivity, Kierkegaard said; truth is livable. As Martin Buber stated, truth is found in persons, not in propositions.
However, even if truth is existential in some sense, not all truth fits into the existential category. There are many kinds of truth, physical, mathematical, historical, and theoretical. But if truth by its very nature is found only subjectively in existential relevance, then none of these could be true. What is true will be relevant, but not everything relevant is true. A pen is relevant to an atheist writer. And a gun is relevant to a murderer. But this does not make the former true nor the latter good. A truth about life will be relevant to life. But not everything relevant to one’s life will be true.
Truth is not “what feels good.”
The popular subjective view is that truth gives a satisfying feeling, and error feels bad. Truth is found in our subjective feelings. Many mystics (see MYSTICISM) and new age enthusiasts hold versions of this faulty view, though it also has a strong influence among some experientially oriented Christian groups.
It is evident that bad news can be true. But if what feels good is always true, then we would not have to believe anything unpleasant. Bad report cards do not make a student feel good, but the student refuses to believe them at his or her academic peril. They are true. Feelings are also relative to individual personalities. What feels good to one may feel bad to another. If so, then truth would be highly relative. But, as will be seen in some detail below, truth cannot be relative.
Even if truth makes us feel good—at least in the long run—this does not mean that what feels good is true. The nature of truth does not depend on the result of truth.
What Truth Is.
Correspondence with Reality.
Now that the inadequate views of the nature of truth have been examined, it remains to state an adequate view. Truth is what corresponds to its referent. Truth about reality is what corresponds to the way things really are. Truth is “telling it like it is.” This correspondence applies to abstract realities as well as actual ones. There are mathematical truths. There are also truths about ideas. In each case there is a reality, and truth accurately expresses it.
Falsehood, then, is what does not correspond. It tells it like it is not, misrepresenting the way things are. The intent behind the statement is irrelevant. If it lacks proper correspondence, it is false.
Arguments for Correspondence. All noncorrespondence views of truth imply correspondence, even as they attempt to deny it. The claim: “Truth does not correspond with what is” implies that this view corresponds to reality. Then the noncorrespondence view cannot express itself without using a correspondence frame of reference.
If one’s factual statements need not correspond to the facts in order to be true, then any factually incorrect statement is acceptable. It becomes impossible to lie. Any statement is compatible with any given state of affairs.
In order to know something is true or false, there must be a real difference between things and statements about the things. But correspondence is the comparison of words to their referents. Hence, a correspondence view is necessary to make sense of factual statements.
Communication depends on informative statements. But correspondence to facts is what makes statements informative. All communication ultimately depends on something being literally or factually true. We cannot even use a metaphor unless we understand that there is a literal meaning over against which the figurative sense is not literal. So, it would follow that all communication depends in the final analysis on a correspondence to truth.
The intentionalist theory claims that something is true only if what is accomplished corresponds fulfils what is intended by the statement. Without correspondence of intentions and accomplished facts there is no truth.
Objections to Correspondence.
Objections to the correspondence view of truth come from Christian and non-Christian sources.
When Jesus said “I am the truth” (John 14:6), it is argued that he demonstrated that truth is personal, not propositional. This falsifies the correspondence view of truth, in which truth is a characteristic of propositions (or expressions) which correspond to its referent. But a person, as well as a proposition, can correspond to reality. As the “exact image” of the invisible God (Heb. 1:3), Jesus perfectly corresponds to the Father (John 1:18). He said to Philip, “when you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). So, a person can correspond to another in his character and actions. In this sense, persons can be said to be true, or express the truth.
God is truth, yet there is nothing outside of himself to which he corresponds. Yet according to the correspondence view, truth is that which correctly represents reality. Since God lacks correspondence, this argument goes, the correspondence theory denies that God is true, as the Bible says he is (Rom. 3:4). However, truth as correspondence does relate strongly to God. God’s words correspond to his thoughts. So God is true in the sense that his word can be trusted. God’s thoughts are identical to themselves, a kind of perfect “correspondence.” In this sense, God is true to himself. If truth is understood as what corresponds to another, then in this sense God is not “true.” Rather, he is the ultimate reality and so the standard for truth. Other things must correspond to him in a limited way in order to be called true, not he to them.
The basic fallacy in this objection that God is truth yet not correspondent is that it equivocates in its definitions. If correspondence relates only to something outside oneself, then God cannot be truth, but the ultimate reality to which truth corresponds. If correspondence can also be inside oneself, God corresponds to himself in the most perfect way. He is perfect truth by perfect self-identity. Consider the following fallacious thinking:
1. All who submit to the authority of the Pope are Roman Catholic.
2. But the Pope cannot submit to himself.
3. Therefore, the Pope is not Roman Catholic.
The mistake is in the second premise. Contrary to the claim, the Pope can submit to himself. He simply has to follow the rules he lays down for Roman Catholics. Likewise, God can and does live in accord with his own authority. In this sense he is true to himself.
The Absolute Nature of Truth.
The relativity of truth is commonly a premise of current thought. Yet orthodox Christianity is predicated on the position that truth is absolute. Thus, the defense of the possibility of absolute truth is crucial to the defense of the historic Christian faith. According to theories of relative truth, something may be true for one person, but not for all people. Or, it may be true at one time, but not at another. According to the absolutist view, what is true for one person is true for all persons, times, and places.
As argued above, there is only one adequate view of the nature of truth—the correspondence view. Other views, such as coherence and pragmatism, describe tests for truth, not an explanation of the nature of truth itself. Factual truth is that which corresponds to the facts. It is that which corresponds to the actual state of affairs being described.
The relativity of truth is a popular contemporary view. However, truth is not determined by majority vote. Let’s take a look at the reasons people give for belief that truth is relative.
Of all, some things appear only to be true at some times and not at others. For example, many people once believed the world to be flat. Now we know that truth statement was wrong. It would seem that this truth has changed with the times. Or has it? Did the truth change, or did beliefs about what is true change? Well, certainly the world did not change from a box to a sphere. What changed in this regard is our belief, not our earth. It changed from a false belief to a true one.
Within a statement’s universe of discourse, every truth is an absolute truth. Some statements really apply only to some people, but the truth of those statements is just as absolute for all people everywhere at all times as a statement that applies to all people generally. “Daily injections of insulin are essential for continued life” is true of persons with some life-threatening forms of diabetes. This statement has an applied universe of discourse. It isn’t purporting to be a truth that applies to everyone. But if it applies to Fred, then it is true of Fred for everyone. The caveat that this statement is false for people with a normally functioning pancreas does not detract from the statement’s truth within its universe of discourse—diabetics to whom it is properly addressed.
Some statements appear to be true only for some. The statement, “I feel warm” may be true for me but not for another person, who may feel cold. I am the only one within the statement’s universe of discourse. The statement, “I [Norman Geisler] feel warm” (on July 1, 1998, at 3:37 P.M.) is true for everyone everywhere that Norman Geisler did feel warm at that moment in history. It corresponds to facts and so is an absolute truth.
A teacher facing a class says: “The door to this room is on my right.” But it is on the left for the students. Relativists argue that surely this truth is relative to the teacher since it is false for the class. But on the contrary it is equally true for everyone that the door is on the professor’s right. This is an absolute truth. It will never be true for anyone, anywhere at any time that the door was on the professor’s left during this class on this day in this room. The truth is equally absolute that the door was on the student’s left.
It seems obvious that the temperature frequently is relatively high in Arizona and relatively cold at the North Pole. So, apparently some things are true for some places but not for other places. Right?
Not so. Some things are true concerning some places, but not true in other places where the conditions are different. But that isn’t the point. Within the Arizona weather report’s universe of discourse, the statement corresponds to the facts. So it is true everywhere. The statement: “It is relatively cold for earth at the North Pole” is true for people in Arizona in the summer, or on Pluto where it is colder than on the North Pole. Truth is what corresponds to the facts, and the fact is that it feels cold at the North Pole.
All truth is absolute. There are no relative truths. For if something is really true, then it is really true for everyone everywhere, and for all time. The truth statement 7 + 3 = 10 is not just true for mathematics majors, nor is it true only in a mathematics classroom. It is true for everyone everywhere.
Like an old apple, relativism may look good on the surface but it is rotten at the core. Among its problems:
Most relativists really believe relativism is true for everybody, not just for them. But that is the one thing they cannot hold if they are really relativists. For a relative truth is just true for me but not necessarily for anyone else. So, the relativist who thinks relativism is true for everyone is an absolutist. Such a person believes in at least one absolute truth. The dilemma is this: a consistent relativist cannot say “It is an absolute truth for everyone that truth this is only relatively true.” Nor can the person say, “It is only relatively true that relativism is true.” If it is only relatively true, then relativism may be false for some or all others. Why then should I accept it as true? Either the claim that truth is relative is an absolute claim, which would falsify the relativist position, or it is an assertion that can never really be made, because every time you make it you have to add another “relatively.” This begins an infinite regress that will never pay off in a real statement.
The only way the relativist can avoid the painful dilemma of relativism is to admit that there are at least some absolute truths. As noted, most relativists believe that relativism is absolutely true and that everyone should be a relativist. Therein lies the self-destructive nature of relativism. The relativist stands on the pinnacle of an absolute truth and wants to relativize everything else.
A World of Contradictions.
If relativism were true, then the world would be full of contradictory conditions. For if something is true for me but false for you, then opposite conditions exist. For if I say “There is milk in the refrigerator” and you say “there is not any milk in the refrigerator”—and we both are right, then there must both be and not be milk in the refrigerator at the same time and in the same sense. But that is impossible. So, if truth were relative, then an impossible would be actual.
In the religious realm it would mean that Billy Graham is telling the truth when he says, “God exists,” and Madalyn Murray O’Hare is also right when she claims, “God does not exist.” But these two statements cannot both be true. If one is true, then the other is false. And since they exhaust the only possibilities, one of them must be true.
No Wrongs and No Rights. If truth is relative, then no one is ever wrong—even when they are. As long as something is true to me, then I’m right even when I’m wrong. The drawback is that I could never learn anything either, because learning is moving from a false belief to a true one—that is, from an absolutely false belief to an absolutely true one. The truth is that absolutes are inescapable.
Relativists have leveled several objections to the view of truth as absolute. The following are the most important:
No Absolute Knowledge.
It is objected that truth cannot be absolute since we do not have an absolute knowledge of truths. Even most absolutists admit that most things are known only in terms of degrees of probability. How, then, can all truth be absolute?
We can be absolutely sure of some things. I am absolutely sure that I exist. In fact, my existence is undeniable. For I would have to exist in order to make the statement, “I do not exist.” I am also absolutely sure that I cannot exist and not exist at the same time. And that there are no square circles. And that 3 + 2 = 5.
There are many more things of which I am not absolutely certain. But even here the relativist is misguided in rejecting absolute truth simply because we lack absolute evidence that some things are true. The truth can be absolute no matter what our grounds for believing it. For example, if it is true that Sidney, Australia, is on the Pacific Ocean, then it is absolutely true no matter what my evidence or lack of evidence may be. An absolute truth is absolutely true in itself, no matter what evidence there is. Evidence, or the lack thereof, does not change a fact. And truth is what corresponds to the facts. The truth doesn’t change just because we learn something more about it.
Another objection is that many things are comparative—like relative sizes such as shorter and taller. As such they cannot be absolute truths, since they change depending on the object to which they relate. For example, some people are good compared to Hitler but evil as compared to Mother Teresa. Contrary to the claim of relativists, in-between things do not disprove absolutism. For the facts that “John is short in relation to an NBA (National Basketball Association) player,” and “John is tall compared to a jockey” are absolutely true for all times and all people. John is in-between in size, and it depends on which one to whom he is compared whether he is shorter or taller. Nonetheless, it is absolutely true that John (being five feet ten inches) is short compared to most basketball players and tall compared to the majority of jockeys. The same thing is true of other in-between things, such as, warmer or colder, and better or worse.
No New Truth (or Progress). If truth never changes, then there can’t be any new truth. This would mean that no progress is possible. But we do come to know new truths. That is what scientific discovery is all about. In response to this, “new truth” can be understood in two ways. It might mean “new to us,” like a new discovery in science. But that is only a matter of us discovering an “old” truth. After all, the law of gravity was there long before Isaac Newton. Many truths have always been there, but we are just finding out about them. The other way we might understand “new truth” is that something new has come into existence that makes it possible to make a new statement about it that is only then true for the first time. That’s no problem either. When January 1, 2020, arrives, a new truth will be born. Until that day it will not be true to say, “This is January 1, 2020.” But when that happens it will be true for all people and places forever more. So “old” truths don’t change and neither do “new” truths when they come to pass. Once it is true, it is always true—for everyone.
Truth and Growth in Knowledge. It is also objected that knowledge of truth is not absolute, since we grow in truth. What is true today may be false tomorrow. The progress of science is proof that truth is constantly changing. This objection fails to note that it is not the truth that is changing but our understanding of it. When science truly progresses, it does not move from an old truth to a new truth, but from error to truth. When Copernicus argued that the earth moves around the sun and not the reverse, truth did not change. What changed was the scientific understanding about what moves around what.
Of course truth is narrow. There is only one answer for what is 4 + 4. It is not 1. It is not 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10 or any other number. It is 8 and only 8. That’s narrow, but it is correct.
Non-Christians often claim that Christians are narrow-minded, because they claim that Christianity is true and all non-Christian systems are false. However, the same is true of non-Christians who claim that what they view as truth is true, and all opposing beliefs are false. That is equally narrow. The fact of the matter is that if C (Christianity) is true, then it follows that all non-C is false. Likewise, if H (say, Humanism) is true, then all non-H is false. Both views are equally narrow. That’s the way truth is. Each truth claim excludes contradictory truth claims. Christianity is no more narrow than is any other set of beliefs, whether atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, or pantheism.
The claim that those who believe in absolute truth are dogmatic misses the point. If all truth is absolute—true for all people, times, and places—everyone who claims anything is true is “dogmatic.” Even the relativist who claims relativism is true is dogmatic. For the person who claims that relativism is absolutely true is particularly dogmatic. This person claims to own the only absolute truth that can be uttered, namely, that everything else is relative.
Something important is overlooked in this charge of dogmatism. There is a big difference between the pejorative charge that belief in absolute truth is dogmatic and the manner in which someone may hold to this belief. No doubt the manner with which many absolutists have held to and conveyed their beliefs has been less than humble. However, no agnostic would consider it a telling argument against agnosticism that some agnostics communicate their beliefs in a dogmatic manner.
Nonetheless, there is an important distinction to keep in mind: Truth is absolute, but our grasp of it is not. Just because there is absolute truth does not mean that our understanding of it is absolute. This fact in itself should cause the absolutists to temper convictions with humility. For while truth is absolute, our understanding of absolute truth is not absolute. As finite creatures, we grow in our understanding of truth.
Truth may be tested in many ways but it should be understood in only one way. There is one reality, to which statements or ideas must conform in order to be regarded as true. There may be many different ways to defend different truth claims, but there is really only one proper way to define truth, namely, as correspondence. The confusion between the nature of truth and the verification of truth is at the heart of the rejection of a correspondence view of truth.
Likewise, there is a difference between what truth is and what truth does. Truth is correspondence, but truth has certain consequences. Truth itself should not be confused with its results or with its application. The failure to make this distinction leads to wrong views of the nature of truth. Truth is that which corresponds to reality or to the state of affairs it purports to describe. And falsehood is what does not correspond.
Anselm, Truth, Freedom, and Evil
Aristotle. Posterior Analytics
Augustine, Against the Academics
A. Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind
N. L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas, chap. 6
J. F. Harris, Against Relativism
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
Thomas Aquinas, On Truth
D. Wells, God in the Wastelands: No Place for Truth