An Evaluation of Marxist Humanism (Part 1 of 2)

An Evaluation of Marxist Humanism

Part 1 of 2

by Norman L. Geisler

Judged by the standard of political influence, Marxism is the most widespread form of humanism in the world. Its founder, Karl Marx, was born in 1818 to a German Jewish family which was converted to Lutheranism when he was six. As a university student he was influenced heavily by Georg Hegel’s idealism and he adopted Ludwig Feuerbach’s atheism. After some radical political activity, which resulted in expulsion from France in 1845, he teamed up with Friedrich Engels to produce the Communist Manifesto (1848). With the economic support of Engels’s prosperous textile business Marx spent years of research in the British Museum and produced his famous Das Kapital (1867). These and succeeding Marxist writings have bequeathed a form of humanistic thought that is politically dominant in much of the world.

The Marxist View of God and Religion

Even as a college student Marx was a militant atheist who believed that the “criticism of religion is the foundation of all criticism.” For this criticism Marx drew heavily on the radical young Hegelian, Ludwig Feuerbach. Engels admitted that Feuerbach influenced them more than did any other post-Hegelian philosopher. [1] He triumphantly spoke of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity which “with one blow . . . pulverized [religion] . . . in that without circumlocution it placed materialism on the throne again.”[2]

There were three basic premises Marx learned from Feuerbach. First, “the teaching that man is the highest essence for man”[3] was accepted. This means that there is a categorical imperative to over-throw anything—especially religion—which debases man. Secondly, Marx accepted the premise of Feuerbach that “man makes religion, religion does not make man.”[4] In other words, religion is the self-consciousness of man who has lost himself and then found himself again as “God.” Thirdly, Marx also accepted the Feuerbachian belief that “all religion … is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces.”[5] In brief, God is nothing but a projection of human imagination. God did not make man in His image; man has made “God” in his image.

Marx’s atheism, however, went well beyond Feuerbach. Marx agreed with the materialists that “matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter.”[6] That is, he agreed with Feuerbach that man in seeking his origin must look backward to pure matter. Marx, however, objected that Feuerbach did not go forward in the social domain. For Feuerbach by no means wished to abolish religion; he wanted to perfect it.[7] Feuerbach, reasoned Marx, did not see that the “religious sentiment” is itself a social product.[8] Hence “he [did] not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’ of ‘practical-critical,’ activity.”[9] Feuerbach did not realize, in the words of Marxism’s famous slogan, that “religion is the opium of the people.”[10] Man needs to take the drug of religion because this world is not adequate to assure him of his complete and integrated development. So he compensates himself with the image of another, more perfect world.[11]

In going beyond Feuerbach, Marx argued that “nowadays, in our evolutionary conception of the universe, there is absolutely no room for either a Creator or a Ruler; and to talk of a Supreme Being shut out from the whole existing world [as deism does] implies a contra-diction in terms.”[12] Hence, concluded Marx, “the only service that can be rendered to God today is to declare atheism a compulsory article of faith and … [to prohibit] religion generally.”[13]

Marx had no illusions that religion would immediately cease to exist when socialism was adopted. Since religion is but a reflex of the real world, religion will not vanish until the practical relations of everyday life offer to man perfect relations with regard to his fellow men and to nature[14]—that is, until the communist utopia is realized.

 The Marxist View of Man

Basically Marxism holds a materialistic view of man’s origin and nature. This, of course, entails an evolutionary concept of man’s origin.

The Origin of Man

Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859. Marx’s Das Kapital came out only eight years later (in 1867). Evolution for Marx was a helpful addition to his materialistic understanding of the origin of man.[15] “Mind is the product of matter,” he wrote; that is, mind has evolved from material stuff. The nonliving matter has always been; it has produced the living, and finally, the nonintelligent has produced the intelligent (man).

Marx had written his doctoral thesis (at the University of Jena, 1841) on the materialistic philosophies of two early Greek philosophers, Epicurus and Democritus. Then with the subsequent support of Darwinian evolution he could explain the origin of human life as the product of evolutionary processes in a material world—there was no longer any need to speak of God.

The Nature of Man

Marx was not interested in pure philosophy, which he dismissed as mere speculation and quite useless when compared to the vital task of changing the world.[16] Hence he was not particularly interested in philosophical materialism. His being designated a materialist, however, does not mean that he denied mind altogether (as he denied life after death). Rather he believed that everything about man, including his mind, is determined by his material conditions. “For us,” said Marx, “mind is a mode of energy, a function of brain; all we know is that the material world is governed by immutable laws, and so forth.”[17] This view would fit with what philosophers call epiphenomenalism, according to which consciousness is nonmaterial but dependent on material things for its existence.

Karl Marx was more interested in man in the concrete, in man as a social being. He believed that “the real nature of man is the total of social nature.”[18] Apart from the obvious biological facts such as man’s need for food, Marx tended to downplay individual human existence. He believed that what is true of one man at one time in one society is also true of all men at all times in all places.[19] Thus it is not [that] the consciousness of men . . . determines their being, but . . . their social being determines their consciousness.”[20] In short, psychology is reducible to sociology, but sociology is not reducible to psychology.

One important generalization Marx makes about human nature is that man is a socially active being who distinguishes himself from other animals in that he produces his means of subsistence.[21] That is, it is natural for men to work for their living. Thus, Marx concludes, it is right for men to have a life of productive activity, to be workers.

The Alienation of Man

Men who do not find fulfillment in industrial labor will experience alienation. This alienation will be eliminated when private property is done away with.[22] Private property, however, is not the cause but a consequence of alienation.[23] The alienation itself consists in the fact that the work is not part of the worker’s nature. He is not fulfilled in work because it is forced on him so that someone else may be fulfilled Even the objects he produces are alien to him because they are owned by another. The cure for this ill will be the future communist society in which everyone can cultivate his talent by working for the good of the whole commune of mankind.[24] It is in this sense that Marxism is appropriately called a humanism.

The Marxist View of the World and History

 The Dialectic of History

 As has been noted already, Marx’s overall view of the world is materialistic. He uses the term historical materialism to designate that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society.[25] Further, Marx can be classified as a dialectical materialist, following in the tradition of the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.[26] History is unfolding according to a universal dialectical law the outworking of which can be predicted the way an astronomer predicts an eclipse. In the preface to Das Kapital Marx compares his method to that of a physicist: “The ultimate aim of this work is to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society” He also speaks of the natural laws of capitalistic production as “working with iron necessity toward inevitable results.”[27]

The dialectic of modern history is that the thesis of capitalism is opposed by the antithesis of socialism, which will unavoidably give way to the ultimate synthesis of communism. History is predetermined like the course of the stars, except that the laws governing history are not mechanical but economic in nature. Man is economically determined. That is, “the mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life.”[28] This, of course, does not mean that man is determined solely by economic factors. Marx means only that the economic is the primary or dominant influence on man’s social character. Engels emphatically proclaimed, “More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.”[29]

The Future of Capitalism

 On the basis of his assumption that the dialectic of history is carried out by means of economic determinism, Marx confidently predicted that capitalism would become increasingly unstable and that the class struggle between the bourgeoisie (ruling class) and the proletariat (working class) would intensify. The poor would become larger and poorer until, by a major social revolution, they would seize power and institute the new communist phase of history.[30]

The fact that these predictions did not come to pass remains an embarrassment to Marxist theory. It casts doubt on the scientific and predictive value of orthodox Marxism.

The Future Communistic Utopia

According to Marx, capitalism has internal problems which will eventually lead to a communistic economic system. For as the masses become more numerous and the capitalists fewer, the latter will control great concentrations of productive equipment which they will throttle for their own gain. But the masses will then sweep aside the capitalists as a hindrance to production and seize an industrial economy which has been carried to the edge of perfection by self-liquidating capitalism Thus there will emerge a progressive society with no wages, no money, no social classes, and eventually no state. This communist utopia will simply be a free association of producers under their own conscious control. Society will ultimately realize the communist ideal: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”[31] There will, however, be the need for an intermediate period of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[32] But in the higher stage the state will vanish and true freedom will begin.

The Marxist Ethic

There are several characteristic dimensions of the ethics of Marxism. Three of these are relativism, utilitarianism, and collectivism.


 Since Marxism is atheistic, and since, as Nietzsche rioted, when God dies all absolute value dies with Him, it is understandable that Marxist ethics is relativistic. That is, there are no moral absolutes. There are two reasons for this.

First, there is no external, eternal realm. The only absolute is the inexorable progress of the unfolding dialectic of history. Engels wrote, “We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatever as an eternal, ultimate and forever immutable law on the pretext that the moral world has its permanent principles which transcend history.”[33]

Secondly, there is no such thing as a nature or essence of man which could serve as a foundation for general principles of human conduct. Man’s ideas of good and evil are determined by man’s concrete place in the socioeconomic structure. In brief, class struggle generates its own ethic.


On what basis are one’s actions regarded as moral? The answer is, they are regarded as moral if they serve to create a new communist society. Actions can be justified by their end. Lenin once defined morality as that which serves to destroy the exploiting capitalistic society and to unite workers in creating a new communist society,[34] in effect saying that the end justifies the means.[35] This is the communist’s equivalent of utilitarianism’s “greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” Whatever promotes the ultimate cause of communism is good, and what hinders it is evil.


Another feature of Marxist ethics is that the universal transcends the individual. This is a heritage from Hegel, who believed that the perfect life is possible only when the individual is organically integrated into the ethical totality. For Marx, however, the highest ethical totality is not the state (as it was for Hegel) but “universal freedom of will.” Note that this “freedom” is not individual but corporate and universal. The difference from Hegel is that the emphasis is shifted from the state to society, from the body politic to the body public.

According to Marx, in the perfect society private morals are eliminated and the ethical ideals of the community are achieved. This will be accomplished, of course, by material production. For material production determines religion, metaphysics, and morality.[36]

An Evaluation of Marxist Humanism

 Several aspects of Marxism call for comment here. Some comments will be of a positive nature; a large number, however, will point out weaknesses in Marx’s philosophy.

Positive Contributions of Marxism

Marx’s concern for the condition of workers is to be commended. Working conditions in Europe and North America are vastly improved today from those of over a century ago when Marx wrote and this is at least partially due to the pressure applied by Marxists. Likewise, Marx is certainly right in attacking the view that workers are merely a means to the end of capitalistic gain. Thus there has been a significant humanistic contribution in that Marxist philosophy places man over money.

Another positive contribution of Marxism has been its corrective on unlimited and uncontrolled capitalism. Any system which permits the rich to get richer and makes the poor poorer without limits is bound to produce ethical abuses. In the ancient Jewish economy this possibility was checked by the Year of Jubilee (every fiftieth year), when acquisitions were returned to their original owners.[37]

Finally, the millennial aspirations of Marxism are noble. Indeed, the Marxist philosophy of history encourages men to work toward the goal of overcoming the perceived evils of the present world. It is this humanistic vision which has captured the imagination and dedication of many young thinkers.

Negative Features of Marxism

Marxism is subject to numerous critiques. We will briefly indicate some of the more significant ones.

First, the dogmatic atheism of Marxism is unfounded. It is self-defeating to insist that God is nothing but a projection of human imagination. “Nothing but” statements presume “more than” knowledge. One cannot know that God is confined to imagination unless one’s knowledge goes beyond mere imagination.

Second, Marx’s deterministic view of history is ill founded. Not only is it contrary to fact—since things have not worked out as Marx predicted—but it is a category mistake to assume that economic influence works like physical laws.

Third, a materialistic view of man ignores the rich spiritual and religious aspects of human nature, to say nothing of the evidence for man’s immateriality and immortality.

Fourth, in its strongest form ethical relativism is self-destructive. The absolute denial of absolutes cuts its own throat. And to replace one absolute with another (the communist end) does not avoid absolutism. Also, the fallacies of the “end justifies the means” ethic are infamous.

Fifth, Marxism holds out an admirably idealistic goal (a human utopia) but has a miserable record of achievement. Life in Marxist countries has been more like hell than heaven. While the goal of a perfect community is desirable, the revolutionary means of achieving it is highly dubious. Every country that experienced a communist revolution ended up seeing a system that is even more repressive and oppressive than the flawed system it displaced. Where the standard of living improved for some in the short term it was at the expense of the many whose property and wealth was seized while they were murdered, sent to labor camps for reeducation, or sent to collective farms to serve as slave labor. And ultimately the promise of equality for all proved to be equal poverty and oppression for the people while the few at the top enjoyed what little wealth was left over. Also the means for maintaining the system—brainwashing campaigns, fear of the secret police force, networks of secret informers, etc.—after failing to deliver on its promises is dystopian. From a Christian perspective the means of transforming mankind is not revolution and reprogramming but regeneration. It begins not with the birth of a new government but with the birth of new men and new women—that is, the new birth (John 3:5).

Sixth, Marx’s view of capitalistic systems was short-sighted, shallow, and based on a stereotype. While his critique of the unbridled, compassionless capitalism at work England in the nineteenth century was warranted and insightful, it wrongly assumed that capitalist systems were impossible to gently reform in a politically and the only possible option was a violent and bloody overthrow. Marx was wrong. Several capitalistic countries were able to implement several types of reforms and implement controls without violence.[38]

Seventh, Marx’s view of religion is superficial. He should have heeded his father’s exhortation to him at age seventeen: “Faith [in God] is a real [requirement] of man sooner or later, and there are moments in life when even the atheist is [involuntarily] drawn to worship the Almighty.”[39] Or better yet, in view of his later tumultuous life and the revolutions his thought has precipitated in the world, Marx should have applied his own earlier thoughts:

Union with Christ bestows inner exaltation, consolation in suffering, calm assurance, and a heart which is open to love of mankind, to all that is noble, to all that is great, not out of ambition, not through the desire of fame, but only because of Christ.[40]

Karl Marx’s own father feared it was the desire for fame which transformed Karl’s Christian conscience into a demonic passion. In March 1837 he admonished his ambitious son:

From time to time, my heart revels in the thoughts of you and your future. And yet, from time to time, I cannot escape the sad, suspicious, fearful thoughts that strike like lightning: Does your heart match your head and your talents? Does it have room for the earthly but gentler feelings that are such an essential consolation to the sensitive human being in this vale of sorrows? Is the demon, which is clearly not given to or dominated by everybody, of a celestial or a Faustian nature?[41]



[1] See Marx and Engels on Religion, ed. Reinhold Niebuhr (New York: Schocken, 1964), 214.

[2] Ibid, 224.

[3] Ibid, 50.

[4] Ibid, 41.

[5] Ibid, 147.

[6] Ibid, 231.

[7] Ibid, 237.

[8] Ibid, 71.

[9] Ibid, 69.

[10] Ibid, 35.

[11] Ibid, 36.

[12] Ibid, 295. Even agnosticism was rejected by Marx: “What, indeed, is agnosticism but, to use an expressive Lancashire term, ‘shamefaced’ materialism? The agnostic conception of nature is materialistic throughout.”

[13] Ibid, 143.

[14] Ibid, 136.

[15] At Marx’s burial, Engels eulogized him saying, “just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution human history.” Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers. (Simon and Shuster: New York: 1986) 170

[16] See Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, trans. T. B. Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 82.

[17] Marx and Engels on Religion, 298.

[18] Marx, Selected Writings, 83.

[19] Ibid, 91-92.

[20] Ibid, 67.

[21] Ibid, 69.

[22] Ibid, 250.

[23] Ibid, 176.

[24] Ibid, 177, 253.

[25] Marx and Engels on Religion, 298.

[26] Hegel himself rejected this dialectic, though it is commonly attributed to him. See Gustav E. Mueller, “The Hegel Legend of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis,” Journal of the History of Ideas 19, no. 3 (1958): 411-414.

[27] Das Kapital, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, in Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 19521, vol.50, 6.

[28] Marx, Selected Writings, 67; cf. 70, 90, 111ff.

[29] Marx and Engels on Religion, 274.

[30] See Marx, Selected Writings, 79-80, 147ff., 236.

[31] Ibid, 263.

[32] Ibid, 261.

[33] Quoted in R. N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism. New York: Macmillan, 1962), 87-88.

[34] Ibid, 89.

[35] Some neo-Marxists have rejected this, insisting that means are subject to the same moral principles as the end. But they have thereby departed from orthodox Marxism. See George H. Hampsch, The Theory of Communism (Secaucus, N. J.: Citadel, 1965), 127.

[36] See Marx, The Communist Manifesto, ed. Samuel H. Beer (New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1955), 177.

[37] Leviticus 25.

[38] Robert L. Heilbroner. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers. (Touchstone: 1986). 166-169.

[39] Letter from Trier, November 18, 1835.

[40] Written by Marx between August 10 and 16, 1835.

[41] Saul K. Padover, Karl Marx: An Intimate Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978), 97.

Copyright 1983, 2016 – Norman L. Geisler –  All rights reserved

This essay is adapted from Chapter Five of Norman Geisler’s Is Man the Measure? An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism (Wipf & Stock: 1983). It will also be reproduced in Norm’s forthcoming book Is Man the Measure: An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism and Transhumanism (Bastion Books: 2017).

Read Part 2 of 2 here.

The Concept of Truth in the Inerrancy Debate

The Concept of Truth in the Inerrancy Debate

Copyright Norman L. Geisler, 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


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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).



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.

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.



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).



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.



[This was originally published in Bibliotheca Sacra, October-December 1980]

[Optical character recognition had a few glitches that will need to be corrected later.]