Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” and Jesus gave no reply… Pilate was looking at the answer and could not see; that’s why he asked. A word did not need to be spoken, for the Word was in flesh, standing in front of him. The answer was incarnated and positioned before his very eyes. Jesus is the Truth. God revealed himself in flesh, and Pilate — a man with eyes and ears — couldn’t see or hear. It is by the Holy Spirit that we ourselves look upon Jesus and find the answer to Pilate’s question. The answer has been revealed. Yet, people still ask, “What is truth?”
In this article, I want to explore ways of talking about truth, then I want to apply it to a Mormon article that recently appeared in an Evangelical journal (the Midwestern Journal of Theology, Spring 2010: 115-118, published by the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary).
I. Truth in Context
Whenever the word ‘truth’ comes up in a conversation, we would do well to take into account the context of the conversation. In the case of Pilate, the context is Jesus. When he asked his question, a math class was not the context. The context of Pilate’s question was the cosmic court case of Adam’s Family vs. God with Pilate acting as judge. The idea of context is important to grasp when the word ‘truth’ is employed.
1. Facts Are Facts Everywhere
We might not think that context matters for the word ‘truth’, because truth is truth no matter its context. For example, my laptop computer works in all parts of the world just the same because context does not determine circuit logic. True facts are true fact no matter where we go (e.g., the logic that led to the construction of the computer retains its validity no matter where I travel). With this simplistic way of viewing the subject of truth, the words ‘true’ and ‘truth’ are thus treated as contextless. And so it seems strange that anyone would argue for a context with regard to the word ‘truth’ when it is used in a particular conversation.
2. When Context Matters
The word ‘truth’ is contextually conditioned because language is conditioned by cultural and social structures. This does not mean that reality changes from place to place (my computer works wherever I go), but the way people speak about reality is contextually delimited. I am not talking about a contradiction here, I am talking about the language of ‘truth’ and how that word, like all other words, is not really context-less.
Reality is always reality wherever one is, but the language of ‘truth’ is not thereby a special category of language that escapes the forces that other words face (the forces of context). In literature, words are not the smallest units of thought, sentences are. Sentences and paragraphs (not the dictionary) are the forces that drive the meanings of the individual words. This is as meaningful for the words ‘true’, ‘false’ and ‘truth’ as for other common words like ‘love’, ‘draft’ or ‘shoe.’ We know that the last three find their meanings in context of usage, so too the first three.
For example, it is valid to speak of ‘truth’ in the context of a math class without introducing the ways of speaking about truth found in an art or religious class. This is not to say that truth is relative, it is to say that when speaking about truth in a particular subject, the particulars matter.
There are particular ways to speak about truth (depending on the subject) and then there are big-picture abstract ways. For me, the word ‘truth’, all by itself, evokes thoughts about abstract categories and big-picture notions of absolute truth. However, a conversation about truth can be either particular or abstract. To that end, I want to examine both. I want to spend the rest of this article looking at some abstract statements about truth, then I want to look at the particulars of the Gospel of John (so that you can see the differences). Following that, I want to examine a Mormon article by Grant Palmer where he mixes all of this up, and finally I want to give you the helpful categories of Roger Nicole that nicely capture all of this.
II. Abstract Statements About Truth
As I mentioned, it is possible to speak in particular about truth (in an algebra discussion, for example) and it is equally valid to speak about the subject in big abstract categories. The following authors provide big categorical statements about truth:
Alan Padgett: Truth is “the mediated disclosure of being”
Bertrand Russell: “A belief is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact.”
Augustine: “Truth is that which points to what is.”
William Alston: “A statement is true if and only if what the statement says to be the case actually is the case.”
These men are postulating that truth is that which corresponds to reality. In their definitions, there are two things: (1) what is spoken and (2) what is. Reality is one thing, and speaking about it is another. A statement, then, can have likeness to reality. It can correspond to it. Of course, these definitions have no way of establishing what is reality, and therefore assume that some reality exists and can be represented (perhaps this is why Russell also included the word ‘belief’ in his definition).
I will join with others and call this the correspondence theory of truth. And it is a highly useful way for us to think about the big and abstract idea of truth. At the same time, I am going to propose that it is insufficient (not wrong, but insufficient) when we get to talking about Jesus and the Gospel of John. Before we get there, I think I can inductively make the case of its insufficiency from common subjects, like art and math.
Given the above abstract statements about truth, what do we do with questions of this sort: Can art represent reality? Can art be true or false?
The questions may seem valid, but they may be like asking what my favorite color of Algebra is. Namely, mixing propositional truth and art requires us to make an uneasy shift in interpretation of the words, ‘true’ and ‘false’ and finally ‘truth’. It involves us in an acceptable fuzziness in categories, if you will, but it pushes the limit of words — and crossing that limit might lead to Algebra I students saying things like, “the root of the polynomial is soft and lovely, a light blue.” We may speak that way for the sake of enjoyment, because we know that language allows us be so silly and cross such boundaries, but when we do, we are obviously open are honest about it (that is, we are not term-switching in a covert or subversive way).
Truth, then, has application across language boundaries so long as we don’t break boundaries in manipulative ways (as when we subversively term-switch or use a word with a nuanced meaning while knowing that our audience has missed the switch or has a different meaning). The theologian Francis Shaeffer spent much of his life arguing for truth in art and culture, and many of us know inductively that he was not thereby violating propositional logic by applying the category of truth to art. We know that the language of truth is big enough to work this way. The authors as quoted above have narrowly applied truth to the descriptive use of words. And that is fine. But I am proposing that there is yet a third way that the language of truth is functional, particularly in talking about Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John.
III. Jesus and The Gospel of John
Jesus said to him, “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Unlike the abstract definitions of truth given by Padgett, Augustine, Russell and Alston, Jesus is not saying that he is that which corresponds to reality. He is the reality. Truth is not a super-set to which God is a sub-set, nor is truth an abstract entity outside of God that God then corresponds to or matches.
Misinterpreting John 14:6 by using the wrong definition of truth leads to two points of confusion.
1) The first being that truth becomes an eternal category independent of God — which is to say that God is eternal along with an abstract category called “truth.” When we do this with truth, we easily end up having Father, Son and Holy Spirit and then something of a fourth person of the Trinity called Eternal Truth (that which God himself conforms to).
2) The second point of confusion caused by misinterpreting John 14:6 is to wrench Jesus out of his Old Testament context. This second point is worth expanding.
Jesus and Truth in the Old Testament Context
In the Gospel of John, the word “truth” is regularly used as that which is over and against the temporary. It is that which the provisional was signifying. The Old Testament types and shadows were the transient, but the antitype is permanent. The Old Testament temple was a copy, Jesus is the reality. He is the True. When Jesus spoke of himself as “truth” he was not referring to truth as it might be employed to describe art, math, nor the correspondence theory of truth (which is not to say that he never uses truth that way). In this instance, he was speaking in reference to the Old Testament.
This is especially helpful when we get to John 1:17, which says, “For the Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” What this is not saying is that the Law of Moses was false. The word truth, in this text, is not being used as one might expect. In fact, in hearing this uncritically, one might ask, “Wait a minute. What is truth then?” For here truth is that which is the reality of which the Law of Moses was anticipating. The Law pointed to Christ; Christ is the Truth and the Law is the copy. This is how the book of Hebrews describes the matter (see especially chapter 9).
The Gospel of John is sure to nail down that Jesus is the true temple and true sacrifice, to which the Old Testament copies were but shadowy pointers. Jesus-Truth is that which is over and against Sinai-Shadow.
This is instructive, for when an author, like Grant Palmer, claims that truth of Jesus can be found outside the Bible (perhaps in other so-called sacred books), they are term-switching. They are using ideas of truth that are not developed around the relationship of Jesus to the Old Covenant. They are filling up the word truth with a meaning from a different context, and then applying it to their holy books. In this way, they can say that the Holy Spirit is inspiring all kinds of books, especially where Jesus is found accurately described according to the rules of propositional logic. Truth, in this way, becomes a weapon against Truth.
IV. Grant Palmer in the Midwestern Journal of Theology
In a recent article that appeared in the Spring 2010 Midwestern Journal of Theology (v. 8.2/9.1, pp. 115-118), Grant Palmer used the word “truth” as an ironic weapon to attack the Truth. He argued that the Book of Mormon can be a place of truth used by the Holy Spirit to bring people to Christ:
The Holy Spirit may well tell a person the Book of Mormon is true because it testifies and brings a person to Christ, who is Truth, but not whether the Book of Mormon’s theological doctrines are true (Palmer, 117).
The editor or the journal — who inserted editorial comment one sentence later — issued no challenge to Grant’s presuppositions and derivative fallacies. So I want to comment now, and I want to use the above discussion about truth as my platform for clarity.
In this representative quote, Grant Palmer has performed a triple-salchow fallacy. That is, his error has three twists, and it is all bound up in him saying that the Holy Spirit may well use the book of Mormon to reveal Jesus because the book testifies to Christ.
1. First Twist
Palmer cleverly uses the language Christians use when they talk about the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to scripture. When I say “cleverly”, I am not referring to his motives (I don’t think he was trying to be clever) but his results. That is, when we talk about the Holy Spirit and his use of a book, the conversation is a technical one about inspiration and the Bible. The subject is not about any supposedly sacred book in general, but it is about the one sacred book in particular, the Bible.
When we speak of the Holy Spirit and his use of a book, we are in the domain of theology related to Scripture Inspiration. When Grant applied that domain of discourse to the book of Mormon, he co-opted the terms for his own purposes (unwittingly or otherwise), and that was the first spin of his triple fallacy.
This fallacy is subtle because if a person said that the Holy Spirit can lead people to Jesus through, say, some particular edition of Sports Illustrated, we would know that the conversation is not technically about Inspiration and Scripture, but probably has to do with an especially good article in the magazine that exalts Jesus. But Grant Palmer (again, unchallenged by the editor — who did use his pen to clarify something about Mormonism) took the Christian language of Inspiration and applied it to the book of Mormon, and, oddly enough he did it in a way reminiscent of Protestant Liberalism (where scripture is said to be that which contains the Word of God).
If I stretch Palmer’s argument, I think I can demonstrate that this fallacy is not really as subtle as I first implied. If someone wrote the same article but replaced book of Mormon with Koran, the article would not have been printed by the Midwestern Journal of Theology. And that reveals, in my mind, an incredible lack of care regarding the publishing of truth. Is the Journal implying that a Mormon is closer to being a Christian than is a Muslim? Is the Journal implying that a Mormon is a Christian of a different denomination?
I think the Journal unintentionally did imply this when it published the article, unedited, as is. I take that back, the editor did insert a few comments. The editor had a willingness to guard for accuracy, and he showed it [by inserting square bracket comments] when Grant went technical regarding the minutia of Mormon theology. Alas, he did not use his square brackets regarding the larger and more important points I raise here.
The confusing part of this whole business is the very appearance of Grant’s article in an Evangelical journal. I do not believe that the Westminster Theological Journal would have published this article. I do not believe that the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society would have published this article. So why did the Midwestern Journal of Theology? Is this a move on their part to expand the tent of Christianity to include sincere Mormons who have Jesus plus their other testaments? I don’t think so, therefore clarity would be welcome from the Journal.
2. Twist Number Two
The second twist in Grant’s statement about the Holy Spirit and truth in the Book of Mormon, is that he takes the idea of truth and turns it into nothing other than the subject of propositional logic. That is, against all that is written above regarding Jesus and his relationship to the Old Testament, Grant reinterprets Jesus on the basis of a pure correspondence theory of truth, and leaves us with the impression that John 14:6 is a doorway to find Jesus any place we find a non-contradicting statement about a personage who has the five-letter name, ‘Jesus.’ For example, the Koran mentions a Jesus as an historical figure, so Grant must conclude that the Koran — in those instances, at least — is conforming to what is written in John 14:6.
And that means that Grant is able to find Jesus anywhere he finds something agreeable to his ideas of Jesus. In fact, he has replaced “burning in the bosom” theology with “agreeable to my experience” theology. In this way, he has not moved from the the bosom of the Latter Day Saints, but has merely made himself more comfortable. Claiming to be different than the LDS, he is just like them only with the words of Protestant Liberalism dripping from his pen.
3. Twist Number Three
The third twist to all of this is that many Americans already seem to view their experiences as the test of truth. Upstart religious movements feed on experience. And Grant is leveraging that hunger. Indeed, he names as “Holy Spirit” those experiences which conform to his ideas of Jesus. American experiential theology loves this stuff. So Grant is using that to his advantage.
When Grant talks about the work of the Holy Spirit, he really is talking about himself. By “Holy Spirit”, he means Grant Palmer, as when he speaks for the Spirit this way:
Nor does the Spirit confirm the truth or falsity of whether the Book of Mormon is a real record of historical people of the distant past (Palmer, 118).
By which he means that he himself does not need the Book of Mormon to be historically true for it to be what he calls “religious truth” (116). This is Grant speaking, and the Holy Spirit is supposedly in agreement — not because the Bible says so, but because Grant Palmer says so. Therefore, when Grant finds agreeable truth about Jesus in the Book of Mormon, he says that the Holy Spirit is there giving his imprimatur. He ascribes to God that which really reflects a Mormon. Grant, following Feuerbach’s dictum, is projecting his highest hopes and dreams into the metaphysical realm and calling it “Holy Spirit.” Americans love this stuff. Any good experience can be named Holy Spirit by the religious person who wants to have his theology and not have the real God. Grant is advocating a made-up truth, and not the reality, who is Jesus.
4. Perfect Landing
The final irony in Grant’s triple-fallacy has already been articulated. Namely, by being published unchallenged regarding these major fallacies (and more besides), he has landed his triple-salchow jump and proven that Evangelicals can accidentally gloss over a lie as long as it has the name of truth. He has proven how easy it is to be unaware of the use of Truth in the Gospel of John. He has proven the ease with which Christian-like language can be printed so that the true religion is switched for fallen thoughts. He has proven that a Liberal use of the right words can liberate truth from its context so that false can become the new true.
Note: When I say that Grant Palmer was published unchallenged, I don’t mean that the editor failed to reveal that Grant is Mormon and the Journal is not. This was made explicit, but in an insufficient way. That is, when the editor did distinguish between the Journal and Grant Palmer, it was in terms of Baptist vs. Mormon (as if the distance is merely denominational). I don’t imagine that a Muslim or a Jehovah’s Witness would have been afforded the same benefits.
V. Rodger Nicole with Some Helpful Categories
Earlier I mentioned that the subject of truth is not relative, but that the context of any discussion where the word ‘truth’ is used, is relevant. If we are talking about math and use ‘truth’, that is relevant to understanding the way in which truth is being discussed. Roger Nicole in Scripture and Truth (ed. Carson and Woodbrdige), identifies various uses of “truth” in the Bible. In the Old Testament, he says it often means, “faithfulness” — as in a dependable person, with the opposite being a deceitful person. It can also mean “conformity to fact”, “as when we read a true report.” Finally, it can mean “completeness”, and this is where he zeros-in specifically on the Gospel of John. It is well established that John explores distinctive characteristics of the Trinity, and to do it he powerfully quotes Jesus’ truth statements. And in doing so, the Gospel of John, like the book of Hebrews, establishes a unique context for understanding the word ‘truth’ in relationship to Jesus being the consummate reality anticipated by the Old Testament types.
When Dr. Nicole identifies three ways that truth is used, he is not opening the door to relativism. He is not giving up on absolutes. He is simply identifying the categorical ways that the word ‘truth’ can be used. He is doing with it what scholars do with all words, and scholars of the Bible are particularly keen on identifying the ways words are used. Grant Palmer, without making any of these distinctions — instead mixing up abstract statements and particular ideas — seems to have no regard for the categories as identified by Dr. Nicole.
To support Dr. Nicole’s thesis about John’s use of ‘true’ and ‘truth’, I want to direct your attention to the much earlier article by G. Vos’ “‘True’ and ‘Truth’ in the Johannine Writings” (1927). This article is useful for reading the Gospel of John, and I can’t remember how I used to read John without its insights.
The Gospel of John predominately uses the words true and truth in a way that Roger Nicole calls “completeness.” But John is unique; it is possible to speak about truth in ways other than that which is complete. This is not because there are many truths, but as Dr. Nicole has written, we can analyze how truth, “is used [in scripture] and what is the range and substance of meaning that it bears.”
Having done that here, we see that there are particular and abstract ways of speaking about truth. And if we mix those categories, we can switch terms on people (we can equivocate) and use truth against truth. This is precisely what Grant Palmer has done in his article published in the last edition of the Midwestern Journal of Theology.
Grant Palmer co-opted the doctrine of Inspiration by stealing its language. He named his own experiences and feelings, “Holy Spirit”; he claimed to distance himself from LDS theology, but did nothing more than employ the methods of Protestant Liberals who have long been performing the same maneuvers with the Bible. Most of all, Grant Palmer uses the word ‘truth’ in a way that will easily trick the uncritical reader who himself may have not thought through the observations of Dr. Nicole and Geerhardus Vos.
That his article was allowed to be published without a challenge to these fatal flaws (yet with editorial notes attached to other aspects of his article) was surely an oversight.
1. Before publishing my reply here, I contacted Dr. Ron Huggins (a very careful minded fellow, and a very good scholar). Dr. Huggins is the editor of the Midwestern Journal of Theology, I asked him for his review of this piece, especially given this blog’s large monthly readership; I asked him to let me know about publishing the review here, and he encouraged me to post it. Of course, anyone from the Midwestern Journal of Theology is free to elaborate in the comment section below on any points raised.
2. I don’t question Grant Palmer’s motives. I use language in this article that could imply otherwise. However, I assume that Grant is completely sincere, and that he is not trying to trick anyone. My point is that his words are tricky — fallacies often are — but a person can easily engage in fallacious argumentation without knowingly doing it. “Clever” is a pretty good word to describe his maneuvers, but not because he was consciously attempting any clever moves. He may be completely unaware of the nuances that I write about here, but that does not make the nuances go away, and so it is still important to address the topic as I have.
3. The reader should note that the Midwestern Journal of Theology did publish a reply article in the following edition of the Journal.