Does Absolute Truth Exist?
By Reed Benson
We are engaged in a great philosophical debate in our society and many do not even know it. That is not necessarily surprising since the nature of this dispute is so basic. For many people who have grown up with the Bible to even ask the question, "Does truth exist?" is like asking them, "Did I have a mother?" The answer, at least for someone strongly connected to Scripture, is so obvious, so intuitive, that to suggest otherwise must mean you are either high on drugs or deeply confused.
However, for millions of Americans that came of age since the 1960s when our society took such great pains to formally disconnect from the Bible, the question is honestly posed, and to simply brush it off as unworthy of answering will only cement those millions in their assumption that truth really does not exist. They will assume that Christians of an old-fashioned sort cannot prove otherwise.
The postmodern premise that truth is completely relative and does not exist in any absolute form has permeated our society at every level. We can find it embedded in media commentary, government policy, university dogma, and now unfortunately, our churches. Indeed, it is in the theology now becoming popular in our churches that the most virulent form of this epistemological problem is found.
Truth and the Emerging Church
The Emerging Church movement is hard to define, but it is permeated with postmodern thought and an eclectic menagerie of practices. Built from the youth and teenagers that are leaving traditional churches and traditional Christian doctrines in droves, the Emerging Church movement takes as axiomatic the premise that truth does not exist. Truth cannot be known. Truth is entirely subjective and therefore irrelevant in any social order. The Emerging Church now numbers in the millions, is quite comfortable with liberal political ideals, and is uniquely tailored to the young White middle classes of the United States. It is a vague potpourri of ideas that argue that the Kingdom of God is emerging from amongst us. There are no real doctrines, commandments, or rules. Indeed, the only unswerving principle that is binding is the precept that truth is unknowable. Truth cannot be found in Scripture or in the natural world. In their words, there is no "propositional truth." They are not redefining Christianity; for that implies a new set of rules, a new batch of precepts that are accepted as truth. No, they are, as they say, "undefining" Christianity.
The Emerging Church insists that "true" and "false" are not even valid categories by which a debate is framed, for if nothing is universally true, then neither is anything false. They claim to be Christians and they use the Bible, but Scripture is primarily used for "conversational purposes." It is not the only source of truth, nor is it completely truthful, but it is provocative. This movement tends to embrace many practices of ancient Christianity such as chants, pilgrimages, singing, use of candles, and even a modern form of monasticism, but it assiduously avoids preaching, creeds, and doctrine. The movement is quick to embrace many other practices that have no connection to historic Christianity. Some of these include labyrinths, contemplative prayer, breath prayer, spiritual dancing, and video loops. Many intelligent people are drawn to the Emerging Church movement, yet it is unscholarly, for that implies a search for universal truth.
Leaders of the movement include Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Stanley Grenz, Josh Reich, Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and most notable yet slippery of all, Rick Warren. Consider just a few statements by emerging church leaders. "Emergent doesn’t have a position on absolute truth, or on anything for that matter. Do you show up at a dinner party with your neighbors and ask ‘What’s this dinner party’s position on absolute truth?’ No, you don’t because it’s a nonsensical question."—Tony Jones. "To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall."—Brian McLaren. "Can Christian theology make any claim to speak objective truth in a context in which various communities offer diverse paradigms each of which is ultimately theological?"—Stanley Grenz. "The problem with the critics here is that they think they have a superior timeless gospel that floats above any culture . . ."—Brian McLaren. "Church should be like a dance club"—Josh Reich. So what do we say? How do we answer them when they insist that universal truth does not exist?
Truth and the Ancient Greeks
This is not a new debate. The ancient Greek philosophers had a raging controversy on the very point of whether or not absolute truth exists. Over a period of about seven centuries, the curiosity of the Greeks stimulated them to investigate every aspect of the natural world and the human soul. The scores of Greek philosophers whose writings are available are classed in two broad categories, the Socratics and the pre-Socratics. The hinge that divides the two groups is Socrates, that odd fellow who was condemned by the leaders of Athens for "corrupting the youth," and could have escaped, but chose instead to drink the hemlock and perish.
What was so special about Socrates? Only one thing—he argued that truth existed, was knowable, and was absolute. He was not the only philosopher to argue thus, but he was among the first of what soon became a whole raft of such thinkers. Now Socrates genuinely was unusual in his personal habits, but "corruption of the youth" was not his real crime. His true offense was his loud opposition to Athens’ protracted war against Sparta. Deemed unpatriotic, he had to be silenced. Before Socrates, nearly all Greek thinkers agreed that truth was simply a tool of the powerful; might makes right. He who has the power to make the rules and enforce them also has the privilege to establish truth. But Socrates insisted that truth exists independently of all else. He persisted in his opposition to the war with Sparta by saying that the conflict was morally wrong—win or lose, Athens was wrong to have precipitated the war. It had no just cause and should not be fighting. So they had to get rid of him.
In the end, Athens lost. But in the century that followed, Athens was the epicenter of intellectual thought built on the premise that absolute truth does exist, is knowable, and should be uncovered. The Socratic philosophers that followed were multitudinous and generated the bulk of achievements for which ancient Greek civilization is renowned. In mathematics, architecture, sculpture, astronomy, botany, and literature the notion of absolute truth prevailed and yielded abundantly useful results.
The idea that truth was universal and that right and wrong existed independent of outside forces was powerful. As an illustration of this, consider beauty. To the Greeks, even beauty is an absolute, that is, beauty is not subjective or "in the eye of the beholder." They derived this from their observation of a naturally occurring mathematical pattern now known as the Fibonacci Sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, etc. or a ratio of 1 to 1.618). Numerous plants and animals display this in their physical structure (flower petals, leaf arrangements, seashells, etc.). The Greeks applied this ratio to architecture and sculpture to produce what they believed was the ideal form of beauty, which they called the Golden Ratio. Incidentally, the ideal Caucasian facial structure most closely reflects this ratio among all races. Now the point of this illustration is to emphasize how powerful is the idea that truth exists, exists independently, and may indeed exist in aspects of life that most people assume is simply a matter of subjective opinion.
Two eminent Greek thinkers followed in this tradition and are household names. The most prominent disciple of Socrates was Plato, and following him came Aristotle. By degrees, these three, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle moved Greek thinking from pagan polytheism to intellectual monotheism thus preparing the Greek world for Saint Paul and the establishment of the New Testament Church, which was in all essentials, Greek. Socrates paved the way by persuading Greeks that absolute truth does exist. Plato added to this and persuaded the Greek world that not only does truth exist, but it exists perpetually, and that truth is a reflection of divinity. Truth is Logos, a word that is an image of the world of the divine. Much later, when Greeks read the gospel of John and saw John’s comments, they immediately thought of Plato: "In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word [Logos] was with God, and the Word [Logos] was God . . . and the Word [Logos] was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (John 1:1,14). Aristotle made the final step that logic could accomplish (human reason has its limits) and argued that the natural world was the consequence of a single divine being and a reflection of God’s truth and person. The natural world’s orderliness and precision, according to Aristotle, meant that a single Creator had to exist from whom all truth flowed. Who was that Creator? Aristotle did not know and did not say. But not long afterward St. Paul did.
Truth in the New Testament Church
When the Greek world embraced Christianity immediately following St. Paul’s evangelical efforts, they went to work crafting careful theological positions built from Scripture. Exercising a careful blend of faith and reason, the basic tenets of Christianity were hammered out. It is no coincidence that the majority of the writings of the Early Church Fathers were written in Greek, as was most of the New Testament. Creeds and formal statements of the early Church councils were all founded on the premise that truth exists, is absolute, is independent of outside forces, is knowable, should be defined, and must be defended.
Soon the Latin world was embracing Greek Christianity. Standing on the broad intellectual shoulders of Greeks Christians such as Justin Martyr and Athanasius (from who we are indebted for the Athanasian Creed) came the most influential of early Christian thinkers, Augustine. A Latin speaking Roman, Augustine came from Latin North Africa, and proved to be an intellectual titan. He was educated in basic Christian precepts as well as Classical Greek Platonic thought. After flirting with the Manichean heresy he was converted. He had always been attracted to the Greek philosophers and their search for wisdom—for indeed that is what the word philosopher means—but became riveted when he read 1 Corinthians 1:24 which states that, "Christ [is] . . . the wisdom of God." From the Greek point of view that meant that Christ was the visible image of the Creator and was wisdom itself. Augustine believed Christ was what the philosophers had been searching for. Coupled with John 14:6 which reads, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man cometh to the Father, but by me," Augustine perceived that Christ was, in more than just a figurative sense, the fountainhead and source of truth. Christ was divine. He was equal to, in, and of God the Father. It was not simply that truth was found in Christ—Jesus was nothing but truth; pure truth, pure wisdom, clean and bright, unsullied by anything less than perfection.
The idea that Jesus Christ was absolute truth revolutionized Augustine’s life. It catapulted him to a high position in the Latin Church which forced him to think, write, and defend the orthodox Christian faith. He wrote voluminously: Confessions, On Christian Doctrine, On Free Will, City of God, On the Trinity, On Predestination of the Saints, On the Merits and Remission of Sin and the Baptism of Infants, and numerous other works. Indeed, Augustine defined many of the terms used in theology ever since—words like doctrine, corporeal, corruption, election, essence, substance, grace, fall, faith, original sin, person, sacrament, sign, soul, and will. Some of these words originated in the Bible while others were coined by Augustine, but he imprinted a lasting meaning on all of them. Without Augustine, theologians since his time would hardly have been able to hold a conversation with one another.
What is vital to recognize about Augustine and the other writers of the early Church is that truth was recognized as absolute. Men lived their lives searching for the truth of Christ. Men argued, debated, defined, and fought for the truth of Christ. Men and ladies sacrificed to defend the truth of Christ. Men and women were fed to the lions for the truth of Christ. Not just any truth, but the truth of Christ, for He was and is truth. Christ alone is truth.
Truth in the Middle Ages
Throughout the Middle Ages the presuppositions of Augustine defined the direction of Christian Europe. Anselm, William of Ockham, Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and a battery of other intellectuals refined the work of Augustine, comparing and contrasting his deep thoughts with the Bible and the Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle. These medieval scholars, who developed a worldview known as scholasticism, labored long and hard to reconcile the Bible with the Greek philosophers. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were so admired that some of these scholastics compared these three Greeks with Abraham and other Old Testament saints, suggesting that they were pre-Christian followers of Jehovah.
That is, of course, incorrect. Despite certain admirable qualities, Socrates knew nothing of Jehovah and never openly denied the old pagan gods of Greece. Indeed, one of his last requests was that a friend placate one the pagan gods for him after his death. Plato and Aristotle plainly considered the Greek gods fictitious, but they made no references to Jehovah in their voluminous writings.
The effort of scholasticism was impossible. While the Socratic philosophers agreed with the Hebrew worldview that truth is absolute and should be discovered, and while they made impressive contributions regarding knowledge of the created world, the differences are significant. Even Augustine recognized the limits of Greek philosophy and perceived that a comprehensive worldview that blended it with Scripture was impossible.
However, despite their failings, the scholastics clearly embraced the idea that absolute truth exists, should be discovered, and ought to be defended. Like the Hebrews, the early Christians, and the Socratic Greeks, the best minds of the Medieval period argued, debated, and often suffered to define and defend truth.
In the fifteenth century, as the Middle Ages gave way to the Modern Era, the best minds of Europe were recognizing that the Scholastics had failed and began dedicating themselves to a return to Scripture, and Scripture alone, as the source of all truth. This movement morphed into the Protestant Reformation, led by that doughty monk Martin Luther who trumpeted the great slogan, "Sola Scriptura," the Bible Alone. It was to the Bible that great minds now appealed, and entertained no other competing sources of truth. It was an exciting period, filled with zeal, new insights from Scripture, but also bloody battles between factions who disagreed over what are now seen as minor differences of scriptural interpretation.
But underlying all of the tension and drama was the basic assumption that absolute truth existed. Truth was important. Truth was knowable and should be defined. Truth should be applied. Truth was worth fighting for and, if necessary, it was worth dying for. Taken from the pages of the Bible, truth was everything!
In fact, it is no coincidence that the scientific breakthroughs of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries followed immediately on the heels of the Protestant Reformation that held that the world and all therein was based on principles of unchanging truth. Isaac Newton, William Leibniz, Christian Huygens, Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Robert Boyle, Van Lueevenhook, Francis Bacon, Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel, and William Kelvin, just to name a few, were all devout Christians who assumed that truth was absolute, knowable, and should be uncovered, defined, and applied.
So, as the Modern Era begins, the trail of history reveals that truth has been considered absolute and knowable to European civilization since at least 400 B.C. when the Greek world abandoned the pre-Socratics.
Truth and the Bible
The best of the ancient Greeks believed that truth was absolute. Both the Greek and the Latin Church believed that truth was absolute. The Medieval scholars believed that truth was absolute. The reformers and founders of the modern world believed that truth was absolute. Did the Hebrews? What does the Bible say?
The epistemological battle of truth begins in the Garden of Eden. To challenge the idea that truth is absolute, Satan introduced doubt to Eve: "Ye, hath God said . . .?" (Genesis 3:1). He argued that taking of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would produce different results from what God had said. Now Eve was confronted with two competing truths. Implicitly, Satan has introduced relativism. The warped postmodern notion of truth that embodies the present Emerging Church movement was born in the Garden of Eden some six thousand years ago.
Despite Satan’s early efforts to foul things up, the Bible constructs a consistent and coherent picture of truth as being absolute, knowable, definable, and worthy of our defense. Consider what some of the great minds in Scripture had to say on the topic.
About God and truth Moses stated, "He is the rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He" (Deuteronomy 32:4). Do you see the unchanging absolute nature of truth and God as the source of that truth?
In the same vein, David said, "And now O Lord God, thou art that God, and thy words be true, and thou hast promised this goodness unto thy servant" (2 Samuel 7:28). Elsewhere, David reiterates his view: "Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God: which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth forever" (Psalm 146:5-6). Again, notice that God’s words are true, for God is truth.
Solomon, reputedly the wisest man to live had these comments: "Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding" (Proverbs 23:23). "The lip of truth shall be established forever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment" (Proverbs 12:19). Observe how Solomon states that truth will be established forever. It is absolute, unchanging, and universal.
Paul, the greatest of the Apostles, flavors his letters with references to truth that only make sense when truth is considered absolute: "But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them that commit such things" (Romans 2:2). "God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar, as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged" (Romans 3:4). "Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness" (Ephesians 6:14). "That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us" (Hebrews 6:18). Many other Pauline citations could be offered, but these are sufficient to demonstrate that Paul did not subscribe to any relativistic notions of truth.
Of course, the greatest authority is Jesus Christ. Consider his thoughts on truth: "Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31-32). "Howbeit when, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth" (John 17:17,19). "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice" (John 18:37). Now if truth does not exist, or is so subjective as to be undefinable, as the Emerging Church movement teaches, then how can these statements by Jesus make any sense? They cannot. How can something that does not exist make you free? How can the Holy Spirit guide you into something that is unknowable and undefinable? How could Jesus have borne witness to that which is everchanging and completely subjective?
Truth and the Rebellious Heart
Many in the Emerging Church movement may not be persuaded by the arguments presented here. But the case for absolute truth nonetheless needs to be made. Confronting false teaching is a requirement of every believer as we discover in 1 Peter 3:15-16: "Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ." We are required to defend our faith.
For some, the information that we can present about the nature of truth will be of unique value. Having seen that the authority of God’s Word, human reason, and old fashioned horse sense all point to the fact that truth exists, is universally valid, and is worth discovering, many people will react by searching their own soul for their place in God’s plan. However, others will not be so persuaded. Their minds are made up already, as Paul describes: "Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: who being past feeling have given themselves over to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness" (Ephesians 4:18-19). Sin makes people stubborn. Very stubborn. For those that are steeped in rebellion, all viewpoints are worth consideration except one that points toward God. Thus, no argument, no matter how cleverly and forcefully presented, will turn them toward God. The rebellious heart will always reject truth.
The problem for those who do believe, however, is simply this: we do not know who is ready to listen and who is not! Nor do we know if someone that certainly seems unwilling to listen at this moment may not soon change. After God has ground his pride to powder, he might remember our testimony of God’s absolute truth!