What is truth?
Pilate therefore said to him, "Are you a king then?"
Every society and culture has it's own particular way of seeing the world, and our own (writing as a citizen of the western world in the 21st century) is heavily influenced by the epistemology of post-modernism. Epistemology is about knowledge, and is concerned with how (or whether) we can know anything. Post-modernist epistemology tends to assert that either there is no such thing as objective truth, or, if there is, that we have no way of knowing for sure what that truth is. Who's to say whether one person's 'truth' is any more valid than the next person's 'truth', and isn't 'truth' just a social construct anyway?
This way of thinking can and should be challenged. It is not the world view of the Bible, and it is based upon flawed assumptions.
However, the sad fact is that this way of understanding how (or if) we can know anything has so infiltrated some parts of the Church that great importance is attached to regarding truth as mystery, as poetry, as symbolism, and who's to say what any of it actually means. The idea that Scripture has a plain and clear meaning, and that some interpretations of it are just plain wrong, has become very unfashionable.
I want to be clear about what I am (and am not) saying. It is true that there are some parts of Scripture that are more difficult to understand. It is also true that God's wisdom and knowledge are infinite, whereas our understanding is finite, and there are mysteries about God which we cannot comprehend. But there is much that God has told us in his word which can, by the help of the Holy Spirit, be understood, and to reduce central truths of the gospel to unfathomable mystery, and therefore say that every interpretation of them is potentially equally valid, is not reverence before God's word but is an inappropriate capitulation to the epistemology of post-modernism.
Many core truths of the Christian faith which were once regarded in evangelical circles as non-negotiables, are now being disputed or discarded by some who call themselves 'evangelical', and who justify this by suggesting that we cannot really know for sure what the Bible really means on these issues, or that an alternative interpretation is equally valid.
In verse 3 of his book Jude wrote that the purpose of his letter was to urge believers to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all entrusted to the saints, the reason being that heretics and false teachers had crept into the Church, spreading false doctrine. The apostles were seriously concerned about false teaching and strongly opposed it. Holding on to and defending sound doctrine matters, because false gospels lead people astray and ultimately lead to the destruction of anyone taken in by them.
Is there no room for disagreement on what Scripture teaches?
It is true that genuine Christians, true believers, do disagree in their interpretation of what the Bible tells us on various issues. The Bible itself guides us on how we should handle such differences. On secondary matters, the Bible tells Christians that we should be gracious, and accept one another in Christ - this doesn't mean we can't have dialogue and debate about our differences, but we are not supposed to divide from other Christians over any issue of only secondary importance (see for example Romans 14).
But on matters of first importance, the Bible tells us we must be willing to stand for the defence of the gospel.
... where it is claimed that as long as someone declares that 'Jesus is Lord' then they are a true Christian, no matter what they unpack that expression to actually mean (yes, Paul wrote Romans 10:9, but it's not the only verse he wrote),
... or where the sufficiency of Christ is being challenged and some people are saying we must earn our way into God's grace, that we have to add our own works to what Christ did for us on the cross in order to be justified by God, N.T.Wright aka Tom Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, is misleading people into believing this when he talks of 'justification on the basis of the complete life lived' (N.T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, page 148) - some of N.T. Wright's ideas are proving very unhelpful for the faithful preaching of the gospel - people are being dangerously misled
... or when the exclusivity of Christ is being challenged and some people are saying every form of 'spirituality' or 'faith' is equally valid and equally leads to God,
... or that the resurrection of Christ did not literally happen,
... or that 'God doesn't punish sin, sin is it's own punishment' (people who hold to this view also often deny what the Scriptures say about what happened on the cross, objecting that if God punished Jesus in our place then God was committing 'cosmic child abuse'),
... or that 'Christian' mysticism is a legitimate alternative to the clear preaching of the gospel,
... or when the gospel is just never preached and week in week out people are never told about, or are misled about, the one and only way we can be right with God,
...then we can and must divide over these issues. There is too much at stake not to, for the gospel depends upon the truth about these things. False gospels produce false conversions. Jesus said that there would be those to whom he would say, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers' (Matthew 7:21-23). Those have got to be the most terrible, terrible words anyone will ever hear, and ought to stir Christians up to recognise the importance of the faithful preaching of the true gospel.
I am not suggesting that all of the above false ideas are necessarily all present together. Some people will fall for some of them and not others. But there is a worrying trend in what currently passes for mainstream 'evangelicalism' in that ideas like the ones above, and other heresies as well, seem to be increasingly infiltrating churches which regard themselves as broadly 'evangelical'.
True unity among Christians only exists where the gospel is believed
There is a view that it is important for all churches to be united as churches together, that we all essentially believe the same things, or that our differences do not really matter.
It's good to be willing to talk to each other, and freedom of religion is important, but true unity can never be at the expense of the gospel.
True followers of Jesus cannot have any true unity with those who deny or seriously distort the gospel. Dialogue is possible, but unity is not possible where the central truths of the gospel are denied.
There are some who say that it is not possible to make a distinction between so-called secondary matters, on which there must be freedom of conscience, and matters of first importance, disagreement with which puts someone outside of the faith. But Scripture itself does recognise this distinction. Paul differentiated between the matters he discusses in Romans 14, where there must be freedom of conscience to each believe differently, and the core of the gospel, which he always defended against heresy, and instructed others to do the same, e.g. 2 Timothy 4.
The same apostle Paul who wrote,
Therefore let's not judge one another any more (Romans 14:13)
also wrote to the Galatians,
But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any gospel other than that which we preached to you, let him be cursed. As we have said before, so I now say again: if any man preaches to you any gospel other than that which you received, let him be cursed. (Galatians 1:8-9)
Paul certainly did not believe in getting into 'foolish questionings, genealogies, strife, and disputes about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain' (Titus 3:9). But when the heart of the gospel was at stake, Paul was quite willing to speak out in defence of the gospel, as he did towards Peter in Galatians 2.
So I return to my earlier point, that in some parts of the Church great importance is attached to regarding truth as mystery, as poetry, as symbolism, and who's to say what any of it actually means. The idea that Scripture has a plain and clear meaning, and that some interpretations of it are just plain wrong, has become very unfashionable.
But didn't Jesus tell people stories instead of giving clear explanations?
In support of this idea that truth is poetry and symbolism, and that God intends that all meanings remain hidden and mysterious even for those following Jesus, or that meanings are open to virtually any interpretation, that theology is a 'conversation' amongst people who can make the gospel mean anything they like, sometimes people will point out that Jesus himself didn't speak to people by giving them clear logical explanations, instead more often than not he told stories.
It is true that Jesus told many parables, but to see this as supporting the view that any real meaning (if there is one) is so hidden that we cannot know for sure what Jesus really meant completely misses the point of why Jesus taught in parables. Jesus himself gives us the reason:
The reason Jesus taught in parables
The disciples came, and said to him, 'Why do you speak to them in parables?'
Jesus did not say that his teaching had no meaning, or that he intended that any meaning it had should remain mysterious for everyone, including his own disciples. Rather, he said that his own disciples were meant to know and understand the meaning of his teaching. This meaning was hidden from those outside the kingdom of God, but the reason we are given for this was that their own rebellion against God prevented them from seeing, hearing, and understanding the teaching of Jesus, e.g. Matthew 13:13-15
On the subject of how Jesus' disciples were meant to understand the meaning of Jesus' parables, consider this exchange:
Peter answered him, 'Explain the parable to us.'
Jesus was emphatic that the meaning of his teaching was clear to any who had ears to hear, and he expected his disciples to understand. When they failed to, the fault was in them, and was not because the meaning of Jesus' teaching was intended to be hidden from his own disciples. Nor was any failure to understand due to Jesus 'trying' to say something. God does not 'try' to do things, he does them. He does not 'try' to say things, he says them. He does not suffer from any inability to do what he means to do.
The context of Jesus' earthly ministry
Also, Jesus' use of parables has to be seen in historical and theological context. During his earthly ministry of going about teaching, healing those who were sick, and doing miracles, Jesus said:
'I wasn't sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.' (Matthew 15:24b)
And when he sent out his disciples, at this time he said:
'Don't go among the Gentiles, and don't enter into any city of the Samaritans. Rather, go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, preach, saying, 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!'' (Matthew 10:5b-7)
But then, with Jesus' death and resurrection fast approaching, we read this in John's gospel:
Now there were certain Greeks among those that went up to worship at the feast. These, therefore, came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, 'Sir, we want to see Jesus.' Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn, Andrew came with Philip, and they told Jesus.
Jesus answered them, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Most certainly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit...'
'Now is the judgment of this world. Now the prince of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.'
He said this to show by what kind of death he would die.
Following his death and resurrection, Jesus said:
'All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you. Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.'
Following Acts 2 the church began the mission to all nations, and the message of the gospel of Christ was proclaimed openly and clearly. The apostles did not attempt to wrap the meaning of the gospel in mysterious parables of their own, but rather they 'set forth the truth plainly' (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Jesus used parables in speaking to the 'lost sheep of Israel', but following his resurrection commissioned the church to go into all the world and clearly proclaim the truth of his gospel. Of course the church's preaching does include repeating the teaching of Jesus himself and his parables, and to this day it remains the case that those who have ears to hear will hear, and those who do not, won't. Jesus' parables reveal truth to those who by grace can hear what God is saying, and at the same time cause those who refuse to believe to fail to hear. But these two responses are also the reactions which the apostles' preaching received, even though they 'set forth the truth plainly'. Whether the message is in the form of Jesus' parables, or the apostles' clear presentation of the gospel, it requires the grace of God to enable us to hear and understand, and where the message is rejected, the fault lies in people's rebellion against God, which causes them to refuse to hear.
What is the Church's mission supposed to be?
Sometimes people get themselves confused about the meaning of Christian 'mission', and confused about Jesus' teaching and his use of parables, because they don't see the significance of the fact that we live in the time after the death and resurrection of Christ, not before - we live in the Church age, and our mission is the same mission the Church was given by Christ himself after his resurrection, which the Church began to fulfill in the book of Acts. Jesus' death and resurrection certainly were prophesied about before they happened, but Scripture also tells us that until those events happened no-one but God understood what was going to happen. Jesus' death and resurrection were both prophesied about beforehand and were mysteries hidden in God until after the resurrection:
Now to him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret through long ages, but now is revealed, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, is made known for obedience of faith to all the nations; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)
So, inevitably, the message Jesus sent out his disciples with during his earthly ministry, for example in Matthew 10, before his death and resurrection, is different from the message and mission we have now. It would still have been a message of repentance and faith being required, because it has always been the case that God puts people right with himself by faith, and God calls people to repent. It would also have been a message of grace, as it has always been the case that being reconciled to God is by his grace alone. And it would also have been a message warning of the consequences for those who do not repent, for this element of the preaching of God's word, that sin bears a penalty, has also always been a part of God's message to sinful human beings. John the Baptist's preaching is summarised in Matthew 3:1-3 as, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Why did they need to repent? Because the coming of the King will bring judgment.
But the disciples who were sent out by Jesus in Matthew 10 would not have been preaching about the death and resurrection of Christ, as they didn't yet understand about this.
God's people who lived before the time of Christ looked forward in faith to the time when the Messiah would be revealed. But back then, Jesus' death and resurrection had not yet happened. They have now though!
Our mission, the Church's mission now, is primarily to preach the message of Christ's death and resurrection, and that God now both invites and commands us to repent.
God does care about issues such as social justice, and therefore so should we - e.g. Isaiah 1:15-17, Isaiah 58:6-8, James 2:14-17, 1 John 3:16-17, Matthew 25:31-46, to offer just a few examples from Scripture, and there are many, many others - we cannot ignore the fact that true saving faith must be demonstrated by how we treat other people, especially those who are suffering or vulnerable. The point of Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats is not that good works save anyone, but rather that if we have true saving faith, if we truly know the love and mercy of God towards us, that will be seen by how we interact with people, especially when they are suffering in some way, and when it might be difficult or costly for us to love them (1 John 4:19-21, Luke 10:25-37). Understanding how other people feel, and appropriately communicating that understanding to them, is not something everyone is necessarily naturally very good at, and that includes Christians. But empathy is part of interacting with people in a biblical way, for Paul wrote that we should, 'rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.' (Romans 12:15).
We are also supposed to be responsible in how we treat our environment. That mandate comes from the account of creation when God gave responsibility for managing the earth to human beings (Genesis 1:26-31, Genesis 2:15).
But the heart of our message is Christ's death and resurrection, why it happened, and what our response must be. According to Paul, the message of the death and resurrection of Christ, and why it happened (i.e. for our sins), is of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), and God now commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:29-31). Leave this message out, or marginalise this, and you no longer have a gospel message at all. If you doubt this, read the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles, and ask yourself what the apostles understanding of their mission was. (See also What is the gospel?).
What does the Bible say about whether we can know truth?
This is a vast subject, but to offer a couple of verses:
Jesus therefore said to those Jews who had believed him, 'If you remain in my word, then you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.' (John 8:31-32)
...it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write to you in order, most excellent Theophilus; that you might know the certainty concerning the things in which you were instructed. (Luke 1:3-4)
Of course our knowledge of the truth can only be partial, we don't have exhaustive knowledge of everything. The Bible acknowledges this:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
In the verse above Paul is writing to believers in Jesus, and looking forward to the time when we will see the Lord face to face, and saying that until then we can only know in part. (As to what then knowing 'fully' means, it seems unlikely to mean knowing omnisciently, but rather to knowing in an unmediated way. But this is an aside).
So of course our knowledge is not omniscient, we don't know everything, we don't know exhaustively. We know in part.
But it is not correct to reason that unless we can know something exhaustively we cannot know it truly. On the subject of knowing the truth of God's Word, the Bible makes it clear that the Holy Spirit enables believers in Christ to know the truth truly.
Knowing the truth truly does depend upon God revealing the truth to us:
Then he* opened their minds, that they might understand the Scriptures. *referring to Jesus (Luke 24:45)
That doesn't mean that we can blame God though if we fail to understand, as Scripture makes clear that we are responsible agents in God's world, even though God is sovereign over all things. There is a mystery* here that no-one but God understands fully, but it is the clear teaching of Scripture that God is in charge of all things, yet we make genuine choices and are accountable to God.
Just to be clear about my use of the word 'mystery' above - I do not mean that we don't know whether it is true or not that God is sovereign and yet we are accountable to him. It is most definitely true because Scripture tells us so. I mean that although those two aspects of the truth are most definitely true, we do not fully understand how they harmonise or fit together. There are many verses which tell us of how God is sovereign even over our own choices, but equally there are many which tell us we make genuine choices of our own, and are held accountable for what we choose. So both are true, because Scripture says so. A theology which is faithful to Scripture will believe that both are true, because Scripture teaches that both are true. Some theologies attempt to avoid the paradox by either accepting that we make genuine choices, but denying that God is sovereign in the way the Bible says he is sovereign, or they assert that God is sovereign, but become fatalistic or deterministic. Determinism is not the Biblical world-view.
Sometimes people latch on to the many places in Scripture which clearly tell us that we do make choices, and they conclude that we have 'freewill'.
The Bible does not speak anywhere of us having 'freewill' - it tells us that ever since our first parents sinned, we have all been born with a nature that predisposes us to sin, and that far from being free we are in fact by nature slaves of sin.
The Bible goes on to tell us the good news that we can become 'free in Christ' - by turning to him in repentance and faith.
If God is sovereign over all things, even over our own choices, does that mean God has created a world of robots, programmed by him to behave as he has determined? No, because we are clearly told that we make genuine choices. Does the fact that we make genuine choices mean that we have 'freewill', in the sense that God waits and watches to see what we will do, without our choices having been ordained in some sense by him? No, because the Bible teaches that God is sovereign even over our choices. It's a paradox, and it is true because both elements are taught by Scripture.
Jesus himself is THE Truth
Jesus himself is THE truth, so the truth is not merely a set of propositions given to us in Scripture, but a Person:
Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.' (John 14:6)
The reason the Bible gives for failure to believe or recognise the truth
The Bible acknowledges that not all accept or even understand it's message. But the bible also tells us why this is so:
Now the natural man doesn't receive the things of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can't know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual discerns all things, and he himself is judged by no one. 'For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him?' But we have the mind of Christ.
But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by the manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.
Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who perish; in whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn on them. For we don't preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake; seeing it is God who said, 'Light will shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But even this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies upon their heart. But whenever one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.