What is Truth?

Douglas Groothuis

Doug Groothuis Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at Denver Seminary. He can be reached at: Doug@densem.edu. His website is http://www.gospelcom.net/ivpress/groothuis.

When Pontius Pilate interrogated Jesus before his crucifixion, Jesus proclaimed that "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:37). To this, Pilate replied "What is truth?" and immediately left Jesus to address the Jews who wanted Christ crucified (v. 38). As Francis Bacon wrote in his essay "On Truth," "'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer." Although we have no record of any reply by Jesus, Christians affirm that Pilate was staring Truth in the face, for Jesus had earlier said to Thomas, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).

This exchange raises the perennial question of the nature of truth. What does it mean for a statement to be true? This has been a subject of much debate in postmodernist circles, where the traditional view of truth as objective and knowable is no longer accepted. Many even outside of academic discussions may be as cynical about truth as Pilate. "What is truth?" they smirk, without waiting for an answer. But unless we are clear about the notion of truth, any religious claim to truth--Christian or otherwise--will perplex more than enlighten. Before attempting to determine which claims are true, we need to understand the nature of truth itself.

I will briefly argue for the correspondence view of truth and then pit it against two of its main rivals, relativism and pragmatism. The correspondence view of truth, held by the vast majority of philosophers and theologians throughout history until recently, holds that any statement is true if and only if it corresponds to or agrees with factual reality. The statement, "the desk in my study is brown," is true only if there is, in fact, a brown desk in my study. The statement, "there is no brown desk in my study," is false because it fails to correspond to any objective state of affairs (i.e., to the facts of the matter).

This commonsensical view presupposes a basic law of logic called the law of bivalence, which stipulates that any unambiguous, declarative statement must be either true or false. It cannot be neither true nor false; nor can it be both true and false. "There is a brown desk in my study" is true or false. Another fundamental law of logic expresses the same concept in a slightly different way. The law of excluded middle affirms that "either A or non-A." There either is a brown desk in my study or there is not. One more principle of logic teams up with the other two for further clarification. The principle of contradiction states that "A cannot be non-A in the same way and in the same respect." It cannot be true that there both is and is not a brown desk in my study.

Strictly speaking, questions, commands, and exclamations are neither true nor false, because they do not make claims about objective reality. If I pray, "God, please help me," it is true that I am praying, but I am not affirming that "God will help me" (a declarative statement). I am requesting help. Furthermore, if I say "Study harder!" to my lazy pupil, I am not affirming "You are studying harder" (a declarative statement); I am commanding or imploring his academic diligence. If I exclaim "Yes!" when my pitcher strikes out the cleanup hitter in the bottom the ninth to win the game for the home team, I am not saying, "He struck out the batter" (a declarative statement); I am voicing my approval. The question of truth is properly applied only to declarative or propositional statements.

The theological statement, "Jesus is Lord of the universe," is either true or false. Whether this it is coolly uttered or enunciated with great emotion, it has only one truth-value: true or false. It either honors reality or it does not. The Christian claims that this statement is true irrespective of anyone's opinion (see Romans 3:4). This is because truth is a quality of statements, not a matter of subjective response or majority vote or cultural fashion. For example, the statement, "The world is spherical." was true even when the vast majority of earthlings took their habitat to be flat.

The correspondence view of truth entails that propositional or declarative statements are subject to various kinds of verification and falsification. A statement can be proven false if it can be shown to disagree with objective reality. The photographs from outer space depicting the earth as a blue orb (along with other kinds of evidence) falsified any stubborn flat-earth claims. Certainly, not all falsification is as straightforward as this; but if statements are true or false by virtue of their relationship to what they attempt to describe, this makes possible the marshaling of evidence for their veracity or falsity.{1}

Therefore, Christians--who historically have affirmed (whether implicitly or explicitly) the correspondence view of truth--hold that there are good historical reasons to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead in space-time history, thus vindicating his divine authority (see Romans 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). The Apostle Paul was adamant about this: "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:14-15). Without the correspondence view of truth, these resounding affirmations can only ring hollow.

Today this view of truth is being brought into doubt by certain postmodernist philosophers who claim that the quest for an objective truth that is describable through language is part of the discredited project of modernism, an over-confident approach to knowledge stemming from enlightenment rationalism. Therefore, statements about scientific facts, religious realities, or moral principles cannot be known to refer to objective states of affairs. On the contrary, language is contingently constructed through communities; it cannot transcend its own context and refer to realities outside itself.

A thorough analysis of this postmodernism assault on truth would take us beyond the limits of this essay, but a basic critique of its notion of truth is that this view is self-refuting. If all language fails to describe objective conditions, because of its embeddedness in various cultures, then any language used to describe this universal embeddedness would be subject to the limitations of its context, and so fail to describe the universal limitations of all languages.{2} For all its protests about the illegitimacies of "metanarratives" (comprehensive explanations of reality), postmodernism covertly (and illogically) presents a metanarrative of its own.{3}

Moreover, the notion that objective truth is unknowable entails that a relativistic and/or pragmatic view of truth be put in the place of a correspondence view. I will argue below that both of these views are logically unsupportable.

One challenge to the correspondence view is relativism. Relativism comes in various shapes and sizes, but its salient claim is that the truth of a statement depends on the views of persons or cultures, not on whether statements correspond to objective reality. For a statement to be true simply means that a person or culture to believes it to be true. Hence the popular refrain, "Well, if that's true for you..." or, "We can't judge other cultures." According to this view, one person can say "Jesus is Lord" and another can say "Allah is Lord," and both statements will be true, if they accurately express the sentiments of the speakers. This view seems to advance tolerance and civility, but it does so at the expense of logic.

If I say "Jesus is Lord" and you say "Allah is Lord" both statements cannot be objectively true because they describe mutually exclusive realities. Jesus is known by Christians as God made flesh (John 1:14), while Muslims deny that Allah incarnates. If "Lord" means a position of unrivaled metaphysical and spiritual supremacy, then Jesus and Allah cannot be both be Lord because "Jesus" and "Allah" are not two words that mean the same thing. If we mean to say that I believe in Jesus and you believe in Allah, there is no logical contradiction, since subjective states of mind cannot contradict each other; that is, it may be true that I subjectively believe X and you subjectively believe non-X. But X and non-X themselves cannot both be objectively true. When dealing with divergent claims to objective truth (as we often do in comparative religion and philosophy), contradictions emerge frequently.{4}

When truth is deemed dependent upon the person or culture holding the belief, anything can become "true," which is absurd. Flat-earthers, geocentrists, cargo cultists, and phrenologists have been falsified by the facts. Relativism removes any reason, besides sheer whimsy, for changing one's beliefs. If my belief makes something true, there is no objective warrant to alter my beliefs in the face of argument or evidence. Unlike the correspondence view of truth, which seeks objective support for the truth or falsity of statements (whenever possible), relativism offers no means of verifying or falsifying any belief apart from discerning whether one holds the belief or whether a particular culture tends to affirm certain things. Such an attitude applied to medicine or science would be deemed ridiculous. Medical doctors have good reason not to bleed their patients, as was commonly done for centuries. Biologists have good reason no longer to believe in the spontaneous generation of insects from mud.

Human subjectivity untethered from objective constraints is a shallow and shabby thing. When it reaches a certain stage we call it stupidity or even insanity. Remember Heaven's Gate.

Moreover, relativism is self-refuting; it cuts its own throat. The statement, "truth is a matter of personal and cultural values, not a matter of a statement's correspondence with objective reality," is a claim about "the ways things are"; that is, it is a truth-claim about objective reality. But this is the very thing it cannot be. If truth is only a function of individual preferences, one cannot escape the prison of subjectivity in order to make objective statements that supposedly apply to all of reality. For these reasons, we can safely say that relativism is false; it does not correspond to reality.

A pragmatic view of truth may be implied in some kinds of relativism. This view holds that a belief is true only if it works for a particular person. Therefore, Christianity may be "true for me" if it helps me, but false for another if it doesn't help her. This view confuses usefulness with verity. A simple illustration from Winfried Corduan's book, No Doubt About It, clarifies this point. Think of a person who chronically mismanages his money and is very unsuccessful. A few hundred dollars are stolen from him without his knowledge. Yet he thinks he has misplaced the money and says to himself, "That's the last straw. I've got to get my life in order!" After this, he becomes successful through hard work and diligence. Yet his belief that he lost the money, however beneficial, is not true because it does not conform to reality. Clearly, then, the truth-value of a belief is different from its use-value.{5}

"What is truth"? Truth is what corresponds to reality. When this is established, we can move on to considering which particular statements are true and reasonable and which are not. Unlike Pilate, we can stay and listen to what Jesus has to say to us.

Related Reading

Mortimer Adler, Truth in Religion (New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1990).

Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), chapter 5.

Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It (Broadman, Holman, 1997), especially chapters 1-4.

William Lane Craig, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1988).

Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), chapter 15.

Bertrand Russell, Problems of Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 119-130.

Frederick F. Schmitt, Truth: A Primer (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995).

--Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary. His next book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmdoernism, should be released by InterVarsity Press in April of 2000.


{1}For an introduction to the role of logic in the testing of world views, see Ronald H. Nash, World-Views in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), especially 54-106.

{2}For a short, but penetrating presentation of postmodernism and its flaws, see James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 172-190.

{3}Ibid., 188-189.

{4}On this see the booklet by Douglas Groothuis, Are All Religions One? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996) and Harold A. Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991).

{5}See Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It (Nashville, TN: Broadman, Holman, 1997), 60-61.