Summary: Understanding Biblical truth in a post-truth world

The 2018 notable quote of the year came from Rudy Giuliani, an American politician who said, “Truth isn’t truth”. He meant that there are lots of versions of the truth, different versions called “alternative facts”. We live in a post-truth world. Unfortunately “truth” in the 21st century has a very bad reputation.

One. Conflicting definitions. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (2004) defines truth as (1) “that which is true as opposed to false” and (2) “a fact or belief that is accepted as true”.

The dictionary hedges its bets. It gives conflicting definitions.

The first definition favours the objective sense of truth. It assumes there is such a thing as truth and not to be true is to be false. But the second definition abandons absolute truth by tying truth to belief. Something is said to be true if it is believed or accepted as true.

Two. The world is a tribal place. It’s the second definition of truth that drives our world today. “A fact or belief that is accepted as true”. Truth has been smashed into a million pieces. The world has never been more fragmented. It has never been more tribal and it poses a great challenge for Christians. We need to be careful. The secular view of truth can easily corrode our faith.

It can:

Undermines our personal assurance. If we see our faith in Christ as more “an opinion that works for me”, rather than a robust response to “revealed truth”, then where is room for personal assurance? How can we have certainty for the future when the seeds of doubt take root within us?How can we believe Paul’s words in Eph. 1 which assure us that God will bring all things together in Christ when there is doubt gnawing at our souls?

The secular view of truth can:

Undermines our trust in Scripture. If we doubt the truth of Christian belief it undermines our trust in Scripture which is the source of truth. If we deny that Scripture reveals heavenly truth then we must say that the Bible is merely human words to be changed and re-interpreted as we please. Nor will we read our Bibles because we are not convinced that its writings are trustworthy. Indeed, we’ll look for other sources of truth if we are not convinced that all we need to know about salvation is in God’s Word.

The secular view of truth can:

Undermines our zeal for evangelism. We won’t share the gospel if we are unsure that it is true. We will become nervous and hesitant and timid and shy because we are not convinced that the gospel is true. It takes courage to share our faith and we lack motivation if we doubt the grounds if our salvation.

When we talk about truth, there’s a lot at stake. So it’s not unreasonable to ask questions such as these—and these are the questions I wish to address this morning.

BIG QUESTIONS: “Is there any merit in the view that Christian belief is no more than a matter of opinion? (slide) Should we discard any hope of knowing the truth about God”? And if we wish to probe a little deeper, we can ask, “Is there such a thing as truth? (metaphysics) If so, are humans able to grasp what is true”? (epistemology)

I’m going to begin to provide an answer to these questions, and do so in two parts. (1) the philosophical problem—because unbelief in truth is a philosophical problem; (2) the biblical solution. What the Bible says about truth.Then, next week, why we should believe the Bible is telling us the truth when it talks about truth. That is, the nature of biblical authority.

So there’s a bit to think over the next two weeks.

Let’s start with the philosophical problem ……

These days its accepted as fact that there is no such thing as truth. This makes it difficult to have a conversation about religion and morality because no-one is on the same page and those who are cluster themselves together into different and competing tribes.

One need only listen to talk-back radio and political debate to appreciate the aggressiveness and hostility of tribal debate in a fragmented society. For in a post-truth world there is only opinion and who’s to say which opinion is a worthy winner? It’s as though truth is no more than the opinion held by the majority who have the power and the money.

A couple of points about the philosophical problem ….

One. The world did not always believe that truth in unknowable. If you’re old enough you’ll remember the time when most people went to church, and even those who did not usually agreed with the values of their Judeo-Christian heritage.The world was much simpler because almost everyone shared the Bible’s moral code, especially as laid out in the 10 commandments.

So when people disagreed, they usually did so on the foundation of a common truth revealed in the big story told in the Bible (metanarrative). The Genesis to Revelation story as a shared worldview made it much easier to resolve conflict.

The idea that truth is revealed from God has a long history. Up until the Enlightenment in the 17th century, the common opinion was that the church represented, as we read in Jude 3, “the truth that was once entrusted to the saints”. In Western thought it was accepted that truth was received through revelation. It was believed that all knowledge was a subset of God and truth came from him.

But then a radical shift in human thinking occurred. The Enlightenment with thinkers such as Renee Descartes with his famous saying in 1637, “I think, therefore I am”. With five words he shifted the centre of universe away from God and toward human reason.

“I think and therefore I am”. “I” and “I”. No God at all.

God was no longer the source of truth. Truth now came from the philosopher who mastered reason. Reason was the new source of absolute truth. Reason was the great test of truth. As Middleton and Walsh say:

"The modern man knows what he knows and he knows it with certainty because he knows it scientifically. He needs no authority outside himself because he is autonomous. And he certainly needs no salvation outside himself. Once he has liberated himself from past authorities and superstitions all he needs is the courage to follow his reason. With such courage and employment of his rational abilities, he will together with all other rational men, undoubtedly experience and enjoy the fruit of human progress".

Trouble is that modernism has failed. Reason failed to deliver because it’s a wonderful slave but a tyrannical master. Its fruits are violence, domination, marginalisation and oppression. In the age of reason we got the oppression of minorities, WWI & WWII, Vietnam, 9/11, violence against women, oppression of poor people … and the list goes on.

And so emerged a new philosophical position. This brings us to our next point:

Two. The world moved onto an unbelief in truth which is another philosophical position. About 135 years ago (1884), Nietzsche declared that God is dead, philosophically speaking, of course. Nietzsche was an atheist, he wasn’t arguing that God didn’t exist, he assumed he did not. And why, according to Nietzsche, is belief in God undesirable? He said that God’s death frees us to become gods ourselves. To put the point plainly, God doesn’t die alone. Nietzsche said that when God dies, meaning, morality, and reason die with him.

It was left to others to explore the implications. What does the world become when there is no meaning, morality or reason? What does the world look like when we are disconnected from an authority which normalises life? Perhaps this is easier to understand if we ask, “What happens to a boat when it loses its mooring”? Simple answer! It’s all at sea. It floats everywhere with no certainty and purpose.

Indeed, it is the philosophical death of meaning, morality, and reason that paves the way for today’s unbelief in truth. In postmodern thought, the only certainty is uncertainty. There is no objectivity. The French philosopher, Jacque Derrida, argues that any claim for absolute authority and truth must be unravelled and exposed as no more than a quest to control others.

Implication: people are suspicious when we share the gospel with them because they believe someone or something is attempting to control them. We need to think about how we share the gospel with postmodern people. They believe the evangelist is trying to control them. Or they believe the church wants power over them. They are suspicious and cynical of truth.

So here we have, in today’s world, what’s called a “hermeneutics of suspicion”. Anyone, or any book, which makes universal claims about life and truth and meaning (think the Bible as one example, or even Western philosophy), is to be treated with a great deal of suspicion.The solution, for the postmodern mind, is to unravel and expose such claims to truth as “fake news”, to treat them as an illegitimate sources of truth.

The death of truth and the rise of opinion is a powerful influence on our thinking. Christians are often shy to share the truth because we are thumped with the view there is no such thing as truth. Evangelism is met with aggressive opposition because it is received as one tribe seeking power and control over other tribes.

We should understand that the claim that there is no truth is itself a claim to know the truth. Why should we believe the claim that there is no such thing as truth is true?

The world of opinions without truth is a contradictory philosophy which breeds social disease. In our world, people feel disorientated and homeless. How else would you feel with no meaning, no purpose and no direction? Deep down there is pain because life is fundamentally lived in emptiness.

“Meaningless, meaningless” says the Teacher In Ecclesiastes. Suicide and drugs are common responses.

The newspapers everyday remind us that life in a truthless world is a social failure. Humanities quest to be god has only resulted in pain and despair. And now, in these days, we have abandoned the idea of one god to be replaced with a legion of gods who rally for supremacy in a multi-cultural and diverse world.

There’s the story of a pastor who started each confirmation course with a jar full of beans. He asks his students to guess how many beans were in the jar, and on a big pad of paper he wrote down their estimates. Then, next to those estimates, he helped his students to make another list: this time a list of their favourite songs.

When the lists were complete, he revealed the actual number of beans in the jar. The whole class looks over their guesses, to see which estimate was closest to being right. Then the pastor turned to the list of favourite songs. “And which one of these is closest to being right?” he asks. The students protest that there is no “right answer”; a person's favourite song is purely a matter of taste.

The pastor then asked his class, “When you decide what to believe in terms of your faith, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favourite song?” Always, the pastor says, he gets the same answer: choosing one's faith is more like choosing a favourite song.

Is the gospel as true as the number of beans in a jar? Or is the gospel more like a song or a poem, is it more like your favourite song on an equally long and worthy list?

Let’s turn to Bible and truth …..

Let’s start with creation and then into the NT. Open your Bible to Genesis 1.

One. Creation (Gen 1–2). Our basis for understanding the world, contrary to humanistic thinking, is that God exists. We know this from Gen 1.1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. God made reality and he upholds it by his providential rule. Truth corresponds to the reality of God’s creation.

Since God created the world and he wants to know his people, he reveals real truth about himself in and through his world. Truth is part of the world that God made. We are people especially designed to receive truth so we can know God.

In Gen 2, God put Adam and Eve in the garden to rule the world, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2.15). Ruling the world is a complex task which requires lots of problem solving. Being made in the image of God means, among other things, that we are problem solvers.

God gave us reason to solve problems. Reason is a good thing and often we use it correctly. I’m very glad for science and technology every time I go to the doctors. The problem arises when we elevate reason to a god-like status. As Paul says in Rom 1.24, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator”.

When we make reason our idol we bypass the glory of God and live a lie. Reason, instead of deducing God’s eternal power and divine nature from creation (Rom 1.18–20), ignores God and becomes futile in its thinking. We were not made to worship ourselves. Remember the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11)? The people built a tower reaching into the heavens. They reasoned if they could knock God off his throne, they could be god. So God confounded their language and spread them out over the world.

And then, in recent history, people replaced reason with a vacuum that’s called “postmodernism”. And the vacuum remains and in this system there is no external reality, no meaning, no knowledge and no truth.

People were not made to live this way.

God speaks and we listen to him. Our theory of truth begins with God who exists in real time and real space, and who created the world, and who communicates with his creation. Augustine rightly said, “I believe in order to understand”.

We believe that the world is not a mere projection of human minds; rather, God created the world with an objective reality that is grounded in his eternal being.

Two. The Gospel. The gospel reveals the truth of our spiritual condition and offers a clear solution. The Bible teaches that humans fell into sin and subsequently corrupted their nature and society. So sin prevents people from receiving the truth. In fact, being finite and sinful beings means we can only partially know the truth.

How, then, can we speak of knowing the truth?

Jesus called himself “the light of the world” (Jn 8.12) because he rescues sinners from the darkness of ignorance and unbelief. Then he sent the Holy Spirit to animate the spirits of sinful men and women to know and believe the truth. Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18.37). The Spirit of God awakens us to the truth.

So in that same passage where Paul directly states that sinful humans cannot know truth, he reveals that God’s Holy Spirit solves this problem by giving new life to undeserving sinners. 1 Cor 2.12, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world,” Paul explains, “but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God”.

So that we might understand the truth.

I gave this talk the title, “Avoiding Truth Decay”. Just as tooth decay is avoided by brushing your teeth and flossing regularly, truth decay is avoided by reading your Bible regularly and allowing the God who is there to shape your life as he reveals to you the truth.

Indeed, it is the Lord Jesus, who is truth in the flesh, who protects us from the philosophy of this age. It is his truth, it is being in relationship with him, which empowers us for godly living and motivates us to take the gospel into the world.