Postmodern Truth Versus Biblical Truth

The following article is rather long, but well worth the read. I thought about posting selected portions, but it deserves to be presented in it’s entirety.

POSTMODERN TRUTH VERSUS BIBLICAL TRUTH

by D. Massimo Lorenzini

INTRODUCTION

The concept of truth has always been bitter-sweet in the mouths of humans ever since the Fall into sin (Gen 3). Man cannot live with it or without it. Aristotle opened his book Metaphysics by stating that "man by nature desires to know." Much later the poet and play write T. S. Eliot noted, "Humankind cannot bear much reality."(1) Pilate demonstrated the attitude of fallen men toward truth when Jesus stood on trial before him: "Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’ Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?’ "(John 18:37-38a).(2) And with that, Pilate apparently walked away not waiting for an answer.

The Apostle Paul declared that all men have an awareness of God from the creation (Rom 1:20) and innately know right from wrong (Rom 2:14-15). But in spite of this fact, men continue to "suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (Rom 1:18). This suppression of the truth is clearly evident in the currently predominant worldview of postmodernism.

The current culture has experienced a paradigm shift from modernism to postmodernism. Postmodern thought is a rejection of absolute, objective truth. One author described the changes this way: "Permanence and solidity in social structures are now bygone commodities, not to mention abiding values and the concept of truth. The new colossus is characterized by opposition to epistemology, realism, essentialism, all forms of foundationalism, transcendental arguments and standpoints, truth as correspondence, canonical descriptions, final vocabularies, and meta-narratives. The new cognitive atmosphere is charged with pessimism regarding the possibility of modernity’s Holy Grail, scientia and veritas."(3)

While postmodernism is pessimistic with regard to the concept of truth, Bible-believing Christians lay claim to possession of true truth. Indeed, the entire message and hope of the gospel lies in its truthfulness. If the gospel is not true, or as Paul stated, if there is no resurrection, "we are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Cor 15:19).

The question, therefore, is whether or not postmodernism’s concept of truth is valid in light of the claims of God’s Word, the Bible and what is the biblical concept of truth. After surveying the rise of postmodernism, an understanding of the biblical concept of truth will be presented.

THE RISE AND INFLUENCE OF POSTMODERNISM

"Wither is God," he [the madman] cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?…Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breathe of an empty space? …Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? …I come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering–it has not yet reached the ears of man."(4)

The strangely prophetic words of Friedrich Nietzsche, written over a hundred years ago, have now reached the "ears of man." In the words of James Sire, "The acknowledgment of the death of God is the beginning of postmodern wisdom."(5)

But the beginning of postmodern wisdom is the end of wisdom. Defining postmodernism is difficult; to do so will require some background.

Five major philosophical ontologies or worldviews exist. Ontology answers the question: What is reality? Before the modern era the three major ontologies were idealism, naturalism, and realism. Proponents of these three ontologies believe that there is an essential reality. That is, reality can be defined as to its essence and thus objective truth exists. Idealists such as Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Brightman believed that the essence of reality is immaterial ideas, forms, essences, that transcend the material world which is but a copy or a transient shadow of the really real. Naturalists such as Thales, Hobbes, Newton, Marx, and Sagan believed reality is defined by the natural, sensible world. Realists such as Aristotle and Aquinas believed reality is both material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual).

The modern era witnessed the development of the next two ontologies, pragmatism and existentialism, which believe that no essential reality exists (more specifically that ontology is unnecessary and misguided, respectively) and thus no objective truth. Pragmatists such as James and Dewey believed that reality is what works in empirical (physical) experience. Existentialists such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre believed that reality is chosen by the individual. That means, basically, that reality is whatever the individual wants it to be. Individuals must create their own meaning because life does not come with any meaning in itself.

Premodern thought, governed largely by theism (the worldview centered on God as defining reality), addressed what is there (ontology). Modern thought, governed by Enlightenment naturalism, addressed how to know what is there (epistemology). Postmodern thought, governed by pragmatism and existentialism, addresses how language functions to construct meaning itself. In other words, a shift has taken place in "first things" from being to knowing to constructing meaning.(6)

James Sire shed additional light on the shift from premodern to modern to postmodern thinking:

Two major shifts in perspective have occurred over the past centuries: one is the move from the "premodern" (characteristic of the Western world prior to the seventeenth century) to the "modern" (beginning with Descartes [1596-1650]); the second is the move from the "modern" to the "postmodern" (whose first major exponent was Friedrich Nietzsche in the last quarter of the nineteenth century). Take the following as an example of these shifts. . . . There has been a movement from (1) a "premodern" concern for a just society based on revelation from a just God to (2) a "modern" attempt to use universal reason as the guide to justice to (3) a "postmodern" despair of any universal standard for justice. Society then moves from medieval hierarchy to Enlightenment democracy to postmodern anarchy.(7)

Postmodernism has its roots in modernism which began in the 1700s with the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes is seen as the first modern philosopher. Gene Edward Veith observed,

In the 1700s the progress of science accelerated so rapidly that it seemed as if science could explain everything. . . . This age of reason, scientific discovery, and human autonomy is termed the Enlightenment. Its thinkers embraced classicism with its order and rationality (although their version of classicism neglected the supernaturalism of Plato and Aristotle). However, they lumped Christianity together with paganism as outdated superstitions. Reason alone, so they thought, may now replace the reliance on the supernatural born out of the ignorance of ‘unenlightened’ times.(8)

So with the Enlightenment man became the center of the universe rather than God. The modern era left little or no meaning in life. In order to overcome this Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) developed his philosophy of existentialism. He called for living by faith, not reason. David Breese summarized, "He [Kierkegaard] had the problem of involvement in dead religion. He went to the Danish Church in Denmark, a cold brownstone place, but he wasn’t satisfied. So he began to think — ‘Reality is not something outside ourselves. Truth is not something objective. Reality is within ourselves. Reality is an encounter, reality is involvement, reality, is what happens to you, and if it doesn’t happen to you, forget it. It’s not true.’ He is what we call a subjectivist, actually a super-subjectivist."(9)

On the heels of Kierkegaard came Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the philosopher whose words began this chapter. Nietzsche realized that the people of Europe lived as though God were dead, so he made atheism the cornerstone of his existential philosophy. The news that "God is dead" has now reached the "ears of man."

James Sire characterized postmodernism as follows:

(1) There has been a shift in "first things" from being to knowing to constructing meaning. . . . (2) The truth about the reality is forever hidden from us. All we can do is tell stories [narratives]. . . . (3) All narratives mask a play for power. Any one narrative used as a metanarrative is oppressive. . . . (4) Human beings make themselves who they are by the languages they construct about themselves. . . . (5) Ethics, like knowledge, is a linguistic construct. Social good is whatever society takes it to be. . . . (6) The cutting edge of culture is literary theory.(10)

Postmodern thought has greatly influenced contemporary culture. The hallmark of postmodern thought is the death of truth. Don Matzat noted, "The only absolute truth that exists in the postmodern mentality is that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and as far as the postmodern scholar is concerned, that is absolutely true."(11)

The self-contradiction is obvious but the postmodernist is not concerned with logic or truth. Everyone has his or her own "truth" and the height of arrogance is to say that one’s "truth" is actually the truth. Nothing frightens the postmodernists more than a "fundamentalist" claim to absolute truth which they view as nothing more than an attempt to oppress those who disagree. So with the rise of postmodernism came ideas such as political correctness, tolerance, moral relativism, multiculturalism, new age spirituality, religious syncretism, empowerment of minorities, denigration of white European males, and homosexual rights. Every area of society has been touched by postmodernism. Health care, literature, education, history, psychotherapy, law, science, and religion are all mutating under the influence of postmodernism.(12)

Because of their claim to an exclusive metanarrative (worldview), conservative, Bible- believing Christians are frequently exempted from society’s tolerance. Christians are not only ignored by the popular culture, they are increasingly singled out for ridicule and outright bashing by the kinder, gentler postmodernists. The postmodernist’s "tolerance" masks the reality of an underhanded power play.

The postmodern era is a dangerous time because of the loss faith in the concept of objective truth, especially in the realm of ideologies. Civilization is shaped by ideas, and the loss of truth as the fixed reference point by which civilization can be guided leads to moral chaos. One can only imagine what kinds of evil moral relativism will lead to in the years to come.

So much for postmodernism; what concept of truth does the Bible present and what hope does that truth hold for society?

THE BIBLICAL CONCEPT OF TRUTH

Although the Bible does not present a systematic account of the nature of truth, a biblical understanding of truth can still be gleaned just as other doctrines which are not explicitly presented such as the trinity–by induction. The principles gathered by inductive Bible study can then be subjected to logical deductions which would provide a systematic understanding of the biblical concept of truth.

The basic principles concerning the nature of truth in the Bible can be reduced to the following two over-arching propositions: (1) Truth is theocentric and absolute. (2) Truth is correspondence to reality.(13) From these two propositions, a number of logical deductions (philosophical implications) can be made. However, for lack of space, these logical deductions will not be made here.

The Old Testament

The most common Old Testament word for truth is emet and its cognate emunah. Both words are derived from aman (cf. English "amen"), which in its basic stem means "to confirm, support, or uphold." The basic root is firmness or certainty. The noun emet (the most common form of the root aman) most commonly denotes speaking the truth as opposed to falsity or falsehood (Josh 9:15-16, 19; 1 Kings 17:24; Isa 48:1; 59:13-14; Jer 5:1, 3; 9:3, 5-6); thus, emet is "what is true" or "that which corresponds to the facts." This term is also used in relation, either directly or indirectly, to God: God’s Word (Ps 119:142, 151, 160; Dan 10:21); the "ways" of God toward man (Josh 10:21; 21:14; 1 Kings 2:4; Ps 26:3; 86:11; 91:4; Isa 38:3); the way man should in turn relate to God and to others (Ex 18:21; Neh 7:2; Ps 15:2; Zech 8:16).

More significantly, emet is also used to portray the character of God (Ex 34:6; Ps 31:5; 40:10-11; 57:10; 86:15; 89:14; Isa 65:16; Zech 7:8). Emunah (usually translated "faithfulness") also occurs frequently as an attribute of God (Dt 32:4; Ps 33:4; 36:5; 40:10; 92:2; 143:1)

Jack B. Scott concluded his study of emet: "As we study its various contexts, it becomes manifestly clear that there is no truth in the biblical sense, i.e., valid truth, outside God. All truth comes from God and is truth because it is related to God."(14) Truth in the Old Testament, then, is (1) a characteristic of God, also to be reflected by His people, and (2) facticity, or correspondence to reality. Truth is theocentric and corresponds to things as they really are.

The New Testament

In the New Testament, the word for truth is aletheia. Aletheia is used in contrast to falsehood or falsity and to denote that which corresponds to reality, or the facts of the matter (John 8:44-47; Rom 1:25; 3:4-8; 9:1; Acts 26:24-25; 2 Cor 13:8). The New Testament presents a similar concept of truth as the Old Testament. In fact, the New Testament writers even imported the Hebrew aman to the Greek amen which occurs 129 times in the New Testament.

The New Testament writers’ usages of the word aletheia are (1) as truth in general as revealed in the Law or creation (Rom 1:18, 25; 2:8, 20); (2) as a reference to the gospel (Col 1:5; 2 Thess 2:10, 12-13; 1 Pet 1:22; 2 Pet 2:2); (3) as truth as opposed to lying or deception (2 Cor 4:2; Gal 4:16; 1 Tim 2:7; 1 Pet 5:12; 2 Pet 2:22); (4) as an attribute of God (Rom 1:25; Eph 4:21; Titus 1:1-2; Jas 1:18); (5) in keeping with the Old Testament principle of the imitation of God, truth characterizing human relationships with God and one another (1 Cor 5:8; 13:6; 2 Cor 6:7; Gal 5:7).

The Apostle John often saw truth as the opposite of lies and falsehood (John 5:33; 8:44; 16:7; 1 John 1:6-10; 2:21-24; 4:6; 2 John 1:2, 7; 3 John 1:12). John also understood truth like the Old Testament writers who incorporated the concept of "doing" the truth. The disciple of Christ is one who "practices the truth" (John 3:21). Truth here is not only the opposite of falsehood but also a way of life that is aligned with the nature and Word of God. Another aspect of truth that John brought out is the concept that truth is a revelation from God. In opening his Gospel, John wrote that Jesus, the incarnate Logos, is described as "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). It has been understood that in verses 14 and 17 John is hearkening back to Exodus 34:6 where God revealed Himself to Israel as "The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness (hesed) and truth (emet)."(15) This phrase (lovingkindness and truth) occurs frequently in the Old Testament and expresses Yahweh’s covenant loyalty and unchanging truth. "What then is the point of John’s connection with Exodus 34? Revelation. The incarnation of God in the Logos is presented as the supreme disclosure of the Lord who revelaed himself to Moses in the giving of the Law at Sinai (1:17). Jesus shows us God as he really is."(16) Jesus is both the Messenger and the Message of truth (John 14:6).

Possibly John’s greatest contribution to the biblical concept of truth is his perception that all truth is rooted in God. Truth is thus absolute and theocentric. God’s ontological reality is ultimate reality. No standards exist outside of God by which to evaluate His reality. As ultimate reality, God is the only absolute standard by which all truth and falsehood, light or darkness, and right or wrong are measured in this world (John 5:53; 8:31-32, 42-47). Moreover, both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are said to be "the truth" (14:6, 16-17; 15:26; 1 John 5:7). So the Father is truth, the Son is truth, and the Holy Spirit is truth. The locus of truth is the Triune God. God is truth.

Finally, concerning the evidences for the biblical concept of truth, the Word of God itself is truth. Jesus plainly stated, "Your word is truth" (John 17:17b). John declared that the apostolic witness was "the spirit of truth" as opposed to the "spirit of error" (1 John 4:6). God’s Word is reliable because it is rooted in and ruled by the divine absolute. His Word corresponds to reality because reality is measured by God, the ultimate reality.

Thus, the New Testament concept of truth conforms to that of the Old Testament and is predicated upon it. Truth originates in God, who is the source and measure of all truth. Truth is opposite to falsehood and lies. Truth is that which corresponds to things as they really are. Truth can be witnessed to, stated propositionally, and tested. Truth is reliable and right because it is valid; it is from God, measured by God, rooted in God, and required by God. Truth finds its absoluteness in God, that is, because God is absolute, truth is absolute. Because God is authentic, real, genuine, and perfect reality, all truth corresponds to reality.

CONCLUSION

The following conclusions may be made concerning the biblical concept of truth: (1) God is truth. Truth is ontologically rooted in God. Truth is an unchanging, fixed, absolute attribute of God. Truth is thus unchanging, fixed, and absolute. (2) Truth is correspondence to reality. Truth is what is true as opposed to falsehood and lies. (3) Truth is propositional and verifiable. (4) Truth is revealed and therefore objective, knowable, and subject to systematization. Because God’s Word was spoken and written, it may be taught and learned. (5) Truth may be personally practiced inasmuch as truth determines what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, righteous and unrighteous, real and unreal. The person who is faithful to God is so because he or she is "true to God," that is, ideologically and morally aligned to the true God, the God of truth.

The biblical concept of truth may thus be summarized by two overarching propostions: (1) Truth is theocentric and therefore absolute. (2) Truth is correspondence to God-interpreted reality.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barentsen, Jack. "The Validity of Human Language: A Vehicle for Divine Truth." Grace Theological Journal 9:1 (Spring 1988): 21-43.

Beckwith, Francis J. and Gregory Koukl. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998.

Breese, David. Seven Men Who Rule the World From the Grave. Oklahoma City: The Southwest Radio Church, 1980.

Bultmann, Rudolf. "ajlhvqeia." In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Edited by Gerhard Kittel, 1:232-247. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964.

Bush, L. Russ. "Knowing the Truth." Faith and Mission 11:2 (Spring 1994): 3-13.

Cabal, Ted. "An Introduction to Postmodernity: Where Are We, How Did We Get Here, and Can We Get Home?"The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 5:2 (Summer 2001): 4-18.

Crump, D. M. "Truth." In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Edited by Joel B Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992.

Danker, Frederick William, ed. "ajlhvqeia." In A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., 42-43. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Groothius, Douglas. Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Hille, Rolf. "Transition from Modernity to Post-Modernity: A Theological Evaluation." Evangelical Review of Theology 25:2 (2001): 113-129.

Kallenberg, Brad. "The Gospel Truth of Relativism." Scottish Journal of Theology 53:2 (2000): 177-211.

Leffel, Jim and Dennis McCallum. "The Postmodern Challenge: Facing the Spirit of the Age." Christian Research Journal (Fall 1996): 35-40.

Lewis, Gordon R. and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology: Historical, Biblical, Systematic, Apologetic, Practical. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996.

Matzat, Don. "Apologetics in a Postmodern Age." Issues, Etc. Journal 2:5 (Fall 1997): 3-18.

McCallum, Dennis, ed. The Death of Truth. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1996.

Parker, James III. "A Requiem for Postmodernism–Wither Now?" The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 5:2 (Summer 2001): 50-61.

Scott, Jack B. "Amen." In Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Edited by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke. Chicago, Ill.: Moody, 1990.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog, 3d ed. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Spicq, Ceslas. "ajlhvqeia." In Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Edited and Translated by James D. Ernest, 1:66-86. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.

Thiselton, A. C. "Truth." In The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Edited by Colin Brown, 3:874-902. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1986.

Veith, Gene Edward Jr. Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1995.

Weston, Paul. "Truth, Subjectivism and the Art of Apologetics." Anvil 16:3 (1999): 173-185.

White, James Emery. What is Truth: A Comparative Study of the Positions of Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, Donald Bloesch, and Millard Erickson. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 1994.

NOTES

1. T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963), 69; quoted in Douglas Groothius, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 9.

2. All Scripture taken from The New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update, (La Habra, Calif.: The Lockman Foundation, 1996).

3. Ted Cabal, "An Introduction to Postmodernity: Where Are We, How Did We Get Here, and Can We Get Home?," The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 5:2 (Summer 2001): 4.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Madman," Gay Science 125, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), 95-96.

5. James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog, 3d ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 173.

6. Ibid., 175.

7. Ibid.

8. Gene Edward Veith Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1995), 32-33.

9. David Breese, Seven Men Who Rule the World From the Grave (Oklahoma City: The Southwest Radio Church, 1980), 20-21.

10. Sire, 175-84.

11. Don Matzat, "Apologetics in a Postmodern Age," Issues, Etc. Journal 2, no. 5 (Fall 1997): 7.

12. Postmodernism’s influence in these areas is superbly treated in Dennis McCallum, ed., The Death of Truth (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1996).

13. One survey of American Evangelical theories of truth revealed that the correspondence theory is most prevalent. See James Emery White, What is Truth: A Comparative Study of the Positions of Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, Donald Bloesch, and Millard Erickson (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 1994), 33. Two other recent authors who advocate the correspondence theory of truth are Douglas Groothius, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2000), 60-63; and Millard Erickson, Truth or Consequences: The Promises and Perils of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 234.

14. Jack B. Scott, "Amen," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago, Ill.: Moody, 1990), 1:52.

15. A. C. Thiselton, "Truth," in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols., ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1986), 3:889-890.

16. D. M. Crump, "Truth," in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992), 861.

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2 responses to “Postmodern Truth Versus Biblical Truth

  1. As the article says, “One can only imagine what kinds of evil moral relativism will lead to in the years to come.”

    After browsing all morning on “Christian Leadership” sites, was very good to read this. On one of these “Christian” sites that I was on, says that if we want to be a part of their community, just a couple of things that we need to affirm is: 1.Requires a belief that the heart is good.
    2.A person’s glory is pursued, not their sin. (it got worse….)

    Thanks for excellent article explaining how all is “mutating under the influence of postmodernism.”

    Like

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