What is Truth?

When Jesus was brought before Pilate, Jesus stated he was there to proclaim the truth and Pilate responded by asking that all encompassing question, “What is truth” (John 18:37-38). Even in this the 21st Century this question is still being asked. Answers to this question run from an absolute answer to a totally relativistic one. Today those of the post-modern persuasion would proclaim there is no such thing as absolute truth.

There are several theories on how one arrives at truth. Of all the sources for such theories, the best is detailed by @NormanGeisler. Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume 1, 109-125. He does a masterful job of detailing the major theories of truth. These are pragmatic, existential, coherence, and correspondence.

Geisler quotes Webster to begin his discussion of his epistemology, “Epistemology is ‘the study of the methods and the grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits and validity; broadly, [epistemology is] the theory of knowledge.’”[1] Therefore, a study into the epistemology is a study of truth or the way to determine truth.

The establishment of reality being the essential first-step epistemology follows closely behind. Dan Story supports this presupposition, “Truth, then, must correspond to reality.”[2] Geisler reviews the four main theories of truth: pragmatic, coherence, existentialism, and correspondence.[3]

Charles Peirce is the father of the philosophical system known as pragmatism. Craig G. Bartholomew asserts, “Peirce is the originator of one of the most influential schools of American philosophy: pragmatism.”[4] A student of Peirce was William James. William James made it clear the central tenet of pragmatism, “What is true is what works.”[5] Talk to any used car salesman and one will quickly discover, what works is not necessarily true. Donald G. Bloesch states, “. . . the test of truth is neither rational clarity nor pragmatic efficacy but fidelity to the promises and commandments in Holy Scripture.”[6] Geisler places the theory of pragmatism as a test for truth in his discussion of what truth is not. Geisler states, “But something that works does not make it true. Lies often work, but their effectiveness does not make them true; they remain false, regardless of their result.”[7]

Geisler next focuses on the theory of coherence as a definition of truth. Geisler also placed this in his discussion of what truth is not. There have been theologians who would disagree with Geisler on the placement of this theory in the category of what truth is not. Walter A. Elwell states, “Schaeffer unashamedly viewed truth as a system coherently expressed in the reliable words of Scripture.”[8] Geisler expresses two problems with this theory. First, to express coherence one must depend on the correspondence theory to represent what is coherent. Second, empty statements can cohere and yet express no discernible answers to the question of truth.[9]

Geisler now reviews his position on existential theory of truth. When considering existential theology the three principal persons are Karl Barth, Martin Buber, and Soren Kierkegaard. All three of these men are existentialist seeing as all three did not believe God said anything propositional. Geisler states concerning Martin Buber, “He denies that God has revealed himself in any propositional statements.”[10] The most recent is Karl Barth. Barth thought it was not possible for God to express himself in the propositional way that mankind could understand. One might say, “Barth’s God is Kierkegaard’s.”[11]

Geisler poses several problems with the existential definition of truth. Geisler summarizes these issues:

First, the very statement “Truth is not found in propositions” is itself a propositional truth claim. In other words, it is self-defeating. Second, the existentialist confuses the nature of truth and the application of truth. Of course, all applicable truth should be applied to one’s life; that is, all objective truth should be appropriated subjectively where possible. But this does not mean that truth itself is subjective. Third, existentialism presents too narrow a definition of all truth. Even if truth is existential in some sense, not all truth fits into this category—there are many other kinds of truth, including physical, mathematical, historical, and theoretical truths. If truth by its very nature were found only in existential relevance, then none of these could be true. Existential relevance fails as a complete definition of truth. Fourth, what is true will always be relevant, but not everything that is relevant is true. A pen is relevant to an atheistic writer, and a gun is relevant to a murderer. But relevance makes neither the former true nor the latter good. A truth about life will be relevant to one’s life, but not everything relevant to one’s life will be true. Fifth, many existentialists make a false dichotomy between fact and value, relegating religious truth to the nonfactual domain. This, however, is not possible because one cannot separate the spiritual significance of Christ’s death and resurrection from the objective facts of His literal death, empty tomb, and physical appearances (1 Cor. 15:1–19).[12]

Geisler completes the section on what is not truth. First, pragmatism is not truth, just because something works does not make it truth. The coherence theory is not truth because it depends on correspondence. Existentialism is not truth because by stating there is no truth in propositions it indicates propositions are making it self-defeating. Geisler saves the final theory of truth for what he believes is the only theory of truth that does meet all the tests.

Geisler believes the correspondence theory of truth is the only theory that can stand up to the scrutiny of examination. Geisler states, “Truth is found in correspondence. Truth is what corresponds to its object (referent), whether this object is abstract or concrete. As applied to the world, truth is the way things really are. Truth is “telling it like it is.”[13] Cornelius Van Til believes this is the most important of all the theories of truth. Van Til states, “True human knowledge corresponds to the knowledge which God has of himself and his world.”[14] According to Geisler, the antithesis of that defines what falsehood is, “By contrast, falsehood is that which does not correspond to its referent (object). Falsehood does not tell it like it is, but like it is not; it is a misrepresentation of the way things are.”[15]

Geisler provides several reasons for supporting the correspondence theory of truth. Non-correspondence of truth is self-defeating. As stated in the examination of both coherence and existential theories of truth, both rely on correspondence to state their case. Falsehoods would not be detectable without correspondence. If it was not known the way it is, how would it be known the way it is not? Finally, without correspondence all factual communication would break down.[16]

Geisler also provides several biblical reasons for the correspondence theory of truth. The foundation of the ninth commandment stands on the correspondence theory of truth. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). How would one know what is a false witness against one’s neighbor unless they first knew what was a true statement concerning reality? C. S. Lewis states, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”[17]

The use of the word “lie” corresponds to telling what is not true. Satan is called a liar (John 8:44); Satan lied to Eve when he told her, “You will not die” (Genesis 3:4) because it was not what God had told her and Adam (Genesis 2:17). Ananias and Sapphira lied to the apostles concerning their finances (Acts 5:1-4). All these examples rest on the correspondence theory of truth.

There are many examples in support of correspondence. Joseph said to his brothers, “Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth” (Genesis 42:16). Moses commanded false prophets proved because “If what a prophet proclaims does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken” (Deuteronomy 18:22). Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple, “And now, O God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father come true” (1 Kings 8:26). The concept of truth rests on the correspondence theory of truth.

If an act or statement did not correspond to God’s Law, it was false. Proverbs states, “A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful” (Proverbs 14:25). Here is the inference that a truth is factually correct. Nebuchadnezzar demanded his Chaldeans know the facts because anything else was a falsehood (Daniel 2:9). Jesus’ statement entails the correspondence of truth, “You sent to John, and he has bared witness to the truth” (John 5:33). Acts 24 is an example of the Jews trying to use correspondence to convince the king of Paul’s guilt. Geisler points to Paul as one using the correspondence theory of truth, “Paul clearly implied a correspondence view of truth when he wrote, ‘Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor’” (Eph. 4:25).[18]

To summarize Geisler’s epistemological points, the correspondence theory of truth is the only theory that stands up under examination. The Bible usage clearly supports the correspondence theory of truth. If a man is to embrace God’s Word for the inerrant, infallible, and truthful document it is the correspondence theory of truth is what will tell it like it is.

There you go the best theory of truth from @NormanGeisler.

[1] Geisler, Systematic Theology, p. 109; also refer to Merriam-Webster, Inc., Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1996), p. 390.

[2] Dan Story, Christianity on the Offense: Responding to the Beliefs and Assumptions of Spiritual Seekers (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998), p. 232.

[3] Norman L. Geisler, Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 250.

[4] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), p. 168.

[5] William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 143.

[6] Donald G. Bloesch, A Theology of Word & Spirit: Authority & Method in Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 75.

[7] Geisler, Systematic Theology, p. 110.

[8] Walter A. Elwell, ed., Handbook of Evangelical Theologians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), p. 290.

[9] Geisler, Systematic Theology, p. 111.

[10] Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p. 108.

[11] Ibid., p. 71.

[12] Geisler, Systematic Theology, pp. 112–113.

[13] Geisler, Systematic Theology, p. 114.

[14] Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1969), p. 10.

[15] Geisler, Systematic Theology, p. 115.

[16] Ibid.

[17] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper Books, Revised and Enlarged Edition, 2009), p. 38.

[18] Geisler, Systematic Theology, p. 116.

2 thoughts on “What is Truth?

  1. Hi John,

    I’ve just read your blog post “What is Truth?”

    Here’s my comment.

    Sure, many people today say there’s no such thing as absolute truth.

    But this sentence is a self-contradiction because if it’s true, then it must be an absolute truth.

    Epistemology is a field challenging to understand, but I’m fortunate to have a husband who’s a Philosopher.

    It helps a lot!

    I’m in no way a professional in this area, but I believe people today aren’t that interested in ‘the truths’ or ‘the truth’.

    William James seems to come closest to how we think about this topic in the Western world.

    The truth is what works.

    Geisler’s approach is more of a Karl Popper falsification approach, isn’t it?

    Søren Kirkegaard has an interesting take on this topic related to Christianity.

    He said in one of his books (can’t remember which one as I write this) that when we deal with Christianity we come to a point where we have to leave a rationalistic view and take the ‘jump of faith’ because the process of God becoming human, taking on a human body, and die on a cross cannot be understood with our rationalistic approach.

    That’s an interesting thought, I think.

    Although this is heavy stuff in this post, and I’m not capable of understanding all of it, I love to read a blog post by a Christian blogger with references to other sources.

    We need much more Christian bloggers who include references to work of others.

    God bless!
    Edna Davidsen


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