What is ‘the Truth’?

We need to go back to the original meaning of the English word “truth"

Lies and more lies. Lying is troubling in our politics and in our personal lives. We hear that truth is not truth. Stephen Colbert created the word “truthiness,” referring to the concepts we want to be true or want others to think true, even if they are not. We still ask Pilate’s sarcastic question, “What is the truth?” 

Some might might think of Jesus’ words in John 8:32, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Are these words appropriately placed by Thomas Jefferson on the cornerstone of the University of Virginia or by the U.S. government on the wall of the CIA building? What is “the truth”?

Truth as Fact
Much of the modern world thinks of truth as fact, which is the meaning it has taken on since the 16th century. Knowing and speaking what is factual or accurate is important. The standard is an external reality or a relation to a concept. 

The popular psychologist Jordan Peterson makes telling the truth one of his 12 rules for life. His admonition is helpful. Align your life with the way things have been and are and be honest about it. 

Telling the truth is usually the best thing to do, but I say “usually.” We may know the exceptions, like Rahab in Joshua 2 or people hiding Jews from Nazis in World War II. These are exceptions, but they may point to a higher principle than being factually accurate. Jesus was not just saying know the facts (CIA) or know wisdom and learning (Jefferson).

Truth as Authenticity
The philosopher Charles Taylor highlights that we live in the Age of Authenticity, and most Millennials will make it clear that this is a fundamental value. Don’t act or pretend. Be you and let me be me. We are not to conform to the standards of others. We are to give expression to our true self.

There is much good in the emphasis on authenticity. We have individual value and identity. We are to wrestle with what we think is right and to allow others the same freedom. The danger is in the primary source expressed in the beginning of the word “authenticity.” It all starts with “auto,” the self. The self is set as the only standard. Jesus is not just rephrasing Aristotle, “Know yourself.”

Truth as Trust
We need to go back to the original meaning of the English word “truth,” which is in the old marriage covenant word “troth.” Truth is relational. Truth is being faithful to another. Truth is being trustworthy. The main Hebrew word behind Jesus’ statements about truth in John’s Gospel is emet, which is often translated “faithfulness.”

The standard is not objective facts or individual subjectivity. It is relational, covenantal. When Jesus says, “know the truth,” he is saying know me as God’s faithful, trustworthy agent to restore you in your relationship with God. This reflects back to John’s wonderful opening statement about Jesus in the first chapter that culminates in “The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). 

This statement reflects back to Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai. There Moses heard one of Israel’s main confessions. “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). That last phrase became “grace and truth” in John’s Greek. The truth is how God acts and what Jesus reveals – grace and truth, love and faithfulness.

Truth is relational. The standard is God’s relationship to us in Jesus. “Speaking the truth in love,” Paul says, “we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:15) To this let us all say and live, “Amen,” which is from the Hebrew word emet. Let us be faithful and true. Let us be authentic in reflecting the Author. 

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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