What Is Truth?

By Phillip G. Kayser · 1/4/2016

    Introduction to the issue

    2000 years ago, a skeptic by the name of Pontius Pilate sarcastically asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). He had seen so many contrary claims to truth that he was skeptical when Jesus Christ dogmatically claimed that He had an objective source of truth (John 18:37). And we have to admit – there is much to be skeptical about. The world abounds in claims to truth that let us down, from the slick salesman who says his product will last to the politician who promises prosperity to all citizens. We should not just be skeptical about the conflicting and constantly changing truth claims of politicians, economists, psychologists and other social theorists. Even science has not given us any more certainty than Pilate had. This point has been cogently made by both secular philosophers of science like Thomas Khun[1] as well as Christian philosophers like Gordon Clark. In fact, Clark’s book, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God is a must read.[2] Dogmatic claims of science and medicine keep changing from generation to generation. Therefore, the question, “What is truth?” is a question well worth asking. I encourage you to be skeptical enough to avoid blindly accepting every truth claim, but not so skeptical that you close your mind to investigation. Unfortunately Pilate had a closed mind and was unwilling to let Jesus answer his important question (John 8:38).

    Many people have closed their minds in a similar fashion. They think that the search for truth is good for philosophers, but it is boring for them. However, philosophy is unavoidable. As John Robbins said in his introduction to Clark’s Three Types of Religious Philosophy,

    Just as all men speak prose whether they know it or not, so all men, not simply philosophers, have a philosophy. There is no possibility of a rational being not having a philosophy. And if all men speak prose, the question is not prose or no prose; the only question is whether they shall speak it correctly or not. Similarly the question is not philosophy or no philosophy; the only question is whether a man’s philosophy shall be correct or not.

    This post is intended to show you that the truth claims of the Bible are radically different from any other truth claim by Christian or non-Christian. It is also intended to show that if one does not start with the Bible, he or she cannot demonstrate the truth of anything, however probable such a truth claim may appear to be. And the reason is simple: your system is as limited as its starting point.

    I. Knowing the Truth Requires Reasoning from the Right Starting Point (the foundations, axioms or theorems of human thought)

    Every system of thought must have its starting point. This starting point is axiomatic, that is, it cannot be proved[3]. If it could be proved it would not be a starting point. The starting point may be made up of one or more axioms.[4] For example, you can’t prove that the axioms of mathematics are true. Every system of thought, whether religious or secular, has presuppositions or axioms. The source of those axioms reveals the ultimate authority for that system of thought. The starting point for Christianity is not an assertion of man but is God’s Word, the Bible. Another way of saying this is that the axioms for Christianity are in the Bible.

    But even axioms should not be blindly believed. The presuppositions of a system of thought can be tested in three ways, 1) Are the axioms necessary, sufficient and useful in providing a comprehensive system of thought? 2) Is the authority of the one who gives the axioms sufficient to lead to certainty, or is the authority who gave the axioms fallible enough that it can only lead to probability? There is a vast difference between an opinion which may be true, but which cannot be proved to be true, and knowledge which can be demonstrated by logical consistency to be true. 3) Would a denial of the axioms make the certainty of truth impossible? This test is a proof by the impossibility of the opposite.[5] For example, though the axioms of mathematics cannot be proved to be true directly, they can be proved to be true by appealing to the impossibility of functioning for even a day without them. We believe that if secularism was consistent (and did not continually borrow from Christian axioms), the secularist would not be able to function. For example, the philosopher Cage affirmed pure chance in his philosophy, but as an avid mushroom collector, he denied his philosophy by assuming that deadly mushrooms could always be counted on to be deadly, and good mushrooms would not violate consistency, law and order by becoming poisonous one day.

    We believe that only Christian axioms can stand all three tests. We further believe that the truth of Christianity is not just probable, it is certain. In fact, it is even more certain than mathematics. While there are many other proofs of Christianity, there are three reasons why Christianity can be seen to be axiomatically true. First, the Bible provides the presuppositions or axioms needed to make sense out of all of life and to be able to develop systems of truth in every discipline. The axioms of mathematics, of Aristotelian logic, of linguistics, science and every other endeavor are found in the Bible. Second, the Bible claims to be the revelation of the God who made all things, knows all things and therefore can make universal claims that are consistent with all things.[6] If axioms are to be useful in building a system of knowledge, they must be universal (absolute statements of truth). But they cannot be universal unless the person who is making the claim is also omniscient. Third, if you reject the Bible as the only objective source of truth you will discover that you cannot demonstrate that anything is true, including interestingly mathematics, as Dr. Gödel[7] demonstrated in 1935. The reason for this is that your system will be as limited as its starting point. If you don’t start with God’s unlimited mind determining truth, then man’s very finite mind determines truth. Notice that we are not arguing that men can’t recognize truth. We believe that since they are made in the image of God they can recognize truth. But no one but God can determine truth. Only God can make sense out of everything since only His mind is omniscient. That’s why the Bible is our axiomatic starting point. You can have confidence in the system if you know that the axioms are right.

    But here is the dilemma that must be faced when the Bible is rejected. The moment men and women try to develop absolute statements of truth independently of God they are claiming to be God. Let me illustrate. To make the claim that there are no two snowflakes which are alike is not only a logical fallacy, but it is a claim to omniscience (to know everything). Why? The only way to prove that statement, even if it were true would be to examine every snowflake that has ever existed or will ever exist not only on our planet, but any other planet where snow might fall. Man’s mind is very limited, and therefore he can never make universal negatives. That is the prerogative of an omniscient God. But men are continually claiming to be God by making universal statements such as “There is no God.” Has the person who has made that statement examined every nook and cranny of the universe in search of God to be able to rule out His existence? You have to be God yourself to make such a statement. And of course, those are the only two alternatives: God is God or man is God.

    Now someone might be more humble than to claim to be an atheist. He may prefer agnosticism, and he might simply say, “No one can know for sure that there is a God.” Now that may sound more humble, but it is actually an arrogant claim to omniscience. Why? Well, the person is still making a universal negative: “No one can know.” Has he interviewed me? No. Has he interviewed every person in the world? Perhaps there is someone who has come up with proofs he was not aware of. We need to realize that a universal negative is always impossible to demonstrate as true unless you have exhaustively examined everything.

    But there is more to it than that. Apart from God’s Word as the starting point, it’s not just universal negatives that are ruled out. Universal assertions of any sort are ruled out whether negative or positive. For example, you may know a scientist who has taken an unusually large sampling of crows. Let’s say that he has examined 3 million crows and he has finally arrived at the universal assertion that “All crows are black.” The reason he feels justified in making that statement is that all he has seen are black crows. However, all it takes to disprove this universal positive is for a child to find one albino crow, or a speckled crow. You cannot prove the truth of anything unless you are either the God who knows everything and can rule out any exceptions, or God has given you sufficient revelational axioms to make a system of truth since it starts not with man’s mind (which is limited), but with God’s mind (which is not).

    Remember, that your system of truth will be as limited as your starting point. And yet, teachers, scientists and philosophers are continually making statements that require universality to be valid. For example, most people who reject God still believe that murder is wrong. But I would ask, on what basis? Apart from a transcendent law from a God who knows everything, you cannot argue for a universal ethics. On what basis can a person reject God and yet at the same time argue that it is wrong to murder his next door neighbor? Animals kill each other all the time, and if we are just a higher form of animal, why not? On what basis can rape be said to be wrong? It would be no more immoral than a rooster copulating with an unwilling hen. Without the Bible, we cannot make sense of why it is that in every culture there is a consciousness that lying, rape, murder and other sins are truly sins. The Bible accounts for it by saying that God made man in His image and placed within His heart a knowledge of the law. Man rebels against it, but can’t get away from it. God won’t let him get away from the law. That’s why people have a guilty conscience. If God did indeed give the Bible, then we can account for morality. But no man-made system of ethics can account for a universal moral code.

    And what is true of ethics is true of science and of every area of life. Even mathematics has been plagued with this philosophical problem. Those who are math majors will recognize that there are three competing systems of higher math: the logistical, the formalistic and the intuitionistic. Their differing views of what constitutes a mathematical proof suggest that the authority for absolute truth in mathematics lies outside of math. In 1935 Kurt Gödel’s proof was able to demonstrate that none of the three systems can demonstrate the truth of math. This led many mathematicians to declare that math is not true. Many have said that there are no longer any absolutes. (Of course that is a contradiction, because that statement is itself an absolute statement). But they say that we just use math operationally because it helps us to function. But there is another alternative: to declare that math is an absolute truth because it reflects God’s character, it corresponds to the axioms that have been revealed in the Bible and those axioms correspond to the image of God in man which makes math make sense.

    So in summary, truth can only be determined by God since God made reality and defines reality. God has defined reality for us by giving us the Bible which is called the “word of truth” (Psalm 119:43; 2 Cor. 6:7; Eph. 1:13; 2 Tim. 2:15; James; 1:18). Jesus answered Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” During a prayer to God the Father, He said, “Your Word is truth.” (John 17:17). He also pronounced as true anything that could be logically deduced from the Biblical axioms. There may be other things that are true, but we will never be able to demonstrate that without the Word.

    II. Knowing the Truth Requires Logical Thinking Based on Those Axioms

    But special mention needs to be made of the role of logic in our study of truth. It has become fashionable in some Christian circles to insist that we do not need to be logical to be Biblical (logic as an option) or even to pit Scripture against logic (logic as alien to Scripture).[8] In contrast, the Westminster Confession of Faith had a high view of logic when it said, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…” (Confession, I.vi.) The Confession here makes logical deduction essential to determining the whole counsel of God. Without logic our theology is deficient. The Confession insists on “the consent of all the parts” of Scripture (I.v.; LC 4), and denies that there are multiple meanings of Scriptural propositions (I.ix.).

    But our Confessional writers went beyond asserting the importance of logic in Biblical interpretation. They insisted that rationality was an ethical issue. The Larger Catechism sees as a violation of the third commandment not only faulty exegesis (“misinterpreting” Scripture), but also faulty deductions (“misapplying” Scripture[9] and theology[10]) (LC. 113). The Confession treats as a violation of the first commandment the following: “ignorance, forgetfulness, misapprehensions, false opinions…vain credulity, unbelief, heresy, [and] misbelief” (LC 105). In other words, these writers saw any form of irrationality as both a theological problem and an ethical problem. The irrationality may be deliberate rebellion or may be the secondary effects of Adam’s fall (noetic effects of the Fall). But it is clear that the Westminster Assembly believed that irrationality led to having other gods than the rational Jehovah (first commandment) and that irrationality led to inconsistencies with wearing the name of God as His followers (third commandment). If we are to think God’s thoughts after Him, then our thoughts will be and must be rational thoughts. Anything else does dishonor to God.

    What is the reason for such strong language? Gordon Clark wisely observed,

    Attacking logic means attacking morality. If logic is disdained, then the distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust, merciful and ruthless also disappear. Without logic, God’s words, ‘You shall do no murder,’ really mean: ‘You shall murder daily’ or ‘Stalin was Prince of Wales.’ The rejection of logic means the end of morality, for morality and ethics depend on understanding. Without understanding, there can be no morality. One must understand the Ten Commandments before one can obey them. If logic is irrelevant or irreligious, moral behavior is impossible, and the practical religion of those who belittle logic cannot be practiced at all.

    Something even worse, if anything could be worse, follows from rejecting logic. If logic does not govern all thought and expression, then one cannot tell true from false. If one rejects logic, then when the Bible says that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and rose again the third day, these words actually mean that Jesus did not suffer, was not crucified, did not die, was not buried, and did not rise again, as well as that Attila the Hun loved chocolate cake and played golf. The distinctions between true and false, right and wrong, all disappear, for there can be no distinctions made apart from using the law of contradiction.”[11]

    It must be categorically asserted that logic is embedded in the Scripture and cannot be avoided without avoiding the Scriptures themselves.[12] Scripture also assumes a prior logical understanding on the part of the readers.[13] In other words, it assumes that logic is part of man’s innate reasoning powers. John Frame has shown how it is impossible to do theology, to apply Scripture to our lives, to understand the reasoning of Scripture, to communicate or even to have assurance of salvation apart from logic.[14] In several of his books, Gordon Clark has shown that this innate power to logically reason and discourse is the “image of God” in man.[15] It is not something alien that we impose on Scripture. Christ the Logos[16] (John 1; 1 John 1:1) is the common Author of both since He not only gave Scripture, but also “gives light to every man who comes into the world” (John 1:9). It is this innate grasp of logic that enables man (with effort) to perceive Scriptural argument just as the rules of language are innate and enable us (with effort) to perceive the grammatical forms of the text.[17] It is true that the noetic effects of sin make us very prone to error in our use of logic. But this just makes our study of logic that much more important if we are to grow in our understanding of ethics.

    One may not, however, do theology or anything else in human life without taking account of those truths that form the basis of the science of logic. We cannot do theology if we are going to feel free to contradict ourselves or to reject the implications of what we say. Anything that we say must observe the law of noncontradiction in the sense that it must say what it says and not the opposite…

    When we see what logic is, we can see that it is involved in many biblical teachings and injunctions. (i) It is involved in any communication of the Word of God. To communicate the Word is to communicate the Word as opposed to what contradicts it (1 Tim. 1:3ff; 2 Tim. 4:2f.). Thus the biblical concepts of wisdom, teaching, preaching, and discernment presuppose the law of non-contradiction.

    (ii) It is involved in any proper response to the Word. To the extent that we don’t know the implications of Scripture, we do not understand the meaning of Scripture. To the extent that we disobey the applications of Scripture, we disobey Scripture itself. God told Adam not to eat the forbidden fruit. Imagine Adam replying, “Lord, you told me not to eat it, but you didn’t tell me not to chew and swallow!” God would certainly have replied that Adam had the logical skill to deduce “You shall not chew and swallow” from “You shall not eat.” In such a way, the biblical concepts of understanding, obeying, and loving presuppose the necessity of logic.

    (iii) Logic is involved in the important matter of assurance of salvation. Scripture teaches that we may know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13). The Spirit’s witness (Rom 8:16ff.) plays a major role in this assurance; but that witness does not come as a new revelation, supplementing the canon, as it were. So where does the information that I am a child of God come from – information to which the Spirit bears witness? It comes from the only possible authoritative source, the canonical Scriptures. But how can that be, since my name is not found in the biblical text? It comes by application of Scripture, a process that involves logic. God says that whosoever believes in Christ shall be saved (John 3:16). I believe in Christ. Therefore I am saved. Saved by a syllogism? Well, in a sense, yes. If that syllogism were not sound, we would be without hope. (Of course, the syllogism is only God’s means of telling us the good news!) Without logic, then, there is no assurance of salvation.

    (iv) Scripture warrants many specific types of logical argument. The Pauline Epistles, for instance, are full of “therefores.” Therefore indicates a logical conclusion. In Romans 12:1 Paul beseeches us, “Therefore, by the mercies of God.” The mercies of God are the saving mercies that Paul has described in Romans 1-11. Those mercies furnish us with grounds, reasons, premises for the kind of behavior described in chapters 12-16. Notice that Paul is not merely telling us in Romans 12 to behave in a certain way. He is telling us to behave in that way for particular reasons. If we claim to obey but reject those particular reasons for obeying, we are to that extent being disobedient. Therefore Paul is requiring our acceptance not only of a pattern of behavior but also of a particular logical argument. The same thing happens whenever a biblical writer presents grounds for what he says. Not only his conclusion but also his logic is normative for us. If, then, we reject the use of logical reasoning in theology, we are disobeying Scripture itself….

    (v) Scripture teaches that God himself is logical. In the first place, His Word is truth (John 17:17), and truth means nothing if it is not opposed to falsehood. Therefore His Word is noncontradictory. Furthermore, God does not break His promises (2 Cor. 1:20); He does not deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13); He does not lie (Heb. 6:18; Tit. 1:2). At the very least, those expressions mean that God does not do, say, or believe the contradictory of what He says to us. The same conclusion follows from the biblical teaching concerning the holiness of God. Holiness means that there is nothing in God that contradicts His perfection (including His truth). Does God, then, observe the law of noncontradiction? Not in the sense that this law is somehow higher than God himself. Rather, God is himself noncontradictory and is therefore himself the criterion of logical consistency and implication. Logic is an attribute of God, as are justice, mercy, wisdom, knowledge. As such, God is a model for us. We, as His image, are to imitate His truth, His promise keeping. Thus we too are to be noncontradictory.

    Therefore the Westminster Confession of Faith is correct when it says (l, vi) that the whole counsel of God is found not only in what Scripture explicitly teaches but also among those things that “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” This statement has been attacked even by professing disciples of Calvin, but it is quite unavoidable. If we deny the implications of Scripture, we are denying Scripture….

    I would therefore recommend that theological students study logic, just as they study other tools of exegesis. There is great need of logical thinking among ministers and theologians today. Invalid and unsound arguments abound in sermons and theological literature. It often seems to me that standards of logical cogency are much lower today in theology than in any other discipline. And logic is not a difficult subject. Anyone with a high school diploma and some elementary knowledge of mathematics can buy or borrow a text like I.M. Copi, Introduction to Logic and go through it on his own….

    1. One of the best (and most widely read) of such critiques is Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970. Kuhn was the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time of the writing.

    2. Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1964.

    3. As Dr. Gordon Clark says, “Axioms, because they are axioms, cannot be deduced from or proved by previous theorems.” An Introduction to Christian Philosophy. Jefforson, MD: Trinity Foundation, p. 60.

    4. The New Testament word for “presuppositions” is στοιχεια. This word was used in classical Greek and by the Church fathers to mean the elementary or fundamental principles. In Geometry it was used for axioms, and in philosophy for elements of proof or the πρωτοι συλλογισμοι of general reasoning (Liddel and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. ). Obviously both of these definitions are synonyms with “presuppositions.” The New Testament teaches that the στοιχεια are the “foundation” upon which our faith and practice rests (Heb. 5:12-6:3). We find our στοιχεια in the Word of God (Heb. 5:12) and most specifically in the person of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:8-10; Heb. 6:1) revealed in them. The στοιχεια of the world are the foundation of the non-Christian “philosophy” (Col. 2:8) and are diametrically opposed to the στοιχεια of Christ the God-Man (Col 2:8-10). Our thoughts and actions are a logical outworking of these στοιχεια in everyday life (Col. 2:20ff). We must recognize that the superstructure of our world-and-life view is antithetical to the superstructure of the heathen’s world-and-life view, not because the superstructures do not have any things in common, but because of the way in which these superstructures are completely committed to their foundation or presuppositions. Paul gives us an example of this concept when he vigorously opposed the Galatian’s succumbing to pressure to be circumcised and observe “days and months and times and years” (Gal. 4:10). Though the physical act of circumcision was not wrong (cf. 1 Cor. 7:19; Acts 16:3), the idea that lay behind it was destructive and led to syncretism, a denial of their presuppositions and an unintentional reversion to weak and pathetic presuppositions (Gal. 4:9).

    5. Some speak of this as the transcendental argument. If you start with ontology (as Van Til did) the transcendental argument runs into problems. But if you start with epistemology and the axioms of Scripture (as Gordon Clark did), then the transcendental argument can be a useful and legitimate tool.

    6. In a future post I hope to talk about inerrancy.

    7. For an interesting summary of Gödel’s Theorum, read the article by J. van Heijenoort in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1967, volume 3, pp. 348-357.

    8. See Charles Partee, “Calvin, Calvinism and Rationality,” in Rationality in the Calvinist Tradition, ed. Hendrick Hart, Johan Vander Hoeven, and Nicolas Wolterstorff (Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1983), p. 15, n. 13 for an example of attacks on deducing truth by logical extrapolation. The late Cornelius Van Til was notorious in this area, as are many of his followers. Consider the following statements by Van Til (documented in John W. Robbins, Cornelius Van Til; the Man and the Myth [Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1986]: “My concern is that the demand for non-contradiction when carried to its logical conclusion reduces God’s truth to man’s truth.” (p. 5) Van Til once said, “All teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory.” (p. 25) Or consider the following statement “God is tri-une, three Persons in one – and one Person in three.” Gerard Berghoef and Lester De Koster, The Elders Handbook: A Practical Guide For Church Leaders (Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library Press, 1979), p. 142. This is either equivocation or a violation of the law of contradiction. There appears to be no feeling of discomfort on the part of the authors with holding to a logical fallacy.

    9. “…misapplying, or any way perverting the word, or any part of it…”

    10. “…misapplying of God’s decrees and Providences…”

    11. Gordon H. Clark, Logic (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1985), pp. viii-ix.

    12. Just as J.C. Keister, “Math and the Bible,” in The Trinity Review (No. 27/Sept/Oct, 1992) has shown the axioms of mathematics to be embedded in the Scripture, there are others who are developing the rules of logic from Scripture to show the Biblical warrant for such a complete system of logic. Some might ask, “Which system of logic?” Actually there are not truly different systems of logic. Gordon Clark has shown that there is a problem with Bertrand Russell’s modification of Aristotelian logic, and cautions against it, However, the basic structure of logical thinking cannot be different. For proof of where Russell went wrong, see Logic, pp. 83ff. For a marvelous tape set on Biblical logic, write to the Trinity Foundation in Jefferson, MD.

    13. Let me quote at length from John Frame, The Doctrine of The Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1987), pp. 251-254.

    14. See discussion in previous footnote.

    15. See for example Gordon Clark’s discussion in A Christian Philosophy of Education (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1988), pp. 129-140

    16. Which has in its meaning both logic and discourse. Christ is the Word of God. He is also the Logic of God.

    17. This of course does not mean that we do not need to study language. But linguistic analysis has demonstrated that children from every language group use the same “rules” to make sense out of the patterns of words that they hear. There is something innate (God-given) that enables them to learn a language. See Gordan Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation. In the same way, God’s people must study logic to improve their understanding of Scripture, but