Truth, Error, and Knowing
The Bible treats truth and knowledge as vitally important and valuable because they are so closely tied to the nature of God and our relationship with him.
Scripture places a high premium on truth, not least because truthfulness is an essential attribute of God and his Word. The deep connections between truth and the triune God have wide-ranging ethical implications for God’s covenant people. The Bible takes for granted a realist view of truth, according to which truth involves (minimally) the accurate depiction of reality. Philosophers have proposed various theories of truth, insights from which can be incorporated into a Christian theological account of truth. Since error is a deviation from what is true and right, neither God nor his Word can err, and Christians should especially strive to avoid theological errors and promote sound doctrine (orthodoxy). Scripture also has important things to say about knowledge, both divine and human. On account of God’s revelation and our God-given cognitive faculties, we can acquire various kinds of knowledge, including propositional knowledge of truths about our creator, the created world, and ourselves. The greatest knowledge, however, consists in a saving personal knowledge of God through Jesus Christ.
“What is truth?” asked Pilate to the man who had just declared that he came into the world “to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37–38). The Roman Prefect received no answer and apparently wasn’t inviting one. His cynical question reflected a jaded skepticism toward the very idea of truth rather than a serious philosophical inquiry. Nevertheless, the question is an important one that merits careful reflection. In this essay, we will consider some of the things the Bible asserts or implies about truth, as well as the related concepts of error and knowledge.
Let us note first of all that Scripture places a high premium on truth. In both the Old and New Testaments, God’s people are enjoined to speak the truth (Psa. 15:2; Prov. 12:17; Zech. 8:16; Eph. 4:15, 25). The ninth commandment (Exod. 20:16) is expressly concerned with truthfulness, primarily in the context of a law-court (Deut. 19:15–21) but by extension in all spheres of life. As the rest of Scripture makes clear, truth-telling is a moral duty and honesty is a moral virtue. The pursuit of justice depends crucially on truthfulness, and thus the righteous are those who “love truth” (Zech. 8:16–19; cf. Amos 5:10). A sincere concern for truth should permeate not only our speech but our very thoughts (Phil. 4:8).
The primary words for “truth” in the Bible are emet (Hebrew) and alētheia (Greek). Both can connote the accurate representation of facts (as in, “tell the truth”) as well as the broader concepts of veracity, trustworthiness, sincerity, and authenticity. It is useful here to distinguish between propositional and non-propositional uses of the word “true.” The former applies to things like beliefs and statements: a belief or statement is “true” if and only if it depicts things accurately or authentically. This propositional sense is particularly in view when it comes to testimony, whether human or divine (John 5:31–32; 21:24; Acts 10:42; 18:5; 20:23, 26; 26:25; 1Jn. 4:14; 5:6–12). In the non-propositional sense, people or objects are “true” if they are genuine, trustworthy, or substantial (e.g., Luke 16:11; Heb. 9:24). The apostle John is particularly fond of this usage (e.g., “true light,” “true worshipers,” “true bread,” “true food,” “true drink,” “true vine,” “true God”). In this latter sense, “true” is often used to point beyond the transient physical realm to deeper spiritual realities (e.g., John 6:32, 55; Heb. 8:2).
From a Christian perspective, truth is far more than a philosophical concept; it is deeply theological, because it is intimately tied to the nature of God and his self-revelation. Yahweh is both “the true God” (Jer. 10:10; John 17:3; 1Thess. 1:9) and “the God of truth” (Psa. 31:5; Isa. 65:16) who cannot lie (Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2). Jesus Christ is “the only Son from the Father,” and thus he is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)—indeed, he declares himself to be “the truth” (John 14:6). The Holy Spirit, whom the Son sends as he returns to the Father, is “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1Jn. 5:6). Satan, in sharp contrast to the triune God, is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44-45).
Moreover, since God’s self-revelation necessarily reflects his character and attributes, the word of God is entirely true (John 17:17; cf. Psa. 119:160; 2Tim. 2:15; Jms. 1:18). The essential truthfulness of God’s word is bound up with its perfection and trustworthiness (2Sam. 22:31; Psa. 12:6; 18:30; Prov. 30:5; Rev. 21:5; 22:6).
These deep connections between God and truth have wide-ranging ethical implications for those who claim to be God’s covenant people. Our Lord is a God of truth, whose word is truth; it therefore follows that we should trust in God, believe and obey his word, and endeavor to speak truthfully ourselves.
But what is truth? Philosophers have debated whether truth should be understood in terms of some kind of relationship with reality. According to realism, a proposition is true if it accurately depicts or represents reality—if it reflects the world as it really is. A classic statement of the realist view was provided by Aristotle: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” (Metaphysics 1011b). Realism is arguably the commonsense stance that predominated until the turn of the twentieth century, when various arguments for anti-realism began to be defended and debated (not coincidentally in the wake of “the death of God”). Anti-realism is closely associated with the pragmatist and postmodernist movements, according to which “truth” is a human social construction to be created rather than discovered. It is safe to say that the Bible tacitly assumes a realist view of truth, and the great creeds and confessions of the church were forged by Christians who would have been baffled by any other stance.
Beyond the realism/anti-realism debate, various theories of truth have been proposed. The major contenders are correspondence theories, coherence theories, and pragmatic theories. Correspondence theories maintain that truth is a relationship between beliefs and facts: a belief is true if it “matches up” with the way things actually are. Coherence theories hold that truth is more like an internal feature of a belief-system: a belief is true if it meshes consistently with one’s other beliefs or ideas. Pragmatic theories propose that truth is a function of the consequences of beliefs: a belief is true if holding that belief “makes a difference,” if it has useful or desirable outcomes.
Realists typically favor correspondence theories of truth, while coherence and pragmatic theories are more agreeable to anti-realists. Although Christians understandably gravitate toward a correspondence theory, the other two approaches should not be dismissed out of hand. Following the lead of Augustine, a number of Christian philosophers have suggested that truths are ultimately just divine thoughts. It is not merely that whatever God believes is true; rather, truth just is whatever God believes. On this theistic account, it’s not too hard to see how truth would manifest not only correspondence with reality, but internal coherence and pragmatic utility as well—three theories for the price of one! If such an account is correct, by apprehending truth we would be “thinking God’s thoughts after him” in the deepest sense. Moreover, given that truth corresponds to reality, coheres internally, and makes a practical difference in the world, we have a strong mandate for the disciplines of systematic theology and practical theology.
In standard English usage, an “error” is a mistake or misstep: a deviation from what is right or true. A distinction can be drawn between intellectual and moral errors. An intellectual error involves believing or asserting something that is not true. If I miscount the number of candies in a box, concluding there are twenty-four when in fact there are twenty-five, I’ve made an intellectual error. A moral error is essentially what the Bible calls a sin: a deviation from righteousness, a transgression of the law of God (1Jn. 3:4).
Not all intellectual errors are moral errors. If a student scores twenty-eight out of thirty in a multiple-choice quiz, he has committed some intellectual errors, but he may not be guilty of any moral failing. If he scores eight out of thirty, it’s more likely that some moral failure lies behind his intellectual errors, such as laziness or complacency. Although intellectual errors are usually unintentional, lack of intention doesn’t necessarily imply innocence because an accidental error can be due to negligence. Suppose you give me a list of instructions for giving medication to a patient; I don’t pay attention and end up administering the wrong dosage. My mistake may have been unintentional, but it was far from innocent.
Scripture teaches clearly that God cannot err either intellectually or morally. But what about Scripture itself? The prevailing position in the Christian church from its inception has been that that the Bible is inerrant—without error—in the sense that everything it affirms is true and righteous. Inerrancy is typically attributed to the original texts of Scripture (autographa) given that there are discrepancies (mostly trivial) in the manuscript copies we possess today. Despite being increasingly maligned today, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has a firm theological footing. If Scripture is indeed the word of God—as it claims to be—then whatever Scripture affirms, God affirms. And since God cannot affirm a falsehood, either intentionally or accidentally, neither can Scripture. As Christ himself testified, God’s word is not merely true—it is truth (John 17:17). For this reason, Scripture alone can serve as “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.10).
Since truths about God are vitally important, theological errors are among the most serious. It comes as no surprise, then, to find the New Testament emphasizing the need for “sound doctrine” (1Tim. 1:10; 2Tim. 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1). Good theology matters; indeed, believing rightly can make the difference between life and death (John 5:24; 8:24; 20:31). Consequently, the Christian church has always been concerned to promote and preserve orthodoxy (literally, “right opinion”). Given our fallibility and fallenness, all of us will have some inaccurate thoughts about God, and any doctrinal disagreement will entail that somebody is mistaken. Some theological errors, however, are more serious than others. Heterodoxy refers to any deviation from orthodoxy, particularly errors that contradict the clear teachings of Scripture and the historic creeds and confessions of the church. Heresy is the term usually reserved for divisive and destructive errors that strike at the very identity of God and the heart of the biblical gospel, such as denying the deity of Christ or salvation by grace alone. Such heresies typically manifest themselves as a toxic mixture of both intellectual and moral errors.
Since the days of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have fretted over whether it is possible to know much of anything. In contrast, the Bible unabashedly affirms that humans can and do have knowledge of many things on account of God’s revelation to us and the cognitive faculties God has given us. Let us briefly consider five kinds of knowledge and illustrate each from Scripture.
First, there is propositional knowledge: knowledge that something is true or factual. This kind of knowledge is often called knowledge-that because propositions in English are commonly introduced with the word “that” (e.g., “I know that there are crackers in the pantry”). Similar indicators feature in other languages (e.g., propositional clauses in the New Testament are introduced with the Greek word hoti). Affirmations of propositional knowledge are commonplace in the Bible; for example, we can know that God exists, that Jesus is the Savior of the world, that we are justified by faith apart from works, and that we have eternal life (Rom. 1:19–20; John 4:42; Gal. 2:16; 1Jn. 5:13). Scripture affirms the importance of propositional knowledge precisely because of the great value it places on truth.
Secondly, there is testimonial knowledge, a special case of propositional knowledge. We come to know some truths through the testimony of others who already know those truths. Scripture, being the very word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is divine testimony by which God communicates truths about himself and his purposes (John 10:35; 2Tim. 3:16; 2Pet. 1:21). The teachings of Christ (also divine testimony!) and the preaching of his apostles are likewise depicted in the New Testament as a vital source of knowledge (John 8:14; 19:35; 21:24; Acts 4:33; 20:21, 24). No doubt many of us first came to a saving knowledge of God through the secondary testimony of ‘ordinary’ Christians—parents, pastors, colleagues, and so on—whose knowledge traces back to the original divine testimony.
Thirdly, there is experiential knowledge or “knowledge by acquaintance.” Even if I know many facts about pomegranates, the only way I can know what a pomegranate tastes like is by experiencing it—by actually eating one! No doubt some form of experiential knowledge is in view when the Bible enjoins us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8). Similarly, when Paul speaks of his desire to know the power of Christ’s resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, experiential knowledge is primarily in view (Phil. 3:10, NASB).
Closely related to experiential knowledge is personal knowledge. I know numerous facts about George W. Bush, but I cannot say I know him personally, not least because I’ve never met him. In contrast, I have personal knowledge of my wife, above and beyond all the facts I know about her. Scripture often speaks in terms of such knowledge, typically indicating an intimate relationship between persons. According to the Bible, it is more important than anything else to know God (not merely facts about God—cf. Jms. 2:19) and to know Jesus Christ (John 17:3; Phil. 3:8). It is noteworthy that Scripture employs the verb “know” not only as a euphemism for sexual union (Gen. 4:1; 4:17; 4:25; 1Sam. 1:19) but also to express divine election and foreordination (Jer. 1:5; Amos 3:2; Rom. 8:29; 1Pet. 1:2, 20). Clearly, God’s foreknowledge of his people is active rather than merely passive.
Lastly, there is practical knowledge or know-how. I could read a dozen books about playing the violin, but that will be no substitute for learning how to play the violin. This kind of knowledge is commonly associated with technical skills and creative artistry. In Exodus 31:1–3, the Lord tells Moses that he has filled Bezalel with “with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship.” We might ask how this kind of knowledge relates to wisdom. Perhaps in this way: if biblical wisdom may be characterized as spiritual know-how—roughly, knowing how to conduct oneself in godliness and righteousness, especially in difficult circumstances—then there is considerable overlap between wisdom and practical knowledge (compare Prov. 1:7 with 9:10 in this regard).
Without doubt, the greatest conceivable object of human knowledge is God himself. But can anyone have knowledge of God? Is there a sense in which everyone knows God? The Bible reflects a robust doctrine of natural revelation (Psa. 19:1–6) and the apostle Paul argues that God’s existence and attributes are so clearly revealed that no one can cite ignorance as an excuse for failing to give honor and thanks to their creator (Rom. 1:18–23). Even though sinners “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” such that their natural knowledge of God is distorted and eroded, their ignorance of God is a culpable ignorance. Moreover, while this knowledge is sufficient grounds for condemnation, it is not sufficient for salvation. Saving knowledge of God—which must include both propositional and personal knowledge of God—comes only through the preaching of the gospel and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, bringing sinners to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus (Rom. 10:13–17; 1Cor. 2:11–14; 2Cor. 4:4–6). The testimony of Christ and his apostles is clear and consistent. No one can claim to truly know God except through Jesus (Matt. 11:27; John 1:18; 14:6; 17:3; 1Jn. 5:20).
Although the Bible has much to say about human knowledge, it has even more important things to say about divine knowledge. God’s knowledge is perfect and comprehensive (Job 37:16; Jer. 23:23–24; Heb. 4:13; 1Jn. 3:20). God knows infallibly the past, the present, and the future, including the free actions of his creatures (Psa. 139:4; Isa. 41:21–23; 44:6–8; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). Ultimately, since all human knowledge is dependent on divine revelation of some kind, our knowledge is derivative of God’s absolute knowledge of himself and his works. We are reminded again that the best human knowledge is merely a temporal echo of God’s eternal thoughts.
We cannot enter here into an examination of the various epistemologies (theories of knowledge) that have been developed and defended by philosophers, both Christian and non-Christian. (Consult the list of recommended resources for some introductory surveys.) Secular theories of knowledge often raise problems for Christian knowledge-claims, and critical discernment must be exercised when drawing from such accounts. Whatever epistemology we adopt should be developed within a Christian theistic framework and able to accommodate the diverse biblical teachings about our knowledge of God, the world, and ourselves. While it is undoubtedly valuable to reflect on our epistemology, our paramount concern is not to know what knowledge is, but rather to know and be known by God (John 10:14–15; 17:3; 1Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9).
- William P. Alston, A Realist Conception of Truth (Cornell University Press, 1996).
- Robert Audi, Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Routledge, 3rd ed., 2010).
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559. (Book I discusses the knowledge of God as Creator through natural revelation, while Book II expounds the knowledge of God as Redeemer in Christ.)
- James K. Dew Jr. and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology (IVP Academic, 2014).
- John M. Frame, “The Ninth Commandment: Truthfulness,” in The Doctrine of the Christian Life (P&R Publishing, 2008).
- John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (P&R Publishing, 1987).
- Norman L. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy (Zondervan, 1980).
- Albert Mohler Jr., “Theological Triage,” 9Marks Journal, February 25, 2010.
- Roger Nicole, “The Biblical Concept of Truth,” in Scripture and Truth, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Baker Book House, 1992), 287–98.
- J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Eerdmans, 1959).
- Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000).
- “Of the Holy Scripture,” Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647, 1788).
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