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QUESTION: Can the Average Person Discern Truth in Differing Views?


Do you believe that the average person is intellectually well grounded to recognize the truth in their own views and what is true or not true in other views?  If not, why not and how can this be rectified?  If yes, what persuades you of this, or does it matter?

This question comes from a student pursuing a degree in ministry on line as a question that came up in his class. (I waited long enough to reply to his question that I can be relatively sure I am not doing his class work for him.)

Jesus Before Pilate

Jesus Before Pilate

The answer to this question depends on how you answer Pilate’s question: “What is truth.”

If your concept of truth is that it is a theologically constructed series of propositions,  then you will answer one way.

If your concept of truth is that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), then you will answer another way. Note that each of these answers depends on the revelation of God contained in Scripture for one to know truth, for all that we know about Jesus is in the Scriptures. Yet, these concepts differ in how they approach Scripture.

Propositional Truth

If truth is a set of propositions that must be accepted (believed), then you will search the Scriptures to learn the factual information on which to construct these propositions. Many times, those who follow this path study the Scriptures as isolated statements, or “factoids” of truth, each of which contributes to a conclusion stated as a proposition to be proved or disproved. These statements may be as small as a phrase or clause in a single verse to be linked logically with other such statements in other chapters – or even in other books. This approach frequently takes Scripture with little regard for the context. As one of my beloved teachers, Johnny Ramsey, used to say, “A text without context is a pretext.”

Doing this is what leads many people to say, “You can prove anything by the Bible.” A classic example is the man who was looking for guidance from God for his life. He let the Bible drop open,  put his finger on the page, and read, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” He didn’t think that was acceptable, so he repeated the process and read, “Go and do likewise.” More than a little perturbed, he tried a third time. This time he read, “What thou doest, do quickly.” Passages just strung together this way can be put together to teach just about anything you want to teach.

It is obvious that this is not good exegesis (a word that means to draw out the meaning of a text, whether of the Bible or some other book). Instead, it is eisegesis, which means to read into a text what you want it to mean. This is really a straw man example, because very few people would be so absurd in approaching the Bible.

The danger, though, is that the exegete (one doing the exegesis) will unconsciously read his conclusions into the texts he is stringing together to support his proposition. Ideally, the proposition should develop “out of” the study of the Bible; often, however, the proposition is stated and then the Bible is consulted.

When this happens, men end up going to the Bible to justify their beliefs instead of going there to discover what it teaches. I know, because I have been there and done that. I knew as a child what the church teaches about most things. Some of these things are clear in the Bible; others are not so clear. In the early days of my education, I was looking for ways to prove what the church was teaching. I learned (memorized) the standard arguments but did not critically analyse them.

It was only later that I began to realize that some of these just did not make sense. This came after years of Bible study, teaching, and discussion with many different people. As this happened, I would drop certain arguments in support of a position without dropping the position. Eventually, I began to change some, not all, of my positions.

I know you will want some examples. Among these would be: how the Holy Spirit dwells in the Christian, what it means to be saved by grace through faith apart from works, and how much doctrinal disagreement can exist without breaking fellowship. There are others as well, but these three will do as examples of what I am talking about, and these are fairly significant issues.

Jesus As Truth

On the other hand, if you believe that Jesus is “the truth” sent from God, you will read the Bible in a different way. Your focus will be on Jesus Himself.

You will look at Him in promise and prophecy in the Old Testament with its types and shadows. You will look at Him as He lived His life as revealed in the four gospels. You will look at how The apostles and others preached Christ in Acts, and you will look at how, in the Epistles, the Holy Spirit exalted Jesus through the pens of Peter, Paul, James and Jude. Then, in the Revelation, you will see Him walking in the midst of His congregations, giving advice, warning of dangers, and triumphing over darkness.

You will not be like the Jews to whom Jesus said,

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. – John 5:39-40, emphasis added.

In other words, you will see all of Scripture through the lens of God’s love shown us in Jesus and in the heart of Jesus Himself. This, I believe, is the teaching of Hebrews 1:1-3.

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Emphasis added.)

Note the two aspects of God’s revelation in Christ. (1) God spoke by Him. There is a definite revelation from God in the words of Jesus (including those He gave to His apostles and prophets). (2) Jesus Himself, being the radiance of God’s glory and the exact image of His being, is a revelation from God by virtue of who and what He is. These two aspects do not conflict with each other; they are simply the two sides of the same coin of God’s revelation to us in Christ.

When Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well…” (John 14:6-7a), Philip asked Him to show them the Father.

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?'” (John 14:9)

In this view of truth, Jesus is God’s supreme revelation of Truth.

Recognizing or Discerning Truth

To recognize propositional truth, people must be able to follow what is sometimes very intricate reasoning in logical argument. Most such arguments have underlying, frequently unstated, assumptions that may or may not be true. Few people have the training or the temperament to analyze this type of argument.

To make one’s salvation depend on following finely drawn inferences can easily put it beyond the ability of “the average man.” To say that one’s salvation depends on getting all of one’s propositions and inferences exactly right will put it beyond the ability of most (if not all). Indeed, the finest scholars disagree among themselves, even when they equally desire to know God’s will and do it.

On the other hand, there are few propositions that we must understand and believe when we understand that Jesus is Truth personified in what He is and does as well as in what He teaches. Here is a very simplified list – but one that is pretty comprehensive.

  • Jesus is God’s Son and our Lord and Savior.
  • He calls us to repentance (recognizing Him as Lord).
  • Penitent believers are to be baptized in His name, calling on His name as Lord.
  • They are to live a life of love for God, which shows continued faith, and for man, which shows they continue to accept the Lordship of Jesus.

Are there propositions in this? Of course there are. These, however, are propositions clearly taught in the Scriptures. It does not take convoluted arguments to establish these propositions. They lie openly upon the surface of the Scripture.

Can the average person recognize truth in this approach? When Jesus was on earth, “the common people heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37). Jesus Himself said,

Father, Lord of heaven and earth, …you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. – Matthew 11:25-26

Paul wrote:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. – 1 Corinthians 1:26 – 2:2, emphasis added.

It was the “wise ones of this world” who could not see the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus.

  • It’s not hard to recognize truth in the fact that there is a God who loves us so deeply He sent His Son to die for us. The hang-ups come when we try to explain exactly how His death brings salvation.
  • It’s not hard to recognize truth in the fact God calls us to repent, or even that He, by His Spirit within us, helps us continue to put to death the works of the flesh that are still in us.
  • It’s not hard to recognize truth in the fact that our faith leads us to the waters of baptism – and that rebellion against this is rejection of Jesus as Lord.
  • It’s not hard to recognize we need to continue to walk in the Spirit, loving God and one another.
  • It’s not hard to recognize Truth when our will is to do the will of the Father – because we love Him (see John 7:17).

It can be difficult to sift through conflicting arguments pro and con for different propositions claimed as truth. Let’s do as Thomas Campbell proposed in His Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington (first published in 1809 and still a valuable document):

That although inferences and deductions from scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word: yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of christians [sic] farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men; but in the power and veracity of God–therefore no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the church. Hence it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the church’s confession. – Proposition Six.

Too many people are ready to bind inferred truth on others, whether these others see the connections or not. Indeed, if someone can see clearly (or at least believes he can) that some of the “connections” do not “connect,” many reject him as a false teacher because he rejects their inferences and assumptions. This is done with virtually no consideration of his reasons for “dis-connecting” the “connections” of the traditional position and which most blindly accept without question.

Brethren, such things ought not so to be!

Conclusion

To answer the question as to whether the average person is able to recognize truth in his own beliefs and to discern between truth and untruth in the views of others, I reply: If “truth” is found in inferences drawn from the silences of the Scripture, then it will be difficult to discern – and most people will be confused. If “truth” lies in the good news of God’s love shown to us in Jesus, then it will be easy to discern.

Which way do you believe God reveals Himself and His truth to us? Is truth a puzzle hidden in the pages of the Bible that we must figure out? Or is truth a gift for us to receive? Is accepting truth the end of a string of arguments? Or is it opening your heart to Jesus as Savior and Lord? Does truth lie in correct positions on “the issues”? Or does it lie in committing one’s life to the Lord of Heaven and earth?

Someone once said, “You can be wrong about many ‘issues’ and be saved. You cannot be wrong about Jesus and be saved.” I believe he was right. Hold firmly to Jesus and commit yourself to following Him. When you realize that Jesus is God’s ultimate revelation to us, and you seek to do God’s will as you follow Him, then you will know the truth – and the truth will set you free.

See also my earlier post, What Is Truth?

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2 Responses

  1. Jerry,

    Your article on truth is excellent. My son is studing about truth in his group at University City Church of Christ in Gainesville. He asked me what I thought truth was and I said that each person had to decide what truth is. To some degree this is correct; however, I believe your article clarified this for me. If we all believed that truth is found in the good news of God’s love shown to us in Jesus, we would solve most of our problems.

    Ken White

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