One of the favourite whipping boys of postmodern theology is belief in objective, propositional truth. Fifteen years ago, William H. Willimon, former Dean of the chapel at Duke University, sounded the alarm: “Christians who argue for the ‘objective’ truth of Jesus are making a tactical mistake” (“Jesus’ Peculiar Truth,” 21). How so? The danger, he says, is that “talk of ‘objective truth’ suggests that the truth is something any fool can walk in off the street and get without cost and pain.” Furthermore, those who talk this way are “not being true to the nature of Jesus, who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’” (21). Strong words indeed. Is Willimon right?
Objective Truth and the Fool
He’s not. A big part of the problem here is that Willimon doesn’t have a proper grasp of the concept of ‘objective truth’. To say that a proposition is objectively true is only to say that its truth obtains apart from what any of us thinks, feels, or believes; it obtains by virtue of the way the world is. And there is nothing in this concept which implies that everyone can just see that a given proposition is true. In fact, wouldn’t things be the other way around? If truth were subjective—if it depended, say, on what we believed or what seemed true to us—then yes, without so much as breaking a sweat, fools and everyone else could “get” the truth just by knowing what they believed. Actually, there wouldn’t be any “getting” at all; everyone would already “have” the truth simply by having their opinions. And who doesn’t have plenty of those?
To the contrary, one thinks that it might be very difficult indeed to come to know some objective truths. Take, e.g., the proposition Gold is atomic number 79. Surely this is an objective truth. It’s based on a scientific fact about the atomic structure of gold that scarcely depends on human opinion. Of course, we always knew that gold was a yellow metal. (Immanuel Kant mistakenly thought this was a necessary truth about gold.) But we didn’t always know that the nucleus of this element contains 79 protons. As a matter of fact, we didn’t even know there were protons in the nucleus of an atom until the discovery was made by the English physicist Henry Gwyn-Jefferies Moseley in 1913. Was Moseley a fool? Hardly. He was a researcher at Oxford University. Did he make his discovery by stumbling “off the street and without cost and pain”? Certainly not. At great financial and intellectual cost, he developed the equipment and pioneered the technique involved in x-ray spectroscopy. That’s how the discovery was made.
What Willimon has confused here are the truth conditions for a proposition—i.e., those aspects or features of reality that make it true—with our knowing or discovering that it is true. It’s a basic category mistake.
Objective Truth and the Savior
What about this other claim Willimon makes—that arguing for objective truths about Jesus is inconsistent with the nature of Jesus? Here Willimon makes two points. First, he says,
“Jesus did not arrive among us enunciating a set of propositions that we are to affirm. There is no point at which Jesus says, ‘You need to believe four propositions about me: number one: I was born of a virgin; number two: scripture is inerrant…” Jesus never asks us to agree; he asks us to join up, to follow ” (21).
So the idea is that Jesus wasn’t looking for cognitive assent to propositions; he was looking for disciples, followers, people who wanted to embark on a faith journey. Accordingly, Jesus’ ministry is (partially) defined by what we might call the ‘No Objective Truth’ thesis:
NOT: Jesus doesn’t ask us to believe objective truths about him.
Straight away there are problems. First, Willimon misunderstands the relation between belief that and belief in. You can’t rightly believe in (i.e., trust, put your faith in) someone unless you believe that they exist. You have to believe certain objective truths about Jesus; otherwise you can’t be his disciple. As the writer of Hebrews says, “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb 11:6). So there’s at least two propositions you have to believe before you can put your trust in Christ. Indeed, it isn’t rational to give your life to someone who either isn’t really there (i.e., lacks objective existence) or is the product of your imagination (i.e., has subjective existence alone). Belief that (i.e., assent to objective truth) is a precondition for belief in.
Secondly, aren’t there a number of places in the gospels where Jesus just expects people to believe objective truths about him? Sure, Jesus doesn’t say, “Hello! I just thought of one more proposition (#56) you have to believe about me.” He’s much more subtle and sophisticated than that. Sometimes he’ll ask you a question, and the answer you supply will (if you think about it) turn out to be an objective truth about him. For example, consider these questions:
• “Do you believe that I am able to do this [heal the blind men]? They said to him, ‘Yes, Lord’” (Mt 9:28).
• “[W]ho do you say that I am? Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Mt 16:16).
Clearly, Jesus expects the blind men to believe the objective truth Jesus is able to heal us of our blindness; and the other disciples should follow Peter in believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus is waiting patiently for them to recognize that unique truth about him.
And then there are other cases where Jesus is asked a question (or asked to do something), and his response indicates that certain propositions about him are objectively true and ought to be believed:
• “And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water’. He said, ‘Come’” (Mt 14:28).
• “Philip said to him, ‘Lord show us the Father, and it is enough for us’. Jesus said to him…Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’” (Jn 14:8-9).
Peter wants to know whether Jesus is walking on the water towards us is an objective truth or something else (“It is a ghost!”). Jesus’ response ‘Come’ settles that question. And who is going to deny that Jesus doesn’t expect his disciples to believe that Anyone who has seen Jesus has seen the Father is the absolute truth about him? Jesus’ reaction says it all: “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (Jn 14:10-11). Well, if you don’t, you certainly should because that’s the truth of the matter.
Finally, it strikes us that there is a severe self-referential problem with NOT. Willimon tells us that Jesus doesn’t ask us to believe objective truths about him. But think about it: the NOT thesis is about Jesus. In fact, isn’t Willimon trying to say this is an objective truth about the Saviour? He’s not just giving us his opinion, or reporting on what he’d like to be true; he’s saying, “This is just the way it is. It’s a fact.” But if so, then according to NOT itself, Jesus doesn’t ask us to believe NOT. Therefore, we can be forgiven for not believing it.
Still there is a residual question that might be lurking in your mind—and this gets to Willimon’s second point: what about this claim on Jesus’ part to be the truth? Doesn’t this indicate that truth is ultimately personal and not propositional ? Well, first, we need to get clear about the reasoning used to establish this conclusion. It seems to me to go as follows:
(1) Jesus is the truth.
(2) Jesus is personal.
(3) The truth is personal.
And now the thing to see is that premise (1) is ambiguous. We might read this premise as saying:
(1a) Jesus is identical with the truth
or perhaps instead
(1b) Jesus has the property of being true.
Either way there are problems. Given (1a) as the proper reading of the first premise, the argument comes out valid. (This follows because for any individuals a and b, if a = b and a has property P, then b also has P.) The downside, however, is that (1a) is wildly false. For if Jesus is identical with truth, then to say that ‘2+2=4’ is true is to say that ‘2+2=4’ is Jesus. In other words, Jesus is nothing but a mathematical statement! Obviously, this can’t be what John 14:6 means.
On the other hand, suppose (1b) is the right way to read the first premise. In that case, we’ve got an invalid argument on our hands: Jesus has being true as a property; Jesus has being personal as a property; therefore, truth is personal. But this argument is a complete disaster. You might as well argue that since I have the property of being a father and the property of being a husband, it follows that being a father is the very same property as being a husband. It’s a hopeless business.
So what does John 14:6 mean? Well, simply this. Jesus is the truth about the Father. His words correspond to the Father’s (Jn 14:10); his being corresponds with that of the Father (v. 11); and his actions correspond with the Father’s will (v. 31). In fact, if you think about it: if these weren’t objective truths about Jesus, he could never have said, “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well” (v.7).
The upshot is this. Christians shouldn’t join in the chorus of postmodern despisers of objective truth. For not only is denying objective truth a tactical (self-defeating) mistake, it is a biblical and theological error of the very first order.
William H. Willimon, “Jesus’ Peculiar Truth,” Christianity Today, 4 March 1996, pp. 21-22.
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