What is truth? (Some thoughts on the biblical concept of truth)

I find that Christians often think of the “truth” in the Bible as some kind of “objective truth” that can and should be expressed in propositional statements. While I don’t totally disagree with this, I have long been wondering whether it accurately represents the concept of “truth” in Scripture.

To me, “objective truth” can be misunderstood to mean that the truths about God are non-relational, as if the “truth” in the Bible has little to do with God’s love for his image-bearers and his desire for us to love one another.

In the New Testament, a good place to look at this matter is John’s Gospel, for it refers to the word “truth” quite frequently. Perhaps one of the most important references is the one in John 1:14, which says,

Now the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only—full of grace and truth, who came from the Father.

It seems clear that John is not saying that Christ is full of “grace and objective truth.” Rather, I think it refers to Christ as the embodiment of God’s character, including his grace, truthfulness, integrity and faithfulness.

The reason is that I think the Old Testament (and Hebraic), not the Greek (Hellenistic), notion of truth is the primary sense of the word “truth” in this passage. There are, of course, overlap between the Greek and Hebraic senses of the word. But it’s the Hebraic sense that is much stronger here.

I find the following comments from Craig Keener, The Gospel of John (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), 1.418, very helpful.

The Greek sense of truth involved especially knowledge, sometimes religious knowledge, it could also denote recognition of reality. The Hebrew and traditional Jewish concept, conversely, was more apt to include moral truth and to be identified with God’s law. שמע often stressed being “true” to one’s word—truth as integrity or covenant faithfulness—and is a central attribute of God’s character.

Although some regard John’s content for ἀλήθεια as primarily Hellenistic, many scholars now recognize more of the traditional range of שמע in the Fourth Gospel. That 90 percent of the LXX uses of ἀλήθεια translate שמע, and that John derives his use of “full of grace and truth” from the Hebrew Bible (as well as his usage in some other passages, e.g., 17:17), suggest that while the semantic range of both terms may have influenced his usage, he is especially sensitive to the term’s uses in its prior biblical contexts. Perhaps John expects the reader to hear the prologue’s coupling of “grace and truth” when “truth” recurs alone (twenty-five times) through the rest of the Gospel; if so, “truth” often includes the sense of “covenant faithfulness” in the Fourth Gospel. The aborted dialogue of John 18:37–38 even suggests that John is aware of competing cultural epistemologies or understandings of truth.

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