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Truth, apologetics, and the church

January 27, 2014

Last weekend I heard an apologist talking about the truth of Christianity, about how truth is the main point when Christianity comes into conflict with nonbelief. Whether Christianity is true is, of course, a major consideration. We believe because we think it is true, that it correctly relates the reality and ways of God.

Truth for apologists today is typically thought of in terms of evidences and arguments. Jesus rose from the dead: this can be believed because of historical evidences and prophecies. God exists: this can be believed because one can show it to be true by means of arguments which draw from reason and the senses. Because apologetics tends to operate along the lines of academic thinking, truth is thought of in epistemological and logical terms.

I wonder if that is how the people with whom we speak think about truth. I’m not speaking here of the different attitudes of skepticism and relativism. I’m thinking about how truth is known. What persuades people of truth, especially given the current skeptical and relativistic mood? I’m not challenging the validity of arguments and evidences in general and their use when needed. What I’m wondering is whether the attempt to establish truth in this way is the best way to go, at least as the primary way.

In the Old Testament, the word most often translated true, truth, or truly is ‘emet or a cognate. (1) The word means both truth as over against falsehood, and faithfulness (see for examples Zech. 8:8 and Gen. 42:16). Truth is not just the conclusion to a sound argument. While on every occasion of its use the word doesn’t mean both faithfulness and the opposite of truth, the two are related. As Anthony Thiselton has written, “when God or man is said to act faithfully, often this means that his word and his deed are one. He has acted faithfully in accordance with his spoken word. Hence the believer may lean his whole weight confidently on God, and find him faithful.”   He continues: “Men express their respect for truth not in abstract theory, but in their daily witness to their neighbour and their verbal and commercial transactions.”(2)

In the New Testament, truth (alētheia) more often refers to conformity to reality and truth as opposed to falsity, although it can also convey faithfulness. (3) “Faithful” is more often translated, though, from the word pistos. (4) Truth and life or deeds are connected. We are exhorted to walk by the truth (1 Jn. 1:6) or to be faithful to what we know, to what is true. In Revelation, Jesus himself is called “faithful and true” (19:11), the “faithful and true witness” (3:14; see also 1:5). The words of the angel delivering the message to John were “trustworthy and true” (22:6). God can be trusted; He is as good as His word. Paul said that God’s promise that we will not be tempted more than we are able is grounded in his faithfulness (1 Cor. 10:13). In his benediction to the Thessalonian church, Paul wrote, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:23-24). God said it, so it is true and faithful and can be counted on.

When people want to know if Christianity is true, are they asking whether it survives close evidential or logical scrutiny, or are they asking whether it is real and reliable, whether it can be depended on? Either could be the case. However, I have no doubt that the latter is every bit as important as the former to people today. In our apologetics we become so closed in to our academic ways of thinking that we forget that most people don’t think that way. So I wonder, should Christian witnesses (including apologists) talk more about truth as faithfulness rather than just as the opposite of falsehood?

I think we should. This isn’t an either/or matter. Both truth as conformity to fact and truth as faithfulness are important. The latter is especially so today. Our world is constantly changing. Modern progress is all about change. One gadget becomes obsolete and another is marketed in its place. New clothes styles are put on the racks months before the next weather change. There are changes in employment, residence, and—perhaps most significantly—relationships. One of my sons’ has commented on how typical it is for his friends to have divorced parents. They are surprised to learn that his parents have remained married for so long. Very little is fixed in people’s lives. We are conditioned by the experiences of life to think that little or nothing is permanent.

We’re also taught almost daily by what we read and watch that truth is relative to one’s culture or simply to one’s own interests and tastes. This subjectivity is so strong that to challenge a belief is seen as challenging the person holding it. Sexuality and even family structures, for example, are matters of choice. If you have a belief about such things, it is only your opinion (in the current weak sense) and has no hold on anyone else. It’s all relative. Claims to know truth are met with the charge of arrogance. “You think you know everything” is one exaggerated response. While it’s true that there are people who seem to think they have everything wrapped up in a neat package, it’s also the case that some people are so resistant to the idea that anyone can know anything in the realms of morality and religion that small claims to know truth are attacked greatly out of proportion with the claims.

These attitudes–that little is fixed, and that moral and religious claims are relative–are for the most part pre-reflective. They aren’t learned didactically. Is it realistic to think that the best way to respond is with argument (in the best sense)?

What will be more persuasive? What will capture people’s attention more readily? Are people interested first of all in the claim that Jesus rose from the dead? Are they interested first of all in the claim that he is divine? Again, I’m not diminishing these. I’m talking about priorities in what we present. I’m talking about listening to people to see what matters to them in order to make a connection. People not only need to know that Christianity is in conformity with fact. They need to know that it is real and that it remains. It is faithful; it can be relied upon.

Christians talk a lot about love. Is it real love or is it fake? Is it a put-on to get something we want? We talk about justice and righteousness. Are we serious? Or is this just “Christian-speak”? We’re told that the Spirit working in us produces kindness and peace and self-control and goodness among other things. Does this really happen?

Another question has to do with permanence: Will it remain, or is it just another religion or philosophy that is here today and gone tomorrow? Is God really true? Can He be counted on? Or does He change like everyone else?

When it comes to questions such as these, academic arguments don’t matter much. Testimony and lived-out witness are what matter. Paul talked about the importance of his individual witness-in-life in winning the lost (1 Cor. 9:23). We’re aware of this. The truth that our individual witness matters is taught often in churches. This needs to be extended to the church itself. Paul said that the church is a “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). It is the church that shows how Christianity plays out in the realities of everyday life. We demonstrate love and justice and forgiveness among ourselves and to the world outside our walls. We illustrate community.

But, perhaps due to the distinction often made between apologetics and evangelism, we usually think that such witnessing—individual or corporate—has to do with the latter. What does it have to do with apologetics?

The defense of the faith in the New Testament is about bearing witness for Christ. The one making a defense gives reasons for believing with a view to proclaiming Christ and to seeing people come to faith in him.

When people ask why they should believe it is true, then, maybe instead of presenting an argument for the deity of Christ or for the resurrection or for miracles, why not talk about the lived experience of being a Christian? We will eventually have to get to the “conformity to fact” matters, of course, so that we don’t present Christianity as simply a particularly attractive lifestyle. But to get to that point we might have to gain people’s interest by showing that it touches where they live. In fact, we might also include the unattractive parts of Christian life; that would help make it ring true to listeners who know that life can be tough. Individual Christian experience and that of our local churches provide material for that.

But in order to do this, our local churches themselves must be strong. Members need to know what Christians believe and must live it out. The church itself, as it shows Jesus—and Scripture—to be true, is an apologetic. Apologetics, biblical defense, evangelism are not primarily the work of specialists. These are the work of the church as it bears witness to Jesus.

Notes

1. I expand on this in my article “Truth: What It Is and Why We Can Know It” which can be found on the web site of Probe Ministries (probe.org).

2. Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978); s.v. “Truth” by A. C. Thiselton, III.877, quoting Alfred Jepsen, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, I:313.

3. Thiselton, “Truth,” I:874.

4. Brown,  NIDNTT,s.v., “Faith” by O. Michel, I:602-03.

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