Written by Justin Gohl
Friday, 23 December 2011 00:00
Perhaps it would be fair to say that evangelicals have historically been suspicious of pragmatic and/or consequentialist understandings of truth—that truth is in some significant way determined by “what works” or by the effects of a given thing. Rather, we would say, if something is true, it simply is that, and while certain effects may naturally and appropriately flow from this truth, the effects are materially separate from the “truth-status” of the content of an idea, action, etc., itself.
And this suspicion is for good reason: humans are sinful and broken, quite adept at justifying after the fact that which is in fact sinful and self-serving, with “look, it worked” or “look at the results” reasoning.
Evangelical discussions of Scripture and its interpretation have been an especially poignant expression of this set of convictions about truth. Scripture and its contents are true, it is emphasized, regardless of what we say about it or what we do with it, because of how God relates to Scripture.
And certainly that baseline can and must be affirmed by Christians: Scripture’s truth is a function of God himself, not in any way contingent upon our response.
Yet, why can prominent early church figures make statements such as these?
Tertullian, for example, suggests that, “To know nothing in opposition to the rule [of faith] is to know all things” (Prescription Against Heretics 14 [ANF 3.250]).
Augustine, on the other hand, suggests that, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them such that it does not build up the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all” (On Christian Teaching I.40).
For Tertullian, the truth of Scripture (and all things) is something discerned when the reader comes to Scripture (and reality) with the “hermeneutical glasses” of the Apostles’ Creed (= Rule of Faith). Scripture’s “content” is ultimately nothing more or less than what Christians affirm as they confess the Triune God, the redemption wrought in Jesus, the Church’s calling, the creation of the world and the consummation of all things at the end of time.
For Augustine, the truth of Scripture finds expression when we read it in such a way that we are moved to love God and our neighbors. If our readings of Scripture fail in this ultimate purpose, they are “false,” no matter the truth of the “content” of what we say about or deduce from Scripture.
What these two expressions share is the idea of participation. The truth of Scripture’s “content” is not “objectively accessible,” for if it were, then there would be no need for the Church to distinguish between orthodox and heretical readings of it—exactly what Tertullian is writing to address. Rather, accessing the truth of Scripture requires coming to it in and through what the Church together confesses (on the basis of Scripture itself, of course). So also with Augustine: Scripture’s truth is again not an objective reality but is understood in terms of how God uses Scripture—to make us lovers and seekers of God and of our neighbors. That is, Scripture’s truth must be understood in connection with the purposes for which God gave Scripture to the Church and our participation in this purpose.
Obviously, none of this is based on the assumption that there is no such thing as truth. Rather, the focus is on the fact that how we access truth is through participation in the Truth (Jn 14.6, with John 1.1-5), and that both the goal and the effect of this participation is our transformation. It is such that we can then “do the truth” (1 Jn 1.6). When our lives are shaped by both the content and effects of Scripture, as these participate in the life and work of the Triune God, we become the truth of Scripture/Law, as Origen of Alexandria suggests (Commentary on Romans 3.6.5 [Scheck]):
We have said above that God is about to enter into judgment with men (cf. Rom 3.19-20). Suppose that someone should object to us that we seem to be saying that God himself is under law. Listen to what great caution is found in this connection in the letters of the Apostle [Paul], who relates that Christ is not under the law but is the fulfillment of the law (Rom 10.4). And just as he himself is the righteousness through which all become righteous (cf. 1 Cor 1.30); and he is the truth through which all stand firm in the truth (cf. Jn 14.6); and he himself is the life through which all live (cf. Jn 1.4; 14.6); so also he himself is the law through which all are under the law. He [Christ] comes to the judgment (as Judge), then, not as one who is under the law but as one who is law. But I think that even those who are already perfect and, by being united with the Lord, have become one spirit with him (cf. 1 Cor 6.17) are themselves not under law but are themselves law. This is precisely what this same Apostle says in another place, “The law has not been laid down for the just” (1 Tim 1.9).
Or, reflecting the present season of Advent/Christmas, the famous gospel song-writer Gloria Gaither presents the Incarnation as something in which we are to participate:
My heart would be your Bethlehem
A shelter for your birth
My body be your dwelling place
A sacred temple on this earth
By holy intervention, an act of love divine
In union with mortality, make incarnation mine.
My heart, my will, my mind, my all
I consecrate to bring
The holy Son of God to earth
O let the angels sing.
May it be so!
Justin Gohl is an adjunct professor of theology at Biblical. He is married to Kate, his wife of 7 years, and is a full-time stay-at-home dad with two kids, Caleb (2) and Phoebe (1). He is ABD at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where he is in the latter stages of writing his dissertation on the early church’s use of the Book of Proverbs.