Gregory Alan Thornbury
Prolegomena: Introduction to the Task of Theology
The words from the lips of Pontius Pilate compose the question that has perplexed the human mind throughout time: "What is truth?" It is the singularly most pressing interrogative from the time of Thales to the present. The spirit of the query is seen in Pilate's tone; it is at the same time inquisitive and dismissive. Pilate saw life in purely pragmatic terms. As a skeptic he viewed talk about truth and God as niceties in a world filled with brutal political realities. Armchair philosopher Pilate may have been, but one thing was certain: he was not an intellectually or morally neutral person. He handed over the Son of God to be crucified despite Jesus' innocence, despite his own wife's warning not to touch the "righteous man" who disturbed her in her nightmares and in the face of the Lord's kind invitation to enter the truth by listening to his voice (John 18:33-38; Matt. 27:19).
As Augustine noted, Pilate refused even to bother with Jesus' answer to his question. The pursuit of truth cannot be separated from the task of theology. Like Pilate, all human beings must be confronted with the truth claims of the Lord Jesus Christ.
All claims to truth rely on presuppositions about what is fundamentally real. If a person regards a particular aspect of reality as necessary, then he has given it the status of being ultimate; and if something is ultimately necessary, it arguably has attained a divine status. Inevitably, something is going to function in a person's worldview with the imprimatur of religious authority. Philosopher Roy Clouser refers to this phenomenon as "The Myth of Religious Neutrality." Put differently, this means that every discussion of truth will wind up being a debate about some kind of theology, however tacit, hidden, or under-acknowledged. Human beings were created for worship, and many of them serve cognitive idols.
Christian theology advances the bold assertion that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot be known apart from God, their author. More pointedly, it challenges the notion that God can be known apart from the revelation of Jesus Christ. Pascal contended for precisely this point by stating that it is impossible to know the creature apart from the Creator:
Not only is it through Jesus Christ alone that we know God, but it is only through Jesus Christ that we know ourselves. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ we do not know what our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves really are.
In the same way without the Scriptures, which have Jesus Christ as their sole object, we know nothing and see only darkness and confusion in the nature of God and in nature itself.
Such claims are, of course, scandalous to the natural mind. It is an affront to human pride to suggest that man exists in a relationship of radical dependence upon the divine order. It is out of step with philosophical self-confidence to confess with theologian Carl F. H. Henry that "all merely human affirmations about God curl into a question mark." If pure philosophy and natural law could lead us to transcendental verities, then God would not have to reveal himself to us. Unfortunately, even the best human minds have failed in their attempts to imagine something more godlike than the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ. The Greek and Roman pantheon of gods proved powerful but petty, simultaneously superhuman and yet altogether too human. The same phenomenon holds true for the dizzying array of Hindu deities.
When the prurient novelist D. H. Lawrence attempted to construct an extrabiblical account of the life of Jesus, his project miserably failed to deliver even a scrap of convincing dialogue from its principle subject.It is impossible to peer into the true divinity without recourse to God's own self-revelation. More broadly, it is dubious to argue for the unity and reality of truth apart from the eternal, transcendent, self-disclosing God of the Bible.
In the early days and hours after September 11, everyone in America, or so it seemed, was affixed to a nearby radio or television. People from Flagstaff to Kalamazoo hung upon every word from the news anchors to get the latest update, to hear the horrible numbers, and to deal with their grief. But the one person who the country needed to hear from the most was their commander in chief. When the president appeared in the Cabinet Room at the White House to address the nation, a hush fell across the land. "Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature," George W. Bush explained, promising to bring justice to "these evildoers."
As dark and horrible as that day was, one thing became crystal clear after September 11: good and evil were back. Now on one level, of course, good and evil never went away. What I mean is that after so many years of the idea of absolute truth being assaulted by the secular left, seemingly no one could deny any longer that there was a clear difference between right and wrong. Terrorist attacks on thousands of innocents were obviously and undeniably evil. The operative phrase here, however, is seemingly no one.
Only days after the attack on the American mainland, Reuters News agency announced that their reporters would not refer to the nineteen hijackers as "terrorists" because the term was judgmental and not appropriately objective. Evidently, according to Reuters, good and evil and absolute truth do not exist in their understanding of journalism.
Another even more blatant example of this denial of truth came only weeks after September 11 when Stanley Fish, the former dean of the School of Humanities at the University of Illinois, Chicago, stated in an op-ed piece in The New York Times that we cannot make an absolute moral judgment against the Al Qaeda members who murdered thousands of innocent civilians, nor should we call the assailants "terrorists." "We have not seen the face of evil," Fish intoned, but rather merely "the face of an enemy who comes at us with a full roster of grievances, goals, and strategies." In other words, he is arguing that since no objective standard can be found for morality, one is prohibited from asserting that certain actions are either wrong or right. From Professor Fish's comments we can only assume that, in his view, all grievances are created equal, and yet none are endowed with any certain, inalienable claim to being right.
This pernicious position is known as relativism. Such a prejudice against the concept of objective truth arises from a deep and fundamental cultural presupposition against the possibility of moral certitude, against the notion of a body of truths that stay the same despite the vicissitudes of human society. Professor Fish's sortie into revisionist history, however, in fact turned out to be nothing more than a flight from reality. After September 11, the American public knew that the fundamental questions of our time are irrepressibly moral, undeniably related to making distinctions between good and evil. But clarity is needed. As political commentator George Will eloquently stated, "People cannot defend what they cannot define."
So what is the definition of truth? Truth is that which corresponds with reality; it is the opposite of falsehood. Now the question that arises, of course, is "from where does truth come?" The answer is that truth comes from God. It is a mirror of his being. The notion of truth is an inherently religious idea. Only an eternal, transcendent sovereign could create everything in such a way as to make the universe knowable, personal, and understandable. Only such a being would be in a position to be the explanatory principle itself as well as the principal explainer of everything that exists. The attempt to find an ultimate hermeneutical device other than the living God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ results in continual frustration and failure. Perhaps the following visual depiction from Reformed thinker Richard Pratt (but modified by the author) will help explain the foregoing statement.