Some time before he was standing before Pilate, Jesus said something difficult to the people who believed that he was who he said he was:
You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
He said that you will know the truth. The Truth.
What is Truth?
What a slippery question.
In the 1800s, Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier coined the term “Epistemology,” which takes its name from two Greek words: episteme, meaning knowledge and understanding, and logos, meaning the study of. So epistemology means “the study of how we know things.”
Ferrier, standing at the end of a long line of people asking questions about Truth (which he represents with the word Knowledge—notice the capital letters), came to a conclusion.
If we are to Know (K) something, we must have a true (T) belief (B) about it.
He gave it like an equation:
K = TB
Let’s put it in an example.
I am currently typing this from Atlanta, Georgia. If I told you, “I am in Atlanta,” we could credit that to my account as knowledge. It turns out that my Belief of my location (Georgia) is True.
Amazing. Case closed. Knowledge and Truth solved.
Unfortunately, there are two problems with this definition.
- It needs something else.
If Knowledge is simply the act of collecting true beliefs, Truth is as simple as memorizing the dictionary. You can find all kinds of “true” things in there. Loads of things that are not wrong. That kind of knowledge is fine for statements like “I know that I’m sitting at my desk,” but it doesn’t really cut it for bigger things. Try it on for “I know that God exists.”
It falls a little short.
The question is, what can we add to “True Belief” in order to equal Knowledge?
One camp says that it’s Reliability.
Knowledge = a Reliably True Belief.
Here’s what that looks like.
You’re standing with a friend in a field, and she is a professional archer. You watch as she strings her bow in a particular way, notches an arrow the same way she has thousands of times before, draws, adjusts her breathing, gauges the wind, lets the arrow fly, and nails the bullseye in a hay bale fifty yards away.
Then you watch her do it again. And again. Nine shots out of the ten she takes are perfect bullseyes: we can say that she is a good archer because she can reliably hit the bullseye.
So imagine her surprise when it’s your turn. You step up, do your very best to imitate her steps, loose your arrow with a wish, and watch as it slams the hay bale dead center. You try to match those motions yet again and, much to your surprise, you watch yet another perfect shot sail toward its target.
In this little isolated incident, an onlooker would see two people who are both equally good at archery because you both produce reliable results (from their point of view). But you know, deep down, that there’s no way you should be considered an archer of your friend’s caliber.
Like our archers, Knowledge seems to need something more than what someone could stumble into. We can’t afford to be guessing and hoping on those bigger propositions, those “I know that God exists” propositions.
That’s handy because there’s another camp in this debate. They think that what you need is not reliability but justification. Knowledge only counts if we understand the steps it took to get us there.
Knowledge = a Justified True Belief
Here’s what this looks like.
Your two friends, Smith and Jones, are going in for an interview with their boss, where only one of them will get a raise. Smith has every reason to believe that Jones is the person who’s going to get the raise, due in part to his boss saying, “Smith, you’d better step it up. Jones is a shoo-in.” Smith had not stepped it up; he knows that Jones is going to beat him out.
As they are walking in, Jones notices a nickel and a penny on the ground and bends over to pick them up. He pockets the change and continues on his way, but Smith thinks, strangely, “Imagine that. The guy who gets this raise is going to have six cents in his pocket when he gets the news.”
His belief is perfectly justified: he’s been told that Jones is a shoe in for the raise, and he watched Jones pocket the change from the sidewalk. Much to his surprise, though, Smith is the one who gets the raise. Even more surprising was when he went to pay for lunch afterwards, he noticed he put yesterday’s change in his pocket that he had forgotten about: a nickel and a penny.
Smith’s knowledge that “the one who gets the raise will have six cents in his pocket” was absolutely true….but it feels a little anticlimactic. He just got lucky.
Turns out, knowing Truth is kind of tricky.
The spiral has begun. The number of pages devoted to trying to understand Truth grows every day, and it seems we’re no closer to understanding it than when we started.
Skeptics will argue, “Knowledge? Truth? You can’t even know that you’re not just a brain-in-a-vat experiencing a dream.”
Anti-skeptics will counter, “I can touch my two hands together and experience it as a real thing. That’s good enough for me.”
Coherentists will say, “Truth-gathering is like building a ship at sea. You’ve got to find what can keep you afloat for a while until you can step back and start replacing all of the boards that are rotten.”
Optimists will say, “Truth may not be knowable right now, but everything is eventually knowable, and the act of learning it is the engine of progress.”
Nihilists will say, “Yes, but truth is nothing but construct of consensus and convention.”
For every point, there is a counterpoint. For every justification, there is a string of necessary justifications.
It seems that the closer we get to what Truth is, the farther away from our grasp it seems to be. It is a sloping asymptote on the way to, but never reaching, understanding.
Still, there is an echo of a promise made two thousand years ago pinging around the chambers of our hearts: you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.
What is Truth?
What is Truth, indeed? Perhaps Truth, after all, is impossible.
Five hundred years before Jesus’ and Pilate’s conversation on the morning of Jesus’ execution, Socrates stirred up trouble in Greece. But this kind of thinking didn’t start with Socrates. Almost two hundred years before Socrates, there was a different Greek named Parmenides who was doing his own work with Truth.
He argued something remarkable:
There is not, nor shall there be, anything besides what is.
Again, you can feel Pilate’s sighing, sarcastic eye roll from here. Riddles and aphorisms. This will get us nowhere. It’s just pedantry and pretension.
Even though it is tedious, consider the implications of such an idea. You can’t conceive of something that doesn’t exist—even if it only exists as a thought. You can’t devise a color that you’ve never seen; you can’t invent a sound you’ve never heard. Once they are conceived of, they exist in your mind; if you make it, it exists in the “real world.”
I think that God might agree. Consider what He told Moses to tell Pharaoh: “I Am that I Am,” He said. “Tell them that I AM sent you.” (Ex. 4:13-14)
This was the name God chose for Himself. In two words, it encapsulates everything that God is:
He was not born, He Is.
He did not become, He Is.
He does not change, He Is.
In the beginning, God was, and He created the heavens and the earth.
And He began speaking. He continued speaking—to people, through people, around people. He went out of His way to break into the creation He spun from nothing and teach them who He was.
Eventually, the psalmist would write, “The sum of your word is Truth” (Psalm 119:160). The end result of the very Word of God is Truth. That’s what it adds up to, that’s what each part of it points toward.
What’s more amazing still is that this Word was there with God in the beginning (John 1:1). That this Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). This Word, now wrapped in flesh, called Himself Truth (John 14:6).
Can you explain this business of the Word becoming flesh? Can you fathom how this Jesus could be both fully God and fully man? Could you describe the Trinity, the holy mystery of three-in-one?
We can try. But we fall short.
And that’s okay.
St. Augustine wrote in On Christian Doctrine, “A person who is a good and true Christian should recognize that Truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found.”
Years later, CS Lewis would write, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”
Truth is God’s truth, wherever you find it. Even if you don’t understand it. Where the Believer is wrong, God Himself comes to shatter untruth and replace it with Himself.
Regardless of if you can know it, you can know the One who calls Himself Truth—this same man who stood before Pilate and declared His purpose for coming to earth: to bear witness to it.
The same man who stood on a shore in Galilee and answered Peter’s incessant questioning. He dismissed the idea of trying to justify doctrine, of trying to prove something that is impossible, and simply encouraged him with a challenge… you follow Me.
We can grapple with Truth if we want. We can try to reason our way to it or brute force a way to discern it. But before we do any of that, we must look up and see that Truth Himself is still reaching out His hand toward you and saying the same thing He has said for two thousand years:
Follow Me. Then you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.