Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, famously uttered those words to the Son of God just before declaring him innocent to the Jewish mob.
“What is truth?”
It’s a question, or maybe more of just an aside – a rhetorical sigh, if you will – that has earned him the condemnation of modern Christians everywhere. “What is truth?” we sneer. “Stupid moral relativist.”
But I think Pilate was on to something. Aside from the fact that Greek philosophers were still hotly debating what exactly “truth” was two thousand years ago, Pilate was touching on an issue foundational to culture. Indeed, what is truth?
In doing what it does best, modernity has reduced that question down into a false dichotomy: either truth is absolute or it is relative. What we miss out on by starting that far down the logical path is everything on which that presupposition is founded. Early Greek and Roman philosophers debated whether truth was inherent or perceived, talked about truth in the manner of being something that was “unforgotten” or “discovered”, and fought about whether truth could be found in people or objects or both. And that is just a small sampling of what they were talking about, and what was likely going through Pilate’s head when he asked his now-infamous query. Let us not pretend that a gross oversimplification of dichotomy provides us with complete understanding of his question.
When looking to understand the culture shift we are currently undergoing, this question is again demanding our attention – and many are choosing to answer by forcefully ignoring it. How we answer that question – or perhaps “answer” is too strong of a word for such a massive subject – how we begin to dialogue that question will determine where we go from here and how successfully we will be able to be “in the world” and reach our culture for Jesus.
The Scripture-Centered View
It occurs to me that the traditional modern church has transparently staked its entirety upon the declaration that Scripture is truth. Only Scripture, and Scripture only. That was one of the rallying cries of the Great Reformation, and contextually it was a beautifully and magnificently powerful statement. In a culture where truth existed only as the declarations of a corrupt church-state alliance of greedy, dishonest clergy and shady political rulers, the idea that Truth was found sola scriptura, scriptura sola was an amazing breath of fresh air and a necessary step out of the shadows of the Middle and Dark Ages.
But the side effect of that creed was the complete veneration of Scripture that morphed into what we can now see in hindsight as a troubling problem: the idea that all truth must be found in Scripture or else it cannot be truth. It made Scripture become everything it wasn’t: a science book, an encyclopedia, a self-help manual, a political science discourse, an anthropology text, a cosmology lesson, and so on.
Suddenly, instead of being a collection of writings about humans’ relationships with God and vice versa, Scripture became a fundamentalist go-to guide for every subject under the sun. And that is a problem simply because Scripture was never intended to be such a guide.
What sola scriptura, scriptura sola did was further divide our safe version of God from the dangerous picture we paint of the world; that is, the only thing that can be trusted in this mindset, when it comes down to it, is Scripture. It’s the only thing safe. Everything else is risky and automatically suspect until we can prove or disprove it based off of some random (and most of the time completely out-of-context) verse in the Bible (that was never meant as a commentary on x subject in the first place).
The main problem with this philosophy, however, is a huge one. If we believe only Scripture holds truth and truth is found only in Scripture, then what we’ve effectively done is relegated God to existing only in Scripture. It makes Him a tiny, easy to understand (and control) deity. Which, it seems, is what most people like.
The God-Centered View
I would like to propose a broader, more significant and visionary attempt at the foundational question of “What is truth?” – one that allows God to be huge and incomprehensible and uncontrollable again. One that says, “Thank you, sola scriptura, scriptura sola for the amazing role you played in the Reformation and for teaching us how important individual knowledge of Scripture is – but we are undergoing a new reformation now and we’ll need to find a new way forward.”
Because you only need a cursory glance at the statement “truth is found only in scripture and only scripture contains truth” to realize how flawed it is. There exists infinite amounts of truth outside the pages of Scripture, and much of that truth can and will never be proven or disproven with the words contained therein.
So instead of a Scripture-centered understanding of Truth, I would propose a God-centered understanding of Truth. Scripture is true, but it is but one method God chooses of communicating Truth. It is true, but it is just one piece of truth that God gives us. God communicates truth in many other ways than just through Scripture and we ought to let him be God and do that in our lives.
One of the main issues that the established traditional church is going to have with this is that it is messy. They will say it relies too much on subjective means of assessing truth.
But the thing is, believing Scripture to be the only authoritative truth is just as subjective – how else would you explain the more than 38,000 denominations in Christendom, each with their own slightly different understanding of truth contained in the pages of Scripture? Because when you say sola scriptura, what you’re really saying is sola my understanding and interpretation of scriptura. As fallible humans, it can be no other way with a Scripture-centered understanding of truth.
So belief in Scripture as the only truth is no more objective than our proposed alternative. Believing instead that God is truth and communicates truth to us in numerous different ways – of which Scripture is but one – underlines another dramatic need in our lives: that of community. Surrounding ourselves with friends who also believe in, love, follow, and listen for God helps remove a bit of the subjectivity in the process of discerning truth.
As Rob Bell has pointed out, it is a foundational question of how we view God. Is God truth, or does he give us/show us truth? If he is truth, then suddenly our world is opened up to new experiences of Him — because whenever and wherever we find truth, we find God.
So what is truth? That question cuts straight to the heart of the current debate on the direction and vision of the Church. We have a choice: we can grasp onto our narrow view of truth – and continue to miss out on so much that God is trying to communicate with us. Or, we can let go of what is safe and comfortable and embrace a dangerously exciting understanding of truth – one that forces us to submit ourselves to God and relinquish any control we foolishly thought we had.