Truth has many meanings

English has a number of ways to understand truth. We speak of “discovering,” “distorting,” or “twisting” the truth. This uses the truth is an object metaphor in which truth is a physical object that we can “grasp” and do things with. We also think of truth as a journey so that we pursue truth and can even think of it as a guide such that we follow it wherever it leads. We also think of truth as an exemplar when we say “he is a true sports fan.” Biblical writers also used these same metaphors to understand the nature of truth. Jesus is the true vine (Jn 15:1). The truth can be held down (Rom 1:18). A major biblical understanding of truth is as a way of living. It involves a journey and we are supposed to walk on the proper path and not turn away from it. Also, the way we walk on the path is also important. Both the road and the way we traverse the road are important for a true life.

In America, the emphasis is on facts or beliefs that are true and the Bible does speak this way as well. However, the emphasis in the Bible is on truth as a way of life that, of course, involves facts and correct beliefs, but is much more encompassing. “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in truth and deed” (1 Jn 3:8). Sometimes our Western patterns of thinking affect how we translate truth in the Bible. For instance, Paul exhorts believers to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). The problem is that the word “speak” does not occur in the Greek here. In fact, “truth” here is not a noun but a verb—“to truth.” That is, Paul says “truthing in love” which does not make immediate sense to English speakers so we translate it in a way that makes sense to us—truth is an object that can be given to another person by speaking it. But that is not what Paul meant in this verse. He means a way of life. The emphasis on truth as a way of life is one that may be beneficial for Christians to employ instead of limiting the idea of truth to correct doctrines.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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