Heidelberg 112: Your Speech Shall Accord With Objective Reality

PerryMason-witness-boxIn  the garden the Evil One began by questioning the veracity of God’s Word: “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:1b). The woman collaborated with the Evil One by adding to the Lord’s command, “neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (3:1b). Then the Devil revealed his agenda by openly lying about God and his Word: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). That was not true. God was not protecting himself from competitors—that is the lie that the Gnostics told in the 2nd century. The lie is that truth is not what God said it is, that reality is not what God said it is and what God has made it to be and what we experience.

Until Modernity we generally recognized that there is, indeed, an objective reality. Since long before Moses we recognized that God constituted objective reality and he constituted us to recognize it. One of the great (i.e., large, significant) features of late-modern life is the loss of objective reality. People say routinely, with a straight face, “that is not the world in which I live.” We are given to believe that there are multiple versions of reality. To be sure we do perceive reality differently but not such that there is no such thing as a generally agreed objective reality. There are not 6 billion different ways to interpret a STOP sign. I have negotiated intersections in various places in the world and they all work more or less the same way. Evidently our differing experiences and perceptions are not so radically alienated from each other that there is no commonality.

This is not mere theory nor merely an academic concern. The ninth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex 20:16). If there is no such thing as objective reality, then there is no such thing as a “false witness.” After all, if there are as many realities as there are people, who is to say what is or is not a “false witness”? Yet Scripture everywhere assumes and teaches that we may know objective truth and that we must speak that truth.

In Heidelberg Catechism 112 we explain this commandment this way:

That I bear false witness against no one, wrest no one’s words, be no backbiter or slanderer, join in condemning no one unheard or rashly; but that on pain of God’s heavy wrath, I avoid all lying and deceit as the very works of the devil; and that in matters of judgment and justice and in all other affairs I love, speak honestly and confess the truth; also in so far as I can defend and promote my neighbor’s good name.

Contra Pilate: There Is Truth
The Apostle John writes,

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33–36).

Pilate’s reply was as cynical as it was false. It was false on two counts. First, there is truth. Ironically, Pilate promptly went out to the crowd and told them the truth, that he found no guilt in Jesus because Jesus was innocent and positively righteous. Not only had Jesus not transgressed the law but he had fulfilled it perfectly every day and in every way.
 Second, Jesus is the truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus is not a truth or merely a witness to the truth (you and I do that). Jesus was and is the truth. All men, all humans are liars (Ps 116:11) but God is the truth and he tells the truth.

This dialogue with Pilate gives us a give indicator of what truth is: that which is and telling the truth is speech that reflects what is. Jesus was innocent and Pilate told the truth. He said what was. 
The gospel of John testifies repeatedly to the reality that Jesus is the truth. He is the “true light” that comes into the dark world (1:9); He is the Word incarnate full of grace and truth (1:14). He is the reality as distinct from the Mosaic types and shadows (1:17). He is the true bread from heaven, as distinct from the types and shadows under Moses (6:32). His flesh is true food, and his blood is true drink (6:55). He said that his testimony about the Father is true (John 8:14) and the Father is true (John 7:28). Believers know the truth and the truth sets us free (John 8:32).

Contra Subjectivism
It is fashionable now to suggest that truth claims are really just constructs, conventions, things that people make up to control other people. Well, that is just wrong. The Deconstructionist emperor has no clothes and what is more you and I can see that he is naked and like the little boy in the story we should speak up and say so. The Deconstructionists write books, which they expect us to interpret in the way that the author intends, telling us that we readers may make of the books of others whatever we will. That is nothing but childish literary vandalism. Yes, there are some conventions. Red lights could mean go and green lights could mean stop but red and green are not conventions. We all see red and green in a sufficiently similar manner as to be able to agree how to interpret them at a traffic light.

Our Lord Jesus told us that when two witness agree, that is truth. “Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true” (John 8:16–17). In order to explain the truth of his witness about himself he appealed to the Old Testament law that said that every legal matter must be established by two or three witnesses. He was acting as one of the witnesses. The Father is the other. Jesus the truth was not a skeptic about our ability to know and tell the truth. He did not say that we know the truth in exactly the same way he knows it but we do not and tell the truth.

There is no such thing as “your truth” and “my truth.” There is no such thing as your stoplight and my stoplight. There is no such thing as your gravity and my gravity. There is just gravity. 1 + 1 = 2 is true for you in the same way that it is true for me. We might have different learning styles and speeds but it is the same math. We might interpret the significance of 1+2=2 differently, according to different worldviews, but the math is objectively true for all of us because that is the way God made the world.

Lying has become pandemic in our culture. Newscasters lie about being shot down. Former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair “fabricated” stories. Rolling Stone magazine recently admitted that a story of about an alleged rape on a university campus was lie. One of the more remarkable public lies in my lifetime was the wholesale appropriation by then Senator Biden of another man’s biography. As a candidate for president, in 1987, Biden lifted not only a few lines from a speech by English Labour Politician Neil Kinnock, but indeed he portrayed Kinnock’s life as his own. That error in judgment forced him to retire from the race. As it turns out, that episode was part of a longer pattern of plagiarism. One might have thought that it would have cost him his political career. At the time I thought so but I was wrong. Biden went on to serve two terms as Vice President of the United States. Hillary Clinton claimed to have come under sniper fire in Bosnia, in 1988, but according to reporter Sharyl Atkisson, who was on the plane with the then First Lady, that story is false. Her husband, President Bill Clinton, looked directly into the camera and declared to the world, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.”

That lie nearly cost him his presidency as he became only the second president in the history of the republic to be impeached. Today, however, all seems to have been forgotten and he is said to be most popular Democrat politician in America. It may be that brazen presidential lies are becoming more common. The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue looked into the camera more than two dozen times to say: “If you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance.”

After the revelations from Mr. Gruber, we know now those claims were never true. Nevertheless, Biden, the Clintons, and our current president do not seem to be suffering for their public and rather obvious deviations from the truth. On the playground we used to say “winners never cheat and cheaters never win.” Apparently that axiom is also wrong.

Lies and plagiarisms are not isolated to journalists and politicians. If your pedestrian pastor has suddenly become remarkably eloquent, it may be that he has hired a service to write his sermons for him or worse, he may be plagiarizing someone else’s sermons. There are also remarkable cases of plagiarism by well-known religious writers who style themselves defenders of the moral law.

The point here is not to tut-tut about political, journalistic, and homiletical liars. The more profound question is why they get away with it. When President Nixon was found to have lied about his role in the Watergate affair, he faced an almost certainly successful impeachment. He resigned in disgrace in August, 1974. Americans were scandalized. Today people seem more or less unfazed by such lies. I keep asking myself, how is that, in an age when everything is on video and available on YouTube after a momentary search, a public figure such as president or Brian Williams can look at America and tell lies? In his admission that he had lied, Williams presented himself as mystified, as if someone else had hijacked his person and lied and he was now conducting his own internal investigation. Why is Williams mystified? How did Biden become confused about who he was? How did Clinton think that she had come under sniper fire? Yes, they are lies but more than that they signal that, in those cases, the increasingly fuzzy line between objective reality and subjective aspiration has disappeared. Hillary Clinton and Brian Williams aspired to be heroic figures instead of a first lady or a reporter.

The radical turn to the subjective and the loss of the sense that there is such a thing has objective reality, that things that you and I both know to be true in a sufficiently similar way, comes with a cost. The old Modern hubris provoked a reaction toward subjectivism and that subjectivism (“if it is true for me, it is true”) seems no longer to be haunted by the memory of a time when there was some idea of objective reality and truth. People, particularly millennials, talk about the coming zombie apocalypse as if it were a reality. People now regularly talk as if reality itself were just a construct, just a convention (an agreement between people) that may be changed or defied at will. Of course that’s nonsense. Relative to us creatures gravity just is. It is the nature of created existence. It is true whether or not we want it to be true. Try to change it. Get up an online petition at change.org and see if that makes a difference. I guarantee you that it will still require a certain amount of thrust for aircraft to fly before the petition and after. Nothing we or say can change gravity. That belongs to God.

Loving God And Our Neighbor By Telling The Truth
The 9th commandment requires us to tell the truth about our neighbor. As my friends Dan Borvan and Jared Beaird pointed out on their podcast, Theology You Should Know, in the internet age, everyone is our neighbor. It has never been easier to gossip than it is today. A text here, a tweet there, and a Facebook post over there and a reputation is destroyed. The moral law says, you share not bear false witness about your neighbor online. It means that Christians must not gossip. If you do not know it to be true, if you did not hear it yourself, if you did not see it yourself, then it may well be gossip. Even if you did hear or see it yourself, that experience is not a license to repeat it. Is it edifying? Does it hurt or help my neighbor? If you need to preface your comment by saying. “I don’t want to gossip but…” that’s a signal that you are probably about to gossip.

It is easier now than every before to sully or even to destroy someone’s reputation with a single click. A careless Facebook comment, a snarky tweet, or a misrepresentation of another’s arguments and ideas, to the degree these things do not promote my neighbor’s good name, these are all violations of the ninth commandment. The catechism even calls them the “work of the Devil.”

Certainly this commandment applies most directly to the courtroom. We are under a sacred obligation to tell what really was, what we saw, what we heard, and what we know firsthand to be true. And that obligation does not end in the court room.
That is why we are not to take frivolous oaths. The Bible is full of solemn oaths but we are warned not to try to add credibility to what we say by swearing by this or that. Our Lord taught in Matthew 5:34–37:

But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (ESV).

In Heidelberg 101 and 102 we reflect on our sacred duty to invoke the Lord’s name with the greatest care, in the cause of telling the truth:

101. But may we swear reverently by the Name of God?

Yes, when the magistrate requires it, or when it may be needful otherwise, to maintain and promote fidelity and truth to the glory of God and our neighbor’s good; for such an oath is grounded in God’s Word, and therefore was rightly used by the saints in the Old and New Testament.


102. May we swear by the saints or by any other creatures?

No, for a lawful oath is a calling upon God, that He, as the only searcher of hearts, may bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely; which honor is due to no creature.

The Evil One is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). Christians are, or ought to be, ruthlessly committed to the truth as God has revealed it in nature and in Scripture. Not only do we need to assert that there is truth in nature and grace, and not only must we tell the truth about God and our neighbor, we need to tell the truth to our neighbor. We have bad news to tell to everyone: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). We have a great, precious, and objective truth to tell: Jesus is God the Son incarnate and he came to earth to save sinners, of which I am chief (1 Tim 1:15). Our neighbors need to know the truth about themselves, i.e., the greatness of their sin and misery and they need to know the gospel, that Christ saves sinners by grace alone through faith alone. It is not an easy truth to tell but it is the greatest truth you will ever tell.

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    • I don’t know who those fanatics might be, but I remember Dr. Van Til in class and he clearly believed in objective reality: “Everybody reasons in circles; the only question is whether you’re in the right circles.”

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