The 2016–17 academic year has begun. It’s time for introductory and orientation lectures. Yesterday I was talking with the Ancient Church (patristics) class about the what history is or what historians do and why history is important. Americans, in particular, it seems to me, must be persuaded of the value of history. Henry Ford notoriously said that “history is bunk.” (Yes, he really said it. See here and here). We have a strong anti-historical and anti-intellectual bias. Traditionally, we are an industrious people but we tend to leave things like serious reading and thinking to other people. A significant percentage of Americans cannot tell one, e.g., who is the Speaker of the House (Paul Ryan), the constitutional order of succession, or how many members there are of the United States Senate. Labor Day is traditionally the time when Americans begin “paying attention,” as the pundits say, to the general election but apathy about civics runs deep. I have seen interviews where young people were unable to answer the question, “Where was the Vietnam War?” I kid you not. It is a little more difficult for people in other places and cultures to be so indifferent to the past. In some places ancient slights and insults are as vivid and real to people as they were they day they actually happened.
Amnesia has some advantages in American civic life. Apart from gang violence in Chicago, most American cities do not experience the sort of sectarian (factional) violence that are common place in some parts of the world. Nevertheless, To the degree that American Christians are influenced by the prevailing anti-intellectual, anti-historical culture we are cut off from our family history. Christianity is a corporation to which believers are grafted. It existed before us. We are given a name in baptism and receive an inheritance of two millennia of reflection on the Scriptures. Every one of us is influenced by that history, even we do not know it. We have inherited a way we read Scripture. We have inherited a way to think and speak about the faith. We have inherited a grammar, logic. and rhetoric of the faith. Either we will be intelligent about it or we will be ignorant of the reality that we are using someone else’s language, and, as it were, wearing hand-me-downs but it would be foolish to go about it hand-me-downs pretending that one has made them himself.
Another challenge that late-modern Christians face is the suspicion, deeply rooted among those under 40, that truth claims are really a cloaking device to camouflage attempts to manipulate and control others. It is not surprising that the children of the last two generations are suspicious about truth claims. The same thing happened during the industrial revolution, a century ago, in the early 20th century. Rapid social-economic change produces dislocation and older certainties are called into question and it’s natural for young people especially to think that everything must be called into question. Like the early 20th century, the world experienced a global conflict, though the current war on terror, though global, has taken relatively few lives. The vast majority of today’s young people are in little jeopardy since the war is being fought by the West, to the degree it is still being fought, by professional soldiers, marines, airmen, coastguardsmen, and marines rather than by draftees. Still, economic disruption, in our case, by the information economy, and war have produced similar outcomes, among them suspicion about truth claims.
Clearly there is truth and everyone knows it. It is true, as I always point out to the students (as a thought experiment only), that should one jump off the roof of the chapel, gravity will do its thing and friction will do its thing. That is true. Gravity and friction are not subjective. It is not the case that gravity exists for me but not for you. There are other kinds of truths, e.g., moral and religious truths and this is at the heart of the historian is called to do: tell the truth about the past as best he can. He must admit frankly the great difficulties in telling the truth about the past. The Stephen Avery case illustrates how difficult it can be to find the truth when evidence is relatively fresh and witnesses are alive. Historians do not have the advantage of asking follow-up questions to living witnesses and our evidence is frequently very old and fragmentary. There are other challenges too that can make the historian’s job quite daunting indeed.
Nevertheless, skepticism, i.e., giving up on the reality of truth, is not an option for Christians. We must reject Pilate’s skepticism when he said, “What is truth?” (John 8:38). Scripture says and we confess that there is truth (John 8:32). Jesus is the “grace and truth” (John 1:14). He is the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus said to our Father, “Your Word is truth: (John 17:17). If Jesus was not a skeptic, if he was willing to go to the cross, if he was raised from the dead (he was!) how can we possibly indulge in skepticism? We need to repent of our relativism, our skepticism, and our intellectual and spiritual sloth.
As I was trying to make the case to the students that the search for the truth about the past is a worthwhile endeavor it occurred to me that we also confess the Ninth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex 20:16; Deut 5:20; Matt 19:18). I do not recall if I said it in class—there is a much to cover and little time—so I will say it here: the ninth commandment necessarily implies the existence of truth. If we may not bear false witness, if we may not tell lies to our about our neighbor, then it must necessarily be that there is truth to tell to and about our neighbor. The ninth commandment means that we are to tell the truth. We are not to shade the truth, manipulate the truth, hide the truth, warp the truth, or corrupt the truth. We are tell it. Truth is. There certainly are ambiguities and no human can know the truth the way God knows it (we know an analogy or facsimile, as Abelard put it) of what God knows but as creatures we are not capable of the infinite (finitum non capax infiniti). Nevertheless, we can know the truth that creatures are capable of knowing and we should pursue it, believe it, and tell it.
The truth that ninth commandment requires us to tell is not merely subjective, i.e., what is true for me but not necessarily for thee. No, the truth required by the ninth commandment, by our Lord Jesus, who is Truth, is objectively true. Jesus is not merely subjectively true for Christians who choose to believe in him in order to sleep through the night. It’s not “whatever gets you through the night.” The truth is what really is. Jesus really is the truth for everyone and everyone will be held to account for what they have done with him, whether they have believed him and believed in him. Those who have heard and rejected him shall give account to him who bore the wrath of God against sin for all his people. No one was ever more zealous for the truth than Jesus and no one is more gracious and patient with us liars than Jesus the Truth.
Now is the day of salvation. Truth is and the truth is that Jesus is the only Savior from the wrath to come. Flee to him while it is still today.