Truth is something you are

As ministers, we should know that truth is not merely the message we are called to preach, truth is something we are called to be.

Fritz Guy, Ph.D., is professor of theology at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


The notion of "truth" has had a long and distinguished heritage in both philosophy and theology. It has been understood in all sorts of different ways. If we could have a convention of all the most famous philosophers in history—Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, and all the rest—we would get as many different answers to the question What is truth? as we had different philosophers. But in general the answers would fall into three groups.

Some would talk about what is usually called the "correspondence" theory of truth, which says a statement is true when it corresponds to the facts, when it agrees with the reality "out there." Those holding this view would be a majority, for this is the most common way to think of truth. Truth is a statement that agrees with the facts.

But there would be some others who would suggest a different theory—the "coherence" theory of truth. These philosophers would insist that a statement is true if, and only if, it is compatible with other truths, if it fits as part of a system of truth with the other things one knows to be true. Truth, they would say, con forms to the law of noncontradiction. It cannot contradict itself.

And there would be a few who would come up with yet a third theory, the "pragmatic" theory, according to which a statement is true if those who believe it and act on it are thereby benefited in some important way. If it produces good results in their lives, if it enables them to function successfully, then it's true.

Now many philosophers have also had an interest in ethics. We could get a lively argument going regarding the area of ethics known as truth-telling the question of whether it is ever right to tell a lie. Is there any value that transcends truth? Does human life? When the American ship Pueblo was captured a few years ago the captain was told that his 83 crewmen would be murdered unless he signed a confession acknowledging that his ship had been spying in North Korean waters. So he signed the confession, knowing that it was not the truth. Was this the right thing to do? Philosophers like to debate that sort of thing. 1

The Biblical writers also speak of truth in a variety of ways. The ancient He brew psalmist asked, "O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent? Who shall* dwell on thy holy hill?" And the answer was "He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right, and speaks truth from his heart" (Ps. 15:1, 2). 2 We know that the prophet Daniel was distressed by a vision of a ram and a goat and a little horn, in which "truth was cast down to the ground" (Dan. 8:12). Later Jesus said to some Jews who had become believers, '"If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free'" (John 8:31, 32). Paul re minded the Christians at Corinth that love does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the truth (see 1 Cor. 13:6).

In the history of Christian theology there has been a continuing interest in this notion of "truth." What is it? Where is it? How do you get it? What do you do with it? A century and a half ago the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote of "truth as subjectivity"—an odd thing to say, in a way. He was trying to emphasize the fact that if truth is going to do me any good, it must be truth "for me." It must capture my heart and guide my life. More recently Emil Brunner has proposed the notion of "truth as en counter," as something that happens to a person when God confronts Him in love and grace and transforming power.

Yet there is another kind of truth, which is even more important than the truth of philosophical or theological statements—the truth of persons. The truth you believe, as important as that is, is not as important as the truth you are. It is important that we study and learn truth indeed that's the business of ministers who are called of God to pro claim truth to the world around them—but it is even more important that we ourselves are truth. Not only is this the most important kind of truth; it is also the most difficult. It is easier to know the truth about the last judgment, or God's grace, or about the precise meaning of justification in its relation to sanctification, than it is to be the truth in every dimension of our lives.

But it was precisely this kind of truth—truth as something you are—that was characteristic of Jesus. According to the familiar words of the New Testament, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Now surely the word "truth" here in the prologue to John's Gospel carries a good deal of theological freight. Certainly it includes the fact that Jesus was the supreme revelation of God. But it also includes the fact that Jesus was the incarnation, the embodiment, of personal truth. Truth as absolute honesty and perfect integrity—the kind of truth that we are called to be—was wrapped up in the very core of Jesus' being.

Let's see if we can unpack the meaning of this "truth." Let's recall the two main Biblical words for truth, one used in the New Testament and one in the Old Testament. In the New Testament the word for truth is aletheia. At first sight the word is a bit curious, I think, because it is negative in form. It begins with an alpha privative, a prefix similar in the English un- or non-, and the basic meaning of the word is nonconcealment or unhiddenness. The truth, then, is that which is open to view. It is expressed. It is in contrast to that which is concealed and suppressed. Or as Watergate has taught us to say, truth is the opposite of a cover-up.

"An intention to deceive is what constitutes falsehood. By a glance of the eye, a motion of the hand, an expression of the countenance, a falsehood may be told as effectively as by words. All intentional overstatement, every hint or insinuation calculated to convey an erroneous or exaggerated impression, even the statement of facts in such a manner as to mislead, is falsehood." 3

"Everything that Christians do should be as transparent as the sunlight. Truth is of God; deception, in every one of its myriad forms, is of Satan; and whoever in any way departs from the straight line of truth is betraying himself into the power of the wicked one. . . . We cannot speak the truth unless our minds are continually guided by Him who is truth." 4

These are hard sayings. It is so easy, so tempting, to be something less than "transparent as the sunlight." It is so easy to mislead, to exaggerate—even in the work of God to which we are called. Perhaps I should say, especially in the work to which we are called, because the work is so important, because we want so much to succeed, and it is so easy to rationalize. How easy it is, when giving a report at a meeting or when writing something for a denominational journal, to give an exaggerated impression of the results of our work. Is there anyone who does not know about "evangelistic numbers"?

How easy it is, when there is so much to do for the Lord and we are so busy, to evade a problem by a plausible deception. One minister I know used to say to his secretary when a disagreeable person called, "Tell him I'm not here. Tell him I'm on vacation." Although I sympathize with the burdens and the challenges of that particular ministry, the fact re mains that that man was departing from "the straight line of truth."

How easy it is, when the church does not pay you enough, to try to save and collect every penny you 'can. I was selling books door to door one summer as a student, and an assistant sales manager came to work with me one day. As we were driving along in his car, I noticed that the odometer was not functioning and commented about it. "Oh," he said, "I've been planning to sell my car in a little while, and I disconnected the cable in order to keep the mileage as low as possible." Another time, in another place, several ministers went to a meeting together in one car, but all reported mileage on their expense reports as if they had driven their own cars. Their rationalization was "Well, we were each authorized to go and we just figured out how to save a little money."

I recall these incidents, not to tarnish the image of the professional ministry, of which we all are a part, but to emphasize that to be a minister is to be, not less, but more, tempted to dishonesty, and to have more possibilities for rationalization. After all, we work for the Lord of lords and King of kings. We're doing the most important work in all the world. Surely, we tell ourselves, our work, our success, is more important than these picky little rules with which other people have to deal. Why is it that theological libraries have a higher lost-book rate than libraries of any other sort?

How hard it is to acknowledge our mistakes to a conference president, to a congregation, or even to ourselves. We want so much to succeed. It is so important that things go well. We don't need to advertise our blunders unnecessarily, yet there are times when the only right thing to do is to say clearly and explicitly, "I was wrong; I am sorry; I will try not to make that mistake again." There is a little bit of Watergate in all of us, and the greater the responsibility and visibility of our work, the more difficult it is to be honest, to be "as transparent as the sunlight." It is much easier to manufacture plausible explanations that will show that things really are going well, in spite of appearances, or at least to show that if something is wrong, it surely isn't our fault. Yet we are called to be truth, aletheia, unhiddenness, without cover-up, transparent as the sunlight.

In the Old Testament, the word for truth is 'emeth. It comes from a verb that means to be firm, solid, sure, and its basic meaning is reliability. It is used of statements and persons that can be trusted, and calls to mind another quotation:

"The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall." 5 Would it be appropriate to say that the greatest want of the ministry is the want of men, "men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, . . . men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole"?

This too is a hard saying. Standing for the right "though the heavens fall" sounds like a challenge that comes once in a lifetime, a rare demand, an occasion that calls for spectacular heroism. But really it's a fairly common situation. It is voting "No" after a resounding chorus of "Ayes." One of my university col leagues did that on one occasion. I remember because it was my motion that was being voted, and at first I wondered what was wrong with him. Then I recognized that he was .voting his convictions and I respected him all the more. I still think he was wrong, and he still thinks he was right; we still disagree about that. But I've been grateful ever since for his example of integrity.

Standing for the right can be speaking in favor of someone who is being roundly criticized when the criticism is unfair or inaccurate. Truth, 'emeth, reliability, also means maintaining a confidential trust, not circulating information that is damaging to persons or organizations. It is tempting, especially for young ministers, to impress their colleagues with their access to "inside information," particularly if the information carries just a hint of scandal. Reliability sometimes means speaking up, some times it means keeping your mouth shut.

Reliability—truth as something you are—also means keeping your word, fulfilling your commitment, even when it is inconvenient or expensive to do so. I'm sad when I hear (as occasionally I do) church members say of their pastor, "Well, he's a nice enough person, but you really can't depend on him."

Truth is not merely the message we are called to preach, truth is something we are called to be. We are to be truth as aletheia: transparent as the sunlight, with never an intent to mislead. We are to be truth as 'emeth: solid, reliable, willing to stand up and be counted. The call to be His minister is a call to be like Him—"full of grace and truth."


See Norman Geisler, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), pp. 13-20, for an outline of the ways in which various ethical systems would handle the question of truth-telling raised by the Pueblo incident.

2 Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.

3 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1958), p. 309.

4               , Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1956), p. 68.

              , Education (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1952), p. 57.

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Fritz Guy, Ph.D., is professor of theology at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

November 1979

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