Richard G. Howe

What Is Truth And Why Does It Matter?

Richard G. Howe | 3 March 2020 | 10 min read

For most of history, people understood the claim, “Christianity is true,” even if they rejected Christianity. Today, however, it is possible for the same assertion to not be understood because ‘truth’ is not understood. Because of this, Christians must explain and defend what truth is, how it is known, and why it matters.

We start by understanding the fundamental distinction between a theory of truth and a test for truth. A theory of truth is how one defines the terms “true” and “truth” (defining truth). A test for truth is how one discovers whether a statement is true (discovering truth). Suppose someone claimed that it was raining. Another asked, “Is that true?” and was told, “Yes, it is true.” Whatever one is saying about the claim when he says that it is true, this is his theory of truth. One employs a test for truth when seeking to discover whether it is raining. Deciding whether and how to react to a truth depends on whether truth matters.

Theories of Truth

For much of western history, the correspondence theory of truth has been the dominate theory of truth among philosophers. Fairly called the common sense notion of truth, it is generally defined thus: a statement is true when it corresponds to reality. Aristotle (384-322 BC) summarized it this way:

“To say of what is, that it is not, or of what is not, that it is, is false, while to say of what is, that it is and of what is not, that it is not, is true.”[1]

What, and how, a statement can correspond to reality can vary from situation to situation. It could be raining here and not raining there. It could be raining here now and not raining here later. Additionally, the nature of the correspondence can vary. One can employ certain literary or grammatical devices while still maintaining the truth of a statement. For example, one could use literal language or utilize figures of speech such as allegory, metaphor, simile, analogy, symbols, hyperbole, phenomenal language, informal language, synecdoche, and metonymy.[2] A statement does not have to be literal in order to be true. Though the Lord God does not literally have eyes, it is nevertheless true (metaphorically) that “the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth.”[3]

Other Theories of Truth

Pragmatic Theory of Truth

A departure from the correspondence theory of truth can have disastrous consequences. It can be used to excuse moral and epistemological relativism. Today, some utilize the pragmatic theory of truth to avoid taking responsibility for knowing the truth about reality and acting appropriately. This was true in Old Testament times. Through His prophet, Jeremiah, God commanded the Israelites to cease from their ungodly activities. Their response to God was telling:

“But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”[4]

Clearly, they were deciding what was true and godly by appealing to what worked or what was practical (pragmatic). Because they had the wrong criterion of truth, they sought to justify their sin.

The contemporary American philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) is a good example of a thinker who advanced a sophisticated form of pragmatism. Culling from the thinking of John Dewey (1859-1952), Rorty said:

“One way to think of it is, the enlightenment said now that we have the scientist, we don’t need the priest. Dewey [as a pragmatist] was saying don’t think of the scientist as replacing the priest. Don’t think the priest claimed to be in touch with God; the scientist claimed to be in touch with reality. There is no reality to be in touch with. Truth isn’t correspondence with reality. Truth is simply what gets human beings what they want… If you think of enlightenment rationalism as elevating science above religion, you can think of pragmatism as saying don’t elevate anything above anything. Don’t treat any area of culture as the place where you get the last word from because nobody is going to give you the last word.”[5]

Despite its level of sophistication, the bankruptcy of such an epistemology (with its implications for morality) should be evident.  The self-refuting nature of Rorty’s comment is also seen. He denies that there is a reality to be in touch with, but offers pragmatism as a reality that is able to make a working democracy. He denies any objectivity of perspective, but offers as an objective perspective that there is no place from where you can get the last word. He asserts that nobody is going to give you the last word, but he gives the last word about the giving of last words.[6]

Coherence Theory of Truth

The coherence theory of truth says that a statement is true inasmuch as it coheres or is consistent with a body of other statements. Generally, the coherence theory of truth is employed in certain narrow areas of science where the objects being studied are below the threshold of visibility, as in the subatomic realm. Stephen Hawking appeals to the coherence theory of truth in explaining how he understands the “truth” of certain quantum statements. “A scientific theory is just a mathematical model we make to describe our observations: it only exists in our minds. … It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.”[7] Such a model has “a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make of it.”[8] For Hawking, a good theory must accurately describe “a large class of observations that we make” and make “definite predictions about the results of future observations.”[9]

Hawking’s position does not require that our observations correspond to reality. Indeed, regarding the nature of time he opines, “So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like.”[10] Given Hawking’s view of what a scientific model is, he concludes, “So it is meaningless to ask: Which is real, ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.”[11]

Functional Theory of Truth

Sometimes called the intentional theory of truth, one often encounters this inadequate theory of truth in disputes about biblical inerrancy.[12] The functional theory of truth says that a statement is true inasmuch as it fulfills the purpose or function intended by the one making the statement. This theory of truth illicitly allows one to claim to hold to biblical inerrancy while simultaneously ascribing “errors” to the Bible.

Suppose someone gave you directions to a church. “Turn right, go about five kilometers and KFC will be on your right. The church is just past the KFC.” You follow the directions and discover that the KFC is on the left, not the right. Though the directions contained an error, they nevertheless allowed you to find the church. The functional theory of truth would say that the directions were “true” because they fulfilled the intention (finding the church), regardless of the error about the KFC. By parallel, some critics of the Bible say that since the Bible has the correct “directions” (getting to heaven), then the Bible is “true” even if it contains “errors.”[13]

One notable problem is the impossibility of knowing what someone’s intentions are regarding the “truth” of any statement he makes. We cannot read minds. The only way to know someone’s intentions is through spoken or written words. But we run into an infinite regress if we must know a statement’s intention before discerning what elements of a “true” statement might be false.

A problem common to all non-correspondence theories of truth is this – no theory of truth can define itself without utilizing the correspondence theory of truth. If I argued that the coherence theory of truth says, “Truth is always decided by a coin toss,” someone would object that this is not what the coherence theory of truth is. They would in effect claim that my definition of the coherence theory of truth does not correspond to the reality of what the coherence theory of truth is. The correspondence theory of truth is unavoidable and undeniable.

Tests for Truth

While the theory of truth concerns how truth is defined, the test for truth concerns how truth is discovered. Someone might illicitly discard the right theory of truth (correspondence) because he encounters a claim for which the test is inaccessible. But though there might be a claim whose truth is difficult or impossible to discover, this should not compromise what it would mean for the claim to be true.

How we test for the truth of a given claim will often vary with the kind of thing about which the claim is made. By appreciating that tests for truth can vary depending on the type of claim, any number of intellectual mishaps can be avoided. Some criticisms of the Bible arose precisely because of failing to appreciate this point. The Bible affirms the unity of Isaiah (i.e., that the entire Book of Isaiah was written by the prophet Isaiah), but certain critics questioned this, largely from their own literary criticisms. Their skepticism arose from the fact that Isaiah 40-48 talks of Cyrus of Persia though Cyrus did not live until around 200 years after Isaiah. The critics argue that, since Cyrus lived much later than Isaiah, this part Isaiah must have been written much later by another author.[14]

However, “Is predictive prophecy possible?” is not a literary question, though it is often couched this way by the critics. The tools and methods of language and literature (learned in the Literature department) are inadequate to adjudicate the issue of whether a human being like Isaiah could have known the future. Instead, one would go to the Philosophy department to explore the question of God’s existence and to the Theology department to explore the question of whether God reveals the future to His prophets.

Why Truth Matters

With few exceptions, everyone desires the correct medicine/treatment for illness. We care whether it is true that this medicine/treatment will address the problem. Examples redound of how truth matters:  Is it true that this mushroom is safe to eat? Is it true that the ice is thick enough to walk on? Is it true that the money is genuine? Is it true when someone says, “I love you?” These have one thing in common. They only make sense and have their significance along the contours of the correspondence theory of truth. They all matter because in each case it is desired that reality be a certain way and that the statements correspond to reality in each case.

When considering the significance of such matters, we realize that all the more we should care about truth when it comes to God and how we relate to Him. Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”[15] Ultimately, the truth that sets us free and puts us in a right relationship with God is Jesus Himself. As He said about Himself, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”[16] Since it is easy to see why truth matters for life in this world, we can see that all the more it matters for life in the next.

Suggested Readings

Aquinas, Thomas. Truth. (De veritate.) Translated by Robert W. Mulligan. 3 vols. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1952. Reprinted. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994.

Geisler, Norman L. and Brooks, Ronald M. Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990.

Groothuis, Douglas. Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.

Kreeft, Peter. Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008.

Veatch, Henry Babcock. Intentional Logic: A Logic Based on Philosophical Realism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952. Republished, New Haven: Archon Books, 1970.

________. “St. Thomas and the Question, ‘How Are Synthetic Judgments A Priori Possible?'” Modern Schoolman 42 (March 1965): 239-263, available at http://richardghowe.com/index_htm_files/VeatchHowAreSyntheticJudgments.pdf, accessed Jan. 27, 2020.

________. “Symposium-Logical Truths” The Journal of Philosophy LIII, No. 22 (Oct. 25, 1956): 671-679, available at http://richardghowe.com/index_htm_files/VeatchLogicalTruths.pdf accessed Jan. 27, 2020.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.


[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, IV, 7, 1011b26-29 Translation by W. D. Ross in Richard McKeon, The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York:  Random House, 1941), 749. Other philosophers holding a correspondence theory of truth are Plato (Sophist, 240d; 263b); Augustine (Soliloquia I, 28); Thomas Aquinas (Truth, Question 1, Article 1); René Descartes (Meditations on First Philosophy: Third Meditation; Objections and Replies: Fifth Set of Objections (see John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, trans. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984): 26, 196)); David Hume (A Treatise of Human Nature, II, 3, §X, III, 1, §1 (see L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 448, 458)); John Locke (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding II, XXXII, §2-§5); Immanuel Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, I, Second Part, First Div., Bk. II, Chap. II, §3, 3 (see, Norman Kemp Smith’s trans. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965: 220)); Bertrand Russell (“On the Nature of Truth,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1906-1907), 28-49 as cited in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards, ed., (New York: Macmillan Publishing, Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1967), s.v. “Correspondence Theory of Truth,” p. 232); and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 2.0211-2.0212, 2.21, 3.01). Philosophers who hold the correspondence theory of truth differ as to exactly where the “correspondence” obtains. Positions include that it merely obtains between a proposition (or belief) and external reality (naïve realism), that it obtains in the metaphysical formal conformity of the intellect and the thing in external reality (moderate and scholastic realism), or that it obtains only between the idea of reality in the mind and the thing in reality outside the mind (representationalism). Some in contemporary analytic philosophy confine truth exclusively to the logic of propositions without necessarily trying to connect it in any significant way to reality.

[2] Sometimes critics of the Bible charge the Bible with error because they miss these different ways that a statement can correspond to reality. Examples include: Mark 1:16: Jesus literally walked by the sea and the disciples were literally casting their nets. Galatians 4:23-24: Paul shows that the story of the bondwoman (Gen. 16) vs. the free woman (Gen. 21) viz., Hagar and Sarah, is an allegory of the relationship of the old covenant (law) to the new covenant (grace). Though some English translations use the term ‘symbolic’, it translates the Greek word “allegoroumena” (ajllhgorouvmena) from which we get the English word ‘allegory’. Isaiah 55:12: Isaiah’s attributing hands to trees is a use of metaphor. Isaiah 7:2: Isaiah likening the moving heart of person to the way the wind moves a tree is a use of simile. Second Corinthians 5:7: Paul draws the analogy between physical walking and spiritual walking. Hebrews 9:7-9: The writer of Hebrews explains how in the first temple the fact that the priest could only enter the Holy of Holies under strict conditions was symbolic that as yet the way of full access to the presence of God had not yet been made manifest. Judges 7:12: The narrative appropriately exaggerating (for the sake of emphasis) the military might of the Midianites and Amalekites is a use of hyperbole. Matthew 5:45: The Bible describing things according to their appearance (like the sun rising) is the use of phenomenological language, sometimes called the language of appearance. Joel 2:31 is another example when it says that the moon will be turned into blood. This is clearly a reference to the fact that the moon will have the appearance of blood because it will turn red. Numbers 2:32 compared with Numbers 11:21: To round off numbers is to speak informally. Matthew 6:11: The use of a part for the whole is a synecdoche, like saying that he “put a roof over our heads.” Presumably, he provided an entire house and not just the roof. Likewise, we pray to God for all our provisions and not merely just bread. Matthew 8:8 compared with Luke 7:6: To substitute the agent for the instrument (or vice versa) is a metonymy. As emissaries of the centurion, when the friends spoke to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf, that was the same as the centurion speaking to Jesus himself. It is the same thing that happens when a President speaks to a head of state of another country by means of his diplomats. It is metonymically saying that President spoke to that head of state.

[3] 2 Chronicles 16:9.

[4] Jeremiah 44:17-18.

[5] “Richard Rorty 1997 on Democracy and Philosophy,” available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Azeqs20Watw accessed Jan. 27, 2020.

[6] Perhaps what Rorty said just before the quoted words above will make my commentary all the more justified. In response to the question whether pragmatism can make people better citizens, Rorty said, “I think it does something to give them confidence in themselves. If you think of the enlightenment of the 18th century and the secularization produced by the enlightenment as a period in which people were told there isn’t a source of authority—not the king, not the priest; you’re just going to work it out for yourselves—I think of pragmatism as carrying through on the enlightenment and saying human beings are alone in the universe, they can’t look outside themselves either for comfort, or for principles, or for inspiration. They’re at their best when they work together.”

[7] Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Toronto: Bantam Books), 139.

[8] Ibid., p. 9.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 139. In this context, imaginary time is so called due to the use of imaginary numbers (e.g., √ -2) in the mathematics.

[11] Lest one thinks that the idea here of being “useful” makes Hawking’s model a pragmatic theory, realize that the claims about which Hawking is speaking are ultimately mathematical such that being “useful” has to do with the relationship the mathematical claim bears to the body of (in this context) mathematical statements in quantum theory that allow the model to make predictions. He is not thinking necessarily of usefulness in terms of practicality.

[12] For an in-depth discussion of how theories of truth affect one’s ability to maintain a proper understanding of biblical inerrancy, see Norman L. Geisler, “The Concept of Truth in the Inerrancy Debate,” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December 1980): 327-339, available at https://normangeisler.com/concept-of-truth-in-the-inerrancy-debate/ accessed Jan. 27, 2020.

[13] Consider this from Daniel P. Fuller, son of the co-founder of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, USA. “Although the mustard seed is not really the smallest of all seeds, yet Jesus referred to it as such because … to have gone contrary to their mind on what was the smallest seed would have so diverted their attention from the knowledge that would bring salvation to their souls that they might well have failed to hear these all-important revelational truths” (Daniel P. Fuller, “Benjamin B. Warfield’s View of Faith and History,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 11 [Spring 1968]: 81-82). Since the “intention” or “function” of the Bible is to “bring salvation” to souls, then the Bible can still be “inerrant” despite the incorrect statement (in Fuller’s thinking) of the mustard seed being the smallest seed. That this is Fuller’s thinking about the Bible is evident from what he goes on to say. “This can only mean that all the Biblical assertions which teach or rightly imply knowledge that makes men wise unto salvation are absolutely inerrant” (Ibid., p. 80). It is evident what Fuller has in mind when he asks why it is not reasonable to infer that “God who lovingly willed to communicate revelational truth to men deliberately accommodated his language in non-revelational matters to the way the original readers viewed the world about them, so as to enhance the communication of revelational truth, by which alone men could be saved?” (Ibid., p. 81).

[14] For a treatment of this issue, see Oswald T. Allis, The Unity of Isaiah: A Study in Prophecy (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980). See also his longer work The Old Testament: Its Claims and Critics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972).

[15] John 8:28.

[16] John 14:6.

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