“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” — 1 John 5:20
In my last post, on the Old Testament treatment of truth, I argued that in the Hebrew Bible truth is more about being and character than about knowledge and content.
As we turn to the New Testament’s multitude of “truth talk,” the issue gets more complicated. Despite the overwhelming use of only one Greek word, aletheia, for truth, the shades of meaning are numerous and dependent on the goals and theologies of different New Testament authors.
First, truth in the New Testament does begin with a connection to the Hebrew focus on being and character. This makes sense because Christianity was, of course, born in Jewish soil.
The New Testament contains plenty of references to God as true, truthful or faithful. These track closely with what we discover in the Old Testament. For example, the pivotal Pauline text of Romans 3:1-7 describes God’s character as faithful, just/righteous, and true/truthful, terms that function as overlapping descriptions of God’s covenant fidelity.
Romans 15:8-9 works similarly: “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Here truth again seems to equal covenant faithfulness.
In the Gospel of John, which contains far more uses of aletheia than any other New Testament book, the term sometimes is used by Jesus to refer to the being/character of God (John 3:33, 7:28, 8:26, 17:3). These references sound very similar to Old Testament usages. The idea is that God is “true.” Consider John 7:28: “You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him.”
“Truth statements correspond with reality, with facts.”
Second, references to truth in the New Testament do include those with a more cognitive dimension. Truth statements correspond with reality, with facts — primarily facts about salvation, about God’s way with the world and what God is doing in Jesus Christ.
Consider 2 Peter 1:10-12: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you. Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you.” Here “truth” means not primarily propositions but instead the entire salvation experience mediated through Christ.
This provides a link to numerous statements contrasting truth with lies/errors, or the real God vs. false gods, or reality vs. illusion, or reliability vs. instability. The idea is not just that the gospel is true, as a cognitive proposition, but that the only truth that saves is the Truth that God has sent into the world in Jesus Christ. God — reality, truth, salvation — all are to be found in Jesus alone. All other proposals are vain, false, illusory.
“The truth spoken of in the New Testament is not just a fact but a divine energy.”
Third, New Testament treatments of truth have a new mystical-participatory-eschatological dimension not really found in the Hebrew Bible. The truth spoken of in the New Testament is not just a fact but a divine energy, an energy that wills to enter and transform human beings as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for the ages.
God, who is true, in fulfillment of God’s purpose and promise to save, sent Jesus who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus is the actualization of the salvation God willed for humanity for eons past. Through Jesus, God invites human beings not just to believe but by the power of the Holy Spirit to receive salvation (John 1:11-12), be delivered from death (John 3:16), set free from every form of captivity (John 8:34), and transformed into the true image of God we were intended to be (1 John 3:1-2).
This powerful culmination of the New Testament’s treatment of truth is eschatological, in that it marks the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan, now breaking into human life; it is participatory, in that truth enters willing humans and we in turn dwell in truth and truth in us (John 14:17, 1 John 1:8); it is mystical, in that truth is a spiritual reality, an energy, a power, a majestic, mysterious force that makes holy (John 17:17) and new (Revelation 21:5).
This sets the groundwork for the theme of truth and the moral life of the Christian, to be considered in the next post.
For now, on the brink of Christmas, let us celebrate the gospel claim that “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
David Gushee serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the past-president of both the American Academy of Religion and Society of Christian Ethics. He is an author or editor of 25 books. His most recognized works include Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Kingdom Ethics, The Sacredness of Human Life, and Changing Our Mind. He earned the Ph.D. from Union Seminary. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta.
Other articles in this series: