It’s almost always overlooked; yet it’s absolutely necessary in any fruitful discussion of what the Bible has to say about controversial issues. What is that? The question of truth. We often assume that truth a universal notion that everyone understands and agrees with; however, I’ve found that this simply is not the case. So, let’s take a moment and answer the question posed to Jesus by the Roman prefect of Judea some 2,000 years ago: Quid est veritas? (What is truth?)
You’re bound to get any number of answers when asking this question. But ultimately, what we need to consider is the nature of biblical truth. What does it mean for something to be true, and how does that impact our place in creation, and our understanding of what was, what is, and what shall be?
“Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”
“…because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel…”
These passages demonstrate that ultimately, God’s word is truth. So, whatever we go on to define or describe truth as, it must be within the framework of God’s word, for His word is truth.
Okay. His word is truth. Fine. But what does that mean exactly? If we were to apply that statement in its raw form to daily life, to the exercise of our Christian faith, and to our theological studies, the results would have dangerous, even disastrous potential!
“Blasphemy!” someone cries. “How could it ever be dangerous to accept as an absolute and incontestable fact that God’s word is truth?”
Rather than answer this question myself, put on your thinking cap and I’ll let you work through this for yourself. Consider the following passages:
“Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that.”
“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ.”
“Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.”
“Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative…”
“The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.  If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.”
“A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.  But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”
“Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments,  but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.”
“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.  Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head.  But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.  For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.  For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.  For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man;  for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.”
“Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him.”
Now, if you can read each of these passages of Scripture without thinking, Um, that just doesn’t seem right, I encourage you to stop reading immediately, go to your bedroom, wake up your brain, and come back and continue reading. No, seriously!!!
See, the problem with many Christians is that when we open up the Bible, we instinctively turn off the critical thought mechanism in our brain. We’ve been conditioned to believe that a critical analysis of Scripture is somehow irreverent, and that the most godly thing we can do is just read and accept as fact the text on the pages of the great Book of Books. Well, I submit to you that that is actually the worst possible way you can approach Scripture. Indeed, burning a Bible would be better than suspending critical analysis when reading it! At least that way, we wouldn’t wind up using Holy Scripture in a manner that is contrary to its intent. Better to not use it than to misuse it.
My point here is that unlike how many Christians perceive it, the Bible is not God’s word. First of all, we know that God is His word (Jn. 1:1). Any God who can be reduced to text on 1500 pages isn’t God at all. The Word is infinitely larger than the Bible. What we have in the Bible, then, is a profitable portion of God’s word, revealed for our edification.
But God’s word, in its fundamental essence, is absolute and unadulterated truth. Yet, I cannot read in Scripture that slaves must submit to their masters rather than escape to safety and call that truth, not when I know that God is love, and that our new covenant is a law of liberty.
“Well,” traditionalists say, “it was talking about spiritual liberty, not physical liberty.” Sounds a lot like the crap American slave owners were saying 200 years ago!
Scripture tells us that we can’t restrict biblical truths to the spirit-realm, as though they were never intended to impact the natural realm, as well. Indeed, it goes one step further, saying that any such faith is useless!
“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?  Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”
So, while “spiritual” Christians are out there hollering about spiritual liberty, I’m busy dealing with both applications: spiritual and physical. I know a God who supplies my daily bread spiritually and physically! I know a God who has called me to spiritual liberty, as well as physical. That is, in fact, the nature of the gospel, is it not?
“And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him [Jesus]. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,  “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,  TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.”
I’m reminded of a saying the older generation used a lot… “He’s so heaven bound until he’s no earthly good.” That’s exactly what James was intending to convey. We can’t be so spiritual in our faith that we forget that Christianity is, though a spiritual experience, a necessarily practical one, as well.
So, what does it say to us that our rich and wonderful Scripture can advocate the subjugation of slaves to their masters, of wives to their husbands, and can command something as seemingly arbitrary as clothing choices or hair lengths?
Remember: God’s word is truth. According to how some people read the Bible, whatever it says is absolutely and incontestably true. Those are, in fact, the implications of accepting that statement in its raw form. Therefore, it’s true that slaves should obey their masters (there goes the Underground Railroad, and any attempt to honor Harriet Tubman), that wives should obey their husbands in all things (there goes the equality of the sexes), and that women are restricted from certain styles of clothing (a “truth” that condemns the majority of Christian women in the western world, who are known for wearing gold and pearl earrings and necklaces, and definitely costly clothing—and to church, no less).
To some, this literal logic seems ridiculous; however, when it comes to homosexuality, this is precisely the logic traditionalists use.
- “Whatever the Bible says, that’s what I say.”
- “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”
- “It doesn’t mean anything other than what it says.”
- “I take the word at face value.”
These are just some of the statements you’re liable to hear. Yet, I’d wager that not one of the people making these statements subscribes to a single provision listed above, yet their face value implications are just as plain as those dealing with sexuality.
So, one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that while God’s word is truth, His Scriptures only contain that truth. The problem is, the truth is not always perceivable by a face value reading of the text. Oftentimes, it requires careful and prayerful study to pull the treasure of God’s word—His truth—from the pages of Scripture.
Some Christians will have a serious problem accepting the proposition that Scripture contains truth, but that the words contained therein are not, themselves, absolute, unadulterated truth. They think that such a notion contradicts the divine inspiration of Scripture. But, it doesn’t. Unlike some of my more theologically liberal Christian brethren, I subscribe to the notion that the Bible is infallible, but with caveats. Foremost is the fact that Scripture may be infallible, but someone’s understanding or interpretation of it isn’t! Consequently, on a practical level, the Bible is a conduit through which we derive truth; but truth in itself? Not quite.
But how can this be? How can I say that Scripture is infallible, while at the same time not truth? The answer to this question is the essence of the answer to our primary question: What is truth?
The passages referenced above are subjective. They’re subject to the prevailing worldview of the culture within which the original audience of Christians resided. Because the ancient Greco-Roman society was not only pagan, but patriarchal, it makes perfect sense that God would inspire the writers to convey relevant teachings and admonitions to that particular audience. It was also a society in which slavery was an integral part. Consequently, what was written was right and good for that group of people at that time, but they are not absolute, universal truths, for they certainly don’t apply in a 21st century context (and thank God for that). But neither patriarchy nor slavery should have existed in Christian societies (like antebellum America).
Consider the hero, Samson, for example. Not only did he have long hair, but God put supernatural strength in that long hair… not just in his hair, but in his long hair. Now, Scripture says in 1Co. 11:14 (quoted above) that nature itself teaches that long hair on a man is shameful. So, why would God go against the very nature He created—against His very “truth”—by putting a special gift in Samson’s “unnatural” hair length? That would be like God giving a special gift to a homosexual as long as he continues to have same-sex intercourse, given that same-sex intercourse is also supposedly “unnatural” (Ro. 1:26). Interesting…
Obviously then, we can’t read words and take them at face value, even when a notion as seemingly universal as “nature” is appealed to. We must consider that there are reasons behind every word of Scripture; and we can’t afford to hazard a guess at those reasons. We must diligently search the word, using sound exegesis and a dash of logic and critical thinking in order to discern what’s really going on with what we read.
Now, unlike the words of the passages quoted above, which are subject to the societies surrounding the original writer and audience, truth is subject to nothing. It is universal. It’s not representative of political swings, popular opinions, or even religious beliefs. The truth simply is. With all the vicissitudes of life, truth remains constant, always persisting in its quintessential form.
The problem with how many Christians approach Scripture is that they see something written on the pages of their Bibles, and then immediately accept the face value language of the text as truth. This is very, very wrong!
(I’m getting rather philosophical here, but stay with me…)
The truth is an absolute, universal union of transcendent principles by which existence itself is governed (Heb. 1:3). How those principles manifest in realities across the great expanse of space and time are called “facts”. But, these facts are not, in themselves, truths. They are simply how truth manifests in a given context. We can reverse-engineer facts in order to extrapolate or discern their underlying truths, but that doesn’t always work.
For example, consider a court of law. The whole purpose of a trial is to present facts in the hopes of uncovering the truth; however, as we all know, facts don’t always lead to truth. They can be misinterpreted, especially when all the facts aren’t presented (e.g. taking a passage out of context, or not comparing a passage with the greater context of Scripture as a whole). What’s on the pages of our Bibles are facts; however, we are the juries, who have the unenviable job of uncovering the truth that these facts point to.
It’s as though facts are a series of twists and turns we’re asked to make while traveling to a place we haven’t been before. This journey is called interpretation, and our intended destination is truth. But sometimes, in our journey, we miss turns (facts) that cause us to wind up arriving to a place we think is truth, but really isn’t. We go knock on the door, and discover that “bad theology” lives there. Now, some Christians are so in love with the route they took to get there, that they refuse to believe that bad theology lives there. They pitch a tent and camp out in the front yard for the rest of their lives. But others are so hungry for truth that they get back in the car and try to figure out what turns they missed, or what wrong turns they made. It’s a journey. It’s a struggle. And it’s not for the faint of heart! But there’s nothing like the freedom that exists at the place called truth, if we’re just more committed to that destination than to the route itself.
Consider another analogy. The realm of biblical revelation as the planet Earth. The Earth is a globe; and far enough beneath the surface, it’s all comprised of the same core minerals. Whether 3,500 miles beneath the surface in Saint Louis, MO, or 3,500 miles beneath the surface in Tehran, Iran, it’s all the same stuff. That “stuff” represents truth. It’s elemental. It’s universal. But, it’s deep. It takes some digging to uncover it.
Now, as those minerals (truths) make their way upward through various natural processes, they cease being absolute and universal the more they approach the surface. They eventually become the lush, nutrient-rich soils of the rainforests, and they also become the arid, dry sands of our hottest deserts. The environments existing at the different surfaces cause different changes to the chemical composition of the minerals. They’re no longer pure and elemental. They’re now a product of their respective environments—no less real, no less substantive, but no longer pure and fundamental expressions of what’s at the core of the Earth. They’re now facts—manifestations of truth at the surface, where it’s been impacted by the environment.
Now, an ignorant (read: religious) person would take the trees of the rainforest and plant them in the sands of the desert, expecting them to be just as fruitful in the dry heat as they were in the luscious tropics. In his mind, it shouldn’t matter where you plant the trees, because the ground is all the same as far as he’s concerned. All he has to do is open his eyes and he’ll see that surface conditions are significantly different; but he proceeds with his eyes closed, depending on his faith in the universality of the Earth’s elements.
Though sincere, this person utterly fails to understand the impact that the surface conditions have on the underlying elements, making them incompatible with surface conditions in other parts of the world. He’s right in his belief that it’s all the same stuff at its most fundamental core; but he’s so wrong in how he fails to consider the environment at the surface. And sincerity won’t save his trees. They’ll wither and die because of his sincere, yet ignorant approach to transplantation.
This poor man is seeing the surface, and considering it truth. But that’s not how biblical revelation works. What you read on the surface (pages) of your Bible is not truth. It’s facts that are impacted by the environment of the original writer, and the original audience. You can’t get around that. You can only journey through it—dig deep beneath the surface to arrive back at the core truths that undergird what you find on the surface.
When it comes to biblical interpretation, we must take care to understand the surface conditions of time, place, culture, etc. that produce the words we read on the pages. Only then will we be able to discern the truths contained therein… and it is that truth (not the surface facts) that makes us free!
Speaking of the truth making us free, notice that Jesus basically told us that the truth was beneath the surface, unattainable by a face value (surface level) reading of Scripture.
“So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine;  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.'”
People are quick to quote verse 32, but most have never considered the beginning of Jesus’ statement. Knowing the truth was not the start of the process. It was the end—the destination; and it was conditioned on something. “If,” Jesus said. “If you continue in My word…” Hearing His word is not enough. Reading His word is not enough. We must commit ourselves to it. We must meditate on it. We must hear and re-hear… read and re-read. We must study Scripture, listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to guide us into the truth. We must continue in it.
“‘I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.'”
I find it fascinating that the greatest teacher ever to walk the earth wanted to tell people certain things, but realized that words would be insufficient to convey the truths contained in His words. He specifically told them that the Holy Spirit would guide them into the truth. Apparently, His words were not, in and of themselves, truth. But they were the means by which the disciples could discern truth, with the help of the Spirit of truth—the Holy Spirit.
Now, what makes today’s Christians think that Jesus couldn’t simply speak words to convey truth, yet we can simply read words on the pages of our Bibles and receive truth just like that… just by taking the words at face value? If all we have to do is hear or read, what do we need the Holy Spirit for?
Notice that I’m not saying that Scripture is wrong. Scripture isn’t the problem at all. I’m saying that how people are approaching it is. If we don’t get off of our theologically lazy behinds and continue in the Scriptures, we are going to find ourselves tricked in the hour of judgment—absolutely certain of our “truths,” yet discovering that those truths are simply facts—as they existed at a “surface” that hasn’t been around for 2,000 years!
This isn’t some trick of philosophy or new-found revelation. The Bible warns us time and again that truth must be dug up through serious commitment to the examination of Scripture.
“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.”
“But his [the blessed man’s] delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.”
“My eyes anticipate the night watches, That I may meditate on Your word.”
“Be diligent [KJV: study] to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
The moral of the story is quite clear. If you’re after religion, then face value texts of Scripture will suit you just fine. Besides, facts are much easier to manipulate than truth. You can get facts to point in almost any direction you want, and religion is good at that. So, facts are a religionists best friend. But if, on the other hand, your desire is to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” then you’re going to have to commit yourself to becoming a student of Scripture—not simply reading passages and committing them to memory, but being determined to never take what you read at face value—to always study, to always prayerfully meditate on what you read, to always dig beneath the surface and ask questions about what you read, and to enthusiastically pursue the truth of God’s rich and wonderful word.
It may seem a daunting task, one best reserved for pastors, teachers, and people with degrees in theology; however, it’s not as difficult as it seems. All you need is the ability to divorce yourself from pre-existing beliefs whenever you open your Bible, so that it can speak to you afresh. You must have an open heart that’s willing to consider all the facts, following them wherever they lead, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And you must take advantage of the gifts of God within your midst (Eph. 4:11-12). Learn how to ask questions; but be sure you’re addressing your questions to people who have actually committed themselves to the journey into truth and aren’t operating out of the dark places of assumption, tradition, and “face value.” Even then, be a Berean and verify every word you’re told (Acts 17:11)! Above all else, have no agenda but the truth. Don’t seek to only validate your existing beliefs, because I promise. You’ll find a way to do so. Hunger for truth. Make it your sole intention.
2Thessalonians 2:10 warns us that people “perish because they did not receive the love of the truth.” It’s much quicker and more comfortable to take the easy road of surface facts that lead to “I already believe.” But, when you love truth, and it’s the aim of your heart, you won’t settle for existing beliefs. You want truth. You won’t settle for a form of godliness, you want the power thereof (2Ti. 3:5).
I challenge you! Love the truth! Go beneath the surface. Accept the facts of Scripture as facts; but don’t be deceived into believing that they are, in and of themselves, the truth. We need the Holy Spirit’s help to discern truth—to make sense of the facts of Scripture, and to guide us along the road of interpretation to the place called truth.
Make of your heart an empty glass, ready to be filled with all the richness of God’s true word—not the plain, face value texts of Scripture, but the inestimable treasures flowing beneath the surface. You’ll be made free when you discover the truth. Having, myself, been bound in religiosity and face value literalism, I can say that there’s nothing like being free! May all of God’s children experience this freedom together, as one body of Christ, “for the building up of itself in love.” (Eph. 4:14-16)
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom…” – Colossians 3:16a