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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Truth (2)

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TRUTH.—Apart from the adverbial phrases ‘of a truth’ (Mark 12:32, Luke 4:25) and ‘truly’ (e.g. Mark 14:70, Luke 9:27; Luke 12:44), which are used in their ordinary colloquial sense (cf. Dalman, Words of Jesus, p. 227), the only occurrence of this term in the Synoptic Gospels is in the hypocritical address of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus (Matthew 22:16, Mark 12:14, Luke 20:21), where these soi-disant inquirers compliment Him on His sincerity as a teacher. Here loyalty to the truth is opposed to the disingenuous spirit that allows itself to be swayed by fear or flattery. The impression made by Jesus on His opponents was one of fearless honesty and candour; He was no casuist or time-server, and it was His recognized character of religious frankness and veracity which suggested their trap. For all His sympathies, they knew He would be straightforward. They could count upon His telling dangerous and unpleasant truths, no matter what His word might cost Him. He had the courage without which truthfulness is impossible, and these Jews were cunning enough to trade upon His very virtues.

In the Fourth Gospel, however, ‘truth’ is used in a special, pregnant sense, characteristic of the writer and of his age. It is one of the leading categories or themes of the book, and its proportions, as well as its perspective, are entirely different from anything in the Synoptics. Occasionally, no doubt, the ordinary sense of the term occurs, as in the phrases about true witness (John 5:31-32; John 21:24), or credible statements (John 8:14); here, as elsewhere, the word means no more than veracity, and its adjective represents ‘trustworthy’ (cf. John 10:41 with John 7:18, John 8:16 f., John 8:40; John 8:46 and John 16:7). In Pilate’s remark, ‘Truth! what is truth?’ (John 18:38), however, we are on the way to a more definite conception. There is, no doubt, in this scene the implied censure of a false attitude to truth, as Cowper has pointed out.—

‘But what is truth? ‘Twas Pilate’s question put

To Truth itself, that deigned him no reply.

And wherefore? will not God impart His light

To them that ask it?—Freely—’tis His joy,

His glory and His nature, to impart.

But to the proud, uncandid, insincere,

Or negligent inquirer, not a spark.’

(Task, bk. iii. 1. 270).

Truth, in this passage, however, has the further connotation of speculative or abstract knowledge, and the majority of the references throughout the Gospel are tinged by such associations. They converge on the principle that the spiritual is the real, and that the truth of human life is attainable only in relation to Christ, who is at once the true Life of God and the true means whereby men appropriate that Divine and absolute nature.

Two small linguistic problems lie at the threshold of any attempt to investigate the meaning of ‘truth’ in the Fourth Gospel. (a) Attempts have been made, notably by Wendt (e.g. in SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] , 1883, p. 511 f., and Teaching of Jesus, i. p. 259 f.), to read ἀλήθεια as equivalent to ‘faithfulness’ or ‘rectitude,’ on the analogy of the LXX Septuagint rendering (ἔλεος καὶ ἀλήθεια) for the Hebrew original of ‘grace and truth.’ Certainly, in John 1:14; John 1:17, the OT antithesis is unmistakable. But, apart from the fact that χαρις is substituted for ἔλεος, the author is evidently using ‘truth.’ here in a deeper and special meaning of his own. The general usage of the term throughout the Gospel, whether as applied to God or man, cannot be explained by ‘faithfulness’ or ‘righteous conduct,’ any more than by mere ‘veracity.’ Even where the OT form of expression is retained, the content and the substance of the thought are extended and intensified. (b) A cognate difficulty is occasioned by the use of two adjectives, ἀληθής and ἀληθινός, in connexion with ἀλήθεια (see ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] xv. [1904] 505, xvi. 42–43). No rigid distinction can be drawn between them in the Gospel (note the variant in John 8:16), as if they were equivalent precisely to verax and verus. The latter may be translated ‘true,’ in the sense of real, as opposed to what is counterfeit (John 15:1) or transient and inadequate (John 1:9, John 6:32; John 6:51); but often what is true, in the sense of veracious and sincere, is thereby substantial, the sole reality amid the shadows of falsehood, just as God, who is true (cf. Field, ON [Note: N Otium Norvicense.] iii. p. 104), as opposed to deceptive and disappointing idols, is also real, in the sense of being living and lasting. Hence ἀληθής (John 8:26) and ἀληθινός (John 7:28) are applied equally to God (cf. John 3:33), as the Father who has sent the Son, while the former adjective is used (e.g. in John 6:55) where the latter, in the sense of real or genuine, would have been equally appropriate (cf. John 6:32, John 1:9).

Truth, in this specific sense, forms one of the nuclei of the Fourth Gospel. It is equivalent either to the knowledge of God’s being and will, or to the Divine being and will itself; in other words, it represents the higher and heavenly reality of things, transcendent and absolute, and corresponds generally to light (cf. John 1:8; John 5:33) in its sphere and functions. Like the light, however, the truth is not an abstract entity, much less an intellectual system, to the author, but this Divine reality as manifested in the incarnate Logos, as revealed in the Son. He is the Truth (John 14:6); He and it are identified (cf. John 8:32; John 8:36). All else is transitory and unsubstantial. Whatever appears to compete with this truth is either counterfeit or merely relative. Jesus, as the perfect Son of God, is the final and adequate embodiment of God’s saving will; and the common term for that heavenly nature, in relation to man’s errors and ignorance, is the truth. But the errors and ignorance against which it has to struggle are moral rather than intellectual. It is truth to be done (John 3:21), not speculation to be understood. The prerequisite for coming to the light of the Logos is a sound moral disposition, faithfulness to the light of conscience, and genuine sincerity of thought and deed. Such is the point pressed by the author of this Gospel. He was surrounded by a world which included earnest seekers for the truth (cf. John 12:20 ff.) and so-called ‘philosophers’ or religious theorists, in Judaism and paganism, who refused to accept the Christian estimate of Jesus, and probably preferred Gnostic presentations of communion with God. To meet both of these contemporary currents, he states his conception of Christ as the Truth. With that Christ all truly sincere souls have an affinity, which, if allowed to develop naturally, will bring them into touch with Him. On the other hand, the objections to Christ, often paraded on intellectual grounds, are run back to moral defects, and failure to see the reality of God in Christ is attributed to some unreality or human character.

The roots of this unique conception may partly be found in Philo, but ultimately they run back to Platonism and the later Stoicism (cf. Grill, p. 204 f.), while even Egyptian theology had crowned the god Thoth with the attribute αἰὲν ἀληθής of the Logos (cf. Reitzenstein, Zwei religionsgesch. Fragen, pp. 56, 80 f.). But the distinctive usage of the Fourth Gospel lies in its correlation of this conception with the historic personality of Jesus Christ. The Asiatic-Greek audience for which the book was immediately composed, learnt that He was a king of truth (John 18:36), instead of being king of some realm whose Jewish Messianic associations failed to impress Hellenic readers. This was a timely presentation of the Gospel. It was a reading of Christ’s personality which could not fail to commend itself to those for whom the more local and national associations of Judaism, or of Jewish Christianity, had lost much, if not all, of their interest and appeal. Hence the emphasis on the two realms of truth and falsehood, or of reality and unreality, which, like the cognate antithesis of light and darkness, helps to body forth the moral dualism of the Gospel. The opposition of men to Christ as the Logos is referred to their connexion with the realm of the devil (John 8:40 f.), whose hereditary policy is hatred of the Divine truth. The author does not speculate on any fall of the devil, nor does he discuss the origin of this cosmic feud; he is content to trace it through history, in the practical experience of mankind. Truth and falsehood, reality and unreality, light and darkness, are set in juxtaposition. His Christ is a King of Truth. ‘He reigns as Himself holy and true, by the power of the truth which He reveals—truth in the conscience, truth in the heart, and truth in the mind—and over those who, through His grace and spirit, have become fundamentally true; who stand in the eternal, abiding relationship of peace and love and holiness towards God’ (Reith, The Gospel of John, ii. p. 138). The contrast between this and the realm of falsehood and unreality is moral, rather than metaphysical, for the writer, though the metaphysical basis is plain.

Hence there is a distinction between the witness borne to the truth by John the Baptist (John 5:33) and that borne by Christ (John 8:40, John 18:37). The former passage (where ‘the truth’ is meant to cover more than its ordinary sense, although the language of the latter is employed) is in the line of John 1:7 f., 1 John 1:9 f. But when Jesus is said to bear witness to the truth, or to tell the truth, it is in the sense that He bears witness to Himself (John 8:14) as the Truth. His whole Person and work are an adequate revelation of the Father’s inner being. To see Him is to see the Father. His witness, therefore, consists in what may be termed His loyalty to Himself, and His devotion to that vocation of being true to God’s will for which He became incarnate, and from which no fear of death could deter Him (cf. Lidgett, The Spiritual Principle of the Atonement, p. 24 f.). A further line of witness to the truth of God is afforded by those who accept the revelation of Christ (John 3:33). Their adhesion to the truth affords to the world fresh evidence of the truth’s power; they, as it were, accredit the transcendent purpose of God by their obedience to it as the moral ideal of their life. This is indicated already in the Prologue by the words ‘we beheld … we have all received.’ Finally, there is the living witness of the Spirit of Truth (see below) in the Church, which, unlike the so-called Gnostic revelations of fresh knowledge, is ever loyal to the historical personality of Christ, and aims consistently at glorifying, instead of obscuring or diminishing, the vital significance of His life for the human soul.

This note is struck loudly and clearly at the very outset, in the Prologue: ‘And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.… For of his fulness we have all received, even grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (John 1:14; John 1:16-17). Here, just as the conception of the Truth is subordinated to that of the Way in John 14:5-6, the aspect of grace controls that of truth. Religion, in this definition, is not the arduous aspiration of man’s soul, stretching up wistfully to communion with God, but the gracious revelation of God to men through the Person of Jesus Christ; the initiative is on God’s side; and the Divine nature, in its absolute reality, is mediated for the soul by Christ alone, not by any number of theosophic aeons. All that either the OT economy or contemporary Gnosticism could offer the soul was a partial disclosure of God’s inner being. Time-honoured and plausible as rival methods might be, they were at best imperfect. The full revelation was in Christ as the Logos or Son of God par excellence, the Truth of God, and therefore of man, amid shadows and appearances. He is the revealer, or rather the revelation Himself. His personality is the sum and substance of that Divine essence which He alone can communicate in all its fulness to believing men, and through which men realize themselves fully. He is the true way to life. The author emphasizes this central and primary conception on two lines. Not only does he change the ‘mercy’ of the Gr. OT into ‘grace,’—a change which is all the more significant that this great Pauline term never recurs in the Gospel,—but the companion idea of truth (cf. Exodus 34:6) is expanded from faithfulness or veracity to what a modern might describe as the absolute character of the Divine Being, an inner, heavenly reality, or rather the Reality, which Christ alone (John 1:18) could disclose. The ‘truth’ of God is thus neither information to be gained, nor dogmas to be supernaturally revealed, but is at once personal and full of initiative. It is God Himself manifesting His essential life to the faith and need of man. As Maurice once put it, ‘Truth must be a person seeking us, if we are to seek him.’

While this mission and ministry of the truth have reached their climax in the brief earthly life of Jesus, the latter phase was only its final, not its first manifestation. Like the Light, the Truth has been in the world prior to its absolute revelation and embodiment in Christ the Logos (John 3:20-21). In all ages, and from all quarters (cf. John 18:37), Christ draws to Himself those who practise the truth. In the OT and elsewhere (Joshua 2:14 [LXX Septuagint ], Ps-Sol 17:17 with ἕλεος, cf. Psalms 83:12) this phrase means simply to deal truly or to act sincerely, according to the context. The author of this Gospel, however, follows his usual method of putting into such phrases a deeper and specific content, so that here it denotes rather the active exercise and practical manifestation by good people of what corresponds to God’s real character. To practise the truth is a synonym for doing works in God (John 3:21). This is independent of nationality. It is also evidently intended to cover the pre-Christian era; or rather, according to this Gospel, the history of humanity, prior to the coming of Christ, was not wholly out of touch with the true Spirit and Life of God (John 1:5; John 1:9). The present passage, taken along with a remark like that of John 18:37 (‘every one that is of the truth heareth my voice’), suggests a view of paganism similar to that of Romans 2:12 f. Furthermore, it implies that men grasp this ‘truth’ of God by the exercise of their entire moral nature. The reality of God, as Spirit and as Personal Life, cannot be known except by real men, by those whose character is real to the core. The conditions of that personal knowledge are singleness of mind, purity of conscience, and openness of heart. It is the exercise of these that brings a man into permanent touch with the reality of the Divine nature as manifested in Christ. The locus classicus for this profound conception is John 7:17; although the term ‘truth’ does not occur there, the identification of disinterestedness and candour with the genuine spirit of truth (cf. John 7:18) shows that the idea was in the writer’s mind.

This inwardness, with its corollary of freedom from national or local cults, is brought out with especial clearness in the well-known definition of Christian worship (John 4:23-24), where truth is associated with spirit. In contrast to external and ritual worship, the genuine worshipper must approach God inwardly; it is like to like, as in John 3:2 f. The spiritual is the inward, the real. As God’s nature is such, His worshippers must correspond to Him; and if worship is offered in the spirit, it is thereby genuine. A similar antithesis to the symbolic and unsubstantial worship of the OT underlies John 17:17-19, where truth, in a certain abstract sense, denotes the eternal reality of the Divine nature as revealed to men, the ideal or truth of life realized in Christ, and, through Him, in His people. By His consecration or devotion of Himself to the fulfilment of this purpose of revelation, Christ makes it possible for His disciples to be consecrated to God’s service—a consecration which, as the double meaning of the term allows, implies personal purification from sin. Negatively, the vocation is equivalent to a deliverance from the stains and illusions of the transient world, which is superior to the OT ritual. Positively, it denotes an adherence to the cause of God. His name and His truth are the same. They represent the reality of the Divine revelation in Christ, with the twofold antithesis, running through the entire Gospel, between this final revelation and the inadequate OT religion on the one hand, and contemporary philosophic or theosophic speculations about truth on the other.

A further application of this freedom, inherent in the absolute and inward character of the Christian revelation, occurs in the debate (cf. Peyton, Memorabilia of Jesus, p. 446 f.) between Jesus and the Jews in John 8:31 f.—a passage which reproduces the great Pauline ideas of Galatians 3:7 to Galatians 5:13, although redemption as usual is included under the aspect of revelation, rather than vice versa. The effects of truth, when received by men, are here described summarily as freedom (John 8:32 f.). The argument is this. As the Father seeks true worshippers, whose note is spirituality, so the Son seeks true disciples, whose characteristic is loyal adherence to His teaching, i.e. to Himself (cf. John 8:32; John 8:36) as the revelation of the Father. Adherence or obedience of this kind yields a knowledge of God’s real nature; it initiates men into the true purpose and mind of the Father, and invests them with the Divine nature itself (John 17:3). Their knowledge, that is to say, is not a process of abstract learning. There is no intellectualism about it. It is not a mastery of theosophic principles or subtle theories, but participation in a personal Life. And contact with this brings a verve and independence into life, a simplicity and a reality, a freedom from bondage and legalism, which can be attained only by a nature whose capacities are set free to realize themselves fully. In another aspect, freedom may be considered as deliverance from sin; although such a reference is not excluded even in John 8:32, it is definitely suggested in John 17:19, where participation in the Divine life is made to involve personal purification, through the death of Christ. ‘What men needed was to be sanctified, that is, to be consecrated to God. It was not in their power—surely no reason can be conceived for this, but that which lies in their sin—to consecrate themselves, and what they were not able to do for themselves Christ did for them in His own person. He consecrated Himself to God in His death’ (Denney, The Death of Christ, p. 269).

A third aspect of this inward and absolute knowledge of God in Christ is presented in the conception of the Spirit or Paraclete throughout the closing chapters (14–17). Considered under the category of a liberating power, these references to the function of the Spirit of Truth (which, it is curious to recollect, were applied to Mohammed by Mohammedan divines) may be defined as a presentation of the liberating effect of the truth, as opposed to traditional and antiquarian views of Jesus which, even within the Church, might restrict the full appreciation of His Person. The author had to meet a twofold danger, and he chose to state his new conception of Christ and Christianity in the form of a Gospel, not of a treatise or an Epistle. One reason for this, as he suggests in the sayings reproduced in John 15:26 and John 16:13, is his heartfelt conviction that the Person of Christ is the sum and substance of the Divine revelation, and that no fresh statements or progressive views, such as those promulgated by Cerinthus and other Gnostics, are authoritative unless they represent elements already present by implication in the words and works of the incarnate Logos. The deeper interpretation of Christ, with which he came forward to meet the requirement of a later age, is none other than a fresh discovery of latent truths in Christ. The influence of the Spirit on the consciousness of the Church is not directed to the manufacture of independent oracles or to the task of striking out original additions to the revelation of Christ, which would render the latter, in any sense, superfluous or inferior. The test of all such new interpretations is their loyalty to the historic manifestation of the Logos. The Spirit of Truth, bestowed by Christ upon His Church (John 14:16 f.), recalls to the mind of all true disciples the bearing and meaning of Christ’s own teachings; ‘he shall bear witness of me … he shall guide you into all the truth (for a different reading in Jerome, etc., cf. Nestle’s Einführung2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 98), for he shall not speak from himself … he shall glorify me, for he shall take of mine, and shall declare it unto you’ (cf. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, pp. 376 f., 418 f.). This great definition of the right and limitations of true freedom of movement within the Christian consciousness, safeguards it alike against the abuses of Gnostic speculation and the disinclination to advance beyond the Jewish-Christian, or rigidly Messianic, interpretation of Christ’s Person which had been promulgated by the first generation of the disciples. To know Christ after the flesh was far from exhausting the significance of His Person. His Spirit, i.e. His living presence in the Christian Church and consciousness, had still more to unfold of truth and grace. Hence one privilege of being in contact with this ‘Truth,’ as embodied in Christ, is that disciples, no longer in touch with the earthly Jesus, are fitted to adapt it to varying conditions, to see it in ever fresh bearings, and to apply it with inexhaustible power, while at the same time they preserve its essential meaning. Their training in it, so far from involving any disloyalty to it, is a part of their fidelity to its principles.

‘They who follow the Spirit’s guidance will not receive an illumination enabling them to dispense with truth, but the enablement to lay hold of truth.… On the one hand, the Truth given in Christ will need from age to age His expounding to unlock its stores; and, on the other hand, the faith in Him and His office in the present shall never loosen men from the Gospel given once for all, or draw them away from the eternal Father, by enabling any voice born only of the present to seem wholly Divine. Standing fast in the unchanging Truth, and an endless progress in taking knowledge of it shall be indissolubly united’ (Hort, The Way, the Truth, and the Life, p. 58 f.).

Thus, while the author carefully and stringently safeguards the future revelations of religious truth by limiting them to the sphere of the historical Logos, he contemplates fresh advances in the apprehension of Christ (John 16:13), just as he does in the practical extension of the Church (John 17:20). Revelations in the future, and of the future, fall within the scope of the Spirit of Truth. The latter is not fettered by the past. This prophetic function of the Spirit may seem rather one-sided (so Beyschlag, NT Theol. i. 282) as compared with its ethical presentation in Paul. But it is in line with the Synoptic tradition, where the Spirit is primarily, if not entirely, a spirit of witness; while the other, more ethical aspect, is at least suggested in the context (cf. John 14:16-17). The truth or reality of the Divine life, at any rate, includes the future (cf. Psalms 25:5 [LXX Septuagint ]); as indeed it must, if God’s purpose is a developing plan throughout history and experience, and if this truth or reality is personal. For as a personality is ex hyothesi full of resources and surprises, the richer is its life. Its spirit must be a perennial self-expression, conditioned only by the receptive powers of men. Consequently the aim of the Fourth Gospel, in these allusions to the progressive witness of the Spirit of Truth, in the future and of the future, is to prevent loyalty to the historic essence of Christianity from degenerating into stagnant adherence to an institution or a creed. What Jesus said, as Cyprian used to insist, was: ‘I am the Truth,’ not, ‘I am Tradition.’ Christ is God’s last Word to the world. But, as the writer strikingly implies in the phrase, ‘The Spirit shall guide you into all the truth,’ the full interpretation of that Word was not attained by the primitive generation of the disciples. They had no monopoly of it. ‘Most friends of truth,’ said Vinet, ‘love it as Frederick the Great [Note: reat Cranmer’s ‘Great’ Bible 1539.] loved music. It used to be said of him that, strictly speaking, he was not fond of music but of the flute, and not indeed fond of the flute but of his flute.’ It is to prevent any religious aberration of this kind that such words of the Fourth Gospel are put forward. They express the spirit of Christ’s revelation, which cannot be held by a trivial or narrow life, any more than it can be selfishly grasped or adequately weighed by the most advanced age of Christendom.

Literature.—The conception of truth in the Fourth Gospel is handled by all the editors, notably by Westcott and Oscar Holtzmann. Besides the special essays of Wendt (see above) and Rüling (NKZ [Note: KZ Neue kirchliche Zeitschrift.] , 1895, 625 f.), see Schrenck’s Die johann. Anschauung vom Leben (1898), p. 86 f.; J. Grill, Undersuchungen über die Entstehung des vierten Evang. (1902) pp. 201–206; E [Note: Elohist.] . A. Abbott, Johannine Vocabulary (1703, 1727); V. H. Stanton in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iv. 816–820; Cheyne in EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] 5217–5219; Weiss, NT Theol. (English translation ) ii. § 147; H. J. Holtzmann, NT Theol. ii. p. 375 f.; Hort, The Way, the Truth, and the Life (1894), p. 41 f.; Du Bose, Soteriology of NT, pp. 291 f., 297 f.; R H. Hutton, Theological Essays (p. 18 f.); Phillips Brooks, The Influence of Jesus (p. 142 f.); E. F. Scott, The Fourth Gospel, 253 ff.

James Moffatt.

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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Truth (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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