Sunday, February 16, 2020

Transcendent Truth and the Early Christian Gospels

In my last essay I suggested that the Gospel of John described what appeared to be an abstract transcendent spiritual reality1 to which the author of John referred with the phrase "the Spirit of Truth."2 If "Truth" in this phrase is an abstract principle, it is an idea that the author shared with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. It would not be unusual that the author of John was influenced by Platonic thought because Platonism is described as "the single greatest outside intellectual influence on Christianity in its formative stages."3

Basic to Platonic thought is Plato's theory of Forms (or Ideas, or Ideals). This theory argues that virtues or concepts that we know, such as love, truth, beauty, or goodness are only shadows of an archetype (original pattern) existing in an invisible transcendent world. Our ability to recognize that something in our physical world resembles the archetype is due to "an innate recollection of knowledge of the divine Forms acquired by the immortal soul before it 'fell' from its celestial origin toward the world of sensible delights and became incarnated into a physical body."4 Hence, the concept "truth" in our visible world of change is merely a shadow that mimics the archetype, which is an eternal abstract Truth.5

According to the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle,6 the truth or falsity of a representation in our visible world is determined by how our representations relate to the things we are describing— that is, by whether or not it is an accurate description.7

            The Gospel of John may share Plato's idea of an abstract metaphysical Truth in how it describes Truth.8 In John Truth is integral to the invisible world of the divine Father and is associated with the divine Father in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Isa 65:16; John 1:14, 3:33, 4:23-24, 8:26, 14:16-17, 17:17; 2 John 3; Rom 3:7), as is love (1 John 2:15; 3:1; 4:7-8; 4:16 ) and light (1 John 1:5). Truth "proceeds from" the Father, who is Spirit (John 4:24), by means of Spirit, which John terms the Spirit of Truth (John 15:26). In other words both Truth and the Spirit of Truth are native to the invisible world and are not indigenous to the visible world that we know (John 14:16-17). The Spirit (i.e., of Truth), who comes from the divine Father, knows complete Truth (John 16:13, 14:26), rather than the partial mundane truths we know in the visible world of change where truths change over time and with each individual.9

            The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) reflect no knowledge of a transcendent Truth or even a Spirit of Truth. They do describe a metaphysical/supernatural Spirit associated with the divine world (e.g., Mark 1:10, 3:29; Matt 3:16, 10:20; Luke 10:21, 11:13), but they do not describe this Holy Spirit or Spirit of the Father as the Spirit of Truth, a designation that is only found in Johnnine literature. In the synoptic gospels "truth (alÄ“theia)" is used only in prepositional phrases (e.g. "in truth," Matt 22:16) having a meaning of something like "of a truth" or "truly" (Matt 22:16; Mark 12:14, 12:32; Luke 4:25, 20:21, 22:59). It appears once in Mark as a noun (5:33) to describe a woman telling her "whole truth." Does it matter that the synoptic gospels reflect no knowledge of what appears to be an abstract Truth or its Spirit that proceeds from the Father? Does it matter that the author of John's Gospel may well have been influenced by Platonic thinking? How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1"Truth" in the phrase "the Spirit of Truth" is the abstract principle by which all specific instances of supposed truth are to be measured.
2Hedrick, "Truth is an Idea," Wry Thoughts about Religion, Jan 31, 2020:
3John M. Dillon, "Platonism" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:381.
4John Turner, "Plato, Platonism" in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible 4:546.
8Hedrick, "Truth is an Idea."
9A later writer claimed that his community shared the knowledge of the Spirit of Truth that comes from the Father. This writer claimed to sort out truth from error on the basis of those who disagreed with the writer's ideas (1 John 4:6); those who disagreed do not know the Spirit of Truth.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Truth is an Idea

Truth in the abstract I will define as “a transcendent metaphysical or spiritual reality.” That there is such an overarching “principle,” however, is specifically denied by the poet Wallace Stevens. He put it this way: “There is no such thing as the truth.”1 Nevertheless, contrary to Stevens we persist in thinking that there is an ideal truth of which our mundane truths (if true) are an integral part. But once again Stevens challenges our thinking; to quote Stevens once more: “There are many truths,/ But they are not parts of a truth.”2

Truth, as we are familiar with it, is an idea rather than an abstract transcendent principle; yet it is not merely an idea. Truth is more than a mental image or mental formulation of something seen or known, or imagined. The Truth is a mental formulation driven by the force or conviction that a particular ideation of truth is right in all circumstances.

Truth is not exclusively singular (i.e., the Truth) but manifold (i.e., independent truths), for many hold in mind ideas they claim are true, yet they often contradict the “true” ideas of others. For example, part of Baptist truth is that the act of baptism is merely a symbol (Rom 6:1-4) and not essential for salvation. Catholic truth, however, holds that baptism is a sacrament, one of the seven means of conferring the grace of God,3 and hence is essential for salvation. In other words these two contradictory truths (Baptist and Catholic) are not part of a single metaphysical truth. There are only contradictory mundane truths that are held as ideations in different minds. In this competition between two contemporary giants of religion, we are left with the disturbing question: “What is the truth about baptism?”

Some of these mundane truths we hold in mind are deceitful or downright lies, like the ideal political truth “that all men are created equal.”4 This statement in the U. S. Constitution is sexist (“all men”) and a religious confession to boot (i.e., “created” implies a creator), but, most important, it is simply untrue; for people (much less all men) are not born equal either in native abilities, social status, or physical prowess. Some truths that people live by can qualify as being “evil,” like the truth of racial superiority and its handmaid anti-Semitism.5 Racial superiority was the driving force of the Nazi party (National Socialism) in Germany in the 1930s, a truth that produced extermination camps across Europe in World War II.6

            If, on the other hand, there is an abstract transcendent or spiritual reality called Truth, it is not what people live by. We live by our mundane ideas about what we think is the transcendent or spiritual principle (if such there be), since we are always once removed from apprehending the transcendent principle. If there were an abstract transcendent Truth, it would still enter our minds only as an idea about some particular mundane truth. For example, lying is bad (but soldiers lie to deceive the enemy and receive medals for doing so); being kind to one another is good (but kindness in time of war is chargeable as giving aid and comfort to the enemy). Usually we learn ideas about what is true from others and we invest those inherited ideas with authority over our lives.

            The author of John portrays Jesus as describing what I take to be an example of transcendent truth, called “the spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:13; 18:37; see also 1 John 4:6; 5:7) of which Jesus’ claim to be “the truth” (John 14:6; 1:17) is one part. But the evangelist leaves his readers with this issue unresolved. During the exchange between Jesus and Pilate (John 18:33-38), Jesus claims to have come into the world to bear witness to the truth (18:37). The evangelist, however, allows Pilate the final unanswered word in the dialogue. “What is truth?” (18:38), Pilate asks. Jesus has no answer. Pilate’s probative question continues to echo in readers’ minds to the end of the Gospel—it turns out to be the final word about “truth” in the gospel.7 Is this a deliberate literary strategy of the author? Is there a transcendent or metaphysical Truth of which all our mundane “truths” are a part, or is truth, like beauty, only what one thinks it is? How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1“On the Road Home” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Knopf, 1961), 203.
2Stevens, Collected Poems, 203.
3Catholics see baptism in this way: “Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God”:
4From a “Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled July 4, 1776” of the U. S. Constitution.
7John 19:35 and 21:24-25 use the adjective “true” and in literary form are narrative asides that may belong to a later editing of John. See Charles W. Hedrick, “Authorial Presence and Narrator in John: Commentary and Story” in Goehring, Hedrick, Sanders, and Betts, Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1990), 74-93.