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 Luke) 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 (alētheia)" 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.