“Truth beyond Debate”

John 8: 31–36

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. ***

Ask anyone today, “What is truth?” and you are sure to start an interesting conversation.

In the Gospel of John, there is a remarkable scene between Jesus and the Roman governor Pilate after Jesus has been indicted by Roman officials. He is brought to Pilate for conviction and sentencing. There is a crowd of angry people chanting in favor of a guilty sentence outside. Pilate is nervous and wants to cover himself should the crowd erupt. So, he brings Jesus into his headquarters for a private interrogation.

Pilate gets right to it. Immediately he asks Jesus a political question:

“Are you a king?” (18:33) Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (v.37). To which Pilate responds, “What is truth?” (v.38).

Some scholars read this scene as an historical record of Jesus, the true King meeting with a cynical, self-serving politician. Others interpret this scene as generalization about the blindness of the entire world to what is or is not truth. Either way, whether actual quote or dramatic insertion, after all these centuries, Pilate’s question hangs on and will not go away. What is truth?

We see this question play out repeatedly in modern American society. A celebrity athlete is charged and brought to trial for a vicious double murder. The prosecution presents what it terms a “mountain of evidence,” claiming to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the guilt of the defendant. The jury, however, sees and hears a hodgepodge of contaminated exhibits, and possibly a police set up. Meanwhile, a whole nation debates and divides over just exactly “What is truth?”

A candidate for the Supreme Court is well on the way to confirmation when a witness before the Senate Justice Committee charges sexual harassment. The nominee vehemently, categorically denies all allegations, while his accuser testifies in embarrassing detail under blistering cross examination. Both parties charge the other with character assassination while people across the country talk past one another, arguing “What is truth?”

For some people truth is highly subjective. Truth is what I think or feel in my gut and believe in my heart. According to this view, facts, evidence, even reason is untrustworthy or misinterpreted, leaving only the self as the final court of appeal. Others believe truth is a matter of one’s own culture, race, family history, religious identity. What is true, then, depends on where you happen to be coming from. So, whether you believe things like Elvis is alive living a quiet life near Kalamazoo, or the United States faked the moon landing to win the space race and the Cold War, according to this view, it is all equally true, depending on your cultural, political, ethnic or personal identity.

So, what is it? What is truth? Is truth pure intuition, mystical insight, a matter of the heart? Or is truth a matter of fact, scientific conclusion, cold, hard data that can be cast into golden nuggets of certainty? Or is truth only a product of my upbringing and the social class in which I live? Can any of us ever know the truth? Can we ever hope to answer Pilate’s basic, eternal question, “What is truth?”

On the whole, Christianity takes a dim view of what truth we can arrive at, and the Gospel of John is especially pessimistic of the human capacity for truth. In John’s Gospel both the heart and mind are darkened by sin, making human conclusions about truth very questionable. For John, humans are so blind, so thick and obtuse, that the King of Kings can stand right in front of us, stare us right in the face, and still go unrecognized and unacknowledged. Which goes a long way toward explaining why, when God so loved the world, that God did not send us a tweet, a video, text with propositions, instructions, insights, or proofs. On the contrary, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn.3:16). Not an “it,” not a “what” not some “thing” we can twist and distort to our own ends, but a “who,” a person, a living, ruling Lord.

God so gave to this dark and troubled world the power of God’s own self so that truth might be finally, decisively revealed. Not concluded, not deduced, inferred, but revealed; that is, truth is presented to us, given to us by God in the person of Jesus Christ that by faith supplied through the Holy Spirit we may know the Truth and that Truth who is Jesus may free us from illusion, from lies and deceit and the despair of never ever really knowing anything.

Jesus Christ is the Truth who was made flesh, who dwelt among us, and who lives still to name and claim us for eternal life. And because Jesus Christ alone is the Truth, the Church of Christ lives by a rule that has come to be known as the Protestant Principle.

Theologian Paul Tillich wrote about the Protestant Principle. It goes beyond the question of how sinful people can be acceptable to a holy God. Rather this principle is understood to encompass a person’s intellectual life as well and thus all human experiences. As sinners are declared just in the sight of God, so the doubters are possessed of the truth even as they despair of finding it.

The Protestant Principle is simply this: Since Jesus Christ is the Truth who makes us free indeed, whatever we say, do, think, or write about Jesus can in no way ever substitute for Jesus. We cannot be saved by our doctrines, our liturgies, worship styles or practices. No human institution, no human formulation can free us for eternal life; not the papacy, not the ELCA, not all the world’s pastors or priests, but only the Truth who is Jesus can do that. And while our catechisms, hymns and church structures can help point us to Jesus, they are never equal to Jesus. Because our words are fallible, our reasonings imperfect, and our motives mixed, we can never claim to have captured and contained the Truth. As hard as we may try, we simply cannot put God in a box, and therefore everything we say and do as the church is always subject to reform. We never have the Truth, but the Truth, that is Jesus, has us, which means that we are always on the way to the Truth, always called forward and claimed by the Truth. But in this life, while we walk this world, we are never in possession of it.

What is truth? His name is Jesus, and with him we walk humbly, faithfully on our way to his freedom.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.