Truth: 1. Its Nature and History

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What is truth? Earnestly the question is often asked, and on many occasions suggests itself. Once it was put to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. “What is truth?” asked Pilate, the Roman Governor (John 18:3838Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all. (John 18:38)), when that subject was suddenly thrust upon his attention. In the same manner it is being asked still, “What is truth?” Many in perplexity have inquired and still inquire. But the occasion referred to in this chapter was, whether as regards time or place, or persons involved, absolutely unique. Let us glance at it as a preliminary to our subject.
On the eve of His crucifixion, before the judgment-seat of Pilate, the Lord Jesus Christ had this question addressed to Him by His judge. “What is truth?” Exactly what was in the mind of the Roman Governor when he asked the question on that momentous occasion we may not know, but his actions help us to determine what was his attitude towards the subject of conversation. He broke off so abruptly at this point. If sincerely anxiously to know the truth, an answer would have been vouchsafed from Him who “for this cause came into the world that He might bear witness to the truth.” And had it been any other spirit than one of indifference or skepticism which prompted the question, such answer would surely have been waited for. Now attitude towards the truth and towards Christ are virtually the same. The Lord, in the previous verse, had declared, “Everyone that is of the truth heareth My voice,” and by turning his back on the Lord when he said this, Pilate manifested where he was. “Of the truth” he was not, for Jesus' voice, the voice of its greatest Witness and fullest Exponent, he did not hear. There are those who, born of water and of Spirit, begotten of God by the word of truth, can be spoken of as “of the truth.” Such, being thereby of the flock of the Good Shepherd, hear and recognize His voice. But Pilate, un-happily, was not one of their number. That spirit of subjection to its claims which marked these, was far removed from his haughty bearing here. The most charitable, if not the only possible construction we can put upon his words is to see in them that mingling of skepticism with indifference which formed the common attitude of cultivated men among the Romans of that period towards everything but worldly and material considerations. Little heart had they for the truth! What was it to them! It had no utilitarian purpose or value in their eyes, and was accordingly held in but little esteem. With this Pilate's actions harmonize throughout, and manifest the solemn position he has taken. Of these, and regarding that, Pilate himself must yet give account. He has long since gone from the scene where men can receive the truth in the love of it. Well would it have been with Pilate had his inquiry been sincere, and his question a genuine one. His destiny, however, is now determined, and whatever he may know now, or, too late have had his eyes opened to when he passed to that other sphere, such intelligence cannot affect his place and fate eternally.
But his case is not a solitary one, for truth concerns all, and although many, like him, have asked the question in a spirit of anything but honest inquiry, yet some there are, thank God, who have been awakened to a sense of its value, and have earnestly sought it for its own, or rather for its Author's sake. “What is truth?” then, we would consider, and also man's attitude to it (a very important matter as even Pilate's case has shown). How he has treated it from the beginning hitherto, may profitably form part of our inquiry.
Truth, in the abstract, has, in all ages, been the professed object of man's diligent search. From the beginning it has been so, and seems to be inseparable from him as constituted and created of God. In the realm of created things intelligence is, above all else, his crown of distinction. It is his to reflect, to reason, to know. Naturally inquisitive, his active mind refuses to be bound down to the passive contemplation of things in his own immediate environment; but must needs pry into everything, investigating into cause and effect, ascertaining the properties and powers, and endeavoring to discover the origin and destiny of all that comes within his cognizance. The acquirement of knowledge has been his steady ambition, and with whatever ulterior motives that object in many cases may have been sought, we may still trace it, back of all, to a spirit of inquiry with which man seems to be constitutionally endowed.
The real reason why man “gives his heart to search and find out concerning all things” is because of that in him which in our first parents was appealed to by the temptation— “a tree to be desired to make one wise.” A fatal aspiration that, truly! but at the same time indicative surely of that active and receptive mind with which their Creator had equipped them. The fact is, that nothing so clearly distinguishes man from all else that lives and moves in nature as these peculiar and unique properties he possesses, of weighing and reflecting upon things not materially presented. The presence of that in his organization to which these powers are ascribed, the mind, marks him off at once in a clear and unmistakable way from every other creature on earth. Between him to the nearest approach in the scale of organized life, there exists, in this particular, not a link of connection, but a wide gulf of distinction. Capable of reasoning and judging, as they are not, and possessing an innate consciousness of things beyond the reach of their limited powers, he is thus clearly fitted for familiarity with a higher plane than they can aspire to. The temple of truth finds in man more than an honorable part of the furniture of its holy place, where, in the realm of nature, every whit of it uttereth His glory. No mere hewer of wood or drawer of water is he, but one fitted to stand in its courts a worshipper.
Unlike these lower orders of creation, man was created in God's image, after His likeness; and for what purpose, reason and intelligence—elements of that highest and spiritual part of man's tri-partite nature—were given, we to whom by His word and Spirit His mind has been revealed, can more than surmise. In this crowning piece of workmanship, morally and spiritually so far above all others, has not God prepared a creature capable in some measure of having communion with Himself? Who can now say what measure of truth God could have gone on to reveal to unfallen man? or to what extent intercourse between God and Adam in Eden might have been enjoyed? However that may be, in man we behold a creature equipped most wonderfully, both morally and intellectually, for the pursuit of knowledge, and the reception of truth.
But is it not just there that danger would come in? Would it be surprising if this his distinctive blessing were also his characteristic danger, that his high privilege entailed commensurate responsibility? Is not that the side most open to attack? where the incursions of an enemy would most likely be looked for? For, if capable of receiving truth, is he not also capable of imbibing error? If thirsting to be enlightened, is he not liable to be deceived? Now, an enemy there was. His character is thus described for us— “He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:4444Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. (John 8:44)). The source of error himself, his whole interest lies, we may very well imagine, in its propagation. Hatred of God, and all that is of God, also animates him, who was “a murderer from the beginning.” An opportunity of thwarting God, may we not think he imagined, presented itself in the case of man. To hate one in whom God delights is characteristic of him. To sow error in a field God had so carefully prepared for the reception of truth would be an occupation most congenial to him, and, at the same time, work at which, as the father of lying, he would be most apt. In man, then, he would discern an instrument in some sense made ready to his hand, and very early in their history, therefore, our first parents were assailed. Amidst other issues, were they not there confronted with an artful attempt to displace what truth they already possessed by implanting that which was calculated to effectually exclude it altogether?
Genesis 3 gives the inspired account of this. With this single issue for the time being before us, as we consider the scene in the beginning of that chapter, it becomes increasingly apparent that everything turns upon the question of how God's truth is treated. Subtle as he was, the devil quickly perceived the only vulnerable point in the prohibition of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Exactly in what sense vulnerable, and why left so, are questions which, if to be answered at all, must find their solution along the line of such considerations as what kind of a creature man, as he came from the hand of God, really was; what his state of innocence really signified as to moral intelligence and responsibility. The old problem, in fact, confronts us of man made up-right, yet in such sense that only after his fall is he become as God to know good and evil. One thing, at least, we know as to our first parents in their original state of innocence, and recognize in it a kind of hedge that God had put round their moral immaturity, if such, indeed, it be. Concerning the (to us) mysterious tree of knowledge of good and evil, God had spoken and had declared the inevitable consequence of partaking of it, so that man was already furnished with the truth of God about the matter. To controvert the truth, and to gain an entrance into man's mind for error, was the task before the enemy, and with consummate art he set about the achievement of his design.
The extraordinary subtlety, with which the serpent is credited in verse 1, is exemplified by the very manner of his approach. To the woman his words are addressed. The weaker vessel was chosen as the object of attack. It cannot but be remarked too how cautious are his steps, how warily his part of the conversation is conducted. It opens mildly. To insinuate a doubt is, assuredly a more effectual way of overthrowing convictions than to meet them with a flat denial, for the mind is thus left, as it were, to draw its own conclusions. And an insinuation it is that appears in his words— “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” From the woman's reply it is evident that her mind had caught the drift of his language, and that her heart, alas! had entertained the implied question as to God's goodness. Confidence in God destroyed, or at least enfeebled, His ward now assumes to her the character of an unpleasant prohibition, and surrender of it is thus made more easy. “Of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” The prohibition increases “neither shall ye touch it"; the penalty is rendered less threatening— “lest ye die.” A small circumstance it may seem, yet sufficient to show where she is, her attitude towards God's truth.
Judging things to be now ripe for it, Satan does not hesitate to boldly deny what he had already questioned; and his lie is accepted in exchange for the truth she has come to so lightly esteem. The words of Eve in reply to God's question, “What is this that thou hast done?” aptly describe the process by which the enemy's triumph was accomplished— “The serpent beguiled me.” Her statement receives inspired corroboration from 2 Cor. 11:33But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:3) — “the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety.” And that record also is true which declares that “being entirely deceived she was in transgression” (1 Timothy 2:1414And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. (1 Timothy 2:14)). How deep the fall! How serious the consequences to a creature endowed as man was! The height of the honor of his former position measures the depth of his degradation now. The very possibilities of enlightenment then enjoyed, such of them as were not lost in the catastrophe itself, become now so many probable inlets for further deception. Completely at the mercy of that wily antagonist we may not describe ourselves for truth still finds that in us to which it can appeal; but biased in the direction of error (we may say) man has seemed to be ever since. Measure the effects on man of the fall, even in this respect, we cannot fully; but, considering whence we have fallen or to what descended, we do well to attend to that which wrought our undoing.
For a sample this is of that “working of Satan” (2 Thessalonians 9) “which deceiveth the whole world"; so that, attending to the word of God, “we are not ignorant of his devices.” For ends of the same kind he uses continually means of the same nature, and, manifold and various as are his schemes with men, in some way all resemble this their prototype.
In later encounters the same tactics are pursued, as here on the occasion of its first entrance into the lists; and error does and will maintain the same warfare with similar weapons.
Many elements enter into this crisis of Genesis 3, for it is a fountainhead of history; but a point of great importance in it is the contrast between truth and error, and the origin of the latter through the surrender of the former. And it is well to be clear on this to day. It is of importance to remark that truth was possessed before error was implanted, for exactly contrary to this is modern teaching. The theory as to the rise and dissemination of religious knowledge, which now in large measure holds the field, seems to conveniently forget that there has been a fall, or consequent departure from truth originally possessed. A gradual progress from primeval darkness, on through the twilight of superstition, into the broad daylight of modern enlightenment and knowledge, may form the material of the self-complacent dreams of men; but is it supported either by scripture or by facts? Far from it. To maintain it is to incur the woe pronounced on them “which put darkness for light and light for darkness.” The opposite is rather true, for God has never left Himself without witness, but has invariably given a testimony suited for the time and circumstances; and in every case man's sin and the cause of his darkness has been, that he has turned back on that testimony!
Nor was it otherwise here. The truth was plain. A simple command was all that was given. Obedience, the only becoming attitude for a creature, was required. To question the wisdom of the prohibition, or the motive for it, was what Satan endeavored to draw man into. To see man, in effect, constituting himself a judge of God's word, instead of a hearer and doer of it in the due spirit of subjection to its claims, is still his desire. And when he has raised this question, when he has tempted the soul to occupy the judgment-seat, the moral state of him who entertains it, of him who arrogates to himself such a position, is ripe for, and generally grasps at, his solution of the problem, his decision of the case. How much care, then, should be exercised as to what attitude we take up towards the truth of God!
With the fall of man, we enter upon a new era in the history of God's truth in the world. A mercy it is that it did not close there; that further light from God was not withheld, and man left to the darkness he had chosen. No objection could have been raised against such a mode of procedure: it would have been quite compatible with His righteous character for a Holy Creator so to act. In judgment He had already acted to-wards creatures of His, who had sinned and left their first estate (2 Peter 2:44For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment; (2 Peter 2:4); Jude 66And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. (Jude 6)); and the gloom and darkness to which they are consigned might have been, in the spiritual sphere, the immediate result for men also, as it will be eventually and literally their portion who continue in unbelief. In a path of unrelieved darkness, our race might have been left to run its course; to fill up the measure of their iniquity, unvisited by a single ray of hope or light; and still have been only thus reaping what they sowed. But grace was in God's heart for men, and truth from on high still visited them. If man is to be distinguished from all the ranks in nature below him, he is also from those above him. Different from those he is, as we liave seen, because of that which is in him; from these, may we not say, because of what God has for His estate differs from all in-feriors because of what he is; his treatment from that of created intelligences above him because of what he is to be through Christ Jesus. God's purposes of grace have chosen a human, not an angelic, platform for their expression. His love is to be manifested “not to angels but men.” Thus, rather than the judgment which a somewhat similar offense had in that case incurred, mercy is shown to man. Light from God was still vouchsafed.
In what measure, can we exactly say? Adam's naming his wife Eve, the mother of all living, is surely an utterance of faith. Abel's offering, as we learn from Hebrews 11:44By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. (Hebrews 11:4), was an action of faith. On what revelation were these based? In the doom pronounced upon the serpent, we can read the forecast of a wondrous deliverance, and the darkness of judgment is relieved by that light of mercy, a veritable silver lining to a dark cloud, if ever there was one. God's action in clothing the guilty pair with skins of animals, implying death, has also significance for us. Whether for them also, or whether these constituted the whole truth for them or not, there was, at any rate, sufficient material for faith to build upon right through those early days.
Truth, in fact, has always been present in the world, and always will be till the close. It might almost be described as one of the constituent elements of the moral atmosphere. Certainly, without it, faith or spiritual life would be, either of them, impossible. Viewed thus also, we can understand the persistency of Satan's endeavor to corrupt and poison that which is, in spiritual things, one of the chief necessaries of life to man. That is to say, where he cannot eliminate thoughts of spiritual things from the minds of men altogether, these seem to have been the tactics he pursued during this period, and with conspicuous success. The story of the fall, and abundant evidence of its occurrence, were there to awaken inquiry in the thoughtful. Then, that inquiring mind should be diverted into another channel, and to provide something which should thoroughly engross it, was, as we shall see, what then principally characterized Satan's plan for excluding the truth.
In attaining to the pitch of wickedness which filled the antediluvian earth with corruption and violence, men must themselves have acquiesced in this exclusion; or the recollection and memorials of that fall would have proved at least a check on the pace of their headlong course in iniquity. Doubtless so it was, and, forgetful of the past, they were no less unmindful of anything God might from time to time say to them through His wit-nesses. Breaking in upon their busy preoccupation, in Enoch, the seventh from Adam, the voice of God is heard, in threatening tones of coming judgment, it is true, yet still, as this, a call of God to men who had, alas, no heart for His truth. Through Noah, a preacher of righteousness, the Spirit also strove with man during the preparation of the ark, while the long-suffering of God waited on men. It waited, alas, fruitlessly, for man's attitude was now one of entire indifference. He had got something now to divert his interest and engross his attention to the total exclusion of God and His truth. What a creature is man! “God made man upright; he hath sought out many inventions,” and building up with these inventions a system, a world of his own, amidst a scene of unbounded wickedness, he finds his pleasure therein, and treats God's offers of mercy and warnings of judgment alike with indifference.
In this object of their pre-occupation itself, have we not again a fresh instance of the great enemy's activity? The scene into which Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, the devil was not absent from, we may be sure. There are traces of his agency here, for the way in which Cain, fugitive and vagabond in the earth as he was, so soon seems to find, along with his descendants, respite from accusing conscience and morbid despair, is remarkable. There must very early have been discovered a sufficiently engrossing subject to give relief from the double burden of conscious guilt and foreboding judgment. And this man did find in the world, the system he was then, under the adversary's guidance, so busy in founding and developing. The elements of that old civilization, far away from us as it is, are not at all unlike the principles of the world system still. And who is the author of that? “All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” —not of the Father are they. Deceptive vanities, from the deceiver they come. His habitual work, deceiving men, is it not prominent here also? The sowing of error had apparently triumphed already in what led to man's fall. And now that God will not leave men in their darkness, but pursues them in grace with the light of His truth, Satan has their hearts so wrapped up in the system he has helped them to build here, away from God, that no voice of mercy can reach their hardened hearts, no sound of coming judgment awake them from their indifference. The truth of God was an unwelcome disturber of their peace; and unresponsive to it they remained.
They were “disobedient” we read (1 Peter 3:2020Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. (1 Peter 3:20)); they were indifferent, we conclude; and judgment overtook them. Is it an attitude unknown today? A fate not less terrible awaits those who obey not the gospel now.
With a new world a fresh start is made. Not in ignorance did Noah and his family step forth from the ark. No tobula rasa was his mind. Truth was one of the things that came with that ark through the deluge, part of the precious freight it bore onwards into the new world. Much had perished in the waters of judgment, ail, in fact, in which man's pride could rest. The glories of his civilization, the embellishments and luxuries of society, the comforts and delights of his cities, all that had accrued round life for him, the science and learning of that ancient era with discoveries and problems of its own, the arts and crafts of olden time, all he had developed and evolved, discovered and added to the sum of human knowledge and invention, in one wild moment of catastrophe had disappeared forever, and stark and stripped and primitive again stands man, reduced to, and represented by one single, simple, pastoral family. But faith was there, and truth was there. The minds of the saved ones surely had it engraven upon them. With both the mercy and the judgment of God they had become intimately acquainted also, for, while the objects of the one, they were witnesses of the other. Nor was the invitation to enter the place of shelter the last communication God intended to make to man; for, sent forth by that same One in due time, one of Noah's first furnishings was a fresh disclosure of His mind. The sweet savor of his burnt-offering gave God satisfaction, and, charged with the significance of that greater sacrifice of which it was the type, it provided Him a new medium through which He could look down upon the new earth, and man upon it. Smelling that sweet savor of rest also, He could speak regarding both, and truth about each, both new and important, He vouchsafed. Not only at the beginning, then, but at various points, and especially at every crisis in man's history, has God spoken.
Man's responsibility, then, in presence of the growing light, has been accumulating also. In this connection one of the most important passages of scripture to be kept in mind is Romans 1. The subject of light from God, and how men have treated it is there most thoroughly gone into; so that when tracing this history of truth in the world which we are endeavoring to follow out, this chapter claims considerable attention. In proving man's guilt in the early chapters of Romans, the Spirit, through the Apostle Paul, makes and substantiates certain distinct charges against men, Jew and Gentile, respectively. One of the first of these charges is in chap. 1:18— “who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” Unquestionably this points particularly to the Jews, who, with a written revelation from God, and sinning against it, were liable to the charge of unrighteousness. But the truth was a matter the Gentiles also were concerned with, for their “ungodliness,” against which the wrath of God is no less revealed, was simply an entire absence of the fear of God where there was sufficient testimony to render such a thing inexcusable. So that unfaithfulness to truth possessed can be charged against both classes. That is the real state of the case, and, beginning with Romans 1, this we must now trace out.
[J. T.]
(To be continued)