This is, at long last, an answer to a question posted by a commentator (I’m sorry to say over a month ago): “[H]ow do you see Christ as having made provisions for guaranteeing the preservation of Truth through the ages (if you see Him as having done so at all)?” Subsequent discussion revealed that he did not mean merely since Christ’s ascension to heaven. So this post attempts to address the question in general, but first (as a humanities scholar is apt to do), I need to clarify the issue.
Clarifying the Problem
What does it mean to “guarantee the preservation of Truth”? In what ways is Truth not preserved? Truth is not an organic mass which begins to decompose in the summer heat, changing color and attracting flies. Nor is truth a substance that can be diluted or transmuted. Truth is a property of certain beliefs, and the “preservation of Truth” is the preservation of true beliefs in the minds of people. A true belief may fail to be preserved in the minds of people either by failing to pass it on to new people, so that the true belief may be said to end (in a sense) with the death of the last person who believes it, or by being rejected in favor of alternate (and false) beliefs. Since no sound argument can refute a true belief, if we were fully rational beings, no true belief would ever be rejected for a false belief. And if we were immortal and perfectly rational beings, truth would be in no danger. But in fact, we are both mortal, so beliefs need to be passed on, and sinful, so that we often prefer convenient falsehoods to inconvenient truths. And thus true beliefs need to be preserved. The transfer of true beliefs to other people is a variety of revelation, the means by which those other people come to believe this truth. The question of how sinful people are checked from simply chucking out whatever truth they don’t like is a question of redemption. In both processes, God’s message of salvation is at stake, and therefore this is an important question.
The Personal Touch
Perhaps it should not surprise us that in any matter so important, God deigns to take it directly in hand. Thus, God spoke directly to our earliest ancestors in the faith (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses) and revealed the truth to them. When the people of Israel believed falsehood, God spoke to them through the prophets to correct them. During the earthly ministry of Jesus, the Son of God, he prayed for his disciples’ adherence to the truth at the same time as he prayed for their unity: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). In the larger context, Jesus makes clear that he revealed God’s message to his disciples, and he has protected them while he was with them (17:8, 12). He also makes clear that he is not praying only for his immediate disciples, but for those who would believe in Christ through their message as well (17:20). And Jesus promised to his followers the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13). But lest anyone think that the Spirit’s coming is to compensate for the loss of Christ, our Lord himself promised his continuing presence with his people, immediately after commanding them to pass on his teaching: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). The preservation of truth is a Trinitarian initiative in light of continuing divine presence.
The Tools to Hand
But God is typically pleased to use means to accomplish his purposes. What means are available for this purpose? More than can be enumerated!
On the side of revelation, how do new people come to learn of the truth of God’s message? He gave us reasoning and intellect, so that we can come to understand truth better and spot falsehood when we see it. He gave us a natural world which speaks of his character and power (Romans 1:20). Even more clearly than the book of creation, he gave us the book of special revelation, in which God inspired human authors to record his message for us to understand. Since it was written down, it can be read and learned even by those who come across it without having first met a Christian. He also brought believers together into the Church, “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), so that new people can learn from those who already believe. In fact, Paul mentioned passing on his message to believers (1 Cor 15:3) and commanded Timothy to do likewise, entrusting his message to those who could be trusted (2 Tim 2:2). There are others, but these are the ones most commonly cited.
All of these means of revelation can also be used to correct false belief, and thus maintain true belief. Our intellects can spot inconsistencies, and truth is inconsistent with falsehood. False beliefs about God may be revealed as such by incongruity with the natural world which we observe. Even more clearly, the Bible can make known to us our false beliefs. And when we disagree with other Christians, we have the opportunity to learn if in fact our belief on this point is erroneous through comparing notes. There are many means used by God to preserve the saving truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At this point, some people may raise the objection: “But, um, these means you enumerate – aren’t they all fallible? I mean, reasoning is dandy, but people persuade themselves of all sorts of falsehoods. People justify all kinds of crazy stuff by appealing to nature. And people misread the Bible all the time. And this isn’t just outside the Church: Christians of all denominations believe some strange and often idiosyncratic things! And some of the strangest are ascribed by Christians to the presence of the Holy Spirit revealing these things to them. So how does God use these fallible means to preserve the truth?”
The essence of this objection is that our access to God’s revelatory tools is not usually immediate, but is mediated. I presume God in his omnipotence could force us to believe any particular thing, but the means he typically uses are more subtle than that, and must contend with our own fallen willfullness. We often mislead ourselves about what God is saying to us. Our access to Scripture is mediated through centuries of textual transmission and layers of translation. (Even for those of us who read it in the original languages, these are not our native languages, and we are not in the cultural contexts where the text was revealed, and so we tend to view the meaning of the Bible through our own cultural lenses and the tradition of interpretation we have received.) This mediation allows scope for us to convince ourselves of the meanings we wish were true. We have direct access to nature, and to reason, to a degree. But from birth we have been conditioned by those around us to interpret reason and nature in certain ways, some of which are contrary to God’s revealed truths, and the largest part of our understandings about reason and nature is not derived from our own experience, but from what we have heard from those around us. And both nature and reason are more ambiguous, because more indirect, in what they reveal about God, again, giving us sinful people more scope for self-delusion. Even authoritative pronouncements by church leaders are subject to misunderstanding, because their meaning is not transmitted directly to us, but is expressed in the fallible medium of language. Too often, we believe what we want to believe.
Redemption in Action
If the problem with preserving truth is our human sinfulness, of which even death is a consequence, then the solution is Christ’s redemption. We are sinners, but God is transforming us through his Holy Spirit into the likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who died to purchase forgiveness for our sins. That transformation progressively conforms our will to that of our Savior, making us desire to learn and hold onto God’s truth. God’s presence is a necessary precondition to preserving the truth, because it is a necessary precondition for our sanctification, and we will preserve the truth only to the degree that we submit to the true God. And the visible Church will preserve the truth only to the degree that we all, collectively, submit to the true God.
Because revelation is a communicative act, we may draw an analogy from the miracle of communication. There, many fallible mechanisms are used to express a meaning, each of which can easily fail. But taken together, with the redundancy inherent in communication, we manage to communicate. And we do so all the time, continuously, coherently, and confidently. Similarly here: God uses many different mechanisms to communicate his truth to us. In our sinfulness we often resist the message, because we often don’t like it. (We can drop the cant that “Christianity is comforting”; most people find it offensive to their sense of self-importance!) Yet God uses many redundant means to communicate, and he is able to communicate effectively. By his grace, we can receive and be confident of the truth revealed to us. By his grace, his saving truth is preserved from the spiritual forces of evil and selfish pride.
The prime threat to the preservation of Christian truth is human sin. That is also the prime threat to our eternal well-being. But that threat is no stranger to God, who has provided a way to deal with sins through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. That redemptive act is confirmed by his resurrection from the dead. God deals with sin very effectively, and he provides multiple means to communicate his saving message to us. We resist that message in various ways, and yet the redundancy he provides manages to communicate his truth. We are responsible for our own response, but we can be confident in the revelation we have received, because he is present and is personally guaranteeing the truth of the message. God is here; we must worship him.