Fighting Truth Decay

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.

Objection!

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.

Conclusion

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.

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8 comments

  1. Hello!

    Sorry, I only just saw the notification re this post. In response, I guess there are two things that I would have to say:

    1. Although you have correctly described the need we have for purification (of the will as well as the intellect) in order to receive God’s Truth and allow it to change us etc, this seems to only describe our response to revelation, and not how God might preserve those ‘true beliefs’. It is very true that human sin prevents us from accepting truths about God, etc, once we engage with them, but this doesn’t really say much about the means God might have employed to ensure that what what we engage with is indeed The Truth.

    In the section ‘The Tools to Hand’, you mention the various means God uses to accomplish His purposes, but then immediately afterwards state that because these are mediations, the truths they enshrine couldn’t possibly be preserved infallibly. Again, our RESPONSE to the truths we receive is indeed fallible in each individual case, but is it therefore beyond God’s power to ensure that the Church as a whole preserves the truths that are revealed infallibly?

    2. Secondly, if the primary means God uses to preserve His truths is in our sanctification, does this not lead to a situation where only those who are ‘further on’ in the spiritual life can be said to know His truths clearly – i.e.; does it not lead to a ‘Church of the pure’ or an assembly of the perfect situation? It certainly seems to me to lead in that direction.

    Contrary to this, the claim of the Church has been that DESPITE the fact that it consists of sinners (as well as saints of course), it is the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in her midst that ensures Truth is preserved infallibly, so that, regardless of how imperfectly we respond to revelation, we can be sure that what we are engaging with is something we can trust.

    1. Welcome back! I’m glad you found time to reply to my answer.

      1. What does it mean to preserve “true beliefs” if not within the minds of believers? God’s own beliefs/knowledge need no preservation, and beliefs have no existence independent of minds. They are not somewhere “out there” for us to engage with, where they might need to be preserved. We engage with beliefs in our own reflection, which is the only theater in which beliefs may be “preserved” or not. God uses many means to confront us with the truth, as I discussed in the post.

      Is it beyond God’s power to prevent the Church from communicating anything but the truth? (I would rephrase your question, I hope fairly, in this manner, which would also be more consistent with the Roman Catholic doctrine of infallibility.) Not at all; I would think of this by analogy with Scripture, where I believe he did restrain human authors from expressing falsehoods. But in the case of the Church, he has clearly not chosen to do so. All Christians, and all denominations, have communicated things which are not true. Very few people would dispute that.

      Traditionalist Roman Catholics maintain the notion that their Church does not teach anything untrue by applying an artificial set of constraints which have nothing to do with whether the Church representative is at that moment teaching or not. In the case of the doctrine of papal infallibility, whether particular pronouncements or documents fulfill those requirements is sufficiently unclear that traditionalists debate which statements qualify as infallible. I believe Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam satisfies all the requirements of papal infallibility, and yet teaches the contrary of contemporary Roman Catholic doctrine regarding the possibility of salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, it seems to me, Roman Catholic doctrine has changed. In order to circumvent this charge, I have heard some traditionalist Roman Catholics deny that Unam Sanctam fulfills the conditions of infallibility, and I have read others argue that it does, but magically means the direct contrary of what it says (the latter was Jimmy Akin’s approach). I have yet to find any interpretation of that particular text consistent with the doctrine of papal infallibility which is not special pleading.

      In a sense, one might think it miraculous that there are not many more examples of papal doctrinal fallibility, although among the people who framed and debated the doctrine were some very astute church historians. And I have no trouble believing that God in his mercy sometimes prevents Christian leaders, such as popes, from saying horribly false things; I just see evidence that he has chosen not to do so all the time.

      2. I don’t think any of us knows God’s truths fully, and in the case of the really fascinating truths about the divine nature (e.g. the Trinity), I don’t think we can ever know them fully, for the created mind cannot encompass the creator. That said, all of us who are taught by the Holy Spirit progressively understand God’s truths more clearly. But we are not saved by the degree of clarity of our knowledge of the truth! That’s gnosticism. Since the Church of Christ is not composed of those people who know a certain amount of the truth with a certain degree of clarity, the notion of God preserving our knowledge of the truth through sanctifying us in no way leads to a notion of an “assembly of the perfect.”

      I would agree with a statement very close to what you present as “the claim of the Church”: “despite the fact that the Church consists of sinners as well as saints, it is the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in her midst that ensures that Truth is communicated to people.” But given the debates which rage among Roman Catholics about what is and is not infallible Roman Catholic teaching (including which pronouncements, as well as the meaning of certain pronouncements), the notion that Roman Catholics “can be sure that what we are engaging with is something we can trust” is ludicrous. Traditionalist Roman Catholics are always arguing whether what they are engaging with is something that can be trusted, and in this they have no advantage over Protestants. At least the Orthodox say that all interesting theological questions were answered at least half a millennium ago, and so all modern theological debates are by definition uninteresting to them! I don’t think the Orthodox are correct in that attitude, but their argument has a degree of plausibility which is impossible for the corresponding Roman Catholic argument.

      1. Thanks for your reply!

        In response, I’ll start with the second point first – the issue of whether God’s means of preserving truth by progressive sanctification of believers might lead to an ‘assembly of the perfect’.

        The fact that the Church does not SOLELY consist of people who know the truth with greater clarity than others is not the point. Your model of truth-preservation leads (I think) inevitably to a situation where those who have understood the truth clearly (though not exhaustively – as you rightly say, our finite minds cannot ever comprehend God fully) will be the means of preserving that truth, and so will lead to an assembly of the perfect WITHIN the Church. Perhaps a better description would be that we would rely on a ‘magisterium of the perfect’, though not one ever defined as such.

        Also, I fully agree we are not saved by what we know – this is indeed gnosticism, and I hope I didn’t suggest that this is where your argument leads, as I certainly don’t think it does.

        As for the first point, yes I agree that true beliefs are held in the minds of believers, but we first receive those beliefs (the Deposit of Faith) from elsewhere, and that deposit is not just in the minds of believers but has been known collectively, passed down, codified, interpreted, etc. It is in this latter process where we need to be assured of how well truth has been preserved, so that when we respond to it we know it IS the truth we are responding to, not an approximation of such, or even a corrupted version of it.

        Re Unam Santam, we have been over this topic before, so I wont re-visit the issue here. All I would say is that what you see as special pleading I see as subtle distinctions necessary for preserving the doctrine of papal infallibility, which itself needs to be preserved, or we end up like the Orthodox (unable to develop in response to changing circumstances) or like the Protestant world, dividing into endless numbers of denominations due to a lack of definitive interpretive authority. The definition of papal infallibility itself I would also see in such terms – if God is to ensure infallibility in faith and morals, whilst using fallible human beings to do so, it is clear that this charism will have to be limited to a narrow range of statements, and that they will have to be very subtly defined.

        As for the fact that there is disagreement amongst Catholics as to which statements are infallible (and with respect to many other things), again I really do not see how one can see this as the same thing as the Protestant case. There are points which are, for a Catholic, perfectly legitimate to discuss and disagree about, but the teachings of the Church are very clear, and when a particular stripe of Catholic (ultra-traditionalist, liberal, whatever) disagrees with any of those teachings, they are plainly dissenting. In Protestantism however, there is nothing to dissent against – the wide range of different interpretations of various points of doctrine and morals are all, to a certain extent (obviously some are clearly wackier than others, and plainly out of step with biblical teaching), as valid as one another. In a sense, as soon as one accepts the right to private judgement and interpretation in this area, everyone is a liberal (if you get my meaning).

        1. There are logical problems with any attempt to construct a “magisterium of the perfect” as a doctrine, although in practice it has long been the case that laypeople trusted those who were more evidently holy more than those who were less. That’s one of the reason laypeople in late antiquity usually trusted monks more than their bishops, and monks often weighed in on doctrinal disputes. They were not, however, given a vote at ecumenical councils. If all one were to mean by the view is that, when God uses our fellow Christians to help us understand the truth, he often uses those who know him better than we do, I would think it fine as a general statement. But he sometimes uses Christians who know him less well than we do, and in any event, it is spiritually dangerous to get into a contest about whether I know God better than you do, etc. So I’m not comfortable defending any rigorous notion of a “magisterium of the holier-than-thou.”

          I had forgotten that we had already discussed Unam Sanctam, so I reviewed our discussion there. That makes much more sense about why I insist that there is no propositional truth outside of a mind, while you seem to argue that truth and meaning are “out there” before they come “in here.” To a degree, that’s just a philosophical disagreement we have about the location of meaning. But perhaps I can address your concern if I discuss it in terms of instruments of meaning, spoken or especially written statements intended to convey a particular sense. What instruments of meaning does God use to communicate the truth to us? And rather than speaking of “preserving the truth” (which makes me ask whether it is canned, dried, smoked, or salted; certainly salted), we might ask how God validates these instruments of truth to us. This may be the topic you intended to ask about, but I misunderstood according to my different use of those words.

          But even in these questions, I think what I discussed in this post is relevant. Everything written down before the printing press was copied by hand, and writing any substantial text by hand introduces changes. And biblical manuscripts are no exception; God has allowed scribes to change elements of the text in their copies, accidentally and sometimes intentionally. What I find astonishing is how few of these changes are theologically significant at all, and in every case I have encountered where something is theologically significant, it is either obvious which the correct reading is (the majority of cases), or either plausible option is equally true, being confirmed by other scriptural texts. I love textual criticism, because it gives me a window into how God preserved his infallible written revelation for all generations. God chose not to preserve the exact letters of the text (and hence gimmicks like “the Bible Code” fail), but he has chosen to preserve the meaning of the text.

          But all meaning enters my mind through my interpretation of language, which no merely external source can circumvent. Scripture cannot circumvent our need to interpret it, nor can verbal or written statements from other Christians today, no matter how authoritative they are or claim to be, nor can observation of the natural world. God can circumvent the need to interpret, I suspect, and make himself understood, if desired. But it seems to me that he usually chooses to use a redundancy of communicative mechanisms to confirm to us what we ought to believe. And I think the truths that matter are the simple truths which we see amply attested, and which we generally already know before we are willing to admit to ourselves that we do know them. As C. S. Lewis wrote somewhere, the problem with the Bible is not usually that it is too obscure, but that it is too clear, and we don’t like its meaning.

          Actually, the people I mentioned disagreeing about the identification and meaning of infallible papal pronouncements are not people you would identify as dissenters from the Roman magisterium. Indeed, they are attempting to uphold their understanding of magisterial teaching in simple obedience.

          Out of curiosity, since you acknowledge that papal infallibility is one of these doctrines which needs to be confirmed by magisterial authority, how do you avoid the charge of circularity? What you are saying sounds to me dangerously close to, “We cannot know what to believe about anything except by the infallible teaching of the magisterium. How do we know the magisterium’s teaching authority is infallible? It infallibly tells us so.” Now, such a circularity at least doesn’t suffer from the self-referential incoherence of certain strong versions of sola scriptura, but that’s not much to say in favor of any doctrine. On the other hand, I’m confident that this concern would have suggested itself to someone of your position, so I suspect you have an answer prepared, and I would be curious to hear it.

          Best wishes!

          1. Hello, and thanks for your reply!

            Yes, there are logical problems with this indeed – my point was not that you (or anyone else) should develop a magisterium of the perfect, but that your view of things seems to leadsI thto this in practice. And yes it is spiritually dangerous to get into a debate about how one knows God better than the other, which is precisely why I think God chose to use means that don’t depend upon the holiness of those transmitting His truth – He depends instead upon the means that He instituted (i.e.; the Church and the offices within it), and the work of the Holy Spirit in being able to use those divinely instituted means to preserve Truth despite mankind’s obvious flaws.

            I fully agree about the remarkable preservation of doctrine within Holy Scripture, despite obvious copying errors etc over the years. However, I don’t agree that the Bible’s meaning is always clear (though sometimes it is of course). The central meaning perhaps is, but even this becomes complicated in practice (as any cursory study of theology will show – complex debates emerge because people have been zealous to preserve the simple heart of Christianity; and furthermore, the application of Christian morality is also often complex and needs guidance). Moreover, even the ‘simple’ heart is something that itself rests upon a series of dogmatic positions (e.g.; Jesus is God incarnate; God is a Trinity and God is therefore eternal, ceaseless, self-giving Love; this Love, and Christ’s life, death and resurrection, somehow atone for our sin and His sending of the Holy Spirit sets us on a path of sanctification and renewal where we are enabled to emulate that Love in our own lives) that required complicated discussion, clarification and final formulation. We are committed to dogma whether we like it or not, as it is precisely this that provides the stable, ‘simple’ essence to which we can respond and allow to change us. All this that we presuppose is of course a result of having a Church that can make these decisions, confident that it is speaking in Christ’s name and interpreting revelation correctly.

            It is also of course true that Scripture cannot circumvent our need to interpret it, which is why God did not just give us Scripture, but gave us the Church to speak infallibly upon what the interpretive limits are, and what lenses it should be read through (i.e.; Sacred Tradition). I also believe that He gave us a living interpretive voice, which enabled His Church to develop and deepen its understanding of faith and morals, and to respond to changing cultural circumstances, so that interpretation does not become ossified.

            The key here is in recognising what the Church is – once we recognise it as having an essential visible and institutional dimension, through which it can speak to its members, and to the world, then the acceptance of other statements of infallibility follows – it all flows from knowing what the Church is, Who it speaks for, and where we can find it. This is, I think, how I would respond to your point about the circularity of knowing whether the Church is infallible – one doesn’t do so because the Church says so, but because we make a prior recognition based on the available data (i.e.; by treating the NT as a reliable historical document) that Jesus was who He claimed to be, and that He intended to leave us with some sort of guidance, that would enable us to know His will (within certain limits), by imbuing the Apostles with authority to teach in His name and to pass that authority on to succeeding generations. Once one has determined that this is the case, and that this Church can be located, then trust can be placed in it, and subsequent statements are accepted on the basis we already know the Church to be infallible on these other, prior, grounds.

            One obvious criticism of this is that the individual’s decision-making in this prior process of discerning what the Church is, etc, is itself fallible. In response to this, as I don’t want to take up too much more space, so I shall instead direct you to the following articles, which give a much more thorough response to that objection than I could anyhow. The second link is the most relevant to the question you’ve actually asked, so I recommend reading that first (even though it’s second in the series of posts):

            http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/05/the-tu-quoque/

            http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2011/02/son-of-a-tu-quoque/

            God bless and best wishes too 🙂

  2. P.S. I’ve just realised that I somehow copied and pasted my reply three time (ironically after not wanting to take up too much space!) Sorry about this – I thought that the C+P hadn’t worked the first couple of times, but it seems I just couldn’t see it or something. Very embarrassing – my apologies!

    1. No trouble; I just edited your comment to remove the reduplication, for the ease of readers (I assumed you wouldn’t object). 🙂 As to the content of the your comment, it will be a bit before I have time to respond, but I wished to approve the comment so that others may benefit from your response to me.

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