BIBLE & THEOLOGY | ATTRIBUTES OF GOD: TRUTH
In their Salvation Army Theology class, the Proclaimers of the Resurrection were asked to complete an assignment regarding the attributes of God. Realizing that the Christian faith portrays God with many names, concepts and images, cadets were asked to chose an attribute of God and indicate within their writing: A) How this aspect of God is evident in Scripture, B) How has the tradition of the universal church expressed this attribute of God, C) In what ways is this attribute of God significant within our culture, and D) what difference this attribute might make in regards to the cadet’s personal view of Salvationist leadership.
What follows is Cadet Ruth Hickman’s paper entitled: Attributes of God: Truth.
The phrase “God is Truth” holds a lot of weight. Truth is a concept that, for untruthful humanity, is very difficult to grasp. Imagine a common household scene: A mother looks from the shattered pieces of her priceless vase to her two children, each pointing directly at the other. Recognizing the dilemma of the situation she says in a firm voice, “I want to know the truth.” What she means, of course, is that she wants to know in detail the real events that occurred and resulted in her vase lying in pieces on the floor. The mother in this scene does not desire the story that will sit best with her, nor will she accept opposing stories as relative truths. Rather, she is seeking the agreement and consistency associated with absolute truth. But without the aid of some sort of recording device, she is quite unlikely to receive from her children two accounts that are in agreement with each other and the physical evidence displayed on the floor.
According to the Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible, truth is defined as “faithfulness to an original or to a standard.” The truth the mother seeks must, therefore be accurate according to the reality of the moments previous. She is seeking facts, not opinion, and they must correspond to the actual events that took place. The truth the mother is seeking is parallel to the truth for which humanity has searched from the beginning of existence. Simply put, this truth is found in God alone.
J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig write that “God’s self-revelation in Scripture is obviously paramount in understanding what God is like.” In English translations of the Bible the word “truth” is used to describe God frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. In the original texts, however, “truth” is translated from a few different words. The Hebrew of the Old Testament uses the word ’emeth and the Greek of the New Testament (primarily) uses the word alēthĕia. These terms, though both translated as truth in English, have slightly different meanings but complement each other, bringing the truth of God into better understanding.
The Hebrew word ’emeth defines truth as the fulfillment of God’s promise. Exodus 34:6 tells the reader that God is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and [’emeth].” (KJV) In the King James Version ’emeth is translated as “truth,” but the New International Version seems to better capture the essence of the word, translating it as “faithfulness”. According to J. Carl Laney, this passage indicates that “[God] is forever reliable, [His] word can be trusted, [His] promises will always be fulfilled”. Again Psalm 57:3 refers to the truth of God, this time linking it with His mercy: “God shall send forth his mercy and his [’emeth].” (KJV) English synonyms for ’emeth are sureness, reliability, and stability. Not only does this verse emphasize God’s truth as faithfulness, but it also demonstrates agreement within God’s nature in that the verse suggests that His mercy is also sure, reliable, and stable.
The Greek New Testament sheds further light on the reader’s understanding of the truth of God. John 1:17 reads, “grace and [alēthĕia] came through Jesus Christ.” (NIV) The word alēthĕia is defined as “what is true in any matter under consideration.” That is, the truth of God present in Jesus Christ is not only faithful to a standard, but is itself the standard. John 3:21 reads, “But whoever lives by [alēthĕia] comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (NIV) According to this verse, the truth of God is not confined to Himself; rather, He works truth – that which is always considered true – through His people. Donald G. Bloesch cautions, however, that, “The Christian is always in the position of ‘having and not having’ the truth, since reason cannot penetrate the paradox of God becoming human in Jesus Christ.” Humanity is, therefore, solely dependent on God’s revelation of Himself for understanding of truth.
Particularly in the New Testament, God’s attribute of truth is assigned freely to God in the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In fact, truth is revealed as God reveals Himself in each of these persons. In John 17:3 it is seen that eternal life is found in the true God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. In this passage, the word “true” is translated from the Greek word alēthinos which shares its root word (alēthēs) with alēthĕia and means “that which has… the real nature.” Similarly, John 16:13 declares that when “the Spirit of [alēthĕia], comes, he will guide you into all [alēthĕia]. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.”(NIV) Clearly, there is agreement within the Trinity – each person of God is indwelt by truth and reveals that truth to humanity. It has been written, even, that “Jesus and the revelation which the Spirit of truth gave through His apostles are the final, ultimate revelation and definition of truth about God, man, redemption, history, and the world.”
God’s final and ultimate revelation of Himself, including His attribute of truth, were given in Jesus and through the Apostles and is recorded in the Scriptures. Over the past 2000 years, however, the concept that God is truth has been explored and presented through church tradition. Three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Christ, Christian leaders came together to begin ironing out the theology of the church. The document formed was the Nicene Creed and it outlined the Christian Trinity belief. In the above exploration of truth in scripture it was seen that the true God reveals Himself and His truth in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, demonstrating agreement within the Trinity. The Nicene Creed has brought this idea into the tradition of the church, stating that Jesus Christ is “of one substance with the Father” and that the Holy Spirit is “Lord and Giver of life.” Alan Torrance writes that the church, in fact, has no reason to exist outside of the fact that Jesus is more than a good person, teacher, prophet or example, but is “the very presence of God… revealing himself to humanity.” Though the Creed does not overtly label the Holy Spirit as God, it implies such by attributing to Him the act of life-giving which, according to Thomas Smail, is “a divine prerogative.”
As church tradition continued to develop throughout the Middle Ages and Reformation the use of hymns became common in worship and teaching. The practice of singing theology continues to today in corporate worship services and The Salvation Army songbook includes several that demonstrate the theology and concept that God is truth. “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is a song written by the great reformer Martin Luther in the early 16th century. The song concludes with a firm grounding in the eternal nature of truth in God: “God’s truth abideth still,/ His Kingdom is for ever.” In another example, George Washington Doene composed a song that, speaking of Jesus, says, “Thou art the truth; thy word alone/ True wisdom can impart.” Again, Jesus is given the attribute of truth which puts him in agreement with the truth of God. The Holy Spirit is also attributed with truth in church tradition. This is exemplified in a 19th century song by Samuel Longfellow; it reads, “Holy Spirit, truth divine,/ Draw upon this soul of mine;/ Word of God and inward light,/ Wake my spirit, clear my sight.”
Interestingly, there are very few modern Christian songs that overtly express God’s attribute of truth. This may be in part because of the prevalent cultural ideology of postmodernism which “rejects the existence of truth.” As seen above, scripture assumes that “truth is a matter of a proposition (belief, thought, statement, representation) corresponding to reality.” Under the present popular cultural understanding, “a claim is true relative to the beliefs or valuations of an individual or group that accepts it.” Therefore, suggesting that God is truth is only suggesting that God is true for those who want Him to be; otherwise, God’s “truth” is irrelevant.
This notion entered into theological circles in the mid-20th century. Gavin Drew writes that “‘existential’ theologians agreed that Christian faith is not about matters of public truth – rather it is a matter of private, individual, significance.” Christian faith – that is the belief in the Triune God and His salvation for humanity – declared “private” lends quickly to the belief that a private God is private truth: fully subjective to the individual. The present Catholic Pope has written that Christian belief in present culture looks like “a demand to bind oneself to yesterday and to affirm it as eternally valid.” In a culture where so much value is given to progress, being bound to a concept of the past is stifling.
Is it possible then for the truth of God to be absolute and objective in present culture without being outdated or irrelevant? Tony L. Richie writes that “God’s spirit can and does graciously impart real [absolute] truth to us.” Not only was God’s revelation of His truth active historically, but it is active today. The idea that God is truth simply is not outdated because it is actively faithful to the original or standard established within God, Himself. Richie further suggests that Christians can humbly hold to the absolute truth of God while engaging in interreligious conversation by employing the Wesleyan concept of agape; that is, “the conceptualization of that truth in an effort to establish a deeper unity of affection.” Even secular communities thrive on unity of affection, so as long as humanity exists in community the objective truth of God lived out will be relevant.
The Salvation Army is rooted in Wesleyan theology. Its mission, as outlined by General Shaw Clifton is:
… to minister to a fallen world through the preaching of salvation and sanctification according to the Word of God and also through practical compassionate outreach, bringing relief for human suffering wherever and whenever possible, doing so in the name of Jesus, without precondition and without discrimination.
The Salvationist, therefore, is to practice the agape described in Wesleyan terms as the conceptualization of absolute truth. To say it another way, the ministry of the Salvation Army ought to be the manifestation of God’s revelation of Himself and His truth to His followers. Be it in preaching or outreach, the Salvationist is to express the truth of God that has been lovingly revealed to him or her with generosity.
In the matter of preaching and teaching, it would be prudent for an officer of The Salvation Army to be mindful of the two concepts of God’s truth portrayed in scripture: ’emeth and alēthĕia. God faithfully keeps His promises and God is true under all circumstances. 1 John 4:1 tells its reader to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” (NIV) If a concept or ideology suggests that God does not keep his promises or it is not in agreement with the nature of God as revealed in scripture, then preaching or teaching the concept or ideology is equivalent to false teaching. It is when leaders in the church teach falsities that the concept of absolute truth is reduced to relativism.
Finally, the church has a rich tradition that is full of theology that emphasizes God’s attribute of truth. It would be wise for an officer to draw on this tradition in worship, teaching, and community building in order to lead his or her fellowship into deeper understanding of and relationship with God. John 18 records Jesus’ words: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (NRSV) The Salvation Army officer’s primary goal should be to glorify God, and then to disciple people that they may belong to the truth and listen to the voice of God – the voice of truth – rather than ask in vain, “What is truth?” as Pilot did before washing his hands of Christ’s crucifixion.
So, what is the truth? According to scripture God is truth. He is the original and the standard and all that He is and does is in agreement with His nature. It is not accurate to say that there is some truth in God, or that God can be true if it feels good for an individual. God simply is truth. His promises are fulfilled and He is true in all circumstances and this has been acknowledged in church tradition from its birth. In fact, the truth of God has continued to influence worship and ministry for two thousand years and this is seen in the Spirit-led ministry of believers across denomination, though The Salvation Army in its Wesleyan roots plays a special role in living out the truth of God through the Spirit.
God fully defines absolute, objective truth in Himself, reveals it in the person of Jesus, and allows it to penetrate humanity through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is the answer to the demanding question, “What is the truth?”
To see “Works Cited” and Footnotes click here.
Cadet Ruth Hickman is a part of the Proclaimers of the Resurrection session, along with her husband Peter. They have two children, Vivian and Levi.
Ruth’s lovely smile brightens our day!