(Posted in July of 2020)
My thoughts below predate COVID-19, masks, hydroxychloroquine, or churches defying public health emergency orders. Last fall, different controversies were exposing problems in how believers evaluate conflicting claims and decide what to believe.
But those problems are still with us, and the current raft of controversies is exposing them even more painfully.
Many Christians who claim to revere the Bible lack biblical habits for evaluating truth claims and consequently lack skill in judging the ethics of situations in a biblical way. It seems almost ubiquitous now—the habit of putting the political/culture-war lenses on first, and embracing or rejecting claims based solely on source classification (friend or foe). The result is that ideas are accepted uncritically if they’re perceived to be from “our people” and rejected reflexively if they’re seen as from “the other side.”
What’s missing is weighing ideas and claims on their own merits—on things like evidence and sound reasoning. Increasingly, what’s completely missing is any nonpolitical consideration of what Scripture teaches and what sound application requires of us.
More than ever, believers need to meditate on a genuinely Christian view of truth and on a genuinely Christian approach to evaluating truth claims. At least five principles are are fundamental that effort.
Principle 1: Only Scripture is infallible.
Christians understand that God is completely reliable on the subject of reality, which is what I mean here by “truth”—what actually is.
- let God be true though every one were a liar… (ESV, Romans 3:4)
- in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:3)
- “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
- God, who cannot lie (Titus 1:2).
It follows that God’s word is completely reliable in all that it represents as truth.
- Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right; I hate every false way. (Psalm 119:128)
- Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:17)
- And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19)
- All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction (2 Timothy 3:16)
By contrast, human beings are extremely unreliable as sources of truth, not only because we’re deceitful creatures (Jer. 17:9, John 8:44) but because we’re so often wrong even in what we genuinely believe to be true.
How should this shape our habits? It should lead us to view all truth claims as suspect, regardless of how much we want them to be true or are afraid that they’re true—or how much we like the source.
Principle 2: Truth is more powerful than human leaders.
Leaders come and go. Some lead well for years and do a lot of good, only to catastrophically fail and make us question everything they ever taught or supported. Movements and institutions come and go much the same way.
Truth, on the other hand, continues along, unaffected by what we think or claim. And its inherent power is undiminished.
- How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. (Proverbs 16:16)
- and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32)
- Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89)
In the end, truth wins. Given enough time, it tends to win in human history, but even when truth loses the battle for minds in human history, it is, itself, unaltered and will eventually be known to all.
- Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. (Luke12:2)
- So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. (1 Timothy 5:25)
- if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. (Philippians 3:15)
- For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Principle 3: Our sources aren’t always right.
We’re all easily misled into prizing a person or group more than we prize the truth. It’s not hard to see why. We’re wired to adore and bow before a Person who makes no mistakes. But since Jesus Christ is not physically present to respond to current events, we tend to look to other human authorities to tell us what to think—and we take their word as gospel. It’s understandable, but it’s still idolatrous.
Relying on trusted sources is unavoidable, to some extent. Where it goes off the rails is when we forget that “our team” is capable of error, and we fail to examine and test truth claims before accepting them as certain or echoing them as facts.
But even the best of “our guys” are wrong sometimes.
- Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. (John 11:13)
- [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:26)
- But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” (Acts 10:14)
- I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14)
Principle 4: “Their” sources aren’t always wrong.
When “us vs. them” thinking takes over, we not only tend to value group loyalty above truth, but we also tend to value defeating the other team above truth. Both of these are species of idolatry, because pursuing truth is part of our loyalty to Christ. Anything we allow to interfere with that is a displacement of Christ’s agenda for someone else’s agenda.
- We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (2 Corinthians 10:5)
- test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
- But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14)
- The spiritual person judges all things, (1 Corinthians 2:15)
The Scriptures remind us that sometimes truth comes from unexpected places—sometimes from sources that, from our point of view, aren’t reliable.
- Children: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Matthew 11:25)
- The Pharisee, Gamaliel: So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38–39)
- Pagan poets: as even some of your own poets have said (Acts 17:28)
- Rhoda: They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” (Acts 12:15)
- Women who reported the resurrection: … but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:10-11)
Principle 5: We should seek genuine understanding, even of what we reject.
- A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18:2)
- If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (Proverbs 18:13)
- The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, (Proverbs 15:28)
The current state of public discourse is only a recent expression of a long-standing human problem—also a long-standing Christian problem: in our fondness for strife and winning, we don’t go to the trouble to truly understand opposing views. We don’t listen. Listening involves seeking to understand why people think what they think. We often assume their reasons, but how do they explain their reasons?
Two things can happen when we gain understanding of opposing views.
- We may find points of agreement we didn’t know existed.
- We may more effectively refute those views because we’re no longer distorting them or lobbing distraction fallacies at them (“Oh yeah, well what about…”?).
When we understand, we argue less, or we argue more precisely, or both. And this is a desire of all who love truth.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.