Truth and Apologetics

Subjectivism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, multiculturalism—there is a blight on scholarly research today, cast by the epistemic “isms.”

No field is safe. Even in physics, the “isms” are attempting to spin every idea as nothing more than one person’s opinion or the accidental product of historical evolution. Physicist Alan Sobel exposed this effort when he sent a carefully crafted article designed to make no sense at all to a major postmodernist journal. He dressed it up with highfalutin physics terms and some glaring errors about the physicist’s view of the world. The editors rushed to publish the piece, only to have Professor Sobel expose their blunder in a letter he published immediately thereafter in the well-respected journal Science. Postmodernists were stung by Sobel’s deliberate and revealing hoax, and so they attacked his ethics (failing to notice their own exposure as charlatans).

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But if the world of “isms” has contaminated the scientific spheres, how much more vulnerable are the matters of theology, which make even stronger claims to truth with less reliance on publicly accessible evidence? No one can engage in theology—especially Christian apologetics—without some implicit notion of truth illuminating the effort. With the exception of a few sophisticated philosophers of Christianity such as Richard Swinebourne, most apologetics are presented without any conscious attention to a theory of truth.

To the lay reader it may sound odd to speak of a theory of truth. Isn’t truth obvious enough?

Unfortunately, it is not. Truth—like fairness and reality and many of the other predicates we take for granted—is much more complicated than it first appears. There are very good reasons why the skeptical argument against truth has perennially raised its head since the days of ancient Greece. Securing certainty for truth-claims is all but impossible. Of course, the skeptic’s criticisms themselves must rely on some notion of truth (only refuting themselves in the end).


What Is Truth?

To move beyond the cycle of endless criticism and rebuke, philosophers make a distinction between epistemic questions (which are about what we can know) and the ontological nature of truth (the relationship between a statement and what it purports to be about).

There are essentially four theories of truth currently fashionable, and many other eclectic positions too numerous to list. The four major theories are:

•  Subjectivism: This includes postmodernism, deconstructionism, and multiculturalism. In the end, all subjectivist positions settle on the idea that truth is whatever humans think it is at the moment.

•  Deflationary theory: This claims that “true” and its derivatives cannot be properly predicated of any statement since there is no such thing as the property or quality of being true.

•  Coherence theory: This amounts to the claim that true statements are those that best fit in with some other set of statements already regarded as true.

•  Correspondence theory: This position holds that there is a match between how the world is and a statement representing that part of reality.

The first two theories can be disposed of without much ado. As Michael P. Lynch has argued inTrue to Life, each reduces to a sort of nihilism and makes truth a fruitless pursuit and topic of discussion. The irony, of course, is that nihilism can only support itself by relying on some criteria that implicitly acknowledge the objective assessment that some claims are better than others. In any case, no one doing Christian apologetics can get very far relying on a vision of truth that is so self-defeating.

The coherence theory is perhaps the most common in Christian apologetics, since so much of it depends on accommodating all that is written in the Bible. There are many fine apologists who implicitly rely on the coherence theory of truth, such as Evangelical journalist Lee Strobel. Take for example Strobel’s defense of Christ’s appearances following the resurrection. He accepts as given the biblical text that portrays the apostles as timid in general, and even more so following the crucifixion. Each became bold in his subsequent missionary work for Christ, and that cannot be accounted for in any other way than that something significant moved them to action. Strobel reasons that the only thing with sufficient power to animate these fearful followers of Christ must be precisely what the writers of the Gospels and subsequent epistles claim: that Christ appeared to them and told them to reap His fields.

In short, Strobel gets at truth by showing the reader that what should merit allegiance is that which seems most credible as an explanation. And what seems most credible as an explanation depends on what else is presumed to be uncontroversially given.

Since the coherence theory focuses on the extent to which a statement fits in with other statements already believed true, it risks being accused of securing internal consistency at the expense of an accurate portrayal of the world. This risk is especially disarming in Christian apologetics since the apologist is addressing the most critical matters of truth that the human mind will ever encounter.

Furthermore, the cost of having a consistent system that contains significant errors is intolerably high when it comes to Christian apologetics, even if it results in an easily understood and believable account of God’s way in the world. Christian apologetics is not about making human sense of God, but about accepting that some things may be fundamentally mysterious (the Trinity, for example).

The fourth and final major theory of truth is the correspondence approach. The correspondence theorist is unwilling to construe truth in terms of human utility but will settle for nothing less than a match between statement and reality. While matters of utility are not inconsequential to correspondence theorists, they reserve the term “truth” only for instances of a match between a statement and what actually exists in the world. Consider Einstein’s mathematical statement of general relativity, E=mc 2 . Assuming this statement to be true, it must be recognized that it was true before anyone ever realized that it matched the world as it is. The truth of the matter is separate and apart from any human knower grasping that truth. The lack of utility for any given person has nothing to do with the statement’s truth value.

In his book Science and Providence , physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne notes that he is a realist as much in science as he is in theology and Christian apologetics. Realists are usually correspondence theorists, and so it is with him.

Gerald Schroeder too is a correspondence theorist; he is also a physicist and a lay Torah scholar. In his books Genesis and the Big Bang and The Science of God , Schroeder shows that the story of Genesis anticipated modern cosmological accounts of the evolution of the universe. This is not to say that both accounts tell exactly the same story, but that neither misrepresents reality.

This claim isn’t overly exotic. For example, saying, “The foot race is ten kilometers long” is as true as saying, “The race is no more than 6.2 miles.” Not only is the language describing measurement different, but the nature of each claim is different as well. Nevertheless, since neither statement misrepresents reality, each can legitimately be said to correspond to that same reality.

The correspondence theorist is presumably willing to live with a fragmented account of reality as long as what is taken to be known is true. In contrast, the coherence theorist avoids fragmentation at all costs and works at creating truth out of whole cloth, even if the connective stitching at times looks suspiciously sparse.


The Search for Religious Truth

By identifying truth with statements that mirror the world, correspondence theorists set an ideal of what Christian apologetics should seek to achieve. But have the correspondence theorists set the bar too high?

Critics charge that if humans can never know whether they have identified truth, then the concept of truth is nothing but a useless abstraction. On the other hand, it is surely more reasonable to conclude that there are words on the page you are now reading rather than suppose your mind has been captured in the mass of delusions created by some Matrix (or Descartes’s Evil Genius). Some statements simply deserve to be taken at face value—for example, that there is a Person who hears the prayers of penitents. Nevertheless, the correspondence theory needs some assistance.

Demanding that true statements mirror the world may be asking too much. One might more modestly suggest that true statements merely “map onto” the world.

Maps—like statements—are representations of a piece of reality. Maps, for example, may be true representations of a terrain (one can have a relief map showing gradations of elevation, and do so accurately). Depending on the scale of the map, indicators of small streams and farm ponds may be omitted. This does not mean the map is in error. A more detailed map will carry more information, but both are true insofar as each is free of any misrepresentation .

Statements represent reality much the same way maps do. They lead anyone who knows the language to focus on what is represented. If the statement maps onto reality without error then it is said to be true regardless of how much or little information that statement may carry.

Furthermore, if a representation of the world contains more information than another, that doesn’t make it more true . Truth, from the correspondence sense, exists or doesn’t exist; there are no degrees of truth. “Mapping onto the world” means only that true statements are free of evident error.

One way of detecting such error is to determine whether the truth of one statement contradicts the statement in question. Herein the strategy of the coherence theorist becomes relevant—not as a way of ensuring truth, but rather as a way of creating suspicion when and where it is appropriate. This use of coherence does not verify truth, but it should cause suspension of any assignment of truth to what previously appeared to be a self-evident statement.

For example, the resurrection of Christ’s body may appear as a self-evident truth to anyone who has sincerely prayed to the risen Christ. However, to assure that one is not deluded it is relevant to Christian apologetics to review what is written about the apostles’ behavior after the death of Christ. As it turns out, the accounts of the Bible do nothing to raise suspicion about the truth of Christ’s rising from the grave. The truth of Christ’s resurrection is not laid open to doubt by biblical accounts already held to be true. This use of coherence as a sensor for incidents of error does not make one a coherence theorist per se . Rather, it shows that a robust approach to Christian apologetics should rely on such strategies to relieve unwarranted grounds for suspicion. Moreover, this coherence strategy recognizes the legitimacy and utility of apologetic styles, such as those of Strobel.

In this modified approach to the correspondence ideal, there is no demand for isomorphic mirroring. Consequently, it allows—and even encourages—respect for more than one plausible statement as mapping onto a single piece of reality (and yet does not set truth loose as but one opinion among many). Moreover, the subsequent coherent screening keeps apologists alert to the need for statements that not only map onto reality but that are also accessible to a community of thinkers.

In Christian apologetics, the ideal is to get God’s story straight. The apologist stands in the public forum, working to free people from unwarranted suspicions that may keep them from God. While apologetics must aim at truth, it must also recognize the vulnerabilities of the human knowing mechanism. Souls depend on it.


  • Paul A. Wagner

    Paul A. Wagner is a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

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