Theories of Truth

“Theories of Truth

Let us consider some further disputes that arise in secular philo- sophical epistemology.5 One principal dispute concerns the nature of truth. What is truth? Philosophers have come up with several competing theories of truth. There are also variations within each of the main theories. We will confine ourselves to basic issues, ig- noring variations and other complexities, in order to illustrate the difference between Frame’s multiperspectival approach and the main secular approaches.

The main theories about truth are the correspondence theory, the pragmatic theory, and the coherence theory of truth. According to the correspondence theory, a statement is true “if it corresponds to the way things really are.”6 For example, it is true that theft is wrong only because theft is actually wrong.

Next, according to the pragmatic theory, a statement is true if it “works,” that is, if it leads consistently to good results in practice for those who hold it to be true. According to this theory, believing that theft is wrong has good results (in restraining thievery and in giving people grounds for punishing thieves). That is why it is true. Pragmatists usually say that success must be long-run suc- cess. They realize that a particular belief could lead to a series of short-range successes and still fail later on.

Finally, according to the coherence theory, a statement is true if it “coheres with” and is consistent with the other beliefs that a person holds. Theft is wrong because it fits in with a larger system of moral beliefs, including general principles (such as “do to oth- ers as you would have them do to you”), practical benefits (it helps social well-being), and movements of conscience.

In evaluating these theories, we may note first that, in their usual form, they fail to distinguish between God and creatures. And that is a major failure, typical of philosophical reasoning ori- ented to an autonomous conception of reason. All three theories essentially assume a non-Christian view of epistemological im- manence by implying that humanity, and not God, functions as the sole reference point for discussing truth. Allegedly, theft is wrong merely because “reality” as experienced by human beings in some fashion is that way, or because human beings find that it works, or because it fits other human beliefs. Apparently, God does not matter.

The theories are in danger of assuming a non-Christian view of transcendence as well, since the formulations of the theories leave God out. God, by implication, is irrelevant. He is “distant” and uninvolved (which is the non-Christian view of transcendence).

From a Christian point of view, we should say that there are two forms of correspondence theory. In a non-Christian version, truth corresponds to a state of affairs in the world, in virtual indepen- dence of God. According to this version, theft is wrong because it is actually wrong “out there.” The state of affairs is treated as if it were “brute fact” or self-sufficient fact, instead of being dependent on the mind and plan of God. But this version leads to a difficulty, because no human being is able to achieve a transcendent view- point, a viewpoint encompassing (1) himself and his statement, (2) the reality of the fact, and (3) the correspondence between (1) and (2). How can a non-Christian know the correspondence itself, or even talk about it, without leaping out of his skin and pretend- ing to have a transcendent, godlike viewpoint? Moreover, since the fact in question (for example, the fact that theft is wrong) is treated as independent of God, it is completely impersonal, and one cannot know that it actually has the character that would allow it to be digested by a person.

By contrast, in a Christian version of the correspondence theory, what is true for human beings corresponds to what is true accord- ing to the mind of God, and God’s knowledge is the standard for truth. Theft is wrong because it is wrong in God’s mind, according to God’s moral judgment. God’s knowledge must be distinguished from human knowledge. Human beings can know truth (accord- ing to the principle of God’s immanence), but they do not know everything; they are situationally limited. In addition, they do not serve as the ultimate standard; they are normatively limited. Fi- nally, they do not know in the same way that God does; they are existentially limited.

If there were no God, the limitations in human beings would threaten to undermine knowledge. How could anyone know that theft is wrong? Their knowledge might fail because of the situation. Might there not be some special obscure situation, unknown to them, that would be an exception to the general principle that theft is wrong? Their knowledge might fail because the norm escapes them. If they know a moral norm imperfectly, might there not be a norm above the norm, so to speak, that specifies some exceptions about theft? And knowledge might fail because of existential limi- tations. Might not human beings’ consciences be skewed, so that they cannot see properly whether theft is wrong?

God, by contrast, knows everything, is authoritative in his knowledge, and knows existentially as the ultimate personal knower. He does not have the human limits. If God makes his will known in Scripture, and if in addition we have some general rev- elation from him through human conscience and circumstances, we can lean on his infinite knowledge and on his gracious provision for us. By this means we have an answer to the suspicions that the limited character of our knowledge undermines all knowledge.

Next, there are two forms of pragmatic theory. The non- Christian version looks only at what “works” for limited human purposes within this life, and considers only what “works” for man and not for God. A Christian version distinguishes God and man. All of what God knows harmonizes with what he achieves, and he always achieves what he purposes to achieve. So all the truth that God knows “works” for God.

Human beings, as usual, do not serve as an ultimate standard. But what works for human beings can be defined as what works in the long run, and the long run includes the last judgment and the consummation of all things. Then, in the presence of God and under the inspection of his judgment, we will see what beliefs from this life “work” in the sense that they pass God’s judgment. This principle has an obvious application to the question of whether theft is wrong. The idea that theft is wrong works at the last judg- ment, because at the last judgment God confirms it.

Finally, consider the two forms of the coherence theory of truth. In the non-Christian version, truth means coherence with a per- son’s other beliefs. But this makes truth relative to the person. Since God has been removed from the picture, there is no transcen- dent God who can serve as a superhuman standard and judge between the claims from two different persons, each of whom claims to have coherent beliefs within his own system.

In a Christian version of coherence theory, we distinguish God from human beings. All truth coheres perfectly within the mind of God and among the three persons of the Trinity. Christ is the truth and is self-coherent and self-consistent. Human belief about a particular truth should indeed cohere with other beliefs if those beliefs also are true. God created us in such a way that we sift through truth claims partly on the basis of a background of other beliefs. But since human beings are not the ultimate standard for truth, we cannot merely assume that all the other beliefs that a particular human being has will always be true.

Among those beliefs, however, there is knowledge of the true God, according to Romans 1:19–21. Unbelievers “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Consequently, all unbelieving thought is in- coherent. For example, thieves are incoherent in their conviction that their own theft is okay; their conviction does not match their knowledge of God, which they are suppressing. A thorough coher- ence would include not only coherence with all that a person con- sciously knows about God, but also coherence with God himself, whom the person knows. In other words, it would be coherence with all the truth of God. Of course, human beings do not know all these truths, and within this life they do not achieve perfect co- herence. But a thorough coherence, including coherence with God himself, would guarantee the truth of the particular belief that a person initially singled out for inspection.

A Christian, then, can have a Christian version of all three theo- ries at once. How can that be? The three theories are perspectives on one another.

  • The correspondence theory expresses the normative perspec- tive. Truth in God’s mind is the norm for sifting truth as we conceive it. Our ideas are true if they correspond to the norm in God’s mind.
  • The pragmatic theory expresses the situational perspective. Truth makes a difference in results in the world, which is the natural focus of the situational perspective.
  • The coherence theory expresses the existential perspective. It focuses on what persons believe in their personal commitments. That focus is existential, personal. Because all human beings know God, coherence implies that beliefs must cohere with the personal mind of God, and when they do, they are sound and cohere within the minds of individuals as well.

The normative, existential, and situational perspectives inter- lock. They lead to one another rather than being in competition or excluding one another as irreconcilable alternatives. We cannot operate without beliefs. And beliefs always rely on a deep sense of reliability: reliability of ourselves and our minds, reliability of the world, and reliability of norms from God. Neither can we hold beliefs or grow in beliefs in a sound way without interacting with the world and thereby seeing what “works.” When we see what is working, it is still we who see it; and we are responsible, subject to the norms of God’s presence, to respond with beliefs in accord with what works, that is, beliefs that cohere with what works. Because it is God’s world, we can also believe—as one belief that enjoys co- herence with our other beliefs about God—that God has made the world and us. He has made us so that by observing what works we can actually find out what the world is like, in which case our be- liefs correspond to the world. Coherence, pragmatic effectiveness, and correspondence go together as perspectives.”

(Poythress, Redeeming Philosophy)

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