“What Is Truth?” Some Thoughts on the Bible as Scripture

This is a brief section of a book on biblical interpretation that I’ve been working on. If you have constructive comments and criticism, I’d be glad to receive feedback. 

We need to know who the true God is and what this God has done for us. We need to know this because it is more important than anything else that has ever happened among humans, and our very eternal lives depend upon it. There are many contenders for truth in the world today. John Calvin famously remarked that the human mind is an idol-making factory. Different views of the world generally bring with them different views of truth. For some, science is the ultimate truth. For others, it is a particular philosophical or religious system that they share with a community of like-minded people. Alternatively, it is quite common for people today to see truth as a primarily individualistic affair, where I am the arbiter of my own truth. This perspective undermines the very idea of a broader truth woven into the fabric of creation, and it is symptomatic our present “postmodern” era. As Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry put it in their book Deep Church Rising, today “one is more likely to come across the idea that nobody is right or wrong” on questions of religious truth. There may be such truth, “but it is person-relative.” Each of us decides truth for ourselves. No one can judge us because “each individual has the right to make such decisions.”[1]

Christians, however, can’t really believe this way. Jesus said that he came to testify to the truth (John 18:37). Pilate, who is interrogating him, asks a question people were asking long before him, and continue to ask today: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Christians know that God is truth. Whatever else we say is true is somehow ultimately rooted in God. Science and math may tell us true things, but God is the source of the laws of science and math. As people of faith we make truth claims about right and wrong, but God called into being the moral fabric of the universe. God is truth, and once we recognize this, all of the smaller quests for truth in our life are actually quests to understand the divine. Left on our own, we cannot truly know God, but we are not on our own. God has revealed himself to us in history, and our primary resource for receiving God’s self-revelation is the Bible. Our faith, then, stands over against the idea that there is no truth, as well as truth claims incompatible with ours made by other religions and philosophies, such as Buddhism or atheism.


To be clear, knowing the truth about God is not enough. As we read in the Letter of James 2:19, even the demons believe (though they believe and tremble). Believing is necessary, but it is not sufficient. John Wesley, the great eighteenth-century British evangelist and founder of the Methodist movement, once quipped that a person could be as “orthodox as the devil,” and “all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.”[2] You can believe all the right things about God and still not know God. You can recite any creed you would like and yet not know the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Knowing the basic truths about God that Christians have confessed through the centuries is necessary, but not sufficient. It is crucial, but it is not enough. When we read the Bible, then, we should look not just for information about God, but for the transformation that comes from God. The Bible isn’t just a book of propositions. It is a port of entry into God’s very life.


This function of the Bible seems to have been lost in much of Christianity through North America and Western Europe. In the mainline Protestant traditions, and increasingly in evangelicalism, we have gotten very good at being critical of the Bible. We have become experts in defeating the bogeyman of “biblical literalism,” so much so that “critical” has become the primary posture by which we approach the text. Thus we live our lives at a safe distance from those passages of the Bible that are most challenging to us, and perhaps those through which God can shape us most profoundly. Our abbreviated Bible becomes a reflection of our own perspectives, and God a cipher for the values that our culture has taught us to honor.

We are not nearly so good at identifying the ways in which God inspired the writing and selection of the text, nor of perceiving the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding our readings. We do not have much to say about the Bible theologically. I was once part of a process of interviewing candidates for a professorial position in Bible. One of the other interviewers, a professor of theology, asked each candidate one simple question: What is the Bible? It surprised me that, despite the great learning and intelligence of each of these candidates, every one of them struggled to answer this question. My guess is that many Christians in North American and Western Europe–including the best educated among them–would struggle with this question as well. They would have a hard time saying not only what the Bible is, but what it is supposed to do. Yes, they could probably muster some formula such as, “The Bible is the word of God,” or “The Bible teaches us how to live a Christian life.” Yet these formulae do not tell us very much about the Bible at all.

To put the matter differently, we have lost sight of the Bible as Scripture. To say that the Bible is Scripture is to affirm that it is a sacred text revealing the truth about God to a community of people who are committed to living in that truth. Daniel Castello and Robert Wall write that the term “‘Scripture’ signals a way of thinking theologically about the Bible as God’s Word for God’s people, one that supplies the theological goods that fund spiritual wisdom and provide moral direction.”[3] The traditional tools of the guild of biblical studies, such as the biblical languages, historical criticism, and literary analysis contribute in important ways to our understanding of the BIble. Nevertheless one can achieve outstanding mastery of these tools and never read the Bible as Scripture. It is commonplace to find academic biblical studies that range in their approach from theological neutrality to methodological atheism. There is a certain logic to approaching the Bible in this way in a secular context such as a state university classroom. In the Sunday school or seminary classroom, however, such an approach will inevitably be inadequate. Believers and unbelievers alike will affirm that there are historical truths, literary truths, scientific truths, and philosophical truths. But those who profess faith will also affirm that there is theological truth, which is related to, but also distinct from, other forms of truth. As Christians, we should feel free and comfortable in approaching the Bible with our core theological truths in hand.

[1] See Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry, Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2014), 24.

[2] John Wesley, “The Way to the Kingdom,” sermon 6 in The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, ed. Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 1.6.

[3] Daniel Castello and Robert W. Wall, “Reading the Bible as Scripture,” chapter 1 in A Compact Guide to the Whole Bible: Learning to Read Scripture’s Story, ed. Robert W. Wall and David R. Nienhuis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 12.

19 thoughts on ““What Is Truth?” Some Thoughts on the Bible as Scripture

  1. David,
    As a former math and science teacher (and now pastor), I used to teach my upper level students a lesson about truth. To a scientist, truth comes by the scientific method – which is to say, the preponderance of empirical evidence. To a mathematician, the scientific method isn’t good enough, because a single counter example can defeat a theorem. To an attorney, truth is what the jury says truth is. To a journalist, truth comes only through interviewing all the parties involved and synthesizing a truth. To historians, truth is elusive, and comes only after a wide variety of sources are consulted and evaluated based upon our own biases. To one in the literary field, truth depends upon the reader’s background. To a politician, truth is what gives him or her power. To a businessperson, truth is what maximizes profit. But to the Christian theologian, truth is what the Holy Spirit and God’s Word (both Bible and Christ) tell us truth is.

      • Well, I don’t work in a university. I work in a freestanding seminary. I don’t hold a “two-realm” view of truth, though I do affirm that there are different methods of acquiring truth that are appropriate to different forms of knowledge. In that comment, i should have used the word “knowledge” rather than “truth.” But I think you get the point. There are epistemological distinctions between, say, mathematical conclusions and theological conclusions.

  2. We are about to begin a series called God & Science at our church. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. May I quote pieces of this post? I will, of course, cite your work and direct people to your blog.

  3. David,

    Thanks for this. I am continually challenged and blessed by your writing. I think that this problem of knowledge connects very well with your earlier work on honor and shame. Our shame prevents us from accepting the truth of the Gospel. We run from, rather than toward the truth of God’s love. So Jesus, in embracing human shame, reveals who God really is and provides the way for us to be redeemed. Thanks again for all your good ministry.

  4. Excellent review of the state of the Bible in modern Protestantism. I fully agree that the study of the Bible needs to be lead by, and informed by, the Holy Spirit. Without that, Bible study is simply a review of a great literary work.
    However, I feel like we have consulted against the work of the Holy Spirit in our studies. Once one comes to truly know God, it changes our perspective on the meaning and importance of Scripture. And it leads the party to guidance by the Holy Spirit.
    That works well right up until the Holy Spirit leads you in a different direction than someone else’s accepted interpretation. Often, the examination of the passage in the light of reason, and the sputtering light of tradition, provides no resolution. And people’s Christian experience is seldom in agreement.
    So what are we left with? Claims of heresy, denial of the possibility of Revelation, cessationism, and a general lack of inspiration and spirituality in our study of Scripture.
    If I could make one recommendation on you paper, it would be to amplify, examine, and provide exercises in the root of the Holy Spirit n Scriptural interpretation.

    • Unless my understanding is way off base, as Albert Outler formulated his so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral he drew a rather tight definition of Christian experience as the “assurance of one’s sins forgiven.” In other words, it is the assurance of salvation given by the Holy Spirit to the believer, nothing more and nothing less. Speaking to that assurance, Outler wrote that “Christian experience adds nothing to the substance of Christian truth; its distinctive role is to energize the heart so as to enable the believer to speak and do the truth in love.”* In other words, Christian experience is not to be seen as a source of truth but a means by which truth empowers the believer for engagement with the world.

      Given that limited operational definition of experience, the Holy Spirit can’t be said to be leading Christians in different directions with respect to interpretation. Moreover, the working out of doctrine should be done within Christian community, not as an individualistic effort… which again precludes the development of different claims to truth.

      *”The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in Wesley” published in Wesleyan Theological Journal, Vol. 20 No. 1, p. 10

  5. David, I recognize in your observation about truth having become “personalized” the major crisis put forth by Francis Schaeffer and Nancy Pearcey. Dr. Pearcey’s book Total Truth gives an excellent history of how philosophies and sciences – and yes, even the church – increasingly compartmentalized “religious truth” into a category of personal beliefs, values, and preferences, while “real” objective truth came to be relegated to the sciences and/ or the political powers that be. Such religious truth may be tolerated, but only because it’s not taken seriously. Godless secularism is considered the only valid religion, though its proponents deny it being a religion, hence its promotion by the state. It grieves me that our UM seminaries have next to nothing to offer clergy in understanding the concepts of the “finely-tuned” universe and the “irreducible complexity” of intelligent design, both of which endorse the vital doctrine of a real and supreme Creator. This, together with the insurmountable evidence for Jesus’ real bodily resurrection, need to be explained and proclaimed again and again to take Biblical Reality out of the shadows of opinion into the front and center position of Christian worldview for every aspect of life.

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