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What is Truth? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sylvester Hassell   


The Gospel Messenger--May 1892

Jesus said to Pilate, “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate said unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and said unto them, I find in Him no fault at all.”—John xviii. 37, 38.
Pontius Pilate was the sixth Procurator or Roman Governor of Judea and Samaria, A D. 26-36, his administration extending through the whole ministry of our Lord and continuing several years later. As we learn from both sacred and profane history, he was a selfish, venal, unprincipled, cruel, and a despotic ruler; and yet, even such a judge, though, to please the Jews whom he hated and to retain his place as their governor, he gave up Jesus to the vengeance of their priests, repeatedly and solemnly testified to the innocence of their victim, and even publicly washed his hands of his blood; the guilt of which—the most horrible crime ever committed—they fearfully and prophetically imprecated upon themselves and their children. Pilate’s intolerable tyranny finally led to his deposition, and he is said to have died either in prison or in exile, and by his own hand, like Judas. As were nearly all his contemporaries, he was a thorough worldling and a skeptic; and the question which he addressed to Jesus, “What is truth?” This was probably asked in idle curiosity or in cynical derision, since truth—spiritual and eternal truth, of which Jesus spoke was to him “an empty name, the dream of visionaries, in his opinion undeserving the attention of politicians and sensible men,” and as he went out again to the Jews without wilting for an answer from Christ, perhaps thinking that “he was getting into interminable and unreasonable inquiries, when his business demanded rather prompt action.” “The Gentile people then regarded all religions equally true, the philosophers equally false, and the magistrates equally useful.” The opinions that religions are equally true, and that all are equally false, like pantheism and atheism, amount to the same thing in substance. There is but one true and living God; and, as he requires His creatures to wor­ship Himself alone, so His revealed truth is not to be blended and corrupted with the falsehoods of human imagination and invention.
That revelation, as we have it in the Old and New Testament Scriptures, is both very voluminous and very profound. No man thoroughly understands all the works or all the word of God; and since the apostolic age, there has been, even among those born from above and made sincere and honest by the Spirit of God, a difference of opinion in regard to many things declared to us in the Scriptures. The Sacred Writings inform us that God has a people in “every kindred and tongue and nation,” and in “all the families of the earth” (Rev. v. 9; Gen, xii. 3); and yet not only the physical and mental, but also the religious differ­ences of these families and nations are very great. All Christians of course receive the Bible as the written word of God; and yet of it the remark has been made:
“This is the book where each his dogma seeks;
And this the book where each his dogma finds.”
We are commanded to “search the Scriptures,” to go “to the law and the testimony,” and “compare spiritual things with spiritual;” and, like Paul, we may and should “reason out of the Scriptures,” of course in humble dependence upon the Divine Spirit for light and guidance, and in an earnest desire to ascer­tain the pure and unadulterated truth.
(John v. 39; Isa. viii. 20; 1 Cor. ii. 13; Acts xvii. 2; xviii. 4, 19; xxiv. 25; John xvi. 13; Psalm xliii. 3).

In regard to the search after truth, whether natural or spiritual, Francis Bacon has well said: “I would advise all that they take into serious consideration the true and genuine ends of knowledge; that they seek it not either for pleasure, or contention, or contempt of others, or for profit, or fame, or for honor and promotion, or such like adulterate and inferior ends, but for the merit and emol­ument (excellence and improvement) of life; and that they regulate and perfect the same in charity; for the desire of power was the fall, of angels; the desire of knowledge the fall of man; but in charity there is no excess; neither men nor angels ever in­curred danger by it. We humbly pray that the venom of knowl­edge infused by the serpent, whereby the mind of man is swelled and blown up [1 Cor: viii. 1], being voided, we may not be too aspiringly wise or above sobriety, but may improve and propagate truth by charity. The proper inquiry after truth, which is the wooing of it; the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it; and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sover­eign good of human nature. The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense; the last was the light of reason; and His Sabbath work, ever since, is the illumination of His Spirit. First, He breathed light upon the face of matter; then he breathed light into the face of man; and still He breaths and inspires light into the face of His chosen. Certainly it is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in Providence, and turn upon the poles of truth. Men have a natural and corrupt love of lies he adds, “not only for pleasure and advantage, but for the lies’ sake; and the almost entire departure of truth or faith from the earth will be the last peal to call the judgments of God upon men.”
“We should contend earnestly for the truth,” says John Locke, “but we should first be sure that it is the truth, or else we fight against God, who is the God of truth, and do the work of the devil, who is the father and propagator of lies;’ and our zeal, though never so warm, will not excuse us. Some people save themselves the trouble of thinking by putting implicit faith in others; a second class will neither use their own nor hearken to other people’s reason any further than it suits their humor, interest or party; and a third class, more intelligent and more sincere, look at one part of a truth, and think they see it all, and, ignorant of the beam in their eyes, strangely pride themselves iii their own blindness and darkness, like the barbarous inhabitants of the Ladrone Islands, in the Pacific ocean, who, when discovered by the Spaniards, knew nothing of the balance of the world, and yet thought themselves the happiest and wisest people in the uni­verse.” As he truly says, we are all of us, more or less, members of this third class. Our faculties are finite, while truth is infinite; we can not see it all, and in our present fallen and darkened condi­tion we mistake a part for the whole, and deny the remainder, which is equally true.
Like the leading rationalist and materialist philosophers of the present century, Haeckel, Huxley and Spencer, their ancient heathen prototype, Titus Lucretius Carus (B. C. 99-55), professed to know everything except about the gods; as for them, he thought that they were either creatures of the imagination, arising from images seen in dreams, or else highly refined material beings, dwelling in some distant world, perfectly tranquil and happy, neither the creators nor the rulers of this world, nor caring any­thing whatever about it, and neither propitiated nor pleased with any worship that men may offer them. In the first line of the second book of his poem, “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things), Lucretius calls upon his readers to take a position with him on the lofty, clear and serene heights of philosophy, and look down upon the errors and wanderings and conflicts of poor; blind, wretched mortals in the vale below. He is himself, as he thinks, above the clouds and the darkness, and sees no mystery in any­thing. He understands the essence and the origin, the course and the destiny of all things—atoms, the earth, air, water, plants, animals, men’s souls, disease and death, sleep and dreams, heat and cold, earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, springs, waterspouts, clouds, rainbows, meteors, magnetism, electricity, light, sound, taste and odor, generation and civilization, politics and religion, day and night, the arts and sciences, music and metals, eclipses, the sun, moon and stars, and in fact everything of interest to the human mind. He taught that matter was eternal, and that the soul was composed of four elements—air, heat, vapor, and a fourth nameless substance which he seems to identify with reason, and that these are dissolved at death, and that the human being then becomes totally and forever unconscious. He was a follower and worshiper of Epicurus, who taught that death was a dream­less and eternal sleep, and therefore not at all to be feared, and that pleasure should be the chief object of life. In his poem of six books, and 7,415 lines, he of course could not fully explain everything, as he did not have the space; but then he professed to know it all (except about the gods), and declared that it would take him a life time to tell what he knew about any one subject. His great object was like that of Epicurus, to emancipate the human race from the terrors and the crimes of Religion, most of his elaborate explanations of natural things are of course now looked upon as utterly false and perfectly ridiculous; and his explanations of spiritual things are as good as those of his nineteenth century agnostic followers.
Men who are truly wise, whether in nature or in grace, talk very differently from the pretentious Lucretius. Solomon says: “Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him.”—Prov. xxvi. 12. And Paul says: “Be not wise in your own conceits.”—Rom. xii. 16. And again: “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God; for it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.” “If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.” “Now we know in part, and see through a glass darkly.”—l Cor. iii. 18, 19; viii. 2.; xiii. 9, 12. Moses was the meekest of men.—Num. xii. 3. Jesus was, more than all others, meek and lowly in heart.—Matt. xi. 29. Socrates, pronounced by the Delphic oracle the wisest of the Greeks, said that this could only be in that, while others knew nothing and thought they did know something, he knew nothing and was conscious of his igno­rance. The elder Pliny said that nothing is certain but this: all is uncertain, and that man is at once the most miserable and the most proud of all beings. Pascal said that man does not know himself—the nature of his body or soul, much less their union in one being—and that he certainly does not understand anything beyond himself. Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest of natural philosophers said, a little before his death, that he did not know how he appeared to others, but to himself he seemed like a little child playing on the seashore, discovering now and then a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay unexplored before him. Sir William Hamilton said that the highest reach of human science is the scientific recognition of human ignorance. The last words (in 1827) of “the titanic mathematician,” Laplace, were: “What we know is little; what we do not know is immense.” Prof. Richard A. Proctor, the distinguished English scientist, lecturing on “God’s Universe,” in my school at Wilson, N. C., in 1886, said: “Modern science at the close of this most brilliant of the centuries of natural discovery, goes beyond Laplace, and says: ‘What we know is nothing; what we do not know is infinite.”’ Just as was said in the book of Job nearly 4,000 years ago, “We are but of yester­day, and know nothing.”—viii. 9. “Humility, then, is the car­dinal principle both of reason and revelation.”
But, blessed be the name of the God of Israel, His people, taught by Him, know that he is a God of truth (Psalm xxxi. 5), and that his Son Jesus Christ is the perfect incarnation of essen­tial and eternal truth (John i. 14, 17; xiv. 6), and that His Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John xiv. 1.7; xvi. 13), and that His word is holy and everlasting truth (John xvii. 17; Psalm cxvii. 2), upon whose declarations and promises they may securely rest their hopes of salvation for time and eternity. Yet no man, nor do all men together, understand the written word of God in all its depth and fullness, and in seeking to understand it we are, like others, (2 Tim. ii. 15.19; Jas. v. 19) liable to err. Among the leading causes of error are one-sidedness, partisanship, prejudice, passion, inattention, haste, sloth, forgetfulness, imagination, hope, fear, self-love, pugnacity, limitation of our faculties, infinitude of truth, imperfection and ambiguity of language, and consequent logomachy, or mere wrangling about words.
Bacon arranges the falla­cies into which the human mind is prone to fall in four general classes of error, which he calls idols, or false appearances:
1st. Idols of the tribe or race, the proneness of the mind to look only on one side of the subject, and. see things as it wishes to see them;
2nd. Idols of the den or cave, the tendency to make all things sub­servient to or take the color of some favorite subject;
3rd. Idols of the market place, errors arising from the influence of mere words;
4th. Idols of the theatre, fallacious modes of thinking resulting from a false philosophy and erroneous methods of demonstration.
We can see all these causes and classes of error operating not only in natural, but also in spiritual matters, not only among Arminians but also among our brethren, who truly believe the teaching of the Scriptures in regard to the Divine foreknowledge and predestination. Prof. Tyndall has well said that “truth is often of a dual character, taking the form of a magnet with two poles; and many of the differences which agitate the thinking part of mankind are to be traced to the exclusiveness with which different parties affirm one half of the duality in forgetfulness of the other half. It seems hardly possible to state any truth strongly without apparent injury to some other truth. The proper course appears to be to state both truths strongly, and allow each its fair share in the formation of the resultant conviction.” It is said that in the Middle Ages, a British Prince erected on his domain, at a place where four roads met, a statue of victory, the right band holding a spear and the left hand a shield, of which one side was of silver and the other side of gold; and that two knights, completely armed, the one in black and the other in white armor, approached the statue at the same time from opposite directions, and that one maintained that the shield was of gold and the other that it was of silver, until they became enraged by their contention, and challenged each other to mortal combat. The result was that each unhorsed and sorely wounded the other. A venerable Druid, who was a physician as well as a priest, came along, and applied a healing balsam, and restored them to consciousness. Learning the cause of the quarrel, he told them that they were both right and both wrong; that if each had taken time to look at the other side of the shield as well as the side he first saw, they would have been spared all their high passion and their bloody struggle; and he advised them never to enter into another dispute before they had well considered both sides of the question. And this is excellent advice for all of us.
The final, terrible and unanswerable indictment that the Duke of Argyle, in his magnifi­cent work on ‘The Unity of Nature,” makes against the Agnostic infidels of this century is that “they systematically suppress more than one-half of the facts of Nature, and as systematically silence more than one-half of the Faculties of Man—and these the most momentous Facts and the highest Faculties;” and thus that, in the view of every truly honest mind, their methods are self-condemned.
Kepler, in endeavoring to ascertain the exact, shape of the orbits of the planets, took the observations which his faithful master, Tycho Brahe, had made of the places of the planet Mars, and found that, if the planet were supposed to move in a circle, its computed place varied in certain portions of its orbit from its observed place by eight minutes of a degree; and with these eight minutes he said that he would construct a new theory that would explain the movements of all the planets, which he did, finding the true orbit of the planets to be not a circle, but an ellipse.
And now I come to the leading point of this whole article— What is the truth—the truth of truths—in regard to the relation­ship between God and man? Of course the Scriptures of truth must decide this all important question. The Scriptures demon­strate that the relationship between God and man is a duality, represented by the double-sided shield; and that ONE SIDE OF THIS GREAT TRUTH IS THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD,
(Gen. 1. 1; John i 3; Colos. 1. 16, 17; Psalm lxxx. 19; 1 Tim. vi. 15; Dan. iv. 34, 35; Acts xv. 18; Isa. xlvi. 9, 10; Eph. 1. 11; Acts xvii. 26; Matt. x. 29, 30; xi. 25-27; Prov. xvi. 33; Rom. viii. 28-39; Acts iv. 28; Luke xxii. 22; Act 11. 23; Heb. vi. 17; Gen xxxvii. 28; xlv. 7, 8; Exod. ix. 12; Psalm xvii. 13, 14; Isa. x. 5-12; Joh i. 12, 21; 2 Sam. xvi. 10; xxiv. 1; 1 Chron. xxi. 1; 2 Cor. xii. 7).
(Gen. ii. 16, 17; iii; James i. 13, It; I John ii. 16; Exod. viii. 15; xx. 1.17; Deut. x. 12-22; v. 28. 29; xxxii. 29; Psalm lxxxi. 13; Isa xlviii. 18; 1. 19, 2.0; Zach. vii. 9-12; Hosea xiii. 9; Eccles. xii. 13, 14; Acts xvii. 31 2 Cor. v. 10; Matt. xi. 20-24; xii. 36; vii. 24-27; xxv. 31-46; Mark ix. 38-50; Rom. 1. 18-32, 11. 5-16; iii. 19; 2 Tim. iv. 1; James ii; Rev. xx. 11-15; xxii. 12.)
The willful suppression of either one of these parts of the truth is falsehood; it involves dishonesty to God and injury to man. Prophets and apostles and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself pro­claimed, with equal candor and emphasis, both of these twin truths—both these parts of the same dual truth—the relationship of God to man; and so should we, if we are followers of the Lamb. The reconciliation of these two aspects of eternal truth is too great and too deep for our finite minds to comprehend, just as there is nothing in nature or in grace that we thoroughly under­stand; but the second list of Scriptures that I have quoted above, as well as those that declare the essential, unchangeable and infinite holiness of God (such as Gen. xviii. 25; Psalm cxlv. 17; Isa. vi. 3; Hab ii. 13; Mal iv. 2; 1 John i 5; Heb. vi. 18; 2 Tim ii  13; 1 Pet. i. 16; Rev. iv. 8), and those that say he permits or bears, or suffers, or endures, or leaves, or delivers up, or give otter men to sin (such as 2 Chron. xxxii. 31; Psalm lxxxi. 12; Mark i 34; v. 13. Luke iv. 41; viii. 32; Acts ii. 23; vii. 42; xiii 18;, xiv 16; Rom. i. 24. 26, 28; ix. 22) should thoroughly and forever emancipate and purify our minds from the horrible blasphemy that God is in any degree responsible for the sins of His creatures. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, acid is profitable for doctrine.”—2 Tim. iii. 16. The Divine per­mission of sin, repeatedly declared in the Scriptures, is, like the eight minutes of a degree in Kepler’s calculations, indispensable to bring us to a true view of the relationship of God to man—of the dual truth of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. The great scriptural fact that God permits sin (while He also over­rules it for His own glory and His people’s good), is incorporated in the London Baptist Confession of Faith, and in all the great Predestinarian confessions; and it is inevitably implied when we say that man is voluntary in the commission of sin, and justly punishable for sin, and in all the sayings and writings of the spir­itually enlightened children of God, whether they express it in words or not. And the whole contention of Primitive Baptists about the Divine predestination of sin is nothing but a trifling logomachy or wrangling about words, condemned by the Apostle Paul as “unwholesome, unprofitable and subverting.”—1 Tim. vi. 3, 4; 2 Tim. ii. 14. All the true people of God believe essentially the same thing about this matter—that, while God is an absolute, infinite, and eternal Sovereign, and “works all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. i. 11), He does not tempt, much less compel, His creatures to sin (James 1. 13); and the idea that if God permits His creatures to sin when he might prevent them, He is just as responsible for their sins as if He compelled them to sin, and is as guilty as His sinning creatures, is a blasphemous sophistry in which we allow Satan to entangle us, and ignores the radical distinction between the creature and the Creator —the creature being made by the Creator, and being necessarily placed under law by his Creator, and justly accountable to his Creator for his disobedience; while the Creator is not justly obliged to sink His voluntary and rational creatures to the level of inanimate and insensate matter, to reduce them to mere machines or autom­ata, and compel them to obey His laws, but may justly leave them to obey or disobey, and justly punish them for their disobe­dience.
Our obedience is the fruit of the Spirit of God working in us, according to His electing love, to the praise of His glorious grace (Philip ii. 12, 13; Heb. xiii. 20, 21; Eph. i 3.14; ii; 1 Pet. i 1-5); while our conscience assures us that our disobedience is the work of our own sinful wills, according to the permission of His providence, and will certainly meet with due punishment, to the praise of His glorious justice (Rom. ii. 15; James i. 13-15; 2 Chron. xxxii. 31; Psalm lxxxi. 12; Acts xii. 42; xiii. 18; Eccles. xii. 14; Rom. ii. 5-11; 2 Cor. v. 10; Rev. xv. 3).

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