Religious truth cannot be based on human opinions and ideas. God must reveal it, for he is not subject to human limitations.
Arthur A. Eggert
While mathematical truth from deductive reasoning and scientific truth from inductive reasoning have value in this world, the most important truth for humanity is religious truth. Moreover, if people are not to grope around blindly in philosophical reasoning hoping to find some sort of firm foundation, then there must be some source of religious truth and some standard by which to judge religious ideas. In other words, religious truth must be revealed to us because we cannot rise up to God (Romans 10:5-11).
Throughout history people have relied either upon some guru who claims insight of the divine (e.g., the pope or oracle at Delphi) or upon some book of revelation (e.g., the Bible or the Qur’an) that claims to be God’s Word. Of all the religious sources, only the Bible presents a God who freely delivers people from their sins and promises eternal salvation. All the rest make salvation dependent on some course of action in which people must earn or contribute to their salvation through their own efforts.
With such a great offer, one would think that biblical Christianity would attract nearly everyone, but just the opposite is the case. The reason is that people inherently want to take some of their own good deeds to the judgment throne of God when they are summoned to appear before him. They do not want free salvation because it means they must repudiate not only all their sins but also everything they view as their own meritorious works (Luther’s Works, Vol. 79, p. 196). They are unwilling to accept the biblical declaration that they are totally depraved and have no works acceptable before the Lord (John 15:5). They seek a “rationalized truth” that is less clear-cut, one that leaves room for negotiation over issues of behavior and piety. Biblical truth becomes distorted when people try to mix “rationalized truth” into it.
Scripture interprets Scripture
As Lutheran Christians, we follow Luther’s directive to test every teaching to see if it matches what the Scriptures actually say. We know that some parts of Scripture are difficult to understand, so we employ three simple principles:
1. The words of the Bible are to be interpreted in their simplest grammatical sense unless a clear indication in the text tells us that the words are meant in a figurative or symbolic sense.
2. If a passage is unclear we look for another passage that speaks of the same thing and gives more clarity or detail.
3. If a passage is difficult to understand in spite of parallel passages, we must not invent an interpretation but conclude that the passage is difficult to understand.
Even using these principles does not remove the desire to “rationalize” the words of Scripture. There are many examples of scholars and simple everyday Christians rationalizing God’s Word because something doesn’t make sense to them. Here’s an example that will help illustrate the challenge. The first chapter of Genesis reveals God’s creation in six days. That conflicts with what many believe about the origin of the universe. To “fix” the problem, some rationalize that those six days must be symbolic or an ancient myth in order to harmonize God’s activity with what they think actually happened. But the Bible contains no clue that the account in Genesis is symbolic or mythological. Biblical Christians simply accept the Genesis account as it is without “rationalizing the truth.”
Another example is the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus tells his disciples, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” But that doesn’t make logical sense. John Calvin was a brilliant Christian scholar, yet he adopted the nonbiblical idea that, in some cases, God would not expect us to believe what was against reason. He, therefore, sometimes used reason to filter some of the biblical teachings. He argued that Jesus’ human nature could only be present at one place like everyone else’s human nature. Consequently, he taught that Jesus is currently at one place in heaven and therefore cannot be really present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. But the words of Jesus say something clear and different, even though it’s difficult to comprehend. Like Luther we simply let God’s Word stand and conclude the God is wiser and more powerful than we are and that he can do what he says.
From the earliest days of the Reformation, Martin Luther recognized the inerrancy of the Bible and the importance of understanding it correctly because he knew that there can be no religious truth apart from the Lord’s revelation. Sola Scriptura (from the Scriptures alone) became one of the pillars of the Reformation. Those who claim Luther did not regard the Bible as inerrant have not read enough of his writings. In more recent times we have used the phrase the “narrow Lutheran middle” to indicate that we may teach no more and no less than what is revealed in the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:18,19).
Another pervasive error that corrupts the principle of sola Scriptura is the teaching that religious truth develops as time passes. In this philosophical view, God gradually becomes wiser in his dealings with mankind; therefore, some of the things in the Bible should no longer be accepted as true. They were the products of the Lord himself being ignorant of the truth or of his shaping it for the benefit of more primitive peoples. Therefore, some of the things in the Bible must be changed to adapt with contemporary culture and thinking. This ignores the biblical teaching that God is not a creature of time and therefore never changes (Psalm 102; Malachi 3:6).
We end where we started, with the question: “What is truth?” Truth, regardless of its type, is information that conforms to a given standard. For example, the truth about the length of an object is determined by using a ruler as the standard. To decide whether we are willing to accept something as true, we must first know the standard according to which it is to be measured, and then we must do the measuring. In philosophy, the standard of truth is weak, namely the rationalism of the philosopher’s thinking process. In mathematics and formal logic, it is strong, namely the definitions of the domains of study and of the properties of relevant operators. In science, the standard of truth is the assumption that all observations can be explained in the terms of the natural properties of matter, energy, space, and time through the application of the scientific method.
For the Christian, the source and standard of all religious truth is the Bible, as the Lord revealed it in the original Hebrew and Greek. If we try to use our reason to judge it, then we no longer have God’s truth and have fallen back into philosophy. We can lose our eternal salvation if we try to shape our relationship with God with ideas from our sinful hearts, from our clever minds, or from the minds of other humans, rather than relying on what is revealed in his Holy Scriptures.
Dr. Arthur Eggert is a member at Peace, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
This is the final article in a four-part series on different ways the world finds truth and where we as Christians should look for truth.
Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.
Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.
Author: Arthur A. Eggert
Volume 105, Number 4
Issue: April 2018
Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us