The Truth About Truth
An interview with Paul Copan, PhD
Drawn from In Defense of Jesus
I went back to the infamous question posed by Pilate two thousand years ago. “What is truth?” I asked.
I was expecting a complex answer laden with philosophical jargon. Instead, Copan’s definition was surprisingly straightforward: “I think people instinctively understand that truth is a belief, story, ideal, or
statement that matches up with reality or corresponds to the way things really are.”
When I asked him for an example, he said, “If I say the moon is made of cheese, that’s false because there isn’t a correspondence, or a match-up, with the way things really are. Or consider an event in history: Martin Luther wrote out his ninety-five theses in 1517. That’s factually true, and to disagree with that would mean that you believe something that’s false.
“Something is true — or corresponds to reality — even if people don’t believe it. I often use the example of the earth being round even when people thought it was flat. Some people have said to me, ‘Well, wasn’t the earth flat for them at that time?’ I say, ‘No, the earth was still round. It wasn’t as though people could fall over the edge of the earth and be swallowed by dragons back then. The earth was round, even if people didn’t believe it.’ ”
“So truth is true even if people don’t acknowledge it,” I said, cementing his point in my mind.
“That’s right. In fact, truth is true even if no one knows it, admits it, agrees with it, follows it, or even fully grasps it.”
“Some people,” I observed, “believe that whatever works for them is true.”
“Yes, that’s the pragmatic view,” he said, nodding in acknowledgment. “The problem is that people can have beliefs that are ‘useful,’ maybe temporarily and for certain ends, but they may be completely false. And some things can be true — like the temperature at the North Pole — even though they don’t help us in any way. So truth isn’t merely what works.
“On the other hand, the pragmatist does have a point when he asks, ‘Can my beliefs be lived out practically?’ If not, then it’s highly likely that the view isn’t true. What is true can be lived out consistently —there doesn’t have to be a mismatch between ‘theory’ and ‘practice.’
“Another view of truth is called coherence,” he continued. “This means that our beliefs must have internal consistency. In other words, our beliefs cohere in a kind of web or fit together like a puzzle. Now, coherence is important. If something is incoherent, it can’t be true. But coherence, by itself, isn’t enough to determine if something is true.”
“Look individually at Buddhism and Christianity,” he said. “They both have an internal coherence, right?”
“That’s right,” I replied.
“Yet both of them can’t be true,” he said. “The Buddhist rejects the existence of God, while the Christian
embraces the existence of God. So by itself, internal coherence isn’t enough: we have to ask whether either of these views matches up with reality. Coherence is an important component of truth, but it doesn’t constitute truth. It’s not all that there is to truth.
“Ultimately, any theory of truth is going to correspond with reality. Something true is like a socket wrench that matches up to a bolt — there’s a fit. And truth isn’t merely propositional. Look at the person of Jesus. When he said he’s the truth in John 14:6, there was a correspondence with reality. There was a match-up: He was faithfully and authentically representing to us who God is. He was the revelation of God, and he genuinely lived out what human beings are supposed to be before God.”
I was reminded of a quote I had come across in my research. I searched through my notes until I found the words of New Testament scholar Andreas J. Köstenberger and read them to Copan: The very notion of truth has largely become a casualty of postmodern thought and discourse. Truth is no longer “the” truth, in Jesus’ terms who claimed to be “the truth.” Rather it is conceived of as “your” truth or “my” truth — that is, different yet equally legitimate ways of perceiving reality. Hence truth is simply one’s preferred, culturally conditioned, socially constructed version of reality.
Copan was listening carefully as I read. “I agree with his analysis,” he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to a theological question: Can there be an authoritative viewpoint? To put it in Christian terms, is there the possibility of a special revelation in which God speaks authoritatively for all times and all cultures? Can God break onto the scene and offer a way to know truth with confidence?”
He allowed the question to hang in the air for a moment, then added: “Not only do I believe he can, but I believe he has.”