Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Truth is a vital concept for theology and Christian ministry. It affects how we do theology and how we think about the Bible, particularly the doctrine of inerrancy. But what exactly is it?


Ordinarily, when we use the word ‘truth’ in a sentence, we use it to refer to a property something possesses. We say things like, “that’s true,” or “is that true?” When doing so, we assume some thing—whatever “that” points to—can be true in the same way something can be a colour or a shape. Although we can easily find things that can be coloured or shaped, it is not so easy to say what kinds of things can be true. A truck can be red, but it can’t be true.

Sometimes we talk about ‘true’ friends. We mean that when the chips are down that person proves to be a friend. They are faithful. Alternatively, we might use it to talk about commitment as in, “he is true to the cause.”

In a previous post, I introduced statements. Statements are expressions of content that can be true or false. There are various views on what the nature of the content of a statement is. One might suggest that they are abstract objects or thoughts in a mind. Strictly speaking, propositions are the objects that can possess the property of being true. For simplicity, let’s call these true (or false) propositions statements.

Correspondence Theory of Truth

A cat sitting on a mat

What makes a statement true? The most immediate answer is that truth is the relationship between a statement and the world. When someone says, “that’s true,” referring to a statement that has been made, the statement is true if and only if it corresponds to the world. When I say, “the cat is sitting on the mat,” my statement is true if and only if that’s really happening in the world. If the cat is not sitting on the mat, the statement is not true.

A statement corresponds to a state of affairs in the world if and only if it in some way agrees with, or is in harmony with, the state of affairs. I imagine that you take the correspondence theory to be quite basic. Isn’t it the most obvious way to think about truth?

Coherence Theory of Truth

One reason an alternative might be sought is a problem raised by Immanuel Kant. Immanuel Kant thought that we do not have access to things-in-themselves (noumena). We only have access to how things are in our experience or how they appear to us (phenomena). But how could we have a theory of truth that is about the relationship between what we say and the world if we have no access to the world itself?

One answer is to look to the relationship between beliefs. Coherence theory suggests that a statement is true if it does not contradict other statements which are part of a set of statements. Truth is a relation but not to the world; instead, it is a relation with other statements. If we can keep all our statements from contradicting each other, then we can call them true.

Perhaps the most obvious problem with the coherence theory of truth is that there could be two sets of beliefs that are internally consistent but that contradict each other. If so, then how could one decide which set is correct? If we accept that both sets of beliefs are true, we are committed to a contradiction. On the other hand, if we appeal to the correspondence between a statement and the world, the coherence theory is false.

Coherence is a good test for truth, but it is an incomplete theory of what makes something true. Any set of beliefs that contain contradictions contains some false propositions. But we determine which we should remove by seeing if they correspond to reality.

Moreover, we aren’t obligated to accept Kant’s conclusion. If we do have direct access to the world, there is no reason to reject a correspondence theory of truth. And even if we do accept his conclusion, we might also claim that things are the way they appear, leaving open the possibility of our statements being made true by the way the world actually is.

Pragmatic Theory of Truth

According to pragmatic theories of truth, truth is a property of beliefs. What makes a belief true is the difference it makes to the believer. Truth is a kind of benefit or utility of a belief. For example, Charles Sanders Peirce observed that inquirers work until they reach a consensus on an issue. Having a consensus is the benefit which confers truth upon beliefs.

Peirce observed that what causes people to inquire of anything’s truth is that they are confronted with an experience that does not conform to a previously held belief. From that starting point, a process begins which, if all goes well, provides a solution to the problem. Truth is a belief that works out in practice. As another pragmatist, William James, wrote, “Pragmatism asks its usual question. ‘Grant an idea or belief to be true,’ it says, ‘what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life?’” (William James, Pragmatism, Lecture VI).

One problem with a pragmatic view of truth is that there are many truths that make no difference to believers. But that doesn’t make them any less true nor do they become true merely by believing them even if those beliefs have a great benefit for believers.

Truth and the Doctrine of Inerrancy

How is a theory of truth relevant to Christian thought and practice? One obvious connection is to the doctrine of inerrancy. The doctrine of inerrancy is about the truth of the Bible. In more precise terms the doctrine says that for any statement asserted by a biblical author and properly interpreted, that statement is true (without error). In 1978, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy convened in Chicago. The resulting statement affirmed that the Bible is “true and reliable in all the matters it addresses” (“Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Article XI).

A further document was published by the Council in 1982 in which the correspondence theory of truth was explicitly stated. Article VI reads, “the Bible expresses God’s truth in propositional statements…a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts” (“Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics,” Article VI).

Suppose one held to an alternative theory of truth. Perhaps one might think that the Bible is true in virtue of its coherence. Alternatively, one might think that the Bible is true in virtue of the benefits one gains from believing it.

The trouble with both these theories is that the Bible is largely constituted by statements about reality, particularly historical events. Taking either a coherence or pragmatic view of truth downgrades the relevance of events in history for the truth of Scripture.

For the writers of Scripture, truth was plainly a matter of correspondence. Although there is no Scripture passage on theories of truth, it is taken for granted in statements such as this one from John:

“What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete” (1 John 1-4).

Hence, making our assumptions about truth explicit helps avoid confusion over what we mean when we claim that the Bible is free of error. We are making a claim about the relation biblical statements have with the world. It is not merely useful to believe that Christ rose from the dead, it is a statement that is true because it really happened.

For those interested in further study, I recommend both materials on the doctrine of inerrancy and philosophical work on theories of truth. For works on related to the Chicago statement, both Inerrancy edited by Norm Geisler and Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible edited by Earl Radmacher and Robert Preus. More recently, John Feinberg has written an excellent work on the doctrine of Scripture called Light in a Dark Place published by Crossway. For an introduction to various theories of truth, A. C. Grayling’s Philosophical Logic contains two in-depth chapters and includes several other approaches I did not mention.