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Truth and Knowledge in the Bible

In the realm of epistemology, the Bible brings a richly multifaceted understanding of truth and knowledge. While most traditional philosophical definitions of truth and knowledge focus on concepts and abstractions, the biblical understanding is broader and thus more holistic.  It possesses marked relational characteristics, highlights issues of personal integrity, and includes the practice of a way of life.  These two epistemological approaches are not mutually exclusive.  Indeed, the relationship between the two can best be seen as complimentary with the biblical view incorporating the traditional philosophical conceptions into a larger framework that relates to the whole of life.

Thus, before examining biblical epistemology, it is important to explain briefly the two most prominent definitions of truth that have dominated Western philosophy from its inception and still continue to exert their influence.  The two are the correspondence theory of truth and the coherence theory of truth.

Classical Theories of Truth

            The correspondence theory defines truth as the correspondence between what one says or thinks and reality.  The classic statement of the correspondence theory of truth dates back to Aristotle’s Metaphysics in which he writes, “… to say what is is, and what is not is not, is true” (Reader, 34).  Two important consequences of this theory follow.  First, there are objective features of the world or reality that exist independently of the mind’s knowing of them.  Second, that for there to be true statements that are not just lucky guesses the human mind must be able to know reality.

Because of this last point, Plato distinguishes between knowledge and opinion or belief.  An opinion may be right or wrong, but the one holding to it cannot know whether it is right or wrong.  For a person to have knowledge he must have a legitimate reason for his stated view.  Plato’s understanding of knowledge is often summarized as knowledge is justified true belief.

The coherence theory claims that truth is the coherence of propositions or statements with one another.  The criterion for the truth of statements is that they do not contradict other statements made in the same context.  Whether they correspond to reality is not a concern.  That a seven-headed lion has more heads than a six-headed lion is a coherent statement, even though there are no seven-headed or six-headed lions.

The basis for the coherence theory of truth is often the law of non-contradiction, which asserts that something cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same sense.  Aristotle provides three versions of the law of non-contradiction.  The ontological version[1] is “the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject at the same time and in the same respect’ (Metaphysics, 736).[2]  A tree cannot be forty feet and thirty feet at the same time.  He states the psychological version in the following manner. “It is impossible for the same man at the same time to believe the same thing to be and not to be” (Basic Works, 737).[3]  A philosopher can be an atheist at one point in time and a theist in another, but it impossible for him to be an atheist and a theist simultaneously and in the same sense.  The third version is the logical.  “The most indisputable of all beliefs is that contradictory statements are not at the same time true” (Basic Works, 749).[4]

As can be seen from the above discussion, both of these theories of truth associate truth with statements and ideas.  Thus, they are largely conceptual or intellectualist understandings of truth.  The biblical perspective will expand significantly on these two theories.

Biblical Understanding of Knowledge and Truth: Old Testament

            The best way to comprehend the Old Testament understanding of truth and knowledge is to look at how three Hebrew words are used in passages that bear most directly on epistemology.  The three words are:  אֱמֶת (emeth) “truth,” דַּעַת (da‘ath) “knowledge,” and יָדַע (yâda‘) “to know.”

Kevin Vanhoozer writes that emeth “connotes what is firm, reliable, trustworthy, and faithful and expresses the character of a person’s speech, thought, or action.  As such, truth is opposed to hypocrisy” (819).  Vanhoozer’s definition of emeth brings to the fore the relational aspect of the biblical notion of truth and its connection to integrity of character and practice.  For example, the words of a hypocrite are not reliable or trustworthy.  An unfaithful husband or wife is one who did not keep his or her wedding vows, making those vows untruthful or false.

For this reason, emeth is translated “faithfulness” in Exodus 34:6.  The context is important.  Exodus 32 informs us that Israel had broken the covenant they had made with God by making and worshipping the idol of the golden calf.  In response Moses broke the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written.  Exodus 34:1-7 narrates the second giving of the Ten Commandments.  The fact that the new tablets were like the first and had the same words (v. 1) emphasizes the Lord’s fidelity in spite of Israel’s sin.  God is thus reestablishing the covenant, thereby demonstrating his faithfulness to his word or promises.

For the people of that time, a name showed a person’s character.  Thus, God’s character is revealed by his name (v. 5).  Verse 6 gives the details.  The Lord is the God who is like this, implying that he alone is like this.  He is unique.  The Lord is compassionate, which means that he cares about and for men and women.[5]  He is also gracious; that is, he shows favor to the undeserving.  He is patient or slow to anger.

These divine characteristics are followed by a pair that are often linking in the Old Testament: steadfast love (‎חֶ֥סֶד  [chesed]) and truth or faithfulness (emeth). Chesed is the Hebrew word used to describe God’s covenantal love, his long-term loyalty and reliability to his covenantal partner.  Emeth means that the Lord is reliable, fully trustworthy.  His word can be trusted.  Both chesed and emeth are said to be abounding.  The Lord is said to be loving and truthful not by one single act.  It is who he is, a central characteristic that overflows into all his actions and words.

The correspondence theory of truth argues that a statement or an idea is true when it corresponds to reality.  The Scripture’s emphasis on relations, integrity, and a way of life comes to the forefront in the assertion in Exodus 34:6 that God abounds in faithfulness.  The claim is that God’s actions correspond to his nature.  He never acts out of character.  In addition, his actions correspond to his words.  What he says that he will do he does.

Two other Old Testament passages merit our attention before moving on to the biblical concept of knowledge.  Jeremiah 10:10 declares that the Lord is the true (emeth) God.  In contrast to the idols (vv. 8-9) the Lord is living, not wooden, golden, or silver.  He is also eternal, not made (v. 11).  He is therefore unique and great and powerful, “the King of the nations” (vv. 6-7).  Thus, “at his wrath the earth quakes” (v. 10).  As the creator (v. 11), when he speaks, it happens, just as it did in creation when the Lord spoke, and it came to be (Genesis 1).

The other passage is Psalm 119:150.  “The sum of your word is truth (emeth).  The emphasis here is on the totality of the truthfulness of God’s word.  God’s word is all together true and when put together, it is truth.  This statement can be seen as parallel to the coherence theory of truth.  God’s word does not contradict itself.[6]  However, as characteristic of the biblical perspective, the psalmist’s affirmation goes beyond logical coherence to a holistic view of truth that incorporates the relational, personal integrity, and the practice of a way of life.  This holistic biblical perspective on truth becomes quite clear in how it understands knowledge.

As stated above the most important Hebrew words related to knowledge are דַּעַת (da‘ath) “knowledge,” and יָדַע (yâda‘) “to know.”  For example, the verb is used of sexual relations between a man and woman.  Genesis 4:1 tells us, “Now, Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.”  This understanding of “to know” is the basis for using the same verb to describe the intimate covenantal relationship between God and Israel in Amos 3:2.  The Lord says to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.”  Clearly, the Lord knew of the existence of the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Canaanites.  However, he had not established the intimate relationship with them as he had in the covenant with his chosen people.

The consequences for the relationship with God and personal integrity reflected in a godly lifestyle are shown by the use of the noun “knowledge” in Hosea 4:1.  In his judgment of Israel the Lord claims, “There is no faithfulness or steadfast love; and no knowledge of God in the land.”    Notice that faithfulness and steadfast love (emeth/truth and chesed/love) are the characteristics of the Lord revealed in Exodus 34:6. It is not that Israel did not know that there was a God or that he had certain characteristics.  The problem was that their ungodly lifestyle revealed the utter lack of a relationship with him.  Rather than faithfulness and steadfast love, there was “swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery” (Hosea 4:2), each expressly prohibited in the Ten Commandments.

The clear implication is that the knowledge of God involves a lifestyle that reflects the character of God.  Two passages from the Psalms develop this point of view with regard to truth.  In Psalm 51, King David’s confession to God of his sin of adultery with Bathsheba, he writes, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being” (v. 6).  David had claimed to be a godly king, but his actions did not correspond to his words and revealed a contradiction in the inner person.  In other words, the integrity of a person is a kind of truth.  A person of truth should not be one thing on the outside and something different on the inside; that is, a hypocrite.  As with the Lord who is truth (Exodus 34:6), his followers’ deeds should correspond with their words and both with their character.

It is important to note that David confesses in the second line of Psalm 51:6, “you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.”  Biblically wisdom focuses on a way of life, which is itself truth.  Thus, David prayers, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86:11).  The way is a lifestyle revealed by the Lord whose grace enables his children to walk in it.  It is the truth because it reflects God’s actions and character.  Truth therefore is something that is done, not just thought.[7]  The second half of the prayer, which requests that God would unite his heart, points to the fact that the characteristic of integrity makes one a person of truth.  The relational side of being a true person, living in a true way, is shown by the purpose of a united heart to fear God’s name.

Biblical Understanding of Knowledge and Truth: New Testament

            The New Testament continues these characteristic Old Testament perspectives on truth and knowledge but develops them, tying them closely to the person of Jesus Christ.  The Christian, then, will be the one who not only assents to the truth of Jesus Christ as perfect God and man but also the one who lives the truth in and through Christ.[8]

Perhaps the most fundamental New Testament statement on truth is John 14:6. Just as the Lord God in the Old Testament proclaims that his name is truth, so Jesus claims, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Ultimately, truth is a person, the person of God, and not primarily a concept.

The fact that Jesus Christ is the truth is an important development.  With the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity in the man Jesus, the revelation of God in the Old Testament is fulfilled.  The fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus Christ helps explain John’s assertion, “For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).  John does not mean that the Mosaic law was without grace and truth.  No.  In this context the opposite of truth is not falsehood but unfulfilled or incomplete.

This has two implications.  First, by fulfilling the Old Testament Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God’s faithfulness or that God is truth.  As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him.”  In Christ, the Lord God has kept his word.  Second, truth is historical.  It grows and deepens with God’s progressive revelation of his person and will.  While not necessarily denying the Greek philosophical idea that conceptual truth is unchanging, the biblical epistemology’s connecting truth with relationships, personal integrity, and a way of life does result in a more dynamic understanding.

Such a dynamic understanding of truth affects the New Testament’s perspective on knowledge.  Just as the Lord in Amos 3:2 said that he only knew Israel; so, Christ can declare of those who falsely claimed to be his disciples, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23). In this context knowledge is not about the existence or facts concerning something.  It is the personal knowledge of a relationship.

While exhorting the Ephesians to put off their old sinful self and put on the new self that is characterized by holiness and righteousness, Paul asserts that, “the truth is in Christ” (Ephesians 4:21).  Here Paul echoes both the Old Testament view of truth as personal integrity and the practice of a way of life and Jesus’ claim to be the way, the truth and the life.  The Apostle John makes this connection even more explicit in his letters.  “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6).  Truth is not just an idea that we accurately state.  Truth is something we do, a way of life.  Our actions must correspond with our words.  We say that we have fellowship with God who is light (1 John 1:4), therefore we must walk in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:7).  As the quotation from Kevin Vanhoozer earlier in this essay said, the opposite of truth in the Bible is hypocrisy.  The one who claims to have fellowship with the God of light and yet walks in the darkness is a hypocrite.

Also, “if we claim that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).  Yes, truth is the correspondence of a statement or concept with reality.  To say we have no sin does not correspond to the reality that we are sinful.  However, John’s statement places truth in the center of our being.  It is “in us.”  To claim that we are not sinners is not just an intellectual error, it is a self-deception that affects our whole being.  To be so wrong about ourself leads to a false kind of existence, a false path that leads to death and not the life which is found in Christ.

The teaching that truth is the practice of living according to the way of Jesus influences the New Testament understanding of knowledge.  John writes, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).  Knowledge here is of a relationship.  It does not deny conformity to true statements, but it goes beyond that.  Just as Jesus said that he did not know some who claimed to know him, so also someone who claims to know Christ but does not keeps his commandments does not know him; that is, does not have a personal relationship with him.

On the other hand, knowledge includes the confidence or assurance that one has in a relationship.  “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:4).  As the believer obeys Jesus’ commandments or follows his way, he is increasingly confident that he truly knows him in a personal way.  This is a justification for a truth claim, but it is not the strictly rational one that Plato demands.  In line with the biblical view, it is a more personal and relational justification.


            In summary, the biblical view of truth and knowledge does not contradict the traditional correspondence and coherence theories of truth, but it complements them and expands upon them in a way that takes epistemology into the realms of relationships, integrity of character, and the practice of a way of life.

The correspondence theory argues that truth is the correspondence between ideas and statements and the reality to which they refer.  The coherence theory asserts that statements must not contradict one another for them to be true.  The biblical view of truth can be understood in terms of the correspondence and coherence theories of truth but applied not just to concepts and statements.  God is truth because his actions correspond perfectly to his words.  He is truth because his actions correspond to his person.  Because of the concern that actions correspond to one’s words or character, truth is also something that one practices.  In particular, it is the fulfillment of promises.  As the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament, truth came with Jesus.

In addition, knowledge is not merely a true belief that is justified by strictly logical reasons.  Biblically speaking, knowledge is also relational.  One knows a person, not just facts about the person.  One can know of the existence of a person but not know the person.  Such knowledge results in actions that reflect that personal relationship so that the one who knows God in truth obeys his commandments and follows in his way.

The traditional theories of truth and knowledge should be highly valued, especially in times like these where we are seeing the destructive tendencies of denying the possibility or validity of claims to truth.  Yet for all their very real value, they need to be incorporated into the broader and more holistic biblical view of truth that touches on all aspects of human life.  In particular, without the biblical focus on God as truth and its assertion that a human life lived in conformity to the divine way of acting is true and fulfilling the classical theories result in an inadequate view of the human person as merely a rational being.  They fall short of the God of truth, at whose “right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

[1] That is, the version that relates to the being of something with regard to its nature and attributes.

[2] For those using a different translation, edition, or the original Greek the source is Metaphysics 4.3.1005b19-20.

[3] Ibid., 4.3.1005b29-30.

[4] Ibid., 4.6.1011b13-14.

[5] With one exception, this word is never used of a human being in the Old Testament.

[6] The NIV seems to miss the mark with its translation “All your words are true.”  The King James translates the passage, “The word is truth from the beginning.”  This is a legitimate translation of the verse and points to the coherence of God’s word over time, even its eternality.

[7] The phrase “acting faithfully” in Ezekiel 18:9 is literally “doing truth.”

[8] I shall not be spending time explaining the New Testament Greek words since they are uniformly translated as truth and knowledge.

Works Cited

Aristotle. “Metaphysics,” translated by W. D. Ross. The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon, Random House, 1941, pp. 681-926.

—. “Metaphysics.” Great Ideas: Readings in Metaphysics and Epistemology, edited by William Isley, Trent Leach, and Brian Williams, Cair Paravel Latin School, 2015, pp. 29-34.

Vanhoozer, Kevin. “Truth.” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Kevin Vanhoozer, Baker Book House, 2005, pp. 818-22.















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