Truth as a Person
It’s no secret that John’s Gospel often cloaks depth with simplicity. That is part of the beauty of his prose, which carries over from the Greek into many English translations. A prime example is the often-quoted John 14:6, an utterance of Christ comprised of a simple subject, a linking verb, and three subject complements: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” We might skip over the syntax as thoughtlessly as we would dance over a string of rain puddles on pavement. But I cannot seem to get over the middle part. Jesus is the truth?
Of course, it always sounded strange to my ear because truth was something that I had to tell when my parents asked me if I had pelted my younger brother with feed corn, or knocked his two front teeth out by slamming the door on him as he followed me around the house blaring on a trumpet. (Guilty on both counts; sorry, Toby.) Or, truth was turned into an adjective and used to describe the answers to math equations or history questions. At the very deepest, truth was an abstraction that carried little pragmatic weight in my young life. Certainly, I used the word to refer to the central dogmas of the Christian faith: depravity, salvation, resurrection—these things constituted truth. But if I were pressed on the meaning of that word in context, I would have had little more to say other than that these teachings were real or actual. In no way would the word truth connote a person, at least not for my younger self.
Of course, even if I would have understood it in any depth, I would have had no awareness of the implications for all of reality. And it does have implications for all of reality. Let me try to explain why.
Reformed theology has long relied on the archetype-ectype distinction when it comes to God and his creation. The triune God is the archetype—the original, the qualitatively different giver of all the good gifts we see in creation. Man is the ectype—the image-bearing, representative, covenantal creature. This distinction can be applied to many facets of theology.
One such facet is the Trinitarian identity of the Son as the Word of the Father (John 1:1). In this case, the eternal Word is the archetype for the particular divine words that God spoke at creation and for the human words that have been uttered ever since then.[i] Our particular words—in every historical context, spread across sundry languages of the world—are ectypal; they are derivative. Our words only have meaning, function, and a sound because the eternal Word of the Father, spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit, has ultimate meaning, an intra-trinitarian function, and a sound that forever resonates in the ear of God himself. As I like to put it, in the beginning was the Word the Father spoke and Spirit heard. That Word is eternally spoken and eternally heard, and because of this, our words have relevance as temporally spoken and temporally heard.
The implications of this truth are staggering. Every word that is written or uttered or even imagined is a testament to the divine discourse of the self-communing Trinity. People might ask for proof of God, but their asking is already a testament to God’s existence and his sovereign rule over our communicative behavior. More to the point, this way of looking at words stands our typical perception of language on its head. We tend to think of our words as the original and the Son as divine word as a metaphorical derivation. The opposite is the case: the true Word is God the Son, and all of our words are historically embedded, metaphorical derivatives of him! This makes language profoundly personal, for it has its source in the tri-personal God.
In a similar way, we can apply this reasoning to our understanding of truth. Truth is not first and foremost propositional; it is not ultimately a quality that we ascribe to features of reality. Truth is the second person of the Trinity. He is truth. This means many things, but perhaps the most provocative meaning is the simplest: whenever we evaluate or describe something in created reality as true, we are making a personal claim in the deepest sense of the word. We are making a claim that is by nature a tacit expression of the second person of the Trinity.
An example may help here. If I were to see a child running on the sidewalk without a parent nearby, I might say, “He really needs to be careful.” You might reply, “That’s true.” On one level, you are saying that my evaluation coheres with general human experience—that those who are not careful when they are walking next to traffic can end up getting hurt, or even killed. On a deeper level, you are also communicating something about the Son of God, something that grounds your surface-level meaning. In a sense, you are saying that God has spoken, in his eternal Word, to create the world with regular patterns, patterns which people often describe as “natural laws” (gravity, motion and force, etc.). These natural laws are really nothing more than God’s speech, which has created and continues to govern all of physical reality (Gen 1; Heb 1:3).[ii] In place of “That’s true,” you might just as well have said, “The Word of God is all-controlling and reliable” or “The Son of God is trustworthy.” The point is that your statement about an ectypal phenomenon is rooted in an archetypal reality. You cannot say anything ectypal without simultaneously implying an archetypal claim.
We might consider this more broadly. Philosophers sometimes talk about the “correspondence theory of truth”—the theory that truth is found in correspondence between linguistic expressions and real world referents.[iii] Such a position completely ignores the Christian conviction that truth cannot be fully understood or appreciated until it finds its source in the tri-personal God, in the divine person who is truth. A biblical correspondence theory of truth would suggest that we describe as “true” anything that aligns with the character of the second person of the Trinity. The answers to math equations and history questions that I had labeled as “true” in my youth could only be labeled as such because of the Son of God. Their veracity is ultimately nothing more than an adherence to the creative and sustaining person of the Son, who took on flesh and dwelt among us. We can have embodied truth in math and history only because the person who is truth has been embodied in the speech of God since the dawn of creation (and before then, in the intra-trinitarian communication of Father, Son, and Spirit) and would one day be embodied in human flesh.
I am not sure what my math teacher would have said if in response to her question about a particular equation, “Why is this true?” I had answered, “Because of the Son of God.” It would have likely brought about laughter and puzzlement, but that is because the world blindly mistakes measurement for meaning. In other words, people tend to see the concrete particulars and have been trained to understand those particulars as archetypal and any statements about God as ectypal. They mistake derived earthly ectypes for the ultimate divine archetype. When we work the other way around, all of reality takes on a personal depth and complexity that should bring us to awe and worship.
Truth is a person, and that means every form of earthly veracity has a relation to him.
Pierce Taylor Hibbs is a graduate of Westminster Seminary (MAR, 2010). He has served at the Center for Theological Writing for seven years and has extensive experience teaching theological writing. He specializes in teaching English language skills to speakers of other languages, serving as the lead instructor for the Theological English portion of Mastering Theological English and as a lecturer in Advanced Theological Writing.
[i] Vern Poythress has done excellent work in drawing out this relationship. See Vern S. Poythress, “Reforming Ontology and Logic in the Light of the Trinity: An Application of Van Til’s Idea of Analogy,” Westminster Theological Journal 57, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 187–219; “God and Language,” in Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture, ed. David B. Garner (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2012).
[ii] Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 14–15; In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 66–68.
[iii] For a contemporary example, see John R. Searle, Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (New York: Basic Books, 1998).