The Fine Print about Truth

I recall Francis Schaeffer talking about “true truth” to make the point, if memory serves, that Christians do not endorse relativism. But among the apologists for Rome I don’t recall hearing so many appeals to abstract truth — that is, the idea that the church stands for the truth (but see if you can figure out what that truth is). It’s like Dwight Eisenhower’s old line about America’s faith: “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Here’s one apologist on the first leg of the truth-goodness-beauty-three-legged stool:

So, this Church that the Bible tells us was founded by Jesus Christ; this Church that the Bible tells us is the pillar and ground – the upholder and foundation – of the truth; this Church that the Bible tells us is the fullness of Jesus Christ – the fullness of the truth; this Church that the Bible tells us is guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth; this Church must teach us what? Error? No! This Church must teach us truth. It cannot teach us error. The Church founded by Jesus Christ must teach the truth he fullness of the truth. It cannot teach error!

Does God want everyone to be Catholic? According to the Bible, the Church founded by Jesus Christ contains the fullness of the truth that He has made known to us about Himself. What does the Catholic Church claim about itself? Well, it claims that it contains the fullness of the truth given to us by Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that the Church founded by Jesus Christ contains the fullness of the truth, and here is the Catholic Church claiming to contain the fullness of the truth, and claiming to have been founded directly by Jesus Christ. If whatever church you are in doesn’t at least claim these things for itself, then you have some thinking and praying to do.

Another appeal to truth that makes the church’s truth qualities more important that Scripture’s:

Truth is truth. It cannot be error, by its very essence and defi­nition. How can truth’s foundation or pillar or bulwark or ground be something less than total truth (since truth itself contains no falsehoods, untruths, lies, or errors)? It cannot. It’s impossible, as a straightforward matter of logic and plain observation. A stream cannot rise above its source.

What is built on a foundation cannot be greater than the foundation. If it were, the whole structure would collapse. If an elephant stood on the shoulders of a man as its foundation, that foundation would collapse. The base of a skyscraper has to hold the weight above it. It can’t be weaker than that which is built upon it. The foundations of a suspension bridge over a river have to be strong enough to hold up that bridge. They can’t possibly be weaker than the bridge, or the structure would collapse.

Therefore, we must conclude that if the Church is the founda­tion of truth, the Church must be infallible, since truth is infal­lible, and the foundation cannot be less great or strong than that which is built on it. Truth cannot be built on any degree of error whatever, because that would make the foundation weaker than the superstructure above it.

Accordingly, given the above biblical passages and many oth­ers, the Catholic “three-legged stool” rule of faith may be defined in the following way:

In the biblical (and historic Catholic) view the inspired, infallible Bible is interpreted by an infallible, divinely guided Church, which in turn infallibly interprets and formulates the true doctrinal (apostolic) tradition.

Here’s another who links truth to freedom (which is oh so American and modern):

The Catholic faith is about freedom because it is about the Truth, the deepest truth about God and about our existence. It appeals to the deepest sanctuary of the heart. If it promotes social institutions, it does so to make space for the voice of conscience in human affairs. Whether it concerns the sacredness of marriage, or of motherhood, or of family, or of life itself, the Church has a responsibility to speak the truth in love.

That sounds like Christianity is an IBM-like institution which supplies the workings that make a society run smoothly. Not sure what the truth is except for something deep.

But that kind of bland identification of Truth with Roman Catholicism, especially with the institutional church instead of with what the Word of God teaches, runs the danger of setting the church above the truth. Rod Dreher relayed the remarks of one of his friends about the dangers of so exalting an institution:

‘Institutionalism’ affects both traditional and progressive Catholics in equal measure. It is one might say – to borrow and misuse a term – the “structural sin” of Catholicism, living in its very bones, in seminaries, parish structures, canon law, etc. Institutionalism can be summarized as something like: ‘the excessive trust in institutional structures – including a complacent belief that the institution takes care of itself, an expectation that those vested with institutional authority can and will exercise sound if not perfect judgment, and finally, and most importantly, the conviction that all problems are institutional ones to be solved by ever-more refined rule-amending, making, or keeping’.

The most obvious manner in which institutionalism manifests itself is in attitudes toward the papacy and ‘creeping infallibility’ (in which the pope is assumed to be infallible even in his ordinary teaching). However, one can also see it among progressive Catholics and their attitude toward Vatican II as well as their oft- vocalized belief that we need a Vatican III to ‘address contemporary problems’ or that this or that rule needs to change. It is this obsession about the institution that makes mincemeat of both the tradition of faith (we need to adapt to the contemporary worldview or else no one will go to church anymore!), cover up evil (we cannot let anyone know about this or else no one will come to church anymore!), or place sole responsibility on Church institutions for failure (if it weren’t for those progressives at Vatican II, everyone would still be coming to church!).

When you look for defenses of or references to truth in the Shorter or Heidelberg catechisms, you don’t find much. The Shorter Catechism refers to truth as one of God’s attributes and defends telling the truth — ahem — in its explanation of the ninth commandment. Heidelberg goes a little farther in equating truth with the gospel:

Question 21. What is true faith?
Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. . . .

Question 40. Why was it necessary for Christ to humble himself even “unto death”?
Answer: Because with respect to the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins could be made no otherwise, than by the death of the Son of God.

That may explain why some Protestants don’t convert, because the truth about salvation is more important than the truth abstracted:

. . . when my friend asked how I could remain theologically conservative in spite of my great learning (not as great as he gave me credit for, by the way), I replied somewhat glibly,”I kept reading the Bible and it kept talking about me.” Although I certainly simplified the matter, the truth was that as I read more, learned more, and thought more, the evangelical understanding of the biblical narrative of creation–fall–judgment–redemption impressed itself upon me, continuing to recount the story of my own life while making sense of the world in a way that nothing else that I studied did. I knew that my own life was peppered by self-deception and sin and needed the grace of God offered in Christ. Further, I saw a world populated with human beings who regularly and vigorously sinned against one another. They too needed the grace of God offered in Christ. Finally, as my more progressive colleagues helped me to discern, there were (and are) sinful structures of oppression the permeated the world. Those caught in them–as either oppressed or oppressor–need the grace of God offered in Christ, while the structures themselves need the perfect king to come in righteous judgment and tear them down. In the end, all other explanations regarding the troubles of this world seemed insufficient, while all other solutions regarding how to address them seemed utterly inadequate. And thus I remained (and remain) evangelical.

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Who Says the U.S. Lacks a Religious Establishment?

From Dwight Eisenhower’s December 22, 1952 speech as president-elect before the Freedoms Foundation’s directors:

I had a friend, a man who really turned out to be quite a good friend, and who suffered for it. His name was Marshal Zhukov, of the Red Army. In fact, his later disgrace came about because of the fact that he was supposed to be too good a friend of mine; . . . We used to talk about the bases of our respective forms of government, our civilizations.

One day he put me back on my heels with the statement: “of course, we have difficulty in promulgating our theory, because we appealed to the idealistic in man and you appeal to all that is materialistic and selfish. We tell a man that he is not to work for his own special rights, for his own privilege and the opportunity of indulging himself in anything from religious worship to earning and saving our property and giving it to his children. We appeal to something higher and nobler,” he said. “We tell him his only glory is in the glory of the body, of the whole group, the entirety of the organism to which you belong. Therefore, we say, don’t worry about earning money. Don’t worry about worldly advancement. Work for the Soviet Union. Work for Russia. That,” he said, “is what we have to say. But you tell a man, ‘why you can do as you please, and there are really no restrictions on the individual.’ So you are appealing to all that is selfish.”

I must say that in just a matter of immediate dialectic contest, let’s say, I didn’t know exactly what to say to him, because my only definition was what I believed to be the basic one, the basic reason for its existence. I know it would do no good to appeal to him with it, because it is founded in religion. And since at the age of 14 he had been taken over by the Bolshevik religion and had believed in it since that time, I was quite certain it was hopeless on my part to talk to him about the fact that our form of government is founded in religion.

Our ancestors who formed this Government said in order to explain it, you remember that, that a decent respect for the opinion of mankind impels them to declare the reasons which led to the separation [between the American colonies and Britain] and this is how they explained those: “We hold that all men are endowed by their Creator . . . .” Not by the accident of birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but “all men are endowed by their creator.” In other words, our form of Government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal. . . .

Now, it seems to me that if we are going to win this fight we have got to go back to the very fundamentals of all things. And one of them is that we are a religious people.

This is the speech often quoted for its inane remark about the importance of religion combined with indifference to the specific religion. But in the context of the Cold War and a struggle between an ideology that was explicitly atheistic, materialist, and collectivist, Eisenhower’s recognition of theism’s value, even as confused as it is, makes some sense. His point specifically about theism and personal freedom is a point that not only evolutionists might need to hear, but also Christian critics of the West who blame notions of political freedom for the selfishness and decadence that afflicts the United States. If the choice is between the Soviet communism or Christendom dominated by Holy Roman Emperor and infallible bishop, I’ll stand with Ike. Freedom has its flaws. But it keeps the free on their toes. Autocracy doesn’t leave much room for correction, nor does group think.