Saturday, December 4, 2010

The last one on Truth for a while, I promise

To wrap this subject up for a while, I want to explain why I believe the question "Where in the Bible did you learn that?" is the only way to successfully combat false philosophies (aka, Untruth). I'm certainly aware there are other possible ways. I just don't think those other ways are reliable or ultimately correct.

For example, why couldn't a person ask: Where in church tradition did you learn that? or What logic led you to that conclusion? or How does Islam respond to that?

To answer that, we must first answer this: From where do we learn truth? I can come up with only three possible sources:

1.  Reason (we think it out)
2.  Feeling (we go with what out gut/heart says is right)
3.  Revelation (we are told what is right by a "higher source" - a god/spirit, teacher, tradition)

But, there are problems with each of these:

1. There are a lot of things we can reason out, but way too many we cannot, no matter how smart we are. For example, thinking alone could not possibly have discovered the deeper things of Faith, such as Christ's advent and resurrection. To be known, they had to be revealed. Another obvious problem with this source is the source itself - that is, how imperfect and easily-lead-astray our human minds are. If you sit alone under a nice tree on a beautiful day and try to work out a theology describable as "perfectly true", you will fail every time.

2. Refuting feelings as a viable source of truth doesn't even seem worth the virtual ink this screen is virtually printed on. Feelings are about as stable and reliable as waves of the sea. Only a person who would try to build a house on the surface of the ocean would even think of basing his understanding of truth on emotion. It's an easy trap to fall into, but foolish nonetheless.

3. To be reliable, the "higher source" from which we get our information must 1) know the truth, and 2) be willing to reveal the truth. If our so-called higher source is ignorant of anything at all, the truth it proclaims will be flawed in some way. And, if that source is not absolutely Good we should have no confidence it's told us absolute truth. Clearly, most of the sources we normally rely on, like cultural norms, professors, celebrities, books, lyrics, friends, etc must be disqualified.

And it's not just me who thinks this way.

Paul addresses precisely this issue in chapter 2 of Colossians. 

He begins the letter by reviewing for his readers several important truths about Christ and themselves, but then skids into what seems like a purely parenthetical passage:

I say this (ie, the things he's been teaching) 
in order that no one may delude you with 
plausible arguments. . . .See to it that no 
one takes you captive by philosophy and 
empty deceitaccording to human tradition
according to the elemental spirits of the 
world, and not according to Christ. (4 & 8)

In these two verses Paul gives a formidable list of ways that falsehood can get anchored in our heads. He’s not saying that everything produced by these sources will necessarily be false – but that we need to be very careful of the information or ideas we get from them.

Here’s a quick layman’s explanation of what those things mean in the original Greek.

  • Plausible arguments (also, enticing words) – This is like a practiced stump speech. It has all the kinks worked out, and the message is concise, precise, and virtually waterproof. However, this carefully crafted persuasion is intended to lead others into error.

  • Philosophy – This simply refers to speculative inquiries into all kinds of details. Often good, but in its negative sense, an extremely useful tool for making falsehood feel like truth.

  • Empty deceit – Similar to plausible arguments, but the less polished version. These are intentional lies intended to produce error or sin. “Empty” means fruitless and devoid of truth.

  • Human tradition – There’s a little more flavor in the original words than we get in English. While “tradition” is the teaching, precepts or rituals handed down from generation to generation, “human” was added to highlight the inherent flaws in those traditions that can lead us consciously or unconsciously into error. In other words, “Because we’ve always done it that way” is not always the wisest answer.

  • Elemental spirits (also, elemental principles) – These are the basic building blocks of ideas. Like letters, these principles are mixed and combined to create more complex ideas (like words) that eventually evolve into whole philosophies.

Paul was warning his readers to hold fast to the Truth they learned from him (and we in turn learn from the Bible) because Untruth can sound, feel, taste and seem so very right. In fact, its power lies precisely in its ability to mimic truth.

And as you might expect, all this just leads me to encourage once again: Examine the things you believe or assume in light of the Scriptures. Keep asking the question, “Where in the Bible did you learn that?” And keep seeking God’s Truth.