An Exegetical Basis for Truth as Correspondence to Reality

I was fascinated the other day to notice a verse in Proverbs that seemed to provide the beginnings of an exegetical argument for a “correspondence” definition of truth. Further study convinced me that “truth” in Scripture is defined in terms of correspondence to reality.

Before I trace out the full argument, here’s the quick summary: Truth is a form of righteousness. Righteousness is the condition of measuring up to a standard. The standard for truth in Scripture is whether a statement matches or corresponds to reality. Therefore, truth is that which corresponds to reality.

Truth as Righteousness
Proverbs 12:17 reads, “He who speaks truth tells what is right, But a false witness, deceit” (nasb). Another way of translating v. 17 is, “he who breathes out truth, declares righteousness” [יָפִ֣יחַ אֱ֭מוּנָה יַגִּ֣יד צֶ֑דֶק].

Proverbs 12:17 establishes a relationship between truth and righteousness. Since righteousness as a category may denote the condition of object, persons, and statements, truth must be a subset of righteousness.

The Meaning of Righteousness
In the OT, the normal sense of “righteousness” is the condition of measuring up to a given standard. Context determines what standard is in view.

For example in Deut. 25:15, God requires a “righteous” weight, and a “righteous” measure (cf. Lev. 19:36). A weight or a measure is “righteous” when it meets the approved standard. A one lb. weight that weighs less than or more than one pound is not righteous. If it weighs one lb. then it is righteous.

In the same way a person is righteous when they measure up to the standard in view. David declares his righteousness in regard to the standard of “not doing evil to one’s friend” in Psalm 7:4-8.

To speak what is “righteous,” then, is to speak what measures up to the standard in view.

Reality as the Standard for Truth’s Righteousness
Precisely what standard Scripture has in view is clarified by Proverbs 14:5 which addresses truth-telling and lying.

Proverbs 14:5 “A trustworthy witness will not lie, But a false witness utters lies.”

The phrase translated “trustworthy witness” is more literally a “witness of truth” [עֵד אֱמוּנִים].

Whereas Pro. 12:17 gave us a positive definition of truth (=righteousness), Prov. 14:5 gives us a negative definition: speaking truth is the opposite of lying. It is a false witness who lies.

Scriptural examples of a false witness’s lies include declaring the innocent guilty or the guilty innocent (Exod. 23:7), or stating that you do not have an item when, in fact, you do have it (Lev. 6:3).

Truth-telling is subject to empirical verification
Deut. 19:18 further expands our understanding of the way in which God defines truth. When an allegation is made, God required judges to investigate carefully to determine whether the allegation was false.

In other words, the truth of an allegation must be empirically verified. That is possible only when one conceives of truth as that which corresponds to the facts of reality. What does not correspond to reality is false, and if told with the intent to deceive it constitutes “false-witnessing.”

Turning to the NT, we find Peter declaring Ananias’ statement a lie because it intentionally asserted what he knew did not correspond to reality (Acts 5:1-4).

In no instance does Scripture use the language of truth to describe a statement that fails to correspond to reality. The biblical conception of truth always entails a correspondence between the intended assertion and reality.

Kinds of Correspondences to Reality
The precise nature of the correspondence between a true assertion and reality is, of course, a function of an author’s intention. That intention is signaled by the choice of genre and vocabulary.

For example, the genre of apocalyptic literature signals that the author intends a broad scale correspondence through figurative language. The use of numbers that lack digits in the one and tens places often signals an author’s intent to offer an approximate or rounded correspondence to reality. Similiarly, when an author uses words such as “like, about, approximately” he is also signaling a general rather than precise correspondence to reality.

Poetic affirmations are no less truth bearers than historical narrative, but the modes are different and so the tools for decoding the intended correspondence to reality will be different.

New Appreciation for “Thy Word is Truth”
The following affirmations regarding Scripture have gained new salience for me in light of the above study:

2 Samuel 7:28 “O Lord GOD, … Your words are truth …”
Psalm 119:142 “… Your law is truth.”
Psalm 119:160 “The sum of Your word is truth …”
2 Timothy 2:15 “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”

Rather than being bland, ho-hum statements that God is not lying, these verses become powerful affirmation that the Scriptures are entirely trustworthy and correspond to reality in all their particulars.

Praise God!


Josh Harris said…
Prof. Brown,

Thanks very much for this brief synopsis of your exegetical project on truth. I am a grad student who is interested in precisely this topic (more specifically, truth in the Gospel of John), but so far have come away with the opposite conclusion: namely, that correspondence theory is too reductionistic to handle the biblical text's various uses of truth--especially with respect to the climactic passage in John 14.

If you have the time/interest, I would love to hear your thoughts on these and related matters. I am definitely open to correction, especially since I am a philosopher by training and thus wholly innocent of biblical Hebrew.

Philip Brown said…
Hi, Josh,

Two comments:
1. Hebrew and Greek words translated 'truth' are polysemous, and it is crucial to avoid the semantic fallacy "totality tranfer" or reading all a word's senses into each of its occurrences. For more on this read Carson's Exegetical Fallacies or Silva's Biblical Words and their Meanings

2. In regard to John 14:

I assume you're referring to John 14:6 -- "I am the ... truth"?

There are two interrelated exegetical questions that determine how one understanding 14:6 -- (1) how is the linking verb "am" (εἰμί) functioning semantically? (2) How are the terms way, truth, and life to be understood--metaphorically? literally? figuratively? some combination of the above?

I understand Christ to be saying -- It is through me that you come to God (=I am the way); I am the source and sustainer of reality (cf. Heb. 1:3) and therefore the source of all truth (=I am the truth); I am the source and sustainer of all life and there is no life or truth or access to God apart from me (=I am the life).

This understanding does not take these terms literally with "am" functioning as an equals sign, such that A = B; therefore, B = A.

Misreading this texts leads to metaphysical assertions like "truth is a person" or "truth is ultimately personal/relational." Don't misunderstand me, the tri-personal God is indeed the ultimate reality, but truth is a term that denotes a specific relationship between verbal utterances and their intended reference.

Given this reading of John 14:6, God's own definition of truth as correspondence to reality has significance for virtually every department of systematic theology. "To walk in truth" is to walk in harmony with reality as God has designed and sustains it. To be truth doers is to be Christlike, for he is the ultimate source and sustainer of reality.

Philip Brown
Chris Cravens said…
Phil, Thanks for your thoughts! I have been working through a better understanding and teaching of this matter of "truth." Do you think there is a danger when we only view truth as the correspondence of reality? What about truth being a person? I am wondering about "eternal life" that is referenced in the Bible as well. Is "eternal life" more than just an eternal existence? Is eternal life actually a person (Jo. 17:3)? Is the "way" (of salvation/holiness) more than mere process, direction or path? Is the "way" a person? Obviously, in my mind, as I pursue the person of Jesus these other matters take form in my life, but aren't these matters (truth, life, way) more than just the transference of a certain quality of information? Likely it is engages both to some degree. Just some rambling thoughts from a pastor-friend. :)

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