Since its inception, the church has been a community created by truth (Eph. 1:13; Col. 1:5) and engaged with confronting error. Both proactively and reactively, the church and its heralds of Scripture have been called to preach the truth of God’s Word and reject falsehood (see e.g., Titus 1:9). Yet, in every generation this calling has been compromised through half truths masquerading as whole truths which become untruths, as the late J. I. Packer once put it.
For this reason, Christians, and especially pastors, must be vigilant to defend the truth from half truths. On this point, A.A. Hodge insisted that the challenge of this duty stemmed from the many-sided nature of truth. Because we are one-sided people, who are both limited in our thinking, twisted in our desires, and easily deceived by our Enemy, we struggle to handle the many-sided nature of truth. Thus, we fall into error.
Though he wrote nearly 150 years ago, his observation is worth considering, with the added reflection on ways that one-sided truths lead us into error. Here are his words, which come from the opening pages of his book, The Atonement. Below I will offer four ways that one-sided truths can derail us and lead us into temptation and error.
The human mind was formed for truth, and so constituted that only truth can exert permanent influence upon it. But the truth revealed in the Scriptures is so many-sided in its aspects, and so vast in its relations, and our habits of thought, because of sin, are so one-sided and narrow, that as a general fact, the mind of any Church in any single age fails to take in practically and sharply more than one side of a truth at a time, while other aspects and relations are either denied or neglected. A habit of unduly exalting any subordinate view of the truth at the expense of that which is more important, or of overlooking, on the other hand, some secondary aspect of it altogether, is certain after a time to lead to a reactionary tendency, in which that which has been too much exalted shall be brought low, and that which has been abased shall be exalted. This principle is abundantly illustrated throughout the entire history of theological speculation as in the ever-repeated oscillations between extremes of Sabellianism and Tritheism as to the Trinity, of Eutychianism [Jesus was fully divine, but not fully human] and Nestorianism [Jesus was two persons (one divine, one human) not one person with two natures] to the Person of Christ, and in the history of speculations on the doctrine of Redemption.
Every prominent heresy as to the nature of the Atonement, as the reader will find carefully acknowledged and defined in the following work, embraces and emphasizes on its positive side an important truth. The power, and hence the danger, of the heresy resides in that fact. But on the other hand, it is a heresy, and hence an evil to be resisted unto death, because it either puts a subordinate principle into the place of that which is central and fundamental, or because it puts one side of the truth for the whole, denying or ignoring all besides the fractional truth presented. It is plainly the policy as well as the duty of the defenders of the whole truth, not only to acknowledge the truth held on the side of their opponents, but to vindicate the rights of the perfect system as a whole, by demonstrating the true position and relation of the partial truth admitted in the larger system of truth denied. By these means we double the defences of orthodoxy, by bringing into contribution all that is true, and therefore all that is of force, in the apologies of error. (A. A Hodge, The Atonement, 17–18).
Acknowledging Hodge’s warning, what can we do to guard against one-sided (half-)truths? The singular answer is to continue to press into the truth of God and the whole counsel of God’s Word. At the same time, we should recognize common paths to error. And that is what I want to offer here—namely, four ways we might be led to affirm one-side of the truth without holding fast to the other sides of truth. As a result, we misshape the truth by ignoring or denying other aspects of truth, which makes the truth we hold persuasive but also pernicious. Only truth in full flower is, what Francis Schaeffer called, true truth. And true truth is what we must always pursue. To that end let us beware of the following habits of thought.
Four Ways We Can Miss the Truth
1. Affirming the Truth with Wrong Propositions
Because truth in speech must match truth in reality—this is sometimes called a “correspondence view of the truth”—we must rightly articulate the way we speak. Truth is not defined by sincere intentions or personal sentiments. Truth stands on facts that match the world God has made and the Word God has inspired. Thus, in seeking to hold forth truth we must care about propositions and the clarity of our words. More specifically, we must care deeply not only about what is affirmed, but also what is (or is not) denied.
Often half-truths come through the failure to deny error. Because we are all prone to please people, we don’t want to disappoint or garner disapproval. And this leads to generic and inclusive propositions that mute the finer points of the truth. More constructively, when we combine affirmations with denials, we are drawing a line in the sand. We are moving from a centered set that anyone can agree to to a bounded set that draws distinctions. By nature, this boundary-marker is what distinguishes one person from another, or one group from another. But it also clarifies what is true and what is not. Without attaching a concrete example to this distinction, we must maintain the fact that from Genesis 1 (where God separated light from dark, land from water, one kind of animal from another, etc.) until today, creation is ordered by boundaries. And thus, affirming the whole truth requires us to do the same. Our speech should always distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and truth from falsehood. Often error comes in when we fail to speak clearly or comprehensively.
Again, we are not saying that any human, save Jesus, has a monopoly on truth. But we are saying that one way of going astray is to speak imprecisely—or worse, to speak deceptively. Propositions matter. And those who refuse to make careful propositions will regularly fall into positions that affirm one truth and deny many others. Today, many eschew theological precision and ethical certainty; they prefer generic values and self-defined community. Yet, this will only lead to all kinds of error.
2. Affirming the Truth with Wrong Priorities
It is also possible to fall into error by falsely prioritizing one truth over another. The practice of theological triage provides a good example here. When we place lesser doctrines over and above more important doctrines, as in placing the timing of the Rapture over the ethical imperatives that arise from Christ’s resurrection, we will mishandle the truth. Even when we hold both truths, their errant prioritization leads to theological and practical problems.
In Scripture, there is a whole system of truth. While the Bible is not arranged systematically like a dictionary, that does not mean that the Bible is devoid of intra-biblical systems of thought. It takes work to locate all of these data points—and this is a project that the whole church must pursue, not just individuals—but there are points of doctrine and ethics that take greater weight than others. As Jesus told the Pharisees: You have failed to keep the law because “you tithe mint and dill and cumin, [but] have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). Without denying any point of the law, Jesus affirmed an order to be found in God’s revelation. We too need to learn how Jesus weighs matters of the law. For without learning this truth, we too will wrongly prioritize what is most important
3. Affirming the Truth with Wrong Proportions
Closely related to the error of wrongly prioritizing various truths is the practice of wrongly proportioning various truths. This is made visible in a recent statement by John MacArthur that religious liberty does not matter. For months, John MacArthur has boldly led his church (Grace Community Church) to gather in spite of opposition from the state of California. His example and explanations of the church as essential have wonderfully bolstered the faith of many Christians throughout the world. Yet, this week, he followed up his bold stand for the church by denying the need to contend for religious liberty. He likened the pursuit of religious liberty to that of idolatry. It seems, his argument stems from his other-worldly, salvation-first focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Without getting into a full-blown discussion about heaven and earth, church and state, etc., it is enough to recognize how his system of theology rightly affirms the place of gathering the church and worshiping God, but unnecessarily denies the place for Christians (or anyone for that matter) to pray for and work for a country that offers religious freedom. From the examples of Scripture (especially Paul using his citizenship to advance the gospel), the doctrine of anthropology (with its affirmation of a liberty of conscious), and the missiological wisdom of creating an environ where the gospel can be received without government coercion or opposition, Christians have ample biblical grounds for upholding and contending for religious liberty. Yet, MacArthur has given this part of Scripture too little consideration. In focusing on others parts of the Bible, which speak of the eternal necessity for sinners to repent and believe, he has unnecessarily missed what Scripture says to Christians about the nations and our role in this world.
Conversely, one could make the opposite error with respect to church and state. Robert Jeffress is well-known for the way he has conflated God and country, as are the historical examples of Civil Religion which downplayed orthodox Christianity in order to affirm a national religion against Communism. (On the history of Civil Religion in America and its fusion of Liberal Christianity and government, see George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief). I suspect MacArthur may be arguing against this sort of idolatrous approach to “God-and-country” Christianity. I would too, but not at the expense of denying religious liberty.
All told, we can run into error when we fail to apportion God’s truth correctly. In these two examples, Jeffress et al. have made too much of politics, but MacArthur has unnecessarily made too little. Again, the full counsel of Scripture would give us a much fuller, many-sided truth by which to avoid idolatry and national indifference.
4. Believing the Truth with Wrong Passions
Finally, we can go astray with a wrong passion for truth. A number of years ago, Kevin DeYoung wrote on whether or not it was okay for Christians to believe in hell but not like it. His short article included this wise reflection,
To admit that God says hard things is admirable honesty. But to profess our dislike for what he does or wish that he were a different kind of God who did things in a different way–even if we come around to accept these ways in the end–is not the right kind of humility. It’s one thing to say to unbelievers and skeptics, “I struggled with the same questions you’re asking.” It’s another to throw God under the bus, admitting “I don’t like hell anymore than you do. I’d take it out of the Bible if I could. But it’s in there, so I can’t deny it.”
Such a position of questioning God or disliking something Scripture teaches may be a necessary step in our journey of sanctification, but the longer we hold that dislike the more dangerous it becomes. Second Thessalonians 2:10 teaches that those who are ultimately condemned are sentenced to eternal destruction not because they do not believe the truth, but because they do not love the truth. Conversely, those who are redeemed will love God and will love the truth, all of it, in increasing fashion. This is what it means to be children of God who walk in the truth.
Put into practice, one of the ways we often see people stray from God is by disliking something in the Bible. How many are the times I have heard someone say about something revealed in Scripture, “I can’t believe in a God like that,” only to hear later “I don’t believe in God.” Because faith is not mechanical, it matters deeply how we feel about truth. What we feel about truth doesn’t make something more or less true, but our passions will impact the way we hold that truth—both now and in the future. Moreover, how we will feel about certain doctrines will inform the way we present them, or don’t.
In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul regularly accused false teachers of immorality. In fact, he teaches us that we can know a false teacher by their lifestyle. Because truth is moral (i.e., it corresponds to God’s standard of holiness), it is impossible to go on teaching the truth when the teacher is passionate about something that displeases God. More positively, Psalm 25:14 says that God shares his friendship (or his secrets) with those who fear him. In other words, knowledge of God and the fullness of his many-sided truth is not going to come to those who are smitten with sin or dispassionate about true truth. Accordingly, when we find someone who is passionate about things that are not central to God’s Word (see above), we have all the more reason to beware that they will (or we will) truncate the Christian message or combine it with something else.
Indeed, much of today’s debate around social justice and the gospel is related to the way justice, which is a biblical truth when defined by the Bible, is taking center stage in the hearts of many Christians. In many cases, the Bible’s focus on personal salvation through the finished work of Christ is being eclipsed by justice. This alteration is not because individuals are seeking to change the gospel, but because, in their passion for cultural change, the call for justice gets more volume than does the call for individual salvation, a truth that does not promise immediate, earthly change. Again, Hodge’s admonition resonates. We can miss or misshape God’s truth, not by denying it, but by focusing on one side of it (public justice) to the exclusion of rest (the message of personal salvation). Equally, we can misstep if we don’t see how Scripture speaks about justice and addresses the cultural pressures of our day.
Holding Fast to Truth
In the end, we must beware of the ways that error can creep into our hearts, our homes, our churches, and our creeds. And thus we must continue to give ourselves to the full counsel of God, the regular reading of his Word, the practice of confession for sins, and prayers for illumination. Indeed, the journey of seeking and defending truth is a spiritual one. It cannot be divorced from the work of God in our lives, nor considered without awareness of our Enemy, the Devil, who is attempting to deceive all of us by means of making the many-sided truth of God one-sided.
This was true 150 years ago. It was true 1500 years ago. And until Christ returns we will be called to seek the truth of God and to submit to all God has said to us about himself, his world, and his ways of salvation. Indeed, God has not been silent about his truth. But because we are prone to wander and inclined to misshape what he has given to us, we must continue to humbly seek his loving correction and divine assistance in coming to an understanding of his truth. What we’ve seen here are just a few ways we can miss the mark. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it representative of the ways we can go astray.
By knowing these errants paths, we will be better guarded to avoid error and seek truth. May God help us in that endeavor. And may we delight in the fullness of all God has said.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds