The Whole Truth: Why One-Sided Truths Are the Most Effective Way to Introduce Error

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. Continue reading