Timely Truth

One of the most popular descriptions of the Bible is that it is a repository of “timeless truths.” It is a sentiment that is often assumed even outside explicitly Christian circles. Even though I am a Christian who takes the Bible seriously as the word of God, I have come to find this description quite unhelpful for a number of reasons. It may seem counter intuitive but it is a viewpoint that distracts us from hearing scripture on its own terms. This is because it is an unexamined assumption that we bring to the Bible. This means we will read scripture according to a particular expectation without first ascertaining whether the text makes such promises. From my experience over the last several years studying scripture, it is never quite what we think it is, usually very different. There is no substitute to actually reading it and finding out what it has to say.

First of all, while the Bible is true and makes true statements it cannot be accurately described as a collection of truths, not even timeless ones. When people talk about these “truths” in the Bible, the generally mean there are a discrete, axiomatic set of truth claims that have been divinely assembled and are discernible to the reader of scripture. These truths have comprehensively and definitively compiled in a single and handy volume: The Bible. The idea that it can be broken down into truth principles resembles the rationalist approach to science. Just as there are laws of physics so are there truths in the Bible. This is a more sophisticated variation on “the Bible is a rule book/instruction manual” model. Interestingly “truth” never appears in the plural in the Bible. This is more than a semantic observation. The ancient culture that produced the scriptures never conceived of the Bible in such a reductionistic manner. The way the canon of scripture came into being simply did not allow for it. Moreover, when you actually look at the texts of scripture, it mainly consists of story and verse. The purpose of narrative and poetry, much less the biblical variety, is not to proffer propositional claims but to tell a true story.

The other problem is the notion of “timeless” truths. In Story Time I discuss how theologically and philosophically flawed the concept of “timelessness” is so I will not belabour the point. I will rather offer quick summaries of what I previously explored. I indicate in another post that truth is itself a kind of knowing. Knowing is an experiential thing, something that happens in the world of space and time. Being temporal creatures all our experiences are time bound. A timeless truth would therefore be unknowable. If we do know the truth, then we find it in time. A timeless truth is therefore simply incomprehensible for temporal creatures like us. Timeless truth could exist as an abstract idea but it has no relationship with the real world which we and indeed the people of the biblical period once lived. Ravi Zacharias describes this as the test of the experiential relevance of truth. For truth to matter, it must matter to real people. No wonder the truth in the New Testament is called the Gospel, that is, good news. Information about important change in the world that affects lives therefore people must know about it.

If you follow the biblical metanarrative, it is no surprise that truth is something that happens in time. The Bible begins with God creating time and encountering people within time, culminating with him being incarnate in history in Jesus of Nazareth.  The resurrection of Jesus in a physical body that can be located in spacetime is the most profound reaffirmation of the original created goodness of time. It is also our future hope where we will live in a redeemed world where time itself is redeemed. There is no point in the biblical narrative where time is something to be liberated from. Unloosing time from the biblical narrative undermines the very phenomenon of story. Especially, in a postmodern world we recognize that truth is a narrative and we must discuss among a number of competing narratives which one is the true story. Stories follow sequences and such progressions need time. If stories in general collapse by getting rid of time what about the Bible which says it’s telling of the story of the world is true.

A stainless steel “timeless truth” may seem sturdy but it is completely inert and cannot respond to real human experience. In our attempt to conceptually protect biblical truth from corrosion we withheld it from our lives. Truth, in any meaningful sense, cannot be a set of axiomatised abstractions to be mechanistically applied to life. The model of “timeless truths” is a highly reductive approach to an intractably non-reductive compendium of texts. In short biblical truth is messier, way more interesting and supremely relevant. Critically examining the flawed concept of “timeless truths” means we need to look again at how we understand the phenomena of revelation, inspiration, the biblical canon and ultimately the incarnation. Truth happened when God came in Christ and this is the timely truth we need to fully come to terms with.

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