What is Truth?

William Young

The author delivered two lectures in 1969 at Cleveland State University, Ohio, under the auspices of the Warfield Foundation. In the first lecture, it was argued that contemporary secular theories of truth do not give a workable account of truth, and lead either to skepticism and relativism, or to redundancy and vacuity. “What is Truth?” consists of material we have selected from the second of the two lectures. Editorial revisions by Sherman Isbell of this lecture and of its footnotes are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission of Sherman Isbell.

I will attempt to present some implications of what might be called the Judeo-Christian outlook for the philosophical problem of truth. It is a precarious enterprise, and perhaps I can do nothing better in opening than to quote from Augustine’s De Trinitate: “Noli quaerere quid sit veritas.” (“But do not ask what truth is.”) (1) Augustine goes on to say, “For at once the darkness of bodily images stands against you. And clouds of phantasms can disturb the serenity which shone upon you at the first blow when I was saying the word truth.” I think this is akin to the famous passage in Augustine’s Confessions where he asks, “What is time?” If you do not ask me, then of course we know perfectly well what time is. But if you ask me to tell you what time is, that I cannot say. I am full of perplexities, full of difficulties, when it comes to giving a conceptual account of time. I have a certain intuitive understanding of what I mean by time, when I say, “It is time for the meeting this afternoon.” But when you want to give a precise definition, it is not so easy. So it is with truth. When we say, “What he said is true,” we know well enough what true means in this context. At least we would be able to use the word quite effectively. But when it comes to giving a definition or developing a theory of truth, I can sympathize with Augustine saying “Do not ask what truth is.”

Let me say something about the general framework of biblical thought. Professor Herman Dooyeweerd has attempted to present on a large scale a Christian philosophy that has its roots in biblical revelation. Prof. Dooyeweerd is very fond of speaking of a biblical ground-motive, but I am not sure that one has quite covered everything in terms of a ground-motive when one speaks only of creation, fall and redemption providing a framework for the biblical view of history. I think something else should be added, and that is that the whole historical development, as well as the whole of created nature, is the unfolding of the eternal purpose which God purposed in Himself “before” the foundation of the world. (If you will pardon the temporal language, it is a biblical expression I use without intending to imply that God Himself is or thinks or wills within a temporal framework.) I wish to lay great stress upon the biblical conception of the counsel or purpose of God behind history. I will make this conception the basis for the positive account I would like to give as to the nature of truth.

Now I turn to what I call philosophical implications. But I confess that I am going to try to do two quite different things. Whether these two things really fit together, I will leave my critics to point out to me. But let me anticipate my critics by a self-criticism. I recognize that I am attempting two different things. One’s attitude toward such an attempt will depend on one’s view of the relation between philosophy and theology. I shall attempt, at first, some straight philosophical analysis. Then I shall move to a kind of theological interpretation which will attempt to give the answers to some of the philosophical questions for which contemporary philosophy has not provided an adequate answer.

Truth, in the ordinary sense of the word, is a property of propositions. Words and concepts are neither true nor false. It is a wrong question to ask if the word grass is true or false. It would be similar if we asked if the concept grass is true or false. That still is not right. Of course, if someone gives a definition of grass, you might ask whether or not the definition being proposed gives a correct or adequate concept of what we commonly call grass. And, to be sure, you might say that paper grass is not true grass. That is a way in which we might use the word true, but it is not the philosophical use. I grant you that we may speak of a true friend or a false friend, and we would intend someone who fulfills or fails to fulfill what one would expect of a friend. No doubt we use the words true and false in such a way. And I would leave it as a question to be debated, as to whether one of these uses is derivative from another, or whether these uses of true and false are independent of one another.

When Christ said, “I am the true vine,” I grant that the meaning of true in that statement may not be the same meaning as the sense in which we speak of a proposition as true, but the meaning in John 15:1 should not be adduced as conflicting with a propositional view of the nature of truth. There is here no reason for denying that propositions may be spoken of as true in general, and specifically in biblical contexts. The Bible is full of propositions which are believed by Christians to be true. This, rather than what one might gather from isolated instances of the words true or false in special biblical texts, is the main thing we should pay attention to when we raise the question as to the bearing of Scripture on the propositional character of truth. To deny that truth is propositional is to deny that Scripture provides a revelation with the character of true information about God and our relation to God.

What is a proposition? Just what is it that may properly be said to be true or false? I am taking it that propositions are the basic units of truth and falsity. I admit that this question is not easy to answer. But some clarification is possible with respect to it. I can say at least some things about what propositions are not. And I will venture to say even more debatable things about what propositions are. As to what propositions are not, a proposition is not to be identified with a sentence. And it is not even to be identified with a declarative sentence.

The view of performatives developed by the late Professor J. L. Austin is sufficient to expose the fallacy that a true or false proposition is simply a declarative sentence. Austin has pointed out that there are many declarative sentences which we do not use to express anything that is either true or false. We use them to perform actions of one sort or another, as when the bride says “I do.” The bride is actually doing something, rather than saying something of which you can ask the question, “Is what she is saying true, or is it false?” That is not perhaps the deepest objection to the identification of a proposition with a sentence, or even with a declarative sentence. But that would be enough to dispose of a naive identification of a proposition with a declarative sentence. More basic is the consideration that an individual instance of a spoken or written sentence is a physical thing, whether it be a noise in the air, marks on a paper, or something else. It seems awfully funny that you can say of some noises and not of others, that just these noises, considered as noises, are true or false. This is hardly plausible. These signs do occur in a context, but I think that those who say that simply the sentences are true or false are propounding a theory in which the context is ignored.

Now I think we can get to a more sophisticated view. It is not a sentence, not a declarative sentence, not even a certain class of declarative sentences, which can be said to be true or false, but a sentence with its sense, a sentence used in a certain way which we might call a statement. This is a sentence that has the additional, crucial element of meaning. Wittgenstein, in the Blue Book, speaks of the life of the sign. I do not say that the view I am going to propound is the life of the sign in the sense of Wittgenstein’s view; it is more likely a view of the type that he is concerned to demolish. But in spite of all that Wittgenstein has written in the Blue Book and in the Philosophical Investigations, I am still going to say that there is such a thing as meaning, clearly and sharply distinguishable from the physical sign, and I will use Wittgenstein’s expression ‘the life of the sign’.

Let us consider now the identification of propositions with what are called statements, as distinct from mere sentences, and in this connection let us consider use. A statement, let us say, is a declarative sentence used to express a sense. But I would remark that the element of use here is subordinated to and presupposes the element of sense. When Wittgenstein said, as he is purported to have said, “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use,” I believe he was, among other things, trying to correct the mistakes people made when they had adopted his verification criterion. The logical positivists seem to have gotten the verification principle from a development of Wittgenstein’s thought in the period after the Tractatus, but earlier than the Blue Book. Wittgenstein had in effect said, “Consider how you go about verifying the statement. The meaning of a statement is the method of verification.” But then the positivists made a big dogma out of this. And in view of this, Wittgenstein said later, “Forget about meaning completely, if you are going to get entangled in something like the verification rut. Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use.” Now the epigones have come along and propounded great theories with regard to meaning as use. As the daughter of the Oxford don said, when she came home from school one day, “Oh, Daddy, I never hear them talk about the meaning of meaning anymore; it’s the usage of ‘use’.” One can drive this business of use and usage to amazing extremes, and I would be inclined to say that if Wittgenstein ever saw what some of Austin’s disciples have been doing, I think he would find something else to ask for: “Don’t ask for the use . . . .” But I do not know what would be just next.

So I have this difficulty with the notion of statement when one says that it is the way is which a sentence is used that really matters. Different people might make statements in different languages. Had Descartes, at the time he wrote “Cogito ergo sum,” also written “Je pense, donc je suis,” it would be the same statement, according to P. F. Strawson. I will quibble and say that these would have been different statements. I should be inclined to disagree with Strawson’s criterion of the identity of a statement at this point, and contend that if the sentences are different sentences (and certainly an English sentence, a French sentence and a Latin sentence are different sentences), the statements that are made are different statements. I agree with Strawson that if a different person uses the same type sentence with a token reflexive, the same type sentence is used in these two instances to make different statements. If I say, “I think,” and you say, “I think,” of course you are making a different statement than I am. I am making a statement about me, and you are making a statement about you. But even on the point in which Strawson and I agree, it is admitted that different statements can in some way express the same sense. If “Cogito ergo sum,” “Je pense, donc je suis,” and “I think, therefore I am,” are three different statements which express one and the same sense, then it is the sense they express which must be considered in order to find the proposition. It is not the statement in its individuality any more than the sentence in its individuality which is properly speaking true or false. It is not a linguistic entity, certainly not a mere sentence, not just a declarative sentence, not even simply a statement considered as a linguistic entity, that is true or false in the most fundamental sense.

One might now move from linguistics into psychology, and one might talk about propositions not as verbal statements, but rather as judgments or beliefs. Judgment has been a favorite word not only of the idealist philosophers, but also of others. I want to point out that the word judgment, like the word thought, is systematically ambiguous. Judgment might mean an act of judgment, or judgment might be taken to mean the proposition which is judged. I would say that part of the seductiveness of the arguments of idealist logicians for the coherence theory of truth may be ascribed to this systematic ambiguity. In his arguments for the coherence theory, the idealist will sometimes take judgments in an objective sense, as meaning the content or the proposition that is judged. But other times he will switch, and bring in the subjective element of the person judging, or the act of judging, or at least a relatedness to the person and the act of judging. So up to a point, the idealist will maintain the objectivity of truth and will use the word judgment for an ideal content which is not psychological, but then he can shift, and I think that this word, with its systematic, inherent ambiguity, exposes one very readily to such temptations. I think this can happen in other theories as well. I know some Thomists who locate truth in the mind, and at times I charge them with being conceptualists, though they profess that they are genuine moderate realists. But such a word as judgment, and other words like thought, have this systematic ambiguity which can very easily lead to subtle shifts in an argument. Especially in a long, consecutive argument, you can get the unconscious shift from one position to another because of such an ambiguity as this. I would rather not use the word judgment, though I have no objection to the word in its objective sense as a synonym for proposition.

But now, as a result of these negations, it begins to become apparent what the position is like that I am inclined to adopt, and I admit that it is a position which has its own difficulties and its own oddities. But I think you can see the position into which I am finding myself driven. On the one hand, a proposition, that which is true or false, is not a physical thing, not noises in the air, not marks on the paper, not a sentence or anything linguistic. On the other hand, a proposition is not a psychological thing, not a psychological act or event, not an act of judging. A proposition is the content of the judgment, the meaning of the statement. This is what is true or false. But what is this content? What is this meaning, if it is neither a mental, psychological event, nor a physical, linguistic thing? Someone will say, “Look, you are inventing a mythical third realm, a realm of mysterious, shadowy things which are neither mind nor matter, neither bodily nor spiritual, and here you have this menagerie of propositions. There is no telling what else you might be adding to this menagerie, when you get pressed with some further questions.” I would like to deny that I am inventing any such third realm, a strange menagerie, to which sometimes the very dirty adjective ‘Platonic’ is given. In any case, I would insist that we do not invent propositions. We discover propositions, as features of our thought and of our language. I am not saying that they have an existence of their own, either in the material world as sentences, or in the mental realm as do acts of judgment. If our ontology is such that we say that whatever is real, whatever exists, is either physical or mental, then I suppose we will have to say that propositions are not real. But still there are propositions. That is a paradox, is it not?

I will include a historical note. The menagerie is the menagerie ascribed to an Austrian philosopher, Alexius Meinong (1853-1920). But the view which I am proposing approximates most closely to, if it is not fully identical with, the view of Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848) in his great Wissenschaftslehre, a work which was never translated in its entirety into the English language. But I endorse Bolzano’s doctrine of the Satz an sich, of the proposition in itself. This is the standpoint I am attempting to defend on the purely philosophical level, and I am indebted to Bolzano for insisting that the proposition in itself does not have Dasein, that is, it does not have existence in the way in which concrete substantial entities, whether physical or mental, have existence, nor in the way in which even the actions of beings who are minds may be said to exist.

I move from this logical analysis to the realm of theology, but still to a philosophical theology, a theology which may provide a locus for these strange propositions that I have been driven to assert on philosophical grounds. The Christian philosopher can advance beyond these propositions which do not have existence. In the light of revelation, with the aid of Augustinian theology, he may maintain that propositions are eternal truths or falsities, eternal objects of the mind of God. Either they are necessities of the divine intellect in the strictest and most proper sense of the term, the eternal verities, or else they exist in God’s mind as the decrees of the divine will known to the divine intellect. The latter is the account I give of contingent propositions.

A word now on ‘Platonism’, if it is going to be more than a dirty name that nominalists like to throw at people who hold such an extreme realistic view of truth as I am propounding. Platonic metaphysics is justified in asserting eternal truth, truth which is not produced by human activity and which is not dependent upon human minds. On the other hand, if Platonic metaphysics means that these eternal truths are hypostatized, if it means that they are regarded as having an existence in and of and by themselves, a kind of substantial reality independent of all minds, even independent of the mind of God, then I deny Platonism in that sense of the term. I do not deny it as a philosopher; I deny it, if you will, as a theologian or, perhaps, as a Christian philosopher. I do not know where to draw the boundary line between Christian philosophy and theology. I must confess that if people want to accuse me of being a theologian and not a philosopher when I proceed along these lines, I am willing to plead guilty, and it does not matter too much what label one uses, as far as I am concerned. And this, too, is in the spirit of Augustine, no doubt.

We do not produce truth by adopting certain linguistic conventions, nor by imposing forms of our minds on the raw data of experience. We express truth in language and apprehend it with our minds, but in judging we appeal to a standard, to laws which are binding us and which we have not made. We may not admit both of a pair of contradictory propositions to be true without condemning our thought and language alike to sterility and frustration. The law by which our thought and language are alike bound may not be set aside by us, because it has not been made by us. Furthermore, if some propositions are true because they agree with facts in the world, again, in spite of idealist speculation, the world with its facts has not been made by us.

There is a temptation, but I am going to resist it, to try to prove the existence of God by an argument starting with these abstract propositions which seem to be floating nowhere. The argument would proceed as follows. Obviously you cannot have nonentities floating nowhere and say this is where truth is to be found. There has to be some mind, yet it is certainly not our minds. Those propositions have to be in some mind, therefore an omniscient divine mind. I am going to resist the temptation to propose such an argument. As I made a rough statement of it now, it is full of fallacies. It has got all kinds of unexamined assumptions and presuppositions about it, and even from what has been explicitly stated as a premise, the conclusion does not follow. But nonetheless, I think there is something to it, and something can be done with it. And so I only throw that out to be thought about.

Beyond this, I do not consider it my duty in this particular lecture to give a justification in a direct way for belief in the existence of God. I am simply presupposing the existence of God. I am not saying this is satisfactory methodology in the last analysis. But at least for present, practical purposes I am presupposing the existence of God, in the sense of an omniscient, omnipotent Being who has, let me lay the cards on the table, foreordained from all eternity whatsoever comes to pass. This is what I mean by God. I am presupposing it, not attempting to prove it. But I would defend this position, that this is what the Bible says about God.

Propositions are eternal objects or contents of the mind of God. This is not implying that God thinks or speaks as we do. Once a proposition is distinguished from linguistic and psychological entities, the danger of identifying our finite mind with the infinite mind disappears. This should be apparent if we regard contingent propositions as identical with the decrees of God or, more precisely, with the possible decrees of God, the decreeables, if I might coin that term. I have a view here which is like Leibnitz’s doctrine of possible worlds. Before the infinite, eternal mind of God, all possibilities that could conceivably exist are present. Some of these possibilities are compatible with others; some of these possibilities are not compatible with others. A square circle would not be possible. A square is possible, a circle is possible, but the combination of the two as constituting the essence of one and the same object would not be a possibility. Why not? Because it would involve an inherent logical contradiction. And we cannot ascribe to God that so-called possibility, which is no possibility at all, of producing something which is logically self-contradictory.

Now consider that God has all of these possible combinations, and combinations of combinations, and if you will, combinations of combinations of combinations ad infinitum, an infinite number of possible worlds before His eternal mind. Speaking a bit anthropomorphically here (it is hardly possible to avoid it completely), God determined, by the free decree of His sovereign will, which of the possible worlds should be actualized. I am not saying that I am expounding Leibnitz, and I am not saying that this world is the best possible of all worlds and that God had to choose this world because He saw that this was the best and He could not possibly choose second best. I am not endorsing Leibnitz’s framework of the possible worlds. I rather ascribe more free will to God, in the ordinary sense of free will. I grant that there may be confusions in the term ‘free will’, but I am saying that in the sense of a freedom of choice which cannot fit into a deterministic pattern, God freely chose to bring about this world rather than any of the other infinite possibilities. That free choice of God, that determination to bring about this world (and I include not only the creation of nature, but also the whole course of history, and of course the plan of man’s redemption) is what I call the decree of God. All the truth that there is with respect to this world is to be identified with that eternal decree of God.

God might be thought of as having possibly decreed something else. As a matter of fact, He did not; from eternity He decreed this and not something else. That is what makes eternal truth with respect to the contingent facts of nature and history. Hence, if one wishes to speak of these truths as contingent truths, I am quite willing to adopt that terminology. Only I say that contingent truths have this element of necessity, that the events decreed take place infallibly as the execution of the decree. This applies, of course, to the celebrated scholastic question of future contingents. The question goes back to Aristotle’s work On Interpretation, chapter nine, with the great discussion about the sea battle tomorrow. The answer to that question in terms of this theological perspective is that, of course, to God there are no surprises. The future is known to God, and the future is known to God because it has been determined by the decree of His free will. “My predestination is all free will,” the Scottish theologian “Rabbi” Duncan once said.(2) That is God’s free will. This does not mean that everything is subject to a fatal necessity of the Spinozistic sort, a necessity, I contend, to which the coherence theory of truth, when consistently developed, would lead. Professor Harold H. Joachim and Professor Brand Blanshard are perfectly right in saying that the idealist coherence theory does lead to a determinism, though I think that in the original version of Hegel himself there was more of an element of freedom, even of contingency, admitted into the picture.

But here there is contingency in one sense, if you consider the event as something which God did not have to decree, but which He decreed freely. It is necessary in the sense that the divine counsel and decree cannot be frustrated. But it is not proper to say that the event in itself is necessary. There is the necessity of the consequence which does not entail the necessity of the consequent. The proposition that what God has decreed will come to pass is a necessarily true proposition. But the proposition that this event which God has decreed comes to pass of necessity is not a true proposition. I hope I have not straddled the fence between necessity and contingency, but have distinguished my position from that of Spinoza and Leibnitz, as well as from the coherence theory of truth.(3)

Let me proceed to make a few remarks about the criteria of truth. I hope that I have said enough to make it perfectly clear that my view is not the idealist coherence view. Adhering to the Westminster Confession on the decrees of God, I could be labeled a strong determinist. But I assure you that I am a very soft determinist, in the sense that I take a very hard view with regard to human responsibility. I believe God holds men accountable, and holds men accountable for all kinds of things with regard to which men would like to make excuses for themselves. And this is perfectly consistent with God having, from eternity, foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, including all human actions. If you want to call me a determinist, you can. But I’m not quite a determinist in the sense of a Spinoza. I think it is more proper to say that God, in His eternal plan, determined according to His infinite wisdom, and with a view to the great end and purpose of manifesting His own glory, and yet rather freely decided that certain things would be connected. He might very well have connected other things instead. So I draw some lines there, as to how far one can carry the notion of coherence. Certainly, truth in God’s mind is a coherent system. But it is not a coherent system in such a way as to infringe upon the divine freedom.

What then is coherence as a test of truth? Primarily, coherence may be regarded as logical consistency and implication. It would be sufficient to speak of consistency, since implication is definable as the inconsistency of one proposition with the negation of another. But implication is worth mentioning, since it suggests a positive application of the test of coherence, whereas consistency provides only a negative criterion of truth.

Two inconsistent propositions cannot both be true. If one is known to be true, the other must be rejected as false. A proposition that is inconsistent with itself must be rejected as false. Limited systems of error may be self-consistent in abstraction from a wider context. This follows from the fact that there are systems internally self-consistent but not compatible with one another, as the Euclidean and non-Euclidean systems of geometry. Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry cannot both be true of our actual world, but they are internally self-consistent, and could be viewed as descriptions of alternative possible worlds.

Theistic coherence establishes not only the principle of consistency, but also a principle of determinacy as a criterion of truth. God’s plan is consistent, and it is also complete. In the eternal decree, all that comes to pass has been foreordained. There is no place for chance or indeterminacy in the system of reality, whatever may be the case with scientific theory at a certain stage of its development. I do not intend to enter upon a discussion of quantum mechanics, but will clarify the position here asserted by stating that the law of excluded middle is applicable to all propositions, with the consequence that truth is not only a consistent but also a complete system. Relative to human knowledge, there may indeed be indeterminacy or chance, but in the world in itself and in the system of truth, nothing is indeterminate. Either A or not A; there is no third truth-value between true and false. Systems of multi-valued logic are fascinating games and in some instances lend themselves to interesting applications, but they are not sufficiently powerful instruments to dethrone the sovereign God or to abridge the extent of His sovereignty. A universe with elements of real chance in its constitution would be incoherent, and a corresponding system of propositions, even if it were consistent, would be at best a chaotic aggregate rather than a genuine system.

Intuitionistic mathematics has repudiated the law of excluded middle and consequently rejects the method of proving a theorem proving existence by disproving its contradictory. This appearance of excessive rigor may be allowed as a technical procedure within mathematics, but when viewed as a theory resting on the assumption that the human mind produces truth by constructing mathematical reality, the theist must reject it as being a view which, ignoring the decree of God, makes truth a product of human subjectivity. No genuine ground for questioning the validity of the law of excluded middle is provided by such theories.

For the Christian, there is a cardinal criterion of truth, to which he has constant regard. This criterion has been in the background in our preceding considerations, but must now be made explicit. It is the revealed, inscripturated Word of God, itself truth and the touchstone of all truth available to us as finite, sinful and redeemed beings. What agrees with the revelation God has given in His Word is true; what disagrees with this Word cannot be true. Scripture as the Word of the God who cannot lie is infallible truth. It is appropriate that this high view of Scripture, of which Dr. B. B. Warfield was such a powerful champion, should provide the conclusion of these Warfield lectures. Those who might inquire as to grounds for belief in the Bible as the Word of God, may be referred to the articles by Dr. Warfield collected in the volume Revelation and Inspiration.(4)

Needless to say, if the Bible is revealed truth, it must be consistent with itself and with all that God has revealed in nature and in history. Belief in the Bible has nothing to dread from a scholarly study of its own text or from investigations of the natural sciences or history. To be sure, we must be careful not to confuse traditional interpretations of Scripture, or results of any new hermeneutic, with the Scripture itself. This mistake has led to needless conflicts with the results of scientific inquiry. Real conflict may arise when scientific investigation proceeds on anti-theistic or anti-scriptural assumptions, as in the instance of destructive biblical criticism proceeding on an anti-supernaturalistic bias. But regard for truth, whether the truth be learned from the book of nature or from the book of Scripture, can never lead to ultimate contradiction or frustration. Truth is one, because God is one and His decrees are one comprehensive plan, embracing all the wealth of creation and the mystery of redemption.


(1) Augustine, De Trinitate 8, 3.
(2) William Knight, Colloquia Peripatetica (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1879), p. 94.
(3) I want to make a few more remarks as to the contingency of decreed events. In modal logic, from ‘necessarily, if p then q’, ‘necessary q’ does not follow in the event that p is the case. But if p is not contingently but necessarily the case, then the necessity of q does follow. This is the logical law underlying Jonathan Edwards’ argument from divine foreknowledge. This position may be reconciled with the thesis that what comes to pass is contingent, if two distinct senses of necessary, and thus of contingency, are kept in view. There is necessity in the purely logical sense, as that of which the negation involves a contradiction, and necessity in a factual sense, as the necessity of the past after the event, or physical necessity in general. What comes to pass is necessary in the latter sense, since God’s knowledge and will are eternal and immutable, and their objects follow necessarily, although contingent in the purely logical sense.
(4) Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration (New York: Oxford University Press, 1927).

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