Hebraic and Pannenbergian Accounts of Truth

August 10th, 2017 by

In a chapter titled “Truth and Being in the Hebrew Bible,” Yoram Hazony asks a pair of straightforward questions: When the prophets of Israel endorsed the individual’s independent search for truth, what did they mean by ‘truth’? Is the way the Hebrews used the term ‘truth’ identical to the way one normally uses the term ‘truth’ today?” He answers the latter question with a resounding, “no!” Contemporary definitions of truth are either based upon, or are reacting to, a correspondence theory of truth. Hazony argues that this view of truth is grounded in three assumptions that are indebted to Greek philosophical reflection. These three assumptions are:

T1) Truth is a quality of speech.

T2) True speech is “of” (or “about”) a reality independent of itself.

T3) True speech is that which agrees with (or “corresponds to”) this reality; whereas false speech does not. (Hazony: 2012, 195)

If the prophets of Israel did not conceive of the concept of truth along these three assumptions, how did they conceive the concept of truth? Hazony suggests that they conceived of truth “not in the first instance a quality of which is said but of objects.” (Hazony: 2012, 196) Truth, in other words, is not a property of that which is said; rather truth is a property of objects and persons. He notes that the Hebrew term for truth derives from a root meaning “reliable, steadfast, faithful.” Thus in biblical Hebrew, that which is true is something that is reliable, steadfast, faithful. That which is false is something that cannot be counted on.

What does it mean to be reliable? In order to get at what ‘reliable’ means, Hazony suggests that we think of a tent peg. Imagine that one drives a tent peg into the ground. At the moment of driving it into the ground, there is no way to know whether it can be relied upon. Will it shatter the moment you hit it with a hammer? Will it hold firm through a storm? One cannot say that the tent peg is reliable, i.e. that it is true, until after a storm passes. This example is supposed to reinforce the notion that the truth or falsity of an object cannot be determined at first glance; rather the truth of an object can be determined “once it has stood the test of time.” (Hazony: 2012, 200) Following these examples, Hazony gives us a definition of truth  and falsity in the Hebrew Bible:

TruthH: That which is true is that which proves, through time and circumstance, to be what it ought.

FalsityH: That which is false is that which fails, through time, and circumstance, to be what it ought.

With these definitions of truth and falsity, we might wonder: what do theologians mean when they say that “God is true?” Christian theologians have typically thought of the notion that “God is true” in terms of God’s speech. God speaks truth; that is, his words correspond with reality. Yet making sense of the statement “God is true,” solely in terms of correspondence, seems foreign to the way in the Hebrew Bible uses the term truth. I think it is safe to say that few Christian theologians are operating with a Hebrew understanding of truth; however there may be one exception. That exception is Wolfhart Pannenberg.

In various works, Pannenberg develops the notion that history in its totality can be understood only when it is viewed from the standpoint of the end of history. He asserts that this end of history is disclosed prophetically in the history of Jesus of Nazareth. In order to make this argument, Pannenberg turns to second temple Jewish apocalyptic texts. He argues that it is possible to identify three pervasive features of the movement:

1) The full revelation of God is only to be found at the end of history, even though God does indeed disclose himself in the history of Israel.

2) The end of history is of universal significance, embracing both Jew and Gentile. In that it discloses God as the God of all nations and all creation.

3) The end of history entails a general resurrection of the dead. (McGrath: 1986, 169)

Given his Christian commitments, Pannenberg interprets the individual resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of this general event. Thus, Pannenberg’s eschatological epistemology looks something like this:

4) The full revelation of God is only to be found at the end of history.

5) The end of history is inaugurated at the general resurrection.

6) The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth marks the beginning of the general resurrection.

7) The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth marks the end of history.

8) Thus the full revelation of God is available (proleptically) after the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. (Pannenberg: 1969, 142)

Claim (1), that “The full revelation of God is only to be found at the end of history,” is especially relevant for our purposes.

In the first volume of his three part systematic theology, Pannenberg states that “According to the witness of the Bible, the deity of God will be definitively and unquestionably manifested only at the end  of all time and history. At every point in time it is a fact that what is lasting and reliable, and in this sense true, comes to light only in the future” (Pannenberg: 1991, 54). But this does not only apply to speech about God. He says that “we cannot definitively determine the true meaning of things and events in our world so long as the course of history continues. Thus when we  say that something is true, we speak in anticipation. That is, we anticipate the future, assuming that things are “firm and lasting” through time (Pannenberg: 1991, 55). This means that, when one says that something is true, one puts forth a hypothesis that can be proven or disproven only in light of the conditions of reliability. To say that a tent peg is true is to say that I believe the tent peg will meet the conditions of reliability, e.g., that it will weather the storm. Until it has weathered the storm, I cannot say that the tent peg is true. I might hypothesize that the road is true, but I can only say that the road is in fact true, if the hypothesis is confirmed. And the hypothesis is confirmed only once the condition of truth, i.e. that it is a reliable means for arriving at the destination, is verified. But what about in the case of God? What are the conditions of reliability for God? Pannenberg might want to say that the primary condition is that God is faithful to his covenants. Ultimately, for Pannenberg, whether or not God is in fact faithful to his covenants can only be verified at the end of history. We can hypothesize that God will be faithful to those covenants. We can speak of God being true, anticipating that he will in fact keep his covenantal promises; but his faithfulness can only be determined at the end of history.

At this point, one might wonder, is  Pannenberg simply making epistemological claims? Is Pannenberg saying that one simply verifies one’s hypothesis that God is true by waiting for the end of history? No. Pannenberg wants to say that only at the end of history is God made true. One does not simply discover that God has been true (i.e., faithful, reliable, etc.) all along. That is, one does not confirm that God has been true all along. Rather, God is made true only at the end of history. Why is this the case? Because the criteria of reliability, that is, that which makes a thing true or false, are only manifested at the end of history. This is why Pannenberg wants to say, “the deity of God will be definitively and unquestionably manifested only at the end of all time and history.” (Pannenberg: 1991, 54)

Consider once again Hazony’s example of the tent peg. It is not the case that the tent peg was “true” all along. The tent peg only becomes true, once its conditions for reliability are met. To say that the tent peg was true, before the end of the storm, isn’t strictly true. Strictly speaking, the tent peg becomes true once it proves, through time and circumstance, to be what it ought to be. For Pannenberg, to say that God is true is to say something like what we have said about the tent peg. God becomes true only after the storm has been weathered. God becomes true at the end of history.

Thus far I have provided a brief survey of Pannenberg’s concept of truth in relation to God. We are now in a position to give a Pannenbergian definition of truth and falsity. I suggest the following as Pannenbergian definitions:

The similarities between Hebraic and Pannenbergian accounts of truth should now become apparent. Both definitions are time related and both definitions operate with the notions that there is a certain way things ought to be. Both definitions allow us to say that something is true only after the conditions of reliability have been met.

What I have done in this (not so brief) blog post is sketch one more example of how drawing upon the philosophy of Hebrew scripture might aid Christian theologians and philosophers in their own projects. Certainly, as we have seen in our other blog posts, examples could be multiplied. I look forward to seeing what emerges as Christian theologians and philosophers begin sustained interaction with the kind of Jewish philosophical theology being engaged in at the Herzl Institute.

Christopher Woznicki is a PhD student in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received a MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a BA in Philosophy from UCLA. Christopher has written several journal and encyclopedia articles on Jonathan Edwards.

 

 

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