Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
Studies in the Thought of the Fourth Gospel
By W. B. Selbie, MA., D.D.
(John xiv. 6 )
It has been said that "smooth ways of thought are like smooth ways of action. Truth is never grasped and held fast without friction and grappling.” This is probably the reason why men willingly evade the quest of truth if they can. Christian people especially are tempted in this direction, and some even to deny that their religion has an intellectual side at all. They doubt whether reason can claim any jurisdiction in the regions of faith, and they imagine that the only possible use of knowledge is unduly to puff up those who possess it. And so it is quite as well that we should sometimes face the whole question here involved; that we should take up the challenge which the Master Himself seems to throw down in these very difficult and most striking words, "I am the truth.” In so saying He seems to give an answer to the question which had perplexed the ages before Him, and which is not done with yet. The question was summed up by Pilate in the puzzled and half-mocking inquiry, "What is truth?" He was annoyed at the presumption of this Galilean teacher in speaking so glibly and with such assurance of that which the wisest men in the world would only mention with bated breath, and the pursuit of which they followed almost as a forlorn hope. And Pilate has had many since his day to share his scepticism. Even those who would willingly concede the claim of Christ to be the way and the life will stumble at the bold assurance that He is the truth.
Now, before we can arrive even at a dim understanding of these words, we must realise their close connection with the context, and we must look at them in the light of other and similar utterances on the part of the Master. It was not for nothing that He here connected in a single sentence the three terms — "the way,” "the truth,” and " the life" — as predicates of Himself. There is a sense in which He is the way for men, because He is the truth and the life. There is also a sense in which He is the truth and the life, because He is the way. And when we say "He is the truth,” we mean that in and through Him men arrive at the truth, just as when we say "He is the way” we mean that in and through Him men arrive at God. No doubt, however, such a statement requires a good deal of further elucidation, and we need not go far to find other scriptures which throw light upon it. For example, "Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness of the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth My voice.” And again, "If ye abide in My word, then are ye truly My disciples, and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” "The Law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” "He that sent Me is true, and I speak to the world those things which I have heard of Him.” "This is life eternal, that they should know Thee and Him whom Thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.” From such passages as these we may gather that Christ was a teacher of truth, and that the truth was to be found in His word. To this must be added the further and more important statement of the text that He not only teaches and imparts, but is the truth — a statement which includes and transcends all others of a similar kind. And yet even this does not exhaust His treatment of the subject. In speaking to the disciples of the Comforter who is to come and take the place vacated by Himself at His death, Christ gives to this Comforter the name of the Spirit of truth, and declares that His office will be to lead the disciples into all the truth. He will put them in mind of all that Christ has said unto them, and make clear to their understanding things which during the Master’s lifetime they were not able to bear. Christ as the truth is the object of all their knowledge; and the work of the Spirit as witness to the truth will not be to supersede or dispense with the Master, but rather to lead His followers to a closer apprehension of the truth and to a wider application of it to life. And this is a process that will know no end till time itself shall cease. The last thing that Christ meant in declaring Himself to be the truth was that He would thereby shut the door on all further knowledge and inquiry. Rather did He manifestly imply that the truth given in and through Him would by the Spirit be freshly expounded in every age, and that no new light which should thus be given by the Spirit would be able to draw men away from Him who is eternally the Truth.
This is a word which has far-reaching applications. It implies that we are not shut up to any doctrine or body of doctrines as alone containing the truth, nor are we to regard the spoken words of Jesus as being the only intellectual guide for man-. In so saying the evangelist is not committing us to any theories of inspiration, nor is he confining himself to truth, theological and religious. The range of the truth of which he speaks is almost unlimited; it is at least as wide as the heart of God and the interest of man. He claims that the truth which Christ is sets men free, leaves their intellect untrammelled. Wherever men need to inquire, and to know in order to become better and more perfect men, there He leads them. And, therefore, the truth which He is is more than a set of propositions; it is an outlook upon life, a theory of the universe, an indwelling of God. It has to do with both subjective knowledge and objective knowledge. Christ as truth does not merely give a correct presentation of God and the universe to man, but He makes man such as that he shall be able to receive such a presentation when it is given.
But in order more fully to grasp the meaning of this revelation of Christ, we shall need to look at some of its aspects more in detail.
1. The Truth about God.
In this we have the more theological side of the subject. Jesus Christ is for men the truth about God. Through Him we arrive at a true conception of the Divine. As He said: "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.” By Christians, at any rate, this aspect of the matter will be readily granted, though even by them it is not so frequently acted upon as it might be. It should be recognised by us that in and through Jesus Christ alone we can know God. No doubt knowledge of Him may come from other sources — from Old Testament revelation, from natural religion, from the study of the religions of the world; but all such knowledge is useless for moral and spiritual ends save as it is brought in review, corrected, and confirmed by Jesus Christ. In His life and speech, and most of all in His death, we have God revealed. And He becomes, therefore, the standard by which all other impressions and indications of the Divine may be and should be judged. The more we understand Him — and we are very far from understanding Him yet — the more do we know of God; we have the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That is, in Christ we have the knowledge of God expressed in terms of humanity. He is the highest truth about the Divine, not only in its abstract sense, but the highest for us, because it is that which we can best perceive. From the beginning God’s revelation had been leading up to this clear light, and since the light shone the Spirit of God has been helping men more and more fully to enter into it, leading them on from glory to glory, until they shall be changed into the image of the Son of Man. And do not let us cast any reflection upon the truth as it is in Jesus from our own incapacity to grasp it. Do not let us say that He cannot be the truth as regards God, because there has existed in His name and through His Church so much falsehood and evil. We must remember that the work of the Spirit is not yet completed; that our minds are as yet very dimly illumined by the true light; that the Master still reminds us, "I have yet many things to say to you, but ye cannot bear them now.” When Christ is known and served as He may be and ought to be, then and not till then will the truth of God be in the mind of man. And until that time comes we must be content to see through a glass darkly. We may be thankful that we live in an age which has a larger opportunity of arriving at the truth than any before it. As Dr. Fairbairn says: "It is certainly not too much to say that Christ is to-day more studied and better known as He was and as He lived than at any period between now and the first age of the Church.” If this be so, then let us see to it that we follow the lead of the Spirit of truth. Let us use the new and better knowledge of the Christ as a spring of new devotion and of a purer life in His service. Let us see to it that we do not blind our eyes, and say that all truth dwells with us, which is only to say that we have most successfully quenched the Spirit. Let us keep an open mind in order that by every possible avenue new light may stream into us. For us to know God is life eternal. The quest of divine truth is the very necessity of our spiritual being, and our one object and aim should be ever to press nearer to the Christ who is the truth, and whose truth can alone make us free.
2. The Truth about the Universe.
Christ is for man not only the truth about God, but the truth about the universe. Only in and through Him can men attain to truth about the life and the world around them. Perhaps we can best approach this from the point of view of the common statement that the attainment of truth depends at least as much upon the condition of mind of the man that seeks it as upon the objects presented to him. The reason why truth is one thing to one man and another to another, is that the men are different. And in saying that Christ is the truth we mean for one thing at least that He is able to remove such differences, and to help men to look out upon the world in such a way, as that they shall best be able to apprehend it aright. It is not for nothing that He said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Truth is not grasped by a single faculty, but by a combination of all the faculties of the whole man, and whatever tends to spoil, degrade, and warp the nature of the man tends also to loosen his hold upon truth. Evil passions and immoral actions cause men to look out upon the world as those who are colour-blind; they can see only what they have prepared themselves to see, and the truth is not in them. Now the work of Jesus Christ is to order and arrange the spirit of man into a perfect harmony. In and through Him our human nature appears at its best, and therefore through Him can we best arrive at a right outlook upon the world around us. He is to us the truth, because He can put things right on our side, and at least enable us to see true. But there are yet other ways in which we may arrive at this same conclusion. Philosophy can show us how it is necessary for the mind as mind to relate itself to God. That is, the more we know of God the better use can we make of our whole mental equipment. So to be without knowledge of Him, to shut Him off from us, and to draw a veil between His intelligence and ours, is to lessen our intellectual power, and to mar the impression which His universe makes upon us. This may seem a bold thing to say, but let us try and explain what it means. We do not need to remind ourselves that in these days the terms " knowledge" and "truth" are by many people confined to this lower world of ours. The sum total of the physical sciences seems to many to contain all the truth; everything outside of them is to be relegated to the region of speculation, if not of positive error. Now consider for a moment the position of a man who would confine his knowledge to this lower world. He is faced continually by phenomena for which in this world he can find no explanation, and he has to be contented with assuming towards them an attitude of pure ignorance or, as he calls it, of agnosticism. But does not this really mean that he looks out upon the world and life with a mental bias or prejudice which is sure to affect his apprehension of what he calls the truth. And are we not at least fair in saying that he who is in pursuit of truth must follow wherever it leads? We have got now beyond the stage of a flat denial of God; and admitting that. there is a God above as well as an earth beneath us, can we for a moment suppose that to confine our attention only to the earth is the surest way to arrive at supreme truth? Is not the very contrary the case, that men cannot even know this earth well until they learn to see it in the light of God? And is not Christ for us pre-eminently the truth, because in and through Him we learn to look out upon this created scene as reflecting the God by whose love, power, and wisdom it came to be?
3. The Truth about Man.
If this be true of nature, how much more is it true of man? To seek knowledge of ourselves apart from God is indeed a vain quest. Nothing has so developed and exalted our view of humanity as the revelation of the Son of Man. The scalpel and the microscope can tell a wonderful story of these bodies of ours; history is one long explanation of the ways and nature of man; geology and palæontology can go beyond history and speak to us of the dim, uncertain beginnings of race; but in all this teaching, have we in any sense the truth about man? Most of us will confess readily that we need something more, and that our knowledge of ourselves is incomplete until the top-stone has been set upon the building by the spiritual revelation of Jesus Christ, by teaching that man was made in God’s image, and lives for and unto Him.
This means that the life that we live is only worth living as God has His place in it; and it is because Christ shows how He enters into and fills our little lives, that He is in this sense for us the Truth.
But, further, we must not let this aspect of the matter blind our eyes to the fact that for us as Christians all truth is in Christ. There is here no distinction between sacred and secular, scientific and spiritual. If we may believe in the operation and guidance of the Spirit of Truth, we shall know that every new department of knowledge that has opened for the mind of man since the days of Christ has only been another step towards a more perfect understanding of Him who is the truth. It was a bad day for religion when it came to look upon science as in any way its enemy. And the half-atheistic theory of the universe to which this leads is but a poor expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The truth of discovery, of which this generation has seen so much, is indeed a revelation from God, and rightly used will bring us nearer to the Christ. There is a truth of physical science, of history and historical criticism, which is all necessary to a proper understanding of the gospel of the Son of Man. It is possible no doubt to state this gospel in the simplest terms so that it can be grasped by the most elementary minds, but the more we know of nature and man the grander will it appear, the more superior to the one and the more suited to the other. If we believe that Christ is the truth, then shall we welcome all truth for His sake, and we shall know that our duty in regard to it is not to resist, but to illumine it with the light in which we stand, and which we have received from Him. We may well be ashamed of the panic-stricken attitude of many Christians to the new light which God is pouring in upon this age. It may seem different from the old, and it may cause us much painful readjustment of intellectual states, stiff with long-standing. But we are still in God’s hands, His spirit is active still. All this that has come upon us — scientific discoveries, biological theories, Biblical criticism — was all foreshadowed by the Master and is all the result of the working of the Spirit of truth in order to reveal Him more fully. And our attitude to it should be one of silent, grateful faith. Silent, because there is yet more light to come; grateful, because the opportunity for faith is so much larger. There is danger in nothing save in ignorance and darkness. Let us keep our faces turned ever to the light of God, sure that He is wiser than we are, and that all truth can only bring us nearer to Him.