word and concept

“Deciphering Truth in Word and Concept”

Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”

John 18:38, NASB


This famous portion of Scripture that has been rendered as a standalone verse is directly related to the crucifixion scene of Jesus Christ. In this scene, Jesus stands before Pilate, questioned regarding charges leveled at Him by the Jews. In analyzing this verse, we do not want to overstep the boundaries provided to us by the context. Nevertheless, in examining this verse, we cannot help but acknowledge this deeply profound epistemological question. What is truth?

First, we should observe the possible attitude with which Pilate proposes this question. Is Pilate saying this in a mocking tone? Or does Pilate opine with genuine curiosity? John Calvin suggests that Pilate laid out this question in disdain. In his commentary on this passage, Calvin says, “For my own part, I rather think that it is an expression of disdain; for Pilate thought himself highly insulted when Christ represented him as destitute of all knowledge of the truth.”[1] D.A. Carson notes something specific in his view of this passage. Carson offers this beautiful observation. “Moreover, there is an implicit invitation in Jesus’ words. The man in the dock invites his judge to be his follower, to align himself with those who are ‘of the truth’.”[2] Carson also goes on to suggest that Pilate may be irritated with Jesus and categorizes the question as “curt and cynical.”[3]

Gerald Borchert stands in opposition, suggesting that perhaps this question did affect Pilate. While Pilate may have resisted the more profound implications for his life, it certainly left him with no condemnation against Christ.[4] I tend to agree with Borchert’s position in that the surrounding evidence of the passage does not lend itself to frustration or irritation on Pilate’s part. Moreover, Pilate seems to meet this situation with a certain level of wisdom and prudence. When asking the Jewish leaders for the charges against Christ, he appears less than impressed and may even see himself being used as a pawn in their scheme to rid themselves of the Messiah. Finally, we see Pilate approach the mob and try to provide a way to back out of this act against a seemingly innocent man. I wholeheartedly believe Pilate’s question of “what is truth?” was a genuine question worthy of consideration.

Addressing the Question

Having now addressed the Biblical aspect of this, we must face the question itself and its implications in our world. However, I do not want to address this from a predominantly “spiritual” perspective (or what Christians might perceive as spirituality), but rather, a practical aspect. After all, I am a Ph.D. student of practical theology (with a slight lean focusing on ethics and morality). So, I will do what I think I do best—talk about this question’s practical and ethical aspects.

The Greek word behind “truth” is ἀλήθεια (aletheia). The word itself carries an intensely distinct semantic range. English speakers may translate this word as “in truth,” or “upon truth,” or “sincerely,” or “genuine,” or “firmness,” among other similar options. Considering the 109 uses of this word in the New Testament, it is translated as we see it here, “truth,” 95.4% of the time (or 104 times). Jesus states just before this verse that He came to testify to the truth. Pilate responds with what this author believes is a genuinely inquisitive query. So, what is Pilate asking, and how can we use this in our lives?

Pilate is asking a question that many people ask today. “How can we know what is true?” Before we address the question, we should determine its significance. When we speak about truth, or as I will refer to it moving forward, as “intellectual virtue,”[5] In the most practical and simple terms I can provide, what we are discussing is “an agreement to the definition of words and concepts, and the reality built upon those definitions.” In other words, there must be some fundamentally agreed-upon terminology that allows us to understand and decipher the world around us. For now, we will (mostly) lay aside questions of authority for defining those terms and reality and frankly focus on its existence.

If I took some exegetical liberty with the text, as those before me have, I would like to suggest that Pilate is not so far off in his mindset from the subjectivists of our modern-day America. In other words, Pilate did not have an objective standard for truth, and so, this question persuaded his mind to argue with this philosophical difficulty in a way that those on the Areopagus of Acts 17 might have done. So much was Pilate interested in; he tried to exonerate Christ after a brief consideration of Christ’s statement.

What does this mean for you? Well, in today’s world, the Christian finds itself in one of three positions. The first position: Understanding and struggling to live with biblical clarity in a  rapidly changing world with changing definitions and conceptual truths. The second position: Believing they understand and struggle to live with biblical clarity in a  rapidly changing world with changing definitions and conceptual truths, but sinking further into the world’s subjectivity. The third and final position is being oblivious to the difference between the two and sinking further into the world’s subjectivity.

A Brief Practice to Address Error

Because this is not designed to be a book or even a full paper outlining all the issues and potential solutions, this is where we shall consider, briefly, a remedy. Having been made aware of the issue that faces us, we should now consider a solution.

Christian, addressing the world with a presuppositional truth is just not practical in today’s world. I understand how unpopular this will be as a position. Nevertheless, telling a subjectively oriented world of a coming Christ is, while accurate, ineffective—at least, in and of itself. Starting with that will lead to nowhere. However, leading to that point, starting with a classical exposition of the general revelation could yield a more profitable response. When Pilate asks, “what is truth?” he questions something already answered in the world around Him that leads back to the Creator of all things.

The General Revelation helps the created creature agree upon the definition of what exists inside of it. For instance, what does the creation (not explicitly Scripture) tell us about the nature of man and woman? The reason this approach is critical is that, as Jay Wood points out, “there are what are called “basic” or “immediate” beliefs; these form the bedrock of all that we believe, undergirding everything else we are justified in believing.”[6] In agreeing upon what exists in the General Revelation, we create what Nicholas Wolterstorff refers to as a control belief.[7] That control belief identifies the boundaries in which we can continue to move in our question to build a perimeter around valid words and concepts.

This reason alone is why the Christian Church and the Christian have lost their foothold in the battle for words and concepts. In stepping away from the pursuit of truth, exchanging it for some undefined or unspecific spirituality, the Christian began to, like the world, pursue subjectivity in religion, seeking a feeling of connection to God rather than a knowledge of the truth—or even worse, conflating the two, instead of an emotional connection to God being the result of proper knowledge of Him (Jer 9:23-24).

What Pilate expresses is no different from what a Christian expresses; each time, we neglect the pursuit of fundamental knowledge about God or portend to others that a relationship to Christ is the fullness of true religion (to the neglect of reason, doctrine, and similar concepts). The Christian must avoid both logical fallacies and cognitive biases in his assessment of the truth. As those who have the General Revelation on our side, we should strive to define truth by the created world, ultimately pointing to Special Revelation.

The world is currently busy changing the definition to well-established truths, such as gender, family, sex, and all the like. The result is that concepts are being redefined through that change. Now, love, good, evil, culture,  and ethics are all being manipulated in an unprecedented way. The truth that Jesus proposes to Pilate is not just a truth that leads to salvation. It is a truth that leads to seeing the world as it was truly meant to be seen.


Christian, I call you to a serious pursuit of the truth. A pursuit that starts by understanding how the General (or Natural) Revelation provides a piece of evidence to all men. Whether through the existence of a Creator or the law written on man’s heart and the active consciousness of knowing a right from a wrong, in earnest, that comes with it, Christians must answer the call to challenge the world cognitively. We must satisfy the curious nature of man’s mind and heart and respond to the question that Pilate once asked, and so many have asked after him, “what is truth?” because we are the only ones with meaningful access to the answer.

How much better it is to get wisdom than gold!

And to get understanding is to be chosen above silver.

-Proverbs 16:16, NASB


[1]              John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 212.

[2]              D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 595.

[3]              Ibid, 595.

[4]              Gerald L. Borchert, John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 243.

[5]              As borrowed from Wood, W. Jay. Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous. Edited by C. Stephen Evans. Contours of Christian Philosophy. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998.

[6]              W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, ed. C. Stephen Evans, Contours of Christian Philosophy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 84.

[7]              Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984.

Topics: Practical Theology, Ethics, Epistemology, Exegesis
Track: 400-500 Level: Intermediate
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