Into the World--Chapter One: Introduction

Prologue and Abstract

Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context
Chapter Three: Today’s Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Five: A Primer—The Bible’s Broadest Theme
Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience
Chapter Seven: The Voice of God
Chapter Eight: The Message of the Cross as Supreme Answer
Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest
Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy
Chapter Eleven: The View from James’ Radical Question
Chapter Twelve: The View from Sartre’s Bad Faith
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—First Part
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—Second Part

“‘… For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”
John 18: 36-37

Is there a graver, more searching challenge to Christian faith than the one posed by Nietzsche concerning the exchange (quoted above) between Jesus and Pilate in Chapter 18 of The Gospel According to John? About Pilate’s famous question Nietzsche wrote that it is the “annihilation” of the New Testament.1 Reduced to its components, Jesus’ exchange with Pilate (above) contains (1) Jesus’ portentous claim to have come “into the world to testify to the truth” followed by (2) Pilate’s request for Jesus to testify to the meaning of truth; then (3) silence. Walking in on such an exchange—as posed—one would likely suspect that it had exposed a charlatan. Occurring in a book written to support the portentous claim (John 20: 30-31), one may well suspect that the text commits a monumental faux pas. Did this seemingly scandalous silence motivate Nietzsche’s comment on the exchange in The Antichrist?:

“The noble scorn of a Roman confronted with an impudent abuse of the word ‘truth,’ has enriched the New Testament with the only saying that has value—one which is its criticism, even its annihilation, ‘What is truth?’”2

There is a problem with pinning Nietzsche’s comment to the seeming faux pas. Pilate “does not wait for an answer,”3 a view the Phillips translation makes clear: “…Pilate retorted, ‘What is truth?’ and went straight out…”4 That simple addition turns a scene in which Jesus looks like a charlatan into one in which Pilate looks impatient and imperious before a man the text identifies as the divine Logos. (Talk about “impudence!”) Moreover, if those who belong to the truth listen to Jesus’ voice, Pilate enacted judgment on himself by not waiting for Jesus’ reply. There can be no doubt that the author of The Gospel According to John intended to convey the irony of Jesus’ judge bringing judgment on himself as he enacted judgment on Jesus: As we will see, this and other ironies are used throughout the Johaninne passion narrative to maintain a consistent portrayal of Jesus as the divine Logos.5

But this second pass also proves misleading. A gifted philologist, Nietzsche would have been unlikely to have overlooked the intended irony. Thus, it makes sense to look for other grounds specific to his disdain of Jesus’ grand claim—grounds that align him with the scornful attitude toward an “impudent abuse of the word ‘truth’” that he assigns to Pilate. In Concerning Truth and Falsehood in an Extramoral Sense Nietzsche identifies precisely the needed grounds:

"Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions, worn out metaphors now impotent to stir the senses, coins which have lost their faces and are considered now as metal rather than currency."6

The application is clear: If truths are illusions, the Jesus of The Gospel According to John was deluded.

Thus, for those who share Nietzsche’s point of view, the Johannine narrative still commits a monumental faux pas: The grand claim becomes an artifact of a philosophical naivete that makes Jesus once again look like a charlatan. But this time Pilate’s failure to listen has no bearing on the appraisal. Moreover, the Gospel commits the same faux pas elsewhere (John 1:9; 14:6). Yet Scripture seems silent throughout about what the claim means, unless one accepts the Prologue of the Gospel as a contextual explanation, that Jesus is the divine Logos (John 1:1-18). For a modern skeptic, however, that contextual “explanation” only makes things worse.

Before noting why, two rhetorical gambits should be avoided. First, asking whether Nietzsche’s view that “Truths are illusions” is truer than Jesus’ claim to have come “into the world to testify to the truth,” and second, asking whether a statement attributed to the divine Logos might be taken as seriously as Nietzsche’s opinion. A brief consideration of what Nietzsche meant shows that such comments miss the point.

Nietzsche disparaged metaphysical truths—views of truth that attempt to connect it to realities beyond the mundane world, such as the realm of Platonic ideas or, more directly to the portentous claim that inspired Pilate’s famous question, the divine Logos. In the same breath it is important to note that he did not deny ordinary practical truths of a kind that everyone is familiar with. For example, that a whole is equal to the sum of its parts or that it is true for me now that I am writing these words on Monday, January 28. Being a truth of reason and a matter of fact, respectively, such mundane “truths” require no grounding outside of human experience to understand.7 Accordingly, what Nietzsche denied is that there is any kind of truth grounded in a deeper or higher or more enlightened perspective than is available to human beings who are investigating this world. Bluntly, he denied that there is any grand truth that requires a divine Logos to come “into the world” to reveal it. That is the rationale behind Nietzsche’s venomous comment.

Nietzsche’s dismissal of metaphysical truth was, and still is, common. The most famous example may be Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which opens in direct counterpoint to Jesus’ grand claim to have come “into the world to testify to the truth.” The Tractatus opens, “The world is all that is the case.”8 Though Wittgenstein later abandoned this perspective, his opening words in the Tractatus still speak for many intellectuals.9

A brief explanation will help. Written to mark the boundary of meaningful discourse, entry “into the world” of the Tractatus requires one to form a logically coherent description of “a possible situation.”9 Following that, “The agreement or disagreement of its sense [its description of a possible situation] with reality constitutes its truth or falsity.”10 The gist of the Tractatus, then, is this: All meaningful "truths" can be given definite descriptions which can then—at least in theory—be tested against the “reality” of this world. Though I share the view from neither The Antichrist nor the Tractatus, I do think that if a man speaks of having come “into the world to testify to the truth” that an explanation should be forthcoming, and no amount of ironic plot intervention can alter that. Admittedly, that Pilate walked out on Jesus before he could respond may have prevented Jesus, at that juncture in the narrative, from testifying to the truth (though even that is questionable, given who the Gospel tells us Pilate was walking out on!).

Be that as it may, the Gospel purportedly records Jesus’ teachings, and that makes it extremely odd that if his life purpose was to come “into the world to testify to the truth,” that the truth to which he came to testify is nowhere directly explained or defined. The larger point can be stated very simply: Jesus’ grand claim sounds philosophical, but philosophical explanations are nowhere to be found in the Gospel, the New Testament, or the Bible.

Nor will it work to say that the author of John did not intend to make a philosophical point with Jesus’ words. Written at a time when Stoicism and Neo-Platonism would have leant considerable prestige to Jesus’ claim, the Gospel could have used it to good effect. But the intervening 2,000 years have exposed—even burlesqued—grand metaphysical claims as empty in the eyes of many intellectuals. For many today it is science which informs our “higher” understanding of truth, and science borrows no meanings from religious or metaphysical speculations. In short, a modern intellectual might well be expected to respond to Jesus’ claim just as the Phillips translation depicts Pilate to have done. Again, “…Pilate retorted, ‘What is truth?’ and went straight out…” Nietzsche was clearly correct in this sense: The scene of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate can be seen to depict the same dismissive attitude toward religious and metaphysical claims that one expects from many intellectuals today.

In a sense we have arrived again where our first reading left us: Jesus’ portentous claim followed by Pilate’s question followed by a silence which suggests a charlatan. Of course now we understand the “silence” as a historically-rendered void that a metaphysically-informed religious meaning used to fill. For in spite of the fact that the text presents us with an exculpatory irony in Pilate’s failure to listen to Jesus, the culpability remains at a deeper level. In that case Scripture’s culpable silence in response to Pilate’s famous question can be seen to remain, and Jesus as the divine Logos who came “into the world to testify to the truth” remains the object of that culpability for that silence. Thus, the famous exchange between Pilate and Jesus can still be viewed as a scene that depicts a monumental faux pas by way of Jesus’ silence.

Or does it? In fact the purpose of these posts is to argue that Scripture does respond, and that the response possesses an amazing depth and credibility--a depth and credibility that is focused in the Johannine trial scene. The purpose of this introduction, then, is to frame the skeptical point of view to which, in fact, Scripture provides a counterpoint.

In stark contradistinction to Nietzsche’s perspective on the exchange, these posts will show that a careful examination of the Gospel text, in light of a full biblical context, reveals not only an answer to Pilate’s famous question, but to what William James called “the radical question of life.”12 Ironically, the “answer” is embedded in the very passion narrative from which the exchange with Pilate is taken. As shall come to light, to speak of Jesus as the truth is to say that the passion narrative portrays the answer to the core question of what it means to be a human being. That is, Scripture presents Jesus as the true revelation of ourselves to ourselves.13

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, Passage 46, tr. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche, (Penguin Books, New York, 1982) p. 627.
2. Ibid.
3. R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1983) p. 142. (I would have missed this point, if not for Dr. Culpepper’s help.)
4. The New Testament in Modern English, tr. J. B. Phillips, (Copyright © The Macmillan Company 1952, 1957).
5. Chapters Six and Seven.
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, tr. Arthur C. Danto, in Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher, (Columbia University Press, New York, 1965) p. 39.
7. “Truths of reason” and “matters of fact” derive from the famous passage that ends David Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Charles W. Hendel (Macmillian Publishing Company, New York, 1989): “If we take in our hand any volume—of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance—let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” (p. 173)
8. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, tr. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness,(Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, 1974) p. 5.
9. “For since beginning to occupy myself with philosophy again, sixteen years ago, I have been forced to admit mistakes in what I wrote in that first book [the Tractatus].” Wittgenstein in his preface to Philosophical Investigations, Third Ed., tr. G. E. M. Anscombe, (Prentice Hall,Englewood Cliffs, 1958) p. vi.
10. Chapter 6 of Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God contains a good discussion of scientific reductionism as it is held by some notable scientists today and pitted against religious belief. (HarperCollins, New York, 1999).
11. Tractatus, p. 10.
12. Ibid.
13. William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 103.
14. It is common for Christians to argue against a reductive view of truth (for instance, But Is It All True? The Bible and the Question of Truth, ed. Alan G. Padgett and Patrick R. Keifert, (William B. Eerdmann’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2006)). What Into the World argues for is a more definite understanding of the truth to which Jesus’ life witnessed.

This entry was posted by Tracy Witham. Bookmark the permalink.

6 thoughts on “Into the World--Chapter One: Introduction”

  1. It seems to me that Wittgenstein IS very interested in metaphysics, and he ends up being a great disappointment to the members of the Vienna Circle because of that. [You are correct, I think, about Nietzshe's position on metaphysics.] From the Preface of the Tractatus Wittgenstein says: "The aim of this book is to get to the limit of thought . . . and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense." The translation nonsense is unfortunate, because what he is talking about is in fact the metaphysical and for him this is wht his book is about. "6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists - and if it did exist, it would have no value. If there is any vlue that does have value, it must lie outide the whole sphere of what happens and is the case." And if any philosopher ever believed in 'value' Wittgenstein did! "1 The world is all that is the case." But "2 What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs." These fact, states of affairs are propositions of the natural sciences (see 5.53) – they are what can be 'said.' "6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words (i.e., they cannot be 'said'). They make themselves manifest (i.e., they 'show' themselves). They are what is mystical." "6.4312 The solution to the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time." (It is certainly not the solution of any problems of natural science that is required. "6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone ho understands me eventually recognizes them as non-sensical, when he has used them - as steps – to climb up beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it. He must transcend these propositions and then he will see the world aright." "6.521 The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. Is it not the reason why those who have found after a very long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constitute that sense?" And he ends: "7 What we cannot peak about we must pass over in silence."

    According to Wittgenstein, THE most important things are those things that we cannot 'say' but must 'show' themselves – they are the metaphysical. How do things 'show' themselves? In a myriad of ways – art, music, prayer, meditation, intuition, etc. The Tractatus is a very difficult book, but one of my favorite philosophical works. It is unfortunate that his Philosophical Investigations is seen as his most important work.

  2. Paul,

    Thanks for making thoughtful clarifications about the Tractatus.

    You note, "According to Wittgenstein, THE most important things are those things we cannot 'say' but must 'show' themselves-they are the metaphysical." I think that you are correct, but will remind you of Frank Ramsey's famous quip to the effect that what cannot be spoken about cannot be whistled about either... The point is that it is difficult to philosophize without using words. So if Wittgenstein brought us to the point where words no longer meaningfully perform their functions in the Tractatus, it is not surprising that his aim in that great work is often missed.
    (And pretty clearly much of his later work seeks to redress the one-dimensional "picture view" function of language presented in the Tractatus.)

    But let me take this in another direction. Let's acknowledge that "...Words strain, Crack and sometmes break, under the burden..." (Burnt Norton) Certainly my larger aim here is to set up a challenge for theology to attempt to shoulder. The challenge is to show that the Jesus of the Gospel of John needs to communicate a meaningful view of the truth to which he came into the world to testify. And it is not a misuse of the Tractatus to bring its point of view to bear in framing that challenge.

    Perhaps it was unwise to use such a subtle work for that purpose, but it was difficult to pass up the direct counterpoint to Jesus' "truth" claim contained in the Tractatus' opening line. :)

    I hope that you will hang in there as these posts unfold, to see whether you find the "answer" to be of use.

    And to all: If my work here depended on being an expert in any field--philosophy, theology, biblical studies, etc.--I would not have written Into the World. What I hope unfolds as you read is an overview that is compelling on its own; that is, an overview that emerges simply and clearly--and even obviously--as successive texts and layers of text are compared.


  3. I'll take your word on Wittgenstein as I've only read part of Tractartes, and that was after a party when everyone else was asleep/passed out/gone home and I couldn't get to sleep. I'm only really comfortable referencing him after a few pints to people who haven't read him.

    As you point out it doesn't really matter in this context whether Wittgenstein meant what you said, only that the interpretation of Wittgenstein you give can be used to shed light on the central problem you identify.

    I am interested in the idea that the answer to Pilate's question is displayed in Scripture's presentation of Jesus as the true revelation of ourselves to ourselves, because I think of the answer as being displayed in the passion narrative too. But more in the sense that Jesus was testifying to the truth by displaying God's nature openly to us in His actions, culminating in the revelation and working out of Love in the crucifiction and resurrection. So Jesus' answer to Pilate's question was borne out in his actions over the next few hours in accepting His death and separation from God. No factual statement could've adequately answered Pilate's question; it could only be answered in praxis.

    But now I've read this first post I wonder if I've neglected to think of Jesus as incarnate in terms of how He embodied Truth, thinking intuitively of him as God in a human vessel in this respect and not as both God and perfected humanity. I look forward to gaining a more rounded perspective as you continue to post.


  4. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the nice remarks!

    About the answer displayed in the passion narrative, I think that you will be pleasantly surprised to see how clearly and distinctly it emerges from the text when it is framed against a larger biblical context. But your remarks are right on target, just not "there yet." I think that it will be fun when we get to the fifth chapter where the answer emerges for the first time. You might enjoy hearing that my 83 year old mother--an avid reader and student of the Bible for most of her life--is one of the very few persons who has seen my manuscript, and her response to seeing "the answer" was to get angry that no one has ever pointed it out to her before...

    As to Wittgenstein, I am guilty of taking what could be used felicitously from his work to aid in understanding mine without making it explicit that his project and Nietzsche's had very different ends in mind. Making that simple point and footnoting a few comments similar to Paul's would have sufficed.

    Since my mother isn't a philosopher of religion, I'll be depending on Richard's readers to help me ferret out any other such oversights.



  5. Hi All,

    It has occurred to me that I should do just a bit of spade-work ahead of your reading the next chapter. I'll create a brief example to illustrate a potential problem that it will help to think about ahead of time.

    Any narrowly excerpted explanation of a complex work is likely to be misleading. Thus, a Nietzsche aficionado could very correctly object to my portrayal of his searing comment about the exchange between Jesus and Pilate as leaving out the deepest contextual explanation for his bile: his hatred of the "transvaluation" of values represented by the cross. (BTW: that Nietzschian sidelight is quite important for Richard's series on "Ugly" as a theological category.)

    Now here's an interesting question in its own right: Did I cross the line in my abstraction from the Tractatus and not from Nietzsche? Or in both cases? Depending on your judgment, what are the criteria for deciding?

    I bring this up because I will be doing some very selective abstraction from biblical texts in five of the next six chapters. My inclination is to answer my question by saying that we will "know by the fruit." Except that the fruit too can be judged--and sometimes one's taste is the arbiter, as Richard has pressed on our attention in recent posts.

    I'll throw out a few more "objective" criteria to compliment the "subjective" one:
    (1) does the abstracted point of view leave out something important in a way that is misleading? (Any abstraction will leave things out, obviously...) (2) Can the purposes of the borrowing writer be balanced against fidelity to a broadly-balanced understanding of the borrowee's work? (This elicits a knee-jerk response in favor of fidelity till one realizes that no popularization of complex work would be possible without some compromise--and that includes popularization of the kind done in lower-level classes all the time...) And (3) What about cases where a writer has important things to contribute but is inconsistent or uneven in her work? Does fidelity extend to that? (Here an appraisal of the author's work will be critical, dovetailing this "objective" consideration with the "subjective.")

    Thanks to Paul for prompting this important and (I think) interesting side question.


Leave a Reply