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
CHAPTER ONE NOTES
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, Passage 46, tr. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche, (Penguin Books, New York, 1982) p. 627.
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.
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.