There are two ways to think about truth. One way to think about truth, is that truth evolves. People learn more, become more enlightened, and over time get closer to ultimate truth. It’s a dynamic and unpredictable process, because for every academic who gets an expensive education and creates ideas, discovers or invents things, there is a humble contemplative who finds personal enlightenment from within.
The other way to think about truth is that truth decays. In this model, truth has a source, and the closer one is to the source, the closer one is to ultimate truth. Conversely, the farther one gets from the source (for example, with the passage of time), the farther one moves from ultimate truth. Left on its own, human understanding of truth would atrophy. Therefore, truth must be intentionally preserved.
The early Christians (with whom I spend a lot of time, as you may know) believed that truth does not evolve. They believed that ultimate truth had a source – God, of course – but perfectly embodied in Jesus Christ. Taking Christ as the Source of truth (or even Truth incarnate), the logical conclusion would be that the closer one is to Christ, the closer one is to ultimate truth. And as one moves through time, farther and farther away from the Source, truth must be preserved, or it would be lost. In the early Church, the preservation of truth over time was defined as Apostolic Succession. The apostles who knew Christ personally preserved the authentic teachings of Jesus, and taught their own disciples, who became the next generation of Church leaders. Those leaders in turn taught their disciples, some of whom became the bishops. In every city, the leaders of the Church (especially the bishop) learned theology from the previous bishop, who learned from the one before – all going back in an unbroken chain to the apostles and to Jesus himself.
Interestingly, however, this did not lead the early Christians to a doctrine of sola Scriptura. In fact, apostolic succession existed even before there was a New Testament. For the early Church, the apostolic documents that made up the New Testament were a part of apostolic succession, and ultimately part of the Tradition of the Church. But the Church’s Tradition is bigger than Scripture. A case in point is the doctrine of the Trinity. The Church struggled to explain the Trinity, and it was only clarified (to a certain extent) when the leaders of the Council of Nicaea realized that they had to go beyond the Bible to find a word to describe the relationship of the Father and the Son (the word is consubstantial). Since all of the mutually exclusive interpretations were based on the same Scriptures, a creed was written to express the authoritative interpretation, and this (I would argue) preserved truth for future generations.
In some ways, I wonder if these two different ways of thinking about truth are at odds in our culture. To my mind, the very existence of Wikipedia is based on the assumption that truth evolves. But I’m not that optimistic about human nature. I have to admit, I’m in the same camp with the early Christians. Truth doesn’t evolve, truth has a Source, and truth is preserved through the transmission of faith from one generation to the next. That’s what religion is. That doesn’t mean that we can’t find better ways to talk about truth (like, for example the doctrine of the Trinity), but it does mean that there are certain conclusions of previous generations that cannot be changed (like, for example the Nicene Creed).
So what do you think? Does truth evolve? Or is it only our ability to explain truth that evolves? Was ultimate truth embodied in the incarnation of Christ, or is humanity progressing toward some future utopia? Is there another option or perspective that I’m missing? I’d love to hear from you…