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The Crisis of Word and Truth

NO FACT OF CONTEMPORARY Western life is more evident than its growing distrust of final truth and its implacable questioning of any sure word.[1]

The first essay in Henry’s six volumes, God Revelation and Authority is “The Crisis of Word and Truth”. He notes the conflict between two worldviews: The God of revelation who speaks versus a meaningless and incoherent “word”. The sound of words has remained and human beings still function and interact, but Word as a primary and stable truth – the Logos of God – that has come under attack.[2]

He wrote this essay without a discussion of deconstruction (my college copy of Spivak’s English version of Of Grammatology is dated 1974, 1976; the first printing of Henry’s essays are dated 1976) or the (for obvious reasons) the Internet. Thus, his discussions of both distance between meaning and words, as well as the ubiquity of media, not only remain true but have actually become more certain.

On one hand we have the Word of God. Christianity posits Spirit and Word as the primary constitutes of existence. First, God is spirit (John 4:24). As the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it:

Q: What is God?

A: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

John 1:1 famously explains “The Word was God.” The knowledge of God comes about because God speaks. Nothing would exist apart from the Speaking God: “God said, Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). The material world of images comes after the Spirit and Word.[3] The world itself exists, because the Word of God upholds it, continually (John 1:3; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:3).

On the other hand stands the cacophony of media. Now, Henry does not denigrate or despise the media because it is media. Rather the trouble lies in what it does. It has taken the pre-existing problem of meaning and world (which human beings attempt to escape; Romans 1:18). However, it has “indubitably widened and compounded the crisis of word and truth” (18).

Henry notes the common criticism that the nature of the media is such that it does not respond to matters of significance with significant attention.  He quotes Malcolm Muggeridge, “’the fact that the medium has no message. In the last resort, the media have nothing to say ….’” (18).

The media portray matters for the purpose of gaining attention and thus,

Final truth, changeless good, and the one true and living God are by default largely programed out of the real world. Despite occasional ethical commentary and some special coverage of religious events and moral issues, the media tend more to accommodate than to critique the theological and ethical ambiguities of our time. Their main devotion to what gratifies the viewing and reading audiences plays no small part in eclipsing God and fixed moral principles from contemporary life (18-19).

The barrage of immediate gratification removes the sense of shame and horror that should accompany the sight of such.  Public degradation engenders sports, not shame and sorrow. He again Muggeridge on the matter of “’accustoming us to the gradual deterioration of our values’” (19). While every age has thought itself (at least by some) to be the depths of depravity, it goes without saying that much which would have been unthinkable at the time of the essay would be unremarkable in public media today.[4]

Should I read this morning’s news, I would learn of extraordinary acts of pain and sorrow throughout the world. My view of the matter would be incessant, vivid, personal – and yet, there would be (and is) not easy matter of involvement. Thus, I come to human suffering (and glory) as peeping Tom. I cannot form an appropriate moral response – I cannot really do much. Hucksters will try to take my money. Politicians will use words to gain some immediate attention (and most often do nothing remotely useful).

This process affects human beings spiritually. It is a direct affront to the proclamation of God’s truth. It is an affront to the bare concept of “truth” – which ultimately lies with the primal temptation wherein the Serpent questions, word and meaning and logic:

4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:4–5 (ESV)

While individual actors seek to turn truth word to manipulation and sales-pitch for personal gain (I pity the poor soul who takes political rhetoric at face value, much like one how gives a scorpion a ride[5]), the ultimate object is spiritual: it is an attack upon the very concept of revelation by God in Word – which is the heart of Christianity.

Some may think that little loss. However, the basis of Christian revelation is also the basis of what it is to be human:[6]

To strip words of any necessary or legitimate role as a revelatory resource denies not only the intelligibility of revelation, but also the very rationality of human existence. Nonverbal experience cannot supply today’s generation with fruitful alternatives to the spiritual emptiness of the times; the cavernous silence of a speechless world echoes not a single syllable of hope. To deverbalize an already depersonalized society is all the more to dehumanize it.

How can one engage in either true personal interaction or societal and corporate interaction when words are stripped of stability, and promise of its hold? Robert Frost ends his wonderful poem, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” with marvelous point,

            But I have promises to keep ….

What human interaction can there be without promise? Yes, human beings can live and breathe and die. Yes, by sheer force and violence a political entity can force itself along. But what humanity remains? What truth or beauty, what love or charm remain?

Henry ends with the proposition that it is the duty of the Christian to not succumb to the spirit of this age, but rather proclaim the “divine invasion” of the Logos, the truth of God, the prophetic Word.

Robert Frost reading, “Stopping by the Woods”



[1] Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, vol. 1, God, Revelation, and Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 16-17.

[2] Although not discussed in this essay, Nietzsche’s arguments in Genealogy of Morals would certainly have an interesting bearing upon the point.

[3] This does require any Gnostic “fall” into matter. The physical world was created “very good.” The distress of the physical derives from sin (Romans 8:20). The redemption of humanity is not out of the physical world into a purely “spiritual” existence, as if the trouble were physicality. Rather, the redemption is to a resurrection, to a New Heavens and New Earth (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Rev. 21 & 22). Thus, Christianity differs strongly from either a Gnostic spite of the physical or a materialist’s denial of the spiritual.

[4] Some may point to matters of “racism” [I have word in quotations, because as a Christian, I must consider the matter of “races” itself suspect and repellant; there is a single human race; there are various cultural structures which people create, but these have no ground separate grounds of human value and being] as an area of advancement.  However, polite society has in some instances moved around certain discourse markers, the same nonsensical “racial” beliefs still exist. I remember being perplexed as a child that somehow George Washington Carver did not “belong” to me – even though he was a an American (as I was) and Christian (as was I) and a Scientist (which I longed to be), but that his skin color put him into a different and alien category – why is that primary to anything?

[6] As a Christian, I think it obvious that the correlative lies in the fundamental truth of the Christian claim.