I regularly see people complain about common LDS phrases such as “I know the Church is True” or “I know the Book of Mormon is True.” People often think these sentences are meaningless. Now I’ll be the first to admit that the way we speak in this context is alien to our fellow Christians. Pedagogically it’s perhaps not the best terminology to use in trying to help people gain a testimony. I do think the sentences are completely sensical though and that most people have a reasonable grasp on what they mean. Usually if you ask someone who’s used the sentence, they’ll rephrase it as “this is really God’s Church on earth.”
Part of the problem is that culturally we’ve largely adopted a way of speaking that comes out of philosophy. This largely starts with Aristotle. Truth is a property of propositions (the meaning of sentences) and not entities like churches, books or the like. Remnants of earlier ways of speaking persist in our culture. We talk about truing a bike wheel for instance. (This is making sure the wheel is round like the ideal wheel) We still continue to talk about true friends or a spouse not being true. The language isn’t as alien as some make it out to be.
It’s worth noting though that the terminology we use in our testimonies ultimately comes out of the scriptures. D&C 1:30 talks about this being “the only true and living church.” Jacob talks about being restored “to the true church” (2 Ne 9:2) Mormon talks about the apostasy after Christ came where the Nephites “began to deny the true church of Christ.” (4 Ne 1:26) It’s really not hard to find examples of this usage. The scriptures don’t merely use the term for the church though. We also have Jeremiah speaking of Israel as a “true seed” (Jeremiah 2:21 although it’s translated as “right” in the KJV but the underlying word is meet or true) Again in Genesis 24:48 we have a road that is true. (Again translated as right in the KJV) Exodus 18:21 talks about true men (again not translated as true but as trustworthy)
Philosopher Yoram Hazony wrote an interesting book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture where he noted how Hebrew tends to use the term “true” in these ways.
In Hebrew, as in other Semitic languages, most words are derived from root-stems, usually three letters long, which can be transformed into all or most of the parts of speech according to a largely consistent morphology. Each root-stem thus holds together a family of words whose meanings tend to be closely related. In the case of the Hebrew word emet, the root is the three-letter sequence aleph-mem-nun (תמא) whose cognates can assist us in understanding what the authors of the Bible meant when they spoke of truth. For example, the adjective derived from the passive verbal form of this root is the word ne’eman, frequently translated as “faithful.” When Isaiah foretells of a great future king of Judah, he speaks of him as a tent-peg fastened in a sure place:
I will fasten him as a tent-peg in sure [ne’eman] ground, and he shall be for a glorious throne to his father’s house. And they shall hang upon him all the glory of his father’s house, the offspring and the issue. (Is 22:23-5)
Thus when the tent-peg has been driven into “sure ground,” it will be able reliably to withstand great storms without shifting. The ground is reliable, faithful, certain; and so, therefore, is the peg itself.
From these and other examples, we see that in biblical Hebrew, that which is true is something that is reliable, steadfast, faithful; while that which is false is something that cannot be counted upon, or which appears reliable but is not. In these instances, truth and falsity are simply qualities of objects or persons, which parallel the English usage of terms such as reliable, steadfast, or faithful. There is no question, therefore, of truth and falsity referring to any kind of correspondence between speech and reality, for in these cases, there is no speech involved. There are only objects and persons.
So truth means reliable
Consider the tent-peg again. When one takes it in one’s hand before driving it into the ground, there is no way to know whether it can be relied upon or not. All one has is an expectation, or better yet, a hope of what this object will be able to do. One hopes that it will hold firm in the face of the stresses of the coming storm. Only after the fact, once the storm has passed, can one really say that the tent-peg was reliable, that it was true. The same can be said of Abraham’s servant setting out on the road to Mesopotamia. When he first sets foot upon this road, there is no way for him to know that the road is true. All he has is a hope as to what this road can do: He hopes that it will bear him safely through the wilderness, and that it will bring him to the successful completion of his mission. But it is only after these things have come to pass that he actually comes to know that the road was true. In the same way, we know the seed is true only after it has grown into the vine we had hoped it would become; that a man is true only after he has withstood the temptation to corrupt judgment; and so forth. In every case, we find that the truth or falsity of the object is something that cannot be determined when first one comes across it, but only once it has “stood the test of time.”35 To say of an object that it is reliable, or that it is true, then, is to say that the object in question has done what we had hoped it would do despite the hardships thrown up by changing circumstance.
But this is not quite right. For what does the tent-peg really do? To speak of what the tent-pegdoesis an anthropomorphism, a metaphor. In fact, a tent-peg is completely inert. It doesn’tdoanything. It just is what it is – whether at the height of the storm, or when one holds it in one’s hand. What we really expect of the tent-peg, our highest hope for it, is not that it willdoanything, but that it willbesomething. One is tempted to say that what we hope it will simply remain what it is – a whole tent-peg, unbroken – in the face of great stress. But this isn’t right either. We actually have no interest in the tent-peg remaining what it is, for what it is may be a peg that will break under pressure because it contains an invisible crack in it, which is presently obscured from our view. What we really hope for when we drive this peg into the ground is something normative: We want it to be what a tent-pegought to be(in our estimation) in the face of the stresses and strains of the storm.
And the same can be said for all other objects. Jeremiah does not present God as hoping the seed will remain what it is in the face of time and circumstance. He hopes that it will be what he thinks a seed ought to be, which is to say, something that grows into a desirable vine and not into a noxious weed. Similarly, Abraham’s servant hopes that the road will be what he thinks a road ought to be, which is to say, one that will bear him safely through the wilderness, and that will bring him to the successful completion of his mission. And Yitro hopes Moses can appoint as judges over Israel men who will be what he thinks a man ought to be, namely, someone capable of withstanding the temptation to corrupt judgment. In these and all other cases, an object is found to be reliable when it proves,proves, through changing time and circumstance, to be what we think it ought to be.
In other words something is true when it is what it appears to be when we encounter it. This helps explain famous passages on learning truth such as Alma 32. We know something is true as it shows itself to be what it appears. In more contemporary terms truth in the scriptures is close to what we mean by essence but essence in the sense of unveiling a things essence to us. It’s worth noting that unlike the KJV of Jer 2:21, Joseph translates the discussion of Alma 32 with the word true. “Beyond, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief…behold it will begin to swell within your breasts…” (Alma 32:28) This is very much in keeping with the common seed metaphor in scripture, but with a deep understanding of this feature of Hebrew language.
At the beginning I mentioned that when Mormons use “true” relative to an object we typically mean it’s really what we portray it as. Again, I think we pick up on this usage because of how we read the scriptures. Especially passages like Alma 32 (which even uses the word “real” for true in verse 35.
Hazony notes that for English we make a clear distinction between the word representing an object and the object itself. In Hebrew there’s just not this clear distinction. Often it is very difficult to tell when a word is being referred to or the underlying object.
…how it is possible for the truth or falsity of words to be dependent on the truth or falsity of the objects to which these words refer, given that words and objects are supposed to be independent from one another. The answer to this question is obviously that in the metaphysical scheme of the Bible, there is no independence of words and things from one another. Rather, the biblical davar, which is an understanding or an object as understood, is one and the same whether it is before the mind, or given expression in words. The truth or falsity of a davar is determined by whether it can be relied upon to be what it ought in the face of time and circumstance. It is not affected by whether it is merely before the mind in silence, or whether it is also given spoken expression in words. In either case, a reliable davar is true, and an unreliable davar is false.
…how, if the truth of an object is its being what it ought to be through time and circumstance, we can speak of the truth of words, which seem to have no significant duration through time, being uttered in a given moment with respect to a particular circumstance. This question is resolved when we recognize that the biblical davar is not really comparable to what in English is called a word at all. For when we speak of a word, we tend to think of something that is to a large extent defined by its vocalization: When one stops speaking, the word seems to come to an end. The Hebrew davar, on the other hand, is an understanding of things, of which the external vocalization that accompanies it is no more than a sign. And the understanding can endure long after the external sign is gone.
Reread Alma 32 in light of this and then reconsider what it means for the Church to be true or the Book of Mormon to be true. I confess I’ve never quite looked at it the same way since learning this.