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On Truthfulness as a Vocation
Convocation Address, September 5, 2000

By Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. í67, Dean of the Chapel

 
 
Convocation at the Calvin Fieldhouse
The Convocation this fall was moved to the Fieldhouse for the first time.

President Byker, students, staff, faculty, members of the Board, and other friends of Calvin College: Iím delighted to have been asked to address you on this cool and sunny morning that is so full of promise. For all of us itís a fresh start, and for you first- year students, a really fresh start in a place where it doesnít matter very much who you were in high school. What matters now is who you will become as you rise to the full stature of a seriously educated citizen of the Kingdom of God.

As you accept the joy and pain of this collegiate growth spurt, you have a chance to build a whole new reputation. Maybe youíll earn a reputation as a truth-teller, a person whose word is good. Maybe youĎll make a reputation on this campus for guarding the reputations of others, including the reputations of certain people you might not like very well. Perhaps youíre already a person who loves the truth and wants to know it. Youíre a student of the truth. If so, youíll spend a lot of time in the interrogative mood, asking those crisp little questions that provoke teachable moments. I mean such questions as these: How do you know? Why did you do it that way? When do you know youíve got it right? What am I seeing here? Where does your faith come from?

To you first-year students, to all of us, grace and peace. May we teach and learn this year in the bright shadow of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who inspired Scripture—and who appears to have inspired parts of the Apocrypha too, judging from this fine piece of the wisdom of Sirach that Ms. Rhodes just read.

I know that the Apocrypha do not rise to the level of Scripture in the eyes of us confessional Protestants, but, then, thatís nothing against them. Neither do the works of St. Augustine, John Calvin, John Henry Newman, or (this oneís hard for me to admit) C. S. Lewis. None of these sources is Scriptural, but all are mostly truthful. The Holy Spirit has visited them all, promiscuously sowing truths that we recognize as having come from the same seed-packet as the truths of Scripture. To encourage us in taking these truths to mind, the Belgic Confession says of the Apocrypha that we "may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books" (Article 6).

There we have it, a basic lesson in common grace and common gratitude. Since the Holy Spirit is the author of all truth, weíll gladly take it wherever we can find it! And Sirach agrees. "Never speak against the truth" it says. In fact, "Fight to the death for the truth, and the Lord God will fight for you."

But why would we have to fight for the truth? Why not just make it up as we go along, the way so many folk do these days?

We have to fight for the truth because only the truth—however partially we may know it—can give us traction on reality, and without that we wonít be going anywhere. Or, at least, we wonít know where weíre going. Weíll be like those overconfident helicopter pilots that the journalist Neil Sheehan describes: They meet a patch of blinding weather, and, instead of switching to their instruments, they try to muscle their way through, unaware that they have been overcome by vertigo and are actually descending in what aviators call "the graveyard spiral." Such pilots are sometimes reasonably sure they are on the level at the very instant they fly into a stand of trees at a forty-five degree angle.

"Facts are stubborn things," as the saying goes, and they generally get their way. So it is with the truth about God and about ourselves. Wise Christians have always known that if we suppress the truth about God, we donít then believe in nothing. We believe in almost anything, becoming "a factory of idols," as Calvin said. The trouble with idols is that they are like casinos: they take more than they give, and they hook their customers. If we suppress the truth about ourselves, we lapse into pride or despair. When we are high on ourselves, we think we are gods; when we are down on ourselves, we think we are scum. Both lies damage us, and never more than when we swing back and forth between them.

But Scriptural truth is a stabilizer. Against our pride it tells us that we have not made ourselves, cannot keep ourselves, could never forgive ourselves. We may wear a clever face in the world, but behind it we are creatures half-ruined by our sin and self-deception, urgently in need of Godís saving grace. Against our despair, Scripture tells us that we are not losers, zeroes, or scum, but images of God, grand as a coliseum, and that if we attach to Jesus Christ by faith he will rebuild us to our original glory, and beyond it.

To be rebuilt we must learn all over again what it means to be truthful persons—persons "created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:24). Isnít it striking that when we tell a gracious truth, or stand for an unpopular truth, or keep a promise to people who donít keep their promises to us, we arenít just good doobies; we are like God.

You might say that imaging God is our first vocation in the world, and that telling the truth is one good way to follow it. And I hope we all understand by now that Godís callings come not out of resentment and not out of the blue, but out of grace. Godís grace takes form in Godís commands, as Karl Barth used to say, because God knows the fairways and the traps in human life before we do. God is always saying, "Do this," because God knows that if we do it we will thrive. God is always saying, "Donít do that," because God knows that if we do it we will wither.

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Sirach 4:28
Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will fight for you.

Ephesians 4:25
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members one of another.

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