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

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


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Thatís why Godís call to truthfulness is so urgent. The person who contends for the truth isnít just a stickler; heís a liberator. The reason is that deceit traps people, and only the truth can set them free.

Think in this connection of the work of Morris Dees, an attorney who lectured on the January Series here in 1997. From his office at the Southern Poverty Law Center, this remarkable man sues hate groups. He tries to put them out of business. His work is so upright that lawyer jokes donít stick to him. Nor does any relativist nonsense about how racism is wrong for him, but right for the Aryan Nation, and whoís to say at the end of the day? Oh, no. Morris Dees fights for the truth. Heís on the side of the angels because he knows that a racist lie traps people on both sides of the lie, and that only the truth can set them free.

Truthfulness in a devious world is a high calling. Itís a calling so high and so hard that we all spend years trying to learn it, including the years we spend as students here at Calvin College. Weíre practicing truthfulness in a world that shades the truth, that slants the truth, that spins the truth so hard it ends up facing backward.

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

In a thousand occupations you students will one day get a chance to follow your first vocation, which is to square yourself up to reality in ways that help people to thrive. As CEO of a major airline you will establish realistic flight schedules so that you wonít be tempted to lie to passengers about cancellations and delays. As quality control supervisor at a major automobile tire company you will see to it that tires are honestly built, and that flaws in them are reported immediately. You will do this because you know that the truth can save peopleís lives. As a public prosecutor, you will try to get criminal justice, even if in a fouled-up world the only justice you can get is rough justice. Never mind. You will still want justice, not just convictions; you will still want justice, not just your own re-election. And when a DNA test reveals that the felon you convicted was actually an innocent citizen who should have had years of freedom with his family, you wonít stonewall even one day. No, you will grieve for this man and for his family, and you will grieve for yourself, because you will see that a decade ago you had fought not for the truth, but for a disastrous falsehood, and now nobody can give back to an inocent man all the years that the locust has eaten.

The stakes are high when it comes to truthfulness. Saints and martyrs are famous for testifying to the truth about Jesus Christ while their enemies set them on fire, but each day ordinary Christians experience small martyrdoms when they blow the whistle on a dangerous product, or lose a friend they had to confront, or stand up in a small group and, for the first time in their lives, say to a group of strangers, "My name is Maxine, and I am an alcoholic."

Truthfulness is our vocation as citizens of the Kingdom of God, and in this top-notch Christian college we get a chance to practice our vocation every day. Students and professors contract with each other to hunt and gather truth--except here we call the contract a covenant. The covenant calls for clear assignments on one side and honest papers that strive to fulfill these assignments on the other. The covenant calls for exams that test whatís actually been taught, and exam-taking that reveals whatís actually been learned. The covenant calls for mindfulness of God himself, before whose face we conduct all our teaching and learning.

Truthfulness in our journalism, in our work reviews, in amassing and interpreting evidence, in learning from authors we oppose—all of this is part of squaring up to reality. We have to tell the truth even in writing recommendations for each other. (No more of those purposefully ambiguous enthusiasms, such as "You will indeed be fortunate if you can get this person to work for you!"). We want truthfulness because it gives us traction on reality. We want truthfulness in order to show the image of God. And day by day in our offices and labs, in chapel and in this fieldhouse, in classrooms and residence halls, we want truthfulness because only with its power can we liberate each other free from the traps set by deceit, and then bind ourselves together as part of the body of Christ.

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

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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.


For more on Truthfulness see:

At Harry Plantinga's Christian Classics Ethereal Library:

  • Augustine. "On Lying" and "Against Lying." The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. First Series, Volume 3, ed. P. Schaff. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956.

  • Sir Francis Bacon's essay "Of Truth"

A meditation of John Baillie on Psalm 51:6, "Religion and Reality," in A Reasoned Faith (London: Oxford University Press, 1963).

Arthur F. Holmes. All Truth Is God's Truth. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).


Other works by Neal Plantinga:

Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Christianity Today International houses an on-line full-text archive of several of their publications, including Christianity Today and Books & Culture.

Among a few of Plantingaís meditations and articles published there, one can find a version of his 1996 Convocation address under the title "Pray the Lord My Mind to Keep." (Christianity Today. v. 42 (August 10, 1998), p. 50-52.)

"Educating for Shalom," a reflection on the goal of Christian higher education, is available on Calvin's website or call 616-957-6142 for a copy.

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