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The Archives: 2000 Convocation

On Truthfulness as a Vocation

By Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Dean of the Chapel
September 5, 2000

President Byker, students, staff, faculty, members of the Board, and other friends of Calvin College: I'm delighted to have been asked to address you on this cool and sunny morning that is so full of promise. For all of us it's a fresh start, and for you first- year students, a really fresh start in a place where it doesn't 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 you'll earn a reputation as a truth-teller, a person whose word is good. Maybe you'll 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 you're already a person who loves the truth and wants to know it. You're a student of the truth. If so, you'll 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 you've 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, that's nothing against them. Neither do the works of St. Augustine, John Calvin, John Henry Newman, or (this one's 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, we'll 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 won't be going anywhere. Or, at least, we won't know where we're going. We'll 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 don't 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 God's 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). Isn't it striking that when we tell a gracious truth, or stand for an unpopular truth, or keep a promise to people who don't keep their promises to us, we aren't 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 God's callings come not out of resentment and not out of the blue, but out of grace. God's grace takes form in God's 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, "Don't do that," because God knows that if we do it we will wither.

That's why God's call to truthfulness is so urgent. The person who contends for the truth isn't just a stickler; he's 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 don't stick to him. Nor does any relativist nonsense about how racism is wrong for him, but right for the Aryan Nation, and who's to say at the end of the day? Oh, no. Morris Dees fights for the truth. He's 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. It's 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. We're practicing truthfulness in a world that shades the truth, that slants the truth, that spins the truth so hard it ends up facing backward.

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 won't 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 people's 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 won't 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 what's actually been taught, and exam-taking that reveals what's 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.


For more on Truthfulness:

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 Plantinga's 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.