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Truth Beyond Propositions

Not all truth is expressed propositionally.

I qualify immediately (and gladly). Some truth—much truth—is expressed propositionally. “God is wise and good” is both a proposition and true. Likewise “Light travels 186,282 miles every second.” Conversely, “God is foolish and wicked” is false, as is “Light slows to 25 mph in school zones.” No controversy here.

The gospel itself—the evangelium which forms the cornerstone of evangelicalism’s identity—is a set of propositions. Here are some of them: Mankind sinned. Mankind deserves condemnation. God is merciful. God became Man to bear the condemnation for mankind. The God-Man defeated death and became the first-fruits of the resurrection. Mankind can participate in that resurrection through love and trust in its Savior.

The unrepentant children of our age are inflamed by an effort to reject propositional truth, particularly the offensive evangelical kind. This in itself is nothing new. The world has always found the claims of the gospel outrageous, and the world has never failed to be proportionally outraged. But there is a telling difference between premodern outrage and the outrage we see today. When premodern pagans and heretics rejected the gospel, they did so by denying its claims at face value. Today, however, modernists and postmodernists reject the gospel by insisting that religious claims of all types are outside the realm of rationality; not only is “God became Man” false; to them it is beyond conceptual possibility.

Modernism provided one route to this end by preaching a doctrine of empiricism, which has today become the unquestioned foundation of popular knowledge and public education. For modernists, “truth” is a property belonging solely to those elite nuggets of information they call facts. By facts they mean either propositions that have passed some level of inductive scrutiny and are accepted by the scientific community (“Science!”), or propositions that are shown through numerical deduction to be necessary (“Math!”).

Postmodernism, that multi-faced conglomeration of relativists, literary deconstructionists, and skeptics, goes even further. For the postmodernist, propositions ultimately mean anything (or nothing) and truth is therefore an unattainable illusion.

Christian belief, by contrast, insists both that propositions can communicate truth and that the most important kind of truth they can communicate is not empirical but moral.

So I repeat: Propositional truth exists. It is under attack both by empiricists, who want to shrink its domain to scientific fact, and by relativists, who want to dissolve it altogether. Propositional truth must be defended like a nation besieged from all sides, and evangelicals, for what it’s worth, should be the ones manning the Iron Dome. But none of this negates my first claim:

Not all truth is expressed propositionally.


“Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might,” says the Shema, and this is, according to our Lord, the greatest commandment. Now the Shema is a propositional imperative expressed in intelligible words; but merely understanding the words and grasping the proposition is clearly not the point. The Shema requires of us not propositional knowledge but obedience in the shape of total love, and that love is the heart of salvation in both the Old and the New Testaments. The new life offered by Jesus is not received through mere propositional belief in the gospel, which the devils possess, but through love and trust. Conversion is not a transferal of information; it is a transformation of our affections and our nature.

Human beings, to get to the point, possess a capacity not only for knowledge but for love, awe, and wonder, too. We are not merely embodied intellects but embodied emotions, affections, and wills. We are pilgrims, compelled to sojourn in a hostile cosmos before arriving at our home, and on the way we are faced with trials and delights that interact with the constellations of desires and loves wheeling around our inner selves. On our pilgrimage, we develop a vision of the world and of ourselves; we experience justice and injustice, triumph and oppression; we rejoice at the birth of children and grieve the loss of those who die; we cherish friendships and suffer desertions; we rejoice in community and endure loneliness; we experience ecstasy and ache with pain; we do good and receive good; we sin and are sinned against. Most of all, we develop a conception of who God is and, if we are His children, we grow in faith and trust. And at every point, for good or ill, we feel: we adore, we despise, we exult, we despair, we love, we hate, we rejoice, we grieve.

It should surprise no one that when men and women endeavor to give voice to these sentiments, words fail them. Dry propositions do not go far enough to express what they feel. If words are to be used at all, they must be melted and molded into heightened speech that transcends normal expression. Scripture itself is our witness here. Job, Moses, Miriam, Hannah, David, Asaph, the prophets, Mary, Jesus, Paul, and countless others—at key points, when overwhelmed by delight or despair or awe or anger, all abandon clear-cut propositions in favor of metaphor, parable, and poetic construct.

But even heightened speech does not always go far enough, not while Paul is groaning unutterables and the psalmist is overpowered by the compulsion to rejoice. “The spoken word proves utterly inadequate,” wrote philosopher Josef Pieper, “to articulate such intimate realities, the dynamism of human existence itself.” Augustine recognized this too: “What are we to do,” he asked, “employing neither speech nor silence?” Another language is needed, one which “does not speak of things but tells of weal and woe,” in Schopenhauer’s words. How can this be achieved? By taking up forms that can sustain extra-propositional dimensions. “Wordless jubilation,” Pieper calls it—or, for the rest of us, “music.”

Music, like poetry, operates chiefly as metaphor, with images derived from sound rather than words; and understanding music, like understanding poetry, requires both comprehension of the surface grammar and perception of the analogy in play. Like speech, music employs a vocabulary and follows syntactic rules; like architecture, its genius lies in its structure; like the human experience, it moves through time. But unlike the other arts, it operates at a totally conceptual rather than objective level. A text can tell us that someone is sad. A poem can tell us what sadness is like. Music can create the experience of sadness in sound.

Therefore it is an error, in my view, to consider the musical setting of a text as merely entertaining trappings meant to render a propositional skeleton more memorable or marketable. Music is a subtle and sophisticated art, one whose powers are not exhausted—and sometimes not even begun—in its ability to amuse. A musical setting is an interpretation, not merely a decoration, of the text it accompanies—a reshaping, reframing, and reflection of that text.

Expressing what exactly the finished product of music+text means is, of course, often a matter of disagreement. And here we come full circle: Just as we need music to express what propositions cannot, so are we unable by propositions alone to describe exactly what music does. Still we can attempt it; we can call Bach’s setting of the second verse of “Wachet Auf” consoling, or Charles Ives’ “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” cynical, or the Offertorium from Britten’s requiem subversive, or Tavener’s “The Lamb” guiltless. If there is disagreement over whether these words are accurate, as there undoubtedly will be, we must not despair by declaring that any music can mean anything; the fault likely lies on our side, in uncultivated judgment or in the limitations of descriptive language, rather than necessarily in a fatal ambiguity of meaning in the music. The worst option, it seems to me, the one which too quickly and naively dismisses the glorious Western philosophy of art from Plato to Scruton, is to exile music and its non-propositional fellows to the same realm of adiaphora as food and drink. Just because we cannot gauge meaning empirically, the way you gauge the temperature of a turkey in the oven, does not mean that we must give up the pursuit of meaning as totally relative to individual preference, as if one’s choice between Dvorak and Stockhausen were on par with a favorite color or flavor of Dorito. If musical judgments should not be made because they cannot ever be accurate, then composers are the unlucky advocates of a useless and barren profession, and evangelicalism should waste no time in suppressing all its artists and reemploying them as ghostwriters for Christian bestsellers.

Deo Cantamus’ commitment to performing established musical works and encouraging the creation of new sacred compositions is grounded in the belief that more is at stake than the entertainment of an audience. It recognizes artistic expression as both a vehicle of communication and a shaper of moral sensibility. Its task is to present propositional truth framed within non-propositional truth, where text and music agree and reinforce each other, where theological propositions are amplified into jubilant rejoicing and worship. Whether dramatizing a narrative, as in last year’s Abraham, or exploring a biblical theme, as in this spring’s Remember, or celebrating great doctrines of the faith, as in the upcoming Five Solas of the Reformation, music can reinforce and elevate propositional truth, can set it before mirrors of metaphor to intensify its message and minister to believers’ intellects and affections.

I have argued for the merits of non-propositional truth in an article made up of nothing but propositions. I note the irony. “Foul!” you might call. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating, Josh. Grab a fork. Stop making your point with propositions and start making it without them.”

But this is a challenge I am delighted to accept. This is, in fact, the very reason I compose music.


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