Looking for (present) truth
As members of the body of Christ, we are meant to be His present and redeemed community, the concrete incarnation of present truth and of the ideals of His everlasting kingdom.
To speak about truth is not an easy undertaking. There is no single definition of truth about which the majority of scholars agree, and the prevailing definitions continue to be widely debated. The classical philosophers paved the way for Thomas Aquinas to define truth as “the conformity between thing and intellect.”1 This remained for many centuries the common dictionary definition: truth is a form of agreement between affirmation and reality. Things started to change when Emmanuel Kant stated that the classical definition of truth is in fact a mere form of circular reasoning,2 and Kierkegaard argued that “truth is subjectivity. A human being cannot find truth separate from the subjective experience of one’s own existing.”3 Friedrich Nietzsche added that what we call truth is just “an invention of fixed conventions for merely practical purposes,”4 and Erich Fromm concluded that the idea of absolute truth has become obsolete.5
Current definitions of truth
Thus the debate about truth has led to a large spectrum of definitions. One reason for this is the variety of senses in which the word truth is used.6 For many, since the time of Aristotle, truth is still defined as a correspondence between a statement and the reality (correspondence theory). According to this view, an affirmation is true when it corresponds to the reality it supposedly describes.7 For others, truth means the logical coherence between what is said and the facts, at least within a system (coherence theory).8 From this viewpoint, a statement is true if it does not contain inner contradictions.9 Others hold that truth is whatever is agreed upon by some specified group (consensus theory).10 For some, truth is constructed by social, historical and cultural processes, but it does not reflect any external reality (constructivist theory).11 For others, truth is identified by its effectiveness when applying concepts to actual practice (pragmatic theory).12 The deflationary or minimalist theories argue that “to say that a statement is true is just to perform the act of agreeing with, accepting or endorsing a statement” (performative theory).13 And for others, truth is just a redundant concept, a word traditionally used in conversation, mainly for emphasis, but which does not actually equate to anything in reality (redundancy theory).14
In spite of these variations of definitions, the search for truth goes on.15 “In the scientific world there is a quest for truth, a desire to expand the human understanding of reality. Physicists seek the truth about the processes of the created universe, physiologists seek the truth about the processes of the human body, and psychologists seek the truth about the processes of the mind. Historians seek the truth about the events and developments that shaped the human past.”16
Biblical definitions of truth
It is not my purpose to argue against any of the above-mentioned theories of truth, although this would be quite interesting. Here I would like to consider the biblical concept of truth, as presented in some New Testament passages.
The word truth (in Greek, aletheia) is often used in the New Testament as the translation for the Hebrew emeth, with four distinctive meanings:
- Truth as opposed to error (cf. Ephesians 4:25). This use is more or less philosophical.
- Truth as moral integrity, reliability or sincerity, opposed to deception (cf. John 8:44). This use is mainly ethical.
- Truth as reality, a counterpart to types, symbols, shadows (cf. Colossians 2:17) or mere appearances (cf. Philippians 1:18). This use is especially hermeneutical and theological.
- Truth as a synonym of “the Christian faith” (like in 2 Peter 1:12, NASB). This ecclesial use is well known to Adventists.
Jesus defined truth as embodied in Himself: “I am the way, and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), a definition that includes all, the four mentioned dimensions, since Jesus was at the same time: (1) true to God; (2) His reliable messenger; (3) the fulfilment of the Old Testament types; and (4) the embodiment of God’s revelation. If we agree truth to be a disclosure that consists in the uncovering or coming to light of what is real,17 Jesus’ definition of truth corresponds well to what we call revelation, since in Him God revealed Himself to us in a unique way. This incarnate definition of truth should be a valid paradigm for us.
2 Peter 1:12 says to Christians, “You have been established in the present truth.” What does this statement mean? Since the word “truth” is viewed with a multiplicity of meanings, we need to clarify the sense of the word present that qualifies the noun truth. The adjective parouse, translated “present,” can have at least three meanings:
Spatial: A truth that is manifested, not hidden or absent. The word parouse is related to parousia, “manifestation” (cf. v. 9 and Colossians 1:5ff.). In this sense, present truth would be a truth that appears clearly to the observers.18
Temporal: A truth that is not only past or future, but relevant for today.
Existential: A truth related to the spiritual experience of believers (cf. 2 Timothy 3:7 and 3 John 1:8). The truth in which believers have been taught.19 In this case, present truth would refer to “Christian doctrine.”20
Our contention is that the biblical phrase “present truth” includes these three senses. In our Adventist history, we have abundantly used the expression “present truth” in this last sense, but sometimes with a restrictive scope, as if it meant just “the Adventist message.” There is nothing to object to in this internal use, for it belongs to our heritage and has a high inspirational value in our tradition. But I would like to pay closer attention here to the phrase “present truth,” taking into consideration all its possible meanings.
“Present truth” in the Adventist tradition
Fritz Guy, an Adventist theologian, states: “One of the great characteristics of the Adventist heritage is its commitment to truth, a commitment that has typically been vigorous and often courageous. This commitment was expressed in a willingness to stand against the world if evidence indicated that was the way of truth, and also in a willingness to disagree with others within the community of faith if that was required by loyalty to truth.”21
“The idea of ‘present truth’ — truth whose time has come — is the most important single element in the Adventist theological heritage. While eternal truth is by definition always true, a particular element of truth may take particular relevance at a particular time. Truth can thus be understood as both eternal and dynamic.” 22 For Christian students and scholars, the very word truth ought to mean discovery and growth. To be authentically Christian in the most profound sense is to be as deeply committed to the truth we have yet to learn as to the truth we already know. In this sense, it clearly appears that “any attempt to make particular past understandings, whatever their historical setting, the final criterion of the present and future interpretation of faith is not just a bad idea; it is a betrayal of the basic Adventist principle of ‘present truth’.”23
Some believers, anxious to be faithful to the truth revealed by God to His people, seem to overlook the challenges of the present world and live looking into the past in order to be sure that they do not depart from the pioneers’ present truth. Others, eager to respond to the world around them, do not hesitate to trim God’s revelation in their search for relevance to face the challenges of the present. To escape the traps of these two extremes, it becomes necessary to overcome the temptation of separating realities that belong together. For fidelity to the biblical text, we cannot separate “truth” from “present”.24
Commitment to truth
As Christians, we have a double commitment: to God’s revealed truth and to the present world in which God has placed us with a mission (Matthew 28:18-20). Our two commitments — truth and present — sometimes may seem in conflict. Some of our contemporaries, sensitive to scientific trends, have a hard time making the biblical notion of truth compatible with their view of reality. As Christian scholars, we may feel caught in the painful tension between “present” and “truth,” as if these two realities were almost two worlds apart. We are tempted to withdraw from either world by capitulating to the other. We often struggle to remain faithful to the revelation of yesterday so that we may see its implications for the realities of today. While it may not be easy to combine loyalty to the past with sensitivity to the present, this is our Christian calling and mission: to live in the world under the Word. As disciples of Christ, we are called to uplift the present truth and a truth that is present.
If we believe that the task of the Christian scholar is to search for the truth, to hold on to the truth and to teach the truth, we may agree that for us as individuals “as well as for the community of faith, commitment to truth is the first and highest principle of theology. Because theology is a cognitive enterprise, truth is its supreme value.”25 As members of the body of Christ, we have a personal and collective commitment to truth.
Truth as doctrine
In the classical western world, truth was supposed to be found by reason and reflection. Enlightened thinking was expected to produce virtuous actions, so that the rational person would be the good person. Thus, for Plato, “there will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers.”26 This idea is still alive today in what has been called the fundamental western myth: “the myth of the head, of the mind, of the importance of rational and impersonal logic.”27
When translated into Christian terms, the classical view equates truth with reason and doctrinal propositions. This intellectual view of truth is evident in the popular idea that religion is a personal matter, a private decision, depending on beliefs. This doctrinal approach to truth often makes spirituality so worried with the right formulation of our beliefs and the defence of our dogmas that it may forget the centrality of committing one’s self to God in everyday life. From this viewpoint, knowledge is mainly theoretical, and makes it possible for a scholar to recognize the Bible “as the incarnation of knowledge and truth, and to see himself as its orthodox teacher… and preach the commandments and yet steal or commit adultery or rob the temple” (cf. Romans 2:21, 22). By such inconsistencies, says Paul, the name of God is blasphemed.28 Our personal experience shows that our actions may depart somehow from our stated beliefs. Our intellectual assent to certain doctrines does not always include putting into practice some of their implications. So, for example, we can argue publicly a lot about God’s sovereignty while not allowing Him to always rule over our private lives. One of the problems of traditional Christianity all along the ages is its tendency to elevate orthodoxy (right thinking) above orthopraxis (right action). We do not need to go far in history to observe that the presumption of possessing the truth often led to arrogance, intolerance, or worse.
The truth “as it is in Jesus”
Jesus Christ, our master and model, gave us a perfect example of what it means to be committed to truth. In Him words and deeds, both public and private, were consistent. He had one whole life, not a compartmentalized professional life, social life, spiritual life, and so forth. Departing from the prevailing line of thought that most philosophers of His time — and ours — shared, Jesus warned that “knowing the truth” is not only an intellectual endeavor, but an existential liberating experience (cf. John 8:32). This kind of knowledge is a commitment process that engages the whole person. Compartmentalized thinking is foreign to the true disciples of Christ. They are called to make truth present in theory and action, in belief and behavior, in cognition and commitment. Commitment to truth requires that the Christian scholar be “scrupulous in assembling the evidence, honest in recognizing arguments against one’s position, fair in assessing the force of these arguments, sympathetic in representing the position of those with whom one disagrees.”29 In this sense, to uphold truth requires as much humility and courage as knowledge and intelligence.
Our concern here is this: how can we deal with truth in a way that our personal life is transformed, making us better people, and enhancing our mission as a church? Paul says that conversion is supposed to affect our way of thinking, and that we are to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:1-2). This new way of thinking, according to the biblical view of the person as a whole entity, does not leave room for a dichotomy of thought and action. According to the Bible, truth is primarily relational. Reality and truth are better known not only by rational reflection, but by direct experience as well. Real knowledge of God is therefore mainly empiric, and grows out of a personal encounter with Him. Personal knowledge of God is not merely knowledge of propositions concerning Him. It is not the result of speculative thinking, but the result of a personal experience with God and with His saving work (cf. Deuteronomy 4:39; Jeremiah 22:15-16). In this sense, therefore, to know the truth is more than to know about it. To know God — source of ultimate Truth — is to encounter and experience Him, to listen and to obey Him. This is why in the Bible faith is not a mere product of reason. It is not just an intellectual certainty on matters of doctrine. Doesn’t James say that even the devils “believe” without knowing or having faith in the biblical sense (cf. James 2:19)? For faith, according to the New Testament, is an attitude of trust and commitment to a Person rather than just to a list of beliefs,30 although those beliefs are important. What I am arguing is that faith should take us beyond a detached and speculative outlook into the sphere of personal involvement (John 8:31-32). True faith makes truth present in one’s life.
Making truth present
How can we deal with truth in a way that our whole lives are penetrated by it, giving us a clearer perception of our present reality and of our mission? How can we make truth present in our personal life?
If the task of the Christian scholar is to search for the truth, to know the truth and to teach the truth, one would expect, therefore, that Christian scholars would reflect in their life better than anybody else the results of that commitment. Truth is powerful when it is argued, but it is even more powerful when it is embodied. There is power in prayer, but there is even more power if we pray and act at the same time. There is power in truth, but there is even more in a truth that is present. For people need not only to understand the arguments of our faith, but to see their benefits displayed. One Christian student in a class, a nurse in a hospital, a secretary in an office, an assistant in a shop, or a worker in a factory, committed to making truth present can have an influence out of all proportion to numbers and percentages. As Christians, we have a mission. We are marked people both in school, at work and at home; the world is watching us (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 12:1-2).
A Church that makes truth present
As members of the body of Christ, we are meant to be His present and redeemed community, the concrete incarnation of truth and of the ideals of His kingdom. The small group was our Lord’s own chosen way of action. He began with the twelve. The history of the church that came after them abounds in examples of the strategic influence of small groups. Throughout the centuries, humanity has been led by daring minorities. Tom Sine has captured this idea well in his book The Mustard Seed Conspiracy, whose title alludes to the tiny seed out of which a large bush grows. Its sub-title is “You can make a difference in tomorrow’s troubled world.”31 And this is his main idea:
“Jesus let us in on an astonishing secret. God has chosen to change the world through the lowly, the unassuming and the imperceptible…. That has always been God’s strategy – changing the world through the conspiracy of the insignificant. He chose a ragged bunch of Semite slaves to become the insurgents of his new order…. And who would have ever dreamed that God would choose to work through a baby in a stall to turn the world right side up! “God chose the foolish things … the weak things … the lowly things … the things that are not…. It is still God’s policy to work through the embarrassingly insignificant present to change his world and create his future.”32
Commenting on this idea, John Stott wrote: “The embarrassingly insignificant present. I feel the need to underline this topsy-turvy policy which God has adopted. At the same time, I am anxious that we should grasp that it is realistic. What minorities lack in numbers, they can make up in conviction and commitment.”33
Motivated by their love to Christ and humankind and their commitment to truth, the early Christians, the Reformers, and their heirs, including the Adventist Church, went everywhere preaching the Word of God and changing the world, because nothing has such a humanizing influence as the gospel. In their endeavor to make truth present, God’s people founded schools and hospitals; took care of the blind and the deaf, the orphaned and the widowed, the sick and the dying; fought against the slave trade; improved the conditions of workers in mills and mines, and prisoners; protected children and women from abuse; and brought to all kinds of sufferers both the compassion of Jesus and modern methods of medicine, reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation. Making truth present keeps us preaching the gospel till the end.
We learn from Jesus that commitment to truth requires personal commitment to Him. We are faithful to truth by making Christ truly present in our life and around us (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). The wise disciple is guided by “the Spirit of truth into all truth” (John 16:13). The power of Jesus’ words is known in the doing of them. While Jesus is the Word of God embodied, we often satisfy ourselves with words rhetorically embalmed. More important than formulating the gospel in correct creed — and that is important — we should endeavor to embody it in glowing deed. Truth needs to become present.
My proposal is that instead of building on a restrictive notion of present truth as heritage, constructed on a concrete list of doctrines, we should build on the biblical notion of truth made present, rooted on the dynamics of divine wisdom. Instead of relating the concept of present truth mainly to a restrictive concept of God’s remnant, resulting often in an exclusive mentality and a self-centered church, we should strive for making truth present, linking our missiology to justice and mercy, and not to numbers and results. Instead of restricting present truth to the apocalyptic realm only, we should explore a biblical theology of time, where the permanent essentials would permeate the urgent last-time expectations and where the kairos (the present opportunities) would inspire the way we prepare ourselves for the coming events of kronos (end time). Instead of a legalistic approach to God’s law, we should deal with God’s law as a living way of making truth present in our everyday life, a result of our covenant with God, through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Thus, remaining “firmly established in the present truth” (2 Peter 1:12), we will be able to make truth really present in our lives and around us.
Roberto Badenas (Ph.D., Andrews University) has recently retired after serving the church for 43 years as a theologian, pastor, teacher, author of numerous articles and two books. The last position he held was as the director of the Biblical Research Institute and departmental director of education and family ministries of the Inter-European Division. This article is adapted from “Dealing with ‘Present Truth’: 2 Peter 1:12 Revisited,” a chapter in Exploring the Frontiers of Faith: Festschrift in Honour to Dr. Jan Paulsen, ed. Borge Schantz and Reinder Bruisma (Lüneburg, Germany: Advent Verlag, 2009).
- Thomas Aquinas, De veritate 1:1; cf. Lawrence Dewan, “Is truth transcendental for St. Thomas Aquinas? Nova et Vetera, 2 (2004) 1: 1-20.
- Emmanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Palgrave Macmillan, 1929), 197.
- Soren Kirkegaard, Philosophical Fragments (Princeton, New Jersery: University Press, 1985), 75; Concluding Unscientific-Postscript (Princeton, New Jersey: University Press, 1974), 181-182.
- See L.M. Hinman, “Nietzsche, metaphor and truth,” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43 (1982) 2:179-199.
- Eric Fromm, Man from Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (New York: Holt, 1947).
- For an introduction to the discussion on theories about truth, see Bradley Dowden and Norman Swartz, “Truth,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. James Fieser, http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/ (2005).
- Fernando Canale, The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University, 2005), 450-451; Alfred Tarski, “The semantic conception of truth,” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 4 (1944): 341-376.
- For e.g., Hegel, Spinoza, Leibniz, etc.
- James O. Young, “The coherence theory of truth,” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed Sept 9, 2008, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-coherence/.
- See Jürgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), 1-68.
- The expression “constructivist epistemology” was first used by Jean Piaget in the famous article “Logique et connaissance scientifique” (1967) that appeared in the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. He refers to mathematician Adriaeu Brouwer (1605-1638) and philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). Cf. Constructivist epistemology (www.answers.com/topic/constructivistepistemology).
- For e.g., William James, Charles Peirce, John Dewey, etc.
- See P.F. Strawson, “Truth” in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. XXIV, 1950. Cf. Richard Kirkham, Theories of Truth (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992). Chapter 10 contains a detailed discussion of Strawson’s performative theory of truth.
- Frank P. Ramsey, “Facts and Propositions” (1927), reprinted in Philosophical Papers, ed. David Hugh Mellor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 34-51.
- Thomas W. Currie III, Searching for Truth: Confessing Christ in an Uncertain World (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2001).
- Fritz Guy, Thinking Theologically (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1999), 250.
- Canale, 452.
- The idea of truth as disclosure has been developed in the work of Heidegger and others. On the basis of the Greek word aletheia, truth is understood as “discovery or revelation of something previously hidden. Truth, in this sense, means revealing or uncovering. As disclosure, truth exists when reality reveals itself without distortion.” See Canale, 452.
- Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1955), 6: 599.
- G. Harder, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 7, 656, translates present truth here by “Christian doctrine or Christianity generally.”
- Guy, 250.
- See Bertil Wiklander, “The truth as it is in Jesus,” Ministry (February 1996): 5-7.
- Guy, 80.
- See Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (Vancouver: New World Library, 2004).
- Guy, 52.
- Plato, The Republic 473C.
- Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, New York: American Enterprise Institute, 1982.
- G.C. Berkouwer, “Revelation and Knowledge” in Studies in Dogmatics: General Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 137-171.
- Basil Mitchell, Faith and Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 23.
- André Chouraqui, translates “faith” by adhesion and commitment, and “believing” by joining and supporting (La Bible, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2003).
- See T. Sine, Mustard Seed versus McWorld (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1999).
- T. Sine, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy (London: MARC, 1981).
- John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 19-22, 75-78.