Does truth change?

Receptivity to new ideas may be the mark of the educated person, but it is also the mark of the undiscriminating. Is there nothing absolute upon which to stand? We need open minds, but how open? Open to what?

J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.

Truth is is ever changing and progressive, never static or absolute. In fact, what we consider to be truth today may be proved a lie tomorrow."

These words came from a dissident, youthful pastor as he handed me an August, 1981, Science Digest article, titled "Revising the Truth." "This sets forth my position on truth as it relates to Bible doctrine," he continued. Glancing through the brief article, I noted it dealt with speculative scientific opinion on the origin of the universe. The author pointed out that recent planetary probes revealed a shocking paucity of real knowledge about the contents of the cosmos. He substantiated this fact by such questions and statements as: "Is there any hope of finding out the truth about our universe?" "Every thing we know today will be wrong at some level tomorrow." Will our picture of the world be eternally under revision, new truths superseding old?" "Science will continue happily revising the truth for ever, driven on by the joy of exploration."

Considering his topic, I don't deny the soundness of the author's logic. In fact, I agree fully with him in this particular area. When it comes to the origin of the universe, man's speculative ability is at its height. Even those of us who believe the Scripture record that God created the universe will never solve the secrets of its beginnings. Ideas on this subject will change like dress fashions.

But there are certain truths about the cosmos that stand unchangeable and undeniable. For example, the existence of suns, moons, and planets, and the laws that govern the movements of these heavenly bodies. Only because these verifiable and unalterable laws make it possible to chart their movements with unerring accuracy are man's space exploits successful. So there is a body of scientific knowledge that will never change. It will be, and is, expanded, yes. But never changed.

So it is in the spiritual realm. Certain absolutes exist. Call them what you will—doctrines, beliefs, fundamentals—they remain unalterable, immovable, consistent, fixed. These great bulwarks of our faith, the seventh-day Sabbath, the law of God, the Second Coming, the incarnation, the atonement, and others, need to be expanded and understood more deeply, but they are irreplaceable and unchangeable. These are dependable and permanent hooks on which to hang our faith.

Does this mean we have reached the limits of understanding on these timeless truths? Never! I personally feel like Isaac Newton, who eloquently admitted, "I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." In reading Arthur White's manuscript on Ellen White's Australian years during which she wrote The Desire of Ages, I was impressed anew with how she poured out her soul to General Conference president O. A. Olsen, confessing her inadequacy to properly set forth the atoning sacrifice of Christ: "Oh, how inefficient, how incapable I am of expressing the things which burn in my soul in reference to the mission of Christ! I have hardly dared to enter upon the work. There is so much to it all. ... I lay awake nights pleading with the Lord for the Holy Spirit to come upon me, to abide upon me. ... I walk with trembling before God. I know not how to speak or trace with pen the large subject of the atoning sacrifice."—Letter 40, 1892.

Our human understanding of truth is so shallow. An eternity of study can never exhaust the length, breadth, height, and depth of God's truth, character, and ways. Paul knew this when he declared that at present we "see but a poor reflection" (1 Cor. 13:12, N.I.V. *). But my concern is that truth, based on the Word and understood even so feebly, is to be expanded, but not repudiated.

Admittedly, Adventism creates a rather paradoxical situation in some respects. In teaching people, we emphasize the need of an open mind. How often in evangelistic meetings I have stated, "The mark of a well-educated person is to keep the mind open until all the evidence has been presented." We, of all churches, are foremost in urging people to search the Scriptures for themselves, to think for themselves and not permit their former ideas and prejudices to rule them. As one former Adventist minister said, "It must never be forgotten that it was Adventists who taught me to really question in the first place." Thus we are proficient in getting people to examine truth and investigate it thoroughly, recognizing its superiority to erroneous beliefs. But after having arduously worked with them to rethink and restudy their understanding of Bible doctrines, we then trust they will "settle into" or "become grounded and established" in the truth to such a degree that doubts or questions will never arise again.

There is an inherent danger here. Too often, by "being settled and grounded" in the truth, we mean there is no further need to study or think or reason again. Thus we encourage fossilization. Or if we do urge "study," we often mean head knowledge, not a knowledge that involves the heart. The apostle speaks of this as "ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." (2 Tim. 3:7).

This is just as dangerous as fossilization, if not more so. We must have "the truth as it is in Jesus" warm from Heaven in our heart (see Eph. 4:21). Jesus declared Himself to be "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). If truth does not become a vibrant, living reality, if it does not become a part of our spiritual flesh and blood, if it does not constantly expand, along with our understanding of the Lord Jesus, into something more real and personal and precious, then it will become legalistic, empty, and meaningless. Is not this what has happened for too many of us with such doctrines as the sanctuary, the Sabbath, salvation? Even the basic teaching of Christ's return is too rarely heard from our pulpits because it has too often lost its reality in our daily Christian experience. Shall we repudiate these great truths, then, because we have allowed them to fossilize and stagnate? Space probes constantly reveal expanded vistas of scientific truth. But scientists do not, therefore, jettison the very principles that make these probes possible. They build on them and expand them, but they do not deny them.

The beauty of spiritual truth is found in experiencing it. Tasting and eating the Word becomes a most delightful experience. We feast on the bread of life, and in so doing we grow in understanding and appreciation of truth. —J.R.S.

 

* Scripture quotation marked N.I.V. is from The Holy Bible: New International Version, Copy right 1978 by The New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

 

 


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J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.

October 1982

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