Recently on CNN, a commercial has been running with various wording, with an apple in focus. It speaks of how whether the apple is viewed from the right or from the left, whether one insists with loud screams or capital letters that this is a banana instead, the fact still remains that “this is an apple.” The commercial ends with the simple phrase, FACTS FIRST.
More than likely, this brief announcement is intended to both highlight and lament the growing, even outrageous disrespect for truth in much of the cultural and political dialogue currently transpiring in our land. Irrespective of where one might be so far as this dialogue is concerned, the present writer holds that a new awareness of the reality and importance of objective truth may indeed by dawning in certain minds—with great attendant opportunities for the proclamation of the gospel.
The Loss of Truth
The loss of objective truth is not merely a cultural or political problem in our present world. More than anything, it is a spiritual problem. And recent decades have found this problem in some of the most surprising places.
Years ago, when I was a student at Pacific Union College, the Desmond Ford controversy was convulsing much of the Western Seventh-day Adventist Church. Those urging for “tolerance” and pluralism as presumably the best response by the church to this challenge were often heard insisting that truth was relative to time, place, and circumstance, and that if absolute truth did exist, only God knew what it was. In one campus newspaper during that era, at another college where these controversies were especially conspicuous, one student author wrote:
Truth is personal, subjective, individually unique, Spirit-inspired, and exists as absolute truth only in God (1).
The basic reasoning behind this mindset was that no one can really be sure what truth is, because it’s all supposedly a matter of “interpretation” or “perception.” Some of these folks were fond of quoting the apostle Paul’s statement that “now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Cor. 13:12)—not stopping to consider the same author’s very absolutist approach to truth in this and his other epistles (e.g. I Cor. 1:10; 5:9-13; Gal. 1:8; I Thess. 2:13; II Thess. 3:14-15). Seeing darkly is by no means the same as seeing incorrectly. A driver may wear tinted glasses, but he’d better be able to distinguish traffic lights!
Watching that CNN “apple” commercial during the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of a testimony by a conservative Adventist scholar during my college years, in the midst of the aforementioned controversies. Responding to the growing “truth is subjective” movement on campus, this professor (later editor of the Adult Sabbath School Lessons) observed:
Suppose I tell you, “This piece of cloth is red.” Assuming that my senses are functioning normally, that is an objective fact. The absolute truth and my understanding of it are one and the same thing (2).
Replying to two colleagues who were claiming that Adventism’s adherence to key doctrinal positions might change because truth and our perception of truth are not synonymous, the professor quoted above asked:
Then if [our understanding] is relative, what is it relative to? Presumably it is relative to human understanding. Then, human understanding on that point may be variant. Thus I should be tolerant with the denial of the seventh-day Sabbath doctrine. I should also be tolerant with the denial of the doctrine of the investigative judgment, the concept of Ellen White as an inspired interpreter of Scripture, and the doctrine of the mortality of the soul (3).
The professor went on to note the far-reaching implications of a relative approach to religious truth for the church’s evangelistic mission:
Adventists have left behind many doctrinal ideas espoused by evangelicals generally, because the Spirit of God has revealed absolute truths to our understanding. Theological relativism will lead us to renewed respect and tolerance for those old errors which are so palatably served up by some of the world’s great scholars. Here is a trap to catch the unwary! May the Lord save us from it! (4).
The professor correctly conceded that our understanding of truth should indeed be progressive, but that “progressive understanding in no way implies that what is already well understood is not absolutely certain and true” (5). Returning to the CNN commercial, apples don’t evolve into bananas. The professor quoted above cited the following Ellen White statement, which makes clear that infinite truths cannot fail to be understood by finite beings:
That which in the councils of heaven the Father and the Son deemed essential for the salvation of man, was defined from eternity by infinite truths which finite beings cannot fail to comprehend (6).
The decline of doctrinal and moral integrity in pivotal segments of Western Adventism during the past several decades is significantly traceable to the growing popularity of this relativistic, subjective view of truth in the church’s academic and intellectual circles. The crisis presently faced by the denomination regarding such issues as methods of Bible study, origins, gender roles, and sexuality would likely have been forestalled years in advance had this denial of the objective nature of truth been properly marginalized and disallowed within our ranks.
It isn’t hard to figure out the practical consequences of such thinking. Once ultimate truth loses its objectivity and transcendence, moral chaos is the sure result. Especially students in a classroom, hearing such uncertainty hung over the beliefs they grew up with, it isn’t difficult to predict the outcome. The enemy is close by to whisper in their ears that “you’re only young once, so enjoy life with all the stops pulled out while you still can. Then perhaps, when you’re too old and ugly to have fun anymore, you can think about God, heaven, and eternity.”
Thus have so many with whom I shared my formative years chosen to re-enact the experience of Israel in the days of the judges, when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Such a worldview bequeaths brokenness, forfeited trust, shattered relationships, and the bleak, hope-bereft prospect of a great unknown beyond.
The contempt for truth we see in so much of our present societal discourse is truly alarming. Its divisive and ruinous consequences are only beginning to be recognized by certain ones for whom the objective nature of truth has perhaps been less significant in their lives than it should have been. The words of the “apple” commercial cited at the beginning may perhaps introduce to thoughtful minds the reality that objective facts do exist, and not just in the secular political realm.
Like the professor quoted earlier made plain decades ago, the Adventist mission to the world is based on the reality that objective truth not only exists, but that finite beings with all their flaws can both know what this truth is and be ultimately held accountable for their acceptance or rejection of the same, whether before heaven’s tribunal or the collective voice of the faith community. Perhaps the toxic result of disregarding the reality of truth which we see in non-spiritual settings just now will lead reflective individuals in our society to perceive similarly hurtful consequences for disdaining truth in the most importing setting of all.
1. Jay Brand, “Biblical Unity: That Ye Love,” Southern Accent, March 18, 1982, p. 19.
2. Erwin R. Gane, letter to Pacific Union College Board of Trustees, May 25, 1982, p. 5.
3. Ibid, pp. 5-6.
4. Ibid, p. 7.
5. Ibid, p. 6.
6. Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 408.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.