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When “Time Makes Ancient Good Uncouth”


Early in my experience growing up in a devoutly Seventh-day Adventist home, I became acquainted with the term “present truth.” It was an expression that frequently appeared in Adventist writing and preaching during the first one hundred years or so of the denomination’s existence. And it’s an insightful concept, I believe, though use of the expression has waned considerably over the past few decades. 

“Present truth is truth that God reveals during a specific time period for a specific purpose,” says the Adventist Church’s Ask an Adventist Friend website. “The concept essentially acknowledges that circumstances change, and because of this change, some messages of truth from the Word of God may be more applicable or more useful at a given time.”

I would argue that the converse is also true: with the passage of time, certain messages that were once present truth may become less applicable and less useful. Or they may even become no longer applicable at all.

In Noah’s day, the fact that a flood was imminent would have been present truth. And the fact that the Messiah was soon to arrive would have been present truth in the days of John the Baptist.

But there’s another kind of present truth, which has to do with exploring deeper understandings of long-held truth. It shows how an accepted truth may have implications that reach further than recognized in the past. A prime example is Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and his explanation of the true implications of the Ten Commandments. Everyone in Christ’s day knew murder was wrong. But Jesus argued that the no-murder commandment also prohibits hateful, vengeful thoughts. Everyone also knew adultery was wrong. But Jesus argued that lustful thoughts about an illicit liaison are also a violation of the no-adultery commandment. 

Jesus’ point was that sin isn’t limited to bad actions. Sin is also a matter of bad thoughts. These additional and deeper understandings were a form of present truth. 

But the concept of present truth goes further still.

Jesus told his disciples there were things he would like to tell them, but they wouldn’t be able to handle them at that time (John 16:12). Both the Old and New Testaments don’t always present the full picture. They merely take us as far as the original listeners and readers were able to go.  

Take the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth rule laid down by Moses. That was a tremendous step forward when compared to the levels of revenge that were commonplace in that day. It was present truth. But certainly not the full truth. Or the final truth. Jesus later said we should love our enemies and do good to them, even when they’re mistreating us.

Or consider the matter of slavery. Moses imposed rules about how severely a master could legally beat his slave. That was a step forward—but certainly failed to elucidate the gross immorality of slavery as a social institution. The apostle Paul then went on to say that slaves and non-slaves have equal access to Christ’s salvation. Wonderful! He also said slaves and masters should treat each other with respect. Wonderful again! Those assertions were definitely strides forward. They were forms of present truth. But they were not the final truth about the moral repugnance of human bondage. That’s something—to a great degree—we have had to figure out on our own based on the teaching trajectory of both Testaments. 

Present truth doesn’t always come in the form definitive divine pronouncements or prohibitions. I particularly like the following words from James Russell Lowell’s hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation”: 

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

Individual Christians and Christian organizations are understandably frightened by the awesome responsibility required to facilitate the kinds of changes described in Lowell’s hymn. Memorizing a rule book and maintaining the status quo would be so much easier. But at times changes are essential for those “who would keep abreast of truth.” In other words, change is necessary for those who believe in present truth.

Failure to learn, grow, and change diminishes Christian credibility in the eyes of onlookers whose secular moral wrestlings have led them to see the inadequacy, inconsistency, and even hypocrisy of some of our fiercely defended teachings and practices.

Note, for example, the following sarcastic comment from 19th-century skeptic and orator Robert Ingersoll: “They have, in Massachusetts, at a place called Andover, a kind of minister factory, where each professor takes an oath once in five years . . . that he has not, during the last five years, and will not, during the next five years, intellectually advance.”

The oath taken by the professors didn’t actually contain a promise not to “intellectually advance.” That was Ingersoll’s spin on it. What the oath did promise, however, was ongoing and unwavering adherence to venerated creedal statements.

As Ingersoll cogently—albeit sarcastically—observed, surely after years of intense study, a theologian would recognize some inadequacies, if not outright errors, in some of the things to which he once wholeheartedly subscribed. In what other discipline would one-time orthodoxy not give way to new understandings after abundant years of research and study?

One final consideration. Ethicists talk about “stacking our imperatives.” When competing moral demands are in conflict, we have to decide which moral consideration should take precedence. Said another way, we must determine which option is present truth in each situation and moment.

A classic illustration of such a dilemma played out when a woman caught in the act of adultery was unceremoniously dragged before Jesus. Religious law said adulterers should be stoned. But Jesus could see the bigger picture, while the rest were just looking for permission to throw big rocks at a fellow human.

Tradition was on the side of stoning. So why not just do it? No thinking necessary. Moses had given them their marching orders centuries earlier. To these people, failure to support the execution of the woman was considered disobedience to the law and an act of rebellion against God. 

But Jesus, the very incarnation of God’s grace, was on the side of forgiveness and restoration. He gave precedence to a principle higher than the law. Jesus’s attitude and approach highlighted the present truth needed by that terrified woman as she was spiritually and emotionally tormented by her accusers. And the present truth she needed to grasp was the same present truth that the would-be stone throwers also needed to understand.

Present truth in that early morning confrontation required a clear vision of the true character of God. And present truth for us today involves the ongoing need for that same clear vision.


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James Coffin lives in Altamonte Springs, Florida, is married to Leonie, and they have three adult sons, two daughters-in-law, one grandson, and one granddaughter.

Title Image: Alessandro Varotari, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1630, public domain. 

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