John Wesley Taylor V

Research and the Search for Truth

Research is a systematic inquiry based on gathering and analyzing information designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.1 While research is fundamentally a search for new knowledge, that knowledge should also be trustworthy, a true and accurate reflection of reality.2 This is why researchers seek to minimize false positives and negatives,3 and why they endeavor to triangulate. Consequently, research is ultimately a search for truth, for trustworthy knowledge. Not Truth in its absolute sense, but certainly those dimensions of truth that are accessible, within our human limitations.

Research is ultimately a search for truth, for trustworthy knowledge. Not Truth in its absolute sense, but certainly those dimensions of truth that are accessible, within our human limitations.

The Search for What Is True

In Jesus’ trial, Pilate asked a key question, “‘What is truth?’” (John 18:38, NKJV).4 If we were to pose that question, or its counterpart “How does one know what is true?” to a cross-section of contemporary society, we would encounter a range of responses: “It’s been that way for a long time.” “Everyone agrees.” “It seems obvious.” “I feel strongly about it.” “It’s certainly reasonable.” “It all fits together.” “She’s the expert and surely must know.” “It just works!”5

We recognize, however, that each of these criteria for determining truthfulness presents inherent limitations. Every tradition, for example, must have a beginning. How did the first person know what was true? While I may feel very strongly that something is true, what happens when two people feel strongly about the same thing but in opposite ways?6 While everything may indeed fit together beautifully, what if one started with a false premise and then ensured that each addition was a perfect match?7 Who is going to be the authority? And how does he or she know, after all?8

Perhaps we can empathize with Thomas’s predicament: “We don’t know anything for certain!”9 Before any hasty attempt to discard any of the above criteria, we should note that each has value and can contribute toward a better understanding of truth.10 The point, however, is that not one of these can guarantee truth.

What About Scientific Research?

One of the more pervasive truth criteria is that of empirical evidence.11 This approach is frequently expressed in statements such as, “It’s supported by research” and “It’s scientifically sound.” Research, with its systematic methodology and its checks and balances, such as peer review and replication of findings, is certainly one of the more promising avenues through which we can approximate truth.

We would be naïve, however, if we did not also recognize the limitations of research, several of which are highlighted in Scripture. Do we truly perceive what is out there, or could it be that “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV)? Could appearances, at times, be deceiving (1 Samuel 16:7)? Data must be interpreted to become meaningful. Is it possible for people to review the same data and yet arrive at different interpretations because of differences in worldview?12 (See Figure 1). Finally, is all the evidence ever in? Might we know only in part (1 Corinthians 13:9-12), and this partial knowledge lead us to faulty conclusions?13

The Christian Response

What, then, is the answer? How can we know what is truth? Regrettably, the clamor of the crowd distracted Pilate, and he turned away before Jesus could answer his question. 

As is often the case with God, however, Christ had, in fact, answered the question before it was asked, when He stated: “‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’” (John 14:6). Accordingly, for the Christian, truth is a Person. Furthermore, hours before His encounter with Pilate, Christ had prayed, “‘Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth’” (John 17:17). In the biblical worldview, therefore, the Word, whether written or incarnate, is truth. This implies that knowledge of truth is both intellectual (learning about God, His words, and His works) and relational (knowing Christ personally and experientially).

What are the implications of this perspective for the Christian, and especially for one who engages in research? There are several fundamental concepts:

  1. Truth begins with God, not with humankind. James wrote: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), and John added: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Consequently, human beings are but receivers of God’s revelation of Truth. Although we can construct interpretations or applications of truth, we do not ultimately create Truth. This does not imply that we are mere passive recipients. God desires us to actively discover and, at times, recover truth (e.g., John 5:39; Job 12:7; Proverbs 2:4, 5).
  2. Because Truth resides in God and God does not change, Truth is stable. The Bible speaks of “the God of truth” (Isaiah 65:16) and asserts that “truth is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21).14 It also states that God is eternal and unchanging, with affirmations such as these: “From everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalm 90:2) and “I am the Lord, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6).15 As a result, God’s Truth is constant, as David confirmed, “The truth of the Lord endures forever” (Psalm 117:2).16 This implies that the principles of God’s Truth are generalizable across time, place, and case.17 The immutability and transferability of Truth do not suggest, however, that human understanding of truth cannot develop over time. David, for example, was deeply troubled by the suffering of the righteous and the apparent prosperity of the wicked.18 Not until he entered the sanctuary and reflected on its meaning was he able to glimpse the larger picture of God’s Truth.19
  3. All Truth possesses unity because it comes from the same Source. We noted that coherence cannot establish Truth, given that we might start with a false assumption. Thus, not all that is consistent is true. Nevertheless, that which is true is internally consistent, and Truth will be in harmony with itself wherever and whenever it is found. Consequently, research findings should evidence a good fit with other instances of truth. If there seems to be contradiction, there is error—in terms of what we have just discovered or perhaps in what we previously regarded as truth. Alternatively, both declarations could be true (or potentially, both false), with the apparent contradiction denoting a problem with our finite understanding and serving as a call for further study and reflection.20
  4. Truth is infinite because God is infinite. Because we are finite, we will never fully comprehend or exhaust the extent of God’s Truth. The frontiers of our understanding are also the horizons of our ignorance. Visually, our circle of knowledge is surrounded by the vast universe of what we don’t know or, much less, understand. Our only contact with that universe, however, is at the circumference of our circle (see Figure 2).21 When the circle of knowledge is small, the circumference is also small, and we might be led to believe that there are only a few things that we do not yet know. As the area of the circle grows through learning and research, so does the circumference, and our points of contact with the unknown thereby increase. Consequently, the more we learn, the more we realize how much there is yet to learn, and the more humble we should become.
  5. We must continually grow in our knowledge and understanding of the truth. It is not sufficient to stand, anchored in the truth. According to Scripture, we must walk in the truth (2 John 4; 3 John 3 and 4). The act of walking denotes movement and progress. How presumptuous it would be, then, for anyone on that journey to declare or act as if he or she possesses all truth! A Christian will never possess all truth. After all, God’s Truth is infinite, and we are finite. Nevertheless, through study, research, and experience, through collaboration with other truth seekers and divine guidance, the proportion of error should begin to drop away, with the ultimate goal that all the Christian possesses should be truth.
  6. Because God is the Source of all truth, all truth is ultimately God’s truth.22 If something is true (even if it is the truth about the untruth23), it is an extension of God’s Truth, and we must recognize that connection. In the Christian perspective, this is a core purpose of research and of education—highlighting the link between discovered truth and its Source. While we recognize that all truth is a manifestation of God’s ultimate Truth, we must also acknowledge that Christians do not have a monopoly on truth. Non-believers also discover truths. “‘[God] causes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’” (Matthew 5:45, NIV)24 because He wants all “to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). We should not be surprised, therefore, if agnostics or even atheists discover important facets of God’s truth. Is there a difference between the Christian and the non-Christian? While the non-Christian can encounter truth in his or her journey through life, the Christian acknowledges and values the Source of that truth.

Attaining Trustworthy Knowledge

The question How do we obtain truth? is particularly relevant within the context of research. Fundamentally, we are enabled to discover truth because God takes the initiative, sharing facts and principles with us. Divine revelation is the channel through which God reveals truth to human beings.25 Reason, research, and reflection, nevertheless, each play a key role, while faith is integral to the entire process (see Figure 3).26 Our reasoning powers, as well as the ability to conduct research and to reflect on knowledge and experience, are gifts from God that enable us to discover and understand truth. Faith, in turn, is a sincere and wholehearted commitment to God’s manifestation of Truth.

There is a problem, however. Paul speaks of those “who changed the truth of God into a lie” (Roman 1:25, KJV). While God’s Truth cannot be destroyed, it can, in fact, be distorted. When an object is viewed through a warped lens, our perception of that object is deformed, although the object itself has not changed. How does this misrepresentation of truth occur? There are at least two possibilities: It can result from Satan’s direct manipulation of God’s Truth (Acts 16:16-18)27; and, perhaps more subtly, through our acceptance of a secular worldview (2 Corinthians 4:4), which leaves God out of the equation. The result in either case is false conclusions regarding God’s revelation of truth (see Figure 4).

This is tragic. God shares facts and principles with humanity, but human beings sometimes arrive at false conclusions. Is there a remedy? The good news is that God is again proactive. He provides the “Spirit of Truth” who will guide us “into all Truth” (John 16:13, KJV).28 It is the role of the Holy Spirit to deflect Satan’s attempted distortions of truth and to rescue us from the false assumptions of a secular worldview. As a result, we are enabled to arrive at correct conclusions regarding God and His Truth (see Figure 5). The prophet Isaiah wrote: “When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD will lift up a standard against him” (Isaiah 59:19). Consequently, it is essential for a Christian to invite the Holy Spirit as a partner in research.

There is an additional safeguard, however, and that is the triangulation of believers. While popularity polls do not determine truth, nevertheless “every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (2 Corinthians 13:1, NIV).29 When the early Christian believers needed to decide which matters were essential, they came together, discussed and prayed, and under the guidance of the Spirit reached a conclusion (Acts 15:1-31). In research, it is likewise necessary that findings be replicated, that perspectives be triangulated, and that, through humble interactions, a consensus emerges among those who are committed to the biblical worldview.

Concluding Thoughts

Research is a focused and systematic search for truth, for trustworthy knowledge and understanding. Truth, for its part, loses nothing by close examination, by careful investigation.30 Further, both reason and faith can be strengthened by the scrutiny of research and refined in the crucible of empirical analysis.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that research has inherent limitations, that not even a careful application of scientific inquiry is a guarantee of truth. Although we endeavor to safeguard the truthfulness of our conclusions, we recognize that we cannot arrive at certainty based on empirical data. We can never state, “Research has proved that . . .” or “Science has verified that . . . .” Rather, we must speak in terms of evidence that “‘bear[s] witness to the truth’” (John 18:37; see also 3 John 1:12).

We must each, therefore, model authenticity and humility. This includes recognizing the limits of our knowledge, being honest about our deficiencies, and expressing the tentativeness of our conclusions. It implies openness to correction and a passion for continued growth. It suggests that as believing scholars, we must come together, under the guidance of the Spirit, to build a dynamic, Word-based community in search of truth.

As Christian researchers, we must interact directly with the repositories of truth, revealed through Scripture, in the person of Jesus Christ, and by the creation in each of its dimensions. Above all, we must communicate confidence in the trustworthiness of the divine revelation of Truth—a “more sure word” (2 Peter 1:19, KJV), which we do well to heed.          

There is a final matter. Paul writes, “Wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). It is not enough to know the truth. We must love the truth. What does it mean to love the truth? To love the truth is to live the truth. We evidence that we love the truth by incorporating it into the fabric of our lives.

As Christian researchers, we must interact directly with the repositories of truth, revealed through Scripture, in the person of Jesus Christ, and by the creation in each of its dimensions. Above all, we must communicate confidence in the trustworthiness of the divine revelation of Truth—a “more sure word” (2 Peter 1:19, KJV), which we do well to heed.

The result? “‘The truth shall make you free’” (John 8:32). We do not so much need freedom to discover truth as we must reside in God’s Truth to progressively experience freedom—from error, from false assumptions, and from misplaced interpretations. Truth, in fact, offers the only freedom.

At the end of Earth’s history, God proclaims: “Open the gates that the righteous nation which keeps the truth may enter in” (Isaiah 26:2). Truth matters.

This article has been peer reviewed.

John Wesley Taylor V

John Wesley Taylor V, PhD, EdD, is an Associate Director of the General Conference Department of Education in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. He may be contacted at [email protected].

Recommended citation:

John Wesley Taylor V, “Research and the Search for Truth,” The Journal of Adventist Education 81:4 (October-December 2019): 14-20.


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Code of Federal Regulations 5 CFR 46.102(d), adapted (2009): Inquiry indicates that we seek to answer questions, while systematic specifies that we approach the research process in an intentional and organized manner, using the scientific approach, which often includes a sequence of phases: making initial observations, defining the problem, formulating the question, investigating the known, articulating an expectation, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting the results—particularly in reference to the expectation, reflecting on the findings, and then communicating the findings to the scientific community, as well as to society at large. The goal of knowledge points to the fact that we hope to describe, understand, or explain something, while the generalizable aspect suggests that we would like our findings to have meaning beyond the immediate, informing other scenarios. (In qualitative research, the more common terminology is transferability.)
  2. This highlights the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics. For the Christian, however, reality takes on an added dimension—seeking to understand reality as God sees it. In this sense, truth may also be viewed as fidelity to the standard of ultimate Truth, aspects of which God has conveyed to us (see, for example, 2 Peter 1:19 to 21 and Revelation 1:1 and 2). The utilization of a standard, with its corresponding goodness of fit, underscores the interrelatedness of epistemology and axiology.
  3. Also known as Type I and II errors in statistical hypothesis testing. An example of a “false positive” (Type I error) would be a lab result that indicates that a patient has a certain disease, when he or she does not, in reality, have the disease. Conversely, a “false negative” (Type II error) would be a lab result that indicates that a patient does not have the disease, when, in fact, he or she does.
  4. Unless indicated otherwise, all biblical passages in this article are quoted from the New King James Version (NKJV). Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. All rights reserved.
  5. Many of these expressions are representative of various theories of truth, such as Consensus (“everyone agrees”), Constructivist (“it’s been my experience”), Coherence (“it fits together beautifully”), and Pragmatic (“it works”).
  6. Emotion can also degenerate into mere wish fulfillment: “This simply must be true because I like it/want it to be.” We must recognize, nevertheless, that emotion does play a vital role in our lives. If we accept that truth is relational, then it must include emotive components. Antonio Damasio, in Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Avon Books, 1994) proposes, in fact, that the human brain does not allow rational inquiry without involving the emotional centers of the brain.
  7. Furthermore, is it possible to force the evidence? By persistent blows, might we metaphorically drive a square peg through a round hole?
  8. Similarly, we can recognize limitations in other positions. Popularity: Is the majority always right? There was a time when all but eight people believed that it could never rain (1 Peter 3:20). At another time, nearly everyone believed in spontaneous generation, until Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) performed his experiments demonstrating that life can come only from life. If we rely on opinion polls to confirm truth, we would run the risk of following the whims of the masses or of the group making the most noise. Instinct: Thomas Jefferson, as primary author of the United States Declaration of Independence, wrote that “all men are created equal” (1776) and called this idea “self-evident.” The concept, however, was not evident in the same way to King George of England or to Jefferson’s friends who were slaveholders, or even to Jefferson himself, also a slaveholder. A deeper problem with the “follow your heart” approach is that Jeremiah describes our hearts as deceitful and naturally inclined toward error (Jeremiah 17:9). How, then, could our instincts be an infallible guide? Pragmatism: Something may indeed work well, but is it necessarily correct just because it works? While deceptive advertising may be effective, at least in terms of short-term sales, that does not make it acceptable. Logic: In a syllogism, the truthfulness of the conclusion depends on the truthfulness of the premises, which are often difficult, if not impossible, to test. Without assurance that our assumptions are true, logic could become a way of going wrong with confidence. Conversely, just because something does not seem logical (perhaps because we do not understand it), this does not preclude it from being true. Scripture, for example, presents affirmations that seem to defy human logic: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10, NKJV). “Having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10, NIV). “‘Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it’” (Mark 8:35, NIV). Quoted from The Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society.
  9. “‘We don’t know, Lord,’ Thomas said. ‘We have no idea where You are going, so how can we know the way?’” (John 14:5, NLT). Quoted from Holy Bible. New Living Translation, Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
  10. The Bible, for example, speaks positively regarding several of these criteria: Tradition: “‘Ask the former generations. Find out what their fathers learned’” (Job 8:8, NIV). Popularity: “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14, NKJV; also 15:22). Logic: “[Jesus] answered and said to them, ‘When it is evening you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red”; and in the morning, “It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.” Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times’” (Matthew 16:2, 3; also, 10:29, 31, NKJV; and Acts 18:4). Coherence: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11, NIV).
  11. In this Correspondence or Empirical Theory approach, assertions of truth are compared with evidence of reality, at least as we perceive it. In a 2009 survey of philosophy faculty members and philosophy PhD holders, for example, 48.9 percent of the 1,803 respondents accepted or leaned toward Correspondence Theory, as opposed to 23.0 percent toward Deflationary, 10.9 percent toward Epistemic, and 17.2 percent toward other truth theories (
  12. Numbers 13 and14 describes a situation wherein 12 persons reviewed the same evidence, but two arrived at a conclusion quite different from that of the other 10.
  13. Karl Popper, one of the great philosophers of science in the 20th century, argued that proof can be claimed only if an experiment is repeated an infinite number of times under all possible circumstances. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Routledge, 1992), page 32, Popper stated: “The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.” See also Popper’s discussion of white swans and black swans on pages 33 and 83. Available at The conclusion is that certainty of any proposition is simply unattainable from the human perspective. Researchers thus speak in terms of possibilities and probabilities.
  14. See Exodus 34:6; Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 31:5; and Psalm 25:10.
  15. Also, Hebrews 13:8. We must be cautious, however, when asserting God’s unchangeableness that we do not view Him as one locked in infinity, unmoved by circumstances that we may experience. Rather, God is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15, KJV). While it may be difficult for us to comprehend, God’s immutability and His imminence are coexistent.
  16. Consequently, human beings cannot destroy Truth. We can only choose to accept or reject God’s Truth. The fact that Truth cannot be destroyed also suggests that those who have accepted it do not need to shift into crisis mode simply because Truth has been attacked.
  17. For instance, Psalm 100:5 states that God’s Truth “endures to all generations” (NKJV). This does not mean that the application of truth cannot vary depending on the context, but rather that Truth, in its principle, is universal. Were we to visit Asia, for example, we would be expected to remove our shoes before entering a holy place. In some other places, however, the removing of shoes in a church service would be considered improper. Which position is correct? Both are contextualized expressions of the same principle—namely, that one should show reverence to God. Similarly, research may help identify overarching theories, but the application of those principles, as seen in the findings of a study, may suggest variance depending on time, place, and population.
  18. “When I thought how to understand this,” David wrote, “it was too painful for me” (Psalm 73:16, NKJV).
  19. Similarly, when the prophet Daniel received a vision regarding 2,300 days until the sanctuary should be cleansed (Daniel 8:14), he was deeply troubled. “I, Daniel, fainted and was sick for days. . . . I was astonished by the vision, but no one understood it” (8:27, NKJV). Investigating other time periods in Scripture, he encountered the period of 70 years of Jewish captivity foretold by the prophet Jeremiah (9:1-3). This brought greater consternation, as it seemed that the period of captivity was to be greatly extended (based on the day/year principle), and this led to Daniel’s prayer of corporate repentance (9:4-19). In response to this prayer, the angel Gabriel, who had spoken of the 2,300 days, returned and said, “‘O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you skill to understand. . . . Therefore, consider the matter, and understand the vision’” (9:22, 23 NKJV). Then Gabriel again spoke of time periods. In all, evidence that human understanding of truth can be progressive.
  20.  Take, for example, the belief that the Earth is the center of the universe. The geocentric model was the dominant explanation of the cosmos in many, if not most, ancient civilizations, and was advocated by Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy, among others. Copernicus provided the first serious challenge to the Earth-centered model when he published his work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, proposing that the planets, including the Earth, revolved around the Sun. Christians, by and large, had accepted the pervading geocentric model and buttressed that position with certain biblical passages (e.g., Joshua 10:12, 13; Habakkuk 3:11, 12; Psalm 19:4-6; Ecclesiastes 1:5). Indeed, when the Copernican theory was proposed, it was argued that this view contradicted Scripture, or more accurately, the constructed misinterpretation of Scripture (see Barry Brundell, “The New Atheism: Some Pre-history,” Compass 47:4 [Summer 2013]: 30-35).
  21. Beyond those unknowns that touch the circumference of our circle of knowledge, we don’t even know that we don’t know!
  22. The concept that “all truth is God’s truth” was noted by Frank Gaebelein in The Pattern of God’s Truth: The Integration of Faith and Learning (Chicago: Moody Press, 1954) and championed by Arthur Holmes in All Truth Is God’s Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977). Augustine, however, had earlier supported this idea in his work On Christian Doctrine (Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010), chapter 18): “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.”
  23. Biblical statements regarding deceit and misrepresentation are first expressed in the context of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16, 17; 3:4), and culminate with the destruction of Satan, the archdeceiver (Revelation 20:3).
  24. The Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society.
  25. Divine revelation includes both special revelation (the Scriptures) and general revelation (God’s created works). Consequently, both Scripture and the creation (including human beings) are avenues intentionally used by God to communicate truth (see, for example, the discussion of both general and special revelation in Psalm 19). We should note, however, that the primary purpose for God’s revelation through nature was to convey knowledge about Himself and His plan for the creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1, NKJV; also Psalm 97:6; Acts 14:15-17). God has placed sufficient evidence in His created works that any person, regardless of training or experience, can acquire the essential understanding of God: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20, NKJV).
  26. Anselm, in the Proslogion, states: “I seek not to understand in order that I may believe; but I believe in order that I may understand. For this also I believe, namely, that unless I believe I shall not understand” (Biblioteca Sacra, 8:537). Consequently, all persons live by faith, regardless of their worldview, as there are always fundamental assumptions that cannot be tested by reason, research, or reflection to the point of certainty. The matter, ultimately, is in what, or in whom, will we place our faith.
  27. The slave girl’s assertion, “‘These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation’” (Acts 16:17, NKJV) was true. Why, then, did Paul utter his rebuke? Simply because the devil was endeavoring to distort God’s Truth. The inhabitants of Philippi knew this woman well—she “brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling” (vs. 16). As the woman seemed to know these strangers and was providing pro bono marketing services “for many days” (vs. 18), people could falsely conclude that they belonged to the same endeavor.
  28. See 1 John 5:6 and 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.
  29. Also Proverbs 15:22 and 2 Peter 1:20.
  30. Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Publ. Assn., 1946) 35.