The Seventh-day Adventist denomination retained the doctrine of “Present Truth" from the Millerite movement. To the Millerites "Present Truth" was the soon second coming of Jesus and destruction of the earth which they later determined to be scheduled for 1844. Early Adventist pioneers like Joseph Bates held that the “shut door” teaching that Ellen White once also taught was similarly "Present Truth". Christians outside of the Adventist denomination also hold to their beliefs as "Present Truth" as in the set of sermon titles of Charles Spurgeon. The term is applied to ideas believed to be given by God to any group especially for their time or stated as follows on the website Heaven Dwellers:
“In each of God's ages and dispensations there has been truth generated from God that was peculiar and particular to that age or dispensation to which it pertained. By that we mean that in each age God made known a truth which related directly to the calling that then stood before God. It has ever been the responsibility of God's people in each age and dispensation to distinguish "Present Truth"…”
We may think of a few biblical examples of “Present Truth” which would be specifics to a particular situation. Israel was told to return from their false religious practices and seek justice, mercy and repentance. Those would be specific to the general truth, that truth of returning to following God. Justice and mercy would be the enduring truths, the "Present Truth" was the particular application of the need for the general truth. Another example might be the specific requirements for the city of Jerusalem when they attempted to re-establish Sabbath observance.
Let's look at the application of "Present Truth" used by Joseph Bates in regards to the shut door theory of early Adventism. (The shut door theory as held by certain Millerite Adventist between 1844-1854 maintained that Miller gave the final call for salvation and those who did not accept his message were lost. The theory was abandoned when they decided the cleansing was of the sanctuary in heaven and not a cleansing of earth.)
“Why this third angel's loud cry about the commandments of God, because the fourth one, which had been trodden down for many generations, is to be restored and kept as the commandment requires. The second angel's message and voice from heaven required God's people to leave the churches. The seventh-day Sabbath could not, nor can not now be restored there. It is to be done in the Philadelphia state of the church, and no where else. This is the "Present Truth" in the commandments in the Ark of his Testimony. The "Present Truth" in this is: That the master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and now stands beside the Ark containing the commandments. The ""Present Truth"," then, of this third angel's message is, The Sabbath And Shutdoor.” (See also the picture on the Chart. ) An Explanation of the Typical and Anti-Typical Sanctuary, By the Scriptures. With A Chart Revelation III:
The problem with "Present Truth" is that it often takes general truth and distorts it to support the presuppositions of the times. The general truth is that at some time Christ will return and the opportunity for decisions will end. The "Present Truth" of the shut door meant if one had heard Millers exhortation and no longer believed them they were lost. "Present Truth" became a term to make their beliefs appear to have more import then they would have if they were simply acknowledged it to be predictions or suppositions.
"Present Truth" took on the most peculiar incarnation: that is propaganda for a particular belief. If you and others believed it and it was a contemporary belief it must be true and God must have given it to you to perceive. It is now a powerful tool to tell people that you have some unique truth, not some old truth that everyone else could have from reading their Bibles, but a particular truth that is special for your time and place as a special gift from God to you and your church.
Adventism has taken "Present Truth" farther in that nothing can contradict "Present Truth", because once held it stands forever. P. Gerard Damsteegt writes:
“New light will not manifest itself in a form that is altogether different from the light the church already possesses. It will take the form of a further advancement of "Present Truth". It is a fuller, clearer, and brighter unfolding of the old truth. There will be harmony with the theological landmarks, the Spirit of Prophecy, and historicist principles of Bible interpretation. Thus it will not replace, substitute, radically change, or tear down the foundations of Adventist faith and practice.” (Seventh-day Adventist Doctrines and Progressive Revelation © P. Gerard Damsteegt Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 2/1 (1991): 77-92)
Thus the propaganda of "Present Truth" becomes institutionalized. "Present Truth" becomes a euphemism for Adventist beliefs. If we (or the Adventists pioneers) believe it, it was or is called "Present Truth." This institutionalization becomes very much like the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and tradition becoming equal in authority to the Bible and dictating how the Bible must be interpreted. “Present Truth" becomes the theological landmarks. Thus, traditional Adventism has placed itself as the holder of “Present Truth” from an America of the late 1800’s which now is seen as “landmarks” that cannot be changed.
This traditional view of "Present Truth" is now arrayed against the Progressive Adventist view. (“Progressive Adventism” should not be confused with the unfortunate mixture of progressive or left wing politics and theology that so characterize the dialogue in some circles.) The Progressive Adventist seeks to learn how and when to reinterpret beliefs to maintain a reasonable theological view. It holds that "Present Truth" is progressive truth -- it is a new truth or a revised understanding of an old truth for this time or situation. For example at one time Ellen White condemned the use of bicycles for their impracticality and expense while today they are practical, good exercise, better for the environment and far cheaper than many forms of transport. Thus even if something was assumed to be divinely inspired instruction, with time and change the instruction is no longer valid, the general truth of not wasting ones money remains true but the "Present Truth" of a past age does not apply today. Most traditional Adventists understand this example. But they will not apply the same reasoning to what they consider an Adventist landmark doctrine. “Present Truth” will instead be used as propaganda to prop up a potentially irrelevant or discredited older understanding.
Besides being stuck with paradigms now 150 years old the emphasis on being the special recipients and defenders of “Present Truth” fosters the remnant triumphalism that is both offensive to others and in some instances just plain silly.
The rediscovery by Adventists of the Sabbath was “Present Truth” to them. But, somehow when the Seventh-day Baptists taught it a hundred years earlier it was not “Present Truth?” It makes little sense until we realize the value was in the perception that we Adventists had something special and of greater truth value than anyone else: “Come and get it, new and improved, now with 50% more truth.”
“Present Truth” is a fiction, a meaningless term whose only value lies in its advertising potential.