Relativism, based on the word “relation,” has much to commend it in theology as in all else. It recognizes that things have to be set in relation, whether to other things or to the observer or speaker. Without it, historical judgment would be impossible. And without it we should be set in the hopeless conflict of warring absolutes.
A certain degree of relativism is necessary for a proper understanding of the Bible. The words of Scripture have to be seen in relation to their linguistic history and usage. In different passages they can have varying senses or nuances that can be determined only by study of the “relations.” Doctrines, too, must be viewed with a degree of relativism. One must study the development of Christology, for example, in its various inner and outer relations if he is to gain a comprehensive and accurate picture. Similarly, the biblical happenings are in a real sense relative to the general historical background against which they take place.
Relativism will also play a proper part in the presentation of the Gospel by theologians and especially by preachers. This is partly a matter of communication, the finding of intelligible words for today; often these are not the words of Scripture itself. It is also a matter of apprehension. If Paul saw in a glass darkly, so do all other writers and speakers. Not enjoying, as the biblical authors did, a special inspiration of God, they can present truth only to the best of their understanding and ability. At this level, then, the exposition will be relative to the expositor. The Reformation insistence that subsidiary standards are reformable rests on this.
The value of the principle of relativism is excellently illustrated in the modern renewal movement in Roman Catholicism. Rome with its infallible dogmas seems to offer an extreme of misguided absolutism. Nevertheless, a little historical relativism, not unjustly applied in this area, can quickly redress the situation. Thus the Tridentine decree on justification might be seen as a corrective to antinomianism, or as an isolated segment that will appear somewhat different in its full context, or as a partial statement to which qualifying additions must be made, or, not as the doctrine itself, but as a sixteenth-century expression of the doctrine that will perhaps demand different expression in a different age. Along these lines relativism offers welcome liberation to many who would otherwise find intolerable the acceptance of formulations they have no means of negating without disruption.
If there is a justifiable relativism, however, there is also a great need to discern the limits of its application. By setting a thing in a different relation, it is easy, not merely to understand it better, but also to change it so that its emphasis differs, or it no longer means what it did. Thus one enthusiastic Roman Catholic has suggested that papal infallibility is simply a historical way of expressing the infallibility of the Holy Spirit. With a little ingenuity almost any statement can be made to mean almost anything. The ultimate relation here is not to specific objects or circumstances but to the thinker himself, who is subject to no very obvious verifiable controls.
Even in historical documents or doctrines, relativism can thus play a harmful role. And when applied to Holy Scripture, an injudicious and unrestrained relativism can be quite devastating. The reason is that Holy Scripture is uniquely normative. Historically normative as the firsthand account of the things relating to Christian faith and life, it is also absolutely normative as a work that, written by men, is inspired of God. Relativism, improperly understood and applied, erodes not only the historical authority but also the divine authority, which confers on Scripture a distinctive absoluteness.
It brings about this erosion in various ways. Instead of functioning as a true historical relativism, which can be a great help to interpretation, it may try to assess biblical events and teachings only against the contemporary background. Again, it may attempt to distinguish between various strata of the Old or New Testament tradition in such a way as to set the data at apparent odds with themselves. Furthermore, it may play the game of sifting a kernel of content from the husk of expression, or timeless truth from contingent fact, or an existential substance from mythological accidents, assuming that the kernel or truth or substance may then be presented either in pure form or with a new external wrapping. Finally, it may regard even the ethical content as only a historical interpretation, one that may have been good enough for its day but has to be replaced by better—or at least more relevant—interpretations in each age.
A distressing feature is that many who protest forcefully against this type of relativizing can be just as guilty of it—“the times have changed”—when they find something difficult or uncongenial. The thin edge of the relativistic wedge can easily pry open the whole door.
Relativism may thus have a devastating effect upon attitudes toward the Bible and its authority. It is finally disastrous, however, when applied to the author of Scripture, who is also Scripture’s true theme and content. God is absolute. If there is relativism in regard to him, it is because we are relativized by God, not because he can be relativized by us. God does indeed meet us in the changing circumstances and experiences of life, so that we can see new facets of him and correct our imperfect ideas. He himself, however, does not change. When the relation between God and man is at issue, only one of the factors is mutable and relative. There can be no greater mistake than to attempt to bring God himself under a principle of relativism.
Yet this is precisely the mistake so much modern theology makes, because it is so intensely subjective and anthropocentric. It treats man himself as the ultimate point of reference. Thus it ceases to be real theology and becomes religious anthropology. Ideas of God are the theme, rather than God in his own objective reality. It is easy to relativize ideas of God. One has only to say: That is your idea and this is mine, or, That is the Babylonian idea and this is the Greek, or, That is the second-century idea and this is the twentieth-century idea, or, That used to be my idea and now this is—and relativism rules. If man is the subject and his ideas are the theme, then the attempt to relativize God can hardly be avoided unless each man absolutizes himself and his own idea, which is precisely what many of us do.
Now ideas of God do, of course, enter into theology. This is why there is a legitimate relativism. What Christians think about God is variable and open to correction. It may indeed be influenced by shifting historical factors. Nevertheless, God himself is not variable or imperfect or shifting simply because the Christian’s idea of him is relative rather than absolute. God is not to be equated with the idea about him. God does not exist merely in the believer’s (or unbeliever’s) mind. God is true and objective in himself. In this objectivity he is absolute. He is the absolute norm of all thought about him.
This means that the Christian’s task is to adjust his understanding of God, not to the better thought of the age, not to the superior ideas of others, not to his own development in thought or experience, not to any form of speculation, but to God as he really is, to God as he has shown himself to be in his saving word and work. The Christian’s task is to bring his relative thinking into relation to reality, into conformity with God himself as he truly is. Just as a scientist’s description of the world, if it is to be scientific, must be based on the world as it is, so the theologian’s concept of God, if it is to be theological, must be based on God as he is. There is here an absoluteness of the object.
In this work, God, who is person as well as object, does not leave believers to their own efforts. In Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit God is both a known reality and a reality who makes himself known. He makes himself known through his word, through his work, through Holy Scripture, through the present ministry of the Holy Spirit. Hence even ideas of God, subject though they are to historical factors, may be brought into conformity with the truth. Such ideas are not all relatively right and relatively wrong. They are absolutely right in so far as they conform to the reality as it may be known from Scripture; and they are absolutely wrong in so far as they do not. The reason for the relative aspect is not that God himself is relative (or unknown). To treat God as relative (or unknown) is simply to show that subjective opinion has been substituted for objective reality. This is not just bad theology; it is not theology at all.
Relativism, then, has a proper place in theology as an aid to understanding God’s word and work and also as an aid to self-understanding. In its restricted place, it has a salutary function. But if it is allowed unlimited entry into spheres where it does not belong, it destroys both knowledge and faith, though it may seem to offer dazzling rewards. Relativism is not to be absolutized; it is itself to be relativized by the absolute.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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