The space between absolutism and relativism


The space between absolutism and relativism


There is a false dichotomy out there about absolutism and relativism.  Position (a) People who are very sure of most matters of doctrine and they believe that scripture clearly supports their view. Position (b) people who believe that truth is completely personal and by claiming you hold to absolute truth you engage in oppression.  Most people are actually somewhere in the middle.  The truth is much of the EC has moved to varying degrees from position a) towards position b).  Many are still much closer to a than b.  This is not relativism but humility.  It is a recognition that if there are 100 different opinions on a particular theological opinion 99 of them have to be wrong, and chances are I’m not as right as I think I am. 

Some humility is necessary.  We worship an incomprehensible God, and when we experience God, we have different words, metaphors and analogies to describe it.  It isn’t that we believe different things, it is just that it is difficult to convey that meaning consistently in human language.  Our fallen nature, the bias of our culture, the circumstances of our present context and lots of other things all influence how we interpret truth. Once people start getting deeper in to the original languages and context of the scriptures it becomes clear that even our bible translators have to make a best guess on a lot of stuff.

This might sound “post-modern” but it really is just to correct the false assertions of modernity that infiltrated the church.  Truth cannot be well understood by the individual interpreter.  The Holy Spirit is not a rubber stamp that authorizes all of our individual interpretations.  The Holy Spirit works through the community of believers to help establish contextualized interpretation and application of divine truth.  I firmly believe that divine truth cannot not be truly understood unless you are Christ’s disciple.

  1. #1 by lenka on March 27, 2005 - 4:16 pm

    I like the way you’ve expressed this – especially the emphasis on humility. My personal view is that there are absolute scriptural truths, but there is also a significant amount of ambiguity and even apparent inconsistency in the scriptures. Understanding what is absolute involves dialoging with others, because their variations in interpretation can reveal a little more of a picture too big for me to perceive on my own. That is one of the reasons why being part of a faith community is an important part of spiritual life for me. Relativism does the opposite – it leads to a rejection of community, because faith is a purely personal journey, and those who seek to teach or inform or debate absolutes are irrelevant.

  2. #2 by Stephen Said on March 28, 2005 - 7:10 pm

    Hey mate!

    You are a bit of a wordsmith! I like two things about this post. First, your gentle but firm observations. The second is naming the difficulty faced by Post Modern theologians. We are trying to navigate a particularly difficult philosophical transition in an epochal moment in time, and as with each previous generation, we run the risk of syncretism on the one hand, and cultural irrelevance on the other. The notion that we need to interpret and exeget communally warms my heart immensley! A big challenge is humbling ourselves to the point where we can invite our boomer/modern ancestors to the party as well.

    Another free floating thought, the notion of exclusivism. I like what Ricki Watts has to say on the issue. There is no such thing as tolerance. Anyone espousing tolerance has simply succumbed to laziness. It is a lazy and false “doctrine” of the new fundamentalists. When someone makes a statement along the lines of “that is good and tru for you”, it is not a statement of tolerance, rather one of exclusivism. You claim that truth for you, but I have already decided that it is redundant or irrelevant. Subsequently it is written off. But alas, I waffle. Hope you are well my friend…

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