New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, assessing what he perceives to be fact and fiction in the rhetoric of U.S. presidential politics, recently suggested that if a particular candidate were to say that the earth was flat, a possible headline might read, “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point."
I can’t help thinking, as I’ve mulled this observation, how relevant it is to current theological and moral controversies in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and in other settings also.
I probably first encountered this relativistic mindset with regard to spiritual truth when I was in college, when the issues of righteousness by faith and related topics dominated so many discussions. More and more I began to hear people respond to religious convictions derived from inspired writings with such rejoinders as, “That’s just your interpretation.” I found myself wondering what a mathematics teacher might say to a student who responded in that fashion to the teacher’s correction that six times seven equals forty-two and not forty-five. Or how long an airplane pilot might stay aloft if he treated his instrument readings as just a matter of interpretation rather than actual fact.
Relativism Versus the Bible
The relativistic view of religious truth was articulated many years ago by German theologian Ernst Troeltsch, who declared: “Our judgments about the past cannot simply be classified as true or false but must be seen as claiming only a greater or a lesser degree of probability and as always open to revision” (The Historian and the Believer 14). The same author went on to write, “Every manifestation of true and value [is] relative and historically conditioned” (30).
Such a view of ultimate reality runs dramatically counter to the worldview found in the Bible, even for the simplest of readers. The Biblical narrative repeatedly presents spiritual truth as an objective measure to which all human choices, actions, and ideas must be compared (e.g. Isa. 8:20; Matt. 7:21,24-27; John 8:31; Acts 17:11; Gal. 5:19-24). What is more, the record of God’s dealings with humanity as found in Scripture makes it plain that God’s messages as delivered by His designated and inspired servants were clear enough for their human recipients to both understand and be held accountable for the response offered to these messages, whether this accountability was demanded by the faith community or ultimately by God Himself. That God’s message might be rendered indistinguishable by the fog of human culture, human opinion, or human experience—either on the part of the inspired messenger or the recipients of the message—is not a contingency anticipated by the biblical worldview.
The Pluralism Trap
The notion of some that pluralistic accommodation to variant views is the best road to peace and mutual acceptance in the faith community—that “gray” is preferable to “black and white thinking” in spiritual matters—goes all the way back to humanity’s first encounter with sin. At the forbidden tree, Eve was not overtly invited to exchange righteousness for sin, but rather, to find room in her spiritual life for both. “Ye shall be as gods,” the serpent promised, “knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Ever after, in the history of God’s people, this would become the preferred pattern of apostasy. The pagan religions to which ancient Israel so often succumbed did not require abandonment of the worship of Jehovah, only that Jehovah’s worship be accommodating to other beliefs and practices. This helps explain why Aaron, in announcing the golden calf festival at Sinai, declared, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord” (Ex. 32:5), and why Elijah was constrained to ask on Mount Carmel, “If the Lord be God, follow Him, but if Baal, then follow him” (I Kings 18:21).
On the plain of Dura, the three Hebrew worthies were not commanded to forsake the worship of the true God, only to add to this worship the homage their kind demanded for his golden image. One historian notes how this eclectic approach so typical of polytheistic cults helps explain the frustration the Romans experienced in dealing with the early Christians:
Rome could accept their version of the Supreme God, whom others called Jupiter or Sol; it could accept Christ together with other heroes and divinities (the eclectic Emperor Alexander Severus honoured Christ in his temple alongside Orpheus, Abraham, and others). But what was preposterous was the Christians’ arrogant insistence that no gods had ever walked the earth until an obscure Jewish teacher who was executed in the reign of Tiberius. (Stephen Williams, Diocletian and the Roman Recovery, 169)
In other words, the religion of God’s faithful in every age has been one of theological and moral absolutism, not theological and moral accommodation. (One is intrigued at how the charge of “arrogance,” in the words of the above historian, has attended the uncompromising spirit of God’s saints long before the dawn of postmodernism.) God’s revelation is not only depicted in Scripture as understandable by finite mortals; it is portrayed as sufficiently understandable so that both the faith community and ultimately God Himself can fairly hold recipients of this revelation accountable for their choices, ideas, and actions.
Relativistic thinking has been a notable factor in very recent (and continuing) Seventh-day Adventist controversies. Van Harvey’s notion of truth being “relative and historically conditioned,” cited earlier, has been given by some as a basic hermeneutical justification for identical gender roles in the gospel ministry
The text is primarily seen as a construct, insofar as meaning is taken to reside in the encounter or interchange between text and reader. Meaning thus emerges as an outcome of interplay between text and reader, both of which are culturally and historically conditioned. (Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report 28)
One such author is even more explicit:
For them (supporters of women’s ordination), biblical inspiration is a mediated process in which God imparts information that is then “contaminated” by the social, cultural, historical, and language context of the human author. In its nature, Scripture, while containing the divine message, also contains human baggage. (Jan Barna, Ordination of Women and the Two Ways to Unity: Ecclesiastical and Biblical, 4)
Once culture and other human factors are seen as playing a pivotal role in defining religious truth, once the Holy Word of God is seen as including “contamination” and “human baggage,” divine revelation loses its objectivity and religious facts cease to be facts. And as in the illustration from Paul Krugman cited at the beginning, all opinions are given equal status.
The apostle’s Paul’s belief in objective, transcendent truth is clear in his statement to the Thessalonians that “when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (I Thess. 2:13). He was equally clear that his hearers were obligated to understand the difference between truth and error on the basis of previous revelation, particularly when he wrote to the Galatians: But thou we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:8).
Ellen White affirms the Biblical view of truth in such statements as the following:
That which in the councils of heaven the Father and the Son deemed essential for the salvation of man, was defined from eternity by infinite truths which finite beings cannot fail to comprehend. (Fundamentals of Christian Education 408)
There are many in this age of the world who act as if they were at liberty to question the words of the Infinite, to review His decisions and statutes, endorsing, revising, reshaping, and annulling at their pleasure. We are never safe while we are guided by human opinions, but we are safe when we are guided by a “thus saith the Lord.” . . . Those who are thus led do not dare to judge the Word of God, but ever hold that His Word judges them. (In Heavenly Places 132)