Monday, February 15, 2010

Theological Relativism

“The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. Nobody is a postmodernist when it comes to reading the labels on a medicine bottle versus a box of rat poison. If you’ve got a headache, you’d better believe that texts have objective meaning! People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they’re relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But that’s not postmodernism; that’s modernism! That’s just old-line Positivism and Verificationism, which held that anything you can’t prove with your five senses is just a matter of individual taste and emotive expression. We live in a cultural milieu which remains deeply modernist. People who think that we live in a postmodern culture have thus seriously misread our cultural situation” (William Lane Craig, “Reasonable Faith,” Third Edition. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008, page 18).

Returning to CTS yesterday, I began to think about the issue of the promises and the warnings---an issue that I’ve spent so much time on here at the Center for Theological Studies. I’ve read somewhere between 50 and 60 books on this subject in a matter of about eight you could say that I’ve done my homework on this subject, although there are times when I still believe I do not know enough...
Craig’s point above regarding medicine bottle labels shows that no one really believes in our world that “texts have no inherent meaning”; for, if a person reads a medicine label with that idea in mind, and overdoses, he might experience a number of things...including death!!!

No one really believes that texts are based on what you make of them, that you can read the label “do not take more than three a day” and decide that it really says, “take at least three a day.” If people really believed that, I think we’d have more medicinal deaths than we do. When it comes to life and death, people understand that relativism (the idea of subjective interpretation) is not a liveable idea. One of the tests for truth (according to John Feinberg in the book, “Five Views on Apologetics”) is “liveability”---can something work in everyday life, does it correspond to reality, etc. If relativism will not work for reading medicine labels, then it will not work for anything else in society either...

But somehow, I think relativism has made its way into the church---the church of God, the church that is supposed to be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, NKJV). As a result, we come to the biblical text with an underlying relativist philosophy that determines our interpretation of God’s Word. Someone may say, “Why would you make such a claim as that?” Well, there’s evidence...

Return with me to Craig’s example of reading the medicine label. If the label says, “Take with food,” and you take the medicine without food, can you honestly expect NOTHING to happen to you? Are you justified in expecting no side effects when the medicine clearly states, “Take with food”? No---there is no justification for disobeying medicinal warnings. And every person, whether Calvinist, Arminian, or Molinist, will agree upon that: disobeying doctoral or medicinal instructions will only wind up hurting the rebellious spirit. If a person fails to obey instructions, we will tell that person that he or she deserved what they got...and that they are suffering the consequences of their actions.

Teachers tell students the same thing. If a professor says, “The term paper is due at 5pm on March 15th,” and the student waits until March 16th to turn their paper in, what will the professor say? “I’m sorry---you get a ‘zero’ on this assignment.” Professors make this very clear on their syllabi every semester to their new students so as to have no misunderstandings about their expectations of student performance. And, in the same way the professor will tell the rules up-front, he will also enforce them should he have to; in other words, rebellious students will fail his class...and no personal interpretations the student provides of the professor’s expectations will change his grade.

When Calvinists, Arminians, and Molinists come to the Bible, we all read the promises and note the promises. We delight in God’s promises to “supply your needs according to his riches in glory,”(Philippians), to “wipe away all tears from our eyes,”(Revelation), to “come again and receive you unto Myself,” (John 14), to “teach you and guide you into all truth,” that “all things work together for the good of them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28), that “nothing shall separate you from the love of God,” (Rom. 8) etc. We like the idea that God would give us such assuring promises. We even sing the song, “Blessed Assurance/ Jesus is mine/ oh, what a foretaste of glory divine...” To us, the promises are little traces of “silver lining” in a world of darkness that we can cling to when persecution and tribulation are our lot. It comforts us to know that God has good things in-store for us.

But we become relativist when it gets to the warnings. Suddenly, the warnings only work for certain people. When we read that “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God...therefore do not be partakers with them” (Eph. 5:5, 7, NKJV), we automatically assume that Paul wrote this to the “fake” and “phony” Christian whose heart is not right with the Lord...almost as if to say that, if you’re saved, you will not do these things.

The problem with such an analysis is that SAVED PEOPLE DO THESE THINGS!! As much as we hate to admit it to ourselves, saved people can be “covetous” and play the lottery in order to afford a BMW like the one their next-door neighbors have; saved people can be “fornicators” and can have pre-marital sex. Saved people can even commit adultery on their spouses and watch pornography, etc. As much as we despise this fact, saved people wrestle with sin just like the unbeliever does...

If you think I’m just a liberal theologian who needs to get a conservative backbone, look at David, a man whom the Scriptures call “a man after God’s own heart.” The Word tells us that as much as David loved God, he still lusted after Bathsheba, had her husband Uriah killed, and then slept with her and procreated a child by her. For all the godliness in the person of David, he was still human, and he still wrestled with sin. And I am bold enough to say that, for all the “knowledge” the church of Christ has today, NONE OF US are above David. If “the man after God’s heart” can sin to the extent David did, then I don’t think you and I are any more “resistant” to sin than David was!!!

So why then, do we read the “theological warning labels” of Scripture, like Ephesians 5 above, the warnings of the book of Hebrews, Romans 8, etc., and conclude that the warnings only refer to the fake and phony Christian? To approach the text in this manner is to say, “Even though I’m a child of God and God speaks to me through His Word, when it gets to the warnings, God is speaking only to SOME of His children, not to me. I don’t need the warnings because I’m right with the Lord. The text doesn’t really mean what it says. Even though it says ‘those who sin will not inherit the kingdom,’ it doesn’t really mean that. What it means is that ‘those who are fake and phony and do these things will not inherit the kingdom.’ Those who were not sincere at the moment of belief are the only ones these verses are pointing to.” And this, my friends, is what I call “theological relativism,” the idea that the biblical text itself can be reinterpreted any way a person so chooses to interpret it. If a person wants to toss out the warnings and emphasize the promises, then he can do it---why? because the text can mean one thing for him, and another for someone else. This is theological relativism.

And this view appeals to many people. I mean, think about it: who wants to face the warnings? How many sermons get preached from pulpits in churches all across this country on Sunday that have to do with the warnings? How many times have you heard sermons about Revelation’s warning that the murderer, sorcerer, and those who commit sexual sin will be thrown into the lake of fire? If I know the atmosphere rightly, I will dare to say “little to none, if any at all.” Why? because “It doesn’t encourage, and people need to be uplifted. They need to be reassured of God’s goodness and God’s sovereignty.” As a result, people don’t hear about how offensive sin is to God because that doesn’t “encourage” or “exhort.” I’m sorry to say this, but contrary to this idea, the Word itself serves such a purpose: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for REPROOF, for CORRECTION, for INSTRUCTION IN RIGHTEOUSNESS, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, NKJV).

God’s Word was intended to do more than just “bless us,” but to also “correct us,” to criticize us, to show us the areas in which we falter before God. In the same way that the purpose of a mirror is not just to show us how good we look but to also point out a strand of hair that’s out of place or acne that needs to be treated, so the Word itself is a mirror (James 1:23) that functions to show us our sin before God, to make us aware of the need for improvement. But if theological relativism rules the day, we can look in the “mirror” of the Word and pretend that nothing’s wrong: we still look good, even if our hair is a mess and our teeth are unbrushed. To put this truth closer to home, we can look in the “mirror” of the Word and still pretend that we will inherit eternal life as we go home and smoke a few cigarettes, use a few curse words, watch a little pornography, go on secret dates with the office secretary while the wife thinks you’re working, and miss a few Sundays at church to watch NFL football. We can still pretend we’re going to heaven, even though we only put up a “momentary” resistance to sin...and then yield immediately thereafter. Why? because of the promises, right? “No warnings, no worries”---this is the massive lie that we tell ourselves, while our souls are getting ever closer to Hell’s door. And we do this because of a little pin cushion we call “theological relativism.” Tell me this: what good will the pin cushion do if the flames of Hell prevail against it?


Kaitiaki said...

I am amazed you don't have any comments on this posting. It is a timely warning reminding us that we *do* tend to look at a warning and then promptly say to ourselves - "oh, but that doesn't apply to me ..." When Paul tells us to make sure of our calling and election ..." to "take care lest, having preached to another, ... we should be lost" he is talking about a serious reality.
Calvinism (I speak of this because it is where I am coming from) doesn't guarantee salvation to anyone who does not *persevere* in well-doing.
The warnings are intended to make us work hard at doing good - not to earn our salvation but because Christ has paid so much to redeem his people (among which we class ourselves). If we don't take the warnings seriously, why should we imagine anyone else will.
I consider this a timely reminder and a just rebuke to all of us who have become lazy.

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


Thanks so much for your response. In my small part of the world, Calvinism is seen as a "guarantee" and a security blanket for all kinds of immoral and ungodly living. There are Calvinists here in my environment who talk about persevering...but, in the next breath, will turn around and look at a warning like the one Peter gives in 2 Peter about "falling from your own stability" (the end of the epistle) and conclude that Peter is talking about the "fake" Christians in the environment, those who really are artificial in their faith. It's fascinating to think that the body of Christ would actually look at God's Word and say, "Oh, Christ isn't talking to me." It sounds like we are true sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, when, like our foreparents, we can read and understand God's commands and warnings and decide that "God doesn't really mean what He says"...

You're right. It is a shame to not have any comments on this posting. I've been quite curious about that myself. I listened to a sermon in chapel (at my seminary) this morning, and the preacher spent time telling us that people care more about "who's making macaroni at 6:02pm and watching a movie" than they do things relating to discipleship and the Word of God. But I think that the church has gone down the path of the ungodly today...and it's real sad. How do we think we will ever win the world if we don't take matters such as this one seriously?

Continue to read and comment...your post encourages me greatly.

Kaitiaki said...

That kind of Calvinism we would call "hyperCalvinism" in that it denies man's responsibility. However one of your comments required, I thought, a response: "It sounds like we are true sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, when, like our foreparents, we can read and understand God's commands and warnings and decide that 'God doesn't really mean what He says'..."

Isn't that just the very nature of sin? Eve was told the fruit of the tree was bad for her, that it would bring death ... then went ahead and (at the serpent's prompting) "saw that it was good for food, a delight and [something] to be desired in order to make one wise..." Perhaps the saddest part of becoming a Christian is dealing with the sin that still remains in us against our will. Let those who want to argue we don't need to fight sin, who see salvation guaranteed in spite of unchanged lives, remember the mark of the Christian's view of sin is that it is something he (or she) hates and wants gone from their life.

Thank you for your encouragement - rest assured that some of us (even those who don't respond) do appreciate what you are saying.

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


Thanks so much for your responses and continued discussion.

Your responses continue to encourage me. I wanna make it clear though, that Dr. Ken Keathley, author of the book "Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach," does read my blog regularly and he and I talk about the things written here. He is teaching a course at Southeastern Seminary this summer on Molinism, and I am ecstatic about the opportunity God has given me to study under such a wonderful man as Dr. Ken Keathley. I have found a friend forever in someone who was not just my professor last semester, but now a dearly beloved faculty member at the seminary I attend as well as a a dearly beloved friend and brother in the Lord. I've gained so much from Dr. Keathley...and I owe God the glory for it.

I said that to say that I am aware of many who are reading, and that means a lot. But there are times when the researchers wanna hear what one thinks about the work done at the site. Even if someone just has a question, or wants a concept explained, it would be nice to read a comment or two from time to time. I wanna know what my readership thinks about the issues being discussed. I wanna know that I am serving the world well with the knowledge God has graciously given me...and I wanna see that the knowledge is traveling. I look upon the site as more than just research---to me, it is a ministry that I must give an account to God for in the end (2 Cor. 5:10).

It is a blessing to be appreciated. I desire that my blog be one where theologically-honest research is done. I don't want to twist the evidence to fit my view. I want to have an objective stance to it, despite my presuppositions, and let the arguments speak for themselves. And I pray that that desire shines through.

Continue to pray for the blog...and for me, that God would continue to do a work in me each and every day.

Kaitiaki said...

I was not aware of the fact that your professor reads your blogs and comments as well. Not that it makes a difference, I trust I am being fair enough in my comments that my disagreement does not cause offence. But, I know you would respond and let me know so I could apologize and correct my unworthy behavior.

Christians who are thoughtful in their explanations of their beliefs can sometimes find that under the differences is an honest attempt to deal with the mysteries of God and avoid errors of formulation. I admit it is hard (even at 70) to think twice before reacting. I really appreciate your patience and carefulness in how you react when something unfair is attributed to someone you love. I admit I was not as careful at 26 :)

I have been tempted many times to break off this conversation and, if your professor thinks it might be better for that to happen - please let me know. I do not want to come between friends no matter how important *I* think the issue is. Those who truly love God should not cause pain to others who love the same Lord. Much better, as Paul did, to let the Holy Spirit continue his role of leading us into all truth.

So, if it is alright with you, your professor, (and Byron of course) I will be happy to continue responding as long as you find the conversation helpful.

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


Regarding Dr. Keathley: he was my theology professor previously. I intend to take his class this summer on Molinism...but for now, he is not my professor at the moment (but will always be a dear friend). In any case, I think I can speak for him when I say that discussion of this subject will continue for as long as the old heaven and earth it's perfectly okay to continue the discussion. He and I have had conversations regarding his book and theology, and he is okay with disagreement. He notes that he doesn't agree with every thing I say here, but that he respects my work.

So there's no need to worry...i just used him as an example to make the case that I am aware there are people reading who do not respond. However, it would be nice if much of the readership would respond occasionally.