Three Good Reasons to Resist Making Relativism Our Latest Bogeyman

Merold Westphal on hermeneutics and relativism:

westphalWe are easily frightened by the specter of “anything goes,” and there is no shortage of those willing to play on this fear in order to imply their own absoluteness. But there are three good reasons to resist this fear:

1) First, from the relativity of our interpretations to the historical, cultural, and linguistic perspectives out of which they arise (as can be seen easily enough by looking at church history), it simply does not follow that “anything goes,” that each viewpoint is as good as another.

2) Second, those who use “anything goes” as a fear tactic and as a defense against admitting their own relativity regularly fail to identify anyone who holds such a view. Not even Nietzsche, one of the most radical philosophical perspectivists, thinks that Christianity and Platonism are just as good as his own philosophy of the will to power.

3) Third, there are good theological reasons to resist this fear. Under its influence, we end up thinking ourselves (our interpretations) to be absolute (at least in principle). But only God is absolute. Both because we are creatures and not the Creator and because we are fallen and not sinless, our vision is imperfect, at once limited and fallen.

We need not think that hermeneutical despair (“anything goes”) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have “the” interpretation) are the only alternatives. (15)

I didn’t like that first paragraph until I got into the other three reasons. I think Christian people should be given the benefit of the doubt, that they are eager to honor God’s right to speak with absolute authority more than they are eager to preserve their own interpretations. However, any Bible interpreter who doesn’t seem to have a place in his hermeneutics for the way total depravity affects his own reading needs to hear these points.

What does it mean to admit “relativity”? Minimally, it only means to humbly acknowledge your God-given limitations. You weren’t given perfect knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, let alone of the cultural practices of the ancient Corinthians or Egyptians or Jebusites. No one in the world has perfect and absolute knowledge of these things, things which do bear in varying degrees on Bible interpretation. Perfect knowledge of these things isn’t available to humans in this age. No human is the divinely chosen arbiter of biblical interpretation, no matter what he says. Your knowledge is relative to your experience, training, and gifting. Your knowledge of the Bible is not the absolute standard by which everyone else’s understanding is judged.

So some people need to stop hyperventilating: recognition of human finitude and fallibility, and recognition or our respective social and cultural locations do not automatically translate into a dismissal of the authority of Scripture. A little humility and self-awareness won’t hurt us.

Nonetheless, there are people who need to hear Jesus say, “Have you not read…?” They need to recognize that what doesn’t work in (their) theory does work in practice: people actually do read and obey the Bible, and they often get it right. The fact that the “ignorant and unstable twist” the Bible doesn’t mean it’s all a wax nose. If Jesus held people responsible for their reading of Scripture, it can’t be impossible to come to sufficiently accurate conclusions about what God’s word means.

I often think of this old western movie (someone will probably recognize it; I can’t remember the title) in which the town’s sheriff stands by his eyewitness testimony condemning a man to death—despite 1) a baby-faced defendant, 2) a lot of public gainsaying, and 3) his own daughter’s pleas not to let the man she loves hang. But there the sheriff stood, he could do no other. He could not but speak what he had seen and heard. I feel like that when it comes to some contested hermeneutical-theological issues such as homosexuality. What can I do? I’ve listened to both sides pretty extensively; I’ve examined my own heart for unwarranted prejudice. And I’m actually much more convinced of the traditional position than I was ten years ago. I’m prepared to hang for it, and I think I can still be humble while insisting others are wrong—but not because I admit I might be wrong, too. We have not always been at war with Eastasia, and the Bible says homosexual sex is sin.*

Some people hold all their interpretations with such an open hand that the Bible falls out. That’s not humble; that’s presumptuous. The proper place for humility on an issue like the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is in two places:

  1. I myself am a sinner who genuinely believes that my sins are heinous, too. Those who have been forgiven much love much; they prostrate themselves at the feet of Jesus.
  2. I do not have perfect understanding of all the wise, righteous applications of any given biblical doctrine. Spirit-given wisdom and even discernment borne of experience need to build on the Word before anyone can speak to issues such as reparative therapy or whether or not two former lesbian lovers, now converted, should be allowed/encouraged to see one another again.

Every professing Christian lives in the tension between hermeneutical despair and hermeneutical arrogance. May God give us grace to read the Bible humbly and obediently.

*I apologize to both my readers for re-using this Orwell line.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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