Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Bible Is Relevant, But Not Relative

I like the cartoon animation film, “Horton Hears a Who,” and I especially appreciated Horton the Elephant's motto (I'm quoting from memory):
I meant what I said, and I said what I meant,
An elephant is faithful, one hundred percent!

I wish all Evangelicals believed as much about God. But as it is, relativism still rears its ugly head within the church, and it is not uncommon to hear people say that the Bible can mean different things to different people. The following is a reflection on why relativism as an approach to truth is simply unlivable, and why in spite of this, Evangelicals (including myself) are tempted to approach God's word with a relativistic mindset.

Relativism vs. Universal Courtesy

It is the most basic rule of courtesy that we assume that a person means exactly what he/she says. When we offer a friend some food, and they say, “No thanks,” we shouldn't shovel our food onto his/her plate, anyway. And who hasn't experienced frustration when a parent/teacher/boss has reprimanded us mistakenly, but wouldn't listen to our explanation? We expect people to take us at our word. When they don't, and when we don't do the same, it's discourteous. Rude. Bastos. Mayabang.

So how can someone who claims to be Evangelical, who claims that the Bible is God's written, inspired, infallible, inerrant word... how can he/she say that God's word can mean different things to different people? Interpeting the Scriptures that way is outright disrespect to God's wisdom and intelligence. If I may adapt the words of Horton:
God meant what He said, and He said what He meant.
The Bible speaks clearly, one hundred percent!
We must not twist His words to suit our personal or cultural preference.

Why It's So Tempting to be Relativistic

1. It's easier. In order to understand what a passage of Scripture really says, one has to read carefully, keep the context in mind, analyze the words, do background research, and compare the passage with other passages, to name a few things. It's fairly hard work. And sometimes, let's be honest, it can get frustrating when the meaning doesn't jump out at us after the first few minutes of reading and re-reading the text. And so, making up our own interpretation is just the easiest thing to do.

2. It's faster. Doing all the stuff I mentioned above is time-consuming. It can easily turn a 15-minute devotion into an hour-long meditation. This isn't very easy for people of our culture to accept. Why spend so much time trying to figure out the correct meaning of the text, when I could be sleeping, or studying, or working, or playing video games?

3. It meets felt needs. I, just like any other Evangelical, believe with all blood-eanestness that God's word is powerfully, often painfully, personal. But I believe many Evangelicals conveniently ignore the other side of the coin, that God's ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts than our thoughts. The word of God wasn't made flesh (Jesus), so that we could stop being insecure with ourselves and start living happy, successful, and ulitmately selfish lives. Jesus bore God's wrath for our sins on the cross so that we would be ransomed from the wrath of God; so that we would be set free from the power of selfishness, pride, vanity, covetousness, lust, any every other petty pursuit that robs Him of our complete and utter devotion and faith; so that He could take us out of ourselves, beyond ourselves; so that we could know His righteousness, His ways, His glory! But sadly, we seem to be willing to set all this aside. Maybe we just want God to talk to us about being self-confident, positive, healthy, wealthy, family-oriented, society-loving, nationalistic, and (by the way) “God-fearing” people.

4. It caters to popular notions of tolerance, respect, and love. Many people object to the notion of absolute truth, because when you claim that you're right, you're implying that everyone else is wrong. That can't be loving, the modern mind reasons. In “Christianese,” it sounds something like this: “What does the passage mean for you?” or “It's ok that we all have different interpretations of the text.” Now while that may seem kind and inclusive, it is actually unloving. “The gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes.” (Rm.1:16) To the extent we obscure the true meaning of a text, we also obstruct the work of God in the souls of men and women in desperate need of the Holy Spirit's transforming work.

Paul's Command to Timothy

In closing, God's word is living, active and more powerful than any human philosophy we might be tempted to put in its place (Heb.4:12). This is precisely why Paul commanded Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2Tm.2:15) May we who love God and the gospel cast aside all traces of relativism, and trust in God to work mightily in the lives and hearts of people as His word is faithfully shared.

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