The Challenge of Relativism

Ligonier National Conference | Orlando

Our theme is relativism. Let’s begin by working on a definition. Since almost all of us here take that word relativism to refer to something bad, a helpful way to clarify what we mean by it is to ask how it is different from good ways of thinking relatively. Here are a couple of examples of how good and indispensable thinking relatively is.

Thinking Relatively

If I say John MacArthur is tall that statement may be true or false in relation to, that is, “relative” to, standards of measurement. “John MacArthur is tall” would be true in relation to me, and men in general. But the statement “John MacArthur is tall” would be false in relation to the Sears Tower or adult giraffes in general. So we say that the statement “John MacArthur is tall” is true or false “relative” to the standard of measurement.

This is a good and indispensable way of thinking and speaking. If you are unable to speak of truth claims being relative in this sense, you may accuse people of error who have in fact spoken truth because you have not clarified the context or the standard they are using for measuring the truth of the statement.

Many examples from our daily speech could be given. My father was old when he passed away. True, relative to men. False, relative to civilizations or Redwood trees. That car was speeding. True, relative to the thirty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit. False, relative to a NASCAR race. That baby’s cry is loud. True, relative to ordinary human conversation. False, relative to a thunderclap. And so on.

The reason we do not call this way of thinking relativism is because we are assuming that the one who says John MacArthur is tall and the one who says he is short both believe there is an objective, external standard for validating the statement as true. For one, the standard is human beings, and for the other, it is giraffes. So as soon as the two people know what standard the other is using, they can agree with each other, or they can argue on the basis of the same standard. This is not relativism.


Relativism would hold sway if a person said one of these four things: 1) There is no objective, external standard for measuring the truth or falsehood of the statement “John MacArthur is tall.” Or 2) there may be an external standard, but we can’t know if there is. Or 3) there may be one, but no one can figure out what it means, so it can’t function as a standard. Or 4) there may be an external, objective standard, but I don’t care what it is; I’m not going to base my convictions on it.

This starts to sound silly as long as we are talking about John MacArthur’s height. So let’s shift over to something explosive and immediately relevant. Consider the statement: “Sexual relations between two males is wrong.” Two people may disagree on this and not be relativists. They may both say: There is an objective, external standard for assessing this statement, namely, God’s will revealed in the inspired Christian Bible. One may say the Bible teaches that this is wrong, and the other may say, No, it doesn’t. This would not be relativism.

Relativism comes into play when someone says, “There is no objective, external standard for right and wrong that is valid for everyone. And so your statement that sexual relations between two males is wrong is relative to your standard of measurement, but you can’t claim that others should submit to that standard of assessment.” This is the essence of relativism: No one standard of true and false, right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful and ugly, can preempt any other standard. No standard is valid for everyone.

What does this imply about truth? Relativists may infer from this that there is no such thing as truth. It is simply an unhelpful and confusing category since there are no external, objective standards that are valid for everyone. Or they may continue to use the word truth but simply mean by it what conforms to your own subjective preferences. You may prefer the Bible or the Koran or the Book of Mormon or Mao’s little Red Book or the sayings of Confucius or the philosophy of Ayn Rand or your own immediate desires or any of a hundred other standards. In that case, you will hear the language of “true for you, but not true for me.” In either case, we are dealing with relativism.

In sum, then the essence of relativism is the conviction that statements—like “sexual relations between two males is wrong”—are not based on standards of assessment that are valid for everyone. There are no such standards. Concepts like true and false, right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, are useful for expressing personal preferences or agreed-upon community values, but they have no claim to be based on a universally valid standard.

Assessing Relativism

What shall we make of this? Why have I assumed this is a bad way to see the world? Let’s begin our assessment of relativism with an interaction that Jesus had with some classic practical relativists—not self-conscious, full-blown relativists, just de facto relativists, which are the most common kind, and they are prevalent in every age, not just this one.

Consider Matthew 21:23-27.

And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Look carefully at how the chief priests and elders deal with truth. Jesus asks them to take a stand on a simple truth claim: Either John’s baptism is from heaven or from man. Declare what you believe to be the truth. They ponder: If we say that John’s baptism is from heaven, then we will be shamed because Jesus will show that we are hypocrites. We say we think his baptism is from heaven, but we don’t live like it. We will be shamed before the crowds.

But if we say that John’s baptism is from man, we may be harmed by the crowd, because they all believe he was a prophet. There could be some mob violence. Therefore, since we don’t want to be shamed and since we don’t want to be harmed by a mob, we will not say that either of those is true (that John’s baptism is from heaven or from man), and we will assert another statement to be the truth: We don’t know the answer to your question.

What are we to make of this? This is not full-blown relativism. Rather, what we see here are the seeds of relativism. Here is the way the depraved mind works. This is the connection with last night’s message on “Faith and Reason.” The human mind, apart from transforming grace (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23), is depraved (1 Timothy 6:5) and debased (Romans 1:28) and hard (2 Corinthians 4:4) and darkened and futile (Ephesians 4:17-18). It was created by God to discover and embrace and be shaped by the truth—to respond to truth in knowing and enjoying God and serving man. But Matthew 21:23-27 is a picture of what has become of it.

The elders and chief priests do not use their minds to formulate a true answer to Jesus’ question. How do they use their minds? They reason carefully: “If we say this, then such and such will happen. And if we say that, then such and such will happen.” They are reasoning carefully. Why? Because the truth is at stake? No, because their skin is at stake. They don’t want to be shamed, and they don’t want to be harmed.

So what has become of the mind and its handmaid, language? Answer: The mind has become the nimble slave of their passions (the adulterous heart, Matthew 16:4). And language does the dirty work of covering up the corruption. Truth is irrelevant here in guiding what they say. It doesn’t matter whether John’s baptism is from heaven or from man; what matters is that we not be shamed and that we not be harmed. So we will use language to cover our indifference to truth and our allegiance to the gods of pride and comfort, and we will say, “We do not know.”

And Jesus responds: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” In other words, I don’t have serious conversations with people like you. Jesus abominates that kind of arrogant, cowardly prostituting of the glorious gifts of the human mind and human language.

I said this passage reveals the seeds of relativism. What I mean is this: The claim that there is no one standard for truth and falsehood that is valid for everyone is rooted most deeply in the desire of the fallen human mind to be free from all authority and to enjoy the exaltation of self. This is where relativism comes from. Relativism is not a coherent philosophical system. It is riddled with contradictions—both logical and experiential. Sophomores in college know that something is fishy when someone claims the statement to be true that all truths are relative. And every businessman knows that philosophical relativists park their relativism at the door when they go into the bank and read the language of the contract they are about to sign. People don’t embrace relativism because it is philosophically satisfying. They embrace it because it is physically and emotionally gratifying. It provides the cover that they need to do what they want.

That’s what we see in the chief priests and elders. They don’t care about truth. They care about their skin. Therefore, their minds and their words simply function as useful means of avoiding shame and harm and covering their self-centeredness and cowardice. That’s the deepest root of relativism.

So this is something we should avoid and grieve over and labor to overcome. And it seems to me that one of the ways that we might make some headway in preventing our young people from embracing relativism and rescuing others from it is by simply pointing out how evil and destructive its effects are.

The Evil and Destructive Effects of Relativism

Here are seven such effects.

1. Relativism commits treason.

Relativism is a revolt against the objective reality of God. The sheer existence of God creates the possibility of truth. God is the ultimate and final standard for all claims to truth—who he is, what he wills, what he says is the external, objective standard for measuring all things. When relativism says that there is no standard of truth and falsehood that is valid for everyone, it speaks like an atheist. It commits treason against God.

In James 2:10-11, we see the dynamics of treason in relation to God’s law: “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Why? “For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’” The key to James’ argument here is that he connects our relation to God’s law with our relation to God himself. The reason your failure in one point makes you guilty of all is that the same God gave all the law—and what matters is that in rebelling against the law you are rebelling against him.

Relativism is a pervasive rebellion against the very concept of divine law. Therefore, it is the most thoroughgoing rebellion against God. It is a treason that is worse than outright revolt because it is devious. Instead of saying to God’s face, “Your word is false,” it says to man, “There is no such thing as a universally binding divine word.” This is treason.

2. Relativism cultivates duplicity.

Everyone knows in his heart that believing relativism to be true is contradictory, and everyone also knows intuitively that no one even tries to put it into practice consistently. Therefore, both philosophically and practically, it cultivates duplicity. People say they believe in it but do not think or act consistently with what they say. They are hypocrites. Relativism breeds hypocrisy and duplicity.

It is contradictory because the very process of thinking about relativism commits you to truths that you do not treat as relative. Relativists employ the law of non-contradiction and the law of cause and effect whenever they talk about their belief in relativism and its relation to the world, and these laws are not relative. If they were, relativists could not even formulate the premises and conclusions that they say lead them to relativism. This is a deep duplicity. And when one does it knowingly, it is immoral. The king keeps saying he has clothes on, when he knows he is naked. People keep saying all is relative when they know their very thinking and talking involves principles they do not think are relative.

This is most obvious when relativists live their lives. They simply do not live them as though relativism were true. Professors play the academic game of relativism in their classes and then go home get upset when their wives don’t understand what they say. Why do they get upset? Because they know that there is an objective meaning that can be transmitted between two human beings, and we have moral obligations to grasp what is meant. No husband ever said, “Since all truth and language are relative, it does not matter how you interpret my invitation to sleep together.” Whether we write love letters or rental agreements or instructions to our children or directions for a friend or contracts or sermons or obituaries, we believe objective meaning exists in what we write, and we expect people to try to understand. And we hold them accountable (and often get upset) if they don’t.

Nobody is a relativist when their case is being tried in court and their objective innocence hangs on objective evidence. The whole system of relativism is a morally corrupting impulse toward duplicity. It is a great bluff. And what is needed in our day is for many candid children to rise up and say, “The king has no clothes on.”

3. Relativism conceals doctrinal defection.

One of the most tragic effects of relativism is the effect it has on language. In a culture where truth is esteemed as something objective and external to ourselves that we should pursue and embrace and cherish and employ for the good of the people, language holds the honorable place of expressing and carrying and transmitting that precious cargo of truth. In fact, a person’s use of language is assessed on the basis of whether it corresponds to the truth and beauty of the reality he expresses.

But when objective truth vanishes in the fog of relativism, the role of language changes dramatically. It’s no longer a humble servant for carrying precious truth. Now it throws off the yoke of servanthood and takes on a power of its own. It doesn’t submit to objective, external reality; it creates its own reality. It no longer serves to display truth. Now it seeks to obtain the preferences of the user.

This gives rise to every manner of spin. The goal of language is no longer the communication of reality, but the manipulation of reality. It no longer functions in the glorious capacity of affirming the embrace of confessional truth, but now it functions in the devious capacity of concealing defection from the truth.

Eighty years ago, J. Gresham Machen described this relativistic corruption of language in relation to confessional affirmations:

It makes very little difference how much or how little of the creeds of the Church the Modernist preacher affirms. . . . He might affirm every jot and tittle of the Westminster Confession, for example, and yet be separated by a great gulf from the Reformed Faith. It is not that part is denied and the rest affirmed; but all is denied, because all is affirmed merely as useful or symbolic and not as true.1

This utilitarian view of language is the direct fruit of relativism. It leads to evasive, vague speech that enables the relativist to mislead people into thinking he is still orthodox. Listen to Machen’s amazingly up-to-date description of the mindset that comes from relativism:

This temper of mind is hostile to precise definitions. Indeed nothing makes a man more unpopular in the controversies of the present day than an insistence upon definition of terms. . . . Men discourse very eloquently today upon such subjects as God, religion, Christianity, atonement, redemption, faith; but are greatly incensed when they are asked to tell in simple language what they mean by these terms.2

In all these ways, relativism corrupts the high calling of language and makes it a criminal in covering the doctrinal defection of those who don’t have the courage to publicly renounce historic evangelical faith. This is the exact opposite of the commitment that Paul had in the way he used language. In 2 Corinthians 4:2, he said, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” O that every church and school and denomination would write that over ever word preached, taught, discussed, and written!

4. Relativism cloaks greed with flattery.

Apparently, the apostle Paul was accused in Thessalonica of simply wanting money from his converts. When he responds to this, he shows the link between flattery and greed:

Our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. (1 Thessalonians 2:3-5)

What is flattery? It’s the use of language to make someone feel good about himself with a view to getting what you want. Paul calls it a pretext for greed. When relativism has abolished truth as the governor of language, language itself goes on sale. If we can get more money by telling people what they want to hear, we will give them what they want.

Relativism is the perfect atmosphere for turning language into a pretext for greed by flattering people with what they want to hear. This is no surprise to Paul. “The time is coming,” he says, “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Against this impulse of relativism, Paul stakes out his position and beckons us to follow: “We are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:17). We speak before the face of God. We do not peddle the word of God.

5. Relativism cloaks pride with the guise of humility.

On September 9, 1999, the Minneapolis StarTribune carried a lead editorial that said, “Christians must abandon the idea that the Jews must be converted. That idea . . . is one of the greatest scandals in history” (p. A 20). So I wrote a letter to the editor and argued that since only “he who has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12), it is not a scandal but love that moves Christians to urge Jewish people to receive Jesus as their Messiah. This brought a blistering letter from the pastors of the four largest churches downtown which said, “Unfortunately ‘arrogant’ is the right word to describe any attempts at proselytizing—in this case the effort of Christians to ‘win over’ their Jewish brothers and sisters. Thoughtful Christians will disassociate themselves from any such effort.”

The point of that story is that if you believe in a truth that all people must embrace in order to be saved, you will be called arrogant. On the other hand, relativism is put forward as the mark of humility. What I want to suggest is not that all lovers of truth are humble, but that relativism is not a humble stance but a cloak for pride.

It works like this. Truth with a capital T—Truth rooted in God’s objective reality and word—is a massive, unchanging reality that we little humans must submit to. Knowing is the humble task of putting ourselves under this reality and submitting to it. Understanding is literally taking the humble position to stand under the truth and let it be our rule.

But what about relativism? It poses as humble by saying: “We are not smart enough to know what the truth is—or if there is any universal truth.” It sounds humble. But look carefully at what is happening. It’s like a servant saying: I am not smart enough to know which person here is my master—or if I even have a master. The result is that I don’t have a master and I can be my own master. That is in reality what happens to relativists: In claiming to be too lowly to know the truth, they exalt themselves as supreme arbiter of what they can think and do. This is not humility. This is the essence of pride. The only way pride can be conquered in us is for us to believe in Truth and be conquered by it so that it rules us, and we don’t rule it.3

Relativism enables pride to put on humble clothes and parade through the street. But don’t be mistaken. Relativism chooses every turn, every pace, every street, according to its own autonomous preferences, and submits to no truth. We will serve our generation well by exposing the pride under these humble clothes.4

6. Relativism enslaves people.

In John 8:31-32, Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” If we cultivate a view of truth that makes it unreachable or non-existent, then we create a kind of Christianity that will simply colonize slaves. People are not freed from sin through the fog of relativism. They stay in chains.

There is a remedy: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17). But if the people are led away from a love of the truth, they will not be set free, they will not be sanctified, and they will perish. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:10, “[They] perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.” We are not playing games. Relativism leads people away from a love of the truth and so enslaves them and destroys them.

7. Relativism leads to brutal totalitarianism.

The formula is simple: When relativism holds sway long enough, everyone begins to do what is right in his own eyes without any regard for submission to truth. In this atmosphere, a society begins to break down. Virtually every structure in a free society depends on a measure of integrity—that is, submission to the truth. When the chaos of relativism reaches a certain point, the people will welcome any ruler who can bring some semblance of order and security. So a dictator steps forward and crushes the chaos with absolute control. Ironically, relativism—the great lover of unfettered freedom—destroys freedom in the end.

Michael Novak put it powerfully like this:

Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is . . . the will to power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs. It is to make a mockery of those who endured agonies for truth and the hands of torturers.

Vulgar relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism. . . .

During the next hundred years, the question for those who love liberty is whether we can survive the most insidious and duplicitous attacks from within, from those who undermine the virtues of our people, doing in advance the work of the Father of Lies. “There is no such thing as truth,” they teach even the little ones. “Truth is bondage. Believe what seems right to you. There are as many truths as there are individuals. Follow your feelings. Do as you please. Get in touch with your self. Do what feels comfortable.” Those who speak in this way prepare the jails of the twenty-first century. They do the work of tyrants.5

Embrace the Truth Whose Name Is Jesus Christ

The list of damaging effects of relativism could go on and on. I haven’t spoken of the cultural relativism that silences the prophetic indictment of personal and social dysfunction that destroys people in the name of morally neutral ethnic identity. I haven’t spoken of the poisonous effects on personal integrity as the commitment to keep one’s word as a sacred bond is eroded.

But we must stop. Remember the chief priests and the elders. If we say “from heaven,” we will be shamed for not believing. So we can’t say that is true. If we say “from man,” we will be mobbed because they say he’s a prophet. So we can’t say that is true. So we will make up a truth: “We don’t know.” What a bondage. They cannot own the truth because they are enslaved to the fear of shame and harm.

May it not be so with you. If you trust Christ to remove your shame and your guilt, if you trust Christ to protect you from harm, and bring you safely to his eternal kingdom, and be for you the supreme Treasure of the universe, then you will be free to see the truth and embrace the truth and love the truth and spread a passion for the truth whose name is Jesus Christ. Through whom and for whom are all things. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

  1. J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991, orig. 1925), p. 34. 

  2. What is Faith, pp. 13-14. 

  3. G. K. Chesterton said one hundred years ago (1908), “What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. . . . We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy [Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1957], pp. 31-32). 

  4. For more on the nature of humility, see “What is Humility?” and “Brothers, Don’t Confuse Uncertainty with Humility” in John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 2002), pp. 159-166. 

  5. Michael Novak, “Awakening from Nihilism: The Templeton Prize Address” in First Things, August/September, #45, pp. 20-21.