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Relatives and Absolutes

In matters of truth and morality, some of us tend to think in black and white. Others see in shades of gray.

The first group is more inclined to use words like always or never. The second is inclined to say, “But sometimes. . . .

The difference can easily affect the way we see the Bible. Black-and-white thinkers may tend to see the Scriptures as a source of timeless truth and rules. People who think in gray might be more inclined to see general principles, and that in changing conditions the Bible uses one truth to complement or qualify another.

Since both approaches can be a source of insight, let’s take a look at the way the Bible teaches us to think in both absolute and relative ways.

For instance, by describing our Creator as the ground and measure of what is real, the Bible gives us reason to believe:

Absolute truth and moral standards are words (2 Timothy 1:13), actions (John 3:20-21), and attitudes (2 Timothy 3:10) that are rooted in, and correspond with, the reality and rightness of God.

By such a definition, absolute truth reflects God’s reality. Absolute morality reflects His goodness and wisdom. Both exist independent of, and without reliance upon, human affirmation.

For instance, the apostle Paul emphasized what he regarded as an absolute truth when he wrote, “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16 NKJV). By contrast,

Relative truth and morality may reflect our limited human perspective of absolute truth (1 Corinthians 13:12). Or it might show how our motives (13:1-3) and changing circumstances (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11) can determine the
accuracy, rightness, or wrongness of our words and actions.

Because all of us have only a partial knowledge of the hearts or circumstances of others, the apostle Paul urged followers of Christ to withhold angry criticism or arrogant judgment against one another. Regarding matters that were beyond his readers’ ability to fully understand, he wrote, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. . . . One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:4-5 NKJV).

By writing this, Paul was not discouraging honest and loving attempts to hold one another accountable to the absolute truths we share. Instead, he was reminding us that when it comes to possible implications of truth, we need to respect one another’s freedom to serve Christ according to our own conscience.

But God reminds us of our relative understanding of truth to do more than humble us.

God even uses relative truth to give us reason to trust and love Him. From Genesis to Revelation, we read not only about an absolute, perfect, self-existing, holy Creator. We also read about a personal, absolute source of reality who wants us to see ourselves in relation to Him and in relation to His immeasurable love for us.

In other words, if our thinking is only relative to ourselves, we are likely to be full of ourselves. But by thinking of ourselves relative (in relation to) the goodness and love of God, we can, even in a limited sense, be lifted to absolute truths far greater than ourselves.

This is the relational understanding of God that Isaiah had in mind when he wrote, “For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite [i.e., broken] and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the
contrite ones’ ” (Isaiah 57:15 NKJV).

This God reconciles our understanding of absolute and relative truth in the person of Jesus. He comes as one eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. He shows the heart of God in relation to a Samaritan woman who has been married five times and is living with a man to whom she is not married. He shows God offering relationship to diseased, demon-oppressed, and desperate people like us. As He willingly died in our place, He offered eternal friendship in paradise to a condemned criminal who shared His day of execution.

This is the Son of God who has come into our lives to personally show us how an absolutely faithful Father wants to be understood relative to broken people like us.

Father in heaven, we can barely begin to understand that a God like You would want to be seen and known by people like us. But to the extent that You have helped us to understand You, the absolute God, in relation to us, thank You. In Jesus’ name, thank You now—and forever! —Mart De Haan

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