It seems common for 21st century thinkers or students to view religious faith as something of ancient times and secular skepticism as an arising, new occurrence amidst an age of scientific exploration and discovery (at least in the circles I run in and among the people I follow on social media). The belief in absolute truth, such as that of Christians, seems to be becoming more of an anomaly in Western culture, compared to the majority view it once was. However, relativism is not a new point of view. A philosophical school of thought in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. subscribed to this worldview. There are certainly differences between this group, the sophists, and the philosophy today known as “postmodernism.” However, it is still worth analyzing this group, its modern “equivalent” of sorts, and the threats posed to biblical Christianity.
In fifth century (B.C.) Greece, a group of teachers arose in society, particularly in Athens, called the sophists. The sophists specialized in rhetoric and philosophy and often earned their money by teaching people how to win court cases. The art of persuasion was central to their teaching, as people paid them to learn how to make convincing arguments in legal cases. As such, the sophists were primarily concerned with persuasion rather than reason. The sophists also prepared males in the art of rhetoric for public roles. Learning oratory and rhetorical skills was vital to becoming a successful Athenian. They taught people how to win arguments, regardless of whether one’s position was correct or incorrect. Their apathy toward truth rooted in their rejection of absolute truth. In the fifth century B.C., Protagoras wrote that “Man is the measure of all things” (Protagoras and Diagoras are just two examples of agnostic or atheist sophists). Putting the measure of what is good in the hands of man is known as relativism. Relativism, common in our American culture of “don’t tell others what they should believe,” essentially claims that truth and morality only exist “in relation to culture, society, or historical context” (Google definition). A couple peers in my calculus class last year viewed things this way and casted doubts about Christianity’s faith in ultimate truth, right in line with the skepticism of postmodernism.
Modernism said that human reason would improve human experience and the world. Postmodernism rejects the modernist belief in absolutes and affirms no ultimate truth, particularly in our areas of discussion — religion and philosophy. This ideology is the root of the common claim that Christians can’t claim our faith as true and others as false; if nothing is absolute, then it comes down to each individual. This worldview has certainly invaded the church, particularly among Generation Z believers. However, the unbiblical claims of relativism and its dangers make it essential that Christians battle this worldview in an effort to be in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-15). The relativism of both the Sophists and postmodern philosophy at the very least threatens and at the most eliminates the necessity of missions, biblical literacy, and ultimately Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
Christians live out the Great Commission and our desire to bring the joy found in Christ to others through mission, both local and abroad. However, relativism leads to pluralism: we cannot claim ultimate authority, and therefore, our beliefs are no greater than another faith’s. If it is not certain that the death and resurrection of Christ sealed the defeat of sin and death for eternity, why should we insist that people turn from their sin and trust in Jesus? Yet it is certain. Additionally, in an era of biblical illiteracy, the church needs a heightened awareness and view of the Bible’s inerrancy and glorious revelation. As pastor-theologian J.T. English tweeted, “In an era of soundbite theology the church must continually give herself over to serious, deep, and sustained contemplation of the inspired Word of God.” A belief in the inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture rejects relativism by asserting that the Bible contains the words of God Himself and reveals ultimate truths concerning the nature of man and the world as well as the things of eternity. These two actions — growing in knowledge of the Lord and living out missional engagement — are central to the identity of the church and rest upon the absolute truth of the gospel. And as we fight against the threats facing the Christian faith, we can simultaneously find peace in the fact that the Kingdom will prevail.