Why Do We Care about Absolute and Relative Truth?

by Jerry Root

If evangelism is about speaking the truth in love, then evangelistic endeavors should exhibit good sense.

While it is true that there are mysteries associated with any faith tradition, there should nevertheless be nothing that is irrational. Furthermore, we should be mindful that any reasonable discussion will require that terms be well defined and clear. Our failure to define terms adequately leads to equivocation—that is, two people using the same term but meaning different things. And that’s when misunderstanding occurs.

We may never connect because we are operating from two completely different conceptual frameworks.

In light of this, terms such as relative and absolute are among those that must be carefully defined. If there is ambiguity here, at best it leads to significant misunderstanding. At worst, such a lack of precise and commonly understood definition may escalate into an unproductive argument rather than a clear and thoughtful presentation of the gospel.

Relative Truth

When we consider terms such as relative and absolute, let’s begin by defining the word relative. Simply understood, the word means one thing in relation to another. We can talk about a relative: my mother, my brother, my aunt or uncle. In this way, the word is used to speak of how that other person is related to me in a larger family context. Sometimes, the word is used to speak of the relative importance of one thing compared to another. In such cases, circumstances and conditions must be taken into account. In the cases noted above, we recognition an objective reality and an attempt to understand things in relation to that reality.

Nevertheless, another far less productive way to think about the word relative occurs when the word stands for a complete disregard for that which is real and objective. In fact, some will say, “Well that may be true for you, but it is not true for me; everything is relative.” It is as if truth is arbitrary. It seems to suggest no objective reality is necessary to support a truth claim.

All such talk is reduced to mere subjective likes and dislikes with nothing substantiating a claim. The irony in matters such as these is that anyone would try to make such a claim stick. As literary critic Terry Eagleton has noted, “There is nothing more incongruous than a preaching relativist.”

Relative truth, then, is a concept that only has meaning when speaking about various perspectives or points of view about some real material object, or clearly defined object of thought. For Christians, relative used in this way is helpful if we are sensitive to the perspective of another person and seek to share the gospel sensitively with the hearer.

Relative truth that disregards objective data cannot be construed as truth at all and is of no use to the evangelist. If we encounter people who think there is such a thing as an arbitrary truth then it is unlikely we will be able to convince those people to change. Even so, do not neglect to pray for them.

Absolute Truth

Let’s move on to the idea of absolute truth. The idea of absolute can also be defined several ways. We must be careful when using the word absolute, for it is freighted with the potential for misunderstanding when it is used without precision. Absolute could be understood in the sense of nonnegotiables such as the dictates of an absolute sovereign or reigning monarch.

Absolute could also be understood in the sense of a full or complete grasp of a matter; no detail is unknown to the one claiming to have absolute understanding. Used in this way, it sounds like a synonym for omniscience. While we may believe that God’s revelation in scripture is absolute in that it reflects the will of omniscience, we must be careful not to suggest to others that our understanding of any given truth is fully grasped and absolutely understood.

I believe in absolutes as I believe in the infinity of numbers, but I would be institutionalized as a madman if I suggested I actually knew the infinity of numbers. Similarly, I believe in absolutes because I believe in God, but I do not know anything absolutely. I will never fully plumb the depths of His wisdom, or exhaust the breadth of His love or the reaches of His grace to forgive and welcome the prodigal home.

The secular world must think Christians are insane whenever we throw the word absolute around so carelessly. We must avoid all risks of pretense when sharing the gospel. If we speak of absolute truth and those who hear us interpret what we’ve said as if we know truth absolutely, we’ve lost our audience. They think we are delusional at best or arrogant at worst. Humility while sharing the gospel is always far more effective than pretense.

The Narrowness of Our Good Gospel Message

Once proper definitions are clear, equivocation in sharing the gospel is avoided and ambiguity is minimized. With good and clear definitions, a foundation is laid from which a reasoned approach to sharing the gospel may develop in an inferentially coherent way.

With this in mind, how might we respond to the question, “How can Christians say that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and the only way to God?” Again, clarity about truth is important here. The relativist holding to the negative definition described above will not accept any statement because it is narrow.

Here is where the problem occurs. Can truth be narrow? Is truth ever nonnegotiable? When one is operating from a conceptual framework that all true statements must be tethered to something (material object, or clearly defined object of thought) in order to validate its claims, then yes, truth can be nonnegotiable.

In fact, all true statements are narrow. If I see the red traffic light while driving, I should stop or I will become a risk to myself and others. If I fail to get the right sum in a math problem, I may fail the exam or overdraw my bank account.

Similarly, Jesus’ statement that He is the only way to God may or may not be true. But the claim that is false because it is narrow is a nonsensical claim. If someone rejects Jesus’ claim simply because it is narrow, that person may have other difficulties of discernment that are closing the mind as to the weight and import of what Jesus is saying. It may be necessary to begin with basic definitions of fundamental things if progress in the gospel is to occur. Do not engage in such a discussion as if you are the teacher and others are mere uninformed pupils. This is bound to be off putting.

But we can begin as people hungry to understand. Explore these definitions. Through dialogue, we can arrive at a common consensus as to what things must mean and the reasons why these are so. Then, with a shared sense of inquiry, look afresh at the compelling nature of the claims of Christ. Truth is always an asset to us.

All truth can be plumbed deeper, applied more widely, and understood in a way that is consistent with all other truths.

Jerry Root is a professor at Wheaton College and serves as the Director of the Evangelism Initiative as well as being a faculty/scholar at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College. Jerry teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in evangelism and Christian formation and is a visiting professor at Talbot Graduate School of Theology and Biola University.