Education,  Epistemology,  History,  Mark Noll,  Relativism

Christian Relativism Anyone?

After an accumulation of facts, meticulously researched in the most objective way possible, a researcher has the task of presenting the facts in a coherent way. The question is: can he do this without imposing his own political ideology, psychological leanings or scientific paradigm?

Historian, Mark Noll, suggests that there are three attitudes available in response to the question. The scientistic attitude requires a scrupulous attention to method. If we get the method right the rest will follow. This attitude is held by positivist scientists and requires the adoption of a verificationist methodology modeled on an “empirical conception of the physical sciences.”

The ideological attitude suggests that “historical writing exists in order to illustrate the truth of propositions known to be true before the study of the past begins.” This attitude is common among nationalistic accounts of history whereby a story is told in order to support the state.

The third attitude is relativistic. This attitude is produced by a skepticism about human knowledge. If we have no real access to the past knowledge of the past is impossible. Therefore, all historical writings are not a reflection of what happened, but a description of how we would have liked things to have happened; “No path exists to the past which is not a disguised tour of the present.”

Mark Noll

Noll’s thesis is that Christians have an answer to the question that is better than any of these three attitudes. He argues:

The Christian faith does, in fact offer a conserving strategy to meet the epistemological crisis of historical knowledge. It holds out the assurance that there is a past, real in itself, which we may study and genuinely come to know. To put the matter in altogether utilitarian terms: come to Christ and regain your confidence that historical research can lead to at least a measure of genuine knowledge about the past. Faith in God, rather than confidence in the capabilities of humans as defined by Enlightenment visionaries, enables us to reach some of the goals advances by defenders of scientific history.

To defend the superiority of a Christian view of knowledge Noll argues for 5 theses (I have added one because I thought the second thesis was really two).

First, the dependence thesis: Both the world and human beings are created by God and governed by God. Consequently, human beings can have confidence in their ability to know because they can have confidence in God.

Second, the connectivity thesis. Noll argues that to make an argument for a fact is implicitly to argue for many other things such as the possibility of human perception, the ability to measure, the nature of evil or any other issue relating to meta-understanding. This is particularly true when it comes to assuming certain doctrines. For example, the doctrine of the fall asserts a finitude and a natural inclination towards falsity by human subjects. The doctrine accounts for the human propensity to lie, but it is also a particular point of view assumed within each discipline.

Third, the point-of-view thesis concurs with the ideological/relativistic attitudes. Importantly, Noll argues, the point-of-view thesis entails the belief that God has ordained each person and his or her research to be carried out in particular historical and cultural situations. And he has ordained that the perspective be influenced by such conditions. “Relativism” suggests Noll, “has a divine sanction.”

Fourth, the unity thesis, suggests that the point-of-view thesis does not entail merely imagination as opposed to knowledge of the world. Noll argues that since human beings are created in the image of God they are capable of genuine knowledge despite differing points of view:

Humans are going to conclude different things about the past, but the fact that all humans share Godgiven qualities of conscience, intellectual potential, and social capabilities means that differing views of the past will not differ absolutely. The differing conditions of human cultures mean that histories will never be the same; the commonalities of human nature mean that histories will never be absolutely antithetical.

Finally, the creaturely thesis, suggests that human beings were not designed to comprehend the truth in a “god-like” way. We are creatures not the Creator. Knowledge, obtained by human beings, is not supposed to be from an ideal perspective. Such a perspective belongs only to God. We were designed to see from the perspective  in which God has set us. And God knows this. His expectation, therefore, is that we do not attempt to see as he sees. That, Noll suggests, is to confuse the creature with the Creator and is an act of idolatry.

Knowledge of the world, then, is connected not to making human reason take on divine status, attempting a comprehensive, complete system of knowledge, but a creaturely, perspective bound creative act. Noll notes that this should not be taken to mean creative in the sense of original, but re-creative in the sense that it acknowledges and ideal point of view being solely within a divine perspective. Thus, the researcher is freed from the pressure to perform God-like acts while responsible for the appropriate telling of the story from a God-given point of view. Such a position frees the researcher to use what God has given in the way of human faculties–observation, reasoning etc–within a God-given situation–political, cultural, historical–to honor not man’s greatness, but God’s. In this way an attitude is provided that correctly places human beings in a humble, but not lost position. He is neither to be arrogant about his claim to know nor despairing about his inability to know anything, but confident in God’s provision and humble in his circumstance.

Okay, I admit to failing to publish a Christmas message blog post. Perhaps I should have. However, consider Christ. Jesus, being God and having a God perspective, takes on human flesh and, with it, a human, culturally limited perspective. God, in the incarnation, affirms such a perspective. Just because you know from such a limited perspective does not mean you don’t know at all. If that was true Christ could not have known anything!

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Mark Noll, “Traditional Christianity and the Possibility of Historical Knowledge,” in Taking Every Thought Captive ed. Don King (Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 2011), 249-266. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.