The Protestant Reformation: The Cause of Modern Relativism

“Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,’ seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Relativism is not a new phenomenon. The Greek philosopher Protagoras is famously quoted as stating, “Everything is relative. There are two sides to everything. Man is the measure of all things, of those being that they are, of those not being, that they are not.”1 In a nutshell, relativism is the “state of absoluteness of the individual, where the individual is source and summit of the truth, the good and bad, and the right and wrong.”2 Sound familiar? That’s because this credo is the call of the Protestant Reformation.

Modern relativism flowered from, primarily, the Protestant Reformation’s systematic destruction of the creed of a central moral authority. At the rate at which this relativism spreads, it might well spark the demise of western civilization as it is known. By means of the protestant reformation, the rejection of absolute truth and an authority to safeguard that truth, man established himself as his own authority over matters of truth and morals. Consequently, man rejected the very notion of objective truth, opting for a subjective, variable reality. Thus, the heresy of Protestantism inevitably sowed the seeds for modern relativism as we know it. As John Cardinal Newman states:

Such, then, is popular Protestantism, considered in its opposition to Catholics. Its truth is establishment by law; its philosophy is theory; its faith is prejudice; its facts are fiction; its reasoning fallacies; and its security is ignorance about those whom it is opposing. The law says that white is black; ignorance says, why not? Theory says it ought to be; fallacy says it must be; fiction says it is, and prejudice says it shall be.3

The Historical Development of Relativism

Relativism as a concept developed over the course of centuries, beginning with a skeptical approach to spiritual and moral absolute truths with the Protestant Reformation. By virtue of the Protestant Revolt, Christianity encountered a division so calamitous that it rendered the Christian faith, as a whole, in a state of rancorous and discordant disarray, ultimately culminating in a religious war in the seventeenth century. Accordingly, the masses concurred that Christianity could no longer function as the foundation for civilization and its societal development.

Christians, in further splintering themselves, became their own counter-witness for the unity of the faith they proclaimed, all in the name of avoiding contention due to intolerance of variance in belief. Furthermore, doctrinal incongruity on God, salvation, and God’s relationship with man led to a societal backlash, i.e. that if Christianity couldn’t ascertain what is objectively true, even among themselves, perhaps there is no absolute truth to be known.

This determination planted the seeds for further discord, so much so that, upon the second stage of the western development, i.e. geographical expansion, this ideology of the non-existence of an absolute truth had taken root. When borders were expanded, different peoples were encountered, each with their own cultures. As a result, there arose the missionary drive to propagate the Gospel. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned conception was coupled with an already opaque understanding of truth. Christian missionaries, in the process of proclaiming the Gospel, realized that there existed nations beyond their borders, such as China, that were technologically, societally, politically and academically advanced in their own right, and that had become so without the moral and theological guidance of Christianity. Thus, in the process of “respecting” these cultures, they sought to assimilate and even incorporate their practices, norms and beliefs into truth as it was being understood. After all, if there is no absolute truth or morality, then what is true for some might well be true in its own right. “This sparked a sort of cultural relativism, or the idea that different arrangements and social mores are perfectly workable for different people at different times and places.”4

This phenomenon was intensified by the reality that, because of the paradigm of dubiety through which truth was being viewed, people did not make careful and articulate distinctions as to the disparity of what separates truth and knowledge from cultural practices. When some fundamental tenets of life and reality are undermined, when the pursuit of the intellect for objective truth is hampered, man inevitably questions everything else that is contained within those weltanschauungs. All these stages of development continually compounded upon themselves, so much so that during the rise of empirical science, man had become both comfortable with and accustomed to the false reality of non-objective metaphysical truth.

As a result, he innovated a method that placed prominence on knowledge that could be tangibly observed, in stark contrast to the pursuit of the esoterically unseen. “This emphasis bore significant tangible fruit, leading to a doctrine of human progress without spiritual absolutes.”5 What is amazing about all this, however, is that the empirical sciences, themselves, had their roots in the Christian philosophical principle that there exists a hierarchy, an intelligibility and an order to the universe.

The ensuing centuries did not bode well for a harmonious interdependency between objective truth and the development of western civilization. Because Protestantism had such an effect on most of the more advanced nations and peoples of the west, it was an imminent fact that awaited fruition: that “the Protestant doctrine of private judgment is in itself a precursor of full-fledged relativism.”6 In its initial conception, the belief that truth was inspired by the Holy Spirit individually and without central, collective governance did serve to bring those who professed it to some form of truth. Nonetheless, the principle caused its own defeat because the certitude that it promises was inescapably juxtaposed with the fact that the private judgment of countless individuals was leading each of them to different conclusions about the very same realities, e.g. the necessity of baptism for salvation.

The obvious consequence of this is a common sight beheld even today: protestant separatism wherein factions of congregations tear themselves away from their previously-affiliated church/branch with the sole purpose of pursing their specific understanding of “truth,” because, per the understanding of Protestant theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, “truth can be a kind of loosely twined subject . . .”7

This whole segment demonstrates, at least from a historical-logical perspective, how the protestant tenet of private judgment paved the way for modern relativism as it is known today. The battle of the Church, today, is twofold. On the one hand, against Protestants, she preserves and upholds the fullness of truth in her absolute and objective sense against a premise that is intellectually and morally irrational. Against modernity, her battle is against the attempt of corruption by the relativistic culture that surrounds her. Either way, it is evident that “relativism follows from private judgment as night follows day. Private judgment allows no way of apprehending the unity of Truth; relativism simply ceases to seek [what it so obviously cannot found on its own].”8

Doctrinal Development of Relativism

On a doctrinal level, the Protestant Revolt rests upon the absolutist claim that before 1516 A.D., Christianity was tragically misunderstood. Hence, Protestantism derives its truths from the deposit of faith, fundamentally, but then breaks it down, making it both narrower and lesser in substance until the truth itself is divided. Hauerwas, as a Protestant theologian, recognizes and acknowledges this. In fact, he states, “The reformation is sin. It is disunity. It is a failure. We who remain in the Protestant tradition was to say that the reformation was a success, but it only ends up killing us.”9 Once the fundamentals of the Christian faith are removed from the arena of discussion, what remains is the essential problem of relativism as a whole.

Prior to that, however, the Protestant revolt and modern relativism can trace its roots to the medieval philosophy of English theologian William of Ockham: Nominalism. This philosophy simply reduced all universal concepts to mere names, nomina, hence, there are no moral, spiritual, or even intellectual universals or absolutes. Instead, everything was simply dependent on God’s Will alone. He developed a principle called “Ockham’s Razor” which led to relativism. This principle suggests that one “should always choose the simplest hypothesis, the most reductionist explanation. Reduce the complex to the simple.”10

Protestants then employed this concept through what is termed as “Divine Command Theory.” Luther, Calvin, and Descartes followed William of Ockham by effectively destroying the application of natural law. Their theory posits that God’s will is the only thing that renders an act either right or morally good. The Church teaches us that there is both natural and divine law which can also make an act good or evil. Hence, for an act to be morally good, the natural law acts as a proximate cause and the divine law as an ultimate cause. Luther, the Ockhamist that he was, desired to “maximize religion by eliminating natural law” and he, and the Protestant reformers, used the Razor to eliminate natural law, and the human reason that is able to know it, from religion; effectively rendering faith and reason as adversaries to each other instead of allies.11

Ockham’s Razor, however, is fundamentally wrong because there are, essentially, three causes in a moral act. These are: God’s nature, God’s will and the nature of the act itself. Misuse of Ockham’s Razor does away with two of the three causes. Therein lies the fallacy that led to modern relativism. In a sense, the “Razor was applied [by Protestant relativists] to the neck instead of the hair” of truth and morality.12 Below are some specific doctrines that demonstrate the result of this.

The Deists contrived the notion of God as the divine watchmaker who designed the universe, set the rules for its function, wound it up and allowed it to run, while he has been at a distance ever since. The Protestant claim is that Christ preached the Gospel and did, in fact, desire to establish a Church, but, somehow, Christians had distorted his teaching and wandered into apostasy from the true faith until 1516 A.D., during which the Protestant Revolt occurred — a form of ecclesial deism, as it were. On a logical level, this is fallacious. One reason for this is Christ’s promise to Peter in Matt 16, i.e. that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church (cf. Matt 16:18). To imply that the Church had fallen into error would be to imply that Christ was unable to foresee what would happen to his beloved Church or, abhorrently, that Christ was a liar. Clearly, the Protestant notion is self-defeating.

From there the reformers sought to deconstruct the notion of a visible Church which the early Church universally believed and even presupposed. The allegation that Christ did not come to institute a visible authority over his flock granted Protestants the free rein of private judgment that, coupled with a misuse of Ockham’s Razor, has propelled Protestantism into the continually dividing, discordant, and intellectually conflicting organism it is today.

From there, it was a cakewalk of a spiral downwards for Protestantism. John Calvin’s claim that “if [one is] guided by the Holy Spirit, [they will] know the books of Bible” did not hold water, as even Luther admitted to not knowing which books actually belonged in the Bible, effectively debunking the Protestant profession of sola scriptura for the simple reason that they cannot, themselves, define what is and is not true Scripture.13

As if that weren’t enough, private judgment continues to shoot itself in the foot with the most outlandish of theological theories and conjectured claims of the faith. From dark skin being a curse for disobedience against God, to Mary having had naturally begotten children, there truly seems to be no end to the extent to which private judgment can stretch the imagination for doctrine. Unfortunately, this contriving of illogical doctrine is in keeping with true protestant spirit. “After all, if Luther can remove the [Deuterocanonical books] from the Bible on his own authority, why can’t Joseph Smith add the Book of Mormon on his? Or why can’t Karen Armstrong add the “Gnostic Gospels”?”14

Ultimately, this movement of private judgment resulted in a house divided, contrary to the prayer of Christ in John 17:21, “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” The resulting internal schism and ongoing subjective belligerence has, throughout history, reared its ugly head, most of all, unto the world, which has seen the best counter-witness for Christian unity in Protestant dissensions. When unity is dissolved, when absolute truth and morality are negated, “the world stops believing in the goodness or truth of the Christian message.”15

Hence it must be pointed out that while the reformers themselves did not explicitly set out to be moral relativists, their actions allowed for it. By casting doubt on all that was absolute, they effectively paved the way for the deconstruction of central authority in matters of truth, faith and morals. The cry of sola scriptura itself does not hold water by Protestant standards because, if Scripture were to be criticized and called to account, who then would judge it? Take, for example, Luther’s indecisiveness on the books that should remain as canon. Because Scripture did not hold itself into account, Luther “took out numerous books, putting some of them back in later. So who’s right? Luther, the Catholic priest who believed in the full Bible, with [Deuterocanonical books]? Luther, the early Reformer, who tore out the [Deuterocanonical books], James, Revelation, etc.? Or Luther, the later Reformer, who put the New Testament books back in? And how do we know who’s right?”16

As is the case with Luther, history has shown that he discerned the validity of the books of Scripture according to how they tested against his own conceived theory of sola fide. “In other words, he based the Bible on his theory, not his theory on the Bible.”17 Lamentably, this has been the modus operandi of Protestants across history, changing, altering and even discarding key tenets of the faith that, at one point, impelled them to shed blood to protect. In the case of society today, that private judgment is often in the interest of shying away from offending a certain party of people or to win the favor of others. That is relativism.

By that, it is clear that private judgment both as a principle and in its application is not only self-defeating, but effectively renders itself absolutely incompatible with the reality of an objective, absolute, unified truth; culminating in intellectual, psychological and practical tensity that, as has been seen over the centuries, shows no sign of waning. From the outset, the principle does promise an innate aplomb that, because it is the Holy Spirit who guides one’s intellect, contradictory sentiments of others must, by default, be wrong. Those who are truly introspective and intellectually inquisitive, however, will inevitably, and methodically, realize that there is something inherently wrong with this system of belief. Further inquiry will only prove to them that objective, absolute, unitary spiritual principles, truth and moral values can, in fact, be known.

The issue is, if this inquisitiveness is not pursued to its logical end, i.e. in the Catholic Church and her teachings, then, dismally, man will be left with only one alternative: to decide “to live as if what seems true to me will work fine for me, and what seems true to you will work fine for you. This is practical relativism.”18 From practical relativism, true relativism, “characterized by a deep psychological refusal to acknowledge or consider the question of truth, along with an insistence that the values a person should hold are whatever values make him comfortable with himself,”19 is but a step away. Regrettably, in present time, the latter philosophy is being touted as the bedrock on which western civilization is being built.

“The nuisance of relativism irritates [Pope Benedict XVI] beyond the face value subjectivity.”20 Protestant relativism, at its core, aims at destroying all forms of objectivity, particularly objective truth in society, and turning it into subjectivism. Benedict, however, envisages more than a mere spontaneous appeal to subjectivity for modern relativism. In fact, he posits that it is a far worse phenomenon for the exact reason that it is a well-organized philosophy and a systematic movement. This movement is at the very heart of the suppression of life-giving, objective, societal values while promoting its own myopic agenda for reality and civilization. It is for this reason that Benedict terms the movement the “dictatorship of relativism,” believing that the movement seeks the destruction of the Church and Christianity as a whole.

Whether or not one would care to admit it, particularly in the interest of maintaining political correctness, Protestant relativism is far from secularism, which introduces an element of neutrality within the public sphere that promotes healthy discussion and freedom of expression. Instead, it has birthed “an ideology that imposes itself through politics and leaves no public space for the [objective] Catholic and Christian vision, which thus risks becoming something purely private and essentially mutilated.”21

  1. Charles Ssennyondo, S.T.L. Christianity and the Culture of Relativism in the Anthropologies of Joseph Ratzinger and Stanley Hauerwas (Rediscovering the Truth of Christianity). Xlibris Corporation, 2012, 2.
  2. Ssennyondo, Rediscovering the Truth of Christianity.
  3. Wilfrid Philip Ward, The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman: Based on His Private Journals and Correspondence; in Two Volumes. 1. (Longmans, Green: 1913), 272.
  4. Jeffrey Mirrus, “Private Judgment and the Rise of Relativism,” Catholic Culture, May 10, 2011. Accessed June 22, 2017.
  5. Mirrus, “Private Judgment.”
  6. Mirrus, “Private Judgment.”
  7. Ssennyondo, Rediscovering the Truth of Christianity, 272.
  8. Mirrus, “Private Judgment.”
  9. Ssennyondo, Rediscovering the Truth of Christianity, 177.
  10. Peter Kreeft, A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews with an Absolutist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 40.
  11. Kreeft, A Refutation of Moral Relativism, 41.
  12. Kreeft, A Refutation of Moral Relativism, 43.
  13. Joseph Heschmeyer, “Shameless Popery,” Protestantism and Relativism: The Conclusion, September 16, 2009. Accessed June 22, 2017.
  14. Heschmeyer, “Shameless Popery.”
  15. Heschmeyer, “Shameless Popery.”
  16. Heschmeyer, “Shameless Popery.”
  17. Heschmeyer, “Shameless Popery.”
  18. Mirrus, “Private Judgment.”
  19.  Mirrus, “Private Judgment.”
  20. Ssennyondo, Rediscovering the Truth of Christianity, 49.
  21. Ssennyondo, Rediscovering the Truth of Christianity, 49.
Marcus Benedict Peter About Marcus Benedict Peter

Marcus Benedict Peter hails from Malaysia and has been involved in teaching, faith formation, missionary work, and evangelization of the Faith since 2008. He has ministered and spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, India, and the United States. In 2018, he received his MA in Theology at Ave Maria University, Florida. Marcus regularly writes and creates content for his website, www.marcusbpeter.com, where he does work on Catholic biblical theology, apologetics, and evangelization. At present, Marcus and his bride, Stephanie Mae Peter, live in South Lyon, MI. Marcus teaches Theology at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, MI.

Comments

  1. Very good article thank you and God bless you.

    May I add some additional insights.

    If it is true that Protestants confounded scripture so then the subsequent days of human history was the confounding of Reason the source of Truth underneath scripture.

    This could be seeing that there were as many forms of deism and rationalism as their word deists and rationalists just as there were as many forms of protestantism has the were Protestants and the deists and rationalist use reason apart from scripture

    Toi, when the phase following protestantism drifted even from religion or deism so then reason was confounded in the philosophes and other views that were trying to find a solution to human problems even without religion such as the philosophes and economics and Sciences and psychology’s and socialists and such

    This then birth to a rejection of Reason itself just as scripture was rejected when it was confounded I’m just gave rise to ideologies that were devoid of the reason itself such as Atheism and relativism

    it is important to return here to protestantism which was not technically relativism because protestantism believes in absolute truth and is just uncertain what that absolute truth is whereas relativism does not believe in absolute truth at but in countless of competing factions can all be true at the same time this is an important distinction to make so that whereas protestantism is accepting scripture is absolute truth relativism does not accept any absolute truth it is in the fact contrary to reason which is the Last Vestige of Truth

  2. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    Thank you for this great article. I pray that you thank God for the abilities he has bestowed on you. Sincerely, Tom Showerman Fowlerville, MI

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