I thought it was high time we had another “nuts and bolts” blog, part of a series where I unpack some of the basic terms and concepts used in either theology or philosophy. This time we’re in theological territory, looking at the question of what this thing called Liberal Theology (or “theological liberalism”) is.
As I’ve noted before when discussing the issue of inerrancy, Martin Luther said that the Bible made statements that weren’t correct about the number of people involved in battles. John Calvin said that the Bible made statements that weren’t correct about a bright star in the sky when Jesus was born. Charles Hodge* said that when it comes to truth and error, the Bible was like a marble building, where marble is truth and sand is not. Sure the building might contain the occasional speck of sand which isn’t marble, but we can still call it marble overall.
Now as I look around the world of conservative evangelicalism, I notice that nobody calls Luther, Calvin or Hodge a liberal (or at least, nobody that I am aware of). And yet for expressing this sort of thought about the Bible myself (namely that everything it teaches is true, but it contains incidental claims that are not factually correct), I’ve recently been called a theological liberal (albeit by a very small number of people whom I can count on the fingers one hand and still have a couple of fingers left over). Theological liberalism is the movement represented by the likes of John Shelby Spong, Lloyd Geering in New Zealand, or historically by folk like Rudolph Bultmann or Friedrich Schleiermacher. I wonder how these guys would feel at being lumped in with Calvin and Hodge?
Moving on to the issue of the afterlife, well known evangelical scholar John Stott claimed, on exegetical grounds, that the lost will one day be no more and that only those people who have eternal life in Christ will live forever. The same position was expressed by other evangelical authors like Michael Green, Philip Edgecumbe Hughes and John Wenham. The church father Arnobius of Sicca taught the same thing (this is just meant as a tiny list of examples).
And yet, for defending this same doctrine – on the basis of detailed exegesis of many parts of Scripture – I’ve been dubbed by one or two people in recent times a theological liberal. I wonder how John Spong would feel being told that he was in the same camp as John Stott!
Of course as many readers will see right away, something has gone askew here. All of this is just a case of confusion. Unfortunately there’s a tendency for some evangelicals (although fortunately not the majority) to think that their stance on any theological issue is the default conservative one (naturally!), and that if a person doesn’t hold their view then they must (obviously) hold a view that makes them a liberal. What’s on display when this happens is actually just historical ignorance of what theological liberalism actually is, combined with confusion over the difference between erroneous beliefs and a theologically liberal stance. As I said when I started the “nuts and bolts” series, rather than just getting frustrated at ignorance, it’s better to become part of the solution. So today I’ll be answering the questions: what is theological liberalism, and how is it distinguished from say, error or heresy?
Perhaps to start off with I’ll give a couple of examples of what is and is not liberal theology at work, because a picture (or even a verbal illustration) can sometimes paint a thousand words.
Example A: Not theological liberalism
Richard and I sit down with our Bibles. We’ve decided to study the issue of baptism. We sit silently, reading for what seems like hours, and then we stop to discuss what we’ve seen. I say, “we both agree that the Bible should be the source of our beliefs about Christian baptism, right?” We agree, the Bible should be our source. We agree together that whatever the Bible teaches about baptism, we should accept. I explain to Richard that I think that Bible indicates that only people who are in a position to profess faith in Christ should be baptised, because this is what the New Testament says about baptism. Richard disagrees. He says that because in the Old Testament babies were circumcised, we should baptise babies as well because the New Testament doesn’t overtly state that we shouldn’t baptise them. We’re both using biblical passages to justify our stance because we agree that the teaching of Scripture is going to settle the matter for us, but we still don’t agree. So I jump up out of my chair and say “Ah HA! You told me that you were an evangelical, but clearly you don’t accept what the Bible teaches, so you’re a theological liberal. I’m going to start warning people about you!”
Whoops. I doubt that anybody reading this would sympathise with me. Rather than looking like a champion of evangelicalism, I’ve just made a bit of a fool of myself.
Example B: Theological liberalism
Steve and I sit down with our Bibles. We’ve decided to study the resurrection of Jesus. We read the Gospels and then the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles that refer to the resurrection. Then we exchange our thoughts. I say to Steve that this is just a fantastic reality: That Jesus did not stay dead, but God raised him up out of the tomb, alive again, and that he spoke to his disciples again, and that we too will rise from the dead and we’ll live forever! Steve rolls his eyes at me. He points out that I’m being quaint, and that in our day and age we just know that resurrection isn’t possible. Instead, what must have happened is that the life of Jesus made a real impact on his followers, so they really wanted his teachings to live on after he had died. To give this goal a helping hand, they created this account of Jesus rising again and appearing to them, but they weren’t actually saying anything about history. It was really just a grand metaphor for the endurance of the teachings of a notably good person, Jesus. What the New Testament actually conveys by these accounts is quite false. It’s all about the end result in our own individual lives as this literary figure of the risen Jesus personally impacts us as we let the story speak.
I pause for a moment. Is this the point where I decide that this is theological liberalism?
Yes it is, and I submit that the difference between these two situations is so obvious that it’s almost comical. We clearly recognise the type of difference involved here. And yet for a small number of evangelicals, sometimes the “you’re a liberal!” card is played willy nilly, however silly it looks to others (as in example A above). So what is theological liberalism then?
Theological liberalism is identifiable not simply because of what liberals believe when it comes to doctrine, but also – and perhaps primarily – because of the attitude taken to Scripture and the aspects of Christian faith that are emphasised (or downplayed). It’s often thought, for example, that theological liberals exalt “deeds” and downplay “creeds.” Now there’s a sense in which we can say that this is true, if we’re careful. It’s not that theological liberals care about good deeds and evangelicals don’t. On the contrary, I find that strong emphasis of personal holiness is stronger in conservative circles than anywhere else (after all, one of the emphases in liberalism is not judging the lives of others, and consequently rejecting others’ judgement regarding oneself). However, theological liberalism does involve a comparative emphasis on deeds over creeds, because of the downplaying of creeds. The importance of doctrine is diminished, even when it comes to central Christian doctrines like the resurrection of the dead and the deity of Christ.
More importantly, theological liberalism has a strong tendency to take the stance that all we have in the biblical account is a snapshot of human authors, locked into their own limitations, blighted by their own cultural prejudice, and – and this is the crucial part – lacking a privileged position. For example, when the biblical writers wrote about sexual relationships, the only information they could have been working on is the mindset of a culture handed down to them, the ignorance of their ancient time, and the general but rather undefined stance that God (if a personal God does exist, which is not a given for liberal theology) has a positive and accepting stance of some sort towards us. But what those writers do not have, liberal theology impresses upon us, is a unique God’s eye perspective. In short, it is not really revelation. Experiences that the biblical writers declare to be miraculous or divine are likely better explained, in liberal terms, as moments of epiphany or even as pure fiction later re-written to push a particular agenda. What we have to do is move “beyond” their limitations and apply God’s message (remember: not necessarily the thoughts of a personal creator, but perhaps the broad, positive, accepting message of the man Jesus of Nazareth) in a newer and better informed world, realising that at times the actual message of the Bible is frankly blinkered and bigoted. Just today, for example I came across a paper with the following title and description:
Potholes on the Road to Damascus: A speculative, psychological explanation for the sudden conversion experience of Paul, the Apostle, as the root of present-day Christian anti-Semitism.
Janice Meighan takes a look at Paul’s sudden conversion experience using both contemporary research on the psychology of sudden conversion experiences and utilizing the theory of Attachment (Bowlby’s).
Liberal theology is often referenced today with the more positive sounding label “progressive Christianity,” to give the impression of a more up-to-date, forward moving (rather than backward looking) movement. Here’s (http://www.tcpc.org/about/8points.cfm) a good overview of the sorts of themes you’re likely to encounter in Liberal Theology / Progressive Christianity (bearing in mind that like evangelicalism, liberalism is not a monolith).
In liberal theology, it’s not so much the teaching of the Bible that should inform our theology and lifestyle as the immediate experience either of God (if one believes in such a being), “the spiritual,” “the numinous” or the Christian community that should have the most influence on the way that we think and live. Now don’t get me wrong – of course evangelicals say that these things are important, but in liberal theology these things ascend much higher up the ranking in terms of authority, because the specific metaphysical claims summed up by the term “doctrine” are conspicuous by their absence.
That’s a pretty rough and ready (and brief!) overview, but hopefully it gives some sort of insight into the type of animal that theological liberalism is. As readers of this blog will know, I’m not a fan (to put it mildly), and have had a few things to say about it in the past.
Liberalism, from a conservative evangelical point of view, is not a state of having made incorrect exegetical conclusions. Consider the hypothetical discussion about baptism that I described earlier. Both parties to the conversation were on common methodological ground: They accepted that the teaching of the Bible would be the final word, and then they set about figuring out what the Bible had to say. The fact that at least one of them is wrong in their conclusion doesn’t say anything at all about one of them being a liberal, and it’s patently obvious from their approach that neither of them is a liberal. Imagine my surprise then (and I admit, bemusement), when I set out a careful, exegetical case for a particular view on the biblical doctrine of hell, employing very obviously conservative assumptions about the Bible, and then when two or three evangelicals didn’t accept the conclusion they called me a theological liberal. I can only shake my head at this sort of thing. it’s as though people aren’t content just to say “Glenn is wrong.” No, that lacks the necessary rhetorical punch, so some other label – no matter how ridiculous – needs to be used. The other problem with saying “Glenn is wrong,” of course, is that those who say it would then need to provide good reasons for believing that my case failed, and who can be bothered doing this? Calling me a liberal, by contrast (even though it’s obviously false) makes the accuser feel that he doesn’t actually have to engage the exegetical issues. They are “liberal” ideas and therefore off limits for consideration, without any explanation required.
The reality is that Christianity has always been aware of movements that draw on Christian roots but reject important Christian truth claims, and there has never been a need to dub such movements liberal. Indeed, many such movements are self-consciously conservative, working hard to – as far as they can tell – be faithful to the teaching of Scripture because they, in principle, respect its authority as inspired (even though I think in many cases they treat other people and organisations as having so much authority that Scripture gets crowded out of the picture). Think of movements like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you ever heard them referred to as theological liberals? Of course not, because they aren’t liberal in the least. Or think further back to examples like Arius or the Gnostics. Has any historian referred to such movements as “liberal”? Again, of course not. The term used to refer to serious doctrinal error in spite of conservatism is not liberalism, but heresy.
But of course, heresy is pretty strong language and doesn’t apply to just any mistaken belief. Take for example disagreements about when a person should be baptised, as in the example given earlier. At least one of the people in that conversation must be wrong, but neither of them is a heretic. Look at one of the most widely cited standards of orthodoxy for example, the Nicene Creed. A number of things were important for defining orthodoxy over and against heresy; Monotheism, the deity of Christ, the death of Christ for our salvation, his resurrection, our resurrection and so on. However, things like the nature of eternal punishment, the proper subjects of baptism, the nature of original sin – none of these things were treated as issues over which Christians declared one another to be heretics. Of course, this isn’t to say that Christians can’t reach conclusions on these matters and tell other people that their view is correct. Of course they can, but they’re overstepping the mark if they then say that they possess the authority to declare another Christian to be unorthodox or perhaps not really a fellow believer if they don’t share their private opinion. In fact if we simply label anyone with whom we strongly disagree as a heretic, then the whole category of “heresy” becomes meaningless. If “heretic” just means “I don’t agree with you” then it no longer refers to anything all that serious.
But looking back over these categories it’s at once clear that if someone says “you don’t share my view on what the Bible teaches about hell [or divine foreknowledge, or baptism, or the eucharist, or original sin etc.], so you’re a liberal,” then they’re a person who is rather muddled up. This isn’t even a question of liberalism vs conservatism, it’s a question of truth vs error.
Food for thought.
* Errata: This originally (incorrectly) read B. B. Warfield, but it was Charles Hodge who actually said this, as I discuss here.
- Ehrman: I’m not destroying Christianity, I’m only destroying the Bible!
- Eat, Drink, and be Merry: 1 Corinthians 15 and Physicalism
- Theological Liberalism and Street Cred
- “Why isn’t the Trinity in the Bible?”
- I walk the line