Original Christianity is Liberal Christianity

If “liberal Christianity” means Christianity that reflects the cosmology and worldview of a particular era, then the earliest Christianity is liberal Christianity. It is only later, as cosmologies and worldviews changed, that some insisted on clinging to the views of an earlier era, because those happened to be part of the worldview of previous generations of Christians, including the Bible’s authors. That is why “conservative” Christianity ends up being a very radical departure from earliest Christianity, even in the process of fighting to try to keep the same worldview as they had to the minimal extent that that is even possible. By making the assumptions of prior generations into articles of faith, they stand against and not with the approach of the earliest Christians, even while claiming to defend their specific beliefs.

If liberal Christianity means one that elevates orthopraxis over orthodoxy, then we can see that in our earliest sources too.

And so the irony is that conservatives berate liberals for departing from the “historic truth,” and yet liberals are closest in their approach to Christianity in its earliest known form.

  • Straw Man

    Everything you say here is spot on! The only problem is that the term “liberal” is so loaded with baggage that it lends itself to immense confusion. E.g., it might tempt someone to say, “Jesus was a liberal… therefore, welfare state.” To do so would be to confuse theological liberalism with political liberalism, but this confusion is also likely because theological liberals TEND to be political liberals as well.

  • Tom Verenna
    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Did you misunderstand me to be referring to political liberalism in this post?

      • Tom Verenna

        No, but I thought it was interesting and so I tagged it. Also thought you’d enjoy it.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I did, it was just the “Responded” that made me look at the post as though it were supposed to be a response to this one!

          • Tom Verenna

            Ah, yes sorry about that. More or less letting you know that I had posted up something that this conversation helped trigger (in relation to the Bill O’Reilly bit). Not necessarily that I was *responding* to this. I’ll choose words more carefully next time. =)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

    Is liberal Christianity the view that Jesus chose 12 fishermen and tax-collectors to help him judge the 12 tribes of Israel after the apocalypse, possibly before, or possibly after the Queen of Sheba had risen from her grave to judge the generation that rejected the message of Jesus?

    I can’t see any plausible historical Jesus being interested in liberal Christianity. He would be too busy deciding who was judging whom after the forthcoming apocalypse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501915913 Roger Wolsey

    I agree with the intent of this piece, however, a better term for what the author is describing is “progressive Christianity” not liberal Christianity.

    Liberal Christianity was a theological approach of the modern era
    (late 1800s-late 1900s). It was the flip side of the same coin as
    fundamentalist Christianity. Both were born of the need to respond to
    modernity (esp. the impact of contemporary science — particularly
    Darwin’s theory of the evolution of the species.

    Since then, we’ve shifted from the modern era to the post-modern era (pushing back against the over-reached importance of science and notions of objective
    truth, etc.) and two of the primary Christian theologies that are
    influenced by post-modernism are progressive Christianity and
    emerging/emergent Christianity.

    Liberal Christianity was embraced by the mainline Protestant denominations and progressive Christianity is the “evolution” of liberal Christianity in the post-modern era. It doesn’t claim that Christianity has a monopoly on God or God’s love and
    truth. It embraces the insights of science while still appreciating the
    texts of the Bible as guiding myths and as stories which convey who and
    Whose we are and invite us to see ourselves in those stories. For
    example, progressive Christians are no longer concerned with trying to
    figure out if Jesus really walked on water or how Moses parted the Red
    Sea, etc… instead, the focus is on what point the stories are seeking
    to convey. The stories contain life-giving Truth even though they may
    not have been factually, historically, “true.”

    see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-roger-wolsey/progressive-christianity_b_892727.html
    and: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-roger-wolsey/progressive-christianity-isnt-progressive-politics_b_1897381.html

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks so much for your comment, Roger! While I am happy to wear either label – “progressive” or “liberal” – I agree very strongly with your point about the importance of postmodern critiques of the modernist outlook.

    • Kaz

      “For example, progressive Christians are no longer concerned with trying to
      figure out if Jesus really walked on water or how Moses parted the Red
      Sea, etc… instead, the focus is on what point the stories are seeking
      to convey. The stories contain life-giving Truth even though they may
      not have been factually, historically, “true.”

      The obvious problem with this is that the point of Jesus’ miracles, as understood by those who wrote about them, was that they proved that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Thus, the factuality of those events wasn’t dispensable, but it was crucial substantiation for the truth claim. It is upside-down logic in the extreme to reject the factuality of the very evidence that was presented by early Christians to substantiate that Jesus was the Messiah, yet still conclude that he was who he claimed to be.

      Of course, I suppose that many liberal Christians don’t believe that Christ was who he claimed to be; rather, like Aristotle or Plato, he was merely a man who said some inspiring things that society is better off embracing than ignoring, not because they think Christ is the road to an eternal relationship with God, but because it merely makes life better in the here-and-now. Christianity is thereby transformed into a variation on ancient paganism.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501915913 Roger Wolsey

        Jesus claimed to be the anthropos – the son of man. Whether or not he performed miracles has little, if anything, to do with why I consider him to be my Christ and savior. For me, it’s about my recognizing the validity and compelling truth of his teachings, example, and Way.

        • Kaz

          Right, that’s part of the logical disconnect. Believing that a man taught some good things, or that a man’s chronicler’s attributed teachings to him that we consider good doesn’t logically imply that said man is our Christ and savior.

          So if Aristotle had claimed to be the savior of the world you’d believe him because he taught some good things?

        • Kaz

          Right, that’s part of the logical disconnect. Believing that a man taught some good things, or that a man’s chronicler’s attributed teachings to him that we consider good doesn’t logically imply that said man is our Christ and savior.

          So if Aristotle had claimed to be the savior of the world you’d believe him because he taught some good things?

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100001542808342 Steven Carr

          Compelling truth of his teachings?
          Everyone will be salted with fire?
          The Queen of Sheba will rise from her grave to judge people?
          I’ve appointed 12 assorted fishermen and tax-collectors to judge the 12 tribes of Israel after the apocalypse?
          These are the teachings of somebody who needs help….

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Wait, James, tell me if I am misunderstanding your logic here. Are you saying:

    (1) A Christian is a ‘Liberal Christian’ if their theological views are colored by cosmology and world views of their era.

    (2) My Christianity is colored by Evolution, Science, Gay Rights, Textual Criticism and Dr. Who, so I am a Liberal Christian.

    (3) Most Evangelical Christianity is colored by an Iron Age view of women and creation baloney so they are “conservative”.

    (4) But NT Christians only believed that baloney because they were creatures of their time. So they are actually “liberal” Christians.

    (5) Therefore: “NT Christianity was Liberal Christianity.”

    (6) Grand Finale: “My Christianity is the same as the Original Christianity”

    Seriously?

    My goodness, will the clamoring of Christians of all flavors to make their Christianity the original Christianity never end?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      This post started as a comment replying to someone else’s comment here on the blog. Hence the “if” with which it begins. This is really an attempt to show the absurdity of the conservative Christian criticism of liberal Christians, that we embrace the thinking of our era. The earliest Christians did that, did they not? And what separates conservatives and liberals above all else is that the former insist on the need to try to cling to elements which liberals regard as simply part of the worldview assumptions of ancient epochs.

      My point was not that the configuration of beliefs and practices I hold to are exactly those of the earliest Christians. Indeed, precisely the opposite: my views are different from theirs for the same reason theirs are different from mine, namely because of our very different historical and cultural settings.

      And so perhaps I am not so much interested in claiming to have the original Christianity, really, as I am interested to show why conservative claims to have it are bogus. :-)

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        Maybe I could read you to say:
        (1) look, original Christians got sucked into their worldview just like me? In which case, conservative would say, “well, at least the original Christians were right”.

        Yeah, of course I get what you were trying to say, but your logic was weird and had all kinds of wrong implications. IMHO

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          But, assuming a conservative would respond as you do, that gets at the heart of the matter. Why assume that the assumptions of the era in which Christianity arose be assumed to be correct, if it is indeed a mistake to accept the “spirit of the age”? Should that not place those things about which the earliest Christians agreed with their contemporaries under a serious question mark, within the framework of that conservative way of thinking?

      • kaz

        “And so perhaps I am not so much interested in claiming to have the
        original Christianity, really, as I am interested to show why
        conservative claims to have it are bogus. :-)”

        This is just standard-fare McGrathian apologetics, which is more akin to that of Robert M. Bowman Jr. than to the Apostle Paul. The primary difference is the subject of critique, i.e. for Bowman it’s groups like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, whereas for you it’s fundamentalists.

        I used to wonder why you took that approach, because while it may serve the purpose of causing people to be similarly critical of fundamentalism, it lacks that which Paul depended on to convert people in his own time: A compelling case for embracing a positive message, namely, eternal salvation in Christ. If he had thought that the good news he had heard about Christ was just a collection of myths and legends that weren’t historically true, then he never would have embarked on the history changing ministry for which he is known. His religious experience didn’t convince him that there was some undefined and perhaps undefinable “spiritual value” in legends about Christ; it convinced him that the claims he previously rejected were true, and that truth gave his message its vigor.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          The fact that all of your mentions of views you attribute to me seem like vague caricatures, I really do wonder whether you are only offering caricature, or genuinely misunderstand my views to really be as you portray.

          At any rate, when have I ever spoken of my faith in terms of “undefinable spiritual value in legends about Christ”? And why is it that you yourself depict Paul’s own experience in anachronistic modernistic terms? His turnaround was not related to disbelief and then acceptance of this or that historical claim about Jesus, as far as can tell. His turnaround was from rejecting to accepting a particular understanding of the significance of Jesus, was it not?

  • Rick

    I am not sure where you see orthopraxy elevated over orthodoxy. Rather, there is a healthy balance of both

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Certainly both are important. I’m not sure that both are equally emphasized by the various New Testament authors. On a related note, my latest blog post is about precisely this topic, faith and practice and the relationship between and relative importance of the two. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2013/02/belief-and-practice.html

  • ralfellis

    Don’t believe a word Verenna says. Verenna makes reviews without reading the book, and writes with an agenda rather than with balance. And then when he is caught out with errors and lies, he hides behind censorship like a little child, and will not debate his mistakes.

    Tom Verenna biography:

    http://thomasverenna.blogspot.nl

    .


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