Liberalism, Defined

Roger Olson nails it:

Schleiermacher introduced into the stream of Christian theology a “Copernican revolution” in theological method that regarded it as necessary to adjust traditional Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment–what we call “modernity.”  To be sure, Schleiermacher did NOT do this uncritically.  However, he clearly felt it necessary to rescue Christianity from the “acids of modernity” by redefining Christianity’s (and religion’s) “essence” so that it did not and perhaps could not conflict with the “best” of modern thought.  He redefined Christianity as PRIMARILY about human experience.  That is, as he put it, doctrines are nothing more than attempts to bring human experiences of God (God-consciousness) to speech.  Schleiermacher placed universal God-consciousness at the center of religion and Christ’s God-consciousness communicated to the church at the center of Christianity.  All doctrines and all teachings of Scripture became revisable in the light of human God-consciousness.

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  • Dan H.

    I would say the Schleiermacher did not redefine Christianity as PRIMARILY about religious experience but merely clarified the debate by identifying that it is PRIMARILY about religious experience.

  • Patrick

    Schleiermacher introduced into the stream of Christian theology a “Copernican revolution” in theological method that regarded it as necessary to adjust traditional Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment–what we call “modernity.”

    Whatever is the most accurate hermeneutic, is it accurate for us to assume the message changes with the times?

    If that is true, it is past time to do away with all this Messiah/unique Son of God talk, not exactly the popular idea in the zeitgeist. Hadn’t anyone noticed?

  • Dan H.

    @Patrick- On the one hand yes, just as our experience of God, ourselves, and others changes with the times. On the other hand no, just as our experience of God, ourselves, and others does not change with the times.

    As to your particular question regarding the Messiah/unique Son of God talk answers will differ depending upon the definition of Messiah/unique Son of God & the liberal you ask.

    It’s really never a question of the zeitgeist. It’s a maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modernity not a total one. Where lines are drawn will again differ depending upon the liberal you ask.

  • Russ

    This is fine as a definition of one kind of liberalism, or perhaps if we think only Germans did theology. In the Anglo-American tradition, it’s used differently. For example, Unitarian William Ellery Channing, a slightly younger contemporary of Schleiermacher, did not want to redefine Christianity’s essence. He wanted to discard outdated traditions and confessions and embrace a fresh interpretation of the teaching of Scripture as interpreted by the best human scholarship and reason. In particular, he wanted to discard oppressive Calvinism, which taught a God more like the devil (btw, Roger Olson has said much the same thing about the teaching of Calvinism on God).

  • Robin

    so are all calvinists devil worshippers, or just the oppressive ones?

  • phil_style


    There is a distinction between;
    “A god more like the devil” (what Russ said) and “a god who is the devil” (what it appears you think Russ said).

  • Russ

    Olson clarified he didn’t mean that Calvinists worshiped the devil, only that their God was difficult to distinguish from the devil (not much of a distinction, imho).

  • Robin

    I’m glad Dr. Olson doesn’t think I actually worship the devil, just a devil-equivalent. Arminians are so open-minded and understanding of theological differences.

  • CJ

    I’m just glad Calvinism and Arminianism aren’t the only two options. Would be nice if we could stuck to discussing the topic..

  • Thank you, CJ… Yes, Dr. Olson is an Arminian. He will naturally disagree with many tenets of Calvinism. I think he’s got a book coming out on the subject soon. But he isn’t unreasonable, and he isn’t mean. And he’s never come close to saying anything like “Calvinists worship the devil.” Read what he writes in context!

  • pds

    That does not seem like an adequate definition of “liberalism” at all.

  • Robin

    Brent White,

    I don’t read Olson, so I have to rely on his fanboys explanation of his writing. They said in his view the God that Calvinists worship is a “God more like the devil” and a “God [who] was difficult to distinguish from the devil”

    From the bits of Olson that Scot has quoted on this blog before the vitriol in those sentiments seems slightly out of character, but the overall message behind them does not.

  • rjs


    I will suggest that it is unwise to rely on “fanboys” (which I don’t think Russ is) or detractors or even small soundbites of anyone. Russ’s comment only had an aside to Dr. Olson and wasn’t intended to reflect Olson’s position or statements. I think that Russ’s comment comes from this post by Dr. Olson: Needed a Summit where Dr. Olson’s main point is that we need to deal with the substance of each other’s positions and arguments. A good point, whatever your theology.

  • rjs

    pds and Russ,

    Dr. Olson, in his original post, was trying to make the point that liberalism is a specific theological position or approach. It involves a specific approach to epistemology among other things.

    Biblicism, however much we dislike Dr. Smith’s characterization of this, is another approach to knowledge – epistemology.

    It is unwise, I think, to assume that the options are faithful conservatism or an unstoppable slide into liberalism. Casting everything “not us” as liberalism then bringing up the truly liberal extremes (i.e. Sponge or Robinson) is a destructive approach.

    Read Dr. Olson’s argument and engage with it – where is it wrong?

  • BradK

    Olson says that the ‘liberal theological ethos accords to “the best of modern thought” the weight of authority in theology alongside or stronger than biblical revelation (and certainly than tradition). This is what Yale historical theologian Claude Welch meant when he wrote that liberal theology is “maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modernity.”’

    My first thought in response to Olsons’s argument is “so what?” It seems that we evangelicals, and Olson in particular, spend too much time and energy trying to define and label things. Maybe this is the case with Olson because he’s been burned by such labels before. But let’s say his definition of theological liberal is spot on. Who cares?

    For any theological position that I hold, I could not care less whether it is liberal or conservative or any other label. I only care about whether it is true and what my God thinks of it. If I express a position and someone calls it liberal, why should I care? Why should I embrace or shun that description? If the particular position is liberal, maybe it’s because God is a liberal? Or maybe God is a conservative and I’m in error. But I don’t see any reason why anyone should care for the label other than for using it as a lever to ostracize or alienate someone.

    And as far as modern thought and the claims of modernity go, our theology should at least be informed by these, should it not? Hasn’t it pretty much always been the case that theology was informed by its culture? Should the theological position of geocentrism not have been informed by Galileo’s modern claims? If nothing else, the claims of modernity help keep the Church humble and hopefully focused on its calling.