Liberals Arising

Evangelicals have written the story of liberalism and that story, reluctantly but seemingly irresistibly, has been absorbed by liberals themselves. That story is that liberals have surrendered key theological beliefs and their churches are in rapid descent and the former led to the latter. Oddly, though liberalism has been for more than a century been perched in fat and pretty in positions of power, it has never bothered to tell their own story through their lens in a compelling way. Perhaps this is why liberalism’s numbers are in free fall. Maybe liberalism lacks a story, or better yet, a story teller.

Until now. Liberalism occupies a perch of power that can be described as powerful in voice but a minority in numbers. When I say powerful I don’t mean as powerful as it was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but I believe their power remains. That story is changing as liberalism seeks to write it’s own story and striking out for new opportunities. Within a month a number of fresh books have come my way, all telling the story of liberalism. One senses liberalism has seen the narrowing of its tunnel of light and now realizes that it, too, must compete in the open market of ideas.

I will be spending a few months posting about recent books on liberalism. I begin with (the pictured) Christopher H. Evans, Liberalism without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition (Baylor, 2013). The book contains a history of liberalism, a sketch of the principal figures (with a heavier-than-perhaps-needed emphasis on Walter Rauschenbusch, and Evans’ biography of Rauschenbusch is the best ever), as well as proposals for the future. What makes this book so valuable is that we get here an honest-to-goodness critique of liberalism by a confessing liberal. But more of that later.

Here’s where the story begins: it may be fair to say that “most” liberals today don’t want to be called liberals because “liberal” means “bad.” I agree with Evans when he says many liberals now prefer the term “progressive” so that progressive is the new liberal. I’ve yet to see anyone distinguish the two well, though some try.  So, let’s get the conversation going with his opening sketch that sets such terms in context.

First, liberalism defined. He’s got a rather lengthy definition worth quoting.

Theological liberalism is a historical movement born in the nineteenth century that supports critical intellectual engagement with both Christian traditions and contemporary intellectual resources. As opposed to more traditional forms of Christian theology, liberalism has been characterized by an affirmation of personal and collective experience, systemic social analysis, and open theological inquiry (6).

Second, he offers four dimensions to liberalism:

1. Liberal theology needs to be understood as a heritage that sought to interpret Christianity in the face of an Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment worldview (6). Hence, liberalism mediates the Christian tradition through the categories and intellectual resources of the Enlightenment. Cultural engagement is necessary; re-expression, updating, all this sort of thing has to happen. It is at this point that “man” in the modern project becomes the adjudicator of truth, and hence the frequent critique by traditionalists or conservatives about the source of authority for liberalism.

2. Liberalism has an extensive and diverse intellectual heritage. It emerged originally out of New England Calvinism. When I hear this claim made, and I’ve heard it many times in the past, I often wonder both why say this (after all, it’s a bit of a punch in the nose in rhetoric) but more importantly in what way did Calvinism have anything to do with the rise of liberalism. It needs to be spelled out.

One of his major points is that liberalism is too disconnected from churches and too connected to academic centers of free inquiry, so that liberalism in the seminaries and what is believed at the local level in mainline churches are often at odds.

3. Liberalism has historically stressed a balance between personal and collective experience. Here Evans brings up — and often in the book — that liberalism affirms the goodness of humans and the capacity of humans to achieve and change the world. He sees the social gospel as a preeminent display of liberalism, because here the systemic nature of sin (collective dimension) comes into full view. For this view kingdom of God is about social improvement.

4. Liberalism is noted for connecting God to the events of human history. God is directly involved, through human efforts, in what happens in this world. Hence the focus in liberalism on the world and culture and “repairing the world” (tikkun olam).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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