Everyone is Liberal to Someone

Cliff Kvidahl blogged recently about an accusation of encroaching liberalism that he encountered.

What, you might ask, prompted the accusation? Something to do with the virginal conception? Failure to use the word inerrancy? Suggesting that everyone should get free healthcare?

It turns out it was none of the usual bugbears, but merely the affirmation of Markan priority.

If you are not familiar with the term, it refers to the scholarly conclusion – held by most conservative scholars and not just liberals – that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the canonical Gospels to be written.

The criticism of liberalism was badly misguided on any account. But when one looks at the arguments used for why Mark can't have been first, they either are good arguments for why Matthew's Gospel probably was not written by the apostle Matthew, or are the kind of apologetic moves that can justify any claim one wishes, or its opposite.

But what is more striking is how the accusation illustrates an important point that ultimately undermines the accusation:

The term liberal, like the term conservative, is a term of comparison. Everyone is more liberal than someone else and more conservative than someone else, by comparison. I've heard Wheaton College denounced as a hotbed of liberalism and as ultra-conservative – by critics further along the spectrum in either direction.

Now, terms like liberal and conservative can have a certain usefulness. But by applying them in a ridiculous manner, the words become so cheapened that they not only become vague, but meaningless.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Mark Stevens chimed in on this topic as well, and Pete Enns' post is also relevant.

What is the most ridiculous basis for an accusation of liberalism or conservatism that you've encountered?


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  • Stephen C. Carlson

    I think Markan priority was liberal in the 1830s.

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

      Maybe we should always give people the benefit of the doubt, and rather than assuming that they are misguided or unaware, consider that they might instead be time travelers? :-)

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding
  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Jack Chick on C.S. Lewis.

  • Andrew Dowling

    If anyone questions Markan priority they need to review the summation of the arguments, a good one which is found here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/mark-prior.html

    Plainly put, Markan priority answers many more questions/issues than any other theory, and is not even debated by conservative apologists like William Craig.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Oh yeah, as someone who

    1) rejects the idea that Biblical books are supernaturally inspired in any particular way

    2) is quite open to the possibility of miracles

    I’m qualified by both sides as being “liberal”, “conservative”… or even “fundamentalist” at times, well in that latter case after I’ve drunk my fifth beer and started going around telling liberal German theology students that Matthew relied on a mysterious source named MQuelle which produces the best mineral water in the entire world…

    This shows how Germans can sometimes be quite strange, for in almost any other culture I would JUST have been deemed ripe for a psychiatric examination, without any nasty label attached to my person.

    James, do you know if folks in the UK or the States have a better mentality than hierzulande?

    Greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


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

      They are different – I wouldn’t say better or worse. The US and UK versions of various Christian traditions also differ from one another in significant ways.

  • Norm Englund

    Westboro Baptist Church is liberal since Fred Phelps used to be a civil rights lawyer.

  • Jack Collins

    “The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology.”

    — Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays

    (OK, the last line is just Bertie being Bertie, but this sums up my understanding of my own liberalism.)