Why I Am Not a “Liberal Christian”

Why I Am Not a “Liberal Christian”

Anyone who comes here regularly or has read any of my books knows I’m no fundamentalist. In fact, I struggle to get along with fundamentalists and pray for God’s grace to do it. I’m not proud of that fact, but I admit it. I’ve been burned by fundamentalism and seen the damage it does to individuals, churches and society.

Recently a friend asked me to look at some web sites of Christians who proclaim themselves “progressive”—sometimes using the label “unfundamentalist.” Labels alone don’t really tell me very much about a group. I look beneath and behind the labels for ideas—convictions, presuppositions, commitments, attitudes.

Many people who call themselves “moderate to progressive” theologically are really just asserting their non-fundamentalism. Like me, they have rejected extreme biblical literalism, hostility to science and philosophy, separatism and legalism, extreme dogmatism. Yet, there are others who use labels like “moderate to progressive” who are out-and-out liberals theologically.

What makes the difference? When and how does one cross from non-fundamentalist evangelical, broadly conservative, into out-and-out theological liberalism? Ah, there’s no litmus test. Discernment of that is complicated and must be done cautiously.

A while ago I argued that “evangelical” is defined partly, at least, by prototypes—individuals and documents and events of the past (and perhaps the present) that stand out as epitomes of the “ideal type.” With evangelicals, at least since World War 2, there’s a fairly easy prototype to go by—Billy Graham. Not that all evangelicals are thrilled with everything about him, but he represents, in a general way, that “type” of Christian faith and life we call “evangelical.”

So it is with “liberal.” It’s a type of Christian faith and life defined at least in part by prototypes. Who are its prototypes? Friedrich Schleiermacher and Marcus Borg—to name historical-theological “bookends.” Sure, they don’t agree on everything, but they both, in their own ways, represent an approach to Christian faith that is fairly called “liberal.”

Historical theologian Claude Welch, author of a magisterial two volume history of nineteenth century theology, boiled it (viz., “liberal Christianity”) down to a phrase: “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity” in theology. Gary Dorrien, professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary and author of a magisterial three volume history of liberal theology in America, defines liberal religion as rejection of any authority outside the self. However, when I read his three volume history of liberal theology in America I discern that all these theologians have one thing in common—recognition of the authority of “modern thought” alongside or above Scripture and tradition.

Liberal theologian Delwin Brown describes the essence of liberal Christianity as granting authority to “the best of contemporary thought” in his dialogue/debate with Clark Pinnock entitled Theological Crossfire. Ironically, fundamentalists and many “conservative evangelicals” accused Pinnock of being “liberal” theologically. But in that book Pinnock comes across as a almost a fundamentalist—compared with Brown (a former evangelical). They agree that the “bottom line” difference between evangelicals and liberals is authority.

I find myself in broad agreement with some liberal Christians on some issues—especially over against fundamentalism. On the other hand, I agree with some fundamentalists more than with liberals on some issues.

What do I look for in trying to discern whether a person or group is really theologically liberal?

First, I look at their overall view of reality. Do they think the universe is open to God’s special activity in what might be called, however infelicitously, “miracles?” Do they believe in supernatural acts of God including especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb? If not, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Second, I look at their approach to “doing theology.” How do they approach knowing God? Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation? Or do they begin with and give norming authority to human experience, culture, science, philosophy, “the best of contemporary thought?” That is, do they “do” theology “from above” or “from below?” Insofar as they do theology “from below” I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Third, I look at their Christology. Do they think Jesus was different from other “great souls” among us in kind or only in degree? Is their Christology truly incarnational, affirming the preexistence of the Word who become human as Jesus Christ, or is it functional only, affirming only that Jesus Christ represented God, was God’s “deputy and advocate” among men and women? Insofar as their Chistology is functional and not ontologically incarnational, trinitarian, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.

Fourth, I look at their view of Scripture. Do they believe the Bible is “inspired insofar as it is inspiring,” a wisdom-filled source of religious illumination and record of our “spiritual ancestors’” experiences of God? Or do they believe the Bible is supernaturally inspired such that in some sense God is its author—not necessarily meaning God dictated it or even verbally inspired it? Another way of putting that “test” is similar to the Christological one above: Is the Bible different only in degree from other great books of spiritual wisdom or in kind from them? Insofar as they view the Bible as different only in degree, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Fifth, I look at their view of salvation. Do they believe salvation is forgiveness and reconciliation with God as well as being made whole and holy by God’s grace alone or do they believe salvation is only a realization of human potential—individual or social—by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor? Insofar as they think the latter, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.

Sixth, I look at their view of the future. Do they believe in a real return of Jesus Christ, however conceived, to bring about a new world of righteousness? Or do they believe the “return of Christ” is a myth that expresses an existential experience and/or social transformation only? Insofar as they believe it is only a symbol, myth or metaphor, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

The problem is that discerning whether someone is theologically liberal is not a black-and-white process. It’s not an “either-or.” Many people and groups are some kind of mixture, hybrid of conservative and liberal. But, in my book, anyway, a true liberal is one who for the most part leans toward the views I have labeled “liberal” above.

So what’s wrong with being liberal theologically in that way? I find it thin, ephemeral, light, profoundly unsatisfying. It seems to me barely different from being secular humanist. Sure, theological liberals (in the sense I have defined that type above) can be profoundly “spiritual,” but I don’t think they are profoundly Christian. Their commitment is greater to modern culture, the Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, than to Christian sources. Their “Christianity” is barely recognizable if recognizable at all—compared with anything that was called “Christian” before the Enlightenment. Ultimately, I believe, theological liberalism robs Christianity of its distinctiveness, the “scandal of particularity,” its prophetic edge and makes it easy, respectable and dull.

I have come to the conclusion over the years that most people who are theologically liberal grew up fundamentalist and are simply in deep reaction to it—throwing the baby out with the bathwater of an overly legalistic and literalistic Christianity.

I have no problem with Christians who struggle with traditional belief; my problem is with those who “reinterpret it” so radically that it isn’t recognizable anymore. They say, for example, that they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but when pressed to explain it, what they really believe is that the disciples came to a realization of the continuing relevance of the message of Jesus or Jesus’ ongoing “spiritual presence” among them and us. They don’t mean that the tomb was empty and that Jesus’ dead body was transformed to a new mode of eschatological life.

If I ever wake up and find that I think like a true theological liberal, I hope I will be honest enough to stop calling myself “Christian.”

Now, having said that, harsh as it sounds, believe me when I say I am not judging liberals’ salvation. Their salvation is up to God, not me or any other human being. Can a person be truly liberal theologically, as I have defined it above, and be saved? I honestly don’t know. I hope so. But it would be in spite of their beliefs, not because of them.

  • Trevor

    Thanks for writing this, Dr. Olson. Over the past couple years I’ve been going through a departure from fundamentalism similar to the kind you mentioned in your post and have been feeling rather unmoored and scared I was drifting into something not at all like historic Christianity. This quote really describes where I’m at right now: “Many people who call themselves ‘moderate to progressive’ theologically are really just asserting their non-fundamentalism. Like me, they have rejected extreme biblical literalism, hostility to science and philosophy, separatism and legalism, extreme dogmatism.”

    I went down your list and feel much less worried about where my theological doubts were leading me; 1) I still believe miracles & the bodily resurrection were (are) possible 2) While I firmly believe that evolutionary biology should cause us to reexamine how our dogma fits together (not core convictions, but your “opinion” category of theological beliefs), I still hold that the Bible is authoritative for our faith and how we live that faith out 3) I still testify that Jesus the Messiah was (is) the Son of God, the God-Man 4) I still point to God as the ultimate author of the scriptures, and although I don’t really know how they were inspired, they’re the scriptures we’ve got so we have to interact with them and listen to them 5) I still affirm salvation as forgiveness + reconciliation although I am now making sure to emphasize “inaugurated eschatology” (already/not yet aspect of the Kingdom of God) as an integral part of what being saved/following Jesus means—bringing the Kingdom to Earth *now* 6) I confess that Jesus will return (although it probably won’t be all that rapture/pre-trib nonsense) and the “old order” of the way the universe works will be significantly altered, completing the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on the New Earth. I don’t know what that means in deep specifics, but I simply have hope it will be dimensions ahead of this present world…a universe that will be full of the presence of God, of Love.

    • rogereolson

      You sound like you’re in a good place theologically. Fundamentalists will call you “liberal” and liberals will call you “fundamentalist.” Don’t let them bother you. You sound like a centrist evangelical. Find a good centrist evangelical theologian who writes a lot and hang onto him or her as a conversation partner to help keep yourself grounded and away from extremes. Tom (N.T.) Wright is a good one.

      • Bob

        Would you also add Machen,Bloesch and Ramm to NT Wright

        • rogereolson

          Bloesch and Ramm, yes.

  • http://craigladams.com/blog/ Craig L. Adams

    Thanks for your attempt to put this into words. I also find liberal theology “thin, ephemeral, light, profoundly unsatisfying.” This is one of the reasons I continue to identify myself as “evangelical” even though I am no longer a “conservative” one.

    • http://carsontclark.com/ Carson Clark

      Well said! I wholeheartedly agree.

  • http://questorpastor.wordpress.com/ Dennis Sanders

    Thanks for the post. I’m wondering…I’m an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which puts me in the mainline Protestant churches. I tend to have more “orthodox” views theologically with the big exception of being openly gay. In many ways, the best way to describe me would probably be Neo-Orthodox, though I don’t even know if there are that many neo-orthodox people out there anymore. So, would I be considered a theological liberal or moderate? I did grow up evangelical, and why I do respect where I came from, I don’t identify with them anymore.

    • rogereolson

      I wouldn’t slap any label on you (not knowing a lot more). One difference between “neo-orthodox” and “evangelical” is that the latter believe the Bible IS the Word of God (because supernaturally inspired) and the former believe it BECOMES the Word of God in the existential moment of crisis when God uses it to call a person to decision. As an evangelical I say it is always already the Word of God but also becomes the Word of God to the individual in a special way when he or she encounters God through it.

  • http://theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    Thank you for this. It’s very helpful to me. In my adult Christian life I’ve been involved with Evangelical churches, although not the fundy kinds. Willow Creek and Evangelical Covenant mostly. But my theology has changed in ways which are often seen as heterodox, although I would vehemently disagree with that assessment. Really, my theology is probably closer to Eastern Orthodox teachings in a lot of ways, although I have no desire and feel no pull towards becoming EO myself. At any rate, it’s been a bit unsettling to me to discover that the people who are most drawn to my writing tend to be progressive theologically and liberal politically (I tend to think of myself as Evangelical and conservative). So your list here is kind of reassuring to me. I’m definitely not liberal by any of the points on your recogning.

    The issue I encounter over and over with regard to liberalism is that, as you say, it tends to be shallow. Rather than wrestling with church tradition, orthodoxy and scripture in light of our growing understanding of the world, there is a tendency to simply toss what doesn’t seem to fit. I very much prefer to allow our growing understanding of how the world works to illuminate and deepen our understanding of the faith. Sometimes I will write something on a hard bit of scripture and get a few, “well, it didn’t really happen like that and the authenticity of that portion of the text is questionable anyways.” I’m usually aware of the ideas they raise, but in my experience, it is much more profitable and there’s a great deal to be learned by simply wrestling through to find a better, deeper understanding.

    • Tom Neis

      I absolutely understand where you are coming from, having myself departed from evangelicalism and undergoing a changed theology. I have, however, become what one would call a full liberal Christian, in the likes of Borg/Spong.

      I greatly appreciate your brief testimony, but there is one thing I don’t understand: the claim that liberal theology is shallow. Tossing what is not fit for a modern world is not shallow – it is following truth wherever it takes you. This truth has led me to a deeper understanding of the world *and* a deeper faith. If you approach a hard bit of Scripture than challenges its authenticity…well then maybe its not authentic. I have wrestled and struggled with many things on my faith journey, and though I have become liberal, I have found that my faith is much more meaningful and deep to me now.

      A brief postscript…the reason I love reading here is that Roger and the majority of commenters are thoughtful and honest Christians. I find it interesting to see Christianity from a slightly different perspective, and I appreciate the honestly everyone shows here.

      • http://theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

        I’ve been working through theology for a good while now and my experience has been that there’s a great deal to be gained by accepting the text and ancient creeds and wrestling with rather than discarding the parts which seem to be in conflict with reality. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever come across a bit of text that was better discarded. Sometimes I do end up saying, “it could well be that Paul didn’t write this, or this line was added later” but that doesn’t really change the fact that it’s there and if I’m willing to wrestle with it long enough, I can probably figure out a good reason why. In fact, I’ve learned to think of those texts which don’t seem to make sense or conflict with reality as little markers telling me, “dig here. There’s something interesting/important/misunderstood here.” Which is why I tend to view liberal theology as shallow – all those spot where I’m digging and finding treasure are where liberal theology tends to say, “let’s just toss that.” I mean, given the options of say, accepting that God is a bloodthirsty tyrant and simply discarding those parts of scripture which seem to paint him as such – it’s probably wiser and healthier to simply discard those parts. But I’m much more interested in finding a way to reconcile truth with truth. And so far, it’s worked for me. If you want to see what I’m talking about, I have a set of “hot topics” pages on my site which you can check out with topics like Christianity and Evolution, Women and Christianity, Theological Concepts and a couple of other topics. It’s not quite comprehensive yet, but I think I touch on many if not most of the hard topics of Christianity there.

        • JD

          Hi Rebecca. I think you’re absolutely right that we as Christians are called to wrestle with Scripture rather than arrogantly toss it aside when we don’t like it. I also find there is greater insight and fulfilment from doing so. Our tendency to either discard parts of Scripture, or else provide an embarrassing apologia for it, stems from the fact that we have forgotten how the ancients read Scripture. In the last couple of hundred years we have become obssesed with an historical-critical reading of Scripture which tends to break it all down into who wrote what, when, why etc…(which are not unhelpful questions by any means). It’s important to study Scripture critically and objectively. But in reading it as Holy Scripture we must be open to what God is saying through it as a whole. A necessary part of this is belief in the Holy Spirit, and His guidance as we read Scripture. This reading of Scripture, practiced by the likes of Origen, Augustine etc… is often called nowadays a theological interpretation of Scripture (another example is Barth’s Romans commentary, or Bonhoeffer’s commentary of Genesis 1-3). Daniel Treier’s A Theological Interpretation of Scripture is a good introduction on this. David Bentley Hart has a youtube video on Scripture and Interpretation too which is excellent. Seeking to read Scriputre like this, which is a challenging discipline, and an ancient one, has been revolutionary for me, as someone schooled in the often reductive, deconstructionist method of historical criticism.

  • http://fitzgeraldthomas.com Fitzgerald Thomas

    Fundamentalists claim that true Christians must hold a given understanding of such things as miracles, Christology, theology, scripture, salvation, and eschatology. I agree with you that this fundamentalist definition of Christianity is too narrow. You claim not to be a fundamentalist, but you change only the details of their definition of Christianity. You still assert that people who disagree with your understandings of such things as miracles, Christology, theology, scripture, salvation, and eschatology cannot be truly Christian. You accuse liberals of putting too much emphasis on “modern thought,” but then you elevate your own thoughts, or your own interpretations of true church dogma, as the standard by which actual Christianity is to be judged. You seem to argue that one who follows Christ, who seeks to be a disciple and live out the teachings of Christ, who is introduced to God and drawn closer to the Holy and the eternal through the movement and presence of Christ – can only be saved despite their beliefs if those beliefs differ from your own. That seems to me the very definition of fundamentalism.

    • rogereolson

      Just goes to show how flexible “fundamentalism” is. If that makes me a fundamentalist, then okay. But real fundamentalists would be very much surprised to hear it! :)

  • Eluros Aabye

    Thanks, Roger. Another great article.

    Your dichotomy is between “liberal” and “not liberal”, but my assumption is that most readers will translate that as “liberal” and “conservative”. Do you believe that those two categories are sufficient to capture the spectrum of (Protestant) theology, or is there a third category– the “moderate” you mention– that stands on its own?

    You’ve give us an article entitled “Why I Am Not a ‘Liberal’ Christian”; I’d love to know if you would consider yourself a “Conservative” Christian. If not, any chance we could get an article, “Why I Am Not a ‘Conservative’ Christian”? That would give use the framework to determine what you consider the distinctives of a moderate Christian, which I for one would certainly enjoy.

    Thanks, as always.
    ~Eluros

    • rogereolson

      I have publicly called myself a “postconservative evangelical” and explained that in books like Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (Baker). “Conservative” is an indexical term. There is no historical movement to attach it to (as there is with “liberal theology.” But these days (for about the last twenty-five years), when “conservative” is used to modify “evangelical” I get nervous. Evangelicals are already conservative–compared with liberals. It’s like saying “conservative conservative.” Yes, I am conservative compared with a liberal theologian, but not compared with many of the leading contemporary “conservative evangelical” theologians who seem to me barely distinguishable from fundamentalists. When people think of “conservative evangelical” they think of, for example, Wayne Grudem (who is a nice guy and I admire and respect him while respectfully disagreeing with his approach to theology). I can’t identify myself with that genre of theology. So I borrowed “postconservative” to modify my evangelical-ness. The main difference lies in attitudes toward tradition. I think that in a theological controversy tradition gets a vote but never a veto. Conservatives, in my opinion, tend to reject anything new in theology even if it is grounded in fresh and faithful interpretation of Scripture.

  • M. 85

    Thanks for the post Dr. Olson, i often wonder who true liberals are and how to distinguish them, would you say Walter Brueggemann is a liberal christian? I can never understand what he really believes…. even though at times he can be edifying.

    • rogereolson

      I agree that he can be edifying. It’s harder to tell whether an Old Testament scholar is theologically liberal. I’d have to know his answers to my questions. I really don’t.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      I love Brueggemann, especially his book An Unsettling God. But his view of the Old Testament scriptures – that much of it is simply an uninspired Hebrew interpretation of what they thought God was doing, and not necessarily what God was actually doing – leads me to think that he is more liberal than I’d like.

      As for myself, I’m a true post-conservative through and through. :)

  • Jesse Reese

    Excellent summary. I might add as well (related to salvation and eschatology) how they view sin. For instance, are ideas such as universal guilt, judgment, and the fallenness of creation taken seriously? Or do they lean toward viewing sin mostly as existential failure or in terms of systemic social ills, neuter judgment, tend to shy away from too much “fallenness” and avoid original sin like the plague?

    • rogereolson

      But what if I say I don’t believe in universal guilt? I hope that doesn’t make me “liberal!” We in the Anabaptist tradition have never believed infants and children are guilty (of sin) until they reach an age of accountability (“awakening of conscience”) and embrace sin for themselves. Many Baptists, Holiness and Pentecostal Christians think that way also. I don’t think that makes one liberal.

      • http://johnmeunier.wordpress.com John Meunier

        John Wesley did not teach that infants were under universal guilt, although they were under the power of sin.

      • Jesse Reese

        On its own, no, not by any means, especially in the terms you are describing. And “guilt” isn’t necessarily the issue by itself, that’s why I added the idea of fallen nature and a very real judgment. What I’m attempting to get at here are the various tendencies to downplay the deep impact of sin upon all of humanity: Whether by only asserting that human nature is good and society is what makes us evil, or driving a too-hard line between “oppressors” and “oppressed” in terms of sinfulness and leaving it at that, or any of the many ways that I’ve seen sin downplayed since being at a radically progressive divinity school. I don’t mean to assert a narrow understanding of how it works, but the idea that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and need grace in order to accomplish good works that are pleasing to God, taken in full seriousness and humility.

        • rogereolson

          Yes, I agree that liberal theology tends to downplay the depth of sin in human existence. Niebuhr taught us that. (But, of course, conservatives were saying it even before he built a reputation on saying it!) This is what I mean by saying that liberal theology loses Christianity’s prophetic edge. A theological liberal cannot say (as a conservative can) “God will judge you for that!” “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (H. Richard Niebuhr on liberal theology)

          • http://dyingtobearfruit.wordpress.com/ Paul Clutterbuck

            Many liberals do believe in divine judgment, but situate it quite differently. For example, some want God to judge those who oppress and exploit the poor, some to judge those who oppress or discriminate against ethnic minorities, some to judge those who mess with the environment and the earth’s resources, and some want judgment of those who start or perpetuate wars. I know many liberals who want systemic evil to receive its due, as a way (perhaps ultimately the only way) to hold people accountable for the exploitation and destruction in which they play a part.

          • rogereolson

            I have not read that in their writings. Or where they say something that could be interpreted that way, the context makes clear they’re not really talking about God’s “judgment” but their own.

          • JD

            For some time I preferred to abandon the concept of the judgement of God. Then I realised that leaves me as judge. It was Rowan Williams (where do you place him on the theological spectrum???) who highlighted to me once again that the judgement of God actually brings us freedom. Williams argues that a recognition of our own individual fallen state, our own sinfulness is not humiliating but liberating since “it delivers us from aspiring to mythic goals of absolute human control over human destiny”. Rowan Williams argues that hell ‘is living with me forever’. That is certainly not a fundamentalist understading of hell, but neither does it scoff at the concept like many liberals I know do. I now not only accept God is Judge of my life, and indeed Judge of the whole world; I celebrate that fact with tremendous joy!

          • rogereolson

            I find Rowan Williams nearly impossible to categorize (except as Anglican, of course). He’s eclectic and independent (not publicly identifying himself with a theological movement).

  • Bob

    Good list of distinctions Roger. I think most folks in the pews don’t care about the differences between liberal and conservative theology. It seems that most folks want wisdom and guidance like who am I to marry, my vocation or calling, where should I live and the friends that I should maintain. Many programs like Ignatian discernment of spirits, retreats, counseling, clearness committees and spiritual direction seem more popular now. These existential questions and following the movement of the HS is best served by a theology from below, like Process theology. No? I’ve tried both liberal and conservative theology to find out which one makes me the most loving human being. The jury is still out on which theology makes the best saints. I feel that certain beliefs take hold of me (more deeply held) like the Nicene Creed. I don’t know if churches and seminaries need any more doctrinal statements than the Nicene Creed. Theories of atonement and the free-will debates are more or less side issues. Will today’s liberal theology lead to something bad like WW 1 that Barth reacted against with his Romans commentary.

  • http://godinthenow.blogspot.com/ David Peterson

    Confessional Protestants often point to pietism as leading to liberal Christianity, the move to feeling over objective content opens the door to abandoning content altogether. (Schleiermacher’s feeling of absolute dependence being a product of his pietistic focus on feelings.) I don’t think it need be the case but I can see truth in what they’re saying. An example is the dramatic turn to liberal Protestantism of Carlton Pearson, a former pastor of a Pentecostal megachurch. His move from evangelical stardom to doing conferences with Shelby Spong seems rather natural for him. (For what it’s worth my background is charismatic, and I pastor a church that comes out of the German Pietistic tradition, so I believe in spiritual experience. My concern is that it be grounded in objective content.)

    • rogereolson

      I agree with your concern. Pietism cut loose from orthodoxy can float away into doctrinal indifference. But I wouldn’t blame original, classical Pietism for liberal theology. I taught at ORU when Carlton Pearson was one of Oral’s favorite people. He sang in chapel often and, if I’m not mistaken, served on ORU’s board of regents. Back then and there a charismatic experientialism was all that mattered at the highest levels (so far as I could tell). We in the Theology Department worried a lot about how to ground our students in Christian doctrine when all they heard in chapel was experience.

      • http://godinthenow.blogspot.com/ David Peterson

        While I was attending the seminary at ORU, Pearson’s church (Higher Dimensions) was known among the seminary students as “Higher Emotions.” Most saw it as an extreme case of emotionalism, which made his transition to liberalism (which came as a result of hearing God tell him there is no hell) unsurprising.

  • John I.

    I agree with your summary of the central characteristics of the liberal christian. It occurs to me that these accommodations by liberals flow from a desire to find a way between the fundamentalist acquiescence and obeisance to an authoritarian tradition and the irreligious, unbelieving, nonspiritual secularism. The key accommodation is their recognition that reason is the God-given faculty that has had great success in all eras and especially so in the modern. All our experience is mediated through our minds and we have no access to a life that does not bring reason to bear upon all experience.

    As a consequence, liberals land in a place very similar to that of Mary Dyer, a Quaker free thinker who was hanged for heresy in Boston Common, in 1660. It is recorded that in her disputes and dissents from Puritan Boston theology she declared, “Truth is my authority, not some authority my truth.”

    • rogereolson

      But I agree with her about that. It’s how that gets fleshed out that makes one liberal (or not). I hope we can all agree that truth is our authority; an authority is authoritative only to the extent it bears truth. Liberals are those who think “modernity” bears more truth than Scripture and tradition. I don’t find their accommodations to modernity true. I think they are tying their theological wagon to a passing culture with the hope that it will make their “Christianity” respectable to intellectual elites.

      • chris

        I believe Barth addressed and expressed the same concerns.

        • rogereolson

          Oh, no! Now you’ve gone and done it! My fundamentalist critics are going to say I’m “Barthian” because Barth would agree with me!

  • James Petticrew
  • Randall A. Bach

    Thank you for this insightful and thought-provoking piece.

    • rogereolson

      You’re welcome and thanks for visiting here. Come often, please. Did you ever think that trouble-making student would have a chair of theology and ethics at a major Christian university? Those were the days, my friend. Remember teaching in an overcoat because the heating plant was broken? We all wore coats, hats and gloves to classrooms where we could see our breath!

      • Randall A. Bach

        Ha! You were clearly of a superior intellect, doing your best to be patient with those who were supposedly your instructors (perhaps that struggle is the reason for your self-description as “trouble-making”). It has been a joy to track your success. Yes, memories of the broken heating plant will never disappear! Your defining questions about liberal Christianity, along with the rest of your blog and interaction, cause me to wonder if you have also developed questions that help define a fundamentalist, as distinct from evangelical? When declaring you are not a liberal Christian you offered a definitive, question-based, grid to explain. You are also not a fundamentalist. I would be keenly interested in seeing that grid.

        • rogereolson

          Randall, Congratulations on your new leadership position. I wish you and Open Bible the very best. I have posted similar lists of criteria for determining who’s “fundamentalist”–but not for a long time. I’m not sure if that would be easy to find in the archives. I will consider such a list paralleling the one I posted about “Why I Am Not a ‘Liberal Christian’” in the near future. Watch for it. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Steve Rogers

    You ask: “Can a person be truly liberal theologically, as I have defined it above, and be saved? I honestly don’t know. I hope so. But it would be in spite of their beliefs, not because of them.”
    Does it then follow that others are saved because of their beliefs? They got it right and others got it wrong? One person’s faith journey toward God is improper, but another’s is proper? And if your answer is, “The Bible says…,” how is that different from fundamentalism or at least a view that places the authority in a particular approach to the Bible? An approach, I would suggest, that also comes from “below” as you put it in the sense that it posits one’s “correct” interpretation as the final authority.
    Would you agree with me that at the end of day all who are saved are saved by grace through faith in spite of how they wrestle with available data?

    • rogereolson

      I thought that’s what I said. Well, it’s what I mean, anyway. We are not saved by our doctrinal beliefs, but doctrinal beliefs matter. How? Well, I take it God cares what we think about him. As you know (because I know you come here often) I have embraced a form of purgatory with people saved by grace through faith taking classes before entering the fullness of paradise/heaven. It’s the only way I know to believe Calvin, for example, is in heaven. I expect to spend at least some time in such a place and I think I’ll enjoy it. After all, I’m subjecting my students to it now! :)

      • Bev Mitchell

        Re:Remedial Purgatory U, Sign me up. I wonder if we will have to do mostly learning or mostly unlearning? Inventing god seems to be something we humans are pre-adapted for – to put it in biological terms.

      • chris

        Or maybe we will all be transformed, including our minds, in the twinkling of an eye.

        • rogereolson

          How boring. :) If I had the power to do that with my students, I wouldn’t. The process is part of the enjoyment.

  • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

    Thanks for this article. I sometimes wonder where I “fit in” on the Grand Theological Spectrum, and this was helpful. Some of your follow-up replies were even more useful (tho’ not sure what to make of the “Purgatory” one). I’d say on each of the points you mention I’m well onto the non-liberal side. But I definitely agree with your view of “tradition” (I won’t even affirm any of the Creeds “automatically,” without knowing the intent of all portions), and I also don’t hold to… I think you called it “universal guilt”; I usually call it “original guilt.” Of course according to some this makes us heretics. And recently I’m coming to the view that any apparent NT “law” that can’t be subsumed under “love one another” (in the Johannine corpus) or “Love your neighbor as yourself” (in the Synoptics, Paul, and James) can’t claim to be universally binding — which I suspect will get me stamped with a big red liberal “L.”

  • Jeff Hayes

    Roger, thanks for the incredible blog that you have. My advice to my friends… Read Dr. Roger Olson’s blog if you want a course in theology without going to a seminary! As you read his blog you will find that you are a recipient of a gift, a treasure from a masterful theologian and writer!

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for your support, Jeff.

  • Craig Wright

    If you believe that about purgatory (although you put a qualification on it that the people are apparently already saved by grace through faith), then I can’t see why everyone wouldn’t be allowed to be in that class.

    • rogereolson

      Maybe they will be.

  • http://daltonrushing.com Dalton Rushing

    As someone who considers himself moderate-to-progressive, I think you’ve laid out some good stuff here. But as you have defined the terms, I don’t think of myself as liberal, at least in most senses. This schema reminds me that labels are helpful only inasmuch as they help us stratify amongst other labels. Thus, as I serve in the southern USA, I’m setting myself against the prevailing theological culture. If I served elsewhere, I might not think of myself as moderate-to-progressive; I might just think of myself as Christian. And so the argument that those who consider themselves liberal Christians ought not consider themselves as Christian is helpful to me inasmuch as it helps me think about the place I fall theologically. As far as who is in and who is out, well, thankfully that issue falls outside my purview.

    • rogereolson

      I tried to make the point that “liberal theology” is not merely indexical–relative to a cultura. It is historical, rooted in Schleiermacher’s approach to doing theology “from below”–granting to human experience and culture a norming authority they do not deserve in doctrinal critique and construction.

  • HappySeptuagenarian

    Dr. Olson, not quite by accident I found your posting on liberalism, and with delight found it refreshing, articulate and thorough. As a bit more than a mere dabbler in theology, I wish I had stumbled across your writings earlier. As an evangelical, in the best sense of your definition though, I am perplexed by the insertion within your comments of the idea of purgatory which remains quite far outside the pale of protestant evangelicalism. Is final sanctification for you as a confessed evangelical a process requiring “time” in eternity, or is it instantaneous as a cumulative act of God’s grace to those have died having experienced imputed AND imparted righteousness?

    • rogereolson

      I think of it as including time–at least at the beginning. Frankly, I don’t even know how to imagine or talk about a timeless condition that includes personal relationships and interactions.

  • http://GoodReportMinistries.com Ivan A. Rogers

    A very interesting article, Dr. Olson. I look forward to your blog posts and read them all “religiously” (pun intended). But speaking for myself, I have come to appreciate that the ultimate hope for human salvation is not dependent on our ability to get all the theological facts straight, but, rather, our salvation is solely dependent upon the all-inclusive grace of God. (You did express some question about the salvation of liberals.) In the body of your article you categorized at least eighteen levels of spiritual persuasions as follows: Christian, Billy Graham[ites], Borg[ites], liberals, fundamentalists, un-fundamentalists, progressives, moderates, literalists, dogmatists, conservatives, evangelicals, modernity, anti-authority, humanists, spiritual, legalists, traditionalists, etc.

    May I suggest that our inability (or even refusal) to believe right is not the determining factor in our ultimate salvation. John the Baptist introduced Jesus, saying, “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Thank God, John didn’t say, “…except for the sin of unbelief.” In time, we’ll all get this thing figured out, but only thanks to the Holy Spirit of whom Jesus testified, saying, “When he comes he will guide you [humanity] into all truth.”

    • rogereolson

      I never said that we are saved or not by our beliefs. But here on earth we do have to make some determinations about who and what count as “Christian.” Not everything that goes under that label is that. A “Christianity” that is compatible with anything and everything is strictly nothing. None of this has to do with who is saved or not.

  • http://erdman31.com Jon Erdman

    Here’s the stuff that I took note of. Of liberal Christians Mr. Olsen says, “when I read his three volume history of liberal theology in America I discern that all these theologians have one thing in common—recognition of the authority of “modern thought” alongside or above Scripture and tradition…..Their commitment is greater to modern culture, the Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, than to Christian sources….Ultimately, I believe, theological liberalism robs Christianity of its distinctiveness, the “scandal of particularity,” its prophetic edge and makes it easy, respectable and dull…..I have come to the conclusion over the years that most people who are theologically liberal grew up fundamentalist and are simply in deep reaction to it—throwing the baby out with the bathwater of an overly legalistic and literalistic Christianity.”

    Quite honestly, and I don’t mean to be harsh here, but Mr. Olsen doesn’t really seem to understand liberal Christianity. First, how can he substantiate the above claim that our (I consider myself firmly in the liberal Christian tradition, though with a substantial “postmodern” bent) commitment is greater to modern culture? That seems profoundly unfair. Along with this, he questions the prophetic edge of liberal Christianity. But who walked with MLK on civil rights marches? It was liberal Christians. Who were the abolitionists before them? They were progressives, standing entirely outside the Christian mainstream. Christian liberals were anti-Vietnam before it was popular. And we continue to speak out against American empire. All the while, where were conservative Christians on all of these issues? I’ll tell you. They were saying, “Give it more time. Give it more time…” Anyone who questions the prophetic edge of liberal Christianity probably needs a history lesson. I know that this seems harsh, and I don’t mean to be so; but I think Mr. Olsen’s assessment is really just historically wrong. Christian liberals have pushed for profound changes in society that have resulted in greater equality. They have risked life and limb. Some have died for change. It is just not fair to question their commitment to the prophetic tradition. It is not respectful to them or to those of us still pushing for greater recognition of the dignity of human beings and respect for God’s creation.

    In any event, that wasn’t my primary point! My primary point was more philosophical. How can anyone escape their own contemporary thinking? Yes, liberals put “modern thought” alongside or above Scripture and tradition. For sure. But how does one transcend their own Zeitgeist? Can a human being remain completely culturally unconditioned?

    Furthermore, why would this be a virtue? Why would shunning “modern thought” be in any way a good thing? The word of God is the word of God as it relates to the contemporary concerns. What is the Word of God if it does not speak in and through the Zeitgeist of our day, dare I say, to have a “prophetic edge”? How do we maintain a prophetic edge, if our commitment is not to place contemporary thinking on issues of empire, war, poverty, racism, etc. on par with the concerns of Scripture?

    • rogereolson

      You are not understanding me. I did not say that sound theology should shun or ignore culture but only that contemporary culture should not be a norming norm in the search for truth. “The best of contemporary science and philosophy” says belief in the supernatural is superstition. So we have to accept that and reconstruct Christianity to be naturalistic. God becomes a “depth dimension” in nature and human experience. The resurrection of Jesus means something other than an empty tomb, etc., etc., etc. Soon “Christianity” is unrecognizable. I did not say that liberals cannot be prophetic. My point is that they are being prophetic without the proper support for it in special revelation. If I do not understand liberal theology, well, I’ve wasted many years studying it. What books have you written?

      • Andrew

        I’m not sure what you mean by a ‘norming norm.’
        I’m often confused by the antipathy to the Enlightenment by many Christian scholars/clergy. To the contrary, the Enlightenment (whose main protagonists were what could be described as ‘liberal’ Christians) is very much a product of Christianity and would have never happened without it. The pre-Constantine Church Father’s focus on individual liberty and the inherent dignity of the individual conscience, the aversion to ‘destiny’ or any sort of predestination (eroded by Augustine and butchered by the Reformers hundreds of years later) the ethical framework of Jesus etc. The Enlightenment thinkers were taking these Christian principles and applying them, along with science, to the issues of their world. The result we can see today has been a ‘leaps and bounds’ increase among the entire world in total morality and Christian ethics, even if they don’t carry the Christian mantle (anyone who claims that morality has eroded in the present day, looking at the big picture, doesn’t know their history). The Christian churches should be embracing this rather than lamenting it.
        As for liberal Christianity, as you acknowledge there is a wide spectrum of beliefs under that umbrella. I don’t correlate it with a complete aversion to any acknowledgement of the supernatural, but an aversion to traditional ideas of the supernatural via a theistic God who is akin to the Gods of greek mythology (ie having a ‘chosen tribe,’ causing acts of nature that wipe out millions of people, basically picking and choosing to intervene among the Earthly inhabitants etc.) I think its asking a bit more than faith to believe that a God of this nature was consistently intervening in such fashion in antiquity but in the past 1900 years has been content to just watch from above. Liberal Christianity, recognizing this reality, thus landscapes its beliefs accordingly, but still believing in Jesus as lord/Son of God and his message/meaning of Resurrection and new life. It’s not as nice and tidy as Orthodox Christianity, and perhaps not as comforting, but I find that it’s the inevitable pathway of many after their long spiritual journeys canvassing the immense history of the Christian religion.

        • rogereolson

          I see it as very “conforming”–to the dictates of modernity. By the way, have you talked to any Christians from the Global South lately–about miracles? A couple years ago I invited a Catholic priest from Nigeria to talk to my class about Roman Catholic doctrine. He spent the entire class period describing the miracles he and other Christians (both Catholics and Protestants) experience in Africa. The only reason I would disbelieve him is if I were so accommodated to modernity that I discount from the beginning miracles stories as fictional. Why would I do that? Read Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies.

          • Andrew

            Accommodated by modernity? You mean understanding the basic advances of science and causes of phenomena of the past 200 years? That’s called recognizing fact from make believe. I don’t have a problem with some of Plantinga’s basic arguments of harmonization between evolution and theism but does he proclaim that this ensures that what we consider ‘miracles’ happen routinely in the physical world? In the ‘Global South’ ie the Third World typically characterized by its massive poverty and lack of education, many also still believe in curses, witchcraft, and calling psychological disorders/physical deformities demon possession. Perhaps the Papuans who recently burned an accused witch alive (which was fairly common in Europe in the Middle Ages, when that continent was characterized by massive poverty and widespread ignorance) were simply not ‘accommodated by modernity.’ Funny me, it’s just my insulated modernist brain which caused me to view that as the act of ignorant barbarity and not the cosmic battle of angels and demons it represented. I bet you don’t have this argument when you go see the doctor.
            Its arguments like this which turn people to bare materialism, which I don’ adhere to, but one has to admit that while the Holy Spirit is alive and well, it’s not manifesting itself as ‘magic’ (as is traditionally understood).

          • rogereolson

            You are simply twisting what I wrote. The issue is the resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb. Do you believe it or not? If not, why not? No real liberal theologian I have ever met believes in it. They “redefine” Jesus’ “resurrection” to exclude the empty tomb. Why? Because of accommodation to modern naturalism.

          • Andrew

            I think in terms of something like the Resurrection drawing a hard line in the sand (from either side) is making a big mistake. Personally, I like the idea of an actual physical Resurrection, but its hard for me to believe that Jesus’s body actually crawled out of the grave and walked around for 40 days, and the reasons have little to do with the scientific impossibility of such an event. One only has to look at the Bible, for example
            i) The Resurrection accounts in all 4 Gospels, especially the Synoptics, are extremely brief, particularly after the discovery of the Empty Tomb. The Lukan account, the longest in the Synoptics, clearly portrays more of a spiritual/mystical/metaphorical Resurrection than one involving Jesus having crawled out the Earth. The Markan account, agreed by most scholars as the earliest, simply ends with the discovery of the tomb. I suspect that if Jesus had really walked around for 40 days after rising from the dead, there would be a few more stories about this amazing once in Earth’s history event (and if seen by 500 people at once as Paul stated, it would’ve caused widespread pandemonium). Instead, the brief narratives are laced with theological motifs designed to wrap up the total story.
            ii) Paul’s account was a visionary experience, and he makes no distinction between his experience of the Resurrected Jesus and those of the Apostles.
            So I think liberal Christians like myself explore a variety of avenues when looking at the Resurrection. I certainly don’t deny a spiritual/mystical component; something clearly very special occurred. But I don’t see, for example, Borg’s explanation of the Resurrection to be ill’fitting with the larger Christian narrative at all.

          • rogereolson

            I think that’s a caricature of traditional Christian belief in the bodily resurrection (including the empty tomb). Few traditional Christian theologians think of it as the resuscitation of a corpse (as you seem to think). I agree with Borg that Jesus’ resurrection body was “spiritual,” not physical. But it was and is a body, not a ghost or apparition or whatever the thinks it was and is.

  • http://churchlandia.com Scott

    Liberal theology is vapid. Fundamentalism is soul crushing.

    I find myself in the same place as you. I wouldn’t call it “the middle” as much as I would call “other.”

  • faithfirst (previously Spella!)

    Another awesome post. Thank you.

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  • Bob

    Wouldn’t the Catholic Church with its insistence on contraception, Transubstantiation, Holy Orders, and priestly maleness and celibacy be the most “top down theologically”. My interpretation and experience and modern biblical interpretation are completely ignored.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, but there are modernists within the Catholic church that follow a more “from below” theological method. Hans Kueng is one (in my opinion). David Tracey is another. Among Catholic theologians I prefer those who hold gently to Catholic distinctives while smoothing out their rough edges. My favorite Catholic theologian is Walter Kasper, a moderate German cardinal who is somewhat out of favor with the Vatican at the moment.

    • Jon

      I think the “top down” that Prof. Olson is referring to in his blog is a theology from God to us. The top down of the Catholic church is a polity from the pope to all Catholics. Same concept, but very different subjects.

  • http://carsontclark.com/ Carson Clark

    Carson from Unite InterVarsity here. I’ve been following your blog for quite some time. For whatever it’s worth, I think this one of the most helpful single blog posts I’ve ever read for those trying to discern the American church landscape. Thank you.

  • Jkb

    Shit. Maybe I’m not as progressive as I thought.

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  • Bill

    Have you read George Marsden’s book “Fundamentalism and American Culture”? If so, what do you think of his thoughts? I like how you describe things, though I wish you weren’t so anti-Calvinistic!

    • rogereolson

      I wouldn’t be so “anti-Calvinistic” if Calvinists weren’t so anti-Arminian. :) Yes, I’ve read Marsden’s book. He is a reliable guide in things evangelical and fundamentalist. Not to say I agree with every detail.

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  • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones
    • rogereolson

      If so, you’re a nice one and I like you. :)

      • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

        Roger, I’m serious. I’d like you to read my post and respond.

        • rogereolson

          I hate to decline, so I’ll say I will try–as time permits. I’m overwhelmed with requests to read things and respond. I don’t like to slap labels on people they don’t want. My criteria are meant to help people discern whether they are historically-theological “liberal” or not. Of course, they can also help people discern whether they ought to think of others that way. But to slap “liberal” on someone’s forehead who doesn’t want the label is not what I’m about. And then there’s the problem that if I do say you or someone else is “liberal” in my terms, others will misunderstand (who haven’t read and really absorbed my criteria) and accuse you (for example) of being “bad” or me of being “bad” for “accusing,” etc., etc. It gets weird fast.

  • So You’re the authority?

    Why can’t a “liberal” Christian find new ways of practicing Christianity? Who says the fundamentalist/moderate/progressive/one-foot-in-one-foot-out get to define Christianity?

    • rogereolson

      They obviously have. That’s not the issue. The issue is when does a “new way of practicing Christianity” become something other than Christianity?

  • Rev. Dr. Kevin McKee

    Thank you Doctor Olsen, for a well thought out and informative article. I have been struggling with where I belong on the theological spectrum and so I find your six standards excellent. By that measure I am definitely not a liberal, although all my fundamentalist colleagues and friends would define me as such. Coming from the Anglican tradition, I am not satisfied with using Billy Graham as the standard for evangelical. I look instead to the IVCF movement in England and current theologians like Tom Wright as being a better definition of evangelical, but few whom I know share this view. I have been deeply saddened to see the media use evangelical and fundamentalist as synonymous. I am not a fundamentalist (though I was early in my Christian walk) but I believe I am still an evangelical. I resigned from the Anglican church in Canada, because the hierarchy has basically become liberal in its thought (I would say most of the Bishops would meet five if not six of the liberal criteria). Again thank, you. I will follow your blog in future with great interest.

  • Truth Preacher

    The “damage” fundamentalists and fundamentalism has done? I don’t deny that Baptists in particular are some of the most carnal, divisive people who are in endless church wars and splits, but not all fundamentalists are Baptists!

    And “damage” compared to what? Liberalism? THe Biblical word is APOSTASY. Tens of millions are hell-bound due to these APOSTATES called, Oh so benignly–liberals.

    You mention “war” with science? Uh, no, but war against FRAUD called “science”. Evolution and the Big Bang are utter hoaxes and frauds and have been proven “scientifically” to be so. Fundamentalists always knew it, preached it, and it has been verified. Only apostates believe lying devils who hate God preaching “science” when it is science fiction of the worst sort.

    You need to go back to your Pentecostal roots, get baptized in the Holy Ghost, pray in the Spirit(tongues) like Paul did, every day, earnestly seek spiritual gifts to manifest through your life, read from Finney and Wesley and seek to walk in the anlointing and power they did. Read up on Asuza and seek to walk in that power and anointing. Seminary and getting a PhD has done it’s damage. Such always does. Seminaries do not produce zealous, in fire, soulwinning, Pentecostal-power ministers, but dead-orthodox theologians

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for illustrating why I left Pentecostalism. While the people in the headquarters don’t think this way (for the most part) it is an attitude all too common in the pews and pulpits. Thankfully, things are changing there, too.

  • JD

    Thank you, Roger for a truly excellent post. I have been reflecting for some time on these issues. I accept that many Christians are in the ‘grey’ area-liberal in some things, conservative in others. Another criteria, which relates to the first few of yours is: how exactly do you conceive of God? What is the starting point? Is God understood as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and ultiamtely Jesus Christ-the God of revelation who comes to us (so Barth emphasised in his battle with ‘liberals’). Or is God a sort of symbol-Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being, Mystery, Sacred Heart? I don’t deny that God is Mystery, that there are more things to learn about God, and that we have not exhausted the meaning of God. But it seems to me that the latter here, God as symbol, without the former, God as Revelation, certainly does end up doing away with the particularity and uniqueness of Christian faith (which is what some, like John Hick, seemed intent on doing). For me I would want to stress that the Church should be inclusive of all questioning peoples, and all peoples who struggle with orthodox Christian belief. But the Church should not dilute its confession of Jesus as Risen Lord in order to acommodate them.

  • Leslie Turner

    I appreciate your article. I have always wanted an explanation (beyond the abortion and gay issue) why Conservative Christians so disagree with me. I have always considered myself a Liberal Christian. Jesus Christ is the foundation of my faith. I really didn’t know there was an actualy label for it until I grew up and went to college. I knew that my childhood experience in a Southern Baptist Church left me afraid and filled with questions about my salvation. I had Hell scared into me, instead of the other way around. The revivals…. oh how those revivals led to so many nightmares. I really listened and studied – but had a difficult time reconciling the God that casts people into a fiery lake with the God of love and forgiveness. I am now 41 years old with years of life experience under my belt. Years of soul searching, prayer, times of grief, and reading has led me to a faith that is real and substantial to me. Nothing thin about it. I suppose it is the word “liberal” that you are using that can be adapted to one’s own interpretation. Many of the things you mentioned that defines a liberal christian or “theological liberal” would NOT qualify me as a liberal Christian at all. This goes for most liberal Christians I know who surely wouldn’t be lumped in as a secularist, but not a Conservative Christian by any stretch of the imagination. However; I am not so sure we have to be absolutely certain about some things that are mentioned in the Bible. This may seem terribly liberal to say (which is okay with me), but some of the details will be cleared up for him when we meet our Lord, and only then.

    • rogereolson

      I can’t tell from this whether you read my criteria with understanding (or not). If most of my criteria don’t fit you, then why are you troubled? All it means is that I (underline, italicize) would probably not consider you theologically liberal. What you choose to call yourself is your business.

  • Kiki

    “If I ever wake up and find that I think like a true theological liberal, I hope I will be honest enough to stop calling myself “Christian.”

    How unfortunate that you wrote such a compelling piece with so many opportunities for reflection and dialogue and then end it with this statement. If you strive to follow the teachings of Jesus, love the Lord our God with all your heart and soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself; I truly believe you can call yourself a Christian.

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  • Aurelia

    Thank you. This article was also very helpful to me. Question. Is there something in between Liberal and Evangelical on your spectrum? I am always hearing about conservative, evangelical and liberal thought, but rarely much else. Sorry if I have missed this from other posts.

    • rogereolson

      See today’s post on why I am not a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical. I label myself a “postconservative evangelical.” Some would perhaps call my approach “progressive evangelical.”

  • debstage

    I am only recently (less than a year) brought to God via his Word, Jesus Christ. I have not read much theology, but it seems to me that the dichotomy that is often presented by conservative thinkers is between something like “Christianity is Truth” vs “Christianity provides a convenient analogy.” The “Truth” side is often portrayed as the literal acceptance of some core set of beliefs necessary (by some) to be considered Christian, while the “analogy” side is represented as not really believing anything.

    I think this dichotomy is false and stems from a misunderstanding and degrading of the ideas of symbol and metaphor (as opposed to “sign” and “analogy”). [Note: my thinking has been influenced a lot by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung.] Metaphor (as opposed to analogy) describes a situation where one thing *is* another thing in a real sense, but not in all ways. The literal interpretation of the Eucharist would suggest that one would experience the eating of the bread as including being like eating fleshy meat; the metaphorical experience is the real-time revelation that “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

    Whether my views are common or not among liberal Christians, I can’t really say. When I read the Bible I see it as something like the 3 blind men and the elephant. All parts can reveal something about God, but how important a particular part may be in understanding the whole varies. But then again, I also think we learn about God in learning about His creation in ways outside the Bible.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks for stimulating some thinking!

    • Jeff Donnelly

      I think you’ve put this issue of the dichotomy between “Christian Truth” and the “Christian Metaphor” very well. It’s entirely possible and, for many people today, necessary to view the Christian story as one of the metaphors for the human experience of God. Christians can retain their distinctive and rich religious heritage without claiming to be the one and only path to God. However, those who do follow the “liberal” path of proclaiming Jesus and Christianity in the metaphorical way have historically been represented as believing either in heresy or in nothing at all. I think your views are more common among liberal Christians than you might have realized.

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  • http://relevancy22.blogspot.com Russ

    Thanks Roger for your observations. My response is to ask if whether an Evangelical Christian may be progressive? Here’s the link – http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2013/02/can-evangelical-christian-be-progressive.html. I still am looking for a broader definition of Christianity than what present day Evangelicalism can give. And much prefer the term Emergent Christianity as it is evolving. – Russ

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  • http://donbryant.wordpress.com/ Don Bryant

    This is surely one of your most helpful articles for discernment in theology and in ministry. Thanks for the posting.

  • http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/ Russ

    Thanks Roger for your observations. My response is to ask if whether an Evangelical Christian may be progressive? Here’s the link – http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2013/02/can-evangelical-christian-be-progressive.html. I still am looking for a broader definition of Christianity than what present day Evangelicalism can give. And much prefer the term Emergent Christianity as it is evolving.

    • rogereolson

      Sorry I don’t have time to read all of your series at your blog. For me “progressive” modifies “evangelical,” so IF I call myself a “progressive evangelical” I am not calling myself “progressive” in general (although I might be). I am saying that among evangelicals I am on the progressive side.

      • http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/ Russ

        Understood. Even so do I. Thanks again.

  • Rev. Peter Bellini Ph.D.

    I would like to see you write an article on “Why I am not a Calvinist.”

    Pete Bellini

    • rogereolson

      Ah, you give me a perfect opening here! (Some of my faithful visitors will suspect I put you up to it! :) Please see my book Against Calvinism. It’s not long. But I can’t cram all my reasons into an article. A book was necessary! :)

  • Andrew

    If I ever wake up and find that I think like a true theological liberal,
    I hope I will be honest enough to stop calling myself “Christian.”

    Damn right. It is foolishness, and it is a distraction from the truth of the matter, which is what we should be focusing on to get converts through Christ for God.


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