What is a Liberal anyway?

What is a Liberal anyway? February 11, 2013

Roger Olson speaks:

Roger lists paradigmatic theological liberals as Schleiermacher and Marcus Borg, I’d add Harvey Cox as another example.

One observation: over the years I’ve seen lots of evangelicals “drift” into liberalism. Quite often they refuse to admit they are liberals. What happens is that they absorb evangelicalism’s denunciation of liberals as non-Christians while simultaneously both embracing liberalism and thinking (and knowing) they have not left the Christian faith. Evangelicals have successfully made “liberal” a pejorative term. So today many liberals call themselves “progressives.” Is there any difference? What are the “marks” of a liberal?

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.

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  • Danny Klopovic

    Seems that evangelicals are not much better than liberals though – “evangelical” appears to be a dirty word just as much as “liberal” is. If liberals rebrand themselves as “progressive”, evangelicals (some anyway) appear to be rebranding themselves as “red letter” Christians. The problem isn’t solved by rebranding – if liberals are anaemic theologically, then I suggest that evangelicals are turgid.

    I don’t think the evangelicals are profoundly Christian – anymore than the liberals fail to be. To use an image, I think from Irenaeus, the evangelicals take the icon of Christ, smash it and rearrange it in the image of a fox. They, like the liberals, do Christianity in profoundly non-Christian ways.

  • This is at least a helpful starting point in the conversation. Well said.

  • Andy

    Scot, this is a reason why I really appreciate your books, blog posts and theological reflections. You are not afraid to ask the deepest questions but always come back to Christ as King and your perspectives are always grounded in the biblical narrative.
    It actually rips me up inside when I see emergent leaders drift into theologies that appear to be solely based upon cultural relativity, personal emotions or western anti-supernatural bias.

  • C Fred Smith

    Something is unclear here. Are these six “marks” Scot Mcknight’s or Roger Olson’s.

    They are excellent. I want to share them with others, but I want to give proper credit.

  • David

    C Fred,

    Scot is quoting a recent post on Roger Olson’s blog. I believe all the marks come from there.

  • Robert Brenchley

    I’m quite comfortable identifying myself as a liberal, though I’m a critical one, and wouldn’t adopt all the positions you describe. My main criticism of liberal theology is that it’s too identified with one particular culture. For instance, it doesn’t know how to handle apocalyptic, so it ignores it. I don’t think evangelicals know how to handle it either, but at least they try.

  • TriciaM

    It’s worth reading Roger’s whole post from the link at the top. I appreciate the following statement:
    “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.”

    That explans the current thinking of so many Evangelicals I know who have been accused of being “Liberal” – a label which is meant to imply that one’s salvation is in peril.

  • scotmcknight

    C Fred, this is Roger Olson’s stuff. Good stuff.

  • adam

    His thoughts regarding doing theology “from above” or “below” is an interesting point. How does this relate, or does it relate (?), to what many call “contextualization” or “incarnational” ministry philosophy?
    Is one’s pursuit of meaningful “contextualization” a catalyst for moving one from “conservative” evangelicalism into “progressive” evangelicalism? I am not speaking of contextualization of an area or location, I am speaking of contextualization broadly as perceived cultural shifts, or developments wherever that be located (politics, activism, movies, justice causes, books, etc).

  • NateW

    Perhaps a “progressive” would be one who reads this list and says, “all of the above…”?. I’m not one for labels (I wouldnt call myself a “____________” Christian) but that was my first response.

  • T

    I’m glad politics wasn’t on this list, but it would have been for many. Specifically, many would say that liberal politics necessarily includes liberal theology.

    This is a good list.

  • Gary Lyn

    I am sorry but the labels are tiresome. They are not helpful. “Evangelicals have successfully made liberal pejorative term.” There is something to be proud of! All I hear this person saying is that a liberal (pejorative) is someone who doesn’t have the same world-view and doctrinal stance as, uh, me. Why don’t we let liberals/progressives define what a liberal/progressive is?

  • Kenton

    “The problem is that discerning whether someone is theologically liberal is not a black-and-white process. It’s not an ‘either-or.'”

    Well then why the hell do people bandy it about then? Hello? McFly?

    I mean if there’s a problem with an understanding of the resurrection, then let’s talk about resurrection. If there’s a problem with scripture or Christology, then let’s talk about scripture or Christology. But don’t go tagging folks with either-or labels when the criteria for defining them is not either-or. That’s both demeaning and stupid.

    (Pardon the hostility here, but I was recently dismissed as a liberal in a conversation by someone using it in this loose manner, so this post is pushing my buttons at the moment.)

  • Keith

    If a person identifies with the points Roger points out, then are they still a Christian? In other words, at what point does our thinking or convictions lead us away into the realm of being a non-Christian? At what point does the term “Christian” become so broad in meaning as to mean nothing? I am asking these questions in good faith because the answer to these questions are the real application of this discusion in my option.

  • Keith

    my opinion not my option

  • phil_style

    I echo Kenton’s comments.

    Also, how on the one hand can we criticize ‘liberals’ for capitulating to the culture (or it’s values) when, at the same time, we like to think those very cultural values are somehow intrinsic to Christianity in the first place!

    One only needs to spend 3 minutes reading the comments thread on this very blog about the list of “atheist virtues” to see this apparent disconnect in action.

  • scotmcknight

    Gary Lyn and Kenton,

    Let me first exacerbate the problem and hope we can be reasonable: there is a reality of theological beliefs that one can map on a spectrum, whether one wants to own up to them or not. It is a splendid idea that we don’t need labels or that one doesn’t use labels for oneself, but I’m not sure that mirrors reality. Some people are more liberal and some people are more conservative. Frankly, I see nearly the same thing on both sides, even if liberals/progressives like to pretend they don’t really have labels or care where a person is.

    The way I perceive it, and I think this is where the real problem lies, is that what one side perceives as good the other side perceives as bad, and that one “judges” (some to hell, some as stupid, some as unenlightened, some as drifters, some faithful, etc) the other side on the basis of the beliefs. The problem with judging, which I genuinely believe is a real problem (without denying the need for discernment), doesn’t eliminate the reality of a spectrum of beliefs or that humans will be mapping others.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I understand why some are cautious about labels, but they are helpful. I don’t think the problem is the labels themselves, but how they are misused. Because liberal (as in theology) is often misused by some fundamentalist to mean anyone who holds theology different than them, the label can be unhelpful. But liberal theology has real roots and lineage and people can be identified with it. I found Olson’s distinctives helpful.

    The problem with abusing the label is that it does begin it lose meaning — or at least requires a lot more explanation. If someone called a church liberal, I’d have to follow-up with “liberal, how?” I’m not sure that would have been an issue in 1920.

    Same thing with the world “socialist.”

  • Richard Spafford

    Your categories are very useful for this discussion, and for the most part, I agree that you’ve identified liberal positions. My problem is that you’ve chosen some sort of mythical “unified far left liberal” to illustrate your point. Only those on the extreme left have a cohesive and carefully chosen set of principles in their “creed.” Unlike conservatives, who for better or worse, seek to have unified theology that they, incidentally, would not label as conservative, but as “true to the word of God,” liberal/progressives are not of a unified mindset. Most progressives–yes, you’re right, it’s the preferred term–have a mixed bag of beliefs on the theological spectrum, but what separates them from lock-step theological positions is their commitment to inclusion in the faith and church and to the so-called “social gospel.” Thankfully, you have stayed away from the political parallels of this discussion, but unfortunately, they exist and they are strong.
    Finally, I believe the defining difference for liberals/progressives is a rejection of the “literal and inerrant” position conservatives demand as a gateway to scripture. As an example, many progressives believe in the resurrection and all it signifies, but thoroughly reject most of what is said and implied about the position of women in a marriage, a community, and a faith. Therein, scripture is woefully misleading. That all said, your article was very interesting and useful.

  • I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer see being called a “liberal” as a pejorative (akin to “non-Christian”), although if all of Olsen’s points were required to be called a “liberal,” I would no doubt still have trouble recognizing “liberals” as Christians (although I’m glad that Olsen himself seems more charitable on this regard, however much he disagrees with those theologies).

    Indeed, over the past few years I’ve defended “liberals” (as I have heard some of my friends called by “evangelicals”) as not being so out-of-line with Christianity as they often suppose. The reason for this is simple. When I hear such “evangelicals” label people as “liberals,” it is often with a broad brush that lumps the person in with precisely the kinds of “liberals” Olsen describes. While I have never disagreed that such people exist, my experience with “liberals” has been with believers of a far more moderate ilk. People who do still treat the Bible seriously, and who believe in a bodily resurrection (just for two quick examples), but who may hold less traditional positions on the exclusivity of salvation or on certain sexual standards (although I hasten to add that such people do NOT argue for no sexual standards whatsoever).

    By Olsen’s standards, I am not a “liberal.” But I no longer shy from such a designation if someone insists on giving me one (and, apparently with Scot, while labels have clear limits, I think that calling for an abolition of labels is neither practical nor helpful). I do not know whether “progressive” is more accurate or not (although I won’t run from that one, either). I just know that I am no longer welcome into most “conservative” camps, and probably for good reason.

  • Kenton

    Scot (#17), et. al.-

    Reason together? Absolutely! And, yes, I even understand the need to use some labels as rhetorical shorthand. But here’s the problem that has happened with “liberal” (IMO): it’s not used to further a conversation (a “reason[ing] together”), it is used to bring one to a halt. It’s not used as a “spectrum” word, it’s used as a “line in the sand” word.

    And when I hear it, it smacks my ears as pharisaic.

  • Norman

    I tend to have one item that I consider a dividing line: which is, does one accept a literal resurrection of Jesus from the Grave and that he appeared. That will tend to separate those who approach Christianity from a strictly naturalist point of view from those who accept the power of a supernatural acting God.

    Now I don’t accept many supernatural designated acts in the Bible because “sometimes” they are contextual parable like stories and so I realize that may often separate me from literal reading evangelicals and put me in the realm of the perceived liberal.

    I however tend to give people room to work through this process because everything is not as cut and dry as we would like and people are often on lifelong investigations into biblical truths.
    But if Christ did not rise from the Dead then Christianity is futile is the way Paul puts it I believe.

    I also would remind that the Jews framed the Patriarchal age before Abraham as one in which “faith in God” was the overriding determiner of Godly approval. See Hebrews chapter 11. But this faith was essentially in an idea of God that Christ says was wrapped up in the two Commandments.

    Perhaps we should start with those 2 items instead of the multiplicity of ones Roger is presenting. I really like the diligence Roger attempts to deal with these issues but I think he is on the same investigation that all of us are on and it is an imperfect one and I assume he may adapt as he progresses.

  • Steve Sherwood

    I really like this list, though I’d like to quibble with one of the points a bit. The second point of “doing theology” either “from above (special revelation)” or “from below (general revelation)”. I would say that in my personal, internal theologizing I do “theology from above,” but I have spent 25 years in youth ministry and college ministry and more and more “do theology” in those settings “from below.” I would posit that an effective apologetic in a post-modern world needs to make sense from a general revelation standpoint or our case for specific revelation will not get much of an audience. Personally, I have found this to be very fruitful. Much like NT Wright’s “echoes of a voice” in our experience of the world around us (Simply Christian), I think beginning the theological conversation with the world can lead us to the Cross and Resurrection.

  • I’ve said the same thing about Fundamentalists: “… 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.”

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I find most of these lines of examination useful, but I have to strongly disagree with the notion that “theology from above” proves one’s evangelical status over “theology from below.”

    Perhaps I am mis-reading or mis-characterizing theologies, but to me, theologies from above are the abstract systematic type theologies that are taught in theological seminaries. Eg. Evangelical theology, Calvinist theology, Lutheran theology, etc. I do not see these as superior to theologies from below, primarily because of their presupposition that they are bringing the gospel to the people they are addressing.

    I find theologies that are inductively arrived at from the encounter of people where they are at with scripture as much more missional. Sometimes theologies from below are criticized by evangelicals as “liberation theologies, but I find that to be an undeserved slur. Liberation theologies, like missional theology, merely arise from the encounter of people where they are at with scripture and thereby with gospel. Consequently, such theologies might be liberal, conservative or evangelical.

  • I think this is incredibly reductionist and ultimately unfair to those who don’t fit on the spectrum. As a sociologist I see spectrum thinking as unhelpful and archaic. It only sees truth, beliefs, object relations and the political life as some systematic expression of experience. I think we need to responsibly take into consideration the seriousness of the postmodern foundation that now defines the predominant and current topology of spiritual practice and ideological engagement.

  • Good list, though like with Randy #25, I struggle a bit with the “method” one. Pannenberg and Grenz, for instance, did theology from below, but aren’t really liberals in any meaningful sense because of what they affirm the “below” points towards. The Gospels themselves are, essentially, christologies from below.

    A better distinction in method would be noting that liberals tend to start with anthropological idealism.

  • Tom F.

    Having read the list, I feel somewhat confused; I am probably conservative most of those items, and becoming more liberal on others. I feel like on the sources of authority and on scripture, it is increasingly difficult for me to completely identify as conservative. (Miracles, Christology, ect., I simply feel much less tension about.) However, I resonate with the conservative critique of the general liberal position.

    On scripture and authority, I feel I just don’t understand anymore. This blog has looked having science be a part of the conversation with scripture, and yet where do these two sources line up in terms of importance? Ethics is another big one; it feels like one either has to be a relativist (liberal) or allow that some things are just wrong because God said so. (And God said something different for awhile often as well.) Never mind that many of the major ethical mistakes in history were made by people who were quite confident that they were doing what God had commanded, no questions allowed.

    The “drift” towards liberalism may be as much about feeling pushed as it is about feeling pulled; having doubts in these areas and expressing them in a conservative context often does not mean having a discussion as much as it does simply being identified (forcefully) as liberal. To question authority is already to be liberal, as the definitions above suggest.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Roger Olsen makes an interesting point that theological liberals can be profoundly spiritual but not profoundly Christian. As one who was catechized like Roger in a theological seminary and taught similar things, I have come to disagree with it. I do believe people can believe in dangerous theological viewpoints but that does not mandate they are not Christian any longer. As a matter of fact, the waters get murkier when there are so many theologically proper folks whose attitudes and behaviors just follow the culture as much as any secular person. It’s peoples spiritual encounters with the Living God and the indwelling Holy Spirit that makes people Christians, not their theology. If it all comes down to a theology test on judgment day, then we are all probably in big trouble!

  • norman


    But I’ve been cramming so hard. I just know someone is going to set the curve so high that I get left behind. 🙂 Oh, I forgot Jesus set the curve and said he has me covered.

  • Rick

    CGC #29:
    “It’s peoples spiritual encounters with the Living God and the indwelling Holy Spirit that makes people Christians, not their theology.”

    It is not that simple. Our encounter impacts our theology, or our theology impacts our encounter, or both.

    For example, Olsen wrote: “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.”

    Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15 of issues of “first importance” in his gospel summary, and then wrote: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

    Creedal (or pre-creedal) statements in Scripture, such as “Jesus is Lord” are theological and ones of “encounter”.

    Of course Jesus’ question to Peter in Mark, “But who do you say that I am?” is a great example of the theological and “encounter” combined.

  • Kenton

    CGC (#29)-


    Rick (#31)-

    I like most of what you said about the importance of resurrection and the relationship between encounter and theology, but you undermine your point when you bring up the example of Peter. Peter’s response came from a wrong-headed theology. Peter didn’t mean “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” in a way that meant Jesus would demonstrate what that means in His crucifixion and resurrection, Peter meant that Jesus was going to drive out the Romans by force. He demonstrated it in swinging his sword when the temple guard came. When that moment failed to materialize in the way his theology had it, he broke down and began to deny Jesus. Post-resurrection Jesus seemed more interested in restoring the relationship than in correcting the theology. I’m not sure I can say the same about those who get worked up about what constitutes “liberal.”

  • Bec

    Aren’t there some starving people dying that you should be tending towards, or is that just something liberals do?

  • Rick


    In regards to Jesus’ question, I am focusing on the fact that Jesus even asked the question.

    In regards to the post-res., Jesus wanted his followers to pass along all that He had taught them, which would include teaching from His pre-res days (Matt 28), including theology. Likewise as another example, He stressed theology (teaching of Scriptures pointing to Him) with the gentlemen on the road/in Emmaus (post-res). Finally, His apostles included theology in their writings (or members of the early church), which were post-res.

  • Kenton

    Rick (#33)-

    All great stuff! If the question is “is theology important?”, then my answer is a resounding “YES.” Indeed, it’s what keeps me coming back to this blog. Absolutely yes, let’s include his pre-res teachings. Yes, let’s explore how all scripture points to Him. But we’re going to see things differently at times. And inevitably, we’re going to get some stuff wrong. I think that’s OK. So when we disagree, let’s model Jesus who was less concerned about Peter’s Christology than their relationship. Let’s model Jesus encounter with the woman at the well when she tried to go off on theological differences. (“You know, you really shouldn’t get worked up over which mountain you worship on.”) Or Jesus at His ascension. (“So, Jesus, you gonna kick out the Romans now, and restore the Jewish kingdom? Huh? Huh?” “Yeah… maybe… you guys ought to chill out in the upper room for a few days. Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to straighten you out.”)

    If there was that sort of humility – the sort that values the relationship over right-ness – then wearing a label – any label – wouldn’t be such an issue.

  • Ron Schooler

    What is missing in this discussion for me is the other side of the belief coin–behavior. I think the parable of the two sons, the one who said he would do as his father asked and then didn’t, and the one who said he would not do what the father asked, and then did. Jesus said, “Which son was the father pleased with?” To me that is akin to believing right (whatever that is to God) and behaving right (and we have a lot of instructions here). Let’s face it we all are going to find out that our beliefs were off in what area or another when we meet Christ face-to-face. He is going to ask us, “What did you do…;” not, “What did you believe about my resurrection?”

    Some people respond to this that beliefs lead to behavior. I do not see this in the reality of life. I do see behavior leading to belief.

  • CGC (29) – ” It’s peoples spiritual encounters with the Living God and the indwelling Holy Spirit that makes people Christians, not their theology. If it all comes down to a theology test on judgment day, then we are all probably in big trouble!”

    Amen, Brother. 🙂

    I like to think of my theological constructs like little rowboats on an endless sea. As a child in our faith, we can cling to our boat for a time and mercifully be kept afloat through the early storms, but as we set out for “salvation” beyond the horizon of our watery world the waves get bigger, the winds blow harder and we usually either (a)close our eyes, cling to the sides, and believe harder in our little boat (conservative approach) or (b)start looking for a sturdier boat.

    After clinging to my boat for awhile, and then leaving my simple little boat for more rational alternatives, I’m finally learning that no ship is immune to being tossed about endlessly by the winds and waves of doubt and questions. I’m learning that rather than standing off afar, demanding that I hang on to my own understanding, Christ stands within the storm and churning waves motioning for me to walk to him on the water.

    When doubts and questions threaten our originally childlike faith is when we find that our Christian faith isn’t about believing in the right boat — the right theological understanding— its about stepping out of WHATEVER boat you find yourself in, [whatever you believe will carry you to solid ground], forsaking likewise all other passing vessels, and knowing only that though you will likely begin to sink, Christ is able to make you stand.

    Then comes the hard part: climbing aboard every passing ship, lovingly sharing that eternal life is not beyond the sea’s horizon, but is here, now and forever, if they would just step off their own boat’s plank.

    And then? The joy being promptly thrown overboard!

    Perhaps the conservative hangs on for dear life, the liberal/progressive seeks most modern or most brilliantly engineered ship, but, in the end, we all fear the depths and long for what lays beyond the horizon, never knowing, until we have opened our ears to hear, that eternal life is always just below us if we would step down.

  • Rick

    Nate W.-

    Is the gospel a little boat?

    Are there any things that must be believed?

    Scot recently had a related post that touched on this, and on the importance of Christology and soteriology.


  • pete zimmerman

    I am a former evangelical. I did not “drift” into liberalism. I walked away from the evangelical/protestant “sola scriptura” and organized religion when I was 24. Did not look back. I knew there were other variants of the faith, I had a religion degree from Baylor but I found mainline churches that let me think to be cold and not challenging of the status quo except when they became shills for the democratic party. I found god in AA. When I decided to go back to the body of Christ Jesus to be an active part, I knew that evangelicalism and pentecostalism were intellectually bankrupt. I read Yoder and I read Brian Mclaren, as well as all the hard stuff they make you read at Wake Forest Divinity school. I went FROM a spiritual/secular humanist to being a jesus follower. I reject the authority of the bible. It is an invention of orthodoxy, not jesus. My authority is Jesus, and the “data” or written source are the four gospels. Jesus left an oral gospel, and the early church followed it “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” we need the hebrew scriptures in order to understand Jesus. and we need the writings of the new testament to understand what the first 150 years of his followers thought. But if jesus is LORD, then jesus will function as guide/guru and the spirit will reveal godself. that is my theory of “scripture” I know jesus did not literally say all the words of the gospels but they are close enough to give us, in written form, a sufficient glimpse of the historical jesus who became the risen christ. Do I believe in a actual resurrection? Yes, if you mean that Jesus is active and a coherent force in the universe. no, if you think he actually has a literal flesh and blood body. skin/blood/bone cells don’t “zap” in and out of rooms, but energy/force could. Do I think jesus died for MY sins. no. I think he died for OUR sins….the evils of the human race required a divine substitute. God did not send jesus “merely” to save us from sin. God gave the universe freedom, and then this freedom led to the evolutionary creation of life, death, evil, and tragedy. In order to make this free universe one with God in a non-coercive way, the infinite had to become finite. the limitless had to become limited. and the living god had to experience death. In taking death into the divine reality, something happened. God learned. God learned something only the finite could know. In a sense, god is “at fault” for the evil of the universe and therefore the “remedy” had to use God, not us. There was no adam and eve. There was simply evolution subtly lured into the future by God that led to humanity and god then chose to make humanity God’s image in creation. that final omega image is Jesus. is that liberal? cause most liberals I know think that god does not do much so we should all be loving to each other because we don’t know anything. whereas I think that Jesus is the example that will eventually guide us to a higher, more evolved way of being human. All it will take to end war, famine, etc is that millions of jesus followers start following jesus all the way to death. that will eventually happen. Jesus will not “literally” return from the sky…..because heaven is not up! How could jesus literally ascend to “heaven”? did he ascend past mars? Did he ascend to the stratosphere and then “teleport” to heaven. Where is this heaven? the worldivew that jesus ascended was ended when man landed on the moon. God is bigger than space/time so how could god be limited to “a heaven” above earth. Jesus “ascended” but then Paul claims to have seen the real jesus, not just a vision, after the fact. We know posit panentheism. God is in all but not all is god. why did the resurrected Jesus “leave”? i don’t know that he did. I know that the resurrected Jesus decided that the modality for the early church experiencing god would be termed the coming of the holy spirit. Maybe you all don’t have the trinity figured out as easily as you think. I am not waiting for the return of jesus in the sky to fix the world. that basically means that his body is not as empowered with the spirit as it seems to be in acts. I await a spiritual age when those who lay down their lives in the way of jesus have literally transformed history. that will not mean an end. history will never end. In jewish apocalypticism, in the coming age people planted vineyards and had kids. they were not awaiting the heaven like early christians. So am I “liberal” for believing that the body of christ will transform the world into a place where god’s will is done 100 times more than it is now? cause I may be a heretic, but that does not sound like modernist “liberalism” that thinks humanity can save us. it will take god’s spirit and our cooperation to transform the world.

  • TJJ

    I would agree with Olsons points in that they reflect my thinking as well when I discern where people are on the theological spectrum. And I do agree it is a spectrum where people land in many different shades of grey, no coin of phrase intended. But I too often find a short hand for this……the true bodily ressurrection of Jesus, and the true diety/divinity of Jesus, a true salvation in Christ (new spiritual birth, remission of sinfulness, new position before God) . I don’t view those who do not truly hold to those as nonchristian, evil, or the enemy, but to me they are liberal.

  • NateW

    Rick – “Is the gospel a little boat?” No, in my (rather silly) metaphor, the little boat is our own understanding, our theological ways of talking about God. They are necessary and good, giving structure and guidance as we mature, but as we grow there will come a time when Christ calls us to emerge from a reliance on our own understanding of God. Faith in Christ ultimately gives freedom from the fear of being wrong which, I think, is a primary reason for the contention between conservatives and liberals. It isn’t a matter of one being right and the other being wrong because at its very root the gospel doesn’t hinge on knowing 100% correct facts about God, but on humbly knowing the limitations of my own understanding (stop clinging to my own boat), putting to death the part of us that needs to be fulfilled, certain, and content, and being willing to follow Christ in self-giving death that others might come to know his love as well.

    “Are there any things that must be believed?”
    Absolutely. But we must recognize that our minds are desperately deceitful. We do not believe what we assent to with our minds, we believe in that which shapes our actions, moment by moment. We don’t believe with our mind, but with the inclinations of our hearts. On its own, this appears to be bad news as our sins betray the poor estate of our hearts, but like Peter, as we take that first step out onto the churning water, we may become afraid and begin to sink, but thanks be to God that our salvation isn’t in our ability to grasp him, but in his faithfulness in upholding us.

  • Sher

    Nate 41
    Thank you Nate for using such clear language…it so resonates with me.

  • Rick


    Thanks for your feedback.

    “at its very root the gospel doesn’t hinge on knowing 100% correct facts about God”

    I don’t disagree, and think we cannot know Him exhaustively, yet I do think we can be certain about some things/know Him sufficiently.

    “We do not believe what we assent to with our minds, we believe in that which shapes our actions, moment by moment. We don’t believe with our mind, but with the inclinations of our hearts.”

    I think we believe with our whole selves, including mind and heart.

  • NateW

    Rick – I agree that belief is “whole-self” (heart, mind, soul and strength) and should be more careful about making such “either/or” statements. Thanks for calling me out on that.

    I didn’t, however, really mean that we don’t believe with our minds, but was trying to emphasize that humble faith in christ doesn’t necessarily require any certain list of cognitive assentions. Humility is, in large part, an awareness of our own limitations and our tendency to seek security and fulfillment in clinging to a certain way of phrasing and understanding. There IS ultimate, rock solid, foundational Truth in Christ, but it is a truth that must be incarnated into and experienced within multi-dimensional reality to be known. As Peter Rollins has said, the things that we find most impossible to say are the very things that we must not give up speaking about.

    Christ reveals a God who transcends every word, phrase, metaphor, and concept, yet can be communicated truly in a single instance of Christ-like love for one who disagrees with us. This moment is always present to us, in each situation. If the present moment calls for words, then we must speak, but not so much as one who is secure in knowing ABOUT God, but as one who is freed to speak imperfectly because he is known BY God.

  • Phil Miller

    It’s funny how different people read a piece and come away with different conclusions from the piece. I read Olson’s piece a few days ago, and I didn’t think his intention was at all to apply labels on people or create boundaries. I really think he was more interested in defining the term “liberal” in a meaningful way. As others here have pointed out, it’s a term that gets thrown out a lot times in discussions, and it’s kind of a way of blacklisting someone. I think Olson’s point was that the word has a real, historic meaning, and that many people who get the label applied to them probably don’t line up with that meaning.

    As far as the point of things one must mentally affirm to be a Christian, I do get the idea that being a Christian goes beyond a mental checklists of beliefs, but I will say that I still think it’s important that we realize that Christianity is rooted in some historic facts. For example, I think one would be hard-pressed to make a case that a literal, physical resurrection isn’t a foundational thing in Christianity. It seems that once we “spiritualize” the resurrection, we’re left with something that becomes a vague and abstract hope. I actually think the insistence on the physical nature of the resurrection is the thing that makes Christianity unique. Once we walk away from that, I’m not sure what we’re left with. I don’t say that to condemn anyone, but I just have a hard time seeing how Jesus is any different than other “enlightened” beings if He was not actually raised.

  • Rick

    NateW #44-

    There are certain thing that we do know about God, because we are known by God. We don’t reach to know Him, rather, He has descended to communicate to us, through the Incarnation and through the Holy Spirit. In regards to the use of words, we must use them to proclaim the gospel.

    Phil #45-

    Well said.

  • norman

    @ pete Zimmerman #39

    Pete, I didn’t really have much to differ with your observations. However, I likely differ with some of the data that you have used to draw some of your conclusions/remarks. I don’t think the NT is spread out over 150 years but over 40 but that is a technical discussion that will bore folks even though it has ramifications for interpreting/applications. I think the apocalyptic literature is misunderstood by both laymen and many scholars especially Revelation. I believe Revelation presents the reality of the Kingdom of Christ coming full force down from Heaven to man in which God will dwell with them. This is not some pie in the sky off in the future prediction but was simply apocalyptic descriptions used to illustrate exactly what you are still looking for.

    “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

    The Kingdom of Christ is here with us and is to be embraced just as you have. The challenge is to continue spreading the good news and to embrace Christ as you have. No need to keep waiting. 🙂

    Just a final word on apocalyptic literature. I think the problem I have with higher scholarly criticism is that scholars recognize the non-literal nature of that genre but they don’t act like it when it comes to applications sometimes. I believe many think that the ancients were ignorant people who took apocalyptic woodenly literal and thought God resided up in the atmosphere somehow. Very likely the general run of the mill layman of the times may have thought in that manner but that doesn’t appear to hold for the more educated Jewish writers who understood the metaphorical consistent purpose of that literature. We see that in the Barnabas Epistle in which the writer essentially explains the hermeneutic application to his audience and delves into the problem of literalizing the OT bible. He accuses the apostate Jews who didn’t accept Christ of that error. His hermeneutic approach is what allowed the NT writers to see Christ in the OT and 2nd Temple literature much more clearly than those who like our modern dispensationalist evangelical friends are still looking for a physical messiah to return again and get it right the next time.

    That is why many people including scholars just let Revelation go right over their head because they think it “must” have been literal to the author and the audience. This is also where the dating of the NT comes in because modern critical scholars have to spread out the NT in a 150 year span to work it into a system that has no prophetic fulfillment because fulfilled prophecy just doesn’t often work in their minds.

  • Marshall

    As someone who was raised liberal (Boston Unitarian circa. 1950), I don’t think this catches it at all. My one-sentence definition of what I grew up with is “Men of good will, talking together honestly, can resolve any problem.”

    I would call Roger’s side of the fence he built “strong conservative” at least; and out here on the roomy side, a lot of people have staked a lot of different tents.

  • Marshall H.

    #48 Marshall-
    What do you see as the problem with his definition? He is looking at the theological positions of those who the term “theologically liberal” has historically been applied to. Liberalism may represent “Men of good will, talking together honestly, can resolve any problem.” to you, but that sentence does nothing to clear up what liberals actually believe, i.e. what specific beiefs seperate them from all the other forms of Christianity. This isn’t some fence Roger built, but an attempt to explain how the term liberal is accurately used, and who it applies to in the sense that theologians have traditionally used the term. I don’t see anything constricting or judgemental about that. Many people who could only loosely be called conservative (in the loose way people typically use the term) would fail to meet the requirements of what he considers liberal; what you are calling “the roomy side” seems to me to be a fairly specific set of beliefs, whereas the side you consider “strong conservative” encompasses a myriad of differing viewpoints. Anyways, as Phil (#45) said, “It’s funny how different people read a piece and come away with different conclusions from the piece.”

    P.S. Yes, my first name really is Marshall too

  • Jaymes Lackey

    So… a christo-centric apostles creed with a heavy dose of scripture?

  • Marshall

    Well, I guess I didn’t connect all the dots. What Scot quotes is a reasonable rough boundary marker, and Roger does use “tend to think” language, so far so good. But following that he says:

    “So what’s wrong with being liberal theologically in that way? … 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 … 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.”… 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.”

    That’s the part that turns a prototype into a fence.

    As to my take on ‘liberalism’, I’m just saying that’s what the word meant when I learned it in church, and it was a good thing to be. (I know I come from a different place than most of y’all … I might add that I found the liberalism of my youth profoundly unsatisfying, although for different reasons than here.) But anyway as far as I can tell political and theological liberalism are mostly the same ideas, worked out differently. As Roger quotes Claude Welch: Liberalism is about “maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modernity”. Individual vs. collective worth, positivism/foundationalism vs. inspiration, etc.

  • Doug Allen

    As a Unitarian/Universalist I have church friends who are orthodox Christians, not liberals as described by Olson above. Some are gay who were not welcome at their previous churches; some are Universalists. Other church friends, probably the majority, are theologically liberal or progressive. I facilitate the video series, “Living the Questions” in which Marcus Borg and his liberal beliefs play a large role. That liberal religious perspective resonates with a lot of our members. Other church friends call theselves secualar humanists, and some others religious humanists. Both Unitarianism and Universalism are centuries old Christian traditions going back to the reformation and, of course, the Councils long before that. When the head of our church met with Pope John XXIII at the Vatican many decades ago, Pope John said with a twinkle in his eye- “You have taken all our heresies and made a religion out of it!” Our religious forefounders paid dearly for their Christian beliefs. Most early Reformation Unitarians and Universalists were excommunicated; many banished from their communities and countries; quite a few died for their beliefs. Our belief in freedom of religion follows from that history of persecution; our belief in in a loving God follows from the way we were treated by most of those who believed in a judgmental God; our belief in social justice and our skepticism of dogma and doctrine follow, we believe, from Jesus’ commandment (to love God and love man) and His example. We are proud to call ours a liberal religion and reluctant to condemn other religious points of view. None of us live up to this calling, but we try. So we are a very liberal religion even though some of us are mostly conservative theologically based on Olson’s points above!