Detecting Liberal Seminaries

Detecting Liberal Seminaries September 4, 2013

From Mark Stevens:

Cliff Kvidahl over at ‘Theological Musings’ has responded to a rather evocative post outlining ways in which one can spot a liberal seminary (See: Beware of the Liberals! Marcan Priority and Inspiration). I have to be honest and say I felt incredibly sad when I read “How to Spot a Liberal Seminary” According to the author, if a seminary holds to a belief that the whole Bible is anything other than the “plenary and verbally accurate” (i.e. as a whole and in its parts), then it has no business claiming to be conservative. Furthermore, if it holds to Marcan priority, women in ministry, anything other than Mosaic authorship of Pentateuch, and doesn’t teach a literal 6 day creation, then it is liberal!

The author goes on to claim that if we train at such a seminary we are in danger of becoming un-equipped for ministry! Wow! That is a mighty big claim, no? The seminary I trained at taught critical scholarship of the Old and New Testaments as a way of better understanding the meaning of the text. It trains women for pastoral ministry, it believes in the authority of scripture but would never use the words inerrant or plenary to describe the bible. And yet, in spite of all of this is I would hardly call it liberal. It seems to me their definition of liberal is “whoever doesn’t agree with our pre-suppositions about the bible and secondary issues relating to the history and source of the text are liberal.” In my opinion this isn’t so much a conservative stance but more of a fundamentalist one.  But hey, I could be wrong.

Now it might be true that your seminary is liberal but may I ask if that is a bad thing? I think of myself as a conservative (I hold to virgin birth, Resurrection, and even Pauline authorship of the pastorals!) but I am a pastor in what I would consider a liberal denomination. What I have come to realise is that word liberal shouldn’t be used to define someone’s faith. Rather it should be used to describe their tradition and approach (in much the same way one might use progressive, Pentecostal, Reformed etc). Don’t get me wrong, I disagree with a lot of the things my colleagues believe. It is downright hard at times. The reason I find it difficult is because I was taught to see liberals as wrong and even as unsaved! However, when I was left for dead (spiritually speaking) by the denomination that called me and trained me for ministry it was the liberals who played Good Samaritan. When I was lying on the side of the road ‘spiritually wounded’ they helped me back to health. They were my Samaritan! They paid the bills. They were Jesus to me in ways my tradition were not. I struggle in my denomination and at times as it can be lonely. But I know this is where God wants me. He led me here. So I rest in that.

Our church is currently looking at The Jesus Creed. In Scot’s chapter on ‘Believing in Jesus’ I  shared some thoughts with our church which came out of my reading of that chapter about what it means to believe and what belief looks like:

  • Faith is not about believing the right things about Jesus, nor is about looking right, acting right or being right. It’s about believing in Jesus.
  • It isn’t about what we believe; it is that our belief leads us into relationship with Him.
  • And when we come to the table we identify ourselves as disciples, or friends, of Jesus! Our doctrine, our theology or anything like it does not open up a place at the table for us. We must hold our theology lightly and respectfully.

I realise that this  post has gone beyond that of the original thoughts related to seminary but one gets the feeling that under-girding the critique is the notion that liberals are not Christians.  If a person calls Jesus Lord then I personally am happy to call them a brother or sister in Christ. If they are pro-gay marriage, don’t believe in the resurrection, if they believe someone other than Paul wrote 2 Timothy then I will agree to disagree and do my best to understand why they believe what they do. However, I will also stand firmly on the things I believe to be true of our faith but I will endeavour to respectfully dialogue with folks about those beliefs.

What I will not do is, and what I think is bad Christian practice, is to allow my beliefs to define another person’s faith. Our tradition, in my case conservative, should define what we think not whether another person is saved or a Christian. This is not an easy road to walk and I still carry many questions about how this works. It seems to me this is what God requires of any person who leads a “love God, love your neighbour as yourself” kind of life. And hey, it is the way I wish to be treated by those colleagues who disagree with me! When will we get it? Being brothers and sisters in Christ is about Jesus and not what we believe about him.  Let us not forget that sometimes who is liberal and who is conservative depends upon where stand!

Personally I’d love to hear from others who have walked this road or from those who have some thoughts on how conservatives and liberals might live together in respect and with respectful dialogue. All I ask is that comments do not become personal or abusive against me or any other commentator. 🙂 

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  • gingoro

    From the original article that sparked this discussion:

    ” to equip women for a plethora of ministries, including preaching and teaching to women and children, writing theological books and articles, and many other careers that would require the highest level of theological training.”

    Almost 20 years ago I attended a church that held to the above position except that they implicitly added missionary to the list of things that a woman could do. It seemed fine that women could perform the role of pastor provided it was not in the home country. To my mind this is blatant racism. From my childhood I recall that most mission stations, where my parents served, consisted of two single women and a married couple but some stations had women only as there were not enough married couples to go around.

  • Hello Scott.
    As we are accustomed with you, this is a very thought-provoking, compassionate and brilliant post.

    It is clear that fundamentalists call all of those disagreeing with them heretics, liberals or both.

    I think that Roger Olson’s definition of a liberal as someone rejecting the reality of the supernatural is a very useful one and this is why I consider myself neither a liberal nor a conservative but a progressive Christian, as I try to present and articulate here:

    In Germany, there are many pastors of mainstream protestant churches who have a huge admiration for Jesus but neither believes in God nor even in an afterlife.
    While I don’t see any reason to think they won’t spend the eternity with the Almighty (and have a pleasant surprise after they pass away) I also believe it is wrong to call them Christians, they are actually atheists loving the historical person of Jesus.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • americanwoman343

    Yes! And I had the same experience as the author – when my “conservative” denomination left me for dead, it was the liberal seminary God sent me to who picked me up and nursed me to health. What the writer of Yeh original article can’t the midst of his milieu is that he is doing the work of Pharisees, defending the bastions above everything else, keeping an rye out for who is wrong. But Jesus is out there with everyone, not needing to correct everyone’s doctrine but entering into relationship with them.

  • Michael Roca-Terry

    Hi there,

    I have personally been walking a path that has led me into this very issue over the past few years. I have been wrestling with the question of how to disagree respectfully. It’s not an easy walk.

    God convicted me recently at a residential element to a part time theology course I have recently started, about the use and function of doctrine. Firstly, Jesus didn’t reveal himself to me because I had perfect doctrine. In fact, when I met him for the first time 7 years ago, I had terrible doctrine.

    Equally, whilst there are lines to be drawn regarding our beliefs as Christians, when we use doctrine like a stick to beat our brothers and sisters with, we defile ourselves. Christ didn’t die so that we could espouse hatred dressed up as “orthodoxy”.

    I’m not sure that there’s a clear cut answer in this. There is the question of what constitutes a false teacher or a wolf, as described in the New Testament. I think it would be naive to suggest that we won’t encounter these. Yet I think we Christians all too often apply a judgement that is not proportionate to the crime.

    There is a difference between somebody wrestling with doubt and questions, and somebody stirring up division and seeking to lead swathes of believers astray. It’s a difference we need great care and discernment in identifying.

    I’m still on a journey with this but I think that questioning somebody’s salvation over a theological disagreement is a scary position to put oneself in. Since by the measure we use, it will be measured to us.


  • Ron Fay

    The problem I have with this post is that he basically decides
    liberal is anyone to my left and fundamentalist is anyone to my right,
    therefore I am conservative. The historical issues involved never get
    touched. The Evangelical movement was based on the authority of the
    Bible, and in allowing for the Bible to be wrong in parts, the author
    automatically distances himself from the Evangelical movement by
    historical definition. The Evangelical movement was a response to the
    liberal movement, and while there are now post-liberals and
    post-conservatives, the historical demarcation of the authority of
    Scripture and how it is without error (no matter what tag you want to
    use for that) is the line between liberal and conservative. Conservative
    means to hold onto what the church has historically believed, so
    technically women as pastors is in fact a progressive position, and
    therefore if one is progressive one cannot be conservative (a point the
    author misses in calling himself both progressive and conservative, an
    obvious internal inconsistency).

    This is not an issue of faith or salvation, it is an issue of labels.
    While I may agree with some of the points of the other article, his
    move to say liberal seminaries do not train for the ministry is not
    true. For that matter, some conservative seminaries do not train for the
    ministry because they do not prepare you for dealing with people, they
    just stuff your head (and library) full.

  • Scott Gay

    In a Jesus Creed post on August 23, 2013 by Miles Mullin there is a PS about a great interview of David Swartz by Brantley Gasaway. Swartz gives his opinion of the overlap of conservative and progressive evangelicals……local, regional, and international acts of compassion; human and civil rights activism: campaigns for voluntary simplicity; intentional communities; attempts to carry out a consistent life ethic.
    That last one….consistent attempts…..has to be increasingly on the horizon considering the flood of turmoil individuals, families, regions, and communities are experiencing.

  • LT

    To the original article (from Cripplegate), while Marcan priority is clearly out of place, the others do define “conservative,” since “conservative” means to conserve what has been handed down. Those issues are what was given; to go against them may be correct, but it is not conservative by definition (unless you ignore the vast majority of church history and use only the last few decades).

    To the remarks from Mark Stevens concerning Jesus Creed (the bullet points) is confusing. I haven’t read Scot’s book, so I am going off what Mark says, but if we suggest that we can have a relationship with Jesus apart from believing right things about him, it is not a relationship with Jesus that we have, but rather a relationship with a Jesus that we have made up. We have to believe right things about Jesus to have a relationship with *him.* Otherwise our relationship is with someone else or something else that is not the actual historical Jesus.

    I imagine Scot is likely saying that belief is not simply believing right things about Jesus, but it is not less than that. It is more.

  • Will Puth

    It seems like you may want to read the article again. I think you missed that he is playing into how conservative and liberal are relative terms. To one person McKnight is radically conservative and to another he is ridiculously liberal, all while holding the same belief. If anything, this article is trying to cut down on those labels (not promote them like you are reiterating) and promote community by letting relationships seek to understand beliefs. Labels just get in the way of relationship, because it’s easier to assume what someone believes by their label than it is to respect who they are and get to know why they believe what they believe.
    Again, McKnight is not saying liberal seminaries do not train for ministry. He is reporting what another author had stated.
    Don’t get me wrong either. It’s completely OK to have conclusions about what certain groups believe, but not assumptions by labels. It’s true, I’m not going to go to certain churches based on what they believe. I came to these conclusions through experience and study. I can know what they believe, disagree with it, and still respect them. I think McKnight is promoting commUNITY even when it may seem like it is not. We can disagree, but we need to find out why, how, and where we have differences through relationship, not labels.

  • LT

    Actually, Jesus spent an awful lot of time correcting people’s doctrine, both reactively (as with the disciples and the Pharisees) and proactively (by teaching).

    And the apostles (those who learned directly from Jesus what to do) urged us to “earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” and “to mark and avoid those who cause division contrary to the doctrine you learned.” Both of those require the correcting of doctrine.

  • Will Puth

    I need to correct myself from not reading the article again. It appears McKnight is re-quoting Mark Stevens with this article who is responding to Kvidhal. So I’m assuming McKnight has similar ideas since he is endorsing it, but it is not directly from him. Sorry, I had assumed McKnight was the original author.

  • Will Puth

    Having been “trained” at a conservative Evangelical college in the western suburbs of Chicago, I can really identify with this push for community even in disagreement. (I can’t say that I’m very conservative in label, though I like to convince myself I’m so conservative, I’m liberal.) One of the best things about studying at this school was how much we disagreed with each other on theological points. I could worship next this person in chapel, praising God, but we walked away with very different perspectives on God. We could argue and discuss these issues, but we could see the passion each of us had for our faith. It was hard to accuse someone of not being a Christian when living in community, though we disagreed on theology. Of course, there are accurate theological reflections of God and we should always push to be more accurate, but no one has is perfectly. In fact, I don’t think I’ve run into anyone that I completely agree with theologically and, conversely, I don’t tend to hold beliefs that I know to be inaccurate (some like to call this right/wrong which is a funny label for theology). My dearest siblings in ministry have held positions that I thought were completely insane, but that didn’t need to interfere with being the Body and living out God’s calling on our lives. Living in relational commUNITY doesn’t mean we have to all look and sound alike, but we can respect, understand, and work together on God’s mission. We don’t have to agree on Markan priority to serve the poor and care for the hurting.
    If we want to draw on fundamentalist perspectives, the thief next to Christ on the cross probably didn’t believe in Markan priority either since the New Testament hadn’t been written yet. Still, Jesus said he would be in Paradise. Oh, either did Paul believe it either since most of the Gospels hadn’t been written yet. I’d still call Paul a devoted Christian that was prepared for ministry. And either did Jesus since…well, you get my point.

  • Rick

    “if we suggest that we can have a relationship with Jesus apart from believing right things about him, it is not a relationship with Jesus that we have, but rather a relationship with a Jesus that we have made up.”

    Agreed. As Tim Keller has said:
    “I have encountered churches that claim, “We don’t teach
    doctrine, we just preach Jesus.” But the moment you ask them—‘Well, who is Jesus, and what did he do?’—the only way to answer is to begin to lay out
    doctrine. But Paul does not simply say that right doctrine is necessary, but it is “sound.” The Greek word Paul uses here means healthy rather than diseased. This is Paul’s way to say that wrong doctrine eats away at your spiritual health.”

  • Phil Miller

    I guess it depends on what you mean by “the right things”. I think there’s a core that we could agree on, but it does seem there’s some room for interpretation. I would liken it to my relationship with my wife. When I first met her, there was a lot I didn’t know about her. But I learned more the more I interacted with her.

  • Scott

    The original article is a textbook example of theological foundationalism. They find it easy to dismiss those who disagree over what many would consider secondary issues because they see those issues as bricks in the foundation. Remove those bricks and they believe the entire Christian faith will collapse.

  • You’re not gonna find a lot of people who describe Pentecostals as liberal. (Nuts and heretics maybe, but not liberal.) Yet at my Assemblies of God school, we learned Marcan priority, plus we prepared women for ministry.

    True, it shook the faith of some. One of my professors, in teaching “to Ephesus” was likely not in the original text of Ephesians, had to deal with an outraged student who couldn’t abide the idea that his King James bible wasn’t inerrant. But that faith was based on a foundation of sand, and needed shaking. We had to get past our dependence on iffy but far-too-beloved traditions, and seek truth.

  • SteveSherwood

    By this definition, may we all be liberals.

  • LT

    One caveat, Scott, to “consider” something secondary does not in fact make it so. It may be foundational. But even that is a red herring. The issue is over clarity. We are bound, as Christians, to believe whatever God has said. On some things that is less clear and on other things, even “secondary things” it is very clear. This is why complementarianism belongs in the list, and Matthean priority does not. One is explicitly clear and can only be denied by denying the very possibility of communication; the other is a matter of deduction from limited evidence.

    It is true that many people consider things “primary” that aren’t indeed primary. Their considering them primary does not make them so. It is also true that many people consider things secondary that aren’t secondary.

  • Tim M

    Scot, I’m confused by who’s words these are. Which parts of this post are from Mark Stevens and which parts are yours?

  • Ron Fay

    I think you proved my point for me. The author wants to eschew labels, and yet uses them inconsistently and historically inaccurately. If he wants to go after these labels, he would do well to understand and use them correctly instead of committing the exact fallacy he derides or warns against in his conclusion.

  • Ron Fay

    I think the easiest way for liberals and conservatives to live together are through a few simple things:

    1) worship: worshiping God together using traditional songs, so nobody is left outside

    2) acts of service: working together to help the homeless, the poor, the orphans, and the widows

    3) critiquing culture: while Christians are not unified on what is right, there is some common ground on what is wrong with culture, and our voice would be stronger if it were a single voice

  • scotmcknight

    None are from me.

  • scotmcknight

    Your assumptions are faulty, too. I posted this because I thought it was interesting, not because I espouse everything he says. Common on this blog.

  • Andrew Dowling

    LT, many Christians don’t consider everything in the Bible to be literally “what God said” . . thus a big divide between the conservative and liberal side. You are simply talking like your particular interpretation is primary, which is an example of why these conflicts are so entrenched.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Taking Genesis as literal history is a byproduct of the last 150 years, it was not something “handed down” from the early Church. And if you were truly “conservative” by your definition . . .you wouldn’t be Protestant.

  • Mark Stevens

    Michael, thanks for the feedback. I liked this distinction as a way of working out a false teacher or wolf, “There is a difference between somebody wrestling with doubt and questions, and somebody stirring up division and seeking to lead swathes of believers astray. It’s a difference we need great care and discernment in identifying.”

  • LT

    False on both counts. Genesis as literal history dates back to the OT times and was confirmed by Jesus and Paul. I am not really a Protestant per se, as a Baptist (though there are debates about the relationship). But our doctrine and ecclesiology predate the RCC by 400 or so years at least, since they stem from the NT.

    But again conservatism is to conserve. Those three issues are things that liberals are not conserving.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “But our doctrine and ecclesiology predate the RCC by 400 or so years at least”

    Oh good grief . . .

  • Cliff Kvidahl

    Mark is not responding to me, he is merely pointing out what I said in my original post and elaborating on it.

  • Will Puth

    Got it. He was saddened by the reading of the article you were responding to, not your article. I missed that “Detecting Liberal Seminaries” was not your article. My mistake.

  • Will Puth

    Good to know…lol. It’s my first time reading your blog, though I’ve been to some of your teachings and have read many of your reference books. I feel like I got Inceptioned on this one. It’s a unnoted note of interest in a blog using a reference of another blog that is a response to another blog.

  • LT

    Is that a response? Because it doesn’t make sense. The RCC as we know it is a product of the fourth century or so, with a little run up to it. That’s not really disputed by many, at least many without an axe to grind.

  • LT

    I don’t know any Christians who believe that everything in the Bible is literally “what God said.” You have way oversimplified a more complex issue.

    But I am not even talking about my particular interpretation. My point is that considering something primary or secondary does not make it primary or secondary. People’s considerations can be wrong or misguided, even from a good conscience. I didn’t even give any particular interpretation.

    But even if I did, that’s a red herring. Something is not primary (or secondary) because I say so. Or because you say so. We are not the standard.

  • Scott

    LT, I understand your point on primary and secondary issues. However, I’m not sure you understand the difference between foundational ism and post-foundationalism. This is not a red herring. It is the very lens through which one reads the Biblical text.

  • LT

    I understand it. That isn’t the point here, at least in my comments that were responding to.

  • Similar to others here, I was an evangelically-educated (Talbot, M.Div.). Over two decades ago, I was 40 yr. old immersed in a “liberal” environment – doing PhD work at the very progressive Claremont School of Theology. It knocked down my stereotypes of being “liberal”, and I began to see that, despite “camps” that often seemed in total opposition, it was often hard to label a person (either prof or student) as “conservative” or “liberal”. Plus, I was treated with real respect by those clearly more liberal – again, both profs and students. That didn’t “switch” me, but helped me look deeper, such that a couple years later, I came to see that many liberal perspectives seemed to be right, or at least more suitable to internal biblical consistency, clear spiritual principles (from Jesus, Paul, certain of the Prophets, etc.), established facts of history, the way God created our minds and hearts, etc.

    If “liberalism” is a bad as many conservatives believe it to be, then the graciousness of so many liberals (granted, not all) requires some ‘splainin’ that I’ve not heard conservatives do.

  • Steven W. De Bernardi

    I have found it best to stay away from theological conversations with anyone who identifies themselves by any title other than a disciple of Jesus. The comments posted before mine only serve to confirm the rightness of this path for me.

  • SonofLight

    I trained at two seminaries. One in the Chicago area that was thought of as progressive and another in the Pittsburgh area that is thought of as conservative. I found professors who loved Jesus very much at both seminaries. To be honest my conservative tendencies were accommodated much better at the more progressive seminary than my liberal ones were at the conservative school. But that is an over generalization. I love both schools and my professors there. As the Psalmist says it is a beautiful thing when brothers (and sisters) can dwell together in unity