Eleven Elements of Liberal Orthodoxy

Eleven Elements of Liberal Orthodoxy March 17, 2014

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

Until now. Liberalism occupies a perch of power that can be described as powerful in voice but a minority in numbers. When I say powerful I don’t mean as powerful as it was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but I believe their power remains. That story is changing as liberalism seeks to write it’s own story and striking out for new opportunities. A number of fresh books have come my way, all telling the story of liberalism. One senses liberalism has seen the narrowing of its tunnel of light and now realizes that it, too, must compete in the open market of ideas by telling its own story. One can say a new era of liberal apologetics has arisen. I have looked at Christopher Evans, Liberalism without Illusions, and today I want to sketch the eleven elements of “liberal orthodoxy” in Michael J. Langford’s highly readable and important study, The Tradition of Liberal Theology (Eerdmans).

Langford’s contention is that there is a liberal orthodoxy or a moderate-to-conservative liberalism as well as a more radical liberalism, sometimes called “wooly liberalism.” His version of liberalism, then, is “mainstream” Christianity, it adheres — with revision — the classic creeds. Perhaps most notably, he does not include Friedrich Schleiermacher in “liberal orthodoxy” but rather in a more radical version. Schleiermacher’s emphasis on feeling (he defines this well and accurately) does not fit well with the more “rational nature of the tradition” (13). The major alternatives to his “liberal orthodoxy” today is Barthianism and postliberalism.

So, what is it? Liberal orthodoxy is a “balance between religious faith and human rationality” and is thus closer to “apologetics” that appeals to “reason rather than to emotion” (1). He affirms classical theism: God as creator ex nihilo and that this God has a personal relation with humans. He thinks Schleiermacher’s focus on feeling vs. reason fails the test of liberalism, as does his diminishment of the creed and his openness to other faiths. Postliberalism does not a true “measure of universal rationality” (16). His problem with conservativism is that it is rationally suspect and fanatical.  And he suggests the liberal orthodox are born again.

Now to the eleven elements, up through 1900:

1. A use of the Bible that is not always literal.
2. Reason and revelation are in harmony.
3. A nonlegalist account of redemption.
4. The possiblity of salvation outside a narrow path.
5. Toleration.
6. Original sin, but not original guilt.
7. Belief in free will.
8. A view of providence that respects the integrity of the natural order.
9. The joint need of faith and works.
10. A minimal number of basic teachings.
11. A range of acceptable lifestyles.

His discussion of miracles is muddled: what do we mean by “miracle”? Miracles should not be used to prove the faith, and faith can lead a life to see a variety of miracles, liberals vary on miracles — that is, one believes Jesus is the Son of God and therefore in miracles. On the resurrection of Jesus he focuses on the presence of the living Christ.

The 20th Century sees a few more themes in the matrix of liberal orthodoxy: (1) human sexuality and gender, (2) women in ministry, (3) scientific developments, and (4) capitalism.

So, who are the liberal orthodox? He gives thirteen names, and his focus is on the English tradition: Justin Martyr, Origen, Peter Abelard, Sebastian Castellio, Elizabeth I, Richard Hooker, William Chillingworth, John Smith, Jeremy Taylor, Hannah Barnard, JFD Maurice, JB Lighfoot, and Frederick Temple.

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