Liberalism Reinvented (by Carl Trueman)

Liberalism Reinvented (by Carl Trueman) June 30, 2014

This review is by Carl Trueman, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, pastor, and one of my favorite church historians. His book, The Creedal Imperative, is a timely reminder that low church doctrinal statements need stronger ties to the great tradition of the church. (Come back at 9:30am today for a summary of that book.) I have been reading this year on American Protestant liberalism but when I came across Theo Hobson, Reinventing Liberal Christianity, and began to read it I realized he made a move that few have made: he ties liberal theology to liberal politics from the Enlightenment on. So I asked Carl Trueman if he would consider a review for the blog, and I’m grateful for his incisive piece. By the way, Carl Trueman has learned the craft of writing by reading some truly great essayists, like William Hazlitt, George Orwell, and Joseph Epstein. 

Trueman’s review:

That liberalism, political or theological, is not enjoying good health is obvious to even the most casual observer.  The rise of religious extremism, particularly that of Islam, has presented the Left with a series of choices which have pushed it towards incoherence.  Theologically, the picture is little different: liberal Christianity is in decline as it does little more than offer a vaguely religious vocabulary for expressing ideas that are, to be frank, more compelling when stated in secular terms.

In this well-written and fascinating book, Reinventing Liberal Christianity, Theo Hobson laments the parlous state of liberal Christianity and, after an extended historical narrative, offers a plea for its reinvention.

At the heart of Hobson’s book lies a fundamental distinction which he makes within liberal Christianity: there is liberal Christianity which, taking its basic cue from Schleiermacher, seeks to redefine the faith in a way that a conservative like myself would say disembowels it of its content by purging away the supernatural and redefining doctrine in psychological or social categories.  That is the definition of liberal Christianity with which most evangelicals operate.   Yet Hobson also offers another definition, that of liberal Christianity as affirming the liberal state, with its traditional values of personal freedom.

To summarise Hobson’s historical narrative, he sees John Milton as offering an account of Christianity which affirmed the liberal state and also set forth a model of the relationship between the sacred and the secular which allowed for dialogue without the kind of dogmatic universalizing of reason which actually triumphed and placed a basic dilemma at the heart of the liberal state which we live with today: individual freedom versus a totalizing vision of the truth.  What Hobson wishes to do, therefore, is not reinstate classic Christian liberalism but to call it back to its roots in people like John Milton.

There is much to enjoy in this book.  It is good to be reminded that the Roman Catholic Church only decided to jump on the religious liberty bandwagon in the 1960s (after Elvis had passed his peak, if you want a pop culture marker to remind you of how recently that was).   Hobson’s treatment of Hauerwas is stimulating: he appreciates Hauerwas’s (for want of a better word) sectarianism but dislikes his repudiation of the liberal state.  It is hard to argue with that: Hauerwas only enjoys his opportunities to write as he does because he lives in a liberal state.  North Korea presumably offers less attractive opportunities for its resident Christian ethicists.

One thing that struck me, though, is that the model offered is not distinctively liberal in terms of its theological commitments.   While Milton is the poster child of the seventeenth century for Hobson, there were other voices calling for an understanding of church and state which certainly pointed towards the modern liberal state.  John Owen, for example, a high Calvinist if ever there was one, argued for toleration of Protestant sectarianism in 1660s.  That his argument served his own personal cause does not render it invalid or insignificant.   ‘Good liberalism’ can easily be held by the most theologically and traditionally doctrinaire of people.  Further, one might point today to certain branches of Reformed theology, such as that elaborated by David VanDrunen in his recent book, Divine Covenants and Moral Order, which offer a very nuanced account of the relationship of church and state, such that the identity and task of the church is not confused with that of transforming society.  Interestingly enough, it seems to me that there are a number of practical similarities between that position and that of, say, Scot McKnight.

The other matter which Hobson does not really address and yet which is so germane to the current situation is the role of the law courts.  With so many competing visions of what individual freedom actually looks like (as opposed to what it is in theory), the liberal state has arguably ceded significant power to the judicial branch of government in a manner which is set to increasingly limit democracy and also ultimately to redefine what is actually meant by freedom.  As a Christian in America today, I fear judicial rulings more than I trust in elections.

[For an exceptional example of Trueman’s point here, he pointed me to First Things and the report about Bowdoin College.]

Like Hobson, I like the idea of the liberal state and I like living in one, for all of its manifold faults, imperfections and inconsistencies.  Frankly, the mewling and puking about it which one finds among those who have generally done rather well under it and, indeed, could not have done well under any other system, have always smacked too much of sophomoric posturing.

Unlike Hobson, however, I am pessimistic about the future of Christianity in the liberal state on the grounds that the crisis in liberalism itself, between individual freedom and social morality, is one that has transferred power from the people and into the law courts.  At that point, liberalism as traditionally conceived, is dying and no revival or purging of liberal Christianity looks set to make much difference.

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  • tsgIII

    I agree that the liberal Christianity with which most evangelicals operate takes its basic cue from Schleiermacher. That is why I liked the approach of The Tradition of Liberal Orthodoxy by Michael J. Langford. It is that definition and practice, leaving out the emotional approach of Schleiermacher and his adherents, that offers insight into a measured approach to issues with insight and faith. Langford’s eleven elements are a key to putting legs on the churches dialogue within the secular arena of today. If liberal orthodoxy could be better articulated and practiced today within the church, it’s role in conversations and developments in areas that need clarification-such as scientific work and capitalism- could be significant in creative approaches not yet envisioned. The case of stem cell patents and how it has come down to Consumer Watchdog and the courts is a good example of what Carl Trueman has presented today. It is evident that churches are excluded from any true participation in that issue, But to put the power back to people( as opposed to the state’s courts) makes one as pessimistic as Trueman. The religious community could gain from including into its conversations people like Dr. James A. Thomson and how the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation controls his research. That harmony exists between reason and revelation just isn’t in enough conversations today, and this seems like evidence for a lack of harmony in general.

  • Allan Bevere


    I appreciate this post. Hobson is certainly correct that Hauerwas benefits greatly from working in the liberal state he dislikes. Stanley has himself recognized this. His rather comical response when asked about this is that he doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds him but neither does he want to lick it.

  • Wait, Trueman ended on a pessimistic note? 😉

    But really, this is a great essay. Thanks for asking him to write it.

  • If you read Brueggemann’s review in CC, he notes, as I experienced, that Hobson describes a liberal Christianity of his own invention.

  • disqus_8WWcZAybA8

    “As a Christian in America today, I fear judicial rulings more than I trust in elections.”

    I’m sorry but this is a bunch of horse hockey, written by someone who has obviously never had actual business in an actual day-to-day court.

  • Andrew Dowling

    It seems in the conservative mindset the question is always of individual liberty and the state, completely ignoring that in the absence of the protections of the state and the courts, some ideal of “liberty” is simply a candy wrapper enveloping repression by those with money and corresponding power and influence ie the corporate state. The wacky language supporting Hobby Lobby in the recent SC case underlie this (they apparently don’t mind people of other religions in a heterogeneous society being discriminated against) In this warped world, the pre Progressive era society of company towns and 7 day workweeks was the utopia of personal freedom!

  • Tom F.

    “With so many competing visions of what individual freedom actually looks like (as opposed to what it is in theory), the liberal state has arguably ceded significant power to the judicial branch of government in a manner which is set to increasingly limit democracy and also ultimately to redefine what is actually meant by freedom.”

    If I am understanding…different definitions of freedom -> increased judicial power
    increased judicial power -> limits democracy
    limit democracy -> redefine freedom

    This seems circular- we began with the fact that there are competing definitions of freedom, and then the awful result is…freedom is no longer defined the same way? But, isn’t that the premise?

    I think the idea of a “theory”-driven approach to religious liberty makes (i.e., one grounded in the Christian narrative, rather than some a-theoretical, a-traditional, “secular” account), but I wonder about what Trueman hopes a more theory-driven account would add to the public discussion ? What can be accomplished “theoretically”, given that others will not share our “theory”?

    Looking at the Bowdoin college problem, it seems to me to boil down not to legal principles, but simply a use of force against a competing vision of “individual freedom”. Clearly, Bowdoin morally disapproves of the fellowship’s qualifications for leadership, and frames it as “discrimination”, and therefore ineligible for protection under religious liberty concerns. Such moves clearly limit religious freedom, and they do so because of commitments to a moral vision bigger than pragmatic concessions to religious freedom. So I can see why Trueman is deeply concerned about this.

    However, it seems to me that this is basically how Christian visions of religious freedom in America have always gone. Basically, you have freedom to practice your religion as long as they don’t radically change the moral vision of a Christian society. The track record of actually making sacrificial accommodations for religious minorities in America is atrocious. Religious freedom in America has always been : “You can have religious freedom as long as you pretty much play by the majority religion’s rules”.

    So, now that conservative Christians are no longer in the majority, and the new religious majority is interpreting religious liberty in ways consistent with it’s own moral vision, that’s when we say that the judicial is “overturning” democracy? This smacks of radical opportunism and a massive self-serving bias: and I think most people in the country view it this way.

    Bottom line: we are reaping what we sowed.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Great post.

    I wonder what Trueman would say about Monday’s Hobby Lobby decision since it completely subverts his narrative.

  • Tom F.

    Yeah- who knows what he would think. I think I’ve come around to Hobby Lobby. I think what might be best is to push with Hobby Lobby towards more religious freedom for even less empowered religious minorities. For example, the principles of Hobby Lobby could be used to make gains for Muslims as they own businesses and act in the public square here in America.

    Perhaps the result could be a more dedicated look at what religious liberty really means, and the sacrifices necessary to make it really work. At least, I hope that would be something that would come out of it.