What is “Liberal” Theology?

What is “Liberal” Theology? September 12, 2014

“The story of modern theology begins with the rise of liberal Protestant theology. And liberal Protestant theology … began with Friedrich Schleiermacher… There were liberalizing Christian thinkers before Schleiermacher, but they were not professional, church-related theologians. Schleiermacher was the first person in history to be both liberal and a professional theologian….

“What is liberal theology?… ‘maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modern thought’ within Christian theology.” So Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology, 125, 126.

Karl Barth was not a liberal theologian. John Stott was not a liberal theologian. Dallas Willard was not a liberal theologian. I have been posting about liberal theology this year (see here), and it is important to know how to use this wonderful word “liberal” well. Among Roman Catholics the term “modernism” was the more common term but the two are mutually compatible descriptors: liberal theology is all about adjusting the Christian tradition to modernity. I give an example: it is liberal to believe the Bible is against same-sex relations and then to revise or correct what the Bible says about homosexuality on the basis of a more modern understanding of sexuality; it is not liberal to think the Bible, as a result of acceptable exegesis and historical work, originally did not condemn homosexuality as we know it today. I hope that distinguishes what liberalism means. It is to revise in light of modernity and cultural progress.

In other words, liberal theology affirms the rightness of one’s own culture as a basis of critiquing the Bible. Therefore, at the heart of liberalism is critique of the Christian tradition and Scripture. This, however, does not make the Reformation “liberal.” For it to be liberal, it has to be modern and post-Enlightenment and partaking in radical commitments to liberalism and individual freedom. Olson knows Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria adjusted Christian tradition to the philosophy of their day, but that doesn’t make it “liberal” since that term is connected to modernity.

Liberal theology accommodates to modernity; it does not necessarily capitulate nor does it necessarily accommodate in all ways and in all directions. Question:

Do you think “theistic evolution” as a construct is liberal and accommodating?

Olson’s primary examples are F. Schleiermacher, A. Ritschl, A. Harnack [who was Bonhoeffer’s neighbor and teacher], and W. Rauschenbusch. In other words, liberal theology’s heyday was the 19th Century and a spillover into the 20th Century. Real liberal theology then aims at reconstruction; it is optimistic and anthropocentric; it does theology from below, and it interprets the Bible critically.

Briefly now:

Schleiermacher: the most influential theologian in Germany in his day; he developed a method shaped by modernity’s romanticism and experiential religion; human experience gains the upper hand: religion is feeling and theology is reflection on this experience of religion. He both redefined and reconstructed doctrine after doctrine. God is all about learning what is involved in the God-consciousness of the Christian people. Prayer is about being changed. He rejected classic Christian orthodoxy on christology. Jesus is the highest in God-consciousness. Schleiermacher was Barth’s main opponent!

Ritschl: profoundly influential from 1875 to 1925 (or so). Kant is his conversation partner; science and religion are two different types of knowledge; Christianity is “the community of people who collectively make the value judgment that humanity’s highest good is found in the kingdom of God revealed by Jesus Christ” (150). Theology investigates these value judgments. What is kingdom? “unity of humanity organized according to love” (151). Little interest in God, but instead in value judgments — ethics. The kingdom is a social order in this world. [Some today are using kingdom in the same way.] Sin then is systemic evil.

Harnack popularized Ritschl’s theology through his more exacting historical exegesis of both the Bible and church history.

Rauschenbusch socialized the Ritschlian and Harnackian approaches of liberal theology into the American context, creating the social gospel. Olson knows he does not fit neatly into the liberal category. The goal was to transform human society into the kingdom of God” (165). He sees Rauschenbusch here not so much because of denials of doctrines — and he remained mostly orthodox — but because he elevated experience as did the other liberal theologians in Schleiermacher’s parade.

Lessing created the ditch: nothing historical can be the basis for universal truths. Troeltsch accepted his challenge and probed Christianity in a historical-critical era. He relativized religion but not absolutely! Christianity belongs to a place and time in history. It is a purely historical phenomenon. There can be no absolute religion. They are human creations. Troeltsch accommodates Christianity to historical consciousness, but in the end he ironically embraced the truth of Christianity and Jesus by not recognizing his own situatedness.

Finally, Olson looks at the Catholic struggle with modernism (A. Loisy and G Tyrrell).

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  • BB

    “it is not liberal to think the Bible, as a result of acceptable exegesis and historical work, originally did not condemn homosexuality as we know it today.”

    Does importing modern philosophical positions like the fact-value distinction into the Biblical text count as liberal? Because that is what someone like Brownson does.

  • BB

    In other words, there may be more than one way to conform to modernist thought. And you can be a liberal even if you don’t see your self as one.

  • RJS4DQ

    Interesting – by this definition it is liberal to note that the bible teaches that the earth is on pillars and the firmament is a solid dome separating the waters above from the waters below and that there are storehouses of snow and hail in the sky, but modern science tells us this isn’t true.

    The non-liberal approach relegates all of these references to metaphor and figurative language imposing our modern view of cosmology on the original authors.

    Should we take the liberal or the non liberal approach?

  • RJS4DQ

    To the question asked – no I don’t think theistic evolution as a construct is a liberal critique of scripture.

    To say that water can’t turn to wine based on a chemical analysis of water and wine, to note that science tells us that the dead can’t rise, to note that science tells us virgins don’t give birth, and so forth. These are critiques of scripture based on modern culture.

    Those with a more liberal approach put theistic evolution in the same category, as do some of the more conservative critics, but it doesn’t need to be there. My view of theistic evolution isn’t a critique of scripture based on modern culture. It drives a desire to read scripture more carefully.

    Is it liberal to note that there are parallel passages in scripture that don’t agree with each other in detail? Is it liberal to realize that there are varying views of creation in scripture united by the claim that God is the creator? Is it liberal to look for the meaning of scripture assuming that ancient ideas are used to convey the meaning? I don’t think of the latter as a liberal critique but as a faithful reading. Some, of course, will disagree. The bible assumes that there are storehouses in the sky as common knowledge of the day, it doesn’t teach that there are storehouses in the sky.

  • elcalebo

    I think under your initial definition of liberal in the same-sex sexuality example, yes, theistic evolution is liberal. But I think that initial definition is problematic, because wouldn’t it be liberal to oppose slavery under that description?

    (If you genuinely believed the Bible accepted slavery, I mean. Not if you interpreted it as being on the whole against it, which I think rather dishonestly explains away some inconvenient stuff.

    I personally believe that many biblical texts do accept slavery – just as we accept capitalist exploitation which will be similarly obsolete when the kingdom is here in its fullness – yet its principal distinctive feature on slavery in its various contexts is the radical trajectory as a whole towards limiting, humanisation and relativisation of slavery, which we are right to follow to the point of its abolition. This is a complex case, and I’d argue that it’s not liberal… or if it IS liberal, I’d embrace the term liberal).

  • scotmcknight

    Maybe Olson would focus more on “maximal” in the accommodation?

  • scotmcknight

    And many think theistic evolution is an example, at least in the world in which I have lived. They think it is letting science tell the truth and the Bible must conform — and as I read liberal theology definitions, that is the point. I see theistic evolution as a construct based on both the discoveries of science and a re-examination of what the Bible originally said. So, in spite of the sometimes caustic accusation, that accusation fails to see the method at work.

  • elcalebo

    If that’s liberal, we’re ALL liberal. Anybody writing in the 21st century in 21st-century English who pretends they’re not influenced by modern philosophy in that sort of way is being profoundly dishonest. For example, a radical rejection of any distinction between is and ought OR a critical observation that such a distinction is not nearly as absolute as we may assume are both modern “imports” under your description.

  • elcalebo

    Would it be accurate to expand upon that and say theistic evolution is “a construct based on both the discoveries of science and a re-examination of what the Bible originally said” AND conclusion from that re-examination that when we truly take the Bible seriously as a divine-human book instead of downplaying the human side, we observe that what the Bible said on certain matters was conditioned by imperfect scientific assumptions from its human context; assumptions we are not bound to agree with (e.g. definition of pi, smallest seed, little/no knowledge of evolutionary processes)?

  • scotmcknight

    I think it would depend on what happens: Pronounce the Bible wrong or archaic? or Recontextualize slavery lines in the Bible? This comment belongs above… in Reply to your comment on slavery.

  • scotmcknight

    Not so fast. How would you define liberal theology? All have influence from modernity but does that make all liberal? Or is liberal a denser form of intentional accommodation?

  • elcalebo

    For the purposes of that last comment I was defining liberal theology under the terms of the previous commenter: “importing” the fact-value distinction makes one liberal. (I don’t agree with this definition)

  • elcalebo

    I guess this is a response to my other comment?

    Does liberal or not lie in the language we use to justify the abolition of slavery, not the abolition itself? I care far more about the latter than the former.

  • scotmcknight


  • RJS4DQ

    I know that many see theistic evolution as making science the truth to which the bible must conform … In my circles as well as yours.

    This is one of the things for which I have had to find effective responses (effective I hope), because it misses the real point. I would say that some supporters present theistic evolution as a liberal construct, others (John Walton for example) have a clearly non-liberal approach.

    I find the word “liberal” troubling because it carries unhelpful baggage.

    Liberal thought is a problem when it denies the action of a personal God in the world and when it dumps incarnation, resurrection and Holy Spirit.

    Non-liberal thought is a problem when it imposes a wooden literalism on the text.

    Both are a problem when the use reason to do away with the ethical and moral demands of scripture.

  • Would Olsen’s definition suggest that the Bible actually TEACHES such a literalistic interpretation? It’s one thing to say “we know that’s not true today” (a “liberal” hermeneutic, as I understand Olsen here), but it seems to me part of the crucial point is whether or not we understand the Bible to actually MEAN what the more literal interpretation suggests.

    On the other hand, if we suggest that Bible never *intended* these passages to be taken so literally, I’m not sure that means we’re applying a “liberal” theology.

    Thus, to use the infamous passages against women’s ordination as a rubric, while a literal interpretation of them suggests that the Bible (and therefore God) was against women in church office, it is not “liberal” to suggest that the Bible has been misinterpreted. It would be “liberal” to say “God doesn’t really oppose women’s ordination, despite what the Bible says.”

    Does that makes sense?

  • If the only distinction between Origen’s methods and modernist liberal methods is the time in which they’re doing it, perhaps we need to reframe the terms and talk about modernist theology instead of liberal theology.

  • elcalebo

    I agree. My rejection of gender restrictions on marriage etc. is based on a combination of this approach to the science of gender roles and the ‘trajectory’ approach to the ethics of gender roles in Scripture.

  • Bob Wilson

    I doubt the line is so sharp between believing the Bible “originally did not condemn homosexuality as we know it today,” and reading it in “in light of modernity.” For example, the excursus in Arland Hultgren’s recent Romans commentary argues that Paul’s condemnation did not grasp current issues concerning ‘faithful’ homosexual relationships among believers (and thus is not universally binding on us). But such a view appears enabled precisely by changes today in our understanding of homosexuality. Similarly Olson’s blog’s recent insists that in light of Christ’s teaching about children, we must reject that God could ever have given orders to commit genocide. But such a conclusion about the O.T. texts seems arguably influenced by our day’s developing sensitivity to the immorality of genocide.

  • BB

    Thinking on this overnight, someone like Brownson really does let modern philosophy set the standard: in his mind, the fact-value distinction is not to be questioned.

    But then he combines that with a what seems to be a non-liberal premise: what the Bible teaches (about morality in this case) is true. He’s not sayiing the Bible’s teaching is wrong and we need to correct it. He’s saying it can’t be what the traditional interpretation says it is.

    But he got there by making a piece of modern philosophy unquestionable.

  • Richard

    “but because he elevated experience as did the other liberal theologians in Schleiermacher’s parade”

    How does this make Rauschenbusch liberal but not Wesley or Luther, who also emphasized and elevated their personal experiences while affirming the majority of traditional church doctrine, though not all? Am I missing something here?

  • danaames

    “Olson knows Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria adjusted Christian tradition to the philosophy of their day.”

    I had a short discussion with Dr Olson on his blog about the Orthodox view that theology does not “develop” as we understand the term today. He disagreed. I think Orthodox theologians would be rather horrified at the notion that the fathers “adjusted Christian tradition” to anything. One must be aware that “Christian tradition” to an Orthodox theologian would be the entirely of teaching, scripture and its interpretation, and worship – the “whole ball o’ wax” – that had been handed down from the earliest Christians. It’s not likely that would have been “adjusted” – especially by Justin Martyr, who only lived 100 years after the signal events themselves.

    Orthodox theologians understand it differently – that the major philosophy of the day was Platonism, and Christian theologians took *some* of the philosophical language of Platonism and used it (with the connotations of that language) to help open up the tradition, in response to the questions that were being asked as Christianity became more and more visible. That’s a far cry from “adjusting Christian tradition to the philosophy.”

    I suppose that in one sense it could be seen as “development” – but not in the sense that anything new was being added to what the Christians had received as having been passed on. Rather, Christians were forced to use contemporary language to unfold and explain what Christ had done and what being a Christian involved, as clearly as possible, in ways that would be understood by the people who were asking the questions. The questioning included the various heresies that arose. Christians had to answer, and they used the language of their day and place. Before AD 70, it was the terms and terminology of the Jews, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, which is what is recorded in the NT. Later on, it was in the otherwise dominant language of Greek philosophy. Study Basil of Caesarea (who was educated not only in philosophy and rhetoric and law, but also in the best science of the day); see how he actually handles language, and what he is actually trying to convey.

    This doesn’t mean that Greek philosophy somehow “corrupted” what Christians had handed down. The Greek Fathers were as much against Platonic dualism as they were against Arianism. Dualism reared its head in late medieval western theology, which, I understand, was much more influenced by Aristotle and neo-Platonism than “classical” Platonism.

    I have no doubt that Dr Olson is a good guide for anyone interested in modern western theology. I really appreciate his work refuting Calvinism; there is none better. He, like most Protestants, does not seem to be able to hear the voices of those most able to address modern theology’s problems.


  • Rob F.

    RJS, I too, tend to bristle a bit at calling theistic evolution “liberal”. However, based on the definition Scot provided it seems to fit.

    I wonder if we need to add a qualifier to definition: If Scripture and modern thought are trying to answer the same question, then a liberal move is to change/modify/reject Scripture’s answer based on modern thought.

    However, I tend to think of situations where the biblical “answer” is incidental to the main point (i.e., your example of store houses in heaven or lack of evolutionary language) as existing in different category. In these situations I think we are asking/expecting too much from Scripture.

  • Rob F.

    So is elcalebo’s description above liberal based on the definition you provided?

    Wouldn’t the same concept apply to an issue like homosexuality? Should’t imperfect human assumptions of gender and sexuality factor into our discernment. In other words, if some of us are willing to say we aren’t bound to the ancient’s assumptions about physical sciences (physics, biology, etc.) should we be bound to their assumptions/understandings of the social sciences (i.e. gender, sexuality)? If so, is it intellectually honest for us to say we know better than they did about physics but not about human sexuality? Has there been undisputed progress in one area but not the other…and if so, what objective criteria can we use to make this determination?

  • elcalebo

    I think Brownson could quite easily accept a softening of the fact-value distinction without substantially changing his argument in Bible, Gender, Sexuality. I don’t think the fact-value distinction plays as vital a role in his argument as you’re making it play. Could that be because that was the one plank in his argument you felt he was vulnerable on?

    Also, see my previous comment which you haven’t responded to; questioning the fact-value distinction is just as modern as the language of fact-value distinction.

    I too have been thinking about this since I wrote the comment you didn’t respond to, and I now think you’re even wronger than I’d previously thought, because you’re confusing language and reality. The LANGUAGE of “fact-value distinction” is indeed modern, but only radical moderns, USING THAT LANGUAGE, would suggest that there is nothing in REALITY that remotely resembles what is referred to by the modern language of fact-value distinction, and that there’s no such thing as description and prescription, etc.

    Sorry BB, salvation from Brownson does not lie that way.

  • Rob F.

    I think it makes sense…but in your last sentence would it be more accurate to say “…what the Bible really MEANS”? Since for example, the Bible SAYS “I do not permit a women to speak.” And of course, we are then making interpretative decisions that are not universally accepted (in the case of womens’ ordination, etc.).

    Using the definition of liberal we are discussing the following seem rather straightforward:

    denying Christ’s divinity = liberal
    denying the Resurrection = liberal
    denying any possibility of supernatural intervention= liberal
    any anything else in the major Creeds

    However, it seems much more challenging to consistently apply this label to issues like human origins, human sexuality, cosmology, etc. It all depends on one’s interpretation of what the Bible (God) MEANS to tell us about these things.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “To say that water can’t turn to wine based on a chemical analysis of
    water and wine, to note that science tells us that the dead can’t rise,
    to note that science tells us virgins don’t give birth, and so forth.
    These are critiques of scripture based on modern culture.”

    Are those not critiques based on science ie none of the above have been shown to be at possibly replicated/observed in a controlled environment?

    “Those with a more liberal approach put theistic evolution in the same
    category, as do some of the more conservative critics, but it doesn’t
    need to be there. My view of theistic evolution isn’t a critique of
    scripture based on modern culture.”

    So your ultimate basis for rejecting creationism isn’t that evolution has the scientific evidence supporting it? I don’t think you’d suggest the authors of Genesis had anything like theistic evolution when writing the narrative . . (?)
    Seems like you simply don’t want to admit your engaging in liberal exegesis because you don’t like the term “liberal” . . .

    “The bible assumes that there are storehouses in the sky as common
    knowledge of the day, it doesn’t teach that there are storehouses in the

    The Bible assumes an entirely different view of the natural world as seen through both mythic story-telling and ancient (now shown to be untenable) understandings of the natural order. Does the Bible “teach” that God caused a massive world-wide flood that wiped out all living things except Noah and his companions? Seems like where the Bible “teaches” these things and simply “describes” them is fairly subjective.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Paul’s use of the OT was liberal by any standard definition. Saying there’s a difference between liberal and “modernist” simply seeks to declare “well that liberalism is OK” but “this post-Enlightenment liberalism . . bad”

  • Andrew Dowling

    Without a doubt rejecting slavery requires a liberal framework . . unless one wants to arrogantly declare that the WIDE majority of Christians for 1500+ years somehow managed to completely misread the texts. The Bible as a whole affirms a respect for individual human existence but does not purport a modern notion of “human rights” that arose out of 17th and 18th century discourse and which ultimately resulted in the rejection of slavery across the world.

  • BB

    the fact-value distinction is just as modern as the language of fact-value distinction

    And black is white and white is black. Premodern societies don’t accept the fact-value distinction. You’d know this if you were familiar with premodern thought and cultures. Maybe they don’t explicitly reject it (because they’ve never even heard of such an outlandish thing), but they do not make any such distinction.

  • don sands

    I thought the liberal theologian question the “empty” tomb, and the “virgin” birth and such things. And of course this is telling God what is right.

    The Bible is simple and clear, even for a brainless fool like myself, and yet it is infinitely full and deep in truths, and Christ through the Comforter gives His Word to us, into our inner being, our hearts and souls, and it is true nourishment, just as a good steak and potato and fresh asparagus is good for our body.

    This article was way to wordy for me. I’m a bit lower in intelligence then some folk in the church.
    And yet I love to read many scholars who keep the truth simple as well. I thank God for the JC Ryles, RC Sprouls, John RR Stotts, and others.

  • BB

    BTW your talk about the reality of the fact-value distinction would seem to indicate that you do think the Bible (which, like all premodern writing, does not recognize the reality of a fact-value distinction) is wrong about that and hence apparently needs to be corrected on that score. That is straight up liberalism according the definition in the post.

  • Hmm, not sure if “liberal” by Olson’s definition is a helpful term. I don’t have access to Olson’s text but firstly there can never be maximal or minimal acknowledgement. If some liberal maximally acknowledged the claims of modern thought then there would be nothing to distinguish them from how any non-Christin thinker viewed Jesus/the church, etc. Secondly, “modern thought,” is a difficult category unless we somehow say that the cultural trends today are the same as those in 19th Century Germany? I’d find a more restrictive definition for liberalism easier, one that say revolved around some of the main thinkers as you’ve listed in the post. Theistic evolution should be seen for whatever it owes to this liberal tradition but also a new theological movement in itself with its own thinkers and distinctives, and likewise any theological trend. Barth’s theology is liberal insofar as he is often responding to liberalism and cultural trends, so liberal in a negative sense but then also therefore in a positive sense — it is culturally conditioned. Likewise Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria as you mentioned. Likewise every theological thought that has ever existed, if it was thought by anyone who was truly human.

  • RJS4DQ


    With the bit you quoted “To say that water can’t turn to wine based on a chemical analysis of water and wine, to note that science tells us that the dead can’t rise, to note that science tells us virgins don’t give birth, and so forth. These are critiques of scripture based on modern culture.

    I don’t think I communicated what I meant quite right. Let me modify it a bit:

    To say that water can’t turn to wine based on a chemical analysis of water and wine therefore the miracle at Cana could not have occurred, to note that science tells us that the dead can’t rise therefore Christ didn’t rise from the dead and the various healings (Lazarus and more) didn’t happen, to note that science tells us virgins don’t give birth therefore the virgin birth is a myth, and so forth. These are critiques of scripture based on modern culture.

    At best these critiques (and they are not all the same) seem to take the divine and separate it into some ethereal and not quite relevant sphere of existence. Take out the myth and superstition and there remains, some say, a faith the modern man or woman can believe in. At worst (and most don’t go this far) these critiques devolve into a materialistic humanism with “god words.”

    I don’t see theistic evolution in quite the same light because I don’t see it as an attempt to get rid of the myth and superstition. Certainly the science plays a big role in my understanding of the process of creation, but it doesn’t separate God from the process.

    You can classify theistic evolution as liberal if you wish – but I think we get into problems when we get to binary in our classifications. Liberal has a bad reputation in many circles, not for every idea and approach, but because it is seen as leading to the complete rejection of orthodoxy.

    John Haught – whose book I posted on a while back – takes theistic evolution in a very liberal direction.

    Others, John Walton or Tremper Longman for example, don’t really have a liberal approach at all.

  • Guest

    I’m very much on board with the distinction between “means” and “says,” and while I do try to keep those straight, will confess to slipping up once in a while. However, in the last sentence you cite, I don’t think this is one of those times, since I’m specifically trying to acknowledge that the Bible “says” a certain thing, while suggesting it does not “mean” how it’s often been taken (in regard to prohibiting women from ordination) at all.

    The issue for me in this thread is not women’s ordination, but how we’re defining “liberal” in this context. If the Bible’s *meaning* (that is, what we ourselves believe it to mean) is being challenged by extra-Biblical means, Olsen seems to consider that liberal. That is to say, if I really thought that the writers of the Biblical passages in question (and God) really did intend women to be excluded from church office, but nonetheless challenged that on the basis of the world today, THAT would be “liberal.”

    However, I’m not clear on whether or not it is “liberal” to challenge *interpretations* of the Bible on such a basis. The Bible does indeed SAY “I do not permit a woman…”. But although one may need sources outside the Bible to provide context on what the Bible *meant* in that context, in order to interpret it properly, I don’t think that should/would be considered “liberal,” but I’m not clear on whether or not Olsen would agree on the basis of the definition provided here.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Yes, I think “maximal” is a key word in his definition. Perhaps reading between the lines, and certainly muddying the waters, “attitude” is also an important component.

  • elcalebo

    Um, nope. You’re the one claiming there was no distinction between “is” and “should” until modern times. I say there was, still is and (lol) should be… no correcting the Bible there.

    By the way, it IS true that you haven’t responded to much of what I’ve said, and I’m stating straight up that you SHOULD.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Probably trying to classify various approaches to Scripture/science issues as liberal or non-liberal is to wander from more important goals.

    I wrote something longer supporting this but it boils down to “Do we accept the possibility of the supernatural, and its attendant mysteries, or not?”

    I’ll send along the longer version if anyone wants it.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Thanks for the response.

    “I don’t see theistic evolution in quite the same light because I don’t
    see it as an attempt to get rid of the myth and superstition.”

    But does it not get rid of a general “myth” of a 6 day creation?

    You spoke in other posts about OT stories and ancient worldviews, metaphors etc. “Liberal” scholars simply don’t stop at the OT and also conclude much of the accounts of the supernatural in the NT also represent metaphor and 1st century worldviews. They don’t say Jesus didn’t turn water into wine because modern science says that’s impossible . .that’s kind of the icing on the cake, but main arguments would be about its singular attestation along with its inherent symbolism (both sacramental and that of Jesus is greater than Dionysus etc.).

    A big difference between so-called liberal scholars and moderate-conservatives is if an analysis leads them to conclusions that lead to some tenets of orthodoxy to be, if not rejected, seriously re-thought, than they let that conclusion stand. They don’t build up walls around accepted doctrine and prohibit themselves from “going there” (ie where it can be seriously questioned)

    But in areas where liberal exegesis has been used to seriously alter or reject standard biblical interpretations that were accepted for over 1000 years (role of woman, slavery) . .I basically see lots of clever wordplay to not admit what is really going on . . which is superseding the views of the Bible in light of recent knowledge (often through the lens of favoring certain biblical passages over others). I sense this is partly because this is often a charge from conservatives, who are quick to denounce (what they perceive as) apostates and heretics.

  • AHH

    I agree with RJS that the answer to Scot’s question about “theistic evolution” is “it depends”.

    It is not really “accommodation” to modernity to recognize facts in creation that might help us calibrate genre and sift out incidentals in passages; plenty of non-“liberals” do the same thing with regard to geocentrism that theistic evolutionists do with the ancient cosmological picture that forms the backdrop for early Genesis.

    To this amateur, “liberal” theology mainly manifests in exclusion of supernatural action in the world (like bodily resurrection or miracles), and in downplaying inspiration to see Scripture as entirely (or almost entirely) human documents. There are certainly people who take that path to a theistic evolution approach; somebody mentioned John Haught. But plenty of others who see evolution as a means of God’s creation (me, RJS, Tim Keller, John Walton, Biologos) come at it with an approach that affirms God’s ability to do miracles (even though God may not have worked that way in the development of life) and that takes seriously the inspiration and authority of Scripture.

  • Barry_D

    What is the conclusion from this?

  • Andrew Dowling

    That it’s OK to revise one’s views on a subject spoken of in the BIble using both the Christological hermeneutic and new ideas/information we have on that subject. People have done it for centuries but “liberal” seems to be a dirty word in American Christendom.

  • elcalebo

    Still waiting for that reply. (Notice how that previous statement blurred the lines between an “is” and a “should” statement in its denotations and connotations; that will please you).

    Re: some kind of fact/value distinction in pre-modern societies, here’s one reference plucked largely at random (just because I happened to be reading it today):

    Larue, Gerald A. “Ancient Ethics.” In A Companion to Ethics, edited by Peter Singer. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Reference, 1991.
    First sentence: “Although the exposition of ethical principles as such as not of primary concern in the ancient Near East, value concepts can be discerned from commercial documents, law codes, wisdom sayings, hero stories and myths.”

  • Philip Vitullo

    This is the best description of liberal theology I have encountered to date.

  • BB

    You’re the one claiming there was no distinction between “is” and “should” until modern times.

    There wasn’t. You obviously haven’t read the scholarship on this particular matter. (The article you point to has nothing to do with this question.)

    But you’re a modern who thinks the fact-value distinction is obvious, and therefore you think premodern people must, must have made a similar distinction. That’s the problem.

    BTW, I have a life. Hint, hint.

  • elcalebo

    I’d be interested in articles you could recommend on the matter. In the meantime I can’t help but wonder why you can’t or won’t engage with the discussion on its own terms – ie was there a distinction between “should” and “is” in pre-modern times – but only by referring to some literature you’ve read and found convincing. You’re not giving us any kind of summary of the arguments of that literature explaining how they didn’t have any distinction… just stating the thesis that there was none, and declaring that literature backs this up (as well as saying that an article suggesting there were value judgments in certain pre-modern contexts has nothing to do with the question – without stating why). Perhaps you’re just too busy with your life.

  • Wolf N. Paul

    I realize this is a hopeless cause, but I am extremely annoyed by the use of “liberal” to describe this modernistic theology (as well as the non-conservative positions in American politics). There is nothing liberal about either, just as there is nothing gay about same-sex attraction, and nothing either generous or orthodox about the theology promoted by McLaren & Co.

    It is a shame that perfectly good words expressing positive values can be co-opted to describe not so positive phenomena.

  • jcannan

    So does that mean Liberal Theology is moot, since we are no longer in a modernist era…and Theology that stems from Post-modern thinking is by definition not liberal (though obviously also not conservative…)?