Death of Liberalism?

Death of Liberalism? June 1, 2004

Among theologians, it has become de rigeur to attack liberalism. Several decades ago, George Lindbeck and Hans Frei formulated the foundations of what has come to be called ?postliberal?Etheology, and John Milbank and his Radical Orthodoxy colleagues attack liberal theology across the board.

But I have my doubts. Bruce Marshall provides a case in point. In his stimulating Trinity and Truth (Cambridge), Marshall mounts an assault on liberalism and many of its basic premises. He rejects internalist accounts of the justification of knowledge (justification by matching with experience), foundationalism, and dependence theses (dependence = theology must be judged by criteria that are NOT distinctly Christian). Because he is antifoundationalist, he offers a coherence view of justification, but this doesn?t necessarily imply a coherence view of truth.

Marshall offers a wonderful assessment of liberal theology, dissecting all the patron saints. He sees a conflict between epistemological priorities and truth commitments in Schleiermacher and Bultmann, with the result that the plausibility of both is sacrificed. He argues against a Tillichian ?correlation?Emethod of theological inquiry, which assumes a region outside of Christian belief network to which Christian belief can be correlated. If Christian belief makes universal epistemic claims, then nothing is outside, and there is no region with which Christian belief may be correlated.

He argues that truth is not a concept that can be reduced into more basic concepts, but is itself primordial. Truth is whatever is the collection of true statements in a language, and true statements are established as true by two criteria: a) we know what propisition p means; b) the truth conditions of p have been met. (Here, if not before, one gets uneasy.) But this, Marshall insists, is not a full account of truth from a Christian perspective, since for Christians truth is embodied in a person. Truth and belief in Jesus is given from Him, and He is never under our control. Thus, in addition to the truth conditions, there is divine action, which cannot be captured by analytic concepts of truth. Truth in God is the correspondence of the Son to the Father, and truth in us is correspondence to the Son. Since everything corresponds to the Father in some sense, therefore all truth conditions are at the disposal of the Trinity.

Yet, there are problems. He mentions noetic effects of sin at certain points (pp. 158, 208), but ignores it in important places. According to his “principle of charity,” if we translate another person’s language, and they are ALWAYS getting things wrong, then we must be mistranslating. Otherwise put, we assume that people around us get most things right most of the time. This weakens the antithesis to an unwarranted degree.

Further, he backs off from his affirmation about the dependence of all truth on God when it comes to evil; these statements?Etruth cannot be rooted in God, and have no direct relation with God at all. But this is a HUGE collection of propositions, from ?I have a headache?Eto ?AIDS is increasing in Africa?Eto ?I have sinned.?E

And throughout he relies on the “best” philosophical work to formulate his positions, eschewing the effort to construct a Christian conception of truth that is Christian from the ground up. He skirts the issue of creation-evolution, and clearly sides with evolutionary theory. Indeed, there are almost NO commonly accepted notions that he challenges on specifically Christian grounds.

All which suggests it is too soon to begin the wake. I’ll believe we are beyond liberalism when theologians are more frightened of accepting falsehood than of looking like a fundamentalist.

Browse Our Archives