What is “theological liberalism?”

What is “theological liberalism?” July 14, 2011

One of my biggest pet peeves is people throwing labels around when they don’t understand them.  I teach at a seminary often accused by the ignorant of being “liberal” because it allows women to study for the ministry.  I’ve been asked when I “became liberal” and started believing in women’s ordination and women as lead pastors.  The first denomination to ordain women as pastors was the theologically conservative but socially progressive Free Methodist Church and it did that way back in the mid-19th century.  (Quakers, or Friends as they prefer to be called) had women leaders before that but they didn’t exactly “ordain” anyone or have lead pastors in our modern sense.)  I grew up in a very conservative denomination that ordained women.  We had women pastors and evangelists.  Both my birth mother and stepmother were licensed to preach.

People tend to throw the label “liberal” around without regard to history.  Most of the time it means little or nothing more than something they don’t like or agree with and perceive to be too progressive.  When someone says a person or church or institution or book is “liberal” I have no idea what they mean until I press them for a definition.  Usually they can’t give a real definition; they can only say something about their disagreement or dislike.

Looking up “liberal” in the dictionary doesn’t really help.  Most ordinary dictionaries don’t include theology among their definitions.  You can look up “liberal” in most dictionaries and be enlightened about politics and society and perhaps philosophy.  But you are unlikely to find anything there about liberal theology.  Besides, it is a mistake to think words have essences.  There is no “essence” out there corresponding exactly with the sound “liberal.”  The label “liberal” has a history theologically and we should stick to that as closely as possible while recognizing flexibility.

Once again, as before here, I want to suggest a helpful distinction.  This time between “liberalism” as a movement and “liberalism” as an ethos.  (And now I am restricting my comments to theology.)  It is anachronistic to refer to anything as theologically liberal before Friedrich Schleiermacher, the early 19th century “father of liberal theology.”  Schleiermacher was certainly influenced by previous and contemporary thinkers in philosophy and theology, but he almost single handedly created “liberal theology.”  On this most historical theologians are agreed.  (Before Schleiermacher there were “free thinkers” and deists and unitarians but not liberals per se.)

But even Schleiermacher did not found a movement.  In many ways he serves as the paradigm of a liberal ethos in Christian theology.  But that ethos only began to breathe with him; even Schleiermacher was not consistently liberal.  Compared to many later movement liberals such as Adolf Harnack he would be considered relatively conservative insofar as he strove to hold onto as much of Christian tradition as he thought possible in the modern world.

So, the liberal ethos pre-dates the rise of the Christian liberal theological movement that I call “classical Protestant liberalism.”  The latter appeared first with German Lutheran theologian Albrecht Ritschl and his followers in the later 19th century.  Ritschl founded a movement.  His followers came to be called “Ritschlians.”  Classical Protestant liberal theology is tied to the METHOD of the Rischlians (not necessarily to all of their conclusions).  The leading Ritschlians were Harnack and Willhelm Herrmann.  There were, of course, many others.  They disagreed among themselves about many things, but they agreed on theology’s basic method which followed that of Schleiermacher but in a somewhat altered way.

After WW1 and the existentialist revolution in philosophy and theology in Europe classical liberal theology struggled as a movement.  It didn’t exactly die out, but it underwent some significant changes so that historical theologians tend to call its mid-20th century heirs “neo-liberals” or “chastened liberals.”  The main difference was the recognition of a tragic dimension to human existence and history that was lacking in the pre-WW1 liberals.

The liberal theological movement has had its ups and downs and perhaps doesn’t really exist anymore although I have met and read people who seem to agree with it to a large extent.  But, again, I would tend to call them liberal in the “ethos” sense.  Some have come along and tried to breathe new life into the liberal community to restart the old liberal theological movement but with little success.  There are many freelance liberal theologians running around, but I look in vain for an actual movement that includes all or even most of them.

So what is the liberal theological ethos started by Schleiermacher that defines theological liberalism (including the Ritschlian movement and the neo-liberalism of its post-WW1 descendents)?  And where do we find it today?  Who are its contemporary spokespersons?

Schleiermacher introduced into the stream of Christian theology a “Copernican revolution” in theological method that regarded it as necessary to adjust traditional Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment–what we call “modernity.”  To be sure, Schleiermacher did NOT do this uncritically.  However, he clearly felt it necessary to rescue Christianity from the “acids of modernity” by redefining Christianity’s (and religion’s) “essence” so that it did not and perhaps could not conflict with the “best” of modern thought.  He redefined Christianity as PRIMARILY about human experience.  That is, as he put it, doctrines are nothing more than attempts to bring human experiences of God (God-consciousness) to speech.  Schleiermacher placed universal God-consciousness at the center of religion and Christ’s God-consciousness communicated to the church at the center of Christianity.  All doctrines and all teachings of Scripture became revisable in the light of human God-consciousness.

What Schleiermacher accomplished was to separate religion (including Christianity) from the realm of “facts” discoverable by science and philosophy.  He rescued religion and Christianity from the acids of modernity by reducing them and restricting them to an entirely different realm.  Also, rather than objective divine revelation standing at the center or bottom of the theological enterprise, human experience was placed there.  This was Schleiermacher’s “Copernican revolution” in theology.  All liberal theology (whether by ethos or tied specifically to a liberal theological movement such as Ritschlianism) is defined by that move first made by Schleiermacher.

Ritschl borrowed heavily from the philosopher Immanuel Kant to distinguish between two types of propositions–facts (which belong to the sciences) and values (which belong to religion).  Religion, including Christianity, has to do with the way things ought to be (the Kingdom of God) and not with the way things are.  If Ritschl was right, religion (rightly understood) and modern philosophy and science (kept where they belong) cannot conflict.

Harnack is the paradigm of the classical liberal Protestant theologian.  He reduced Christianity to a minimal ethical core–it’s true “essence”–which cannot be undermined by science or philosophy.

The liberal theologians did not throw out belief in the Trinity or the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, etc.  They simply reduced their importance (they are not of the essence) and reinterpreted them non-metaphysically.

The leading Ritschlian theologian in America (at the same time as Harnack in Germany) was Henry Churchill King, president of Oberlin College.  His book Reconstruction in Theology was published at the same time as Harnack’s What Is Christianity? (1901)  King’s “reconstruction” of Christianity theology was done under that influence (viz., Ritschl).  The leading Ritschlian public figure was Harry Emerson Fosdick, Jr., pastor of Riverside Church in New York City and author of numerous books of liberal theology.  Fosdick’s countenance graced the cover of Time magazine twice in the 1920s.  He was widely considered THE leading spokesman for liberal theology in America.

After WW1 in Europe and after WW2 in America theological liberalism underwent some changes.  The main one was the death of its historical optimism and adoption of a more realistic sense of human existence and history (largely under the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr).  But it retained its basic attitude toward modernity as an authority for theology’s critical and constructive tasks.  (This was often more implicit than explicit.)

Gradually the liberal theological movement associated with Ritschl and his followers died out.  But the ethos it embodied remained–entering into the warp and woof of mainline Protestant life and thought.  Today it is represented by public intellectuals such as Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong.  Several theologians are attempting to breathe new life into it.  Among them are Gary Dorrien (perhaps THE leading scholar of liberal theology especially in America), Peter Hodgson, Donald Miller (of USC, not the author of Blue Like Jazz), and John Cobb.

So what are the usual, if not universal, hallmarks of true liberal theology or family resemblances among true liberal theologians?  First, here are books you MUST read if you want to discuss liberal theology intelligently.  (Read at least one of these.)  Alan P. F. Sell, Theology in Turmoil, William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism, Kenneth Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology (3 volumes), Peter Hodgson, Liberal Theology: A Radical Vision, John Cobb, Progressive Christians Speak, and Donald E. Miller, The Case for Liberal Christianity.

So what do all these people from Schleiermacher to Dorrien have in common?  I think the liberal theological ethos is best expressed in a nutshell by liberal theologian Delwin Brown (a convert to liberal theology from evangelicalism) in his dialogue with Clark Pinnock in Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical/Liberal Dialogue.  There Brown asks THE CRUCIAL QUESTION of modern theology: “When the consensus of the best contemporary minds differs markedly from the most precious teachings of the past, which do we follow?  To which do we give primary allegiance, the past or the present?”  Brown rightly gives the evangelical answer: “We ought to listen to the hypotheses of the present and take from them what we can, but ultimately the truth has been given to us in the past, particularly in Jesus, and the acceptance of that is our ultimate obligation.  Everything the contemporary world might say must be judged by its conformity to biblical revelation.”  (Of course evangelicals differ among ourselves about WHAT biblical revelation says, but all evangelicals agree that the revelation of God given in Jesus and the biblical message takes precedence over the best of modern thought WHEN THERE IS AN UNAVOIDABLE CONFLICT between them.)

Then, Brown speaks for all liberal theologians when he gives the liberal answer to the crucial question: “Liberalism at its best is more likely to say, ‘We certainly ought to honor the richness of the Christian past and appreciate the vast contribution it makes to our lives, but finally we must live by our best modern conclusions.  The modern consensus should not be absolutized; it, too, is always subect to criticism and further revision.  But our commitment, however tentative and self-critically maintained, must be to the careful judgments of the present age, even if they differ radically from the dictates of the past.” (p. 23)

(Now, a good illustration of the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism can be given in an anecdote about the Pinnock-Brown dialogue in this book.  Some years ago I used the book as a textbook in an elective class.  One of the students, a theology major, objected strenuously to having to read it.  He argued vehemently that dialogue between liberals such as Brown and evangelicals has no value and that Pinnock’s attempt at it proves he is not a true evangelical.  I would consider that an expression of a fundamentalist as opposed to an evangelical attitude.)

Pinnock well expresses ALL evangelicals’ response to Brown, this in the context of a disagreement about eschatology in which Brown expressed skepticism about belief in a final triumph of good over evil.  Pinnock to Brown: “Here we are back to where we started in the book, back to the difference between us concerning the nature of the authority of the Bible.  … You allow the Bible a functional but not a cognitive authority; that is, you will not bow to the content of Scripture but accept it only as a power that authors your life in some (to me) vague way.  This means in the present case that you are not able to rest your hope on the revealed promises of God concerning eternal life in Christ beyond death.  Usually I appreciate your modesty in the way you do theology, but when it comes down to your not affirming clear promises of God in the gospel, the modesty is being taken too far.  Lacking guidance from the Scriptures and as if to underline my anxiety, you are forced to resolve the issue rationally and then cannot do so.  Thus is the problem of liberal theology highlighted.” (p. 249)

In a nutshell, then, the liberal theological ethos accords to “the best of modern thought” the weight of authority in theology alongside or stronger than biblical revelation (and certainly than tradition).  This is what Yale historical theologian Claude Welch meant when he wrote that liberal theology is “maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modernity.”

What is ironic is that Pinnock has been labeled “liberal” in spite of his strong rejection of real liberal theology in this and many of his writings.  Those who called Pinnock a liberal simply revealed themselves as neo-fundamentalists (who often if not usually use “liberal” as an epithet for anyone and anything they think deviates from their version of “the received evangelical tradition.”)

There are, of course, other family resemblances among theological liberals such as a tendency to emphasize the immanence of God over God’s transcendence, skepticism about anything supernatural or miraculous (if not rejection of those categories entirely), out-and-out, open universalism (a true denial of hell as opposed to a hope for eventual ultimate reconciliation), an emptying of the “dogma” category and corresponding reduction of all Christian beliefs to the opinion category.

Someone like Pinnock is called a fundamentalist by those on the “left” and a liberal by those on the “right.”  These are fallacious and invalid uses of these labels.  They have NOTHING to do with history.  Theological labels should not be torn away from history and used in such an informal manner as epithets to insult or marginalize people.  That is why I have written this post and I hope it helps people who want to use labels with integrity to do so.  I realize, of course, that many people don’t care about that; they just want to demean other people they don’t like by slapping negative labels on them.

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