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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  • Elliott Scott

    Very helpful. As an evangelical (by your definition)seminary student attending a predominantly liberal (again by your definition) seminary in the late eighties, I was often confused by theological discussions in which we were all using the same language but the words didn’t seem to mean the same things. There was a basic disconnect that was very rarely, if ever, discussed in a frank manner.

    The same basic disconnect between evangelicals and liberals in the mainline churches is the source of tremendous conflict. I recently (and painfully)left my denomination because worshiping the God who reveals himself through Scripture has become the minority religion within it. Other sources of authority have become dominant, leading to the worship of a different god.

    Bless you in your blogging.

  • David Rogers

    In my evaluation, neo-fundamentalism and liberalism share a common trait: exegetical laziness.

    Neo-fundamentalists think that all the answers of interpretation of the Scripture have been settled by their tradition of theology and thus any further exploration or re-investigation of the traditional doctrines not only need not be done but must not be done. The hard work of investigation is too much effort and might be painful.

    Liberals believe that the traditional doctrines are so obviously tainted by so-called ancient biases and that “modern” insights are so obviously superior that no further investigation of ancient insight is really needed. Scholarship has determined the inadequacies of traditional doctrine and thus the only work is that of re-forming theological thought to the superior insights of the present time. Rigorous reapproaching of discovering exegetical insight of the Scriptures is unnecessary. Contemporary re-formulation is the only task.

  • Roger, I think Schleiermacher remains the best place to begin a true understanding of theological liberalism, so I will just add that any reference to his thought as an ‘adjustment’ to the Enlightenment era should I think make it very clear that he seriously called out the Enlightenment for its smug atheism (in his Reden) and was not proposing anything like an accommodation of theology to secular modernity.

    Again, I can accept Welch’s phrase, “maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modernity” only if the line is not crossed into categorical rejection of miracle or the supernatural or a healthy mysticism.

    I guess I’m saying that the phrase ‘liberal theology’ becomes an oxymoron to me if it holds the supernatural realm of spirit to be nothing but unmitigated superstition. This is where I draw the line in my own liberalism and part company with fellow ‘liberals’ – and I can understand the ire of conservatives if this is all they think liberalism represents.

    I do not think miracles can assure faith, but they must not be treated as sheer fairy stories whose presence discounts the religious truth which may be circulating in proximity to them.

    Good post.

    • rogereolson

      Right. I don’t think we can define contemporary liberalism (in theology) by anti-supernaturalism. However, most liberals I know have an at least healthy skepticism toward all claims of the supernatural. 19th century “classical liberal theology” (Ritschlianism) tended to be anti-supernatural; it tended to reduce theology to ethics. It’s much more difficult to generalize about contemporary liberal theology. I just don’t want “liberal theology” to be applicable to anything and everything. To have any meaning it has to be rooted in some historical reality.

  • norma j hill

    Probably off track a bit … but I grew up in the Free Methodist Church (mid 50s to mid 70s) and had no idea that women could be ordained. In the 80s some of my younger sister’s gal friends started to become ordained. I was surprised, and thought the FM Church was suddenly becoming much more socially progressive, LOL! Ah well, perhaps Canadian FM’s (at least the western-province ones I knew) were a bit more socially conservative that their US counterparts, eh?

    And thanks for the entire article. It really helped to clarify several things I’ve wondered about!

  • Nice review, Dr. Olsen! Thank you. As an ex-Southern Baptist who lived through part of the “war” that greatly diminished that institution, I hate the historically uninformed way that the word “liberal” is used. Occasionally, for fun, I’ll check on Al Mohler’s blog. I see that he still uses it, um… liberally. 😉

    By the way, I’m now an ordained United Methodist pastor who finds myself decidedly to the right of many of my fellow young-ish colleagues in ministry. I’m not in the cool kids club because I happen to support our church’s Book of Discipline on matters of human sexuality. So here’s a subject for another post: What is a “post-conservative”? N.T. Wright describes himself as such, and I couldn’t be more sympathetic with him! Is there any connection between post-conservative and “paleo-orthodox”? All these labels!

    Anyway, I would appreciate your thoughts.

    • Sorry for spelling your name incorrectly… Ugh! Please correct that if you can.

      • rogereolson

        Don’t worry about it! Most people misspell it “Olsen” for some reason. I answer to both spellings! 🙂

    • rogereolson

      I have blogged here about postconservative evangelicalism. While I didn’t exactly coin the term, I think I’m the first person to promote it as a description for an approach to evangelical theology. (Clark Pinnock used it mainly in connection with a type of Catholic theology in Tracking the Maze.) N. T. Wright got it from me! I think he gives me credit for that in Justification. Anyway, yes, I’ll post more about it here later.

  • Aaron

    interesting and insightful as always. Thanks Dr. O

  • K Gray

    Very instructive!

    Knowing nothing whatever about Clark Pinnock, I like his entire quote, especially “Here we are back to where we started,…back to the difference between us concerning the nature and authority of the Bible.”

  • Thanks again, Roger, for this enlightening and accessible presentation. This is a topic that we all need to hear. As a college student, I once heard Findley Edge (Baptist) express the desire for all lay people to have access to a seminary education – he thought this should be done in local churches. Years later, I heard Martin Bell (Episcopal)voice the very same desire – he was attempting make such a contribution through weekend seminars. You are demonstrating here in your blog that the internet can be a great tool toward that end as well.

  • Mike

    As a conservative who attends the seminary you teach and who pastors a church, I too find myself annoyed by individuals who refer to the seminary as “liberal” in a derogatory sense. 99.9% of the time their reasoning for using the label liberal is solely based upon the seminaries support of women ministers. After sitting under the teaching of several of the professors at the seminary I would say the majority of individuals who teach there fall right of center in most categories.

  • Thanks for an insightful explanation–we liberal religionists (I count myself among them) are often in a position to try to untangle all of this for people, and it isn’t easy to do. I couldn’t help but notice that all of the contemporaries you named are men. Perhaps Sally McFague ought to be among them, and certainly Thandeka, who goes back to Schleiermacher to ground her religious liberalism. Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      I thought about including Sallie McFague in my list of contemporary liberals, but I couldn’t remember whether she actually describes herself as that and I was trying to stick to people who use the label for self-description and who have written books promoting liberal theology. I agree with you, she probably should be considered a contemporary liberal theologian. But most of the contemporary women theologians are feminists and, as to theological method, that inclines them away from modernity toward liberation theology which is a whole other animal. I consider liberation theology more postmodern than modern.

  • “Theological labels should not be torn away from history and used in such an informal manner as epithets to insult or marginalize people. ”

    Agreed, but I have yet to see anyone call Baylor liberal for the purpose of insulting or marginalizing people. My experience is that folks call Baylor liberal because of the theological views of the professors and the views of the students they attract.

    • rogereolson

      Ah, well…you haven’t heard what I’ve heard! Most of the time when I talk to people who think Baylor and its seminary are “liberal” they mention ordination of women as their main evidence.

  • I for one am very proud and thankful for the evangelical legacy I’ve received from Dr. Pinnock. He was an inspirational and faithful thinker who is missed. Thank you for this post!

  • John Metz

    Thank you for this very educational post. It is always a help to see the development of ideas through history.

    While I cannot define “liberalism” as well as you have, I have certainly experienced it. I grew up in a very liberal denomination (which will remain unnamed). I have heard preachers openly question miracles, revelation, the Bible itself and many other things that, to me, define liberalism.

    But the most telling was a so-called “Easter” sermon in which the pastor used the mythical bird the Phoenix (also used differently by Clement of Rome and Tertullian) as his example. He said that the first bird, the one that crashed and burned, represented the church that God started. Out of its ashes arose a second Phoenix, which represented the church started by man and which would, according to his account, fulfill the original purpose of the first bird/church. Liberalism? Unbelief? Blasphemy? My wife and I were shocked, not only at the message but at the placid reaction of the congregation.

    Once, after coming to the Lord, some young brothers and I started sharing the gospel in our hometown and baptizing some who believed. This brought a unanimous round of condemnation from the local pastors. So, to placate them, we took another pastor from this same denomination with us to help baptize some. His was a denomination that did not baptize by immersion; this was maybe his first experience at it. He lost his shoes in the creek. I have always looked back on that incident with a degree of humor.

    My anecdotal experience certainly does not rise to the level of your definition but I hope you might enjoy it nonetheless.

  • Dr. Olson, I’ve read several books by you, John Franke, Stanley Grenz, Leron Shults, etc. I’m curious if you know of an essay compilation book on postfoundationalist and/or postconservative evangelical theology?

    • rogereolson

      By compilation book do you mean anthology of primary texts? I don’t know of one. Publishers are very reluctant to publish those. They tend not to sell very well. The closest thing I know is my book Reformed and Always Reforming which I assume you’ve read.

      • In the paleo-orthodox camp there’s a book entitled ‘Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century–Essays In Honor of Thomas C. Oden.’ Just a bunch of essays about or related to paleo-orthodoxy. Likewise, in the emerging camp there’s ‘An Emergent Manifesto of Hope.’ I understand the problem with the publishers, I was just wondering if such a work exists for the postfoundationalist camp.

        Yep. Read ‘Reformed and Always Reforming’ shortly after graduating from a conservative Bible college. Here’s what I wrote to the friend who recommended it:

        “Time will tell if this proves to be the most important book in my theological development, but right now I suspect this will be the case. This book has helped me to provide the theological methodology that I’ve been searching for for so long. I don’t necessarily agree with Olson on where that methodology takes him in terms of specific doctrines, nor do I like much of the nomenclature he uses. Nevertheless, I finally feel as though I found what I’ve been looking for. This book has restored my hope in the theological endeavor.”

        I offer a hearty THANK YOU.

        • rogereolson

          Thank you and you’re welcome!

  • Ward Gasque

    ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are very loose terms that do not have a lot of meaning independently of context. I did my PhD with F. F. Bruce, generally recognized as the most influential evangelical biblical scholar in the 2nd half of the 20th Century. Bruce liked the word ‘liberal’ and thought that it should be reclaimed by evangelicals. In some ways, evangelicals are very, very ‘liberal’ (e.g., in the area of ecclesiology). Most evangelicals, for example, do not accept the necessity of a three-fold order of the clergy [deacons, priests, and bishops]; they certainly do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine at the Eucharist, or in baptismal generation. I happen to be on the pastoral staff of a church that has 8 pastors, some of whom are ordained but not all; neither our local church nor the denomination of which it is a part requires someone to be ordained to lead the Lord’s Supper or to baptize believers.

    F, F. Bruce was once asked whether he would call himself a ‘conservative evangelical’. His answer: No. I would prefer to be an unhyphenated evangelical. Some of the views I hold may be regarded by some people as ‘conservative’ and other of the views I hold may be regarded by some as ‘liberal’; however, I do not hold any of these opinions because I am ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal,’ but I hold them because I believe them to be true.

    In relation to others, Bruce was extremely ‘liberal’ – he was able to be friends with colleagues and students who held very different religious views (or none). He was possibly the most free human being I have ever known.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for your input, Ward. I love Bruce’s work and have learned much from it. However, I prefer to stick to these labels in terms of their historical contexts–inextricably related to the movements that gave birth to the labels. I wouldn’t call Bruce a liberal in any theological sense. Yes, he was liberal in the sense of being open-minded (up to a point, of course) and willing to have dialogue with people with whom he disagreed. But I don’t care to stretch the word “liberal” that far when using it to describe someone’s theological orientation.

  • Myles

    Roger, one more for your reading list: Christopher Evans’ Liberalism Without Illusions (BUP 2010). Evans is a social-Gospel historian who is deeply immersed in the history of the tradition. Top notch.

  • Brother, can you give few specific examples in the area of ethics when such conduct could be labeled as part of liberal movement?

    Thank you for the post. It is very helpful.

    It would be a great treat if you be kind enough to post on Open Theism!

    • rogereolson

      I have posted on open theism a lot. I don’t know if those posts are in the archives here. I hope so. Without any doubt I will post on open theism again in the future. It’s one of my favorite subjects! 🙂 I don’t use ethics to determine whether someone is truly theologically liberal or not. I look at their theological methodology–sources and norms (authority).

      • Jeremiah Duomai

        How about someone who endorses homosexual practice as a valid way of Christian living? Would it be fair to consider such person a liberal?

        • rogereolson

          That’s my whole point. Not necessarily. Someone might be conservative theologically but have that one unorthodox view. What would make him or her “liberal” would be the reason for endorsing homosexual practice as a valid way of Christian living. If the appeal is to science, for example, then that is, to me, an indicator of liberal thinking. However, if the person simply thinks the Bible doesn’t address the issue, then PERHAPS it’s not an indicator of liberal thinking. It happens to be the case that most of the theologians who endorse homosexual practice as compatible with a Christian life are theologically liberal.

  • James

    If I’m understanding this post, weren’t you describing how ‘liberalism,’ can be seen as an ‘ethos.’ If this is the case, what would be so informal or degrading to use it to describe others?

    I think the reason why Pollock was labeled as a liberal by the ‘fundamentalists,’ is because of that ethos- that he wasn’t being as objective to the Bible as he claimed to be. To them, his past human experience or tradition or a desire to please may have been perceived to be at the ‘bottom of [his] theological enterprise.’ And to those on his ‘left,’ because Pollack on the most part did ground his theology on the Bible would therefore be seen as a fundamentalist.

    This progressive theological spectrum can also be seen the examples you list above for example, starting with female ordination, then Rob Bell, denial of the supernatural, gay marriage/pastors, pluralistic universalism. Although progressive, the common thread is the perception that there is a desire to shape theology from man (man’s prior experiences, pressing social needs and issues, or whatever contemporary worldview we’re in whether post-modern/ modern worldview). The more conservative you think you are however, the more likely you think you’re being objective to the Bible and that everything else submits to that.

    I also need to challenge whether your assumption about whoever these ‘neo-fundamentalists,’ are is true. In other posts, you seem to generalize them that they are only concerned with maintaining their tradition, but their real fear is that the Bible will become just a book like in some places in Europe-where they’ve become post-Christian.

    Yet when I think of someone like John Macarurther who I think even self-identifies himself as a cessationist and a fundamentalist, he still gives lenience to reformed charismatics. I think this is because in his mind, he knows that the Bible and the revelation of God and Jesus for them is the foundation to which they ground their theology even though they come to different interpretations.

    On the other hand, the emergent church could even call you a neo-fundamentalist out of a desire to hold onto an arminion slant. For e.g., Richard Beck on his blog, experimental theolgoy, asks about free will, “Why would you build your entire theological system upon a historically recent, non-biblical, philosophically contested, scientifically disputed, and perennially controversial anthropocentric abstraction?”

    For me as well, I have a feeling Apostle Paul when writing his letters was not thinking how he can reconcile free will and concepts of fate. His letters’ aim wasn’t on that-he posed the question how God could have made people to be destined for hell, but the point I think was to take advantage of grace.

    And so if you label others as neo-fundamentalists, would you be able to call yourself one or at least be willing to see that you may be wrong? If there’s been such as long debate about it, it just goes to show that the Scriptures aren’t clear or else we’d all agree. It’s a cop-out to just call others fundamentalists on this issue at least. But no calvinist would call a arminion a liberal however.

    But yes, labels seem to be used to degrade, but for me at least in my circles of friends who are younger, bashing who we perceive as fundamentalists (and Republicans such as Elisabeth Hasselback on the View) is the most fun thing to do especially on youtube where we can stay anonymous.

    • rogereolson

      Huh? I don’t think you’ve been reading my posts very carefully!

  • James

    I also think conservative emphasizes the individual human will to act and elevates the importance of each individual to be responsible for themselves (why some Republicans thus may feel the rich deserve what they do and the poor need to pull up their boot straps).

    On the other side, the more ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ you are, the more you see individuals to have less volition but are more influenced by factors external to ourselves—whether it be social and political structures, family upbringing, etc (thus the need for higher taxes for more social policies).

    Theologically therefore, those with a conservative predisposition will regard their sin as more of a rebellion and thus see a God who will punish, where those with a liberal view, will see sin as something like brokenness inflicted from something external, and thus sees God as someone to love and heal them.

    Just my observations.

    • James

      and just to continue on in that last sentence, because of feeling broken, they also want God to empower them, to have more control, victory, and freedom.

      For these reasons, why the poor with less social clout may resent the rich and strong and in some countries will may rise up against them if enough come together to ally.

    • rogereolson

      Be careful not to interpret theological categories using political ones. They do not always correlate. Historically speaking, liberal theologians have tended to emphasize individual freedom and autonomy and conservative theologians have tended to emphasize God’s sovereignty. At least that’s since the Enlightenment and especially during the height of the liberal-fundamentalist controversies of the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Process theologians, for example, regard everything as having some measure of free will. They are far from determinists.

  • Ethan

    Dr. Olson,

    Great post! Thanks so much for providing a more robust definition of historical theological liberalism. I just have one question:

    Do the people who have called the seminary at which you teach “liberal” call it “theologically liberal?” Just wondering if what they mean might be “liberal” in the sense of “open to new behavior or opinions” (“new” of course being a non 16-century old tradition of a male-only pastorate, priesthood, etc.), rather than “conservative” in the sense of “holding to traditional attitudes and values” (“traditional” of course being a 16-century old tradition…). Just wondering if you would consider that a valid explanation when the term “liberal” is pushed on.



    • rogereolson

      Perhaps. But, again, that’s evidence of ignorance about what “liberal” really means. After all, most of the critics (of my seminary) themselves hold views that would be considered non-traditional–compared with the ancient churches or even the original Protestant churches. “Liberal” just shouldn’t be used for everything non-traditional. People need to learn to use more words.

  • Scott Gay

    This post is excellent in definition of theological liberalism and in correcting this responder from throwing around the label( as was my tendency).

    And I was actually shocked to notice that, as I have become older, I’ve leaned(but not embraced) the tendencies in your next to last paragraph.

  • Dr. Olson,

    I’m part of a denomination that is more on the conservative side of the spectrum. Recently one of the more traditionalist ministers within the denomination started a post on his Facebook page with “You might be a liberal in (denomination name) if you…” where people proceeded to list all kinds of practices and beliefs they feel are out of line.

    In a live discussion today during a webcast forum hosted by the more-conservative group, a few people complained about the tone of that post. One of the “conservatives” said, “Well if you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.” The irony is that those words are the same “out” the social liberals use when social conservatives complain about what they see as immoral and indecent in the boradcast media.

    So here’s a “conservative” using a “liberal” line in defense of his attacks on those he deems to be “liberal.”

    Which tells me these folks aren’t taking time to reflect and think — they’re just having knee-jerk reactions.

  • nathan

    This is a great article! Hope you’ll write one on “What is Post-Liberalism”.

    • rogereolson

      I have. I wrote an article on postliberalism for Christianity Today a few years ago. But I’ll do something with it here soon. Keep reading…

  • Rob

    So theological liberals are committed to the truth of the pronouncements of modernity (although moderns do not speak univocally!)
    That seems right but maybe more should be said. From the standpoint of traditional orthodoxy, isn’t what makes one a liberal not so much the embracing of modernity as much as the rejection of the historical Christian tradition? Aren’t there some postmoderns running around today every bit as deserving of the liberal label as those committed to the Enlightenment?

    • rogereolson

      The problem with defining liberalism that way is…there are numerous “cults” out there that reject the historical Christian tradition. Surely we want some way of distinguishing between liberal rejection of the historical Christian tradition (doctrinally) and the many sectarian or cultic ones. I don’t think it works to simply use “liberal” that way. I’m not sure yet what we will call postmodern theologians who reject Christian orthodoxy on the basis of postmodern philosophy. I don’t think “liberal” works for them, either. Is Don Cupitt “liberal” theologically? I suspect most true liberals like the ones I mentioned in my post wouldn’t not enjoy his company.

  • yuckabuck

    These are great distinctions you are drawing, Dr. Olson. I remember during the recent war in Iraq (looking at “liberal” and “conservative” as political labels), seeing political conservatives who opposed the war on conservative grounds and political liberals who supported the war on politically liberal grounds even though both groups were seen as going against the norm of their respective “sides.” In the same way, I don’t believe I am theologically liberal because I have no problem with women in the ministry because I affirm it on very conservative theological grounds- a reading of the Bible which sees it as “God’s Word given in the words of men in history” (as George Ladd put it).

  • Jarell

    Another great article thanks Dr. Olson!

  • Dan Reid

    Thanks, Roger, for an excellent reminder! The prevalent use of the term “liberal” annoys me no end!

  • Ken

    My theology is liberal in the way you have defined here, although I think of liberal theology as being very diverse. As I think you have alluded, today’s theological liberals don’t have much in common with each other, other than a certain ethos. I think of my theology as liberal mostly because I view the Bible as myth and because my tendency to believe religion emerged in a Darwinian way, like everything else human, binds my theology.

    Sometimes I have thought that my theology is postmodern, influenced, as it is, by the linguistic turn, but now I tend to see the linguistic turn as a development within modernity, an inescapable development after Darwin.

    I do think that postconservative theology resembles liberal theology, and has assimilated elements of postmodern philosophy, but I think you are right that postconservative theology remains evangelical. Your writing, and that of others like Grenz, differs from the writing of Lyotard, or Foucault or Rorty. At the same time, I think that contemporary evangelical theology is itself a modern theology, one rooted in the enlightenment, one heavily influenced by the experience of modernity even while maintaining some connections with the past. It seems to me that evangelicals are adept at finding justifications for pop culture in the Bible.

    Even while they claim to be different in emphasis, I think Brown and Pinnock are more alike than different. Evangelicals are more liberal theologically than either they or liberals acknowledge, and liberals are more bound to the past than they can consciously acknowledge.

    I admire the transparency with which you write. It is helpful to others and helpful to our project, whether that project be evangelical or liberal.

  • Russ

    Well done Roger. Thank you for the clear clarifications. If you have not done so already I would be interested in what Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Dietrick Boenhoffer taught as vs. evangelical and emergent Christian thot today. For me Barth is complex and “heavy” and simplifying him may not be possible. Still Barth seems to offer some 3rd-way alternatives to the discussions of Calvinism v. Arminianism, as well as to Open Theism (or so I’ve read). Thank you.

    • rogereolson

      Great question. My study has led me to believe the following about these theologians and the whole Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate. Barth was basically a monergistic universalist. Someday I’m going to defend that thesis here. I have friends who know Barth just as well as I do who disagree, but my study of Barth’s doctrine of election has led me to that conclusion. Of course, that would put him at odds with Arminianism as well as with traditional Calvinists. Barth called his own view “purified supralapsarianism.” That alone should prove my thesis–especially in light of his adamant insistence that Jesus Christ was the only reprobate man. Brunner reveled in paradox, but I see his soteriology as very close to Arminianism. Some of my students over the years have written papers on Brunner and Arminianism and I’m convinced their conclusions are right. They all concluded that there is real affinity between them. Brunner despised double predestination while affirming single predestination but without the monergistic, individualistic flavor one finds in much traditional Calvinism. He affirmed divine self-limitation throughout his Dogmatics. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. That should settle it. Lutherans generally reject both Calvinism and Arminianism as too rationalistic and simply embrace paradox (if not contradiction). But I’m not aware of whether he ever addressed the Luther versus Melanchthon issue over monergism versus synergism.

      • Russ

        Very helpful. Thanks!

      • Shauna Dolan

        Hmmmn. I feel somewhat more educated having read all the above post on liberal Theology. Thank you, Dr. Olsen. I wish I best knew where I stand other than to say, that I am a new-convert (hate that word) to Christianity, as of the last three years. I was born and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. My mother is a former Catholic who went to the Convent to become a nun. That I am here, indicates it was a brief and fleeting notion. She met my Dad, a Russian immigrant, and former Doukhobor, who attained Philosophy and Physics degrees, and convinced my ingenue mother of Atheism, until she met the Witnesses, and was baptized while pregnant with me. I first challenged the Witness faith at age nine. I left at forty. It took that long to engage in a quest of faith, and it obviously is ongoing, though I did, become a Christian fully. Bittersweet story: it was a choice that had it’s costs. One doesn’t just walk away from certain religious organizations or “cults” (another term I find loathsome). I disassociated myself and therefore, walked away from any form of familial or relational contact that day: closure, in it’s fullest sense! I actually penned a book about it … should it ever reach dusty shelf-stage, I’ll let you know. This year, I enrolled in Rocky Mountain Bible College, and given a paper due shortly on Theological Ethics, I stumbled upon your post, gratefully. I struggle endlessly with a system of thought and rationale that doesn’t resemble most others. As I endeavor to refine my faith and increase understanding, I will follow such posts, and explore authors quoted. I wish it were all easier … and wonder why it isn’t.

        Thanks to all the posters…. I love to read the comments!

        Shauna Dolan

        • rogereolson

          That is a rich and complex heritage! Thanks for sharing it here. I wish you all the best. (I think this is the first time I’ve heard/read someone mention the Doukhobors since I was in college and the college’s president talked about them endlessly for some reason I can’t remember. All I remember is that they were/are ethnically Russian Anabaptists some of who occasionally demonstrated against repressive laws by parading nude in public. That stuck in my mind at age 20! But I’m sure there’s much, much more to their faith and traditions.)