What Is “Liberal Theology?”

What Is “Liberal Theology?” October 8, 2013

During my career as a Christian theologian I have several times been accused of being either liberal or on the way to being liberal. The accusers clearly meant liberal as in “liberal theology”–not liberal politically (which I am). John Piper told me to my face that he perceived me as “on a liberal trajectory.” (I immediately pictured myself being shot out of a cannon like the stuntmen in the old circuses!) Most recently Gerald McDermott has claimed that I and my fellow “meliorists” (I prefer “postconservative evangelicals”) are retracing the path that led to Protestant liberal theology. Like many others, McDermott seems to think “liberal theology” is a good label for any deviation from orthodoxy. That’s what I challenge here.

I have made the study of liberal theology (including Catholic modernism) a career-long study. I have read numerous books by liberal Protestant theologians past and present and engaged in liberal-evangelical dialogues. My forthcoming book The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (IVP) will explain and give case studies of liberal and modernist theologies.

My reliable guides in the study of liberal theology have been and are: Gary Dorrien (author of a three volume study of liberal theology), Claude Welch (author of numerous books on modern theology), Peter Hodgson, Donald Miller, Harvey Cox, William R. Hutchison, Delwin Brown, Bernard Reardon and many other theologians, historians and sociologists.

All of them make the same point–that “liberal theology” is not just any deviation from orthodoxy but an elevation of modern reason and discovery, the “modern mind,” to a source and norm for theology.

Here are some influential definitions of “liberal theology” by leading scholars of that type of theology:

“Liberal theology is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially the natural and social sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience…and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people.” (Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: ImaginingProgressive Religion 1805-1900, p. xxiii.)

“Liberal Christians have characteristically sought to understand their faith with reference to their experience within contemporary culture. … Liberal Christians view accommodation to culture as necessary and positive… They seek understand God and their moral responsibility in terms of the best available scientific knowledge and social analysis.” (Donald E. Miller, The Case for Liberal Christianity, p. 33)

Claude Welch (Yale University) defined liberal theology as “Maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modern thought” in theology. (Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, I, 1799-1870, p. 142)

In Crossfire, his dialogue with Clark Pinnock, Delwin Brown several time emphasized that liberal theology grants normative status to “the best of modern thought” in such a way as to trump Scripture itself when there is a conflict.

To regard any deviation from or attempt to re-form orthodox Christian tradition as “liberal” theologically is patent misuse of that category and label. In order for a theological proposal to be “liberal” it MUST be offered on the ground that modern thought requires it even though what is requiring it is not a universally recognized material fact (such as the earth moves around the sun). In other words, liberal theology makes modern thought in general a norming norm for theology–alongside if not above Scripture.

If we do not stick to this historical-theological definition of liberal theology (along with prototypes such as Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, et al.) we end up filling the category so full it becomes empty.

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  • Another nice blog. Gordon Kaufman might be another to add to your list of self-professed liberals.

  • labreuer

    Any wise person knows that it is almost never acceptable to lie at an extreme. So if one extreme is “conserve everything, touch nothing” and the other extreme is “anything can be changed at any time”, then one can be moving in the liberal direction without becoming a liberal.

    Anytime someone accuses you of being or becoming a liberal, the alternative possibility is that the accuser’s heart is/is becoming ossified, unable to hear the Holy Spirit or be transformed by the Bible. Merely not being ‘pure enough’ isn’t a sign of having a heart of flesh; the Pharisees were constantly trying to become more pure as well.

  • I think that anti-supernaturalism is their most important feature.

  • Rob

    Are distinctively modern moral views considered a part of liberal theology? For example, moderns typically take happiness to be subjective and non-evaluable and they typically see morality as inherently restrictive on happiness such that they are always in conflict. Premodern thinkers viewed happiness as objective and definitely something that we can morally evaluate and they saw virtue and objective well-being as working together and never opposed.

    • Roger Olson

      I’m not sure most liberal theologians would consider that “the best of modern thought.” They don’t typically adopt whatever most moderns think as normative for Christian theology. They examine modern science and philosophy and what they think is settled by those and take that as authoritative for theology.

      • Rob

        And as far as modern science goes, we basically mean Genesis and Evolutionary Biology? I’m not sure where nuclear chemistry or meteorology would fit in!

        As far as philosophy goes, it seems like contemporary theology should always be conversant in contemporary philosophy and should encourage contemporary Christian philosophers to push in directions compatible with historic Christian thought. However, simply jumping on board with contemporary philosophy is dangerous and embarrassing as philosophy has undergone some major upheavals in the past 200 years.

        • Scott F

          I don’t know. Modern meteorology would argue that tornadoes and hurricanes strike a location because of factors present in the environment. Someone like Pat Robertson would argue that God can make a hurricane strike anywhere He wants. While some could reconcile these statements, I think modern Liberal Theologians would favor the findings of meteorology and avoid blaming victims for the weather that afflicts them

          • Roger Olson

            False dichotomy. The problem with liberal theology does not lie there. It lies in denying that God has the ability to manage nature in ways beyond science’s ability to explain (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus).

  • steve rogers

    If liberalism is to be understood as the accommodation to “the best of modern thought”, should we not consider neo-fundamentalism as the best of pre-modern thoughtlessness?

  • Bev Mitchell

    To Roger Olson October 9, 2013

    Yours is a very important (essential) proviso, and a widely misunderstood one, despite the ever-present references to Galileo.

    “In order for a theological proposal to be “liberal” it MUST be offered on the ground that modern thought requires it even though what is requiring it is not a universally recognized material fact (such as the earth moves around the sun).”

    Take current conclusions surrounding human biology (what else?). Modern science says (1) we are intimately related to all other life on the planet, (2) historically and presently, to live, we are associated and must associate intimately with many other living things and (3) we damage any of the myriad of the relationships of (2) at our peril. Interestingly, just like our faith in Christ, it’s all about relationships.

    Is this a liberal position? It’s certainly not biblical. Must you hold it to be a ‘good’ Christian? Can you deny much of it (as many appear to do) and still be a ‘good’ Christian? To what extent is agreeing with this set of basic and all encompassing biological conclusions necessary to the health of our faith?

    I suggest that what is damaging to our faith is to bring any of this into the orthodox Christian ‘recipe’ in a way that insists one must believe it or deny it to be a ‘good’ Christian. How we handle (or more often, how we insist others handle) these non-biblical conclusions is the heart of the problem. Even if these three conclusions are true (in the best critical realist sense), and I think they are, a Christian believer may deny them, and remain a ‘good’ Christian. Now it is true that acceptance or denial will each have their effect on a number of important expressions of our faith, from how we interpret Scripture to how we behave. Is one path liberal, the other conservative? Are these even reasonable categories in such a situation?

    Definition: ‘good’ Christian means a professing Christian who is not on some dangerous slippery slop to the place where ‘bad’ Christians congregate. 😉

    • Roger Olson

      I agree.

  • Van

    In his campaign speech the politician claimed to be a “Conservative/Liberal.” Someone in the audience retorted, “It’s impossible to be conservative and liberal at the same time! The politician replied, “Yes I can be! I’m conservative with my own money, and liberal with everyone else’s money.”

  • Thursday1

    I’ll give an example of where Piper may be right. The older, pre-modern cosmologies assumed a world where forms, purposes, essences and ideals permeate the natural world. This means, for example, that the fact that men and women have different reproductive organs and a different role in the reproductive process has a deep meaning behind it, and therefore it is perfectly acceptable from a pre-modern perspective to treat men and women differently simply because, to put it bluntly, women have uteruses and men have penises, regardless of their individual inclinations and talents. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a discussion about where and when it is appropriate to treat men and women differently. Certainly, individual inclinations and talents count to some degree. But from a pre-modern perspective, including a pre-modern Christian perspective, treating men and women differently simply because they are men and women is not morally problematic.

    It should go without say that such an understanding of what the universe is like permeates the biblical text. The upshot of all this is that, I think, secular feminist thought is almost completely irrelevant to Christians. It’s based off of a materialist cosmos without forms, purposes and essences, completely alien to Christian thought.

    Now, I haven’t read enough of you to say to what degree you would agree with me, but to the extent that your thought on the role of women in the church is influenced by feminist trends in our secular society, all of which are based on a modern cosmology, it is indeed on a liberal trajectory.

    • Roger Olson

      You’re right. You don’t know me or anything about my view on women in church. I grew up in an extremely conservative denomination that always, from its beginning, ordained women and had women pastors. The idea that women could not be ordained or pastors first came to me when I entered an evangelical seminary that was less conservative (!) than the denomination I grew up in! My view has nothing at all to do with liberalism and for you or anyone to assume it must just shows ignorance–of the fact, for example, that the first Christian groups to ordain women were conservative theologically (e.g., the Free Methodists).

  • Sam

    And back in another day; John Lock stated, “For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith, for everyone is orthodox to himself: these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men’s striving for power and empire over one another, than of the church of Christ.” A Letter Concerning Toleration

  • Roger, Thank you for detailing this essay. I am trying to clarify my own definition of liberal theology. I suppose a key criteria for liberal Christian theology is the openness for allowing contemporary philosophy or science to trump biblical doctrine. This contrasts to progressive evangelical theology that upholds biblical doctrine and considers how contemporary philosophy and science can help to develop biblical doctrine. Does this sound like an accurate contrast to you? Peace, Jim

    • Roger Olson

      Most liberal theologians (there may be exceptions) have adopted naturalism–that nature is strictly controlled by laws of cause and effect that are scientifically discoverable and mathematically describable. They reject anything “supernatural.” That restricts God’s activity to being the “hand within the glove,” so to speak–the dynamic force within nature that science does not study but theology does. I think this is capitulation to scientism. The supernatural (miracles, however defined) is a limb of Christianity the amputation of which the patient cannot survive.

      • Andrew Dowling

        “I think this is capitulation to scientism.”

        Oh Good Lord . . .try “capitulation” to everything humans have observed/studied empirically for the last 1000 years.

        And how does what I would consider the ‘core’ of Christianity (imitation of Christ through acts of love, mercy, forgiveness) depend on the existence of supernatural miracles? As the world gets smaller and education increases, religions which place their focus on claims of the supernatural (“my God is more powerful than your God because he did/can do XYZ supernatural action”) will decline into fundamentalist minorities. And denying supernatural miracles (which I would define as clear over-turnings of natural law) doesn’t equate to strict naturalistic materialism, but it does define a framework through which the Spirit manifests.

        • Roger Olson

          You caricature. My point was about the resurrection of Jesus. Without it (viz., bodily resurrection to new eschatological life) Christianity is just morality. Might as well become deists.

          • Tim Buchanan

            But doesnt modern scientific thought indicate that such a thing is impossible? Why would the “trump card” not work here? Liberal theologians such as Marcus Borg seem to employ that “trump card” by indicating that something worth calling “Christianity” can survive the abandoning of the bodily resurrection. Would you place Borg in a category other than “liberal theologian”?

          • Roger Olson

            Most definitely. He’s a leading contemporary example of liberal theology. And I have exchanged e-mails with him, read his books, and watched talks by him on videos. I think he’s a proud self-identified liberal theologian. At the end of the day, after studying him, I cannot recognize him as a fellow Christian. I may not think that about all people who call themselves “liberal” (theologically), but in his case that is the conclusion I have come to. But I’m not the pope of anything, so what I think doesn’t matter to anyone but me and people who respect my opinion about such things. They are not that numerous.

  • oooh, that’s an interesting way of looking at it. I always tell people I’m not liberal in theology when they slap that label on me.

  • Mike D’Virgilio

    I think J. Gresham Machen had it
    right in “Christianity & Liberalism,” which is why a group from
    Princeton Seminary, a 19th Century bastion of orthodoxy, left to found
    Westminster Seminary Philadelphia in 1929. If by liberal you mean the “elevation
    of modern reason and discovery, the ‘modern mind,’ to a source and norm for
    theology” then Machen was right, liberal Christianity isn’t Christianity at
    all. In his time “modern reason and discovery” meant German higher criticism
    and supposed objective science standing in judgment of the Bible. Either the
    Bible is the inspired Word of God, or simply the work of human imagination. If
    the former it stands as the source and norm for theology, if the latter our
    faith is worthless and it doesn’t really matter what the source and norm for
    theology is so we may as well eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Machen
    was right then, and he is right now.

    • Roger Olson

      Famous columnist, social critic, Walter Lippman also agreed with Machen.

  • Kevin Kent

    I’ve always interpreted “liberal theology” to mean one or more of the following things: 1) rejection of the inerrancy of the Bible; 2) rejection of the scriptures written by the Apostle Paul; 3) rejection of the position that Jesus is the only way to salvation; 4) other ancillary things, such as asserting that homosexuality isn’t sin, asserting that God has disinherited Israel from her promises, and taking politically liberal public policy positions (e.g. supporting abortion rights in the public sphere, supporting legalization of gay marriage, supporting redistributive tax policies, etc.).

    Perhaps there is another term for what I’m describing and I’m asserting a different paradigm.

    In the context I’ve presented, I actually don’t think I would consider “liberal theology” a challenge to Christian orthodoxy since Evangelical Christianity is, by no means, considered “orthodox” in a world dominated by Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodox (Greek/Russian, etc.) denominations. Perhaps Evangelical Christianity would be considered “orthodox” is certain places, such as Lynchburg, VA or the Massachusetts Bay Colony circa 1640.

    • Roger Olson

      I was exactly trying to get away from defining “liberal theology” by a bunch of negatives–what it’s against. I define it more by what its method.

  • Curt

    When John Piper made this accusation against you, was there a particular doctrine or issue he was referring too? Was he just in general calling you names so to speak or was there a specific context that brought forth the comment.

    • Roger Olson

      He based it on reading my article “Evangelicals greet the postmodern age” in Christian Century where I first used the term “postconservative evangelical.” It was a journalistic article, not deeply theological. The context was the controversy over open theism at Bethel College where I then taught. Eventually it came out that he was just upset with me for defending my open theist colleagues (especially Greg Boyd) as evangelicals and open theism as an evangelical option. What that has to do with being “liberal” is beyond me. I think then and there he was just using it as a snarl word to scare me (and pastors he was reporting to about me).

  • Tim Buchanan

    Mr. Olson,
    Perhaps I missed something, but according to the definitions put forth in this article, do you consider yourself a “liberal theologian”?

    • Roger Olson

      Most definitely not! But thanks for asking. 🙂

  • Daniel Merriman

    I notice that McDermott is still traducing you over at FirstThings. I think he is still being grossly unfair.

  • Roger, I appreciate your candor on this subject and have also become wary of “words” and “labels” when used by a competing organization. For me, my (over)simplified definition of “liberal theology” would be the lack of a Jesus-centered, incarnational Gospel. And for “neo-conservative theology” the use of Christian images to support political agendas. Both are guilty of apostacism and rightful judgment. To all spectrums caught in the middle let us each be careful to listen to God’s Word aright seeking the Spirit of God and the Christ who is glorified.