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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