What I mean when I say someone is theologically “liberal”

What I mean when I say someone is theologically “liberal” February 24, 2015

Definitions of “liberal” in theology differ considerably–even among scholars of modern theology. Yale historical theologian (whose special area of scholarship was modern theology) Claude Welch defined it as “maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modernity.” Union Theological Seminary theologian (and self-identified theological liberal) Gary Dorrien defines it as recognizing no authority outside the self. (Of course he means no ultimate authority.) Iliff School of Theology theologian Delwin Brown describes it as permitting “the best of modern thought” to trump scripture and tradition when they conflict. (And he clearly was not only referring to the material facts of science.) Here is Brown’s explanation of what “liberalism” means in theology:

“Liberalism at its best is…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 subject 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.” (Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical/Liberal Dialogue, p. 23) By “the past” Brown means Scripture and tradition.

As I have said before here, I use “prototype theory” to define theological categories. So, I look back at theologians who either labeled their approaches to Christianity “liberal” or whose approach has been labeled that by a consensus of historical theologians–across the spectrum (not only conservatives or fundamentalists).

Gary Dorrien’s magisterial three volume study of American liberal theology provides helpful guidance in using and not misusing the label “liberal.” (See The Making of American Liberal Theology [Westminster John Knox Press]). Dorrien connects American liberal theology with continental liberal theology while emphasizing its uniquely American flavor.

Who are the legitimate prototypes of liberal theology? Well, everyone agrees the founder of the type is Friedrich Schleiermacher. Most would agree that the most recent example is (for Americans especially) is Marcus Borg (RIP January, 2015).

What do all these liberal theologians–from Schleiermacher to Borg–have in common? I would point to two defining dispositions: 1) to elevate modern (or perhaps now postmodern) culture to the status of ruling authority for deciding what is believable and what is not believable and what is essential to believing as a Christian and what is non-essential, and 2) to make Christian doctrine endlessly flexible, reducing it to opinion and not a criterion for identifying authentic Christianity (in a church or individual). (These two dispositions fall into some conflict with each other with the result that doctrine–beyond Jesus is special–usually is being removed entirely as any criterion for identifying authentic Christianity.)

Naturally, many people (and churches) do not fit the “liberal” type perfectly. Yet it is a noticeable and identifiable trajectory.

You may disagree with my portrait of what “liberal” means in theology and that is permissible, of course (unless you are one of my students in which case you’d better be able to cite alternative sources and authorities to justify a different portrait).


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