Calvinism the Root of Liberal Theology
I am an Arminian and a scholar of Arminian theology. Over the years I have heard many people blame Arminianism for the rise of liberal Christianity. There is a Youtube video that attempts to make that case; it is very lame. It ends with two female superstars kissing on stage and chanting “We are tired of the concepts of right and wrong!” Somehow the makers of the documentary (or is it a mockumentary?) blame this and liberal Christianity on Arminianism.
As I explain in my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press), some late seventeenth century and eighteenth century Remonstrants (the original term for Arminians in the Netherlands) did fall into something like what would later become liberal Protestantism. Philip Limborch was one. I refer to them as “Arminians of the head” and distinguish them from the faithful followers of Jacob Arminius such as John Wesley, “Arminians of the heart.” Limborch and his ilk were not true Arminians even if they were failed followers of the old Remonstrant movement.
So, the calumny that Arminianism gave rise to liberal theology is false; if anything it is truer that Calvinism gave rise to liberal theology. How so?
Friedrich Schleiermacher, the early nineteenth century “father of liberal theology” was a Reformed minister who reacted against Calvinism and developed liberal Protestant thought as its alternative. Unitarianism was a reaction to Calvinism when it first originated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Universalism was the same. (Eventually they found each other and became the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Churches.)
Most of the American liberal theologians of the nineteenth century were raised Reformed and Calvinist. Their intellectual biographies reveal that they reacted against Calvinism, jumping right over Arminianism into liberal Protestantism (which I describe in some detail in Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity [Zondervan, 2022]).
Calvinism carries within itself the seeds of liberal theology because thoughtful, compassionate Calvinists eventually realize the God of Calvinism is not worthy of worship because he is “beyond good and evil” (Nietzsche) and cannot be worshiped or imitated. His love is false because it is not universal; his will is arbitrary and always self-serving. He is the ultimate narcissist. (See my book Against Calvinism [Zondervan].)
Schleiermacher was a Calvinist who “fixed” the problem of God’s goodness by jumping to universalism and creating liberal Protestant theology as the alternative to God’s narcissism and hatred of the non-elect in Calvinism. But to his dying day he considered God the all-determining reality. He just believed that God predestines everyone to heaven.
Very many liberal Protestants I have known jumped right from the Calvinism of their spiritual upbringing and youth into liberal theology because they did not consider Arminianism; they were taught by their Calvinist spiritual mentors that Arminianism was half way to liberal theology and concluded why not just jump right into liberal theology past the half way house of Arminianism?
The truth is, as I showed in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, that true, historical Arminianism is not even a halfway house on the road to liberal theology. Now I have shown in Against Liberal Theology that a true, classical Arminian can be just as critical of liberal theology as any Calvinist can be. D. A. Carson—take notice. John Piper (who once accused me to my face of being on a “trajectory toward liberal theology)—take notice. Bruce Ware (who once asked me if I was aware that my Arminianism was humanistic)—take notice. All you Calvinist critics of Arminian theology who falsely accuse it of being the root of liberal theology if not closet liberal theology itself, take notice.