Am I a “Liberal Christian” (According to Roger Olson)?

Am I a “Liberal Christian” (According to Roger Olson)? February 11, 2013
Roger Olson

Roger Olson recently posted a piece on why he’s not a “liberal Christian.” He said that he came to this conclusion after reading a bunch of liberal/progressive Christian blogs. Roger’s a great blogger, but one of his failings is that he never provides hyperlinks. This post is no exception. He doesn’t name the blogs or tell us who is a liberal blogger, in his opinion, and who is just getting over their fundamentalism (like he is).

Probably some readers think I’m hanging out on the far left, but you only need to read the comments to find a bunch of liberals who think I’m a raving conservative (on some issues). That’s why I’ve fought repeatedly to be listed among both the progressive Christian bloggers and the evangelical bloggers here at Patheos.

(Excursus: It bugs me that in the Patheos channel listings, “Evangelical” is its own category, but “Progressive Christian” is the name of the other channel. Why not “Evangelical Christian” or “Progressive.” This isn’t just a grammatical plea for parallel construction — I think it says something.

A lot of us know that neither “progressive” nor “liberal” is quite right. That’s why I waged a campaign to be called “Incarnational Christians.” Let the conservatives have “evangelical,” but let’s use a similarly theological signifier for ourselves.)

Since Roger doesn’t tell us who is who in his list, I’m left to guess about myself. I was never a fundamentalist, and I was only vaguely evangelical — anyone who attended Fuller Seminary when I was a student will tell you that my relationship with evangelicalism was an uneasy one. So I’m left to go through Roger’s rubric to see if I am, indeed, a “liberal.” Here’s his list, and my responses:

First, I look at their overall view of reality. Do they think the universe is open to God’s special activity in what might be called, however infelicitously, “miracles?” Do they believe in supernatural acts of God including especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb? If not, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

I am suspicious of present-day miracles, and, as I’ve written, I don’t believe in demons. But I wholeheartedly affirm the historic, bodily resurrection of Jesus. The thing is, I probably don’t affirm that for the reasons that Roger thinks it’s important. In the end, I think this: God is capable of interaction with time and space as we know it; I just don’t see any evidence that God does that anymore. And I sure don’t think that there is a metaphysical reality that’s different from our reality. So, Roger, does that make me a liberal?

Second, I look at their approach to “doing theology.” How do they approach knowing God? Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation? Or do they begin with and give norming authority to human experience, culture, science, philosophy, “the best of contemporary thought?” That is, do they “do” theology “from above” or “from below?” Insofar as they do theology “from below” I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

This is a false dichotomy, and it shows a real naïveté regarding human perceptions. The only way that you or I or Roger or any human being can talk about so-called “special revelation” is either 1) as pure speculation, or 2) by talking about our experience of it. To assert that there is some special revelation that is known to human beings independent of human experience is metaphysical hogwash. Again, if there is a God, then God is capable of all things — including revelatory acts in the space-time continuum. But those acts are only knowable through the scrim of human perception. So, Roger, does that make me a liberal?

Third, I look at their Christology. Do they think Jesus was different from other “great souls” among us in kind or only in degree? Is their Christology truly incarnational, affirming the preexistence of the Word who become human as Jesus Christ, or is itfunctional only, affirming only that Jesus Christ represented God, was God’s “deputy and advocate” among men and women? Insofar as their Chistology is functional and not ontologically incarnational, trinitarian, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.

I have repeatedly defended an orthodox incarnation. I think that arguing over the “preexistence of the Word,” while interesting to debate over a beer, is overly beholden to Greek philosophy. That may have overshadowed Nicaea and Chalcedon, but it’s not what keeps me up at night. Again, it’s pure speculation, which interests me very little. I do think that the key to Christology is the Trinity (which I’ll spell out in a new book). So, Roger, am I a liberal?

Fourth, I look at their view of Scripture. Do they believe the Bible is “inspired insofar as it is inspiring,” a wisdom-filled source of religious illumination and record of our “spiritual ancestors’” experiences of God? Or do they believe the Bible is supernaturally inspired such that in some sense God is its author—not necessarily meaning God dictated it or even verbally inspired it? Another way of putting that “test” is similar to the Christological one above: Is the Bible different only in degree from other great books of spiritual wisdom or in kind from them? Insofar as they view the Bible as different only in degree, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Honestly, to say that God is the “author” of the Bible is a shocking sophomoric statement from a theologian of Roger’s stature. One can claim that the Bible is sacred — that it uniquely conveys truth, primarily the truth of Christ — without having to resort to the fideist claim that God wrote it. The Bible is a book unique in its revelation of God in Christ, but God didn’t write it. So, I’m affirming its uniqueness, which is what Roger seems to want, but not in the way that he wants it. So, Roger, does that make me a liberal?

Fifth, I look at their view of salvation. Do they believe salvation is forgiveness and reconciliation with God as well as being made whole and holy by God’s grace alone or do they believe salvation is only a realization of human potential—individual or social—by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor? Insofar as they think the latter, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.

I honestly do not know a single Christian — conservative or liberal — who thinks that salvation comes by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor. Even the most liberal Christian thinks that salvation — whatever it is — is a gift from God. I think Roger is caricaturing liberals here. So, Roger, am I a liberal?

Sixth, I look at their view of the future. Do they believe in a real return of Jesus Christ, however conceived, to bring about a new world of righteousness? Or do they believe the “return of Christ” is a myth that expresses an existential experience and/or social transformation only? Insofar as they believe it is only a symbol, myth or metaphor, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

I have come to know lots of Preterists — they do not think that Jesus is coming back. But that doesn’t make them liberal; in fact, they are usually quite conservative. I believe that Christianity — like Judaism — is a fundamentally messianic faith. That is, Christianity is about hope — hope for a more peaceful future, hope for a savior, hope for salvation. I do not know what form that future will take, but I’m confident that Jesus will be a part of it.

So, Roger, I ask again: Do you think I’m a “liberal Christian,” or not?

PS: James McGrath has a nice response; he also responds to Frank Schaeffer’s post about how to fix mainline Christianity, and I’ll be responding to Frank on Thursday.

Since Roger likely won’t respond, I’d love for you to respond. According to Olson, am I a liberal Christian? Are you?

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  • Lucas Wright

    #evangelicalproblems lol.

  • I’ve read a few of Roger’s books, and really benefited from his ability to communicate to us non-academic types, but here lately I’ve been really confused by his obsession with drawing clear boundaries (especially when he’s such a defender of evangelicalism as a “centered set”). This is…

  • While you’re certainly no card-carrying member of the Jesus seminar, I think by Roger’s definitions you are indeed a Liberal Christian, Tony. From reading your blog, I’d put your theology somewhere left of Rob Bell and somewhere right of John Spong. In the Brian McLaren area perhaps. 🙂

  • TMC

    So is Olson saying that only one of those critieria are necessary to be branded a “liberal Christian?” or are all of them together are needed?

    Even John Wesley took reason and experience into account.

  • Tony, I keep thinking that at some point I’m going to find an area of serious disagreement between you and I, but thus far I have not found it. I’m sure it’s out there somewhere, but thus far I am surprised with how consistently I’m on the same page as you. It can’t be JUST the Princeton thing (Cf. Tim Dalrymple). But it’s good to have a fellow traveller such as you, whether it turns out we’re “liberals” or not.

  • It seems to me, Tony, according to your answers to his questions, that you are a raging moderate. 🙂 Then again, it depends how one defines “moderate.” I define it as someone who applies nuance when responding to “questions that haunt” (as you put it); someone who is suspicious of labels; someone who does not automatically despise traditional viewpoints; and someone who aspires to intellectual openness and humility. Of course, the tricky part about being a “moderate” is being labelled as wishy-washy or as another equally unsympathetic synonym. Would you be unhappy with the label Liberal Christian, or are you just displeased with any sort of categorization? I can understand being annoyed by being labelled by someone else. (FWIW, I try to beat people to the punch by labelling myself a existentialist, post-modern, gay Christian agnostic.)

  • Scot Miller

    I grew up as a conservative-Francis-Schaeffer-reading Southern Baptist, and I went to a Southern Baptist university because I assumed that it would help nurture my faith (i.e., reinforce my unreflective dogmatism.) Then the worst thing possible happened: instead of indoctrination, I was actually educated, which led me to question my faith. Instead of the relatively narrow sphere of evangelical discourse, I aspired to engage a larger sphere of rational discourse. So by the time I entered grad school, I had gladly abandoned the fundamentalist/evangelical/Southern Baptist frame of reference, and came to embrace a more secular and skeptical sphere of discourse. Now I’m puzzled by the desire of anyone to self-consciously embrace the “Evangelical” label (or any label, for that matter), since all such labels and self-designations are historically conditioned.

    I think that while Olson appears to be making some profound theological point, I really think his point is more economic and mundane: He’s living in a world populated by “Evangelicals” who pay his salary, so he has a “material interest” in believing that he himself is an “Evangelical.” Really, the whole thing is rather silly unless one considers the vested material interests of people who are stuck teaching in “Evangelical” schools.

    • ME

      I’ve read Olson’s blog a good bit. My impression is he believes he’s an Evangelical and he wants to influence Evangelicalism to be more like his version of it. I highly doubt he’s doing it for is own material interest, but, ya never know.

      • Scot Miller

        ME– It looks like I didn’t make my point very clearly (which isn’t surprising for me). I am really trying to make a point about the sociology of knowledge rather than a point about economics per se. All of us come to believe certain things because of our sociological situation. In particular, we have “vested interests” in certain beliefs, and we’re not always aware of those sociological factors which lead us to hold those beliefs. Some of our interests are ideal (e.g., we’ve spent years and years believing something, which makes it incredibly difficult for us to stop believing it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary), and some are material (e.g., it’s easier to believe something if we’re getting paid to believe it). My hunch is that Olson has both material and ideal interests for believing he’s an “Evangelical” but not a “Liberal” or even a “Progressive.”

        What’s funny to me is how most of these distinctions are a lot of “inside baseball:” incredibly important for the participants in the game, but a bit arcane for everybody else.

  • AJG

    Roger Olson strikes me as a conservative evangelical who wants to “make the tent bigger”. He is fiercely opposed to Calvinism and its strident us-versus-them mindset and its willingness to throw the character of God under the bus to sustain its theology. He doesn’t consider open theism heretical and has stated he could see himself in that camp at some point. Still, one of the hallmarks of evangelical christianity is in the drawing of boundaries do distinguish what is acceptable and what is not. Despite all the good things Olson writes, he still cannot completely break free of those roots.

  • Jonnie

    I can’t tell you whether this is a criterion Olson would use for further distinguish a “liberal” from a “conservative,” but I think in practice many evangelicals and conservatives use ‘someone who is trying to obscure the lines between these theological categories’ (like Olson’s sadly simplified binaries above) as a second order way to call out a liberal (or perhaps progressive is a better term here). In that regard, given your (and many others) desire to blur and deconstruct said 6 categories… you get the big “L” card. 🙂 So the logic from the conservative side is even more pernicious– if you disavow the categories, the methodology for distinguishing, you’re liberal. This I think is the more deep-seeded criterion at work in these kind of liberal-conservative schemas.

  • Ric Shewell

    I migrated from one mainline denomination to another mainline denomination a couple years ago. When I did, I went from being a liberal to being a conservative, even though my views didn’t change at all. It was all relative to the community that I was in. The change might also be more about geography than denominations. Either way, it’s been weird being perceived as a conservative these last couple of years, since the word “conservative” bears so many connotations that I don’t identify with.

  • Eric B

    I didn’t read his post, but based on your summary, I think he would not categorize you as a liberal Christian. I think his tests were an over-complicated way of asking “do you believe in the divinity of Jesus.” To him the definition of a “liberal” is someone similar to J.D. Crossan, who believes Jesus was just human, not divine, and a moral teacher. I think his post is an attempt to frame liberalism that way, instead of the current litmus tests that evangelicals use (such as gay marriage, evolution, and voting for Obama). Since you accept Jesus’ divinity, I think he would not categorize you as liberal, although your beliefs behind the mechanics of his divinity differ from his, hence the confusion.

  • AJG

    Do you think I’m a “liberal Christian,” or not?

    Why don’t you head over there and ask him? 🙂

    • Curtis


    • Already did.

      • AJG

        Did he not publish your post or something? I did read the article and it wasn’t clear that you had asked him directly (unless I just missed it).

        • My comment is “awaiting moderation”

          • Hey replied. A good natured, friendly response that entirely fails to answer your question. 😉

            • I wrote back, again, and said that I really want to know the answer. That comment is either awaiting moderation or has not been approved.

              • From my limited experience, Roger does a lot of speaking theoretically about things but when you ask him specifics he doesn’t respond. Hopefully he will on this, though.

  • Definitely liberal. I especially liked your “naïveté regarding human perceptions” comment.

  • Pseudonym

    I can’t speak for Roger Olsen, but for my part, you are a liberal Christian if and only if you identify as such.

    I do identify as such, but that doesn’t make me liberal about everything. For example, I am fairly conservative liturgically. The whole emerging church thing does nothing for me. Of course I would never say that it’s inauthentic, wrong, or not Christian. It’s just not for me.

    But here’s the point I really wanted to make: I think that the very question could only be asked in the United States. The rest of the English-speaking world doesn’t really have the red state/blue state polarisation thing, and neither “liberal” nor “conservative” are considered dirty words.

    Where I live in Australia, the local conservative political party is called the “Liberal Party”. In the UK, it was the conservative (and Conservative) Prime Minister who championed same-sex marriage. For people in the US, this sort of thing is unthinkable, but for everyone else, it’s perfectly normal.

    It’s a natural human impulse to want to put our fellow humans in hard categories, but the US seems to be more preoccupied with it than most. And speaking with the perspective of someone who comes from the liberal Christian tradition, spending any time thinking about who’s “in” and who’s “out” is bizarre, and unnecessarily divisive.

    Was mainline protestantism crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of liberal theology?

  • EricG

    When I try to think about how the “evangelical” label has an actual function, it seems to be used to exclude people from certain publishing houses, colleges, etc. (and excluding bloggers from areas on patheos). Are there other, non-exclusionary functions? Is the term primarily about power?

    Olson says in the post that his point isn’t about whether people are “saved.” Surely he believes some non-evangelical Orthodox, Mainliners and Catholics are part of the universal body of Christ. And if it were truly just a debate over certain theological issues, why doesn’t he just discuss those issues without trying to create an “in” or “out” dichotomy? All of this suggests that this is really about other issues – power and exclusion.

    Olson has experienced the negative side of the use of the use of exclusionary labels (during his time at Bethel, as just one example), which I suspect is why he is interested in this.

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  • Chris

    I must say this is really amusing. I get that we don’t always like being constrained or categorized by labels that others put upon us, but for heavens sake why are you so prickly about being categorized as liberal? Especially when you are almost daily trying to categorize conservatives.

    And can someone please explain to me the difference between a liberal and a so-called “progressive?” I find that the distinctions, if any, are so fine that they are, for all intents, meaningless.

    And BTW…
    “liberals who think I’m a raving conservative” ??? Where’s the hyperlink for that one? You have got to be so far off-the-charts liberal to think of Tony as a “raving conservative.”

    As I said…amusing.

  • Marshall H.

    I’m not completely sure I read the same blog post everyone else here did 🙂 I don’t see where he says that he came up with his classification from looking at blogs. He brought up blogs mainly to reflect on the various ways the term “progressive” is used, observing that self-identification as a “progressive Christian” has little to do with the whether or not someone is a “liberal Christian” as the term has historically been used. He then explained what the term “liberal Christianity” has historically referred to, while noting that there is no definitive “litmus test”. After that he mentions six areas that frequently are useful for getting an idea of whether someone is a “liberal Christian” in the sense that he uses the term, after which he acknowledges the fact that people are not always completely “liberal” or “conservative”. The criticisms of his six questions often seem to hinge on him meaning things other than what, in my opinion, he seems to mean. Anyways, I often enjoy this blog, partly because it is written from a perspective vastly different from my own, but this response and the comments that it has received seem to miss the point of Olson’s original post.

    (In answer to your question at the bottom of your post, I would guess that you would be one of the people he would consider “progressive”, though not “liberal” in the traditional sense.)

  • BradC

    The terms don’t work anymore – no you are not Liberal and no you are not Conservative. Nancy Murphy was right Liberals and Conservatives are the same thing – foundationalist on the same platform of understanding.
    Sounds like Roger is recovering the 5 fundamentals (at least 4 of the 5).
    I am a former Conservative Evangelical – and still don’t have terms to describe my belief using these terms – it is a new world and time for some new language to describe belief systems.

    BTW: the language of Theology being “from Above” or “from Below” sounds so Platonic it is laughable.

  • Curtis

    You are being rhetorical, right? Correct me if I am wrong, but you don’t really want an answer. At least you don’t want an answer as much as you want to illustrate how silly these categories are.

  • Tony, I really appreciate this post and the nuance that u offer. These are some important distinctions that need to be addressed and hopefully provide language and categories for what western Christians are experiencing, particularly if they are not fro the new reformed camp. I really hope Olsen responds to you. I would love an really benefit from a constructive dialogue on thi subject on ur blogs. Don know if Olson would be able to do that pragmatically/economically, but I would appreciate it. I’m going to go his blog and make the same request. If we get enough people to do the same maybe we can break through the clutter and initiate a fruitful dialogue on this subject. Thanks again Tony.

  • 🙂 If I outlive you, I’m going to give a eulogy at your funeral (and modify your Wikipedia entry) to assert you were more centrist than the world realized…

  • Tony, i don’t agree with about 70% of what you write, either because its over my head, or i think you’re off your rocker. but i don’t try to pick you apart, I’m trying to learn from you. I won’t go so far as to label you one way or the other, at this point in history it’s beginning to become a moot point. I appreciate your perspectives and am always stretched whenever I stop by here. if I may, can I push back on one thing? Olson’s second point I think needs an addendum. It’s true that personal revelatory truth can be lifegiving, but I would suggest it needs to be weighed against scripture, and older, wiser folks. To say “because this happened in my life, it must be true” treads dangerously close to relativism. That tends to be the one thing that comes up I find troubling about the “dialogue” of the emergent movement,

  • Do to time constraints, I need to keep this brief, but I am sick and tired of labels. I understand that they help us sort and become more efficient in how we seek out information. Yet, the reality of being a Christian is that we are followers of Christ and the mission that Christ has sent us out in the world to achieve. We can talk over our latte’s about the upper level thinking about the inner metaphysics about the Trinity and the inner workings of the Godhead, but how does that effect us in the mission Jesus sent us one. Love and Disciple. Seems pretty simple to me.

  • Todd

    Yes you are a liberal. The question is, are you really Christian? Doesn’t seem like it to me.

    • Kate

      I agree, Todd. Doesn’t seem like it to me either.

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  • You’re a liberal. I don’t consider denying that miracles happen moderate at all. I go to an Episcopal church, am well versed in theology and philosophy, and yet I’ve experienced things that definitely make me scratch my head. If you don’t believe in miracles, you aren’t looking hard enough.

  • LHD

    No you are not theologically liberal as long as you hold to ideas of the incarnation and trinity even if you are perhaps more liberal than other progressives (I hate that word too) or use them more loosely. But here you said no theologian believes “salvation comes by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor,” but what about the 19th century liberal theologians?

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