Friendly Theological Liberalism: A Threat in Every Age

For centuries, liberal theologians have believed it their task to make Christianity palatable to “modern man.” In most cases, the modern man in question is anyone who shares the liberal theologian’s heritage and social status. The liberal theologian’s goal is to rescue Christianity by excising the elements that seem most offensive in that day.

In one era, the doctrine of sin is unacceptable; in another, it’s miracles; in another, it’s the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, or biblical sex ethics. But the theme is the same: In order to make Christianity believable, certain doctrines must be abandoned.

Two Types of Liberals

Let’s define theological liberalism as Bible interpretation unconstrained by orthodox creeds or doctrines. But we can distinguish two kinds of liberalism.

The first, the hostile liberal, hates Christianity and wants to replace it with a better religion. The second—the focus of this article—is more friendly. It hopes to rescue the faith and win its “cultured despisers.” Unfortunately, as friendly liberals attempt to save Christianity they destroy it, for their first allegiance is to culture, not Scripture.

The Enlightenment had a series of hostile liberals, men like Hume, Kant, and Voltaire, who directly opposed orthodox Christianity. For them, miracles were impossible, the doctrine of sin was repugnant, and the idea that salvation comes through Jesus violated the principle that truth is necessary and universal. For Enlightenment thinkers, religion is simply ethics.

Redefining Jesus

Friendly liberals often begin by redefining Jesus himself. Quests for the “historical Jesus” seek to distinguish the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

This approach commonly has four elements:

  1. Jesus had no self-awareness of deity, and he never claimed pre-existence.
  2. But the church has called Jesus “divine,” so we must, too.
  3. We call him “divine” in a way the historical Jesus would approve.
  4. Therefore, we deny that Jesus is truly, fully God. He is only “divine” in the sense that a consciousness of God was present and revealed in a prototypical way. Or he is “divine” in the sense that he was totally open to God. 

Let’s see how this plays out in three influential liberals on the friendly side.

Three Major Figures

1. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) considered himself a Christian and aimed to make the faith palatable by removing its most objectionable ideas—especially the supernatural elements. Schleiermacher came of age as Romanticism began to supplant the Enlightenment. He received a Pietist education, but also heard scholars who argued that Scripture accommodates itself to its times.

Eventually, Schleiermacher tried to accommodate the faith to his time. His early work, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, aimed to preserve the faith’s credibility in university circles. Meanwhile, the desire for credibility led Schleiermacher to deny the miraculous.

Searching for the essence of religion, he decided it lies neither in rationally defended doctrine, nor in ethics, as the Enlightenment said. Instead, the essence of religion is feeling, as Romanticism said. Specifically, religion is the feeling of absolute dependence on God.

Schleiermacher told Romantics, who were dedicated to feeling, that religion is just that: feeling, not doctrine. Jesus had a supreme and exemplary God-consciousness, he argued. As he put it, “To believe is not to believe in Christ, but to believe as Christ.”

So Schleiermacher saves an “emotional” Christianity by destroying its doctrines.

2. Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), the son of an orthodox Lutheran theologian, was a public intellectual. Like Schleiermacher, Harnack addressed students who considered Christian doctrines passé. Still, he wanted to find and follow the true Jesus. In What Is Christianity? Harnack judged miraculous healings as impossible. Similarly, encounters with demons must be seen as mental illness, explained by the “notions of the time.” Still, the stories are meaningful. By vanquishing misery and addressing the wretched, Jesus announced a new day had arrived “through a power that works inwardly.”

For Harnack, the essence of Christianity is the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and “the infinite value of the human soul . . . so ennobled that it can and does unite with him.” Jesus’s teachings increase the “value of all mankind”; after all, Jesus said the Father God cares, providentially, for his adopted children. Harnack believed his own ideas severed the fruitless connection between Scripture’s ethic of love and justice, and dead doctrines and religious forms.

Harnack also redefined Christian ethics, proposing that the motive for morality is a heart open to God. Unfortunately, Harnack’s open heart led him to German nationalism. He counseled Germany’s chancellors in the years around World War I, and he believed love of country is akin to religion. This led Harnack to believe German greatness was reflected in both its armies and also its scholarship. In the end, he publicly endorsed Germany’s war plans.

Harnack said Jesus knew God as no one else ever had. For that reason, he was uniquely qualified to communicate knowledge of God to others. As for Jesus’s death, “No significance can be attributed to a single event of this kind.” And as for the resurrection, the accounts are simply “incredible.”

So Harnack saves an “ethical” Christianity by destroying its doctrines.

3. Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) argued that the world is a closed system of cause and effect. The church, then, must demythologize notions of angels, demons, miracles, incarnation, and resurrection. It must find the kernel of truth in the husk—the empty shell of religious expression from past ages. For Bultmann, the kernel is the call to the authentic life, the life separated from the crowd. The discardable husk is the supernatural, which educated modern people cannot believe. Again, to save Christianity, certain doctrines must go.

So Bultmann saves an “existentially authentic” Christianity by destroying its doctrines.

Lessons for Today

All three men severed Christianity from doctrine in order to link it to experience. In his essential article, “Evangelicals Divided: The Battle Between Meliorists and Traditionalists to Define Evangelicalism,” Gerald McDermott describes a strain of evangelical (he calls them Meliorists) who also believe in an experience of Jesus “not intrinsically tied to any specific doctrinal formulation.” They believe “doctrine and morality are finally unimportant as long as believers experience warm feelings about Jesus and engage in ministry to the world.” 

But if experience is the key, then revelation is found outside Scripture.

If McDermott is right, evangelicals can’t dismiss liberalism as a path they’ll never take. The pivot toward experience already leads some neo-evangelicals to doubt doctrines like the atonement, divine foreknowledge, final judgment, and biblical sex ethics.

While no evangelical denies miracles or the resurrection, we dare not assume we will never repeat the errors of Schleiermacher or Bultmann. Occasionally self-described evangelicals will suggest they want to save Christianity by adjusting doctrines that contemporary people just won’t accept.

Every culture finds aspects of Christian faith unpalatable. And Christian believers are always tempted to follow the spirit of their age. Notice, for example, how often many stress the importance of authenticity, personal fulfillment, and transparency—apparently without awareness that such ideals can be far more cultural than scriptural.

So let us understand that our task is to remain faithful, not to save the faith. And let us give thanks that we have received and embraced the doctrines the Lord has entrusted to us.

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