Liberal Theology: A Critical Assessment
Liberalism falls short of biblical Christianity. Its doctrines mimic the vocabulary of orthodox Christianity and duplicate certain aspects of biblical and historic Christianity but do not share the substance of biblical faith.
This essay will highlight the leading features of liberal theology (the Bible, the person of Jesus, man and sin, the meaning of Christ’s death, justification) and demonstrate that it is distinctly different from – and not just another form of – Christianity.
A Credible Authority for Defining Christian Faith
Liberalism falls short of the biblical doctrine of religious authority. The Bible’s presentation of what is to be believed depends on a firm confidence in divine revelation. The truths that govern every realm of theology depend on careful exegesis of the biblical text with a prior commitment to believe the meaning yielded by such exegesis. The apostle John asserted that the difference between truth and error was found in either believing the words of the apostles or not believing them: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1Jn. 4:6). Paul claimed with no equivocation the “the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). Paul also included both the Old Testament writings and those he himself wrote as explanations of the faith delivered to him, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2Tim. 3:16).
By contrast, Harry Emerson Fosdick in his book The Modern Use of the Bible, indicates in his preface that “this book will of course be distasteful to those bound by a theory of literal inerrancy in their approach to the Bible.” Shailer Mathews said that the view that internal historical accuracy and consistency of literary propositions were necessary for the trustworthiness of Scripture “evidences a dogmatic type of mind” that “cannot be respected by those who seek to know the facts.” The Bible is “the trustworthy record and product of a developing religion” (Faith, 44, 48). “The mere fact,” Mathews asserted, “that a belief has been recorded in the Bible accurately does not guarantee its permanency or accuracy” (48). His positive confessional statement about Scripture included all the necessary liberal nuances, “I believe in the Bible, when interpreted historically, as the product and the trustworthy record of the progressive revelation of God through a developing religious experience” (Faith, 180).
Liberalism brimmed with confidence in being able to construct a theology apart from a revelation of propositional truth recorded by inspiration. William Newton Clarke in The Use of the Scriptures in Theology wrote a 48-page chapter entitled “The Problem.” His thesis was that modern studies of higher criticism and biblical theology had demanded an “open acknowledgement that the old position is untenable” (48). That “old position,” the product of “uncritical Christian ages,” was that the entire Bible was inspired of God. Modern studies, however, rule out the possibility of holding “the theory of an inspiration that imparts infallibility to all its statements, or even to all its utterances in the field of religion” (25). Such an idea places a burden on the theologian of “so interpreting the Bible that it shall agree with itself” (28). The liberal believed that in order to really be a theologian “we must free ourselves from this complication, and use our Scriptures for what they are and what they mean, free from the morally damaging assumption that they must always agree with themselves” (29).
Clarke insisted that theology would be better pursued were we “not required to agree to every statement that we find” in the Bible. (Sixty Years, 160) Since all the old theories are now “discredited by later knowledge of the Bible,” we can contemplate with optimism the day that “they are destined to be left behind.” He saw happily, in fact, a time coming when Christian theologians “will need no such theory” of inspiration. They will all “use the Bible more intelligently with none.” Such theories dictate the contents of the Bible “telling us what we must find.” Within a couple of generations of theological work done in absence of theory of inspiration, “our successors will wonder how we ever thought that [the Bible’s] testimony could be ascertained when they [theories of inspiration] were in mind” (Sixty Years, 198, 200). Theology “has a deeper and harder work to do” than to take “the Scriptures as authoritative throughout” (the Use, 35).
Is Jesus God in the Flesh?
Freed from the assumption of a revealed and inspired authority, it is no wonder that the entire core of catholic and evangelical doctrine confessionally established was seen as irrelevant. The most fundamental affirmation of Christian doctrine of the deity of Christ was seen as an irrational and meaningless imposition on the modern mind and on the meek man of Galilee himself. The “hellenization of Christianity,” as characterized by Harnack, introduced a theology that Jesus “never taught nor intended.” How could we make Jesus so irrelevant to real life by imposing on the church “unbelievable creeds” (25, 43 Rauschenbusch). “What would Jesus have said to the symbol of Chalcedon or the Athanasian Creed if they had been read to him?” (Rauschenbusch, 25). Reflecting the consensus of Christology in the liberal tradition, Rauschenbusch wrote that traditional theology “has made the divinity of Christ a question of nature rather than character.” The question of the two natures as dealt with at Chalcedon was “a compromise” and produced a doctrine of “feeble imagination and of Gnostic tendencies.” Instead, the divine quality of his personality should rather be based on his “free and ethical acts of his will than in dwelling on the passive inheritance of a divine essence” (151). Can we not see the absurdity between believing Jesus and believing about Jesus when we “call attention to the deep contrast between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed” (69, 70 Clarke, What Shall We Think of Christianity?). To think of these ancient creeds, So Mathews reasoned, as “a sufficient epitome of the essence of Christianity is to establish tests which would exclude the apostles if not Jesus himself from the Christian religion.” The modernist, however, receives the intended significance of the Nicene Creed Mathews explained, for “they regard it as historical expression of permanent convictions and loyalties.” It was a “way of expressing in certain terms and intellectual apparatus, a permanent conviction as to the saving revelation of God through Jesus Christ.” The deity of Jesus is “the revealed presence of God to be met in his life” (138). Or as Rauschenbusch stated, it is seen in “his power to assimilate others to his God-consciousness” (Theology 266).
Does Adam Have Anything to do with Sin?
Human sin must be seen as isolated to individual will and/or our consent to social injustice. The liberal view of sin was purely Pelagian without Pelagius’s belief that such a being as Adam truly existed and did indeed leave a bad example. Any idea of the connection of the entire race to Adam as monogenetic origin of all humanity must be cast aside. Neither condemnation nor corruption of nature can be tied to Adam, and traditional theology has placed a burden on the narrative of Genesis 3 that it never was intended to bear. William Newton Clarke, the most traditional of the liberals, looked at Genesis 3 as giving a statement on sin that “turns out to be an essentially true one.” This concession comes in spite of his informed certainty that both Genesis 2 and 3 “give the record of a human tradition and not of a divine description of events.” The third chapter, in fact, that goes into such clear detail about the temptation and the consent of Eve and then Adam to the argument of the serpent, “is not authoritative history narrating the very manner in which human sin actually began.” He asserted that sin “entered through the early acceptance of evil by the free-will of man.” He cannot bring himself, however, to see this as consummated in the one man, Adam, but rather sees the race, however it came into existence, as “born with passions of animalism and self-will that were not sinful until the higher life of the spirit had become developed.” Then he indulges in one of the most bizarre speculations ever to deface the page of a theology book. “But when the estate of genuine humanity had been reached, animalism and self-will were not normal to it, but were false and degrading elements, fatal to the higher life unless they were rejected; and through the consent of the human will to the now abnormal rule of lower powers, what had before been innocent passed into sin.” This occurred “far back in the infancy of prehistoric life.” Though sin entered the race, corrupting its co-existing tendency to good, Guilt “can be neither transmitted nor transferred,” according to Clarke, “for sin cannot be imputed to the sinner’s offspring” (Clarke, Outline, 239, 240, 244).
According to this view, man, in Adam, did not fall from original goodness, but only failed to overcome the propensity to self-will and passion already existing within him. As Clarke wrote, this “provides no date for the first sin or name for the first sinner.” We might well ask, did this higher spiritual life mature in only one biological entity that we now call human, or several of them in close proximity of time? Did only one fail to surge to the next level of moral potential, or did all fail simultaneously? Is there even yet an uncorrupted portion of the race? Or is the biblical account of our unity in Adam, our condemnation in Adam, our corruption in Adam the only account that gives coherence to the rest of the biblical narrative about universality of sin, the reasons for the person and work of Christ, the covenantal relation of the elect to Christ for forgiveness, justification, and the hope of eternal life?
Is Jesus’ Death Necessarily Connected with Justification?
Accompanying the demise of the deity of Jesus and Adam’s headship of the human race was Jesus’ truly substitutionary and propitiatory death. That the Father “sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” simply reflects a cultural absurdity that clings to the principle of retributive justice, given rational standing in the Anselmic tradition and solidified confessionally in the Reformation. Rauschenbush summarized the liberal response in his Theology for the Social Gospel. He believed that any system of substitution and satisfaction “ends in wiping out the love and mercy of God, our most essential Christian conviction.” The idea of “vicarious satisfaction,” therefore, undercuts the very nature of God and severs the moral nerve of ethical endeavor for societal advancement by over-individualizing sin and salvation. The “traditional theological explanations” lack their assumed biblical authority. “The fundamental terms and ideas—‘satisfaction, ‘substitution,’ ‘imputation,’ ‘merit,’—are post-biblical ideas, and are alien from the spirit of the gospel” (242, 243).
Jesus’ death indeed was the result of our sins, but not as a propitiatory substitute. The combination of religious bigotry, graft and political power, corruption of justice, mob spirit and action, militarism, and class contempt led to an early death for Jesus who would not consent to compromise or be intimidated by these evil social powers. Had Jesus lived another thirty years, he could have done more and taught more in reflection on the kingdom of God among men; but now we have to find moral encouragement in the uncompromised death of Jesus. “There would have been an ample element of prophetic suffering without physical death” (266).
Even God now sees that it is possible for his presence and holiness to live in conjunction with man—“Within human limits Jesus acted as God acts.” In essence, God learned to think in a different way toward man: “What then would it mean to God to be in the personality of Jesus and to go through his suffering and death with him? If the principle of forgiving love had not been in the heart of God before, this experience would fix it there. If he had ever thought and felt like the Jewish Jehovah, he would henceforth think and feel as the Father of Jesus Christ” (264). This solidarity between God and Christ that proceeds to a solidarity between God and humankind is “free from the artificial and immoral elements inherent in all forensic and governmental interpretations of the atonement” (267).
Old Christianity is Completely Irrelevant to Modern Needs
In The Faith of Modernism, Shailer Mathews sought to highlight the irrelevance of traditional theology by juxtaposing modern problems with Christian dogma. While the world needs control of nature and society, it is told “that the Bible is verbally inerrant.” When confronted with class strife, it is “told to believe in the substitutionary atonement.” When love and justice are needed, the world is told that “love without orthodoxy will not save from hell.” When it yearns for faith in the “divine presence in human affairs,” it is told “it must accept the virgin birth of Christ.” He sees Christian faith as valuable only in terms of the way it can help ameliorate problems of world society in the present. Walter Rauschenbusch in A Theology for the Social Gospel sought to minimize almost to the point of non-existence the eschatological and eternal element for the purpose of Jesus’ ministry. Instead, Jesus focused on the “support of movements for political emancipation and social justice” (160). He worked to “purge our intellects of capitalistic and upper-class iniquities” (158). In his own personality and deportment within society he laid a foundation for “political democracy” and the moral energy to “curb financial exploitation” (165).
What is the Connecting Link between Uncritical Christianity and Liberalism?
Liberals believed that in spite of rejecting and re-explaining every point of catholic and evangelical orthodoxy, they had not dismissed anything essential to Christianity. That which abided was the transforming power of the experience of the ethical life of Christ and sharing his own confidence in sonship. “The permanent element in the doctrine consists in the declaration of the great experimental truths,” so explained Clarke: “The changing and passing element consists in the various interpretations of those truths, made from time to time in human thought.” Fosdick agreed, entitling a chapter “Abiding Experiences and Changing Categories” (Fosdick, Modern Use, 97-130). He mentioned four doctrines that must now be restated so as to maintain the kernel of the Christian idea while discarding the ancient wording or conceptual immaturity.
“For example,” he stated, “I believe in the persistence of personality through death, but I do not believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” Mathews expressed it in similar language, “I believe in the continuance of individual personality beyond death” (Faith, 98). In explaining how resurrectionem carnis must be understood as the abiding of personality beyond the grave, Fosdick restated “What is permanent in Christianity is not mental frameworks but abiding experiences that phrase and rephrase themselves in successive generations’ ways of thinking and that grow in assured certainty and in richness of content” (Modern Use, 103). To one party, Fosdick summarized, “a mental category once worked out and expressed in Scripture is final” (102). For the other, “nothing in human history seems so changeable as mental categories,” for they are “transient phrasings of permanent convictions and experiences” (104). With a breathtaking verdict on the orthodox and evangelical conviction about Scripture and the doctrines deduced from it Fosdick stated, “To bind our minds to the perpetual use of ancient matrices of thought just because they were employed in setting forth the eternal principles of the New Testament seems intellectual suicide” (103).
A second rephrasing of doctrine stated Fosdick’s belief in the victory of righteousness and the coming kingdom in which Christ sees the satisfying fruit of the travail of his soul, “but I do not believe in the physical return of Jesus” (104). Third, after a lengthy discussion of the development of demonology in the ancient and medieval worlds, Fosdick reminded all his readers that the evils formerly attributed to the demonic still are with us and thus, in a sense, “to cast the devils out of human life is our commission too, … but it never occurs to us literally to hold in our minds the ancient framework of demonology” (122). Fourth, with angels also, Fosdick found a way to dismiss the rich biblical testimony to angels and to decode it “for the use of well-instructed folk.” They are not real personal beings but bear testimony to the “reality, friendliness, and availability of the spiritual world” (125).
Mathews put his own twist on the theological lemon by rejecting even what he called “liberal dogmatism.” Liberalism is not a new orthodoxy to which all people must be conformed. Absence of controlling doctrinal rules in favor of experiential motivation and ethical power is what is needed. Even old-time orthodox people may join the new Christian movement if they find a more powerful and spiritual motivation in the crusty confessions and dogmas of the past. But, nevertheless, let them join with the new energy. Christian work, “not in the interest of theological uniformity but in the interest of a better world, a more Christlike and happier people, of institutions that will make toward justice and fraternity, and of an internationalism which will make towards peace.” As this “de-theologizing” of Christianity expands more widespread sectarianism will vanish and cooperation appear. There will be “a more intelligent attempt to put the attitudes and spirit of Jesus into the hearts of men and the operation of institutions. Christianity will grow more moral in its demands” (Faith, 179).
The miraculous must be given a “modern meaning” (Fosdick, Modern, 162). Whereas Scripture sets the miraculous forth without hesitation or ambiguity as events that verify the presence of divinity in Christ and divine authority in prophets and apostles (Gen/ 8:18; John 9; Acts 4:16; Hebrews 2:4), Fosdick unhesitatingly declares, “There are some narratives of miracles there which I do not believe” (Modern, 163). In miracles from Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and even Jesus we find “such stories as always have been associated with an era of outstanding personalities and creative spiritual power” (164). As long as the miraculous could be interpreted as a mere literary presentation of a useful spiritual experience, Fosdick, and other liberals, would believe the “miracle” as “God’s use of his own law-abiding powers to work out in ways surprising to us his will for our lives and for the world” (162). Such miracles we should be encouraged to reduplicate in our own time. Those miracle stories are credible and useful in this sense, that “we recognize that the same kind of experience is open to us or would be open if we were receptive of God’s incoming power” (165).
The greatest miracle of the twenty-first century would be if one could change liberalism into Christianity. Liberalism rejected the objective authority for defining Christianity by giving a resounding and unanimous verdict of not guilty to the claim that the Bible is inspired, a revelation from God, and, therefore, necessarily without error. Liberalism rejected Adam and his covenantal, moral, and genetic connection to humanity. They thus rejected the biblical explanation of sin, left their Christianity without any real explanation for the origin of universal and pervasive and unrelenting evil in the world from age to age, generation to generation, in all ethnicities, cultures, and in every human heart. Also, they emptied heaven of the Trinity, gelded the Savior of his deity, turned his determination to give his life a ransom for may into pure fiction, and offered no atonement to sinful humans. A saving relation to God did not turn on justification consistent with eternal righteousness, but on a renewal of determination on the part of sinners to be more kind and self-giving to their neighbors. They would reverse the biblical verdict and say, “By works are ye saved and enter the kingdom of God, through your kindness, and not by transforming grace; and this is of yourselves.” We live in a world in which even God does not, and cannot, perform miracles such as are recorded in Scripture (for it partakes of the unscientific, superstitious worldview of the time), thus dismissing any evidence of divine accreditation for the work and words of the prophets or the person of Christ. Their Christianity did not consist of truth to be believed, a cognitive content to which mind and heart could be conformed, but only of an experience based on an inherited vocabulary from the Christian past, but conceivably dispensed with in future generations. This abiding experience could not be defined or examined by positive content of faith but must be received on the basis of non-defined and ever-changing terms. This experience affirms “life eternal, the coming of the kingdom, the conquest of sin and evil, the indwelling and sustaining presence of the Spirit” which once were set forth in ancient terms, but now in our terms, and “valid also in other terms than ours in which our children’s children may express them” (Fosdick, Modern, 129). In other words, there is nothing substantial about any of these so-called abiding experiences for they will happily comply with any words or any conceptual framework we may choose to give them. This is not Christianity—neither biblically defined nor historically conceived on the basis of Scripture—and hardly qualifies as a religion at all in which any views of God, man, and eternity can be affirmed as holding forth substantial hope for conquest of evil and assurance of eternal life.
Probably the best critical analysis of liberal theology is J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity or Liberalism. It is “must” reading for this subject.
The following are works of liberals – not recommended for substance but for reference:
- Clarke, William Newton. An Outline of Christian Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922.
- ——————————-. Sixty Years With the Bible: A Record of Experience New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909.
- ——————————-. The Use of the Scriptures in Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.
- ——————————-. What Shall We Think of Christianity? New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900.
- Fosdick, Harry Emerson. The Modern Use of the Bible. New York: Association Press, 1924.
- Mathews, Shailer. The Faith of Modernism. New York: the Macmillan, 1924.
- Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922.
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