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Definition

Liberal theology is rooted in modern, secular theories of knowledge and has moved towards participation in the work of the church as the priority for Christians at the expense of delineating theological belief, which has led to the abandonment of many orthodox beliefs in many mainline denominations.

Summary

Liberal theology, although including a wide variety of theological, philosophical, and biblical perspectives, is rooted in the substitution of modern, Enlightenment theories of knowledge that reject external sources of knowledge and substituted subjective autonomy of human reason or experience. While earlier theology was rooted in the belief that the Bible and the creeds articulated a coherent, unified and authoritative worldview. Through multiple developments, including writings from Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Thomas Jefferson, and Walter Rauschenbusch, liberal theology eventually led to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, where theologically conservative Fundamentalists defined certain orthodox beliefs that were fundamental to true Christianity, which liberal theology generally rejected. Today, the attitude of liberal theology—its underlying insistence of becoming relevant to each generation—has become the prevailing attitude of American culture.

Enlightenment Roots

Liberal theology includes a wide variety of theological, philosophical, and biblical perspectives that have their roots in the European Enlightenment (c. 1660–1798). In preceding centuries, Christian theology was expressed in creeds and confessions based on the authority of the Bible and tradition which extended back to the early church. The newer theologies were products of universities that substituted modern, secular theories of knowledge that rejected external sources of knowledge and substituted subjective autonomy of human reason or experience.

Although previous confessions differed in their emphases, they expressed doctrines consistent with the belief that the Bible and the creeds articulated a coherent, unified and authoritative worldview, which Christians accepted as cognitively true, and constituted a sound basis for living. The Enlightenment methods of rationalism and empiricism replaced traditional alliances between philosophy and theology in the search for truth. European thinkers argued that traditional theologies were outmoded and that Christianity must adapt to developments in modern culture if it was going to survive. Without modification, it was thought, Christianity would become increasingly irrelevant. Such accommodation made liberal religion subjective—a matter of one’s moral speculation or a function of human feeling or intuition and later as a matter of pragmatic action.

The earliest expression of liberalizing Christianity was the Polish Racovian Catechism’s (1605) Unitarian beliefs which replaced the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. Eventually, Deism gained wider acceptance as a rational substitute for historic Christian belief. Deists claimed that from the vast number of doctrines and practices of the world’s religions, human reason could distill a bare minimum of beliefs that constitute a purely natural or rational religion. One Deist enumerated the following beliefs: the existence of God; God is worshipped by virtuous behavior (all other acts such as prayer, hymn singing, and sacraments not being virtuous are irrelevant); penitence washes away sins (not Jesus’ death and resurrection); rewards and punishment await mankind after death; priests ought to abandon teaching mysteries (especially miracles) and instead encourage rational moral living.

The modernizing of Christianity was abetted by new methods of biblical interpretation. Previously the Bible was privileged as divinely inspired and therefore authoritative in its theological and historical content. Theologians cited biblical texts to establish doctrines and practice. Liberal scholars insisted on applying modern hermeneutical tools used to interpret other ancient literature. The unique redemptive events witnessed to by the Bible were reinterpreted as myths that were products of communities’s religious experience at the time they were written. Lower criticism evaluated the preservation and transmission of texts and established which texts were most reliable. Higher critical methods went further by using secular reason to evaluate authorship, dates of composition and questioning traditional meanings and interpretation.

Philosophical innovations also profoundly influenced the development of liberal theology. Immanuel Kant articulated a revolutionary view of knowledge which made mankind autonomous in their knowing. He proposed a motto for the Enlightenment—“Dare to reason”—which he believed freed humans from slavish adherence to previous ways of thinking. He detached reason from faith regardless of its background in Protestant and Catholic traditions. Only what could be demonstrated by reason or learned through scientific method qualified as knowledge. Kant thereby not only assured the advance of science but also drove a wedge between religion that dealt with matters of faith and scientific experimentation which established matters of fact.

In Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), Kant transformed Christianity from a redemptive historical religion revealed in the Bible into a deistic moralism. He dehistoricized the Fall by declaring Adam a moralistic idealization of how all people corrupt their moral dispositions. People do not inherit original sin, but like the story of Adam every person subverts moral duty, which is ultimate, to lesser, subordinate priorities. Being “born again” (John 3:3) was not the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit but an act of the human will which reorients the human disposition toward moral duty. Jesus’s divinity consisted of his being the archetype of moral good will, not the ontological Son of God. Jesus’s work was not a substitutionary atonement. Sin, or what he called “radical evil,” is so personal that it cannot be atoned by someone else but must be atoned only by the autonomous self.

To justify his divergences from orthodox Christianity, Kant said that whenever the Bible differs from our morally legislative reason we must conform the text to rational moral principles. He also formulated the modern distinction between the priest and the scholar. While clergy are morally bound to defend historical confessions of their respective churches, scholars are free to criticize and publish their findings based on modern criteria. This distinction established the precedent for a double standard of truth between what the church teaches based on revelation found in the Bible and the newly emerging modern theology based on rational criteria. Kant’s philosophy and his reasonable religion earned him the title “the philosopher of [liberal] Protestantism.”

Nineteenth Century German Scholarship

German universities took the lead in implementing the subjectivism of Enlightenment thought. Human knowledge in all fields of study was considered a work in process—advancing previous eras’s views of truth without resorting to a supernatural worldview. Ultimate or final truth did not exist. In this vein Friedrich Schleiermacher, a founder of the University of Berlin, became the “father of liberal theology” by accommodating Christianity to a new Romantic epistemological principle. The Christian faith did not consist of assent to propositional truth (earlier creeds and confessions) nor in moral choice (Kantian moralism) but was the product of intuition—what he called the feeling of absolute dependence. Doctrines, rather than being statements of objective truth revealed in the Bible, expressed the religious consciousness of biblical authors. Theology became a historical discipline in which every age must frame belief anew in keeping with the idea that Christianity was not an absolute system of belief but a continuously developing way of life.

In The Christian Faith (1821), Schleiermacher systematically explored and then replaced Reformed statements of faith with the first postmodern reconstruction. Instead of a historical Fall from mankind’s beginning, all people possess both God-consciousness and God-forgetfulness. Jesus’s divinity was merely the strength of his God-consciousness, and redemption consisted of the church mediating Jesus’ God-consciousness to subsequent generations of believers with the result that God’s new creation would be universal in nature. He also reconstrued theological education. Ministerial training consists primarily of critical academic studies using new hermeneutical methods which replaced the historical-grammatical method. Instead of framing the ministry as a spiritual calling requiring evidence of devotional piety, Schleiermacher proposed the ministry as a “profession” which prepares ministers to be leaders of the communities which they served—a sociological task.

F. C. Baur of the Tubingen School contended that from its inception in the New Testament, Christianity was never a unified, coherent, and authoritative faith. The Jerusalem church espoused a Judaic faith as a new law (James’s “Royal Law”), whereas Gentile Christianity consisted of a robust theological system (Paul’s Epistle to the Romans). The Roman Church added a hierarchical priestly polity, rituals, and sacraments. The idea of dogma evolved from synthesizing biblical ideas with alien Greek worldviews inherited from ancient history resulting in a scholasticism that stood in sharp contrast to the simple ethical and parabolic teaching of Jesus. A quest emerged to construct biographies of Jesus, which ended with the recognition that each attempt resulted in a picture of Jesus which simply reflected the presuppositions of modern authors. The consensus continued, however, that the teaching of the Bible could be harmonized with modern critical thought if attempted on the basis of scientific and rational principles. Optimism prevailed that with the application of Jesus’s teaching of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, the Kingdom of God would not be an apocalyptic, eschatological event to consummate history but an immanent this-worldly achievement.

Albrecht Ritschl advanced liberal theology further by making the kingdom of God and the Christian community central to the understanding of Christianity. He contended that secular individualism, rationalism, and science threatened the moral cohesion of society. Building upon Kant’s moral reconstrual of Christianity and Schleiermacher’s locus of religion in intuition, Ritschl established moral reconciliation as the means of attaining personal and social good. He thereby tasked the church with renovating the social order. Rather than constructing metaphysical systems or quoting an authoritative text of what Jesus said, modern Christianity should draw from the rich historical life of the church that had developed beyond its founding documents. Ritschl’s student, Adolf Harnack, solidified the historicist recasting of the faith by reversing the historical process by which Jesus’s teaching of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man had become calcified by dogma. Christianity thereby, became not a doctrine to be believed but a life to be lived.

Nineteenth Century American Liberalism

In America orthodox theology dominated colonial Christianity, but Deism intruded into American religious life even among the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1820) reduced Jesus’s ministry to ethical instruction and Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (1794) boldly attacked all organized religion. Unitarianism emerged at Harvard in 1805 and infiltrated Congregationalism. The Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address (1838) made modest inroads in New England churches. But in general, liberal theology in America lagged a generation behind its German counterpart.

As the 1800s unfolded, however, theological controversies proliferated among confessional denominations. Calvinism declined in Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational congregations. Revivalists of the Second Great Awakening, from Charles Grandison Finney in the northeast to preachers on the frontier, explicitly jettisoned the Calvinist theology that fueled revivals of the preceding century. Various forms of evangelical liberalism promoted the common sense view that revivals were not the result of God’s sovereignty but were produced by the proper use of purely human means. A wide variety of evangelical activist voluntary societies burgeoned to combat social ills that plagued the expanding American culture. Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell became the founder of American liberal theology by challenging the emphasis on individual conversion, advocating the moral view of the atonement rather than the penal substitutional view and probing the complexity of religious language.

Later in the century, the Social Gospel movement, under the leadership of Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden and Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch, embodied an evangelical liberalism. They demanded that Christianity be socialized by championing workers’s rights to organize unions and the necessity of practically realizing the kingdom of God in American culture. For them, Christianity was inherently revolutionary. Whereas previously among Protestants social action followed individual conversion and was subordinate to theological beliefs, social gospelers made transformation of American culture the highest priority. Consequently, Yale Neo-orthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, in his book The Kingdom of God in America, criticized the message of the social gospel as “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Between 1870 and World War I, while evangelical theology in the south remained largely unchanged, controversy between progressives and conservatives disturbed almost every major denomination in the north. Major issues included the authority of Scripture, the relation between science and the Bible, the supernatural elements of Christ’s person and work, and whether or how to relate Darwinian evolutionary theory with biblical teaching about origins. The Chicago School of Theology’s empirical, pragmatic approach, Boston University School of Theology’s personalist theology, and Union Theological Seminary’s focus on practical, experiential teaching illustrated the diverse nature of liberal theological training.

Liberalism also expanded its influence beyond Protestantism. It influenced American Catholicism in the Americanist controversy in 1899 and led to Reformed Judaism’s adoption of the Pittsburgh Platform in 1857.

Several high profile heresy trials, particularly in the Presbyterian Church USA, charged preachers and seminary professors with violating ordination vows or confessional standards. The most famous trial involved Charles A. Briggs, Professor of Hebrew at Union Theological Seminary, who staunchly defended radical results of higher biblical criticism. He rejected Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, vigorously attacked the low moral quality of much of the Old Testament, and insisted on the presence of numerous biblical errors. He was defrocked by the Presbyterian Church in 1893 for his views.

Twentieth Century and Beyond

Conflict intensified between liberals and conservatives and led to the Fundamentalist-Modernist theological controversy in the early 1900s. Fundamentalists enumerated doctrines which they contended were foundational to Christian belief: the virgin birth of Christ, the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the historicity of miracles. Baptist Harry Emerson Fosdick launched a frontal attack on fundamentalist beliefs in his 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” He categorized fundamentalists as intolerantly dogmatic and contended that the five fundamentals were merely one among other theories of the doctrines in question.

Efforts by conservatives such as J. Gresham Machen, whose book Christianity and Liberalism made the case that Christianity and liberalism are two different religions, failed to stem the tide of liberal theology. By the 1930s, advocates of theological liberalism had successfully won control of mainline Protestant seminaries, denominational headquarters and religious publishing houses. Conservatives constituted a minority in the mainstream of American religious culture. They formed new denominations, seminaries, and publishing houses.

With the outbreak of the culture wars in the 1980s, the struggle between liberals and conservatives reemerged for control of America’s public life. Liberal theology, by its very nature as a historical discipline, has been constantly reinvented, not by proliferating new creeds but by new methods to improve human experience. An unexpected irony resulted: while mainline denominations declined in numbers and financial support, the more important byproduct of liberal theology—its underlying insistence of becoming relevant to each generation—has become the dominant worldview in American life as a whole. Theological discussion within mainline denominations has receded into the background. Delineating theological belief as a priority in Christian faith has been replaced by participation in the work of the church. While liberal denominations may no longer exercise the influence they once exerted, pragmatic liberalism as a public worldview has more than succeeded as a powerful force in the American public square.

Further Reading

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources


This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.