Volume 14 - Issue 1

Evangelical and liberal theology

By David Wenham

The most significant division in Chistendom today is not the division between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but rather between what we may call ‘traditional Christian orthodoxy’ on the one hand and ‘liberalism’ on the other. This important division is described and discussed in an excellent new book entitledEssentials: A liberal-evangelical dialogue by David Edwards, former editor of the SCM Press, and John Stott, formerly of All Souls Church in London (Hodder, 1988, 354pp., £5.95). They discuss, among other things, the authority and nature of Scripture, the cross of Christ, the miracles of Jesus, the Bible and behaviour, the gospel for the world.

They have much in common, but many of their disagreements are what one might expect: John Stott believes in an infallible Bible to which we must submit our thinking, whereas David Edwards thinks that we must distinguish in the Bible between what is true revelation of God and what is not. John Stott believes that in Christ’s death God was taking on himself the judgment for our sins, whereas David Edwards finds such an idea unacceptable. John Stott accepts the historicity of the biblical miracles, whereas David Edwards has grave doubts about many of them, including the virgin birth (though not the physical resurrection of Jesus). David Edwards believes that it may be right for some people to live as practising homosexuals, whereas John Stott does not. John Stott is more emphatic than David Edwards on the reality of judgment and on Christ as the sole way to salvation.

The book is not new in setting out such differing opinions. What is new is to find a well-known liberal and evangelical discussing their opinions in one volume and in a very charitable and Christian way. The more usual procedure is for evangelical or conservative scholars to write books condemning liberalism and for liberals to write books blasting conservatism. This book is far more valuable than most of such works, because it is a dialogue not a monologue and because the two authors are such able and good representatives of their respective positions. Here we have a comparison of two well and strongly presented positions, not sniping by either side at the excesses of the other. It is a book that will be helpful to students, whether of evangelical or liberal position, both in (a) helping them to understand ‘the other side’ and (b) in clarifying their own positions.

It is a book which may also help readers of Themelios who come from an evangelical or conservative background and who are perplexed about how to react to the liberal theology that is dominant in many colleges and university departments. There are two opposite tendencies among evangelical theological students facing the challenge of liberalism. The first is to be thoroughly negative and suspicious towards it. Many Christian students come to theological or religious studies with warnings ringing in their ears about the dangers of liberal theology. ‘Beware,’ they are told, ‘of the false prophets in the theology faculties who will subtly woo you away from your traditional Christian faith, sowing doubts in your mind and leading you to unbelief.’ Taking such warnings to heart, evangelical students often damn all liberal theology as heresy (and liberal theologians as heretics), and they ignore it as far as they can, except for purposes of passing exams.

The second and opposite tendency among evangelical theological students is to welcome liberal theology uncritically. Such students keep their practical Christianity in one compartment and their academic theology in another. In their private prayers they continue to treat the Bible as the Word of God, but in the lecture room they accept the very different views put forward by their teachers without seriously questioning them. The arguments seem plausible, and the theologians putting them forward seem good and often Christian people. The two-compartment approach usually works for a while, but sooner or later the simple evangelical faith of the past is consciously or unconsciously discarded and grown out of.

What are we to say of these two contrary approaches? Simply, that neither is satisfactory. More specifically, we suggest that four things come out of a reading of Essentials.

(1) The issues at stake between evangelicalism and liberalism are serious and of the greatest importance, and should be treated accordingly. It is fashionable these days to treat theological disagreement (and indeed the whole question of truth) as something trivial. This is the case in ecumenical circles, which tend to become ever wider circles embracing not just different denominations but even different faiths. It is true also in some charismatic and evangelical circles where unity in spiritual experience is felt to make doctrinal differences unimportant. There is a good side to this. Some of the matters that divide Christians are trivial. It is disgraceful to have fellow-Christians in the same village worshipping and working in separated congregations because of disagreement over forms of ecclesiastical government.

But not all our divisions are of that sort. The sorts of issues that David Edwards and John Stott discuss are very important indeed. It does matter enormously whether we regard the Bible’s teaching in its entirety as God’s Word and whether we see Jesus as a fallible or infallible teacher. It does matter enormously whether we believe you can come to God through other religions than that of Jesus, and whether we believe that people’s eternal destiny is decided by their response to Jesus in this life, or whether there is a second chance beyond. It does matter whether we believe that practising homosexuality is always wrong or sometimes right.

Such issues do matter, and as theological students we need to be aware that we are dealing with life and death issues, which cannot be lightly treated. Those who warn of false prophecy are right, even if it is not always easy to recognize it when we see it. Jesus spoke of spiritual conflict with Satan and of ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’, and there is every reason to think that Satan and his wolves are as active in our theological faculties and colleges as anywhere else in the world, not just in subverting our morals but also in subverting our ideas and thinking. It is sadly true that theological students do fall away from faith and from their first love of the Lord. There is a popular, but dangerous, notion around that discussing theology is a neutral academic exercise—an academic game to be enjoyed. But the early church fathers, whom we sometimes ridicule for their arguments about theological niceties, were at least right in perceiving that theology and theological error matter, and that we are involved in a spiritual battle.

What that means is that we must approach our studies alert to the dangers and with much prayer, remembering that we who teach will be judged with the greater strictness (Jas. 3:1). Not that we should be frightened or defensive: it is a great privilege to study and then to teach others about God’s life-giving and liberating Word.

(2) A second lesson to be learned from Essentials is not to be dismissive of others, without seeking to understand and appreciate their position. This has often been a fault on the liberal side: the evangelical position on Scripture and on other issues has regularly been ridiculed, caricatured or just ignored as though it were not worth thinking about. Despite the increasing strength of evangelical scholarship in recent years, evangelical theology is still not taken as a serious and honest option by many people. Of course, one of the reasons for the liberals’ dismissal of evangelicalism is that evangelicals have often had silly ideas. But it is quite inexcusable to ignore evangelicalism as a whole just because of its unthinking, maverick fringe. If Essentials suggests that liberals are beginning to respect the seriousness of evangelical theology, which has in its basic tenets been the position of a vast number of sensitive and intelligent Christian thinkers throughout church history, then this is a very welcome trend.

But the fault has not just been on the liberal side. Evangelicals and conservatives have also tended to be dismissive of liberalism, again partly because of the excesses of some on the fringe of liberalism. They have seen liberals as false prophets, not without reason in some cases; but they have not bothered to try to understand or sympathize with the genuine and Christian concerns of many liberal theologians. Even if it is true that liberalism is false doctrine, it does not necessarily follow that all or most, liberal theologians are maliciously trying to deceive; in many cases their views arise out of a genuine Christian concern to understand and to communicate the Christian gospel in our modern context, and their arguments are often a lot more substantial than evangelicals allow. For example, on the question of the virgin birth, evangelicals often tend to assume that liberal questions about the historicity of the virgin birth are simply due to their anti-supernaturalism. But, although that has undoubtedly been a most influential factor, it is by no means the only consideration, and it is not fair or helpful to dismiss liberal questions about the traditional doctrines as though they simply arise out of a refusal to believe in miracles. It is important therefore to seek to ‘understand and not just to denounce.

(3) That leads into a third lesson to be learned from Essentials, a lesson about humility. It is one of the least attractive features of many politicians that they seem unwilling to admit their own mistakes and to question the traditions of their own political party. Theologians often fall into the same habit. But both David Edwards and John Stott speak of their own personal growth in understanding, and both question aspects of their respective traditions.

Such humility is important. Whether we like it or not, we are all mixed-up people in the sense that we all have some true understanding of God’s truth and some misunderstanding. In this life we will never have a complete or perfectly accurate understanding of God’s Word and his ways, which is why continuous prayerful study and listening is vital. This is important when we approach theological studies: we should approach them wanting to learn and to have our own mistaken ideas corrected, painful though it may be. One of the characteristics of evangelical theological students that endears them least to their teachers is their apparent unwillingness to learn. Sometimes the real problem may be that the student is unwilling to believe what the teacher believes—with good reason—but sometimes there is a wrong resistance to change and learning. We all need to cultivate a humble spirit and a desire to have our ideas corrected and modified where they are wrong.

This also applies to our own theological tradition. Evangelicals, like others, bring to their studies a whole range of traditional opinions, whether on questions of criticism (e.g. on the authorship of particular biblical books) or on questions of interpretation (e.g. on the interpretation of Genesis or Revelation). Such traditions are not to be despised. They often represent the conclusions of generations of able and godly interpreters, which we should be slow to abandon. Indeed many evangelical opinions have been the opinions of the church as a whole throughout church history. The arrogance that ignores the work of past generations and prefers the latest modern theory must be firmly resisted; it is an insult to the work of the Holy Spirit in past generations, and it has often been seen how modern scholarly ideas are no more than fads which last for a while and then are seen to be insubstantial (e.g. the tendency to dismiss John’s gospel as theological fiction rather than historical record).

Having said that (emphatically), we should not elevate the traditions of the church, let alone of our part of the church, to the status of infallibility. It is the Word of God which is infallible, not our interpretation. One such matter of interpretation on which John Stott raises questions is that of the everlasting punishment of the wicked. He (in common with some other evangelicals) has no doubt that Scripture warns of final and terrible judgment eternal in its effects on those who fail to repent, but he believes that the wicked will be finally destroyed not maintained in everlasting agony (as evangelicalism, along with Catholicism, has in the main believed). John Stott will undoubtedly be criticized by some evangelicals for taking this view. But, whether he is right or wrong in his interpretation, we suggest that he is right to be willing to question and think about his own tradition, not lightly, but cautiously and tentatively.

There is a tendency in some evangelical circles to see any modification of the positions of the Reformers, the Puritans or the evangelicals of the earlier part of our own century as a betrayal. But that is absurd: evangelical scholarship is much stronger now than it was fifty years ago, and we should expect to see our own traditions developing and even being corrected as we listen to the Word of God anew. There is a fear among some evangelicals that anyone who admits that a traditional evangelical view may be wrong is slipping into liberalism on the one hand or into Roman Catholicism on the other. But this is to elevate our own traditions too highly. We must certainly beware of not abandoning our commitment to biblical Christian faith: the secular pressures are as great or greater than ever, and it is right to beware of those pressures. But we must also be conscious of our need always to be reformed by and under the Word of God. John Stott sets an example in openness and yet faithfulness, being willing to rethink his own positions in the light of Scripture, but unwilling to abandon biblical positions (e.g. on homosexuality, or men and women in the church) under the pressure of secular liberalism.

(4) The final thing we note about Essentials is the loving, respectful tone of the book. There is a tendency among evangelicals to treat liberal Christians (and Roman Catholics too) with hostility and virtually as non-Christians. We find it difficult to disagree strongly with aspects of a person’s theology, and yet at the same time to recognize him or her as a Christian brother or sister. This is partly because of a right perception about the danger and seriousness of false theology, and partly because some so-called Christians are so way-out as to make it very hard to see them as disciples of Jesus. But it is dangerous and wrong to generalize in a negative way. It is important to recall that all Christians are mixed-up people with mixed-up ideas to a greater or lesser extent—see the church of Corinth in NT times! Evangelicals who read Essentials will, I suspect, be impressed by David Edwards’ sincere Christian profession, just as they often are by the commitment of someone like Mother Teresa. And yet there is often a lurking suspicion that this cannot be genuine Christianity because of the doctrinal issue. However, although doctrine does matter very much, correct doctrine does not guarantee the genuineness of a person’s Christian faith (as the NT makes very clear), nor does some incorrect doctrine automatically exclude a person from the kingdom of God (happily).

If it is true that there are evangelical and liberal Christians (and not just evangelical Christians and liberal non-Christians!), then it is imperative that we act in love towards each other and seek to understand each other and to overcome our divisions. Essentials represents a significant attempt to do this, not by covering over the cracks with deceptively pretty ecumenical wallpaper, but by honestly discussing our differences and seeking under God to find and to unite in his truth. Evangelicals may be tempted to question whether it is worth trying to do this, feeling that it is not a priority in a dying world and knowing the real practical difficulties that there are. But, although doctrinal differences do make some forms of ecumenical collaboration difficult or impossible, Essentials is a book which shows that progress can be made in bridging our divisions. In any case, if it is a question of priorities, we should remember that for Jesus it was a priority that his followers should live in love and unity; it was also a priority for Paul, great evangelist that he was.

Paul urges ‘speaking the truth in love’ as the way for the church to grow up into Christ (Eph. 4:15). May God make us faithful to his truth, strong in his love, and thus increasingly more united and effective as Christ’s body in the world.

Editorial note

We warmly welcome to new Associate Editors: Colin Chapman of Trinity College, Bristol, as our religious editor and Martin Davie of Mansfield College, Oxford, as our church history editor. We also welcome Dr Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, Colorado as North American book review editor. Colin Chapman and Craig Blomberg will be known to many readers for their writings (including articles and reviews in Themelios). Martin Davie is completing his doctoral research on modern British Quaker theology at Oxford University.

The Theological Students Fellowship in the British Isles has been reconstituted (with a wider brief) as the Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship. The first RTSF secretary is Steven Singleton, who will be a Consulting Editor of Themelios. We are grateful to all these (and to continuing editors) for their willingness to help us.

David Wenham

Wycliffe Hall