The Legacy of Theological Liberalism

By James V. Heidinger II

Recently a pastor wrote in a conference paper a defense of United Methodism’s being a “liberal” denomination. He insisted the “L-word” was not bad. For support he cited Webster’s Dictionary which defined liberal as “generous, openhanded, broad-minded, etc.”

Such shallow thinking compels us to look again at theological liberalism to see where it came from, what it affirms and what it does not affirm. Most certainly, the presuppositions and principles of liberalism are still present in United Methodism.

Most lay people have little interest in liberal theology. When they hear modern brands of liberalism preached they are likely to respond kindly, “That sermon was profound. I’m not sure I understood it though. It was over my head.”

But if the last three decades have shown the mainline churches anything, it is the bankruptcy of theological liberalism. Realizing this will be an important key to mainline church renewal.

Roots of liberal faith 

Liberalism began to move upon the American church scene around 1880. It brought sweeping changes to Christian churches in America during the first third of the 20th century—a period when a tide of secular thought was flooding in upon traditional American ideas.

Theological liberalism was the religious system that blended with the late 19th century, new scientific worldview. The new science claimed all events could be explained by universal laws of cause and effect leaving no place for unique events or divine revelation. All data should be subjected to empirical tests for verification, it insisted. Liberalism was essentially, then, the movement which accommodated the Christian faith to anti-supernatural axioms.

The first step in accommodation was to qualify certain doctrines. Harvard dean Willard Sperry characterized liberalism as the “Yes, but” religion. It would say, “Yes, I believe in the deity of Christ, but the language of Chalcedon has become meaningless. We must redefine the doctrine so as to make it intelligible to us who live in the 20th century. Yes, I believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ, but by that I mean….” And on it would go.

While denying tenets basic to historic Christianity, liberalism believed itself to be helping preserve traditional Christianity by making it relevant for modern man. Kenneth Kantzer said religious liberalism was an attempt to update “an old and beloved religion so it could survive in the modern world.”

 Tenets of theological liberalism

During the first third of this century, liberalism clashed head-on with evangelicalism. We see why when we consider the basic tenets of liberal faith:

1. God’s character is one of pure benevolence—without wrath. All persons are his children, and sin separates no one from his love.

2. There is a divine spark in every man and woman. All persons, therefore, are good at heart and need only encouragement and nurture to allow their natural goodness to express itself.

3. Jesus Christ is Savior only in the sense that he is our perfect teacher and example. He was not divine in any unique sense. He was not born of a virgin, did not work miracles, and did not rise from the dead.

4. Just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively, not absolutely, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just most prevalent among the world religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, missions should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual enrichment.

5. The Bible is not a divine record of revelation, but a human record of the religious experiences of a nation. Thus few doctrinal statements or creeds are essential to Christianity. The only things unchanging about the Christian message are its moral and ethical teachings.

 Negation of orthodoxy

An important characteristic of liberalism’s tenets has been that they are primarily negations—that is, statements of what liberalism disbelieves about traditional orthodoxy. Liberalism almost always defined itself over against historic Christianity.

Consider the points cited above as negations for a moment. All persons belong to God, with none to be lost. Thus, universalism is affirmed, the need for salvation denied. Men and women are basically good, not sinful (original sin denied). Jesus was only a man like other men and did not atone for our sins (Christ’s Virgin Birth, atonement, deity, and Resurrection denied). Christianity is not unique, but just a bit more developed than other religions (church’s missionary mandate denied). And the Bible is only a human record, not the revealed Word of God (authority of Scripture denied).

Impact on American Christianity

Theological liberalism was euphoric early in this century, for it believed it was riding the new intellectual wave of the future—and it was. It believed it could rid the Christian Church of its restrictive, outdated worldview and help prepare it for a new, golden era.

So as a strategy by well-meaning churchmen, liberalism set out to attract people to Christianity by accommodating the Gospel to the wisdom and worldview of secular, scientific “modern man.” It was determined to preserve and strengthen Christianity. Unfortunately, the impact was just the opposite as liberalism devastated the vitality of the Christian Church in America.

J.I. Packer, contemporary Anglican theologian and author, summarized liberalism’s disastrous impact upon evangelical faith, saying “Liberalism swept away entirely the gospel of the supernatural redemption of sinners… It reduced grace to nature, divine revelation to human reflection, faith in Christ to following his example, and receiving new life to turning over a new leaf.”

Liberalism was determined to rid Christianity of its supernatural elements (miracles, the Resurrection, etc.) which just might cause a thoughtful enquirer embarrassment. And it succeeded.

What concerns me about all this is how much it sounds like modern day theology. Students at our denominational colleges and seminaries often report encountering these same negations in their classes. And several years ago our denominational journal ran an article in which the author/theologian recommended we forget the troublesome aspects of Christianity such as Jesus’ miracles, deity and resurrection. The author suggested we focus only on the ethical teachings of Christianity, for they are what is most important. Alas, the present generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one.

Continued benevolence 

I am sometimes amazed at how patient the Church has been toward liberalism and its subsequent offspring. (I realize there have been times of hostility, such as during the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the 1920s and 1930s.) Of late, however, we seem to have become theological pacifists, no longer shocked or offended by theological distortions regardless of how bizarre they might be. We calmly, benevolently discuss liberalism or its latter-day derivatives as we would the Sermon on the Mount, not realizing that in liberalism, historic Christianity has been gutted.

And while they mean well, those who reduce the faith to make it more acceptable to the modern mind do the Church no service. Liberalism in its various shades is still a shrunken Christianity—the pathetic result of sinful men and women who, in their quests for intellectual autonomy, would make man the measure of all things. It is a halfway house from faith to unbelief, from Christianity to secularism.

One hears Dorothy Sayers imploring, “You do Christ no honor ‘by watering down his personality’ so he will not offend. If the mystery of the ‘divine drama’ of God enfleshed in Christ shocks and offends believers, ‘let them be offended.’”

As long as our society is free, we will have those who wish to improve upon Christianity by restructuring it. But let’s be sure we know when this is happening.

In the meantime, let us boldly and unapologetically commend God’s revealed Word to our unbelieving world. Let’s not cower from the scorn of intellectual sophisticates for whom the word of the cross is still a rebuke. Let’s be workers “who need not be ashamed,” proclaiming the Gospel with no disguises, revisions, or scholarly addendums. And let us have the witness of his Spirit so we may, indeed, be preaching “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2:4).

 James V. Heidinger II is president and publisher emeritus of Good News. This article originally appeared in the November/December 1990 issue of Good News.

Comments

  1. Some seem to think that we need to return to Wesley and that “old time religion,” which puts me in mind of the man-made legalism and moralism of the 18th and 19th centuries. I think that even Wesley would tell us that we need to return to Christ and that much older religion that he and his disciples taught. For 2,000 years the church has wandered to the left and the right, but has consistently returned to Christ as each new generation has read the testimony of what he taught.

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