Taking Theological Liberalism Seriously

By David Watson-

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That was the refrain that echoed through my mind again and again as I read through James Heidinger’s new work, The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism (Seedbed). The theological disagreements — some would say crises — that we face in The United Methodist Church today are nothing new. They did not begin twenty or thirty years ago. They did not begin with the introduction of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” into the United Methodist Book of Discipline in 1972, or even with the formation of The United Methodist Church in 1968. Rather, Heidinger argues, they stretch back to the late nineteenth century, when the influence of German philosophy and theological liberalism began to make its mark on the Methodist theological landscape in the United States.

The premise of this book is straightforward: “the era of the early 1900’s in American Methodism was the critical period in which Methodism experienced major doctrinal transition, revision, defection, and even denial of her Wesleyan doctrinal heritage.” This era saw the rise of both theological liberalism and the social gospel, two distinct but related movements. Since this early period of revision, the disproportionately large influence of liberalism upon American Methodism has continued to erode its doctrinal foundations. Such doctrinal erosion lies at the root of our decline.

Heidinger distinguishes between two uses of the term “liberalism.” In one sense, liberalism can mean, “a spirit of openness, graciousness, or liberal-mindedness.” The liberalism he takes up in his book, however, is different from this. It is “a movement during the early 1900’s that challenged and soon displaced the very substance of the church’s classical doctrine and teaching.” This theological movement replaced traditional teachings of the church with ideas more palatable to the “modern” mind. It dispensed with miracles and the supernatural, made Jesus primarily a moral exemplar, replaced the pervasive sinfulness of humanity with a notion of innate human goodness, and therefore rejected traditional understandings of Christian atonement.

The book consists of an introduction and thirteen chapters, preceded by a very helpful foreword by Professor William J. Abraham. The opening chapter sets the table: sound, scriptural doctrine is essential for our identity as the body of Christ. There will be no true spiritual renewal without theological renewal.

The next two chapters begin the critique of the liberal tradition. Here Heidinger describes the intellectual climate of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and some of the effects it had upon Methodist doctrine and theology. As more and more Methodist academics went to study in Germany, they brought back to the United States a brand of modernist theology popular in Germany at the time. Particularly influential were theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889). Their teachings would find a firm foothold in the Methodist academy of the early twentieth century.

As one would expect, the introduction of these theological innovations would create controversy. In Chapter 4, Heidinger describes the resistance that began to emerge among Methodists who objected to the revision of orthodox Christian doctrine by Methodist theologians. This resistance included the formation of the Methodist League for Faith and Life under the leadership of Harold Paul Sloan of the New Jersey Conference. Heidinger draws a striking parallel to our situation today: “The Board of Bishops continued to present a united front in its relationship to the Modernist/Liberalism controversy within the church, even though some bishops were aware of, and distressed by, the church’s doctrinal unfaithfulness…. [W]hen challenged and urged to act on behalf of doctrinal faithfulness and confront the matter head-on, they opted instead for a facade of unity as a Board of Bishops rather than choosing to contend for the faith that was under attack.”

Methodist leaders of this period chose by and large to avoid controversy and conflict. They were “determined to avoid the ugliness and bitter controversy of heresy-hunting that they saw taking place in other major denominations.” Instead, they attempted to develop an ethic of openness and tolerance, and therefore relaxed membership standards and baptismal vows. They also devalued creedal formulations. Heidinger takes up these trends in the next chapter. During this period there was a strong push to cast Methodism as a “non-creedal” tradition, and to affirm faith lived out through acts of love, deemphasizing any doctrinal confessions of faith. Boston University’s Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910), a key figure in the development of the deeply individualistic philosophy of “personalism,” exerted far-reaching influence on Methodist theology in the United States.

In Chapter 6, Heidinger describes more specifically the contours of the theological liberalism that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was, he maintains, a new form of Christianity characterized by a rejection of all of the supernatural elements of our faith, a negation of most traditional Christian doctrines, and an emphasis upon the moral teachings of Jesus. This leads to a discussion in the seventh chapter of the social gospel, a theological and ecclesiological movement meant to address problems of rapid urbanization in the early twentieth century. In the absence of clear doctrinal teaching, many Methodists began to see the formation of a just society as the basic goal of Christian faith.

Chapter 8 recounts the internal tensions and divisions one might expect from such theological upheaval, including tensions between clergy and laity, the rise of the Holiness Movement, and the battle fatigue created by these disagreements. A sort of classism developed among Methodist clergy in the early twentieth century. Drawing upon a 1926 article in the Christian Century, Heidinger refers to three “grades” of Methodists. The upper grade consisted of “seminary professors, agency heads, bishops, [and] denominational leaders,” most of whom were seminary graduates and theologically liberal. The second grade was made up of clergy who “aspired to be part of the upper grade, but who had probably come into the ministry through the Conference Course of Study.” In other words, they were not seminary graduates, and therefore had not received the same intellectual and theological formation as those who had been to seminary. The third grade consisted of “pastors with limited formal education who served the smaller and more rural churches with the smallest membership and least amount of financial resources.” Among the second and third grades, which were much more traditional in their beliefs, there arose strong opposition to the theology and leadership of the upper grade. Despite these dangerous tensions, however, the denominational leadership was reluctant to take any definitive action, opting in most cases to try to “keep the peace.”

The following two chapters describe the evangelical presence within Methodism that remained despite the liberal proclivities of denominational leaders, as well as  evangelical responses in the form of various protest and reform movements. In this chapter, Heidinger introduces the “great deep” of Methodism, a term he will use many more times throughout the book. By this, he means to refer to the vast majority of Methodists (now United Methodists) who profess the historic Christian faith. While many “higher-ups” in the denomination have coalesced to the theological trends of the day, the great deep maintains the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

In Chapter 11 Heidinger begins to move into more recent decades. He describes the broad dominance of liberal perspectives in our seminaries (though there have been exceptions) and discusses theologian Thomas Oden’s critique of United Methodist theological education. He also recounts the beginnings of AFTE and the John Wesley Fellows, an initiative intended to identify and support promising evangelical graduate students who could go on to teach in United Methodist institutions. This is followed by a chapter describing the “trivialization of doctrine,” in which Heidinger focuses primarily on the 1993 Reimagining Conference and the controversy surrounding the dissenting statements of Bishop Joseph Sprague.

The final chapter discusses the importance of “getting the gospel right,” emphasizing the traditional Christian faith as a key element of both vibrancy and unity. Seven appendices include the texts of statements issued by conservative/evangelical constituencies of The United Methodist Church in response to the ongoing challenge of the erosion of doctrine in our tradition.

For those who are versed in the denominational struggles besetting The United Methodist Church, many of the themes of Heidinger’s analysis should sound familiar. The disconnect between the seminary-educated and the laity, the reticence of the bishops to address the theological conflict that exists in our denomination, the ongoing attempts to “keep the peace” at the expense of theological coherence and integrity, and deflationary notions of both doctrine and Scripture are very much part of the warp and woof of Methodism today.

Heidinger zeroes in on a key factor in the erosion of Christian doctrine within Methodism: the influence of modernist thought on Methodist academics, particularly those who had studied in Germany. Many of the presuppositions of German liberal theology struck at the very root of Christian orthodoxy. Particularly significant was the rejection of what we often call “miracles” or the “supernatural” – God’s direct intervention into the nexus of human history. Once Methodist theologians began to devalue such beliefs as the Incarnation, the pervasiveness of human sinfulness, Christ’s atoning work on the cross, his bodily resurrection from the dead, and the divine inspiration of Scripture, it was only a matter of time before our tradition would begin to lose its bearings. We no longer had the compass of the historic faith of the Church catholic to guide us.

Heidinger’s discussion of the influence of German liberal theology on American Methodism is both pointed and insightful. We cannot, however, lay theological liberalism entirely at the feet of the Germans. The skepticism of French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) had a profound effect upon subsequent philosophy and theology. Likewise we should not underestimate the influence of both British Deism and the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), who developed the philosophical basis for the liberal tradition of process theology. Theologians of the twentieth century were forced to reckon with the evolutionary theory born of the writings of English scientist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and this was no small matter. The liberal theology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century emerged from the insatiable intellectual hunger of the European Enlightenment, and its influence upon both philosophy and theology in the United States was simply unavoidable.

Understanding the pervasive influence of Enlightenment thought upon American academics, however, makes clearer one of Heidinger’s more salient points: when we were faced with theological challenges, the responses of our denominational leaders was time and again inadequate. Rather than providing intellectual responses to theological claims that struck at the root of our faith, many leaders simply capitulated, even hailing these beliefs as liberators from a benighted past. These leaders did not recognize that the modern world in which they lived was itself a particular historical moment. It was no less culturally conditioned than the ancient world in which the biblical texts were written or the period of late antiquity in which so much classical Christian theology emerged. Modernist Christianity gave its own philosophical presuppositions a place of privilege, and thereby substituted a modern quest for self-actualization for the ancient story of sin and salvation that has sustained the church through the centuries. Put more simply, the problem with Methodists over the last century-and-a-half has not been that theological challenges have emerged, but that we have not faced them with sufficient theological mettle and intellectual rigor.

Another important contribution of this work is in the array of historical resources that Heidinger marshals in service to the narrative he crafts. Magazine articles, spoken addresses, meeting minutes, and other such resources make up an impressive body of historical evidence shaping and substantiating Heidinger’s claims. Many names of those who played important roles in the story of Methodism over the last century will be unfamiliar to most readers, and Heidinger helps us to recover their contributions and witness. This work helps us to understand not just how we got where we are today, but the contributions of so many who labored in service to the historic faith of the Church.

When reading this book, it is important to keep in mind that it is indeed about the rise of theological liberalism. It is not a comprehensive overview of liberalism, nor does it claim to be. It is, moreover, specifically about the rise of theological liberalism in the United States. The book wisely stays with its stated focus, and this focus itself suggests several topics in need of further investigation and elucidation. The influence of Paul Tillich and the Niebuhrs on American Methodism is surely ripe for further exploration. While Heidinger does spend some time talking about the influence of Rudolf Bultmann, the colossal influence of this figure on American liberal theology cannot be overstated, and surely bears more investigation. It would be fascinating to explore the influence of process theology, or its evangelical twin, open theism, on United Methodist theological education. Currents of liberation theology and various forms of identity-based theology also run strongly through our seminaries. To trace their influence would be a useful and interesting project.

Dr. David Watson

Many believe that our current denominational battles are about human sexuality, but that is only the presenting issue. In fact, our disagreements are much deeper. They are about theology – about the identity of God, about sin, redemption and sanctification. They are about the nature and goal of human life, the purpose of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, and what we mean when we speak of “salvation.” Heidinger is one who has taken a stand for the historic faith of the Church. He stood in the gap when many others would not. It is because of such courage, determination, and commitment to the faith of the saints and martyrs that this ancient and venerable tradition has subsisted into the present day in The United Methodist Church. I am grateful for Jim Heidinger, grateful for his witness, and grateful for this work.

David Watson is the academic dean of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is a United Methodist clergyperson and the author most recently of Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed).

Comments

  1. I have two responses to this article. First, Dr Watson (and I would suppose Dr. Heidinger) seem to be deliberately conflate liberal Christian theology with what is now referred to as progressive Christian theology. There is a vast difference between the two and I can only assume this is a tactic to try to make a point that otherwise wouldn’t fly. There are relatively few true liberal Christian theologians in the UMC and their influence in the greater church is minimal.

    Second, the implication of Dr. Watson’s article is that those who follow “orthodox Christian doctrine” represent historical Methodist theology, whereas his conflated progressive/liberal Methodists are more recent interlopers that are highjacking Methodism and bringing about its downfall. It would be just as easy to paint a picture of reasonable, progressive, yet still orthodox Methodists, whose denomination is being overtaken by hyper-orthodox, fundamentalists. In truth there has always been a range of theological interpretations present in Methodism. The problem is that some people in both camps want to plant their flag and claim the whole church for themselves.

    A future for the UMC will not be secured by misrepresenting fellow Methodists or by trying to stake a narrow theological claim to the whole denomination.

  2. Thomas Luther says:

    This is a great article! I can’t wait to read the book! It describes the problem but failed to present a solution. Maybe there isn’t one since the leadership of the UMC is in the hands of those who seek to avoid conflict at all cost. And that is a poor example of Christian faith in action! It is clear to me that there are few if any bishops or District Superintendents with the intestinal fortitude to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. What would Jesus do? I believe he would run our denominational leaders out and overturn their tables! Next time we plan a denomination I suggest term limits on bishops so they can be held accountable for their actions by the Church.

Speak Your Mind

*