What Is A Liberal Christian?

I have been accused of being a fundamentalist and by others too liberal. I have accused others of the same. Flinging around categories is a dangerous thing, but it is necessary for communication purposes. It is the mind’s nature to take particulars and group “likes” together. Otherwise we would be immersed only in a world of particulars and our brain circuits would fry. And communication with others would grind to a halt slow enough to remind everyone of the way the Boston subway runs – all jumbled together and nothing on time.

But what is necessary can also be dangerous, lest we shut someone out who is in or let someone in who is really out. Can there be an out? Surely Jesus thought so as he often talked of false teachers. They really do exist. No kidding. Really. The theologically surgery needed for discernment is exacting, and this is in part the reason why the Church has selected some among them to live their lives developing discernment to share with others whose time and responsibilities do not allow for the serious time and training required. Of course, the bottom line is whether the person in the pew concurs or smells something that stinks.

Roger Olson has posted on his blog concerning what constitutes a Christian liberal. Some are not happy about that phrase, Christian liberal. For them one who is a Christian liberal is no Christian. But for our purposes, believing there is some kind of continuum between a more fundamentalist to a more progressive theological outlook, what does it look like when one is on the outskirts of the country called liberal. This assumes the point that at some point a “new way of practicing Christianity” become something other than Christianity.

Here are Olson’s thought:

Why I Am Not a “Liberal Christian”

February 7,

Anyone who comes here regularly or has read any of my books knows I’m no fundamentalist. In fact, I struggle to get along with fundamentalists and pray for God’s grace to do it. I’m not proud of that fact, but I admit it. I’ve been burned by fundamentalism and seen the damage it does to individuals, churches and society.

Recently a friend asked me to look at some web sites of Christians who proclaim themselves “progressive”—sometimes using the label “unfundamentalist.” Labels alone don’t really tell me very much about a group. I look beneath and behind the labels for ideas—convictions, presuppositions, commitments, attitudes.

Many people who call themselves “moderate to progressive” theologically are really just asserting their non-fundamentalism. Like me, they have rejected extreme biblical literalism, hostility to science and philosophy, separatism and legalism, extreme dogmatism. Yet, there are others who use labels like “moderate to progressive” who are out-and-out liberals theologically.

What makes the difference? When and how does one cross from non-fundamentalist evangelical, broadly conservative, into out-and-out theological liberalism? Ah, there’s no litmus test. Discernment of that is complicated and must be done cautiously.

A while ago I argued that “evangelical” is defined partly, at least, by prototypes—individuals and documents and events of the past (and perhaps the present) that stand out as epitomes of the “ideal type.” With evangelicals, at least since World War 2, there’s a fairly easy prototype to go by—Billy Graham. Not that all evangelicals are thrilled with everything about him, but he represents, in a general way, that “type” of Christian faith and life we call “evangelical.”

So it is with “liberal.” It’s a type of Christian faith and life defined at least in part by prototypes. Who are its prototypes? Friedrich Schleiermacher and Marcus Borg—to name historical-theological “bookends.” Sure, they don’t agree on everything, but they both, in their own ways, represent an approach to Christian faith that is fairly called “liberal.”

Historical theologian Claude Welch, author of a magisterial two volume history of nineteenth century theology, boiled it (viz., “liberal Christianity”) down to a phrase: “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity” in theology. Gary Dorrien, professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary and author of a magisterial three volume history of liberal theology in America, defines liberal religion as rejection of any authority outside the self. However, when I read his three volume history of liberal theology in America I discern that all these theologians have one thing in common—recognition of the authority of “modern thought” alongside or above Scripture and tradition.

Liberal theologian Delwin Brown describes the essence of liberal Christianity as granting authority to “the best of contemporary thought” in his dialogue/debate with Clark Pinnock entitled Theological Crossfire. Ironically, fundamentalists and many “conservative evangelicals” accused Pinnock of being “liberal” theologically. But in that book Pinnock comes across as a almost a fundamentalist—compared with Brown (a former evangelical). They agree that the “bottom line” difference between evangelicals and liberals is authority.

I find myself in broad agreement with some liberal Christians on some issues—especially over against fundamentalism. On the other hand, I agree with some fundamentalists more than with liberals on some issues.

What do I look for in trying to discern whether a person or group is really theologically liberal?

First, I look at their overall view of reality. Do they think the universe is open to God’s special activity in what might be called, however infelicitously, “miracles?” Do they believe in supernatural acts of God including especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb? If not, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Second, I look at their approach to “doing theology.” How do they approach knowing God? Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation? Or do they begin with and give norming authority to human experience, culture, science, philosophy, “the best of contemporary thought?” That is, do they “do” theology “from above” or “from below?” Insofar as they do theology “from below” I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Third, I look at their Christology. Do they think Jesus was different from other “great souls” among us in kind or only in degree? Is their Christology truly incarnational, affirming the preexistence of the Word who become human as Jesus Christ, or is it functional only, affirming only that Jesus Christ represented God, was God’s “deputy and advocate” among men and women? Insofar as their Chistology is functional and not ontologically incarnational, trinitarian, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.

Fourth, I look at their view of Scripture. Do they believe the Bible is “inspired insofar as it is inspiring,” a wisdom-filled source of religious illumination and record of our “spiritual ancestors’” experiences of God? Or do they believe the Bible is supernaturally inspired such that in some sense God is its author—not necessarily meaning God dictated it or even verbally inspired it? Another way of putting that “test” is similar to the Christological one above: Is the Bible different only in degree from other great books of spiritual wisdom or in kind from them? Insofar as they view the Bible as different only in degree, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Fifth, I look at their view of salvation. Do they believe salvation is forgiveness and reconciliation with God as well as being made whole and holy by God’s grace alone or do they believe salvation is only a realization of human potential—individual or social—by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor? Insofar as they think the latter, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.

Sixth, I look at their view of the future. Do they believe in a real return of Jesus Christ, however conceived, to bring about a new world of righteousness? Or do they believe the “return of Christ” is a myth that expresses an existential experience and/or social transformation only? Insofar as they believe it is only a symbol, myth or metaphor, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

The problem is that discerning whether someone is theologically liberal is not a black-and-white process. It’s not an “either-or.” Many people and groups are some kind of mixture, hybrid of conservative and liberal. But, in my book, anyway, a true liberal is one who for the most part leans toward the views I have labeled “liberal” above.

So what’s wrong with being liberal theologically in that way? I find it thin, ephemeral, light, profoundly unsatisfying. It seems to me barely different from being secular humanist. Sure, theological liberals (in the sense I have defined that type above) can be profoundly “spiritual,” but I don’t think they are profoundly Christian. Their commitment is greater to modern culture, the Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, than to Christian sources. Their “Christianity” is barely recognizable if recognizable at all—compared with anything that was called “Christian” before the Enlightenment. Ultimately, I believe, theological liberalism robs Christianity of its distinctiveness, the “scandal of particularity,” its prophetic edge and makes it easy, respectable and dull.

I have come to the conclusion over the years that most people who are theologically liberal grew up fundamentalist and are simply in deep reaction to it—throwing the baby out with the bathwater of an overly legalistic and literalistic Christianity.

I have no problem with Christians who struggle with traditional belief; my problem is with those who “reinterpret it” so radically that it isn’t recognizable anymore. They say, for example, that they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but when pressed to explain it, what they really believe is that the disciples came to a realization of the continuing relevance of the message of Jesus or Jesus’ ongoing “spiritual presence” among them and us. They don’t mean that the tomb was empty and that Jesus’ dead body was transformed to a new mode of eschatological life.

If I ever wake up and find that I think like a true theological liberal, I hope I will be honest enough to stop calling myself “Christian.”

Now, having said that, harsh as it sounds, believe me when I say I am not judging liberals’ salvation. Their salvation is up to God, not me or any other human being. Can a person be truly liberal theologically, as I have defined it above, and be saved? I honestly don’t know. I hope so. But it would be in spite of their beliefs, not because of them.

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