Labels can be tricky, but earlier this month, Roger Olson wrote a helpful, clarifying post called, “Why I Am Not a ‘Liberal Christian.’” Positioning himself as “non-fundamentalist,” he then goes on to distinguish between those who identify themselves as “progressive” Christians, who are evangelical, broadly conservative, and primarily interested in setting themselves apart from the fundamentalist world, and those “progressives” who are truly theological liberals.
- A couple of prototypes for liberalism would be Friedrich Schleiermacher and Marcus Borg.
- Their point of view is captured in Claude Welch’s phrase: “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity” in theology. That is, they recognize the authority of “modern thought” alongside or above Scripture and tradition.
Olson note six characteristics of genuine theological liberalism:
- Overall view of reality: Do they believe the universe is open to God’s special activity? Do they believe in supernatural acts of God — especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus? If not, they are likely theological liberals.
- Approach to doing theology: Do they approach theology “from above” or “from below”? Do they acknowledge special revelation and its authority? Or do they begin with human thought and experience? If the latter, they may be theological liberals.
- Christology: If their view of who Jesus is is merely functional and not ontologically incarnational and trinitarian, they are probably theologically liberal.
- View of Scripture: Do they see the Bible as different only in degree from other great books of spiritual wisdom or is it different in kind from them? Is it somehow “God’s” Word and not merely human words about religious experience? If it is only a remarkable human work, then we are likely hearing the liberal point of view.
- View of Salvation: Do they understand salvation in terms of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, or is it only about realizing human potential through enlightenment and moral endeavor. The latter view tends to be promoted by theological liberals.
- View of the Future: Will there be a real return of Jesus Christ to bring about a new creation, or is that code for the existential experience of progress or the transformation of society into a just and peaceful world? If Jesus’ return is only a symbol, myth, or metaphor for human advancement, then it is evidence of liberalism.
Olson warns us that all such lists are crude representations of the complex beliefs of real human beings, and that most people and groups contain within themselves a mixture of conservative and liberal elements. Theological liberals, then, would be people who lean more toward the kinds of positions above.
I agree with Roger Olson that these positions are not profoundly Christian. As he says:
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 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.
The classic orthodox response to theological liberalism (or “modernism”) is J. Gresham Machen’s book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In it, Machen argued that liberalism was not simply another variety of Christian religion, but in actuality a different type of thought and life that grows out of a different root (the Enlightenment).
It is not “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”