Liberals believe they are making Christianity relevant, credible, beneficial, and humane. Evangelicals in the line of J. Gresham Machen believe they are making something other than Christianity. That was the dividing line a century ago, and the division persists.
What is theological liberalism?
Liberalism is both a tradition—coming out of the late-18th century Protestant attempt to reconfigure traditional Christian teaching in the light of modern knowledge and values—and a diverse, but recognizable approach to theology.
Like any “ism,” liberalism is not easy to pigeonhole. But Gary Dorrien’s magisterial three volumes on The Making of American Liberal Theology present a coherent picture of a movement that has been marked by identifiable hermeneutical and sociological commitments. Even if one wishes to avoid liberal theology, it would still be wise to know something about a movement that has exerted such considerable influence over the past 200 years.
Below are seven characteristics of liberalism that have been culled from the first volume of Dorrien’s trilogy. The headings are mine; the indented text is from the book.
1. True religion is not based on external authority
The idea of liberal theology is nearly three centuries old. In essence, it is the idea that Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without being based upon external authority. Since the eighteenth century, liberal Christian thinkers have argued that religion should be modern and progressive and that the meaning of Christianity should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience. (xii)
What’s more, Dorrien recognizes this rejection is something new in the history of the church.
Before the modern period, all Christian theologies were constructed within a house of authority. All premodern Christian theologies made claims to authority-based orthodoxy. Even the mystical and mythopoetic theologies produced by premodern Christianity took for granted the view of scripture as an infallible revelation and the view of theology as an explication of propositional revelation. Adopting the scholastic methods of their Catholic adversaries, Protestant theologians formalized these assumptions with scholastic precision during the seventeenth century. Not coincidentally, the age of religious wars that preceded the Enlightenment is also remembered as the age of orthodoxy.
Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy heightened the Reformation principle that scripture is the sole and infallibly sufficient rule of faith, teaching that scripture is also strictly inerrant in all that it asserts. (xv)
Note that Dorrien does not believe inerrancy was a Princetonian invention.
2. Christianity is a movement of social reconstruction.
One of the most influential definitions of theological liberalism was offered in 1949 by an able latter-day proponent, Daniel Day Williams: “By ‘liberal theology’ I mean the movement in modern Protestantism which during the nineteenth century tried to bring Christian thought into organic unity with the evolutionary world view, the movements from social reconstruction, and the expectations of ‘a better world’ which dominated the general mind. It is that form of Christian faith in which a prophetic-progressive philosophy of history culminates in the expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.” (xiv)