This blog is written from an evangelical and reformed perspective. Such a perspective contrasts with theological liberalism. But what is meant by liberalism? I can’t think of a better short analysis than that of J.I. Packer in New Dictionary of Theology (IVP), in an article entitled ‘Liberalism and Conservatism in Theology’. I quote this article at length:-
‘Liberal’ as a self-commending description, implying readiness to welcome new ideas and freedom from the restraints of obscurantist traditionalism and irrational bigotry, has been adopted at various times over the past 150 years by 1. French Roman Catholics who favoured political democracy and church reform; 2. Anglican Broad Churchmen who desired some doctrinal loosening-up; and 3. Protestants world-wide who held Post-Enlightenment views stemming from Schleiermacher and Ritschl in theology, Kant and Hegel in philosophy, and Strauss and Julius Wellhausen . . . in biblical study.
‘Liberalism’ ordinarily signifies the thought-pattern found in the second and third groups. Developed by academic theologians who were very much men of their own time and critical of Pre-enlightenment thinking, liberalism has everywhere displayed most if not all of the following features:
- A purpose of adapting the substance of faith, however conceived, to current naturalistic and anthropocentric viewpoints, abandoning traditional dogmas when necessary.
- A sceptical view of historic Christian supernaturalism; an unwillingness to treat anything as certain just because the Bible or the church affirm it; a positivist penchant for making ‘objective’, ‘scientific’, anti-miraculous assessments of biblical and ecclesiastical teaching; and bold readiness to elevate the culturally moulded opinions of latter-day scholars above the received tradition.
- A view of the Bible as a fallible human record of religious thought and experience rather than a divine revelation of truth and reality; doubts, more or less extensive, about the historical facts on which the Bible writers base Christianity; insistence that the churches should be undogmatic in temper, tolerating a plurality of theologies, and seeing personal and social ethics as their main concern; and a belief that seeking society’s renewal rather than evangelizing individuals is the primary Christian task.
- An immanentist, sub-Trinitarian idea of God as working chiefly in cultural developments, philosophical, moral and aesthetic; a non-incarnational Christology that conceives of Jesus as a religious pioneer and model, a man supremely full of God, rather than as a divine saviour; and an optimistic, evolutionary world-view that understands God’s plan as perfecting an immature race rather than redeeming a fallen one.
- An optimistic view of cultured humanity’s power to perceive God by reflecting on its experience, and to formulate a true natural theology; a belief that all religions rest on a common perception of God, and differ only in details and emphases according to where each stands on the evolutionary ladder; and a hostility towards any exclusive claims for the Christian faith.
- A denial that the fall of a primitive pair brought guilt, pollution and spiritual impotence upon our race, in favour of a vision of mankind moving spiritually upward; a denial of penal-substitutionary views of the atonement, and of Christ’s imputed righteousness as the ground of justification, in favour of moral-influence and representative-trailblazer accounts of Christ’s death for us, and thoughts of God forgiving on the ground that penitence makes us forgivable; and a denial of Christ’s personal return, in favour of the hope that universal moral progress will establish the kingdom of God on earth.
‘Liberalism dominated European protectionism for half a century till the First World War shattered its optimism and the lead passed to the existentialist biblicism of the neo-orthodox genius Karl Barth. In the English-speaking world, reconstructed forms of liberalism, often at odds with each other, still make sure of the running in academic theology.’