Liberal Christianity

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Not to be confused with the Christian left.

Liberal Christianity (also called Theological Modernism or Progressive Christianity) is a broad term which basically refers to a movement within American Protestant denominations to stress the social role of Christianity, as in the Social Gospel of the early 20th century. This movement is characterized by a lack of emphasis on or denial of the plenary Divine inspiration and authority of the Bible, and commitment to doctrinal purity. Prevalent Biblical themes such as repentance from personal moral sin, hell and damnation for those who reject Christ, His blood atonement and His future literal reign are minimized, or militated against. In 1937, H. Richard Niebuhr summarized their basic gospel message as preaching that "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."[1][2]

Theologically, Liberal Christianity stresses a basic continuity between man and God, emphasizing the immanence of God rather than His transcendence. It tends to see religious knowledge emerging from research and the use of reason, as superior to Biblical revelation. Thus the liberal idea of religion as a personal relationship with God is one which is not necessarily bound to a Biblical doctrinal basis. This stands in in contrast to salvation resulting from faith in the Biblically substantiated gospel of grace, and in conformity with orthodox theological beliefs.

Origins of liberal Christianity

The most influential liberal Christian theologians were 19th century Germans: Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl.

Schleiermacher emphasized that religion was a personal relationship with God, and downplayed historical Christian doctrines such as the doctrine of creation, doctrine of Incarnation, doctrine of eternal life, etc.

Schleiermacher sought to re-establish the importance of Christianity using Christian religious experience rather than scientific knowledge. Ritschl revised Schleirmacher's idea and tried to re-establish their authority using Kant's idea of moral experience and in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.[3]

Doctrines that did not relate well to religious experience or moral experience tended to disappear.

Role of the Bible

Liberals view the Bible as the witness of God rather than the word of God. Strangely the view looks for support by a type of literal interpretation — though this should not be confused with the form of Biblical literalism found in fundamentalist and conservative churches — of the words of Paul in his second letter to Timothy:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,... 2_Timothy 3:16

Here some see Paul conveying that that scripture is a direct result of the authors contact with God ("witness"), whilst stopping short of claiming actual divine authorship ("word"). Conservative Christians would answer that Paul states here that the words which make up scripture are God-breathed, and that the Bible records God's promise to preserve His words, not merely His ideas.[4][5]

As a result, Liberal Theologians view the Bible as a text to be interpreted in its historical context but through liberal critical analysis.[6] As a result, many hold that texts such as Genesis’ early chapters or Old Testament miracles are poetry or fables — having a message, but not to be taken literally (in spite of thew New Testament referring to such as literal events).[7] This approach began to dominate most Protestant denominations in the early 1900s, and was challenged by Neo Orthodoxy and Fundamentalism after 1940. Examples today include some churches within Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ churches.[8] The word "liberal" in liberal Christianity does not refer to any political agenda or set of beliefs, although liberal theological beliefs will often form the basis of liberal political beliefs.

In addition, liberal Christians are seen taking an unwarranted pick-and-choose approach to the Bible, declaring that passages which they favor were intended by God to be followed today, while other parts are outdated or need to be reinterpreted, in order to conform with current trends. As needed, the spirit of the Bible is emphasized in such a way that its specific wording can be ignored or negated. As Machen comments,

Admitting that scientific objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion—against the Christian doctrines of the person of Christ, and of redemption through His death and resurrection—the liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting "the essence of Christianity.[9]

Rather than the Bible being wholly inspired by God, many liberal Christians believe that the Bible was the work of numerous editorial redactors[10][11]homophobic ones in cases where pro-homosexual writers wish to see homoeroticism positively portrayed between Bible characters — or even that certain parts of the Bible that do not agree with liberal theology are later additions that do not belong in the Bible at all.[12] In extreme cases, some liberal Christians even engage in politically correct censorship against those who quote Bible verses that tend to disprove a liberal Christian position. It may also esteem other books as works of God as well as the Bible. Some liberal Christians argue that correct Christian doctrine is whatever each individual believer deems it to be.

Most of those within mainline denominations evidence beliefs and its effects which are at variance with Biblically-based historical Christian faith.[13] Two issues usually indicative of liberal denominations are support for abortion and homosexuality. For a more detailed treatment, see Homosexuality and Christianity.

Some liberal Christians acknowledge that an omnipotent God could easily preserve His words and conclude that, for whatever reason, He has chosen not to do so, instead leaving us to our subjective impressions of God's will.[14]

Economic and historical aspects

In terms of economics, liberal Christianity emphasizes Testament eschatology towards the Kingdom of God into the liberal "law of progress." History does indeed show a growing maturity in technology, thought, and social relations, but conservatives argue there is nothing within the forces of history to suggest that good will triumph over evil. Conservatives say liberals deemphasize sin, i.e. evil triumphing over good.[15]

The Liberal Christian scholar Edgar S. Brightman said, "I believe in God because I believe that history represents a steady, moral progress." This was turned around by the neo-orthodox scholar Langdon Gilkey when he stated "I believe in God because to me history precisely does not represent such a progress."[16]

Liberal Christianity's Anti-Zionism

Strong elements in liberal Christianity have opposed Zionism since 1920, while at the same time combating intolerance and social hostility toward Jews inside the United States. Support for Zionism is a core belief of Fundamentalism.

In American Protestantism and a Jewish State (1973) an Israeli government official Hertzel Fishman analyzed several years (1937-1967) worth of Christian Century and concluded that the magazine consistently and historically opposed a Jewish State in Palestine, obstructed immigration of Jewish refugees, minimized the Holocaust, tried to reduce Israel's boundaries and supported Arab 'rights'." Although Dr. Fishman found instances of the magazine denouncing individual acts of anti-semitism, he found that the magazine was consistent in its intolerance and opposition to collective acts of a Jewish "peoplehood."[17]

Liberal Christianity and Christian witness

Espousing a liberal view of Christianity invalidates a person's Christian witness. If a self-proclaimed Christian does not take the entire Bible seriously, unbelievers will assume that they need not do so, either.

Neo-Orthodoxy opposes Liberalism

The first-quarter 20th century neo-orthodoxy movement was a renewal of Christian doctrines that had been neglected by liberal Christianity within the American and European academy. At the heart of the neo-orthodox renewal appeals to symbolic and aesthetic interpretations of long forgotten Christian doctrines can be found in the works of Karl Barth, the Niebuhr brothers, and Paul Tillich.

Liberal Christianity and marital infidelity

See also: Liberal Christianity and marital infidelity

According to a 2007 study reported in the Journal of Family Issues, adherents of liberal Christianity are more likely to engage in marital infidelity than theologically conservative Christians.[18]

Liberal Christianity, Darwinism, sexual immorality and abortion

Liberal Christianity also embraces the evolutionary paradigm (see also: Evolution and liberalism).

In July 2000, Creation Ministries International reported:

For years, many people have scoffed at any suggestion that the evils in society could be linked with the teaching of the theory of evolution. But new research has confirmed what Bible-believers have known all along—that the rising acceptance of Darwin’s theory is related to declining morality in the community.

The research survey of 1535 people, conducted by the Australian National University, revealed that belief in evolution is associated with moral permissiveness. Darwin himself apparently feared that belief in evolution by the common man would lead to social decay. The survey showed that people who believed in evolution were more likely to be in favour of premarital sex than those who rejected Darwin’s theory. Another issue which highlighted the contrast between the effect of evolutionary ideas and that of biblical principles was that Darwinians were reported to be ‘especially tolerant’ of abortion.

In identifying the primary factors determining these differences in community attitudes, the author of the research report, Dr Jonathan Kelley, said: ‘The single most important influence after church attendance is the theory of evolution.’[19]

Liberal Christianity and irrationalism

See also: Liberal Christianity and irrationalism

The Wall Street Journal reported that adherents of liberal Protestant denominations are more likely to be superstitious than evangelical Christians.[20]

In September 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported:

The reality is that the New Atheist campaign, by discouraging religion, won't create a new group of intelligent, skeptical, enlightened beings. Far from it: It might actually encourage new levels of mass superstition. And that's not a conclusion to take on faith -- it's what the empirical data tell us.

"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.[21]

Demographics and waning future influence of American liberal Christianity

See also: American atheism and Global Christianity

The British academic Eric Kaufmann, who specializes in the area of how demographic affect religion/politics and is an agnostic, wrote about the higher rate of religious fundamentalists causing society to adopt more religious conservative values:

Seculars should be worried for the long-term since this argument raises question marks over the assumed “inevitability” of the story of liberal secular progress... It questions what modernity now means. Religious fundamentalists will certainly be cheered, but the mushy middle of religious moderates should be concerned, since they may wind up the biggest losers – caught between the rock of fundamentalism and hard place of secularism.

The paradigm cases are closed sects like the Amish and Hutterites, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have 3 to 4 times the birthrates of their co-religionists. Conservative evangelicals and Mormons have 50 per cent more children than liberal/moderate Protestants.[22]

Kaufman wrote in his 2010 book Shall the Righteous Inherit the Earth? concerning America:

High evangelical fertility rates more than compensated for losses to liberal Protestant sects during the twentieth century. In recent decades, white secularism has surged, but Latino and Asian religious immigration has taken up the slack, keeping secularism at bay. Across denominations, the fertility advantage of religious fundamentalists of all colours is significant and growing. After 2020, their demographic weight will begin to tip the balance in the culture wars towards the conservative side, ramping up pressure on hot-button issues such as abortion. By the end of the century, three quarters of America may be pro-life. Their activism will leap over the borders of the 'Redeemer Nation' to evangelize the world. Already, the rise of the World Congress of Families has launched a global religious right, its arms stretching across the bloody lines of the War on Terror to embrace the entire Abrahamic family.[23]

Michael Brown wrote:

Several decades ago, church statistician and demographer David Barrett began to report the surprising news that around the world, the most rapidly growing faith was Spirit-empowered Christianity, marked by clear gospel preaching, belief in the literal truth of the Scriptures, and the reality of God’s presence. (The data were compiled in the prestigious “World Christian Encyclopedia,” published by Oxford University Press.)...

This is confirmed in the new Pew Forum report, which showed that evangelical Protestant churches in America grew by 2 million from 2007 to 2014 whereas the so-called mainline (liberal) Protestant churches declined by 5 million, meaning that evangelical Protestants now make up the largest religious group in the nation. (Although this is not part of the Pew Forum survey, this writer's surmise is that the evangelical churches that are most Bible-based and make the most serious, grace-empowered demands on their congregants are, generally speaking, the ones that are growing rather than declining.)[24]

Decline of liberal Christianity within global Christianity

Hong Kong Christians at Gateway Camp. In 2005, there were four times as many non-Western World Christians as there were Western World Christians.[25]

Michael Brown wrote:

Several decades ago, church statistician and demographer David Barrett began to report the surprising news that around the world, the most rapidly growing faith was Spirit-empowered Christianity, marked by clear gospel preaching, belief in the literal truth of the Scriptures, and the reality of God’s presence. (The data were compiled in the prestigious “World Christian Encyclopedia,” published by Oxford University Press.)...

This is confirmed in the new Pew Forum report, which showed that evangelical Protestant churches in America grew by 2 million from 2007 to 2014 whereas the so-called mainline (liberal) Protestant churches declined by 5 million, meaning that evangelical Protestants now make up the largest religious group in the nation. (Although this is not part of the Pew Forum survey, my surmise is that the evangelical churches that are most Bible-based and make the most serious, grace-empowered demands on their congregants are, generally speaking, the ones that are growing rather than declining.[26])

Christianity is the world's largest religion and it has seen tremendous growth over its 2000-year history.[27] Christianity has recently seen explosive growth outside the Western World which often has cultures which are very traditional and conservative.[28] In 2000, there were twice as many non-Western Christians as Western Christians.[29] In 2005, there were four times as many non-Western Christians as there were Western World Christians.[30] There are now more non-Western missionaries than Western missionaries.[31]

In 2011, the American Spectator declared concerning research published in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research:

The report estimates about 80,000 new Christians every day, 79,000 new Muslims every day, and 300 fewer atheists every day. These atheists are presumably disproportionately represented in the West, while religion is thriving in the Global South, where charismatic Christianity is exploding."[32]

Implications of the explosive growth of global Christianity on liberal Christianity

see also: Internet evangelism and Atheist population

It is thought that given the increase in the availability of public's access to global communications that the more theologically conservative non-Western Christianity could influence Western Christianity to move into more theologically conservative direction.[33] For example, non-Western Anglicans are exerting influence in the worldwide Anglican communion as far as the Anglican Communion's policy concerning homosexuality.[34][35]

Atheists and liberal Christianity alliances

See also: Atheism and liberal Christianity alliances

Although liberal Christianity adherents disagree with atheists on various matters, they do work together on points of agreement (see: Atheism and liberal Christianity alliances). In terms of atheists and politics, most atheists are secular leftist. on liberal Christianity and bestiality

See also: Liberal Christianity and bestiality declared about liberal Christianity and bestiality:

Beginning about 250 years ago, liberalism -- a view of the Bible as a purely natural book that gutted Christianity of its historic beliefs -- began developing and growing in influence...

...liberals underestimate the moral and spiritual depravity of humanity. The liberal credo is that human beings are basically good, and it is on this basis that liberals reject much of the biblical revelation. For example, the doctrine of eternal punishment makes no sense if human beings are basically good — but it makes fine sense if fallen human beings are incorrigibly depraved and rebellious against God in their hearts apart from the transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ. God’s command to destroy the Canaanites makes a lot of sense when you realize that the whole culture was permeated with such gross evils as bestiality and child sacrifice (which is also why the Israelites were repeatedly warned not to engage in such practices).[36]

Further reading

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. (1972), the standard scholarly history. Excerpt and text search
  • Luker, Ralph E. "Liberal Theology and Social Conservatism: a Southern Tradition, 1840-1920." Church History v 10#2 1981. pp 193–207 p online edition
  • Marty, Martin E. Modern American Religion, Vol. 1: The Irony of It All, 1893-1919 (1986); Modern American Religion. Vol. 2: The Noise of Conflict, 1919-1941 (1991)
  • Noll, Mark. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (1992), by a conservative historian. Excerpt and text search
  • Machen, J. Gresham (1881-1937), Presbyterian theologian. Christianity and Liberalism (1923). Online edition
  • M. James Sawyer, Liberalism. Web page

See also

External links


  1. The Kingdom of God in America (1937), New York: Harper and Row, 1959, p. 193
  3. Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language, (1969), 73, 74, and 75
  4. God's promise to preserve His Word
  5. All Scripture Is Given By Inspiration
  8. What Liberal Protestants Believe Beliefnet. Accessed 15 March 2008
  9. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism; Introduction
  10. Documentary Hypothesis
  12. Is it true that 1 John 5:7...?
  13. Revealing Statistics: Differences Between Denominations
  14. Christian Fundamentalism's Grand Illusion
  15. Basic idea for this paragraph is from April 26, 1939 The Christian Century, Reinhold Niebuhr, "Ten Years That Shook My World", pages 542-546
  16. Washingtonpost Obit of Langdon Gilkey
  17. David A. Rausch, Zionism Within Early American Fundamentalism 1878-1918: A Convergence of Two Traditions (1979) pp 23-25
  18. Are There Religious Variations in Marital Infidelity?
  19. Morals decline linked to evolution
  22. Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century by Eric Kaufmann
  23. Why are 2012 and 2020 key years for Christian creationists and pro-lifers?
  24. Why conservative churches are still growing
  25. Is Christianity taking over the planet?
  26. Why conservative churches are still growing
  28. Is Christianity taking over the planet?
  29. Is Christianity taking over the planet?
  30. Is Christianity taking over the planet?
  31. Thriving Christianity
  35. Letting Go: Liberal Christianity-Retreating from the Faith,