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Liberal Christianity, also known as liberal theology, covers diverse philosophically and biblically informed religious movements and ideas within Christianity from the late 18th century onward. Liberal does not refer to Progressive Christianity or to a political philosophy but to the philosophical and religious thought that developed as a consequence of the Enlightenment.
Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings. Liberal Christianity did not originate as a belief structure, and as such was not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal statements. Unlike conservative varieties of Christianity, liberalism has no unified set of propositional beliefs. Instead, "liberalism" from the start embraced the methodologies of Enlightenment science as the basis for interpreting the Bible, life, faith and theology.
The word liberal in liberal Christianity originally denoted a characteristic willingness to interpret scripture according to modern philosophic perspectives (hence the parallel term modernism) and modern scientific assumptions, while attempting to achieve the Enlightenment ideal of objective point of view, without preconceived notions of the authority of scripture or the correctness of Church dogma. Liberal Christians may hold certain beliefs in common with Catholic Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, or even Christian fundamentalism.
Liberal Christian exegesis
The theology of liberal Christianity was prominent in the Biblical criticism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The style of Scriptural hermeneutics (interpretation of the Bible) within liberal theology is often characterized as non-propositional. This means that the Bible is not considered a collection of factual statements, but instead an anthology that documents the human authors' beliefs and feelings about God at the time of its writing—within a historical or cultural context. Thus, liberal Christian theologians do not claim to discover truth propositions but rather create religious models and concepts that reflect the class, gender, social, and political contexts from which they emerge. Liberal Christianity looks upon the Bible as a collection of narratives that explain, epitomize, or symbolize the essence and significance of Christian understanding.
Liberal Christianity was still hard to separate from political liberalism in the last third of the 19th century. Thus, an Irish bishop was sent by papal authority to Quebec in the 1870s to sort out the two. Several curés had threatened to withhold the sacraments from parishioners who cast votes for Liberals, and others had preached that to vote for Liberal candidates was a mortal sin.
In the 19th century, self-identified liberal Christians sought to elevate Jesus' humane teachings as a standard for a world civilization freed from cultic traditions and traces of "pagan" belief in the supernatural. As a result, liberal Christians placed less emphasis on miraculous events associated with the life of Jesus than on his teachings. The effort to remove "superstitious" elements from Christian faith dates to intellectually reforming Renaissance Christians such as Erasmus (who compiled the first modern Greek New Testament) in the late 15th and early-to-mid 16th centuries, and, later, the natural-religion view of the Deists, which disavowed any revealed religion or interaction between the Creator and the creation, in the 17–18th centuries. The debate over whether a belief in miracles was mere superstition or essential to accepting the divinity of Christ constituted a crisis within the 19th-century church, for which theological compromises were sought.
Attempts to account for miracles through scientific or rational explanation were mocked even at the turn of the 19th–20th century. A belief in the authenticity of miracles was one of five tests established in 1910 by the Presbyterian Church to distinguish true believers from false professors of faith such as "educated, 'liberal' Christians."
Liberal Christian theologians increasingly turned away from historical understandings of the Bible and Christianity. The German-trained critic, and one of the founders of the biblical archaeology movement, William Foxwell Albright of Johns Hopkins University, was a radical historical critic of the Bible, but his work in biblical archaeology in the Holy Land in the 1920s and 1930s convinced him that "these things really happened." Although Albright described himself forthrightly as "a Christian humanist" (a term also used by Renaissance scholars such as Erasmus of Rotterdam), his defense of the authenticity of the historical traditions of the Old Testament, especially surrounding the conquest of Canaan in Joshua, led later liberal scholars to denounce him as a "crypto-Fundamentalist", so hostile had liberal theology become toward the idea that biblical accounts of history might be accurate. However, Albright left behind a legacy of informed, critical historical scholarship, advanced by a cadre of well-trained and well-placed teachers and scholars in the United States and Israel. These scholars rejected the anti-historical tack taken by liberal theology.
Indeed, contemporary liberal Christians continue to abnegate historical interpretations of the Bible. Many prefer to read Jesus' miracles as metaphorical narratives for understanding the power of God. Not all theologians with liberal inclinations reject the possibility of miracles, but many reject the polemicism that denial or affirmation entails.
Liberal Christian theology predates the theology of inerrancy, which was first advanced in 1881 by two conservative Presbyterian theologians, Benjamin B. Warfield and Archibald Alexander Hodge. From the beginning, then, inerrancy played no role in liberal Christian theology. Rather, liberal Christian theologians were adamant about rejecting orthodox Christian teaching on subjects such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the authority of Scripture in favor of a secular-scientific world view. In this sense, many "liberal" theologians were confused with "critical biblical scholarship" which arose in Germany in the late eighteenth century with scholars such as J.G. Eichorn of Goettingen. Yet the German tradition of critical historiography was hardly liberal in all quarters, and many of its leading lights were actually monarchists (such as Julius Wellhausen, and his teacher, Heinrich Ewald, both of Goettingen.) The liberal claim of following historical-critical scholarship has gradually broken down, since liberals classically identified critical scholars such as Martin Noth  and Lothar Perlitt  as "liberal" when these scholars were quite conservative theologically.
An overarching analysis shows that liberal Christianity did align itself during the late 19th century with the "Progressive Movement" in Western culture and politics. Objectively then, liberal Christianity identified the Left wing of Western culture as the locus of God's revelation in history, following the doctrine of "progressive revelation", and to no little degree that of process philosophy. Moreover, the failure of modern science to provide universal ethical norms outside the Bible for people to follow led to a crisis of moral authority within liberal Christianity, and one that has yet to be resolved.
Influence in the United States
Liberal Christianity was most influential with mainline Protestant churches in the early 20th century, when proponents believed the changes it would bring would be the future of the Christian church. Its greatest and most influential manifestation was the Christian Social Gospel, which involved a de facto "baptism of Christianity into Marxist doctrine." Thus, the Social Gospel's most influential spokesman, the American Baptist Walther Rauschenbusch, identified four institutionalized spiritual evils in American culture (which Rauschenbusch identified as "supra-personal entities"): these were individualism, capitalism, nationalism and militarism. In accordance with Socialist doctrine, these were to be replaced with, respectively, collectivism, socialism, internationalism and pacifism.
Other subsequent theological movements within the Protestant mainline (in the US) included political liberation theology, philosophical forms of postmodern Christianity, and such diverse theological influences as Christian existentialism (originating with Søren Kierkegaard and including other theologians and scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich ) and even conservative movements such as neo-evangelicalism, neo-orthodoxy, and paleo-orthodoxy. Dean M. Kelley, a liberal sociologist, was commissioned in the early 1970s to study the problem, and he identified the reason for the decline of the liberal churches: their excessive politicization of the Gospel, and especially their direct identification of the Gospel with Left-Democrat political causes.
The 1990s and 2000s saw a resurgence of non-doctrinal, theological work on biblical exegesis and theology, exemplified by figures such as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, Karen Armstrong and Scotty McLennan. Their appeal, like that of the earlier modernism, was primarily found in the numerically declining mainline Protestant denominations.
Liberal Christianity in America has experienced a decline in membership of 70%—from 40% of the American Christian population to 12%—between 1930 and 2010. Conversely, the evangelical denominations have grown greatly in size, and the Catholic Church has seen more modest gains.
- Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834), often called the "father of liberal theology," he claimed that religious experience was introspective, and that the most true understanding of God consisted of "a sense of absolute dependence".
- Charles Augustus Briggs (1841–1913), early advocate of higher criticism of the Bible.
- Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), American preacher who left behind the Calvinist orthodoxy of his famous father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, to instead preach the Social Gospel of liberal Christianity.
- Adolf von Harnack, (1851–1930), German theologian and church historian, promoted the Social Gospel; wrote a seminal work of historical theology called Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (History of Dogma).
- Charles Fillmore (1854–1948), Christian mystic influenced by Emerson; co-founder, with his wife, Myrtle Fillmore, of the Unity Church.
- Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) American Baptist, author of "A Theology for the Social Gospel", which gave the movement its definitive theological definition.
- Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), a Northern Baptist, founding pastor of New York's Riverside Church in 1922.
- Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), German biblical scholar, liberal Christian theologian until 1924.[clarification needed] Bultmann was more of an existentialist than a "liberal", as his defense of Jesus' healings in his "History of Synoptic Tradition" makes clear.
- Paul Tillich (1886–1965), seminal figure in liberal Christianity; synthesized liberal Protestant theology with existentialist philosophy, but later came to be counted among the "neo-orthodox".
- Leslie Weatherhead (1893–1976), English preacher and author of The Will of God and The Christian Agnostic
- James Pike (1913-1969), Episcopal Bishop, Diocese of California 1958-66. Died a spiritualist, trying to communicate with Jesus through necromancy.
- Lloyd Geering (1918–), New Zealand liberal theologian.
- Paul Moore, Jr. (1919–2003), 13th Episcopal Bishop, New York Diocese
- John A.T. Robinson (1919–1983), Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, author of Honest to God; later in life returned to orthodoxy, and dedicated himself to demonstrating very early authorship of the New Testament writings, publishing his findings in Redating the New Testament.
- John Hick (1922-2012) British philosopher of religion and liberal theologian, noted for his rejection of the Incarnation and advocacy of latitudinarianism and religious pluralism or non-exclusivism, as explained in his influential work, The Myth of God Incarnate.
- William Sloane Coffin (1924–2006), Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in New York City, and President of SANE/Freeze (now Peace Action).
- Christopher Morse (1935 - ) Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary, noted for his theology of faithful disbelief.
- John Shelby Spong (1931–), Episcopalian bishop and very prolific author of books such as A New Christianity for a New World, in which he wrote of his rejection of historical religious and Christian beliefs such as Theism (a traditional conception of God as an existent being), the afterlife, miracles, and the Resurrection.
- Richard Holloway (1933-), Bishop of Edinburgh 1986-2000.[clarification needed]
- Rubem Alves, (b. 1938) Brazilian, ex-Presbyterian, former minister, retired professor from UNICAMP, seminal figure in the liberation theology movement.
- Matthew Fox (b. 1940), former Roman Catholic priest of the Order of Preachers; currently an American Episcopalian priest and theologian, noted for his synthesis of liberal Christian theology with New Age concepts in his ideas of "creation spirituality", "original blessing", and seminal work on the "Cosmic Christ"; founder of Creation Spirituality.
- Marcus Borg (1942-2015) American Biblical scholar, prolific author, fellow of the Jesus Seminar.
- Michael Dowd (b. 1958) Religious Naturalist theologian, evidential evangelist, and promoter of Big History and the Epic of Evolution.
- Douglas Ottati, Presbyterian theologian and author, former professor at Union-PSCE, current professor at Davidson College.
- Thomas Berry (1914-2009), American Passionist priest, cultural historian, geologian, and cosmologist.
- Hans Küng, (b. 1928) Swiss theologian. Had his license to teach Catholic theology revoked in 1979 because of his vocal rejection of the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope, but remains a priest in good standing.
- John Dominic Crossan, (b. 1934) ex-Catholic and former priest, New Testament scholar, co-founder of the critical liberal Jesus Seminar.
- Joan Chittister, (b. 1936) Benedictine lecturer and social psychologist.
- Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (born 1938) German feminist theologian and Professor at Harvard Divinity School
- Leonardo Boff, (b. 1938) Brazilian, ex-Franciscan and former priest, seminal author of the liberation theology movement, condemned by the Church; his works were condemned in 1985, and almost again condemned in 1992, which led him to leave the Franciscan order and the priestly ministry.
- William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), Unitarian liberal theologian in the United States, who rejected the Trinity and the strength of scriptural authority, in favor of purely rationalistic "natural religion".
- Scotty McLennan (b. 1948) Unitarian Universalist minister, Stanford University professor and author.
- "Catholic Encyclopedia: Liberalism". Retrieved 2007-01-27.
- Montgomery, John Warwick. In Defense of Martin Luther. Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1970, p. 57. “Luther’s Hermeneutic vs. the New Hermeneutic.” Quoted in http://www.wlsessays.net/authors/W/WestphalConfession/WestphalConfession.PDF[dead link]
- Robert Collins (1977). The Age of Innocence 1870/1880. Canada's Illustrated Heritage. Jack McClelland. pp. 87–88. ISBN 0-919644-19-8.
- Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 29 online.
- Linda Woodhead, "Christianity," in Religions in the Modern World (Routledge, 2002), pp. 186 online and 193.
- The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805–1900, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), passim, search miracles.
- F.J. Ryan, Protestant Miracles: High Orthodox and Evangelical Authority for the Belief in Divine Interposition in Human Affairs (Stockton, California, 1899), p. 78 online. Full text downloadable.
- Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 164 online.
- Albright, W.F. From the Stone Age to Christianity.
- Ann-Marie Brandom, "The Role of Language in Religious Education," in Learning to Teach Religious Education in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience (Routledge, 2000), p. 76 online.
- The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), passim, search miracles, especially p. 413; on Ames, p. 233 online; on Niebuhr, p. 436 online.
- Ueberlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien and Geschichte Israels
- Die Bundestheologie im Alten Testament
- Above; cf. Pietschmann, Das Ende des naturwissenschaftlichen Zeitalters.
- Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917.
- 1846. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, authored pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus.
- History of Synoptic Tradition
- The Courage to Be.
- Kelley, Dean M. (1972) Why Conservative Churches are Growing
- Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
- Allen, Charlotte (July 9, 2006). "Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins". Los Angeles Times.
- Alister McGrath. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 5th rev. ed. Wiley, 2011. Look in the index for "Schleiermacher" or "absolute dependence" and see them nearly always juxtaposed.
- The Progressive Christian Alliance
- Progressive Christian Network Britain
- Project for a Free Christianity
- Liberalism By M. James Sawyer , Th.M., Ph.D.
- Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)
- The Christian Left -- An Open Fellowship of Progressive Christians
- The Liberal Christians Network