Liberal Christianity

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For the political movement, see Christian left.

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.[1] Liberal Christians may hold certain beliefs in common with Catholic Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, or even Christian fundamentalism.

Liberal Christian exegesis[edit]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

Attempts to account for miracles through scientific or rational explanation were mocked even at the turn of the 19th–20th century.[7] 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."[8]

Many liberals prefer to read Jesus' miracles as metaphorical narratives for understanding the power of God.[9] Not all theologians with liberal inclinations reject the possibility of miracles, but many reject the polemicism that denial or affirmation entails.[10] Therefore liberal Christian theologians often reject traditional Christian teaching on subjects such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the authority of Scripture.

Influence in the United States[edit]

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.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 traits of "supra-personal entities", organizations capable of having moral agency): these were individualism, capitalism, nationalism and militarism. [11]

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[12] and including other theologians and scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann[13] and Paul Tillich [14]) 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.[15]

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,[16] Karen Armstrong and Scotty McLennan.

Theologians and authors[edit]

Anglican and Protestant[edit]

Roman Catholic[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Catholic Encyclopedia: Liberalism". Retrieved 2007-01-27. 
  2. ^ Montgomery, John Warwick. In Defense of Martin Luther. Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1970, p. 57. “Luther’s Hermeneutic vs. the New Hermeneutic.” Quoted in[dead link]
  3. ^ Robert Collins (1977). The Age of Innocence 1870/1880. Canada's Illustrated Heritage. Jack McClelland. pp. 87–88. ISBN 0-919644-19-8. 
  4. ^ Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 29 online.
  5. ^ Linda Woodhead, "Christianity," in Religions in the Modern World (Routledge, 2002), pp. 186 online and 193.
  6. ^ The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805–1900, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), passim, search miracles.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 164 online.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917.
  12. ^ 1846. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, authored pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus.
  13. ^ History of Synoptic Tradition
  14. ^ The Courage to Be.
  15. ^ Kelley, Dean M. (1972) Why Conservative Churches are Growing
  16. ^ Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Peace Action web page accessed at

External links[edit]