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Liberal Christianity, also known as liberal theology, is a movement that interprets and reforms Christian teaching by taking into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics. It emphasizes the importance of reason and experience over doctrinal authority. Liberal Christians view their theology as an alternative to both atheistic rationalism and theologies based on traditional interpretations of external authority (such as the Bible or sacred tradition).
Liberal theology grew out of Enlightenment rationalism and romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was characterized by an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, a utilization of modern biblical criticism and participation in the Social Gospel movement. This was also the period when liberal theology was most dominant within the Protestant churches. Liberal theology's influence declined with the rise of neo-orthodoxy in the 1930s and with liberation theology in the 1960s. Catholic forms of liberal theology emerged in the late 19th century. By the 21st century, liberal Christianity had become an ecumenical tradition, including both Protestants and Catholics.
In the context of theology, the word liberal does not refer to political liberalism, and it should be distinguished from progressive Christianity. Historically, liberal Christianity has also been referred to as Christian modernism (see Catholic modernism and Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy).
Doctrine of biblical inspiration
William John Lyons quoted William Wrede and Hermann Gunkel, who affirmed: "Like every other real science, New Testament Theology has its goal simply in itself, and is totally indifferent to all dogma and Systematic Theology ... the spirit of historical investigation has now taken the place of a traditional doctrine of inspiration".
In general, liberal Christianity has no problem with the fact that the Bible has errors and contradictions. Liberal Christians reject the dogma of inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible, which they see as the idolatry (fetishism) of the Bible. Martin Luther emphatically declared "if our opponents allege Scripture against Christ, we allege Christ against Scripture."
Liberal Protestantism developed in the 19th century out of a need to adapt Christianity to a modern intellectual context. With the acceptance of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, some traditional Christian beliefs, such as parts of the Genesis creation narrative, became difficult to defend. Unable to ground faith exclusively in an appeal to scripture or the person of Jesus Christ, liberals, according to theologian and intellectual historian Alister McGrath, "sought to anchor that faith in common human experience, and interpret it in ways that made sense within the modern worldview." Beginning in Germany, liberal theology was influenced by several strands of thought, including the Enlightenment's high view of human reason and Pietism's emphasis on religious experience and interdenominational tolerance.
The sources of religious authority recognized by liberal Protestants differed from conservative Protestants. Traditional Protestants understood the Bible to be uniquely authoritative (sola scriptura); all doctrine, teaching and the church itself derive authority from it. A traditional Protestant could therefore affirm that "what Scripture says, God says." Liberals, however, seek to understand the Bible through modern biblical criticism, such as historical criticism, that began to be used in the late 1700s to ask if biblical accounts were based on older texts or whether the Gospels recorded the actual words of Jesus. The use of these methods of biblical interpretation led liberals to conclude that "none of the New Testament writings can be said to be apostolic in the sense in which it has been traditionally held to be so". This conclusion made sola scriptura an untenable position. In its place, liberals identified the historical Jesus as the "real canon of the Christian church".
The two groups also disagreed on the role of experience in confirming truth claims. Traditional Protestants believed scripture and revelation always confirmed human experience and reason. For liberal Protestants, there were two ultimate sources of religious authority: the Christian experience of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and universal human experience. In other words, only an appeal to common human reason and experience could confirm the truth claims of Christianity.
Liberals abandoned or reinterpreted traditional doctrines in light of recent knowledge. For example, the traditional doctrine of original sin was rejected for being derived from Augustine of Hippo, whose views on the New Testament were believed to have been distorted by his involvement with Manichaeism. Christology was also reinterpreted. Liberals stressed Christ's humanity, and his divinity became "an affirmation of Jesus exemplifying qualities which humanity as a whole could hope to emulate". Liberal Christians sought to elevate Jesus' humane teachings as a standard for a world civilization freed from cultic traditions and traces of traditionally pagan types of 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 the natural-religion view of the Deists, which disavowed any revealed religion or active 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.[pages needed] Many liberals prefer to read Jesus' miracles as metaphorical narratives for understanding the power of God.[better source needed] Not all theologians with liberal inclinations reject the possibility of miracles, but many reject the polemicism that denial or affirmation entails.
Nineteenth-century liberalism had an optimism about the future in which humanity would continue to achieve greater progress. This optimistic view of history was sometimes interpreted as building the kingdom of God in the world.
Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) is often considered the father of liberal Protestantism. In response to Romanticism's disillusionment with Enlightenment rationalism, Schleiermacher argued that God could only be experienced through feeling, not reason. In Schleiermacher's theology, religion is a feeling of absolute dependence on God. Humanity is conscious of its own sin and its need of redemption, which can only be accomplished by Jesus Christ. For Schleiermacher, faith is experienced within a faith community, never in isolation. This meant that theology always reflects a particular religious context, which has opened Schleirmacher to charges of relativism.
Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889) disagreed with Schleiermacher's emphasis on feeling. He thought that religious belief should be based on history, specifically the historical events of the New Testament. When studied as history without regard to miraculous events, Ritschl believed the New Testament affirmed Jesus' divine mission. He rejected doctrines such as the virgin birth of Jesus and the Trinity. The Christian life for Ritschl was devoted to ethical activity and development, so he understood doctrines to be value judgments rather than assertions of facts. Influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Ritschl viewed "religion as the triumph of the spirit (or moral agent) over humanity’s natural origins and environment." Ritschl's ideas would be taken up by others, and Ritschlianism would remain an important theological school within German Protestantism until World War I. Prominent followers of Ritschl include Wilhelm Herrmann, Julius Kaftan and Adolf von Harnack.
Catholic forms of theological liberalism have existed since the 19th century in England, France and Italy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a liberal theological movement developed within the Catholic Church known as Catholic modernism. Like liberal Protestantism, Catholic modernism was an attempt to bring Catholicism in line with the Enlightenment. Modernist theologians approved of radical biblical criticism and were willing to question traditional Christian doctrines, especially Christology. They also emphasized the ethical aspects of Christianity over its theological ones. Important modernist writers include Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell. Modernism was condemned as heretical by the leadership of the Catholic Church.
Papal condemnation of modernism and Americanism slowed the development of a liberal Catholic tradition in the United States. Since the Second Vatican Council, however, liberal theology has experienced a resurgence. Liberal Catholic theologians include David Tracy and Francis Schussler Fiorenza.
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, whose most influential spokesman was the American Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch identified four institutionalized spiritual evils in American culture (which he identified as traits of "supra-personal entities", organizations capable of having moral agency): these were individualism, capitalism, nationalism and militarism.
Other subsequent theological movements within the U.S. Protestant mainline 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 a potential reason for the decline of the liberal churches: what was seen by some as excessive politicization of the Gospel, and especially their apparent tying of the Gospel with Left-Democrat/progressive 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.
Anglican and Protestant
- 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), professor at Union Theological Seminary, 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.
- Hastings Rashdall (1858–1924), English philosopher, theologian, and Anglican priest. Dean of Carlisle from 1917 until 1924. Author of Doctrine and Development (1898).
- 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 1958–1966. Early television preacher as Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City; social gospel advocate and civil rights supporter; author of If This Be Heresy and The Other Side; in later life studied Christian origins and spiritualism.
- Lloyd Geering (b. 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 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 (b. 1935), Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary, noted for his theology of faithful disbelief.
- John Shelby Spong (b. 1931), Episcopal 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 (b. 1933), Bishop of Edinburgh 1986-2000.[clarification needed]
- Rubem Alves (1938–2014), 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 Episcopal 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.
- Robin Meyers (b. 1952) United Church of Christ pastor and professor of Social Justice. Author of Saving Jesus from the Church.
- Michael Dowd (b. 1958) Religious Naturalist theologian, evidential evangelist, and promoter of Big History and the Epic of Evolution.
- Thomas Berry (1914–2009), American Passionist priest, cultural historian, geologian, and cosmologist.
- Hans Küng (1928-2021), 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.
- 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.
- Biblical hermeneutics
- Christian atheism
- Christian heresy in the modern era
- Conflict thesis (or warfare thesis)
- Death of God theology
- European Liberal Protestant Network
- Existentialist theology
- Free Christians (Britain)
- Fountain Street Church
- Historicity of the Bible
- Jesus Seminar
- Liberal Anglo-Catholicism
- Liberation theology
- Moderate Christianity
- Moralistic therapeutic deism
- Postliberal theology
- Postmodern Christianity
- Religious pluralism
- Riverside Church
- Secular theology
- Unitarian Universalism
- Dorrien (2001, pp. xiii, xxiii): "Liberal Christian theology is a tradition that derives from the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Protestant attempt to reconceptualize the meaning of traditional Christian teaching in the light of modern knowledge and modern ethical values. It is not revolutionary but reformist in spirit and substance. Fundamentally it is the idea of a genuine Christianity not based on external authority. Liberal theology seeks to reinterpret the symbols of traditional Christianity in a way that creates a progressive religious alternative to atheistic rationalism and to theologies based on external authority."
- "Theological Liberalism": "Theological liberalism, a form of religious thought that establishes religious inquiry on the basis of a norm other than the authority of tradition. It was an important influence in Protestantism from about the mid-17th century through the 1920s."
- McGrath (2013, p. 196): "Liberalism’s program required a significant degree of flexibility in relation to traditional Christian theology. Its leading writers argued that reconstruction of belief was essential if Christianity were to remain a serious intellectual option in the modern world. For this reason, they demanded a degree of freedom in relation to the doctrinal inheritance of Christianity on the one hand, and traditional methods of biblical interpretation on the other. Where traditional ways of interpreting Scripture, or traditional beliefs, seemed to be compromised by developments in human knowledge, it was imperative that they should be discarded or reinterpreted to bring them into line with what was now known about the world."
- Dorrien 2001, p. xviii.
- Dorrien 2001, p. xv.
- Dorrien 2001, p. xx.
- Gurrentz, Benjamin T. "Christian Modernism". thearda.com. Association of Religion Data Archives. Archived from the original on July 31, 2019.
- Lyons, William John (1 July 2002). Canon and Exegesis: Canonical Praxis and the Sodom Narrative. A&C Black. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-567-40343-8.
On the relationship between the results of his work and the task of Christian theology, Wrede writes that how the 'systematic theologian gets on with its results and deals with them—that is his own affair. Like every other real science, New Testament Theology's has its goal simply in itself, and is totally indifferent to all dogma and Systematic Theology' (1973: 69).16 In the 1920s H. Gunkel would summarize the arguments against Biblical Theology in Old Testament study thus: 'The recently experienced phenomenon of biblical theology being replaced by the history of Israelite religion is to be explained from the fact that the spirit of historical investigation has now taken the place of a traditional doctrine of inspiration' (1927-31: 1090-91; as quoted by Childs 1992a: 6).
- Chryssides, George D. (2010). Christianity Today: An Introduction. Religion Today. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-84706-542-1. Retrieved 30 August 2020.
- Dorrien, Garry J. (2000). The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology: Theology Without Weapons. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-664-22151-5. Retrieved 30 August 2020.
- Chellew-Hodge, Candace (24 February 2016). "Why It Is Heresy to Read the Bible Literally: An Interview with John Shelby Spong". Religion Dispatches. Retrieved 19 June 2021.
- Spong, John Shelby (16 February 2016). "Stating the Problem, Setting the Stage". Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew's Gospel. HarperOne. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-06-236233-9.
To read the gospels properly, I now believe, requires a knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling. It requires an understanding of what the Jews call ‘midrash.’ Only those people who were completely unaware of these things could ever have come to think that the gospels were meant to be read literally.
- McGrath 2013, p. 196.
- Campbell 1996, p. 128.
- Ogden 1976, pp. 405–406.
- Ogden 1976, p. 408.
- Ogden 1976, pp. 408–409.
- Ogden 1976, p. 409.
- Ogden 1976, pp. 409–411.
- Mack 1993, p. 29.
- Woodhead 2002, pp. 186, 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.
- Brandom 2000, p. 76.
- Dorrien 2003, pp. 233, 413, 436.
- Tamilio 2002.
- "Modernism: Christian Modernism".
- Frei 2018.
- Dorrien 2002, p. 203.
- Campbell 1996, p. 74.
- McGrath 2013, p. 198.
- Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917.
- "Concluding Unscientific Postscript", authored pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus, 1846.
- History of Synoptic Tradition
- The Courage to Be.
- Kelley, Dean M. (1972) Why Conservative Churches are Growing
- Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
- 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.
- Congdon, David W. (2015). The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology. Fortress Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-1-4514-8792-3.
[Per Rudolf Bultmann] his February 1924 lecture on the 'latest theological movement'—represented, he says, by Barth, Gogarten, and Thurneysen—when he explicitly contrasts this new movement with Herrmann and Troeltsch as the representatives of liberal theology. Bultmann then states the thesis of his lecture: 'The object [Gegenstand] of theology is God, and the charge against liberal theology is that it has dealt not with God but with human beings.' We see in this piece the maturation of the claim stated in his Eisenach lecture of 1920, namely, that liberal theology fails to reflect on the specific content of Christian faith. In that earlier writing he contrasts the spiritual content of genuine religion with the liberal emphasis on a particular moralistic form.
- Peace Action web page accessed at http://www.peace-action.org/history
- Brandom, Ann-Marie (2000), "The Role of Language in Religious Education", in Barnes, L. Philip; Wright, Andrew; Brandom, Ann-Marie (eds.), Learning to Teach Religious Education in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, Routledge, ISBN 9780415194365.
- Campbell, Ted A. (1996). Christian Confessions: A Historical Introduction. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-25650-0.
- Dorrien, Gary (2001). The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900. Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 9780664223540.
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- ——— (2003). The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950. Volume 2. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 9780664223557.
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- ——— (September 2002). "Modernisms in Theology: Interpreting American Liberal Theology, 1805–1950". American Journal of Theology and Philosophy. University of Illinois Press. 23 (3): 200–220. JSTOR 27944262.
- Frei, Hans Wilhelm (March 18, 2018). "Albrecht Ritschl". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
- Mack, Burton L. (1993). The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins. Harper Collins. ISBN 9780062275684.
- McGrath, Alister E. (2013). Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (2nd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-470-67286-0.
- "Modernism: Christian Modernism". Encyclopedia of Religion. Thomas Gale. 2005.
- Ogden, Schubert M. (September 1976). "Sources of Religious Authority in Liberal Protestantism". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Oxford University Press. 44 (3): 403–416. doi:10.1093/jaarel/XLIV.3.403. JSTOR 1462813.
- Tamilio, John, III (2002). "Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834): Progenitor of Practical Theology". The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology.
- "Theological Liberalism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. November 5, 2018.
- Woodhead, Linda (2002), "Christianity", in Woodhead, Linda; Fletcher, Paul (eds.), Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations, Routledge, pp. 177–209, ISBN 9780415217835.
- "Liberal Theology Today" - International Conference, Munich 2018
- The Progressive Christian Alliance
- Progressive Christian Network Britain
- Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians
- 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
- Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving, Washington Post