October 26, 2020

Heresy: Theological Liberalism

The Death of Socrates, David

The Death of Socrates, David

Labels can be tricky, but earlier this month, Roger Olson wrote a helpful, clarifying post called, “Why I Am Not a ‘Liberal Christian.'”  Positioning himself as “non-fundamentalist,” he then goes on to distinguish between those who identify themselves as “progressive” Christians, who are evangelical, broadly conservative, and primarily interested in setting themselves apart from the fundamentalist world, and those “progressives” who are truly theological liberals.

  • A couple of prototypes for liberalism would be Friedrich Schleiermacher and Marcus Borg.
  • Their point of view is captured in Claude Welch’s phrase: “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity” in theology. That is, they recognize the authority of “modern thought” alongside or above Scripture and tradition.

Olson note six characteristics of genuine theological liberalism:

  • Overall view of reality: Do they believe the universe is open to God’s special activity? Do they believe in supernatural acts of God — especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus? If not, they are likely theological liberals.
  • Approach to doing theology: Do they approach theology “from above” or “from below”? Do they acknowledge special revelation and its authority? Or do they begin with human thought and experience? If the latter, they may be theological liberals.
  • Christology: If their view of who Jesus is is merely functional and not ontologically incarnational and trinitarian, they are probably theologically liberal.
  • View of Scripture: Do they see the Bible as different only in degree from other great books of spiritual wisdom or is it different in kind from them? Is it somehow “God’s” Word and not merely human words about religious experience? If it is only a remarkable human work, then we are likely hearing the liberal point of view.
  • View of Salvation: Do they understand salvation in terms of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, or is it only about realizing human potential through enlightenment and moral endeavor. The latter view tends to be promoted by theological liberals.
  • View of the Future: Will there be a real return of Jesus Christ to bring about a new creation, or is that code for the existential experience of progress or the transformation of society into a just and peaceful world? If Jesus’ return is only a symbol, myth, or metaphor for human advancement, then it is evidence of liberalism.

Olson warns us that all such lists are crude representations of the complex beliefs of real human beings, and that most people and groups contain within themselves a mixture of conservative and liberal elements. Theological liberals, then, would be people who lean more toward the kinds of positions above.

I agree with Roger Olson that these positions are not profoundly Christian. As he says:

Their commitment is greater to modern culture, the Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, than to Christian sources. Their “Christianity” is barely recognizable if recognizable at all—compared with anything that was called “Christian” before the Enlightenment. Ultimately, I believe, theological liberalism robs Christianity of its distinctiveness, the “scandal of particularity,” its prophetic edge, and makes it easy, respectable and dull.

…I have no problem with Christians who struggle with traditional belief; my problem is with those who “reinterpret it” so radically that it isn’t recognizable anymore.

The classic orthodox response to theological liberalism (or “modernism”) is J. Gresham Machen’s book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923).  In it, Machen argued that liberalism was not simply another variety of Christian religion, but in actuality a different type of thought and life that grows out of a different root (the Enlightenment).

It is not “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”


  1. I would add (my always favorite broken record) the perfectibility of humanity and enthusiasm regarding humanity’s ability to subdue, conquer, and domesticate nature and the looming problems we face.

    “Do they believe the universe is open to God’s special activity?”
    I agree that this should be number-one. Implied in this question is whether or not there is a place for grace in the universe – of which I am less convinced that “conservatives” truly believe (we don’t need grace, just life principles). Grace to the sinful nature equals a loss of autonomy, dominance and control. The perfectability question becomes a sub-category to this: if humanity is perfectable, the it does not need grace nor the intervention of God; if humanity needs grace, then we are not ultimately free but dependent upon God’s special revelation and intervention.

    The reduction of religion to morality is also a tennent of liberal theology (if there is no God, special revelation,or ultimate truth, then the only reamining purpose for religion is to teach morality).

    • Pragmatism is also a liberal tenet of liberalism, taught by Friedrich Strauss.

      Much of what we now call “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism” is classic liberal theology, which means probably 70-80% of American evangelicals are liberals, based upon what is taught in mega-churches. Those people will protest, that they are conservative based upon claims of moralism, which again, is perfectly compatible with liberal theology.

    • Pietism really was the germ of modernism. Immanuel Kant as well as Schleiermacher were raised in pietistic homes. The modernistic/liberal concept of “inner light” is was borrowed directly from pietism.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        How do you define “pietism”?

        The definition I use is “Don’t Think, Just BE-LEEEEEEEVE!!!!”

        And spending all your time being Pious Pious Pious for those brownie points with God.

    • I would beg the question, what then is a “conservative”? Much of what I see labeled as “conservative” fits even Olson’s definition of liberalism. I guess we’ll find out shortly.

      If you think zeitgeist is the little paper in which you roll your doobie, you might be a conservative.

    • To find a working definition of “conservative”, one will have to reach back to a point prior to the renaissance, i.e. back to medieval thought so viciously condemned by modernism. G.K. Chesterton might be a good resource for that project. Martin Luther is another good resource, who philosophically was still medieval although himself was a product of the renaissance.

      • I would add CS Lewis to this list…..he assisted me in removing my cranium from my colon in college, when I was skipping Mass and prayer and having a FUN TIME as a student in the seventies and all the while calling myself a devout Catholic…..”KNOWING” that thanks to grace, God would understand my sins.

        Screwtape said otherwise…..and then I read more of Jack’s great stuff!

  2. Gee, I would have thought before reading how Olson describes theological liberalism that I was in that camp, but I see I am not. I guess I am an ecumenical, leaning slightly charismatic, slightly progressive Roman Catholic Christian with leanings toward Christian (or Evangelical) Universalism (ala Robin Parry).

  3. I would say that their commitment is not so much to the Zeitgeist as to reason, conscience, and critical scholarship (including science). All of which evolve. Should our views evolve along with them, or should Christianity remain a museum piece? Of course everyone thinks they are being reasonable, conscientious, and scholarly, but note what we do when one of these conflicts with religious tradition and authority.

    Liberalism also tends to emphasize turning the other cheek (the pacifist churches), helping the poor (the social gospel), and all that other Sermon on the Mount type stuff. Sure, every church worthy of the name does charity and believes in loving their neighbor, but liberals see this as the essence of the gospel, or close to it.

    Liberals are more likely to regard other denominations and religions as good, or even equal to their own.

    • If theological liberalism isn’t committed to the Zeitgeist, who would you say is? I wouldn’t say that they’re opposed to reason, conscience, and critical scholarship, but they are fairly committed to the most recent “findings” or developments. That’s what it means to be progressive, isn’t it? They don’t tend to give new ideas much time to vet. And I don’t think being reasonable is opposed to recognizing religious tradition and authority. For some of us, our reason led us there. Yes, liberal churches do tend to promote the charitable causes of classical liberalism, but I say there is very little they do that isn’t done in spades by Evangelicals as well. Evangelicals (or theological conservatives generally) get a bad rap for being committed to ideals at the expense of their neighbors, but it simply is not true. When liberals see charity as the essence of the Gospel, what they are doing is confusing the law (love your neighbor as yourself) with the Gospel (the good news about Jesus). Also, I think the liberal propensity to regard other denominations as equal to their own may be part of what is behind their numerical demise: If you are equally interchangeable with a number of other similar groups, you fail to give the faithful a reason to be a part of your church. If it makes no difference whether I am a United Methodist or Episcopalian, why would I bother being committed to either? Or for that point, why bother remaining separate entities? My prediction is that as the mainlines continue to decline and emphasize ecumenicist over their distinctives, we may begin to see mergers between various traditions. Most of the mainlines of today are conglomerates of previous denominations, albeit of similar vein. But how big a stretch would it be for the UCC, RCA, and PCUSA to come together? TEC, ELCA, and UMC? I believe this kind of stuff has happened a lot in other countries already. Just thinking aloud.

      • The whole idea that Christianity is “about” believing certain things (i.e., dogmatism), and getting them exactly right, and enforcing boundaries with others who believe different things, is foreign to the liberal mindset (and, I would say, to Christ’s message in the gospels).

        You are probably right about tolerance being a major factor in the decline of mainstream Protestantism. The sad fact is that relatively narrow, intolerant religions tend to be more successful. And yes, most mainline churches are broadly interchangable, at least in the eyes of ordinary believers who notice the choir, organ, pews, and Sunday school more than highfallutin theology.

        Yes, fundamentalist and evangelical churches do a lot of good work (as well as a lot of bad work, IMHO). Like I said, every church worthy of the name does charity. But the liberals (and the Catholics, to some extent) see the love-thy-neighbor stuff as close to the essence of the gospel, while fundamentalists and evangelicals are more suspicious of the “social gospel,” as a distraction from their campaign to persuade everybody to feel or believe certain things.

        • Yes and no. There is more to orthodoxy than doctrinal exactness and rigid enforcement (don’t think! Accept what we say!). However, Christianity absolutely requires belief in specific things. This is why the early church wrote the creeds. There are certain non-negotiables that our our distinctives which make being a Christian different from not being a Christian. Creeds are the cause of deeds: how you live is a reflection of what you believe to be true. Good works are done because they are believed to be “good” in the first place.

          The difference between liberals and conservatives in the Christian religion is that they tend to emphasize different good works. Liberals emphasize care for those who are down or marginalized, while conservatives emphasize personal moral purity. There are strengths and weaknesses to both camps, and imo, they need to learn from one another, but I see the conservative churches being more well rounded in their virtues, which I believe is a result of their emphasis on right belief. You cannot imitate the character of Christ while rejecting his teaching.

      • “When liberals see charity as the essence of the Gospel, what they are doing is confusing the law (love your neighbor as yourself) with the Gospel (the good news about Jesus).”

        I am not sure you can so clearly delineate between the two. Michael Spencer wrote:

        I do believe many Christians excuse themselves from dealing with the message Jesus preached because they think believing in Jesus is sufficient. Mark would not understand such a distortion.


        When you read the Gospels, Jesus is including the excluded, healing the hopeless, remaking Israel, reaching out to the pagan, overturning the religious professionals, redefining all the predictable terms, shocking those who know all the answers and, in general, making it unmistakably clear that the Kingdom isn’t just about forgiveness and “heaven,” but about the life we are living, and will live, both in the Kingdom here and now, as well as in the future.

        From Reconsider Jesus: A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark (working title) By Michael Spencer.

        Yes, this is a shameless plug. Hope to have most of the book edited by September.

        • The law/gospel distinction is not remotely in the same ball park as easy-believe-ism. Distinguishing law from gospel doesn’t mean choosing one over the other: You absolutely must have 100% of both, to the full, for apart from the law, grace means nothing.

          Really looking forward to the finished product!

  4. I don’t know that I agree that a theological liberal necessarily adheres to “maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modernity.” I think there are theological liberals who are supernaturalists and reject the overreaching claims of modernity; the sociologist and sometime theologian Peter Berger is one of them. He considers himself a theological liberal but repudiates the idea the supernatural does not exist or have influence in this world. Many theological pluralists are also open to the reality of the supernatural and critical of modernity from the perspective of what they call post-modernism.

    • I agree. Modernism impacts “conservative” thinking as well. Given that our constitution is a product of the enlightenment, it is quite impossible as U.S. citizens to address modernism objectively.

      • I agree our culture is a product of the enlightenment, no ones Christianity in America looks like medieval christianiy.

        • With the possible exception of the EO!

          • Every form of Christianity in the U.S. exists in the matrix of denominationalism, and denominationalism is a product of the Enlightenment. EOC included. But I’d go further then dumb ox does: it is not possible to live anywhere in the world today and to address modernism objectively, or to escape being deeply influenced by Enlightenment values. Our technology makes sure of that; it is a culture that carries Enlightenment values everywhere it goes, and it goes everywhere.

          • +1

  5. It’s important to remember, hardly anyone wakes up one morning and says, “I think I’ll start a damnable heresy today”.

    Liberalism began with the abandonment of the Bible as their epistemological foundation. Everything else followed from that. Historically, Liberalism came first – Fundamentalism was the rejection of that.

    • I’m not sure about that, nedbrek. I think fundamentalism exists independently of liberalism. It’s a frame of mind that transcends religions, cuts across religions, and while I’d agree with you that it rejects liberalism I don’t think it was a defensive maneuver.

      Welcome back. Long time.

      • Before fundamentalism became a dirty word :), it was a formal movement:

        • I’ll agree that that is a modern definition, and I just pulled out my copy of J.I. Packer’s “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. He agrees with you.

          But Packer appears to be trying to defend the term “fundamentalism” from its detractors, who by the time the book was published in 1958 were already gaining ground, bolstered by other heavyweights such as Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga, who were making efforts to distance the term “fundamentalist” from “evangelical”. Packer, in this book, defends fundamentalism and defines it as “consistent Evangelicalism”. So we may be arguing about different things.

          In the half-century since Packer wrote that we have seen the rise of the Christian Right (a form of fundamentalism) in reaction to court decisions that banned state-sanctioned prayer in schools or that permitted abortion (similar to reactions against early 20th-century liberalism, evolution, etc)—and also the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which illustrates my point that fundamentalism transcends religions.

          If we’re talking about 20th-century U.S. Christianity I think we can agree on your interpretation (and never mind wikipedia but who am I to question Packer?), but the fundamentalism I have in mind is broader, more of a frame of mind, a legalism, a literalism that attracts certain people in all cultures and times.

          • The Church did a great job of calling a herecy a herecy for more than a millenium…..but when herectics decided not to be rebuked but instead to march off from authority , collective wisdom, and scripture AND call themselves a new version of Christianity, the splits began to form into chasms.

    • I agree that one cannot separate fundamentalism from liberalism. They both are based in modernism, with fundamentalism as a reactionary movement. It does not address the roots of modernism but merely repackages it.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        They’re funhouse-mirror reflections of each other, just like Communism and Objectivism.

        • I think that needs justification… is orthodoxy a “funhouse mirror” reflection of Arianism?

        • You make it sound as though liberal views were strange and peculiar, when the more usual complaint is that they make too many concessions to modernism–i.e., don’t believe *enough* strange and peculiar things.

  6. Richard Hershberger says

    The important point to realize is that theological liberals are quite rare. Once you reach that point, there really isn’t any reason not to sleep in on Sunday morning. Fifty years ago the mainlines were flirting with liberal theology, but that was fifty years ago. I have not once heard this from the pulpit, and it has been about thirty years since I even heard it in private conversation.

    This is important because the word “liberal” gets used and abused in many ways. I am “liberal” in the sense of supporting gay marriage, but not in the sense of liberal theology. But the linguistic factoid that the two positions share that word is often used as a weapon by persons unconcerned by such nuance.

    I was asked some years ago if the ELCA has an equivalent to Bishop Spong as liberal theology bugaboo. My response was that yes, we do: it is Bishop Spong. He serves double duty, despite being unconnected with us.

    • Sadly, the entire world now changes the meanings of words to suit an agenda, so often the concept that “words mean things” get lost in the shuffle.

    • +1. And a further +1 for the distinction about the ways in which “liberal” is used.

  7. When you gravitate towards more generous words than the Word of God…then you are a liberal theologian.

    We just want to be so accommodating, at the expense of God’s law, and or His gospel.

    But, we want what we want. We know best.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      So God is really the Big Monster in the Sky, smacking his lips at casting all of us into Eternal Hell? (Except for His Predestined Elect pets, that is.)

      Because that’s where all the denunciations of “be so accomodating at the expense of God’s Law” have led in the past, without exception.

      Do you have any idea what “God’s Law God’s Holiness God’s Righteousness” preaching sounds like to someone coming out of a control-freak church or spiritual abuse?

      • Yeah, I do. Because that’s what I came out of. However, the Bible couldn’t be more clear that God is a person – an emotional one, I might add – who has a real law and really judges people. The problem with the control freak churches in my past was that they were all law and no gospel. Oh, they claimed they had the gospel (really just a Magic Jesus Prayer), but they didn’t get grace at all. The fact is, that the forgiveness of sins presupposes sin, which implies and entails judgement. Without that, there really isn’t any Christianity.

      • We don’t proclaim God’s Law as if we can keep it, and those of you who can’t are going to hell. We preach and teach God’s Law to show exactly that we can’t keep it. No one can. No wants to (deep down inside)…not even the preach.

        The Law exposes us and drives us to Christ. If there’s no perfect demand of the Law…then there’s no need for Jesus. If you don’t need Jesus, then He will let you go your own way.

        • “The Law exposes us and drives us to Christ.”


        • Well put, Steve. I am so weary of “practical steps for successful living” that try to make the Law achievable. It’s emotional exhausting to have the law hyped up and made exciting as if doing the right thing was fun all the time. I want mercy and grace, not direction. I’m not suffering from a lack of knowledge, but rather I know the right I ought to do and am somehow utterly incapable of it.

  8. Marcus Johnson says

    Coming soon, Roger Olson’s stand-up comedy tour, highlighted by his all-too-popular “You Might Be a Theological Liberal If…” bit.

  9. This is an interesting article in light of a conversation I recently had with a couple of atheists. We were talking about our various conversions, and it turned out that both of them had at one time believed in a literal resurrection (not talking snakes or six day creations, interestingly enough). This interested me because I never did. I read Spong when I was young and he made it possible for me to accede to belief without accepting impossible things.

    The question I went away with is, is this why I am not an atheist (I’m a Jew in the Reform branch) today, because of my theological liberalism?

  10. “If it [the Bible] is only a remarkable human work, then we are likely hearing the liberal point of view.”

    Hmmm. But if I treat the Bible as a magic book or a cook book to answer all my self-centered interests, then I’m…a conservative???

  11. I probably am more of a liberal than a conservative. I have found refuge in many authors considered “liberal”, such as Paul Tillich or Reinhold Niebuhr, who themselves were quite critical of many of the tenets of liberalism listed above, while affirming others. I would never have discovered Martin Luther without Paul Tillich, as ironic as that sounds, given the criticism Lutheran theologians like Preus have leveled against Tillich. But even authors like Frederick Beuchner were also influenced by Tillich and Niebuhr. These liberal theologians were also quite prophetic in criticizing the untouchable anointed of “conservative” evangelicalism, such as Niebuhr’s criticisms of Billy Graham.

    In a fallen world, I don’t think there will ever be a way to eliminate error on either side of the spectrum, and sometimes one side can be helpful in correcting error on the other. Both liberal and conservative are two flawed interpolations of truth, both with a degree of truthfulness, but both ultimately wrong just the same.

    But there is no greater heretic in the minds of both liberals and conservatives than a moderate.

    • “But there is no greater heretic in the minds of both liberals and conservatives than a moderate.”

      There’s some great insight right there! The drift toward the center is always seen as a slippery slope toward “the dark side.” (And rarely seen as a drift toward truth.)

      Personally, I’m disgusted with both liberal and conservative camps for how quickly they paint the other side as evil/wrong. I used to be conservative, am now quite moderate, err on the side of grace rather than the law, and probably am seen by my fellow church-goers as liberal. (I go to a Nazarene church….and am actually on the Board. Yes, God has a sense of humor.)

    • When war is declared, it is universal practice to shoot all the mediators.

      That’s why I have a nice rock I like to go under from time to time. 🙂

  12. Liberalism and Fundamentalism are flip sides of the same coin.

    • Why would you say that? Do you mean that they resemble one another, or that one is merely a reveral of the other, or what? This sounds like one of HUG’s bon mots.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Just as Objectivism was a full-intensity reaction to Communism — flipping one-eighty from Forced Collective Unselfishness to Forced Individual Selfishness while retaining the Revolutionary Zeal — so Fundamentalism was a full-intensity reaction to Liberalism. And where Liberalism gave us a Social Gospel without individual salvation, Fundamentalism went full-honk into a Gospel of Individual Salvation and Only Individual Salvation. And both camps’ True Believers went “Die, Heretic!” on the other.

        • Indeed, fundamentalism asserts orthodoxy and crusades on its behalf. It is not, however, the same thing as orthodoxy. Since it is reactionary and symbiotic to something else, it places special stress on particular points within orthodoxy at the expense of others. (And in fairness, all movements do to some degree.) It also has a unique posture, rhetoric, and internal dynamic, as well as an attachment to certain unique and new doctrines (premillennial dispensationalism, for example).

  13. I see others have beaten me to the punch, but I think Olsen’s comments can be applied equally to liberals and fundamentalists. For every headline, there is an explanatory paragraph that fits liberalism, and one that fits fundamentalism.

  14. I heard liberalism broadly defined as, or at least rooted in, the belief that human society is naturally progressing forward, to bigger and better things. Things are in the long run going to improve, basically.

    This would explain a lot of theological liberalism- that God’s world is not so much infected by sin as simply the victim of a few bad decisions that can be reversed by the will of Man. We need inspiring stories to make us feel warm and fuzzy, but no one can claim and religious objective truth, becuase in the end it’s up to us to be nice. Or something to that effect.

    • So Jesus may never have been resurrected, but Pelagius certainly has been!

    • Human society–hard to say. (Environmentalists don’t talk like this.) In terms of science and scholarship–hell yeah. We’ve sent robot craft to most of the solar system. How is this not progress?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        You can’t have Progress when you have Dispy Pre-Trib Pre-Mil. Because then Things Have To Get Worse & Worse Or We Can’t Have The Great Tribulation and The Antichrist and Christ Can’t Come.

        Interpreting everything in terms of ever-advancing progress was very Victorian. And the idea of Progress Progress Progress infiltrated everything. Darwin’s “Descent with Modification” became “Evolution” in the sense of linear upward progress (and was applied to just about everything), Eschatology was firmly Post-Mil, and things would always get better and better.

        “The Victorians thought History ended well — because it ended with the Victorians.” — G.K.Chesterton

        Then came World War One and the First Russian Revolution, and everything flipped one-eighty at full intensity. Like Communism begetting Objectivism, progress became pessimism. From optimistic Post-Mil to the most extreme pessimistic Pre-Mil — Pre-Trib Dispy.

      • I think it’s more of an overall moral progress, measured in equitable social structures. Like maybe, slavery is obviously going to be repudiated and done away with as man becomes more and more moral and socially equitable. Except, oh wait, there is more slavery now in the world than ever in history.

        • Exactly. For all our technology, scientific innovation and medicine, we still can’t manage to love one another and live in peace. We still can’t even bring ourselves to admit that the root of the problem is not ignorance in need of enlightenment, but our own blackened hearts that are terminally self-centered.

  15. Randy Thompson says

    Eight years ago, Philip Turner, the former Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, wrote an excellent piece on what he called the “working theology” of the Episcopal Church, which is to say the working theology of liberal Protestantism. In brief, that working theology is radical inclusivity, which, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s wonderful term, is an updated version of “cheap grace,” a “grace” that justifies sin but not the sinner, who doesn’t need justifying according to liberal protestants. Turner describes liberal Protestantism brilliantly:

    “This unofficial doctrine of radical inclusion, which is now the working theology of the Episcopal Church, plays out in two directions. In respect to God, it produces a quasi-deist theology that posits a benevolent God who favors love and justice as inclusion but acts neither to save us from our sins nor to raise us to new life after the pattern of Christ. In respect to human beings, it produces an ethic of tolerant affirmation that carries with it no call to conversion and radical holiness.”

    The whole article is excellent and well worth reading. Here’s a link to it:


    • It is quite good. Thanks Randy

    • “Radical inclusivism”–I like it. “Cheap grace”–not so much. Salvation is about love, not believing certain things.

      • Randy Thompson says

        Gerald, you may want to take a slow, thoughtful look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship,” truly a Christian classic. His distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace” is one that has stuck with me for most of my adult life. Grace is costly because it cost Christ his life. It’s costly for us because we encounter it, finally, at the cross of Christ, or not at all. And, when we encounter it there, it costs us our life too. A death for our death, a life for our life.

        Salvation is not cheap. If it is, it doesn’t mean much.r

      • Gerald,
        So you believe that salvation is about love not about believing certain things?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Love minus Believing Certain Things equals mushy sentimentality.

          Believing Certain Things minus Love equals Purity of Ideology.

          • Referring to the first line–very clever, but, I think, very wrong. An ideal does not have to be so inflexible and non-negotiable in order to inspire. Our understanding always has room to grow. This implies that we should hold our beliefs tentatively, and be open to revising them.

          • oooohhhh….I am SO borrowing this!!!


        • Yes, that’s fair. Note that I view “salvation” not in terms of avoidance of hell, but of the ideals and attitudes we adopt in this life. The theological emphasis on love is fairly common, if not standard, and not only among liberals. (Do I need to point out the biblical roots of this teaching?) In the gospels, Jesus’s main message seems to be more about that (the “Kingdom of God/ Heaven” theology) than about getting people to believe certain things about him (which he sometimes even keeps secret).

  16. I have come to view the modern religious landscape not so much in terms of conservative versus liberal, but rather as secular versus sacramental. The similarity between a liberal and a conservative, it seems to me, is that both view the material world in a modernist way. The liberal sees the material world as a neutral, self contained system of cause and effect and not in any way spiritual. The conservative may view the material world as being open to divine intervention, but sees a radical division between the material world in which we live and the spiritual world. Both of these are modern, secular worldviews. A sacramental worldview sees the material world as spiritual – as the Orthodox prayer states, Christ is “everywhere present, filling all things”.

    • Clay wrote, “A sacramental worldview sees the material world as spiritual – as the Orthodox prayer states, Christ is ‘everywhere present, filling all things.’ ”

      I like that, Clay. Thank youj.

    • It should noted that the quoted prayer is aimed at the Holy Spirit. (That’s why we don’t pray it between the leavetaking of Pascha and Pentecost.)

      That nitpicking aside, I agree with your sentiment!

    • But don’t people see things that way (for instance, as you said, “the material world as a neutral, self contained system of cause and effect and not in any way spiritual. ” I mean, that’s the way I’ve experienced my world. I have never experienced an encounter with the divine or with the sacred. At best, I have perceived such dimly and with great vagueness. Is it any wonder then, that I look to science and rationalism to explain the world that I inhabit? And to discount others’ tales of sacred encounters because I have never experienced such myself. Whereas, I can do experiments to validate Newton’s laws and other elements of rationalism.

      • The experience of self is of necessity the experience of something that transcends any “neutral, self contained system of cause and effect.” Science and rationalism will never be able to explain you or your experience of yourself; you cannot be reduced to cause and effect. And since you do not merely inhabit the world in a discrete bubble but are part of it, affecting and being affected by it, it is reasonable to say that the rest of the world is not a neutral, self contained system of cause and effect, either. It just looks that way and behaves that way in most cases. But that’s only because it is more regular and periodic than the self. The self is in fact the wildest and most indeterminate existent, far more complex and dynamic than even the most complex and dynamic astronomical phenomena, or subatomic phenomena. And the existence of the self points to God as its source.

        • Actually, a lot of science can explain me. I was conceived due to biology. I have had experiences that have been recorded in my brain using physical processes and I react and learn new materials due to those experiences as many social sciences would predict. I am part of a generation (Gen X), many of whom have had similar experiences and so we have similar predilections as would be predicted as well. In fact, as I look at the research done by psychomatricians I realize how much of my individuality isn’t individual at all (humbling that). And the self I don’t think necessarily points to a deity.

          • How is it that you can say that something as generic as Gen X, which after all is a more vague entity and descriptor than cermak_rd, can be part of an explanation for you? It’s more correct and logical to say that you, cermak_rd, are part of the explanation of the term Gen X. You’ve put the cart before the horse. If there is no individual, cermak_rd, along with many other individuals, then there can be no Gen X. And there certainly can’t be any generational distinctions, say between Gen X and Baby Boomers, if we can’t find distinctions between individuals first. Scientific method requires putting things and people in classes; but, however helpful these grouping may be for yielding certain kinds of helpful information, they are still imposed and partly artificial. “I was conceived due to biology.” You were conceived because two other selves engaged in certain acts that resulted in your conception. Biology did not conceive you. And you were the unique self who had the experiences that were remembered by your unique brain, which is an attribute of your self.

      • I think developing a sacramental worldview begins with believing that there is more to the material world than meets the eye. It’s not about “supernatural” experiences but about learning to see God in the ordinary. You mentioned Newtonian laws. More and more Newtonian physics is being shown wrong or inadequate to explain the basic reality of the material world. The more I learn of quantum physics, the more clear it is that reality truly is mysterious.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          The more I learn of quantum physics, the more clear it is that reality truly is mysterious.

          My old Dungeonmaster said back in the Nineties that “Physics slipped into Metaphysics some years ago, but nobody’ll admit to it.”

        • I’ve studied quantum physics and it is interesting but only relevant within the proper context (very small). Newton’s laws are still adequate for medium sized objects in a medium sized world (the world I personally interact with). They are certainly not wrong in that context! It’s simply a matter of matching the laws to the scale being interacted with. And any mystery in quantum physics is simply about not yet having the science to 100% understand it (unless you’re talking Heisenberg and that is just about using probability to understand where an electron is at any given point in time, which isn’t all that mysterious.)

    • Which liberals are we talking about here–Deists? New Agers?

    • “A sacramental worldview sees the material world as spiritual – as the Orthodox prayer states, Christ is “everywhere present, filling all things.””

      We DESPERATELY need to get ahold of this in the West. In evangelicalism.

    • “A sacramental worldview sees the material world as spiritual – as the Orthodox prayer states, Christ is “everywhere present, filling all things.””

      Sophia! (And seriously, this is a fair part of why I gravitated to Anglicanism: it has a sacramental vocabulary that would be totally out of place in my native Presbyterianism.)

  17. This is good for anyone wanting to know the proper use of the law (not to bang it over people’s heads as a tool to make them better):


  18. I am coming a little late into the discussion today. But, I have before argued that liberalism is–in some ways–the logical descendant of some approaches toward the Bible and Church History that come out of the Radical Reformation, and maybe Zwingli. I think that Luther tried very strongly to avoid the “epistemological” problems that he was faced with, but ultimately I think his stances taken to defend himself still left the doors open.

    Perhaps I can give a simple example. If you are convinced that the Church fell after Constantine, you put certain doctrines back into play. For instance, the Councils are called into question. At that point, is it surprising that within less than 400 years of the Reformation, you have people taking a purely secular analysis of the Councils and talking about Imperial politics and arguing that the results of the Council had more to do with the Emperor than with the Holy Spirit? This now begins to call into question the Trinity, the nature of Jesus, etc., just like one sees in liberalism.

    Now, if you think that the Church fell right after the apostles died, which some fundamentalists do, then you call into question even the Scriptures. After all, if the Apostles were so incapable of passing on the faith that their immediate successors got so many things so badly wrong, then how can we know that the Apostles themselves were really fully correct? After all, even the Gospels picture them as being somewhat incapable, right? Luther tried very hard to avoid this, and would quote the Church Fathers on a regular basis. However, not having direct access to Eastern Orthodox scholars, he was not able to mount as many arguments as he might have been able to.

    Can you begin to see why I think of Liberalism as the logical end result of various types of thought that were “supposed to” preserve the faith better than the previous centuries had done?

    • I actually agree with much of this–especially the point that liberalism is the logical outcome of any critical approach to church tradition. Of course, I embrace this outcome, where Fr. Ernesto, I gather, does not.

      That the Catholic and Orthodox churches were corrupt at the time of the Reformation–and remain corrupt to some extent today–is, I think, obvious. (Nor are they alone in their corruption, I hasten to add.) The question is whether they were, or are, irredeemably corrupt. Theologically, they both teach that “the Church” is pure and without sin, and that any corruption is due to human error. I find this distinction unhelpful. Too often, “Orthodoxy means never having to say you’re sorry.”

      Of course the Councils were products of imperial politics and so forth. It would be absurd to deny this dimension. The Orthodox want us to believe that Christianity should be defined according to the pronouncements of these councils (but why should we believe that?) and furthermore, according to a standardized list of seven. The conceit is that orthodoxy consists of that which is believed by Christians at all times, and in all places. If this were so, then on what basis are we to accept the Fourth Council (Chalcedon), which was obviously not accepted “in all places”? The Orthodox would have it that the Holy Spirit must have guided the victors, because how could God abandon his church? On the other hand, they do not reach the same conclusion about the Catholic / Orthodox split, which left the EO in the minority.

      It is natural to assume that God is on “our” side, and to use that as a basis for detailing where everyone else went wrong (at the moment they diverged from “us”). Most of us do this to some extent, and few more enthusiastically than the EO.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          And Holy Russia once more makes its appearance. The Russian Orthodox Church has a long history of being properly subordinate to whoever’s in the Kremlin; they bowed to the Tsars, they bowed to The Party, now they bow to The Putin (even to the point of acting as his Enforcers, just like they did with the Tsars).

          “Two Romes have fallen;
          A Third — Moscow — stands;
          Never shall there be a Fourth!”

          Urra, Tsar!

          • There is much about Orthodox theology that I admire. Unfortunately, it is difficult to separate that, from the political dimension, which of course varies from country to country. Russia is obviously one of the worst examples. It’s not like this in the diaspora, though I haven’t heard any Orthodox higher-ups criticize (let alone break relations with) their brethren over little things like coziness with the extreme right. (There was a division after the 1917 Revolution, though.) Greece is complicated–the Church is rich, and knows that it’s rich, and is mainly interested in protecting its wealth and privileges. This means giving lip-service to the protesters, and increasingly, alliance with a certain political party of right-wing thugs. Orthodox churches in the Middle East are usually run by Greeks, not Arabs.

          • Hmmmm….then maybe you might care to explain how it came to be that so many Orthodox in Russia were martyred in the 20th century alone (including one as recently as 1990).

      • Gerald, there is no way I could answer all your points, nor would I wish to. But, you do have some misconceptions. “Liberalism is the logical outcomes of any critical approach to church history.” I would accept the logical outcome of many critical approaches, but not of all. Just to step outside Orthodoxy a moment, look at the writings of many of the conservative English Anglicans who are rightly lauded for many of the fine critical works they have produced while taking stances not that far from Orthodoxy. And, many Orthodox, including myself, use various of the critical approaches, but reach different results as we do not use the same presuppositions.

        “They both teach that the Church is pure and without sin.” Well, just to make sure, I looked it up on a traditionalist Orthodox website, and even they say that the Church is not pure in her human aspect. They comment, “In Her human aspect, however, She struggles for perfection, since Her members are beset by the problems that afflict all of fallen humanity: conflict, discord, hostility, rivalry, ignorance, jealousy,
        a dearth of love, overweening pride, and so forth.”

        “Of course the Councils were products of Imperial politics.” I doubt I would convince you on this point, but I would at least point out how often we read of this or that bishop or this or that priest or deacon resisting the might of the Empire and holding on, even through exile, until the battle is eventually won. Because we live in the world, the Empire–and all human governments–certainly have both an influence and a part. It is the rather extravagant politically correct conclusion that the Councils were merely imperial politics that I would challenge.

        I could go on, but I do not wish to detract from Chaplain Mike’s post.

      • Gerald, I guess I’m having a hard time following you. When you ask “why should we believe that” (regarding the councils), I’ll put it back on you. What better method is there that the conciliar process that came of out Acts 15 I believe it is? At least with the councils, it was all of the known Christian world coming to consensus. Today, as an alternative, we have each Protestant church pretty much deciding what they want to believe and do. Regarding the fourth council, I guess all I can say is that if a splinter group walks away and decides not to accept the teaching of the council, what are the Orthodox to do? Just say, well that’s fine, we’re all good.

        I really don’t think it has much to do with majority or minority, or who the victors were. I think you’re moving the goalposts in this argument. Regarding the split of 1054, the Romans didn’t win in a council. Also at the fourth council, all of Christendom agreed that The Creed could only be changed by another ecumenical council. Yet, later on, the Romans changed it at a local synod. So they clearly went against what they had earlier agreed to. How is that winning???

        To compare the Copts from the 4th council and the Orthodox after the split, as you have done, is an apples to oranges comparison.

        But I must ask, if you’re not going to accept the councils, then I’ll ask, do you believe in the Trinity? Do you believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man? If so, on what basis do you believe that? The Bible does not speak of the Trinity.

  19. Randy Thompson says

    I’m currently reading Ross Douthout’s “Bad Religion.” I haven’t finished reading it yet, but what I’ve read so far has been excellent. The “bad religion” he speaks of refers to all of american Christianity, the liberal mainline, the evangelical world, and the Roman Catholic Church. He’s an op-ed columnist for the NY Times, and a Roman Catholic. I mention this here because his chapter on the virtual collapse of liberal Protestantism (starting in the 60’s) is superb and highly relevant to this conversation. The rest of the book (so far) is terrific too. (I’m now mid-way through the “health and wealth” chapter.)

    HINT: Maybe someone here should review this book (ah-hem, Chaplain Mike or Jeff D!)

    • That book sounds interesting, Randy. I just went online and asked for it through my interlibrary loan system. Thanks!

  20. I like in Olson’s article where he writes, “I find myself in broad agreement with some liberal Christians on some issues—especially over against fundamentalism. On the other hand, I agree with some fundamentalists more than with liberals on some issues.”

    That is me, too. I have read Olson’s online articles off and on for some years and find myself very often “aligned” with him. We definitely agree that it is not God’s plan to have horrific things happen to little children and he is open to allowing “open Theism” proponents to be under the Arminian umbrella. On 11-10-12 he wrote a long article about it called “Is Open Theism a Type of Arminianism” on his blog.

  21. For those who have time, here is a summary of C. S. Lewis’ view of the difference between the medieval (or classical) view of reality and modernity’s view of reality. This is germane since theological liberalism can be understood (at least partly) as an attempted marriage of Christianity with modernity.