What We Mean When We Talk About “Liberal Theologians”

Did you know the most common fear among all people is the fear of being misunderstood? In terms of the worst fears, that is the fears that are ranked most intense, public speaking and death hold the top two spots. Ironically, as Jerry Seinfeld pointed out, in that order, public speaking and then death. Thus to quote Seinfeld, more people at a given funeral would prefer to be in the coffin rather than giving the eulogy. But those are the most intense fears. The fear that is most commonly held is the fear of being misunderstood. I tend to think that fear is in relation to identity, but as a theologian I am keenly aware of the need for understanding in discussing the topics of God, humanity, and salvation. Thus I hold to two maxims in communicating theology:

  1. Theology is as good as it is biblical. That is, the closer we are to communicating the words, thoughts, and ideas of the Bible the better. The further we get from that the more skeptical and hesitant I am.
  2. Theology is only as good as it is clear. That is the best theology in the world means little if the theologian is unable to coherently and concretely expound it to others.

I believe these two maxims are why authors like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and John Stott are so widely read and loved. They are imminently biblical and amazingly accessible.

I write all of that in order to apologize and clarify something important. I can often, as so many seminarians and academic theologians can, lapse into theological lingo that I learned from thick books filled with German words in tiny print. I do this because, in many cases, the terms and phrases act as a helpful short hand to express a complex idea that I don’t have time to articulate in the 2000 word maximum I set for myself. But, again, these terms and my theology is as good as it is accessible to the audience it is written for, and since this is posted in the magical and mysterious land we call “the internet” I should seek more clarity. So here goes, what do we (theologians) mean when we talk about…

Liberal Theology/Theologians

This is a huge topic and it requires some admitted over simplification. But here is as close to the cliff notes version as I can in good conscience give.

If you took a modern philosophy class in college you probably came across the names Immanuel Kant, G.W.H. Hegel, and Søren Kierkegaard (the ‘d’ is silent FYI). Each of these philosophers came from a Christian, specifically Lutheran, background. Kant and Hegel were two of the biggest influences of the German enlightenment and what would be called modern philosophy (which is usually dated from Rene Descartes on). Both would claim to be Christians throughout their lives, but in their writings they departed significantly from the Christian faith in some meaningful ways. It is probably best to consider them to be deists. Kierkegaard followed closely in their stream of philosophical thought, but clung vigorously to his Christian faith. In fact, some of Kierkegaard’s writings seem deeply pastoral and have helpfully informed some of my theology of sin and human nature. This tension in Kierkegaard forced him to make a division in his mind between the rational (following Kant and Hegel’s philosophical thought) and the existential (following his Christian belief and experience of God). As such Kierkegaard unwittingly became the father of existentialism. This bifurcation of thought led logically to the position that the Christian faith was irrational, something I have a difficult time believe Kierkegaard thought given the nature of some of his theological/religious essays. Anyhow the damage was done.

From Francis Schaeffer's work The God Who Is There.
From Francis Schaeffer’s work The God Who Is There.

At this time theology and philosophy were heavily intertwined, and as the traditions of Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard developed there was a growing trend of skepticism toward the Church’s source of authority, The Bible. Philosophers and theologians wanted to maintain belief in Christianity, but they struggled with reading the narrative account of the Old and New Testament while maintaining their now modernist worldview. In one sense the struggle of what would become known as protestant liberalism can be summed up in the words of German theologian Rudolph Bultmann, who quipped “It is impossible to use electrical light and the wireless (read: radio) and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” Bultmann’s own struggle between modernism and Christianity led him to the process of demythologization. That is, Bultmann read the gospels and sought to reinterpret  what the primitive and humble fishermen mistook for miracles. If you want a modern concept of this watch Hercules starring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. In that film, the director, Brett Ratner, removes all the mythical creatures—demonic hounds, centaurs, and the hydra—that Hercules encounters in the old stories by demythologizing them as tricks, the influence of drugs, and poor perception. The important thing to know about Bultmann and his peers was that they carried out their projects with a desire to save the reputation of the Church and the Bible. They didn’t want to get rid of the Bible, but rescue it from the embarrassing secular sin of being antiquated—being on the wrong side of history. Unfortunately, as defender of traditional Christianity, J. Gresham Machen would write,

It may well be questioned, however, whether this method of defense will really prove to be efficacious; for after the apologist has abandoned his outer defenses to the enemy and withdrawn into some inner citadel, he will probably discover that the enemy pursues him even there. Modern materialism, especially in the realm of psychology, is not content with occupying the lower quarters of the Christian city, but pushes its way into all the higher reaches of life… [I]t may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to be long in a distinct category. It may appear further that the fears of the modern man as to Christianity were entirely ungrounded, and that in abandoning the embattled walls of the city of God he has fled in needless panic into the open plains of a vague natural religion only to fall an easy victim to the enemy who ever lies in ambush there. (Christianity and Liberalism, 5)

What we see is that the movement called by the names “Liberalism” or “Protestant Liberalism” sought a form of theological appeasement to the modernist worldview (placing ultimate authority in reason and science). Much like the allied powers surrendering Poland to Hitler in hopes that no more aggression and encroachment would take place, sectors of the Church gave up on that which was at odds with the current scientific consensus (no more virgin birth, miraculous life, or resurrection of Christ). These theological Neville Chamberlains capitulated to the point of losing all the central truths of Christianity. The damage is so great that there is no meaningful way in which Protestant Liberalism is Christian.

Why So Serious?

I typed “Bush w/” into Google and this was the first hit.
I am not sure if this is a real Time cover FYI.
I am not sure if this is a real Time cover FYI.

In the words of the late-Heath Ledger as the sociopathic Joker, “Why so serious?” Why is protestant liberalism such a big deal for conservative evangelicals and why is it such a damaging accusation to apply? For conservative evangelicals, that is Christians who hold to traditional church teachings about Jesus, the Bible, and Salvation, especially as it is articulated in the works of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, to declare something liberal is comparable to affixing a Hitler mustache to a headshot of a modern political figure. It is the biggest charge that can be made.

analytic-theology-new-essays-in-the-philosophy-of-theology-200x300 UnknownBest I can figure, in respect of both Hitler and Protestant Liberalism, the general idea is that a deep betrayal has taken place with irreparable consequences. Hitler betrayed humanity at large and Protestant Liberals betrayed the Church. When the accusation of liberalism is thrown out, the implication is that the accused or his work is sub-Christian or nominally Christian. The real substance or content of what ever is in question is antithetical to the Gospel as understood and passed down by Jesus and the apostles. The term atheist cannot apply to works of liberalism because they often either don’t deny God or couch their rejection of the supernatural in Christian language. An example of the latter might be the mother of modern feminist theology (defined later) Sallie McFague, who wrote in the introduction to her 1988 book, Models of God, “Theology is mostly fiction.” McFague, by her own admission, is engaging in theology disconnected from reality. She engages in the discussion about God with no real belief in God. McFague’s project is called out for what it really is in Randal Rauser’s essay “Theology as a Bull Session” found in Oliver Crisp and Micahel Rae’s text Analytic Theology. 


I wanted to write this post not simply because it is about an interesting and troubling theological movement from fairly recent church history. I wanted to write this post to clarify the term “theological liberalism” because of it has an enduring legacy in several contemporary church movements, among which are the following:

  • Feminist Theology – Feminist theology has moderate and extreme adherents. Among the moderate adherents would be the group classified as Evangelical Feminists (think Rachel Held Evans and Alan Padgett). There connection to Liberalism comes into play in their interpretation of particular passages. Like the liberal theologian who denies the reality of miracles when the Bible clearly states that one was preformed, the Evangelical Feminist denies the meaning of straight-forward assertions in the Bible. I would not go so far as to say that an Evangelical Feminist denies the inerrancy of scripture or is a liberal theologian, but I have no problem with pointing out how they barrow from the liberal hermeneutic. On the extreme end, you find those that argue that the Catholic church sought to silence the testimony of women who were active in Jesus’s ministry, thus creating an all male hierarchy. Karen King (whose work influenced Dan Brown’s Di Vinci Code) and Sallie McFague fall into this camp. These feminist theologians often deny the veracity and historicity of the Bible, specifically the gospels, and often pit Paul and Jesus against each other.
  • Liberation Theology – Most clearly demonstrated recently in the current Pope, Francis, Liberation Theology declares that the work of Christ had the primary goal of freeing the marginalized and oppressed from the grips of tyranny and sinful systems. Liberation Theology barrows from Liberal Theology by their metaphorical interpretation of scripture (Satan, sin, and death become tyrants, systems, and injustice) to turn existential and spiritual realities into mere physical manifestations. The allure of Liberation Theology, as seen in Pope Francis, is that they are often on the forefront of obeying Jesus’s commands to live radically and to sacrifice for “the least of these”. They undoubtably do good work, but they mistake it for Kingdom work (making disciples). Furthermore, they often overlook unrepentant sin (premarital or extramarital sex, homosexual activity, pride, drug use) believing that the real issue is civil injustice. In terms of theological articulation, the Boff brothers book Liberation Theology is the best place to look.
  • Vatican II Catholicism – From 1962-1965, the Roman Catholic Church met to discuss and define new directions of doctrine and belief in relation to the evolving modern world. The result was the document informal called Vatican II. Among the major doctrinal changes was the inclusion of the doctrine called inclusivism (the belief that there are accidental disciples of Christ, think of Emeth from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, of whom Aslan says, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”). The counsel, which is viewed critically by conservative Catholics (journalist Ross Douthat and theologian Peter Kreeft for example), in the end was another attempt at doctrinal capitulation, similar to the recent change on Vatican position of divorcees taking the eucharist.
  • Emergent Church Movement – The Emergent Church represented the clearest re-articulation of Liberalism in recent memory. With a few new twists former pastors Brian McLaren and Rob Bell both adopted a liberal posture in their rejection of the doctrine of Hell and affirmation of same-sex marriage. Bell, seemed lockstep with the motivation of Liberals like Bultmann, explicitly using language of traditional Christian sexual ethics and doctrine being antiquated and irrelevant. McLaren, who has since fallen off the map of Christian news, released a book in 2010 titled A New Kind of Christianity which was an amalgam of Protestant Liberalism and faux-scholarship. In fact, one of the major differences between classic Protestant Liberalism and the Emergent Movement is the intellectual prowess of the original liberals: Adolf Von Harnack, Friedrick Schliermacher, Bultmann, and the rest may have been wrong, but at least they were brilliant in their error. The same cannot be said for McLaren and Bell.
  • The Jesus Seminar – Now passé, the Jesus Seminar made waves under the leadership of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Their project to determine which parts of the gospel narratives were historical and which were myth is pulled right from the playbook of Bultmann. Unfortunately for the Jesus Seminar, their historical method failed every major test of quality (for example they gave equal weight to the Gospel of Thomas as to the four canonical gospels in spite of a generous dating placing Thomas in 175 AD, a full century after the latest canonical gospel). Crossan and Co. were criticized by evangelicals such as Michael J. Wilkins and J.P Moreland—who co-edited Jesus Under Fire a rebuttal of the Jesus Seminar—and secular historians as well.

I have exceeded my word count and must wrap this post up, but I wanted to make a final observation. You will notice that the twin themes of the legacy of Theological Liberalism are a mistrust of the Bible to say what it means and mean what it says, and an attraction to the cultural way of doing things. Skepticism and capitulation are the key marks of liberalism.

Thanks for reading,



3 thoughts on “What We Mean When We Talk About “Liberal Theologians”

  1. Given the scope of all you’ve written about here, this may seem nitpicky, but given the sensitivity of the issue these days, I’ll comment. You referred to ‘homosexuality’ as something that may be considered unrepentant sin. But isn’t what the Bible proscribes not homosexuality itself, but homosexual activity? As far as I can see, the Bible never refers any such thing as “orientation,” but does comment on which sort of activity is out of grounds (namely, any sexual activity that’s not within the constraint of monogamous, heterosexual marriage).

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