25 January 2010

A Thumbnail History of Theological Liberalism

The Lie of "Liberal" Theology, Part 2
by Phil Johnson

ersons beset with the spirit of liberal religion invariably try to present themselves as cutting-edge visionaries. But liberalism is neither fresh nor progressive. Look at almost any era of church history and you will find the liberal spirit alive and well in some form or another. Even during Jesus' earthly ministry, He had to contend with the Sadducees, who denied virtually everything in the supernatural realm, including the existence of angels, the immortality of the human soul, and (of course) the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:8). Some degree of Sadducean-style skepticism is a key element in all liberal religion.

Throughout the history of the church, practically every time there has been a major advance in clarity and understanding that brings some key gospel truth into clear focus, almost immediately some liberalizing tendency seeks to nullify the gain.

In the eleventh century, for example, Anselm of Canterbury untangled a millennium of confusion about the atonement in his landmark book Cur Deus Homo. Anselm demonstrated from Scripture that Christ's death was an offering to God—a full satisfaction rendered by Christ to God—rather than a payment to appease Satan or an act of martyrdom at the hands of wicked men. Anselm's work highlighted the simple but crucial truths that the atonement was the central reason God became a man, and that redemption is a gracious work of Christ to be received by faith alone. But no sooner had the truth of divine grace begun to regain its rightful place at the center of the gospel than Peter Abelard rose up and denied that Christ's death was any kind of payment or substitution at all. In Abelard's view, the cross was merely a radical example of self-sacrificial love, designed to win men's hearts and give them a pattern to follow. Abelard's explanation of the atonement (a classic expression of liberal thinking) thus made the work of redemption something the sinner must do for himself by mimicking Christ.

Nevertheless, Anselm's work paved the way for the Protestant Reformation 500 years later. But even the Reformation was immediately answered with a new liberalizing tendency, Socinianism. Named for Laelius Socinus (an inveterate skeptic who nevertheless retained a form of religion), Socinianism was a typically misguided liberal attempt to retain the moral essence of Christ's teaching while rejecting virtually every orthodox doctrine and supernatural element of the Christian faith, beginning with the authority of Scripture.

Socinianism was followed by a string of similar liberal movements. Most of them appeared in reaction to various revivals and expansions of gospel preaching. The Great Awakening in colonial America was followed by the rise of deism. The Second Great Awakening was severely marred by an upsurge of moralistic free-will theology and perfectionist dogmas. That in turn was exacerbated by a major movement toward Unitarianism in the early nineteenth century. Meanwhile, in Germany, Friedrich Schleiermacher was blending Enlightenment philosophies with Christian moral teachings, using higher criticism to justify skepticism about the Bible's supernatural claims. While evangelicalism was flourishing in churches and reaching out to homesteaders and pioneers on the American frontier, Schleiermacher was discovering ways to make liberal and Socinian concepts sound sophisticated for the academic community.

Sweeping grassroots evangelical revivals occurred in both England and America in the 1850s, and almost immediately a new backlash came: modernism began to invade churches.

Modernism managed to smuggle practically every classic expression of theological liberalism into evangelical circles under the guise of staying abreast of the times. A tsunami of ideas borrowed directly from Socinianism and its offspring overwhelmed the mainstream denominations and many schools of theology. Virtually every significant evangelical institution that embraced any degree of modernism soon abandoned evangelical principles. And practically all of them became empty shells of what they once were.

The legacy of such movements is clear—or it ought to be. No good has ever come from the liberalizing tendency. It is rooted in a way of thinking that is hostile to the authority of Scripture; it inevitably corrupts the simplicity of the gospel of grace; and it fosters skepticism and (in the worst cases) rank unbelief.

Don't forget to read this month's 9Marks eJournal

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28 comments:

Robert said...

If people are not relying upon the authority of Scripture for guidance, then they are following their hearts/minds. "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it? 'I, the LORD, serach the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.'" (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Man is trusting in the most deceitful thing that he can when he follows his heart and mind instead of Scripture. The liberal "theologians" have no fear of the Lord, but they are surely full of the fear of man; for it seems that all that they put forth are ways to satisfies man's desires and not offend people (at the cost of offending God).

mail said...

That German theologian was named Schleiermacher, not Schliermacher - by any means, if you want to really understand a theologian you could start by spelling him correctly ... ;-)

Phil Johnson said...

A thousand apologies to German higher critics everywhere. I've corrected it now. Thanks.

Jon from Bucksport said...

"No good has ever come from the liberalizing tendency."
Dear sir: I believe understand what you are saying by this but I wonder if some might see something else. I inhabit a place where liberalizing tendencies might be thought to include translations of the Bible that don't use a lot of thee's and thou's or the wearing of clothing that was not worn 100 years ago. So how do we separate bad liberalizing tendencies from good ideas about keeping up to date in a way that is not worldly?

mail said...

@Phil:

You're welcome!

Solus-Christus said...

At the time, Anselm was a "liberalising theologian"...

Phil Johnson said...

Jon from Bucksport: "So how do we separate bad liberalizing tendencies from good ideas about keeping up to date in a way that is not worldly?"

That's exactly the right question to ask.

There's a legitimate reason Protestant liturgy isn't in Latin and we encourage the translation of Scripture into the vernacular. The right answer to liberalism isn't the canonization of every ancient tradition. I have no problem with updating translations insofar as the goal is to purge thees and thous and other archaisms. The goal there, of course, is to communicate more clearly.

What I decry is the tendency to use that sort of legitimate translation as an excuse to "update" the values and substance of NT doctrine, so that in addition to eliminating archaic words and expressions, we also purge the Bible of gender distinctions, or tone down truths deemed "harsh" or politically incorrect in the framework of our generation's worldly values.

In other words, what troubles me are not legitimate efforts to stay abreast of changing language and technology, but (as I said) efforts to smuggle in different doctrines and even a measure of skepticism "under the guise of staying abreast of the times."

Knowing the difference requires us to cultivate understanding and discernment.

Phil Johnson said...

Solus Christus: "Anselm was a 'liberalising theologian'"

No, he wasn't. He fought for reform, not liberalization. Although liberals love to confound the two principles, they're generally pretty easy to distinguish. Abelard, not Anselm, embodied the liberal spirit in that era.

donsands said...

I love to hear about the History of the kingdom. Thanks for the short and sweet lesson.

"..almost immediately some liberalizing tendency seeks to nullify the gain."

We wrestle with devils. Screwtape and Wormwood aren't going away.

The thing that is most difficult for me is when a liberal, say like Brian McLaren, will say he isn't, and that he loves Jesus, and is in fact a Christian.

And so, most lay persons don't want to judge him. "Thou shalt not judge."

It's very unpopular to challenge the liberals in our day.

Thanks for standing.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

PJ: "The legacy of such movements is clear—or it ought to be. No good has ever come from the liberalizing tendency. It is rooted in a way of thinking that is hostile to the authority of Scripture; it inevitably corrupts the simplicity of the gospel of grace; and it fosters skepticism and (in the worst cases) rank unbelief."

I agree. As someone who's gotten in the trenches against errantists and higher-critics, I know that a vocal number of them will vociferously argue that maintaining that the Bible is errant and that higher-criticism scholarship does NOT undermine the Authority of Scripture.

I've argued to no avail.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I agree. As someone who's gotten in the trenches against errantists and higher-critics, I know that a number of them will vociferously deny that their arguing for an errant Bible (via usage of the many varieties of higher-criticism scholarship) does NOT undermine the Authority of Scripture.

I've argued against them to no avail.

Jmv7000 said...

Phil, you may find this interesting. This is from Eddy and Boyd, two men who seem to be liberal, in "The Jesus Legend," say,

“The most honest and insightful New Testament practitioners of the historical-critical method have always recognized that the method itself was never merely a tool for the doing of objective historiography. Rather, it was also – from the beginning – a ‘weapon of liberation’ from ecclesial bondage.”

olan strickland said...

Isn't it interesting that the liberal theologians have not, will not, and do not suffer with Christ for standing in the truth! But they sure do cause a lot of suffering for those who do.

Solameanie said...

Mail,

I like how we handle spellings in broadcasting. Phonetically. For example, "Schleer-mocker."

Unless you're doing the German pronunciation, which means you have to sound like you're clearing your throat in the second syllable. Not quite sure how you'd phonetically spell a throat clear.

Phil,

Great post. Helps to clarify even further where some of the Emergents have been going with their general disdain for the substitutionary atonement.

DJP said...

Persons beset with the spirit of liberal religion invariably try to present themselves as cutting-edge visionaries. But liberalism is neither fresh nor progressive.

Gold.

I remember vividly the first mention I ever saw of the then-nascent emerg*** movement. IIRC it was in the LA Times, and it was long ago.

The introduction actually raised my hope that this was a fresh approach to Biblically "doing church."

I remember the feeling of dashed hopes the moment the writer started getting into what there was of substance.

"Nothing new about that," I thought. "That's just old hackneyed liberalism, like Machen already staked, re-warmed."

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Olan Strickland: "Isn't it interesting that the liberal theologians have not, will not, and do not suffer with Christ for standing in the truth!"

Well, actually there are liberal Protestants (be they mainliners, evangelicals, or Emergers) who believe that they suffer (or are persecuted) at the hands of conservative theologians whom they portray and perceive as legalists or as Pharisees or as rigid fundamentalists or as heresy hunters or as....

Aaron Snell said...

Phil,

Just wondering if you could work some thoughts on neo-orthodoxy into this series.

Tim said...

Francis Schaeffer said that liberal theology is only Humanism using theological terms, and since Humanism puts man at the center instead of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, it's arguments collapse in on itself.

Coram Deo said...

Tim said...
Francis Schaeffer said that liberal theology is only Humanism using theological terms, and since Humanism puts man at the center instead of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, it's arguments collapse in on itself.

6:04 PM, January 25, 2010


Bingo!

I think Schaffer nailed it in that quote, Tim.

Phil,

How much of liberalism's gross error can be traced back to an unfaithful hermeneutic?

It seems to me that the theological liberal begins with man (humanism) and reads into the text (eisegesis) his secular-humanist presuppositions (or "preunderstandings" as some exegetes might say) treating the God-breathed (theopneustos) scriptures as though they were just another run-of-the-mill piece of literature.

Garbage in, garbage out, right?

In Christ,
CD

philness said...

To the regenerate ear liberalism is like an out of tune note against a perfect pitched note. It is a most horrid series of audible waves clashing in complete and unmistakable total wrongness, screaming of a prompt correction or to be stopped at once. No other sound on the planet is like it, for it is the very basic God given, elementary universal default standard for- don't!, no!, stop!, run away!, keep running!!!

A note uncontrolled of pitch in concert with other notes goes easily detected by all that something's amiss. Initially from exactly where or whom is uncertain as all eyes pop dangerously away from their music up to the conductor with hopes he/she will soon find before total distraction and the train wreck ensues.

A note gone too sharp or too flat will morph into a completely different note by just even half on the scale and will smother all harmonies away.

The itching ear wasn't orchestrated to hear, it was made to forewarn and soon disappear.

David said...

Reading the main point of the atonement in Anselm's Cur Deus Homo took me to a scene from LWW: Aslan's response to the Witch's "Aslan, you have a traitor in your midst" was this:

"His offense was not against you."

wamalo said...

For biblically literate Christians noting liberal tenets is not a stretch as Philness so adequately articulated with his music analogy.

Speaking about music, I have noticed that often, even though the Word is preached faithfully in many churches, the latest batch of so called worship songs is.. what's the word? Insipid. And they generally lean towards the very liberal trends Phil has addressed, cleverly wrapped in melodies that tug at the heartstrings and evoke an emotional response which more often than not substitutes for truly 'being moved by the Spirit' to worship. At times I can't even bring myself to sing along. After a set of songs that essentially made the points that Jesus died so we could (1) be together and (2) live forever, I leaned over to my wife and stated something similar to, "Christ's death was an offering to God—a full satisfaction rendered by Christ to God."

The liberalization of Christian music and art has led to insipid mediocrity, flash in the pans than mimic the secular top 40 hit parade. Here today, gone tomorrow. But more scary than that, it has flung open yet another doorway to entrench these dangerous liberal agendas, even in pretty grounded churches.

Jmv7000 said...

Liberal theology ultimately stems from our desire to suppress the truth. Man's reason replaces Scripture. Man become arbiter of truth, God's Word cannot be accounted for so it is written off as myth.

wamalo, the music doesn't make a person liberal. "Liberal" music just indicates where the person's heart is spiritually.

wamalo said...

Jmv7000. I do agree with you, however, my point wasn't that liberal music/words makes one liberal. I fully get the 'out of the heart' reference.

My point was that liberalism has many masks and even in biblically solid churches elements of liberalism creep in somewhat unnoticed under different disguises. (Our Pastor is a gifted teacher who doesn't mince words when it comes to expositional preaching. He unashamedly and clearly preaches the gospel.)

For a few years I served on a Creative Arts Team and eventually left because of the foothold unorthodox elements got, all in the name of art. What started as a genuine desire to use the arts to lead people into worship ended up being about the art, and hence 'Self' itself. Maybe I am over-sensitive because of lessons learned, but where I am now, I do long for theologically rich hymns and songs and not the latest 'christian' fare with groovy tunes and skim-milky lyrics. But the preaching is solid, pity about the Word/Worship imbalance.

donsands said...

"..the latest batch of so called worship songs is.. what's the word? Insipid."

Ain't that the truth.

I never connected the pop-culture Chritian musci on the airwaves with liberalism, but it does fit somewhat. It also fits with Conservative humanism, whoch is just as wrong as liberal humanism. A thought I learned from Francis Schaeffer as well.

John said...

@Corum Deo

Exactly. I would add that the liberal hermeneutic doesn't even do justice to the Bible as non fiction. If one only applies Adler's reading method to the Bible, one will come away with orthodoxy. So in my mind liberal (especially post-modern) hermeneutics are not only inadequate, they are basically rude - and presume the Bible to be fiction from the outset. How's that for petitio principii?

SamWise said...

I found and read Anselm's Cur Deus Homo and here is the key passage:

“If only God can make this satisfaction and only a man ought to make it: it is necessary that a God-man make it.”

Forever grateful for this Phil!

Schaeffer called the modernist approach the "existential methodology."

So many Christians practice this unwittingly when they offer arguments like the following, "The only things that I know to be true are the things I know to be true." However, truth stands whether or not I understand, believe, or even perceive of its existence!

Only scripture can bind our conscious and as the WC (Book I:IV) says so eloquently, "The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God."

In the Lamb,

SamWise said...

Phil's remarks about the translations changing to Theological or Philosophical bents is best seen in what I call the vetrolquist "Voice" by Mclaren. This "version" is a complete Emergent rewrite of scripture on par with the JW New World Translation (remember "a god" in John 1:1).

I've made a parody at http://post-emergence.blogspot.com/2010/01/voice-john-15.html

In the Lamb,