22 January 2010

The Lie of "Liberal" Theology

A Reading Assignment
by Phil Johnson

iberal is such a benign-sounding term. The word itself means generous, open-handed, large-hearted, charitable. The synonyms commonly used to describe radical ideologies reverberate with positive overtones: "latitudinarian," "progressive," "forward-looking," "free-thinking." And the antonyms are all Scrooge-like words—"miserly," "bigoted," "narrow-minded," "reactionary."

Those semantic connotations disguise the true nature of liberal theology. When Christian doctrine is subjected to liberalizing influences, the inevitable result is a profoundly destructive drift that weakens churches, breeds skepticism, and quickly trades away the gospel for a differently-nuanced message. The long view of church history provides ample proof of that.

Church history? But all the liberal-minded Christians I know insist their ideas are fresh and constructive.

Yes, of course they do. Reading their blogs and books, you might get the impression they have discovered a point of view no one ever thought of before. Liberal thinkers always make that claim. But in the world of ideas there truly is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9)—certainly not liberalism.

The mind-set of postmodern neo-liberalism is as old as Rehoboam, who "abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him, and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him" (2 Chronicles 10:8). Many of the core tenets of post-enlightenment liberal religion would be familiar to any first-century Sadducee (Acts 23:8). And the strategy by which today's neo-liberals have gained so much influence among evangelicals is straight from the same play-book every false teacher, sower of tares, and wolf in sheep's clothing has used since the apostolic era.

Quasi-christian heretics and skeptics claiming to be people of faith are relentless in their efforts to creep into the household of faith unnoticed (Jude 4). After all, the most effective way to inject heterodox teachings into the church is secretly (2 Peter 2:1).

That is a vitally important point to keep in mind. Rank unbelievers and open antagonists who assault the church head on have never managed to do much damage to the cause of truth. (On the contrary, the church usually gains purity and power under the pressure of open persecution.) But the worst blows to the advancement of the gospel always come from people within the visible church—usually leaders and influential teachers.

They'll insist they believe in evangelical principles, but they won't actually preach the gospel without abridging or modifying it somehow. They're just trying to keep up to date, they assure us—even as they undermine the very foundations of faith.

That, of course, is the whole gist of liberal religion, and it is a thousand times more dangerous than open opposition to Christianity.

That's awfully harsh language. Is it really fair to suggest that liberal-minded Christian leaders in these postmodern times are bent on theological mischief? Many of them say they are committed evangelicals.

Again: of course they do. But it's a serious mistake to imagine that false teachers of any stripe would lay out their real agenda in plain terms. Scripture expressly warns us not to entertain such naive expectations (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The contemporary evangelical movement generally ignores (and in some cases openly spurns) such warnings. As a result the movement is in dire peril.

This month's 9Marks eJournal analyzes the subtleties and dangers of liberalism—especially the quasi-evangelical neo-liberalism currently vying for control of the evangelical movement. You must read this issue of the journal. Print it out, download it to your Kindle, or have someone read it to you.

Full disclosure: I wrote an article for the issue. Carl Trueman's article is short but potent. I also loved Jonathan Leeman's article. There are many such highlights—but the entire journal is must-read material. Take some time with it.

Phil's signature


James Scott Bell said...

Wow. I just downloaded the journal and scanned the contents. It really is packed. Every article seems apt. Thanks for the link!

JackW said...

May your joy be liberally spread today,
As you welcome to the world Miss Penny Mae!

Nash Equilibrium said...

In addition to what you are talking about here, Phil, I have also personally encountered strains of liberal theologians who legitimize their liberalism by claiming that it is just the opposite of new and fresh. That is, that it is old and authentic, representing how the Gospel was "supposed" to be before conservatism screwed it up. Exempli gratia: "The Secret Message of Jesus"

Now I am going to go download that article!

Robert said...

It kind of reminds me of 2 Timothy 3:5 where there are those who hold to a form of godliness, but deny its power. Basically, they think that the Word isn't enough and deny what Paul says in Romans 1:16, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes". He doesn't say that his interpretation of the gospel or some way he makes it suit the culture of his day, but the gospel itself, the Word of God, is sufficient to save and we just need to preach it in love. As Paul says, anybody who comes preaching another gospel is to be accursed. And when you get to the heart of it, people who do so are not showing real love to their audience. Instead he is appluading their efforts to run as fast as they can through the wide gate, which leads to destruction.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

The Lie of "Liberal" Theology

Indeed. Much Thanks for continually exposing the Serpent's hiss contained in the the Lie of "Liberal" theology.

A most appropriate post given that it's the anniversary of Roe v. Wade whereby there are numerous mainline liberal "Christians", numerous liberal evangelicals, and numerous liberal emergers who:

(A) Support abortion as in the choice of a woman. Or

(B) Become angry at the pro-life Christians for their prayerful activism in defense of unborn life.

Jim Pemberton said...

Absolutely. If you follow the flow of thought throughout history, the only refinement to the lie that has been made since Adam and Eve talked to that pesky serpent has been to its packaging. Today's liberalism is the same age-old smelly fish wrapped in today's newspapers.

olan strickland said...

Phil, I read your article - I'll read the others later - and man was it spot on! Everything you said about these truth compromisers is described in the Scriptures. And it all boils down to my word verification "autopr." That's the default position of those who hold to liberal theology.

Phil said...

Read em all, liked Phil's the best.

To me, the problem seems to be the fact that liberals don't read the Bible or the old thinkers, and don't care to. The idea of "social gospel" and "mission minded" seems to be the idea of recapturing Eden, by force if necessary.

After reading the journal I'm left with the impression that liberalism is breaking commandment 4 of 10 when they are saying "Take the tools and the cloak of God and let's take back paradise for ourselves, God has commanded us to help the poor."

Jmv7000 said...

Ah Benito Spinoza! How thankful we are that you give rise to modern liberal (historical-critical) methodologies! (tongue in cheek). Methods built on Enlightenment thinking seeking to undermine Scripture by making man arbiter of truth.

What Phil and these men speak of is exactly right on! Notice this quote from a "conservative" at a "conservative" school in Dallas (but we won't mention the name).

Darrell Bock validates the methods and the search, “using the rules historical Jesus scholars use, while understanding that the bar is being raised to a level of significant demonstration.” In context, Bock validates using the method to search for the historical Jesus. “The results of historical Jesus study, using the criteria of authenticity . . . are likely to be varied and will only give us, at best, access to the gist of Jesus . . . It is unlikely to give us a full and completely rounded off understanding.”

This is taken from a book that intends to find the historical Jesus (a quest that can only exist with solid liberal foundations); page 252-53

Nash Equilibrium said...

Well come on now, being true to the Gospels is one thing, but one doesn't dare say anything that might disqualify them from being chosen as "America's Best Theologian" by Time magazine!

Jmv7000 said...

William Baird in his 2 Volume "History of New Testament Research" indicates that if not for Historical-critical (liberal) ideologies, we would all sit around today and recognize Paul as authoring Hebrews!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Consumed with the writings/opinions/works of man and disregard of God's Word - yep, that's really new.

John said...

Could we have the Rob Bell clown-nose graphic again, please?

alan_s said...

Leeman states, "The big gospel is the gospel which address the big problem a big God has with sinful human beings. Say that our big problem is something which humans experience and you will eventually end up with a different gospel, no matter what else you say about God."

I feel he accurately distills the problems of missional thinking in this article - very helpful.

I'll soon be getting his new book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love, as a result of a Challies Friday giveaway. Have you read, yet?

wordsmith said...

Sad to hear about IV, but then again it's not surprising. They've been drifting for a number of years now. Even as a college student a few decades ago (!), emphasis on doctrine and building up young believers in the faith generally took a back seat to socialization and fellowship. It distresses me to discover that not a few of my IV cohorts have abandoned the faith altogether, whether it be manifested as rank apostasy, paganism, or perversion. Unfortunately, I fear that they mirror evangelicalism as a whole.

Liberalism is like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers": it produces "Christians" that look more or less normal, until you scratch the surface and see all the wicked, soul-damning stuff that comes out.

Rob Bailey said...

In the editor's note he uses the term anemic. While that is correct, the anemia is due to anorexia, or even bulimia. We are supposed to to be feeding on the Word. We have a spiritual eating disorder.

Caleb Kolstad said...

Carl Trueman's article is VERY good. I enjoyed yours too Dr Phil. :)

Anonymous said...

This guy thinks you're being divisive. pfff... http://www.holidayatthesea.com/?p=2241

JPG said...

Excellent link and great articles ... many great articles. One excellent point that really stood out to me in Phil's article was "Multitudes of children raised on a treacly diet of seekersensitive
religion have grown up to associate the label evangelical with superficiality." Thanks again for the link and another great resource for information.

~Mark said...

I hope no one minds if I add a quote from a certain political talk show host that bears true across the divide into theology:

"Liberalism always accomplishes the exact opposite of it's stated intent."

Daniel C said...


excellent article! The other contributors likewise, even Carl Trueman's.

CGrim said...

One thing I've never understood: the proverbial sower of tares. What's his motivation for ruining a perfectly decent crop?

I guess the real question is, what is Satan's motivation for pushing misery and deception, sin and corruption? Is it simply a juvenile desire to tarnish something precious to God?

myinnuendo99 said...

to me "liberal Christian" is an oxymoron. It is an affront to the Only freedom that is found in Christ. No one can set us free but Jesus.
Liberalism is an attempt by man to bring what is called pseudo freedom. If Jesus has not washed our sins away then there is no freedom. Liberalism to me is humanism dressed in Sheeps clothing.