What is liberal theology?

I don’t find a lot of my tribe out on the wilds of the Christian blogosphere.

I was a fairly nice, fairly typical Midwestern middle-class American with no particular religion. I was neither spiritual nor religious. Then I started responding to the tug of grace. I read Joseph Campbell’s books and eventually John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg. I grew more and more comfortable attending and taking part in the life of a theologically liberal United Methodist Church.

Then a preacher who took the claims of Christianity a bit more literally than the others I’d encountered came along. He was not at that church long. I don’t think the people of my church cared for how seriously he took it all. When he left I heard little sorrow. But he laid some bread crumbs for me. He and a little book by Will Willimon got me to the baptismal font. I met Jesus there on my knees and received grace and faith that broke the grip of fear and death.

Not too long after that, I left Borg and Spong behind and started reading more traditionally orthodox writers, including John Wesley. I learned to love singing “And Can It Be” and “Depth of Mercy” and “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

I don’t meet a lot of people who have made this same journey.

Mostly, I encounter bloggers who either were cradle Christians or walked the opposite path that I have. They started in conservative or fundamentalist churches and moved toward Marcus Borg, even if they stopped well short of him.

All this is by way of encouraging you to take a look at an interesting post by Roger Olson about what constitutes liberal theology in Christianity and why he would stop calling himself a Christian if he ever became convinced of the truths of theological liberalism.

You may not agree with his six points that help him discern liberal theology, but it might provoke some interesting thoughts. As always, the comments thread on his blog is active and energetic.

16 thoughts on “What is liberal theology?

  1. I actually shared that on my facebook page. I think I’m pretty much in tune with his six non-negotiables. It’s funny because I forget that there are people out there for whom they are negotiable. I would never go along with a Christianity in which we’re saying miracles didn’t happen because that’s “unscientific.” I can’t go along with a Christianity in which Jesus’ cross isn’t a sacrifice but just a murder or the resurrection is just a “spiritual” movement and not a bodily return by Jesus to this planet. I just want for the canonical orthodoxy that we’re anchored in to be presented as beautifully and evangelistically as possible. So I want to turn over every stumbling block and ask things like: Is there a different way to say this? Is there a reason this is a sacred cow other than God’s will? I kind of feel like we’re in a boat and I’m jumping off into the water with a rope around my ankles and when I’m gone for too long, I need people to yank on the rope and pull me back in.

  2. John,
    I looked at the piece you referred to but it probably doesn’t affect what I was going to say in this comment.

    I am what you called a cradle Christian, having been baptized as a 3-month old infant and raised with the idea that when I was old enough I had to be in Sunday School. And when I was old enough (13) I choose the path I wanted to walk, the path that lead to my earning the God and Country award in 1965.

    Now I consider myself a liberal Christian but I also don’t see how you can be anything but a liberal if you say that you are a Christian. I am not going to get into a theological discussion on this point if for no other reason than I have not taken much theology in my time. But in a piece that I will post this weekend (http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/removing-the-veil/) I will talk/write about the process of thinking and how it applies to being a Christian.

    It is entirely possible that I was more of a liberal theologian when I began my exploration of faith but I also know that I was a Christian in word, thought and deed as well. While some may say that those two viewpoints ultimately diverge, I see them converging and it is that convergence that provides me with the basis for my faith and hope in the future.

    What I fear is that too many individuals say that they are Christian but offer views that are totally in opposite to what Christ did in his ministry. There are those who quote Paul in terms of the role of women in the church but who ignore what Paul wrote when he began writing letters and also the suggestion that Paul didn’t necessarily write the last few letters.

    I did read Spong and Borg but became convinced that Spong had, as it sometimes said, a burr under his saddle.

    I don’t have all the answers and some of the answers that I do have may be wrong but what I know is that God gave me a mind as well as a soul and if I don’t involve both in my life, my life is incomplete.

    So I study what it is that Jesus did and what that means for me and then I go out into the world and try to help others see and know what it can mean for them. And I think that is the liberal theology we need to follow.

    1. Tony, I think there are lots of evangelicals and fundamentalists who would say “amen” to your second to the last sentence.

  3. I was raised in liberal Christianity. I was taught a form of liberal Christianity in Sunday School. As Roger E. Olson says “I find it thin, ephemeral, light, profoundly unsatisfying.” I would have abandoned Christianity entirely if I hadn’t heard the Gospel preached at a Holiness Camp Meeting — preached as if it were a message that really mattered, and could make a difference in your life.

  4. John,
    Thanks for this post. I was a fairly typical Midwesterner who began as a cradle Christian. I fell away from the faith in college because the Methodist Church (before we were United) that I grew up in did not give me the kind of intellectual grounding needed to address the “scientism” that I encountered in a very science oriented technical college. After about 15 years as an agnostic, I was led back to faith by God’s grace and my five year old son. I spent about a year in a growing United Methodist mega-church and then moved out of state, joining a United Methodist Church with strong charismatic roots (It was the shame of the Annual Conference — bunch of fundamentalist Bible thumpers, who were wonderful loving people who blessed me by taking the faith seriously and leading me to do so as well). After about a year there, I encountered the Walk to Emmaus, which led me to C.S. Lewis and the realization that Christianity is intellectually defensible and makes more sense than the alternatives. From there I have read widely of the more popular Christian authors — J. I. Packer, William Willamon, Charles Swindol, John Stott, G. K. Chesterton, and John Wesley (when I have the ambition to disentangle the marvelous gems of his preaching and thought from the 17th Century English). As I have progressed in my faith, I have become more and more of a fundamentalist, trying to keep my faith firmly rooted in scripture and trying to remain suspicious of and minimize the impact of the culture. I am appalled by the United Methodist church leadership’s role as the Democratic Party at prayer and our tendency to outsource to the government our responsibility for helping the needy and showing God’s love to our neighbors. I believe I am a liberal in the 18th Century meaning of the word that people need to be free from government constraint to follow the guidance that the Lord gives them, that society should promote virtue, and that people should be freed from the curses of grinding toil and wasteful idleness . Most of what is called liberal, progressive Christianity (focusing on lobbying for the latest “liberal” cause du jour instead of preaching the gospel; driving all that messy supernatural stuff out of the church; letting parishioners know [in subtle and more obvious ways] that little except church attendance is expected and that solid prayer, Bible study, and the Spirit-filled life are for the “advanced class’ not ordinary Christians; and therapeutic preaching on the power of positive thinking, the essential goodness and loveability of everyone, and how Christianity can improve your business, marriage, golf game, etc.) is what I think of as “Mainline.” I have the feeling that the leadership of the United Methodist Church for the last 50 or so years, has been working diligently to move us from Wesleyan to Mainline. I believe we would be much stronger had we remained Wesleyan, although in today’s world, that would probably make us fundamentalist.

    1. Wow, so close to my story!!!! Except I was an Atheist for 19 years!!! And now I find myself more and more alienated from what is now called United Methodism and I will take early retirement in June and probably won’t be active in a “liberal” UMC. I guess I am just tired after 30 years of standing against the current!!! I’m finding less and less “liberals” that I can stand hanging around!!! And I am sure they feel the same around me!!!

      1. Pat,
        I praise God for you and others who stand against the current. It must be much more difficult for you who are clergy than those of us who are laity. I find solace in my local church and working with the youth there. There are many in the pews who need the influence of us fundamentalist types and our pastor is fairly gracious about it. I have much hope for him. He is a recent graduate of a United Methodist seminary and so, of course, is fairly liberal. I am hoping that as we reason together I can help him see the power of God and scripture. (I think he as shocked when I told him I didn’t have enough faith to accept some aspects of modern Bible “scholarship”. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6rHcTc1MyY.) Please continue to contend for the faith with gentleness and love (Jude 1:17-23) and the wisdom the Lord gives you.

  5. I am reminded, John, that we all need each other! This is not to say that anything goes. But the conservatives need the liberals and the liberals need the conservatives, and we all need Jesus.

    1. Hi Dalton,

      Depending on how you’re defining “conservatives” and “liberals” (terms I don’t particularly appreciate because they can mean so many different things), I agree with you. However, I’m not sure that Christianity needs the brand of liberal theology that Olson defines. As he suggests, I’m not sure that such theology is really Christian at all. That’s not an attack so much as a matter of definition.

      The characteristics Olson lists most likely would have put someone outside the bounds of orthodox belief in the early centuries of the Church. It would be hard for the “liberals” Olson defines to say the historic creeds without winking and qualifying a lot. Wouldn’t that make their teaching – so far as it purports to be Christian – heresy? Again, not trying to attack so much as define.

  6. I too seem to have taken the countervailing path. Though I was raised in the church I was a skeptic of sorts, though never denied God’s existence or even His goodness. I was largely politically liberal and mostly wanted people to get along.

    The last thing there hasn’t changed that much, but I’ve found a vibrant and soul-transforming faith in more “fundamentalist” quarters. I’m glad to have found it.

    I too found it largely in Willimon and Wesley.

  7. My husband and I left the Methodist church not long after reading William Willimon’s book on baptism. (Given to us by a wonderful UMC pastor whom we love dearly, and who also told us prophetically as we left our last meeting with him that he thought we were headed on a journey along which we would likely be taking many people…his words resonate in our souls!) What we gleaned from Willimon’s book seemed to have so much in common with the Catholic church’s teaching…which is where we find ourselves now. I suppose I am curious as to how this (seemingly growing?) crowd of perceptive Christ followers (like you, Teddy Ray, etc.) who are diligently seeking Truth (and who seem to be to me some of the most honest Christians of our time) view the Catholic church? In light of your discoveries to this point, what would be the main stumbling blocks towards Catholicism? Overly conservative theology? Papal Authority? The Sacraments? I am mostly interested because the common stumbling blocks for others are the issues my husband and I enjoy studying together. Thank you for your thought provoking post, John!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Lauren. I imagine Will Willimon would be interested to learn his book is a pathway to Catholicism. As for me, I don’t really know how to answer the question about stumbling blocks to Catholicism because I feel no particular pull out of the Protestant tradition. I have no sense of stumbling in that way, if that makes any sense.

      1. John, thanks so much for your response! I am currently working through a book by Karl Keating called “Catholicism and Fundamentalism”. It addresses an anti-Catholic fundamentalism specifically, which Christians such as yourself do not exude even a hint of, but it is relevant to the discussion of liberal theology and finding one’s place on *or off of* the evangelical spectrum. Possibly I can re-pose my curiosity after further reading and prayer. Many blessings to you!

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