Part 3 in our looks at Theological Liberalism. A summary Biblical Criticism and Liberalism’s overall goal in merging reason & faith.
The title of this 147th episode is Why So Critical?
Two episodes back we introduced the themes that would lead eventually to what’s called by many Theological Liberalism. Last episode we talked a bit about how the church, mostly the Roman Catholic church, pushed back against those themes. In this episode we’ll go further into the birth of liberalism.
The 20th C has been unkind to Theological Liberalism, with its shining vision of the Universal Brotherhood of Man under the Universal Fatherhood of God. Yet, most mainline Protestant denomination still hold solidarity with Liberalism. It was Professor Sydney Ahlstrom view that liberals had provoked as much controversy in the 19th C as the Reformers did in the 16th. The reason for that controversy lay in their objective, stated by one of its premier advocates and popularizers – Harry Emerson Fosdick. In his autobiography The Living of These Days, , the influential pastor of the famous Riverside Church in New York City, said the aim of liberal theology was to make it possible “to be both an intelligent modern and a serious Christian.”
Liberals hoped to address a problem maybe as old as The Faith itself: That is, how can Christians reconcile their faith to the intellectual climate of their time without compromising the Essentials of The Gospel? By the evaluation of modern Evangelicals, Liberalism failed in that quest precisely because they DID compromise those essentials in their desire to be relevant among their unbelieving peers. Richard Niebuhr expressed the irony of theological liberalism when he said in liberalism “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Personally, I’ve been reluctant to produce this episode because the more I’ve studied Theological liberalism, the less certain of being able to handle it competently I’ve grown. Definitions for it are no easier than for political liberalism. In fact, many deny that Protestant liberalism is a theology at all. They refer to it as an “outlook,” or “approach.” Henry Coffin of Union Seminary described liberalism as a “spirit” that honors truth so supremely and it craves the freedom to discuss, publish, and pursue what it believes to be true.
But then, it THAT is true, it must certainly lead to certain convictions that derive values & produce judgments. And THAT is precisely what we see the history of Protestant liberalism producing.
In the words of Bruce Shelley, “Liberals believed Christian theology had to come to terms with modern science if it ever hoped to claim and hold the allegiance of intelligent men.” So liberals refused to accept religious beliefs on authority alone. They insisted faith must submit to reason and experience. Following the thinking of the Enlightenment, of which they were the spiritual children, they claimed the human mind was capable of thinking God’s thoughts after Him. So, the best insight into the nature & character of God wasn’t His self-revelation in Scripture, which smacked of the old authoritarianism they eschewed; it was human intuition and reason.
By surrendering to what we’ll call “the modern mind” liberals accepted the assumption of their time that the universe was a massive but synchronized machine, like a well-made watch. The key to this machine was harmony – Unity.
I’ll come back to that in a moment, but a little editorializing seems in order. And while some of you may be rolling your eyes now – I really do think this is germane to what this podcast is – a review of History – specifically Church History. I just made reference to “the modern mind.”
Modern is another term that has multiple meanings. Historians use it to refer to the Modern Era, which they debate over the time span of, but let’s go with the common view that it runs from about 1500 to 1900-ish. So wait! IF the Modern Era ended at the beginning of the 20th C, what Era are we in now? The Atomic or Nuclear Era, the Post-Modern Era, the Information Age? Different labels get assigned to the current historical epoch. But don’t we still refer to current trends and fashions as being “modern”? Aren’t we “moderns” in the sense that we’re living NOW? Not many people would want to be considered not-modern.
It gets confusing because the word modern is plastic with a lot of different meanings and connotations. But here’s where it adds to the confusion as it relates to our discussion on theological liberalism, and some of this spills over into political liberalism. There was a desire to accommodate Christian theology to the modern mind. By which emerging liberals meant accepting the findings of “modern science” as (air-quote) fact & making theology fit into those supposed facts. But there’s a difference, a vast difference between facts and interpretations of facts. A few years after a so-called “Fact” was established by science, others came along to say, “Yeah, uh, we weren’t quite right about that. It’s actually this.” And, it wasn’t uncommon for even that revised new paradigm to be revised yet again.
Is coffee good or bad for you? Right now it’s good. But wait a month and it’ll be bad again, But not to worry, a year out, coffee will be the key to long life and amazing prosperity. Okay. I exaggerate, but not by much.
My point is this, the current moment, what we mean by at least ONE of those definitions of “modern” – has a nasty habit of thinking that just by virtue of the fact that we’ve progressed to this point, we’re now smarter, more enlightened and so better than all the moments before this. There’s a kind of arrogance that seems endemic to the fact that we’re here now – the most evolved & educated class of human beings history’s known.
But a few moments from now, the people living then will think the same thing about themselves and see us as unenlightened bores. And the modern mind will have moved on to the new so-called facts of what turns out to not be science, but is in truth scientism.
When theology is hitched to “the modern mind” as liberals aimed to do, its eternal verities are traded in for the changing whims of what the mind is now, and now, then now. And we have to unhitch eternal form those verities – because they simply aren’t true any longer.
Okay, end of the editorializing. Adopting the modern view that the universe was a vast harmonious machine, liberals aimed for Unity. They tried merging revelation with natural religion and Christianity with other religions by looking for common themes. Thus, comparative religions was born as an academic pursuit. They aimed to lower the wall between those who were saved and the lost, between God and man.
Liberals regarded the traditional & orthodox belief in a transcendent God who exists in a realm above and beyond the natural as stalling their agenda to unify & harmonize. They blurred the lines between the natural & supernatural and equated the spiritual realm with human consciousness. The spiritual realm became little more than the intellectual and emotional activity of human beings. And God was defined as the universal life force that even now is creating the Universe. One liberal said it this way, “Some call it evolution; others call it God.”
Remember, theological liberals aimed to harmonize science with faith. The newest darling on the scientific scene was Darwin and his emerging theory of everything – Evolution by Mutation & Natural Selection. Theological Liberalism had no problem accepting Darwin’s theory.
While the challenge of some of the assertions of science to orthodox Christianity were serious, they were secondary to the new views of history. Those views were adopted from the scientific method, which began a rigorous review of the assumptions that had framed classical or traditional history. If facts are based on evidence & repeatable observations, what were we to do with history, which by its very nature refers to the past? Historical criticism became the framework for a new generation of historians and academics. If a defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, events regarded by traditional history as certain were now suspect until proven true. Modern sensibilities were read back into and layered over persons and events of the past.
The application of these liberal principles of historical inquiry to the Bible were called “biblical criticism.” But don’t understand the term criticism here to be pejorative. Biblical criticism simply meant a study of Scripture in order to discover it’s real meaning. But Biblical criticism discarded the dogmatics of traditional inquiry in favor of a more rationalistic approach.
Biblical criticism flowed into two streams, lower and higher criticism. The low-critic dealt with problems of the actual manual text; manuscripts and such. Their goal was to find the earliest and most reliable text of Scripture. In other words, as close as possible to the autographs; the original writings. The work of lower criticism helped produce the large number of NT manuscripts we have today and assisted translators in the work of producing modern Bible versions.
Higher criticism proved to be a very different matter. The high-critic was so much interested in the accuracy of the text. H was more concerned with the meaning of the text. To get at that meaning, he often read between the lines or went behind the text to the events that were assumed to have produced the text. This meant discovering who wrote it, when and why. Higher criticism held that we can only get at the meaning of a passage when we see it against its background. Higher critics then went to work, systematically dismantling traditional views regarding hundreds of passages of the Bible. A beloved Psalm, attributed right in the text to David, the higher critics tells us wasn’t in fact written by King D. No, because it has a word scholars says wasn’t used for a 42 years after David, it was therefore written by the Jews in exile.
No, let me be clear, the methods of Biblical higher criticism weren’t new. They’d been used for a while on other ancient texts. But during the 19th C, they were applied to the Bible. And for many liberals, all it took was some scholar with a PhD to say that a traditional view of the Bible was wrong, it was this other thing, for them to categorically throw over tradition in favor of the new view.
Higher criticism agreed generally that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch as both Jews & Christians had universally agreed till then. Instead they’d ben penned by at least 4 authors. And passages that seemed to be prophetic of future events must have been written after the events they supposedly foretold, because well, modern scientific sensibilities don’t allow for the supernatural. High-critics said the Gospel of John, wasn’t = John’s Gospel, that is. The Apostle did NOT pen it. Besides that, it was atrocious in its recording of history.
Diverging from the discipline of Biblical Criticism was what’s known as the search for the “historical Jesus.” Liberals like the idea of Jesus, if not the actual Jesus presented in the Gospels. You know, the One Who made a whip and cleared the temple and called people white-washed tombs. A liberal reforming Jesus was someone they could get behind, but not the substitutionary-atoning Jesus of the Epistles because THAT Jesus meant a Holy God whose justice demands a sacrifice to discharge sins. And that was an archaic idea no longer acceptable to modern sensibilities. So, liberal critics assigned themselves the mission of saving Jesus from such outdated modes of thinking. They assumed the early church and writers of the Gospels embellished Scripture to that end. It as there task to sift through the text and pull out what was legit and what was to quit.
Literally dozens of so-called “lives of Jesus” were written during the 19th C, each claiming it revealed the true, historical Jesus. While most of them contradicted each other, they nearly all agreed that disavowing the miraculous was central to the genuine Jesus story. They were bound to this, since [air-quote] science proved the impossibility of miracles.
Quickly editorial comment – Let’s be clear, uh, science, that is the scientific method, can’t prove miracles are impossible. Miracles are by their very definition outside the realm of scientific investigation because repeatability is one of the required elements of the scientific method. Miracles, by the very definition of what a miracle is, are a contravention of the laws that govern the material realm, and AREN’T typically repeatable. Miracles are –well = unexpected!
But in their quest to merge science & faith, liberal theologians allowed the so-called facts of their time to be the filter through which they re-worked the content of the Christian Faith. Jesus not only didn’t work miracles, He never claimed to be the Messiah, or that history would climax in His visible return to establish the kingdom of God.
The cumulative effect of all this was the doubt cast on the Bible as the inspired & infallible Word of God & the authority for faith and practice.
When higher critics were done, Liberals were free to sort through Scripture to pick and choose what they wished. They read the Bible through the filter of evolution and saw a progression from blood-thirsty deities requiring sacrifices, to the Jews who embraced the idea of a righteous God served by those who pursue justice, love mercy, and walks humbly. This progressive revelation of God reaches its climax in Jesus, where God is portrayed as the loving Father of all men.
So far, our review of Theological Liberalism has seemed bent toward more of a tearing down of traditionalism. That looks at just one side of the liberal coin. The other side was the concurrent movement known as Romanticism.
During the early 19th C, Romanticism was a movement that flowed mainly in the artistic and intellectual communities. It looked at life through feelings. The Industrial Age seemed to many to reduce man to a cog in some vast societal machine. Romanticism was an attempt to lift man out of the gears & set him down as the glorious creator & engineer. Why man was evolution’s apex achievement and he had every right, duty even, to exalt in his lofty place, as well as to aspire to even greater heights. Romanticism focused on the individual and his/her ambitions to attain to their ultimate potential. This was the genesis of the human potential movement.
So on one hand, liberals aimed for unity, but Romanticism exalted the individual. Liberalism broadened its agenda to unify the two by harmonizing them.
Theological liberalism saw itself as the force to do it. Biblical Criticism had rescued the historical Jesus from the muck & mire of traditional orthodoxy. Romanticism then wanted to plant the idea of Jesus in the hearts of all people so they could become all their potential made possible for them.