The title of this 138th episode is Liberal v Evangelical

In our last episode, we considered the philosophical roots of Theological Liberalism. In this, we name names as we look at its early leaders and innovators.

When I took a philosophy course in college, the professor dispensed on us sorry, unwashed noobs his understanding of faith and reason. After a lengthy description of both, he concluded by saying that faith and reason had absolutely nothing to do with each other. Reason dealt with the evidential, that which was perceived by the senses, and what logic concluded were rationally consistent conclusions drawn from that evidence. Faith, he declaimed, was a belief in spite of the evidence. When I asked if he was thus saying faith was irrational, he just smiled.

That professor was an adherent of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. In Kant’s work Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781, Kant argued reason is able to comprehend anything in the realm of space and time; what he called the phenomenal realm. But reason is useless in accessing the noumenal, or spiritual realm transcending time and space.

Kant didn’t argue against the existence of the spiritual realm. He simply said it’s only something we can experience by feelings. We can’t really THINK about it in the sense that it touches the rational mind.

Traditional, orthodox Christians pushed back against the Kantian view of faith as feeling by reminding themselves Jesus said the greatest command was to love God with all they had, including their minds. But liberals found in Kant’s philosophy a justification for unhitching reason from faith and for allowing modern people to live in a secular world while still enjoying the benefits of religious sentiments about ultimate meaning. In other words, it allowed them to get along content with the WHAT of life in the world, without having to bother much with the HOW, or concern themselves at all with WHY.

A few years after the publication of Kant’s Critique, the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, going against the heart and soul of Christian apologetics dating back hundreds of years, said the heart of Christian Faith isn’t a historical event, like the Resurrection. It was, he argued, a feeling of one’s absolute dependence on a reality beyond one’s self. That awareness, he claimed, could be developed to the point where a person would be able to imitate Jesus’ own good deeds.

He wrote, “The true nature of religion is immediate consciousness of Deity as found in ourselves and the world.” This earned Schleiermacher the title, Father of Theological Liberalism.

Schleiermacher was born in a pious Moravian home, but as a young man, he imbibed the rationalism of the Enlightenment and became an ardent apologist for accommodating Christianity to popular society. As a professor of the newly founded University of Berlin, he insisted debates over proofs of God’s existence, the authority of Scripture, and the possibility of miracles weren’t the issues they ought to focus on. He said that the heart of religion had always been feeling, rather than rational proofs. God is not a theory used to explain the universe. Rather, God is to be experienced as a living reality. For Schleiermacher, religion isn’t a creed to be pondered by the rational mind. It’s based on intuition and a feeling of dependence.

Orthodox Christians who identified religion with creedal doctrines, Schleiermacher maintained, would lose the battle for the Faith in the Modern world because those creeds were no longer rationally acceptable. Religion needed to find a new base. He located it in feelings.

Sin, Schleiermacher said, was the result of people living by themselves, isolated from others. To overcome the sin that makes man independent from God and others, God sent a mediator in Jesus Christ. Christ’s uniqueness wasn’t in doctrines about his virgin birth or deity. No à What made Jesus a Mediator who can help us is the perfect example he was of one utterly dependent on God. By meditating on Christ’s example, and feeling our own inner sense of dependence on the universe around us, we too can experience God as Jesus did.

In Schleiermacher’s theology, the center of religion shifts from Scripture to experience. So, the Biblical criticism we looked at in the last episode can’t harm Christianity, since the real message of the Bible speaks to an individual’s own subjective pursuit of the divine. The Bible doesn’t need to be factual or true, as long as it affects the feeling of dependence that is the spark that leads to spiritual illumination.

Albrecht Ritschl enlarged on Schleiermacher’s ideas, taking them mainstream.

For Ritschl, religion had to be practical. It began with the question, “What must I do to be saved?” But he eschewed the merely theoretical. So the question “What must I do to be saved?” can’t just mean, “How do I get to heaven after I die?” Ritschl said salvation meant living a new life, free from sin, selfishness, fear, and guilt.

Ritschl’s practical Christianity had to be built on fact, so he welcomed the search for the historical Jesus we talked about in the last episode. The great fact of the Christian Faith is the impact Jesus made on history. Nature, he maintained, gives an ambiguous understanding of God while History presents us with moments and movements that convey meaning.

History conveys meaning alright – but I’m not sure all that history’s given us a less ambiguous understanding of God than Nature.

Ritschl asserted religion rests on human values, not science. Science conveys facts, things as they are. Religion weighs those facts and attributes more or less value to them.

Many Christians of the late 19th C considered Ritschl’s work helpful. It freed them from the destructive impact of the increasingly secular pursuits of history and science. It allowed biblical criticism to use scientific methodology in determining things like authorship, date, and the meaning of Scripture. But it recognized religion is more than facts. Values aren’t under the purview of science; that’s religion’s turf.

Protestant Theological Liberalism accepted higher criticism’s denial of Jesus’ miracles, His Virgin Birth, and His preexistence. But that did not in any way diminish Jesus’ importance. For Liberals, His deity didn’t need to arise from His essence. It resides in what Jesus MEANS. He’s the consummate human being who shows us the path to enlightenment and nobility. He’s the embodiment of supremely high ethical ideals whose example inspires us to emulate His example. For Liberal Christians, The Church didn’t come out of some actual, factual events around Jerusalem 2000 years ago, it arose from Jesus’ awe-inspiring example. The Church isn’t a community of people who believe in a literally resurrected Savior so much as a value-creating community that gives meaning and mission to life. That mission is to create a society inspired by love, the Kingdom of God on earth.

The impact of this Theological Liberalism wasn’t felt in just one denomination or region. It challenged traditional groups all over Europe and North America.  It appeared in the churches of New England with the moniker: New Theology. Its leading advocates came out of traditional Calvinism. Its greatest early popularizer was Lyman Abbott. Then came Henry Ward Beecher, William Tucker, and Lewis Stearns.

Prior to 1880, most New England ministers and churches held to basic orthodox doctrines . . . The sovereignty of God; the depravity of humanity in original sin; the atonement of Christ; the necessity of the Holy Spirit in conversion; and the eternal separation of the saved and lost in heaven and hell.

But after 1880, each of those beliefs came under withering fire from Liberals. The most publicized controversy took place at Andover Seminary. The seminary was established by Congregationalists 80 years before to counter Unitarian tendencies at Harvard. Attempting to preserve Andover’s orthodoxy, the founders required the faculty to subscribe to a creed summarizing their adherence to classic Calvinism. But by 1880, under the influence of liberalism, several of the faculty could no longer make the pledge. The spark that lit the flames of controversy was a series of articles in the Andover Review by liberal professors who argued the unsaved who die without any knowledge of the Gospel will have an opportunity at some future point to either accept or to reject the Gospel before facing judgment.

Andover’s board filed an action against one of the authors of the articles as a test case. After years of moves and counter-moves, in 1892 the Supreme Court of Massachusetts voided the action of the Board. By then, most denominations had their own tussles with liberalism seeking to infiltrate their colleges and schools.

The response to Protestant theological liberalism was a movement which many of our listeners have heard of – Evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism began in England in the 19th C, an epoch that in some ways singularly belonged to Great Britain. It was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. London became the largest city and financial center of the World. British trade circled the globe; her navy ruled the seas. By 1914, Britannia ruled the most expansive empire in history.

But the rapid commercial and industrial growth wasn’t equally distributed across England’s population. The pace of change left many stunned. Every traditionally sacred institution cracked at its foundation. Some feared the horrors of the French Revolution were about to be repeated on England’s hallowed shores while others sang the praises of Lady Progress and dreamed of even greater advances. They regarded England as the vanguard of a new day of prosperity and liberty for all. Fear and hope mingled.

As the Age of Progress dawned in England, Protestants attended either the Anglican Church or one of the Nonconforming denominations of Methodist, Baptists, Congregationalist, and a handful of smaller groups. But now, for maybe the first time, Christians from different denominations also formed specialized groups with a specific aim; like distributing Bibles, redressing poverty in urban slums, teaching literacy, and supporting missionaries in the far-flung reaches of the Empire.

While liberalism grew in seminaries and colleges among professors and theologians, many ministers working in churches as local pastors and the people in the pews grew increasingly uncomfortable with the emerging doubt in the intellectual centers of their denominations. They may not be as sophisticated or learned in the academic pursuits of the experts, but by golly, they didn’t think a PhD was necessary to believe in or follow God. And if holding a Ph.D. meant having to deny cardinal doctrines of the Faith, then no thank YOU, very much.

Evangelicals pushed back on Liberals, saying Christians ought not just to accept what Science says, just because it says it. History proves today’s so-called “science” is tomorrow’s mockery. The Christian faith isn’t just about how it makes you feel and the meaning it brings you. It’s a Faith that rests on the actual, literal events of history. To deny those facts and events is to depart from traditional, orthodox Christianity.

The Evangelical Movement began with the work of John Wesley and George Whitefield. Its main characteristics were its emphasis on personal holiness, arising from a conversion experience. It was also devoted to a practical concern for serving a needy world. That holiness and service were nourished by devotion to the Bible which was regarded as inspired and inerrant. The Evangelical message went forth from a large minority of Anglican pulpits and a majority in other denominations.

The headquarters of Evangelicalism was a small village three miles from London called Clapham. It was the residence of a group of wealthy Evangelicals who practiced remarkable personal piety. The group’s spiritual leader was John Venn, a man of culture and sanctified common sense. They met for Bible study, conversation, and prayer in the library of the well-to-do banker, Henry Thornton.

But the most famous member of the Clapham Groups was William Wilberforce, the parliamentary statesman. Wilberforce found a universe of talented help for Evangelical causes among his Clapham friends. These included John Shore, Governor-General of India; Charles Grant, Chairman of the East India Company; James Stephens, Under-Secretary for the Colonies; and Zachary Macauley, editor of the Christian Observer.

At the age of just 25, Wilberforce was dramatically converted to Christ after reading Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul.  He possessed all the qualities for outstanding leadership: ample wealth, a liberal education, and outstanding talent. Prime Minister William Pitt said Wilberforce had the greatest natural eloquence he’d ever known. Several testified of his amazing capacity for close friendship and his superior moral principles. For many reasons, Wilberforce seemed providentially prepared for the task and the time.

He once said, “My walk is a public one: my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the part which Providence has assigned me.”

Under Wilberforce’s leadership, the Clapham friends were knit solidly together. At the Clapham mansion, they held what they called “Cabinet Councils.” They discussed the wrongs and injustices of their country, and the battles they’d have to fight. Inside and outside Parliament, they moved as one, delegating to each member the work he could do best to accomplish their common purpose.

They founded . . .

  • The Church Missionary Society
  • The British and Foreign Bible Society
  • The Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor
  • The Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline
  • and many more.

Their greatest effort though was the campaign to end slavery. Which is a tale I’ll leave for others to follow up.

While the Clapham group accomplished much, it was their role in abolishing slavery that provides a sterling example of how an entire society can be influenced by just a few.