In many evangelical circles, and certainly amongst most fundamentalists, the world ‘liberal’ carries with it a definite emotional and theological charge.
Liberals are seen as threatening the Faith and undermining true Christian theology. Liberals have a nefarious agenda; they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and so on. Liberal theologians, on the other hand, are concerned at what they observe as a lack of love and compassion for the human condition among fundamentalists. They also take exception to what they perceive as the naïve and uncritical spiritualisation of evangelicals. Some, like bishop Spong for instance, even contend that unless they save Christianity from unscientific supernaturalism it will become first irrelevant and then extinct.
So what is theological liberalism? I would describe liberals as people who hold the following theological beliefs: Concerning the Bible, they generally believe that the scriptures are no more inspired than other important literary works. As a result, they subject the Bible to rigorous ‘higher’ criticism and discount much of its historic reliability and factual accuracy. Concerning salvation, they understand regeneration as a reprogramming of the individual mind and the transformation of the structures of society. Liberal theology is both humanistic and anti-supernatural. On the positive side, this results in a focus on compassion for people and consideration for the human habitat. On the negative side, it strips Christianity and the Bible of everything that cannot be logically explained. Angels have never been scientifically evaluated therefore they cannot exist. A miracle is merely the mythological name given to a natural process we do not yet fully understand. Rebirth is actually just a way of describing the process of intellectual and moral transformation. The virgin birth is superfluous… and so on. I need to note though that there is a continuum from old fashioned liberalism on the one end, through neo-liberalism, evangelical orthodoxy, to fundamentalism on the other end. Some fundamentalists regard the average evangelical as somewhat liberal, and many liberals see little difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists.
As an evangelical, I have very real problems with most that goes under the heading of theological liberalism. I accept that the Bible has a human aspect to it, but I do not accept that it is anything other than divinely inspired and authoritative. If, as many liberals contend, most of the New Testament is simply a record of the philosophy of Paul of Tarsus, then it provides only limited help in the 21st century and no certainty for an eternal future. If the Gospels record the embellished mythology of overzealous first century Christ-followers, then perhaps Jesus did not do what they say He did and His teaching is no more definitive than that of any other wise man of His day. If man is essentially good, then sin is just a religious word for social dysfunction. If right and wrong, morality and immorality are genetically or culturally determined, then homosexuality is just a matter of personal preference or predisposition, and abortion on demand a societal convenience.
If science stands above scripture as the yardstick of truth, then tomorrow’s truth will not be the same as today’s truth and both will be uncertain.
If God is an archaic name for cosmic group consciousness, then the possibility of a personal relationship with him, her, or it is an absurd idea. If Jesus was just a radical Jewish teacher and activist then I am without a saviour and my only hope for the future is my own effort, the success of my particular race or society, and a lot of luck. If this is what the Christian Faith truly is then it isn’t worth saving.
I see no point to a liberal Faith of the kind I have described. However, a note of sober caution is in order. Liberalism is not the only aberration within the greater body of the Church. In my opinion, extreme fundamentalism, on the other side of the continuum, with its harsh separatism and exclusive definitions of biblical inerrancy, creationism and so on, is an ill-conceived over-reaction to liberalism. In its own way it does just as much damage to the credibility and vitality of the Christian Faith. Naive and slavish literalism denigrates the rational aspect of biblical faith; fixation on non-fundamental doctrines fragments the church; separatist pride and lovelessness opens the chasm between church and world even wider than it already is.
Another caution is that we should recognise the liberalism in our own views and practices. When we focus on societal change as the Faith priority, then we are comfortably in line with the liberal agenda. When we practice our Faith as an essentially private matter, largely unconfined by the demands and restraints of church life and doctrine, then we are being distinctly liberal. When we respond accommodatingly to unbiblical societal norms with the mantra, ‘different strokes for different folks’, then we are surely liberals at heart. So perhaps, rather than being as concerned as we often appear to be with only the liberalism we identify in the institutions of the church, we ought also to examine the insidious incursion of it into our own lives and thinking.
I can’t speak for you, but I actually don’t want religion of any type, liberal or other; I want a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and as illuminated by the Holy Spirit … so help me Father God.