Nuts and Bolts 010: Theological Liberalism

nuts and bolts Theology / Biblical Studies

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I thought it was high time we had another “nuts and bolts” blog, part of a series where I unpack some of the basic terms and concepts used in either theology or philosophy. This time we’re in theological territory, looking at the question of what this thing called Liberal Theology (or “theological liberalism”) is.

As I’ve noted before when discussing the issue of inerrancy, Martin Luther said that the Bible made statements that weren’t correct about the number of people involved in battles. John Calvin said that the Bible made statements that weren’t correct about a bright star in the sky when Jesus was born. Charles Hodge* said that when it comes to truth and error, the Bible was like a marble building, where marble is truth and sand is not. Sure the building might contain the occasional speck of sand which isn’t marble, but we can still call it marble overall.

Now as I look around the world of conservative evangelicalism, I notice that nobody calls Luther, Calvin or Warfield a liberal (or at least, nobody that I am aware of). And yet for expressing this sort of thought about the Bible myself (namely that everything it teaches is true, but it contains incidental claims that are not factually correct), I’ve recently been called a theological liberal (albeit by a very small number of people whom I can count on the fingers one hand and still have a couple of fingers left over). Theological liberalism is the movement represented by the likes of John Shelby Spong, Lloyd Geering in New Zealand, or historically by folk like Rudolph Bultmann or Friedrich Schleiermacher. I wonder how these guys would feel at being lumped in with Calvin and Warfield?

Moving on to the issue of the afterlife, well known evangelical scholar John Stott claimed, on exegetical grounds, that the lost will one day be no more and that only those people who have eternal life in Christ will live forever. The same position was expressed by other evangelical authors like Michael Green, Philip Edgecumbe Hughes and John Wenham. The church father Arnobius of Sicca taught the same thing (this is just meant as a tiny list of examples).

And yet, for defending this same doctrine – on the basis of detailed exegesis of many parts of Scripture – I’ve been dubbed by one or two people in recent times a theological liberal. I wonder how John Spong would feel being told that he was in the same camp as John Stott!

Of course as many readers will see right away, something has gone askew here. All of this is just a case of confusion. Unfortunately there’s a tendency for some evangelicals (although fortunately not the majority) to think that their stance on any theological issue is the default conservative one (naturally!), and that if a person doesn’t hold their view then they must (obviously) hold a view that makes them a liberal. What’s on display when this happens is actually just historical ignorance of what theological liberalism actually is, combined with confusion over the difference between erroneous beliefs and a theologically liberal stance. As I said when I started the “nuts and bolts” series, rather than just getting frustrated at ignorance, it’s better to become part of the solution. So today I’ll be answering the questions: what is theological liberalism, and how is it distinguished from say, error or heresy?

Perhaps to start off with I’ll give a couple of examples of what is and is not liberal theology at work, because a picture (or even a verbal illustration) can sometimes paint a thousand words.

Example A: Not theological liberalism

Richard and I sit down with our Bibles. We’ve decided to study the issue of baptism. We sit silently, reading for what seems like hours, and then we stop to discuss what we’ve seen. I say, “we both agree that the Bible should be the source of our beliefs about Christian baptism, right?” We agree, the Bible should be our source. We agree together that whatever the Bible teaches about baptism, we should accept. I explain to Richard that I think that Bible indicates that only people who are in a position to profess faith in Christ should be baptised, because this is what the New Testament says about baptism. Richard disagrees. He says that because in the Old Testament babies were circumcised, we should baptise babies as well because the New Testament doesn’t overtly state that we shouldn’t baptise them. We’re both using biblical passages to justify our stance because we agree that the teaching of Scripture is going to settle the matter for us, but we still don’t agree. So I jump up out of my chair and say “Ah HA! You told me that you were an evangelical, but clearly you don’t accept what the Bible teaches, so you’re a theological liberal. I’m going to start warning people about you!”

Whoops. I doubt that anybody reading this would sympathise with me. Rather than looking like a champion of evangelicalism, I’ve just made a bit of a fool of myself.

Example B: Theological liberalism

Steve and I sit down with our Bibles. We’ve decided to study the resurrection of Jesus. We read the Gospels and then the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles that refer to the resurrection. Then we exchange our thoughts. I say to Steve that this is just a fantastic reality: That Jesus did not stay dead, but God raised him up out of the tomb, alive again, and that he spoke to his disciples again, and that we too will rise from the dead and we’ll live forever! Steve rolls his eyes at me. He points out that I’m being quaint, and that in our day and age we just know that resurrection isn’t possible. Instead, what must have happened is that the life of Jesus made a real impact on his followers, so they really wanted his teachings to live on after he had died. To give this goal a helping hand, they created this account of Jesus rising again and appearing to them, but they weren’t actually saying anything about history. It was really just a grand metaphor for the endurance of the teachings of a notably good person, Jesus. What the New Testament actually conveys by these accounts is quite false. It’s all about the end result in our own individual lives as this literary figure of the risen Jesus personally impacts us as we let the story speak.

I pause for a moment. Is this the point where I decide that this is theological liberalism?

Yes it is, and I submit that the difference between these two situations is so obvious that it’s almost comical. We clearly recognise the type of difference involved here. And yet for a small number of evangelicals, sometimes the “you’re a liberal!” card is played willy nilly, however silly it looks to others (as in example A above). So what is theological liberalism then?

Theological liberalism is identifiable not simply because of what liberals believe when it comes to doctrine, but also – and perhaps primarily – because of the attitude taken to Scripture and the aspects of Christian faith that are emphasised (or downplayed). It’s often thought, for example, that theological liberals exalt “deeds” and downplay “creeds.” Now there’s a sense in which we can say that this is true, if we’re careful. It’s not that theological liberals care about good deeds and evangelicals don’t. On the contrary, I find that strong emphasis of personal holiness is stronger in conservative circles than anywhere else (after all, one of the emphases in liberalism is not judging the lives of others, and consequently rejecting others’ judgement regarding oneself). However, theological liberalism does involve a comparative emphasis on deeds over creeds, because of the downplaying of creeds. The importance of doctrine is diminished, even when it comes to central Christian doctrines like the resurrection of the dead and the deity of Christ.

More importantly, theological liberalism has a strong tendency to take the stance that all we have in the biblical account is a snapshot of human authors, locked into their own limitations, blighted by their own cultural prejudice, and – and this is the crucial part – lacking a privileged position. For example, when the biblical writers wrote about sexual relationships, the only information they could have been working on is the mindset of a culture handed down to them, the ignorance of their ancient time, and the general but rather undefined stance that God (if a personal God does exist, which is not a given for liberal theology) has a positive and accepting stance of some sort towards us. But what those writers do not have, liberal theology impresses upon us, is a unique God’s eye perspective. In short, it is not really revelation. Experiences that the biblical writers declare to be miraculous or divine are likely better explained, in liberal terms, as moments of epiphany or even as pure fiction later re-written to push a particular agenda. What we have to do is move “beyond” their limitations and apply God’s message (remember: not necessarily the thoughts of a personal creator, but perhaps the broad, positive, accepting message of the man Jesus of Nazareth) in a newer and better informed world, realising that at times the actual message of the Bible is frankly blinkered and bigoted. Just today, for example I came across a paper with the following title and description:

Potholes on the Road to Damascus: A speculative, psychological explanation for the sudden conversion experience of Paul, the Apostle, as the root of present-day Christian anti-Semitism.
Janice Meighan takes a look at Paul’s sudden conversion experience using both contemporary research on the psychology of sudden conversion experiences and utilizing the theory of Attachment (Bowlby’s).

Liberal theology is often referenced today with the more positive sounding label “progressive Christianity,” to give the impression of a more up-to-date, forward moving (rather than backward looking) movement. Here’s (http://www.tcpc.org/about/8points.cfm) a good overview of the sorts of themes you’re likely to encounter in Liberal Theology / Progressive Christianity (bearing in mind that like evangelicalism, liberalism is not a monolith).

In liberal theology, it’s not so much the teaching of the Bible that should inform our theology and lifestyle as the immediate experience either of God (if one believes in such a being), “the spiritual,” “the numinous” or the Christian community that should have the most influence on the way that we think and live. Now don’t get me wrong – of course evangelicals say that these things are important, but in liberal theology these things ascend much higher up the ranking in terms of authority, because the specific metaphysical claims summed up by the term “doctrine” are conspicuous by their absence.

That’s a pretty rough and ready (and brief!) overview, but hopefully it gives some sort of insight into the type of animal that theological liberalism is. As readers of this blog will know, I’m not a fan (to put it mildly), and have had a few things to say about it in the past.

Liberalism, from a conservative evangelical point of view, is not a state of having made incorrect exegetical conclusions. Consider the hypothetical discussion about baptism that I described earlier. Both parties to the conversation were on common methodological ground: They accepted that the teaching of the Bible would be the final word, and then they set about figuring out what the Bible had to say. The fact that at least one of them is wrong in their conclusion doesn’t say anything at all about one of them being a liberal, and it’s patently obvious from their approach that neither of them is a liberal. Imagine my surprise then (and I admit, bemusement), when I set out a careful, exegetical case for a particular view on the biblical doctrine of hell, employing very obviously conservative assumptions about the Bible, and then when two or three evangelicals didn’t accept the conclusion they called me a theological liberal. I can only shake my head at this sort of thing. it’s as though people aren’t content just to say “Glenn is wrong.” No, that lacks the necessary rhetorical punch, so some other label – no matter how ridiculous – needs to be used. The other problem with saying “Glenn is wrong,” of course, is that those who say it would then need to provide good reasons for believing that my case failed, and who can be bothered doing this? Calling me a liberal, by contrast (even though it’s obviously false) makes the accuser feel that he doesn’t actually have to engage the exegetical issues. They are “liberal” ideas and therefore off limits for consideration, without any explanation required.

The reality is that Christianity has always been aware of movements that draw on Christian roots but reject important Christian truth claims, and there has never been a need to dub such movements liberal. Indeed, many such movements are self-consciously conservative, working hard to – as far as they can tell – be faithful to the teaching of Scripture because they, in principle, respect its authority as inspired (even though I think in many cases they treat other people and organisations as having so much authority that Scripture gets crowded out of the picture). Think of movements like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you ever heard them referred to as theological liberals? Of course not, because they aren’t liberal in the least. Or think further back to examples like Arius or the Gnostics. Has any historian referred to such movements as “liberal”? Again, of course not. The term used to refer to serious doctrinal error in spite of conservatism is not liberalism, but heresy.

But of course, heresy is pretty strong language and doesn’t apply to just any mistaken belief. Take for example disagreements about when a person should be baptised, as in the example given earlier. At least one of the people in that conversation must be wrong, but neither of them is a heretic. Look at one of the most widely cited standards of orthodoxy for example, the Nicene Creed. A number of things were important for defining orthodoxy over and against heresy; Monotheism, the deity of Christ, the death of Christ for our salvation, his resurrection, our resurrection and so on. However, things like the nature of eternal punishment, the proper subjects of baptism, the nature of original sin – none of these things were treated as issues over which Christians declared one another to be heretics. Of course, this isn’t to say that Christians can’t reach conclusions on these matters and tell other people that their view is correct. Of course they can, but they’re overstepping the mark if they then say that they possess the authority to declare another Christian to be unorthodox or perhaps not really a fellow believer if they don’t share their private opinion. In fact if we simply label anyone with whom we strongly disagree as a heretic, then the whole category of “heresy” becomes meaningless. If “heretic” just means “I don’t agree with you” then it no longer refers to anything all that serious.

But looking back over these categories it’s at once clear that if someone says “you don’t share my view on what the Bible teaches about hell [or divine foreknowledge, or baptism, or the eucharist, or original sin etc.], so you’re a liberal,” then they’re a person who is rather muddled up. This isn’t even a question of liberalism vs conservatism, it’s a question of truth vs error.

Food for thought.
Glenn Peoples

* Errata: This originally (incorrectly) read B. B. Warfield, but it was Charles Hodge who actually said this, as I discuss here.

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{ 28 comments… add one }
  • Richard P January 9, 2011, 5:35 pm

    “More importantly, theological liberalism has a strong tendency to take the stance that all we have in the biblical account is a snapshot of human authors, locked into their own limitations, blighted by their own cultural prejudice, and – and this is the crucial part – lacking a privileged position.” Sounds a lot like my own personal philiosophical heroes Derrida and Foucault. Has 20th century French philosophy influenced theological liberalism?

    Is the last part of the blog entry meant to be in italics? Just pointing it out for you, Glenno.

    Good stuff anyhow.

  • Jason January 9, 2011, 5:49 pm

    Thank you Glenn, yes, the pejorative “liberal” is thrown out far to readily. It should only be used as a descriptor in regards to claims which do fall outside the claims of Christian orthodoxy.

    To be honest, while I hold to the general truthfulness of scripture (I suppose weak inerrancy would be an apt description) I don’t require that it carry any more weight than I’d expect of any other ancient document. It may well be inerrant, but even organisations that believe in complete inerrancy limit that belief to the original copies, which we don’t have. General truthfulness is close enough for the copies that we do have.

    Matt made an good point in conversation today. The biggest problem with the way Biblical historians approach the Bible is that they don’t approach it the way that a normal historian would. Give your average Professor of Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar access to documents about their subjects as temporally close and well transmitted as we have for Jesus and they’d be over the moon. Yet because it’s “The Bible” scholars feel free to subject it to criteria that no one else does. Would we see people dissecting Plutarch to determine the layers of tradition behind him? Of course not. It’d be silly.

    Sorry, probably veering of on a tangent there. Good post.

  • Glenn January 9, 2011, 6:03 pm

    Jason – interesting! The thing is, the same people who recently called me a liberal would say the same thing about what you just said. “Weak!? OMG how could the inerrancy of Scripture be weak!? Liberal!”

  • Richard P January 9, 2011, 6:06 pm

    Good to see you change your text style.

  • Jason January 9, 2011, 6:18 pm

    I’d look at them and go, “yes, I regard myself as a classical liberal. That’s not to be confused with a modern liberal though… wait, that wasn’t what you were talking about? Oh okay.”

    Then I’d probably sidle off looking embarrassed, change my handle, come back and really rip into myself.

  • Martin January 10, 2011, 1:50 am

    A much needed clarification that I especially appreciate as my thoughts on inerrancy have recently changed to something resembling your stance.

    I think a more pressing question however is what exactly is evangelicalism? Obviously you demonstrated that one can not be liberal but still fail to be orthodox (as with the JWs). But is evangelicalsm just equivalent to mere orthodoxy? This question was brought to mind when not too long ago I attended a conference on Open Theism where the speaker accepted that the position was not liberal but was nontheless not evangelical either.

    Any thoughts Glenn?

  • D Bnonn Tennant January 10, 2011, 2:57 pm

    Hey Glenn, you make some good points, although I’m not inclined to grant without contest your comments about Calvin, Luther and Warfield’s positions on inerrancy. All the sections of their works which I’ve read on the topic have affirmed plenary inspiration wholly. I’d need to see the quotes you have in mind.

    Also, I’m fairly sure that annihilationism was considered very controversial when some evangelical scholars first started to accept it.

    That said, while I’m not much of a historical or comparative theologian, it does seem legitimate to distinguish liberalism by its overall methodology.

    However, I think it’s also fair to observe that you can use a conservative exegetical methodology to arrive at theological positions which are associated with liberalism. And it seems fair to call those positions liberal in that regard.

    However, in charity to you, from my own self-admitted position of relative ignorance, I think it’s more fair to call you unorthodox than liberal. And I’ll defend that claim in broad strokes below:

    However, things like the nature of eternal punishment, the proper subjects of baptism, the nature of original sin – none of these things were treated as issues over which Christians declared one another to be heretics.

    But the Nicene creed is an occasional creed; not a systematic one. It was formulated in respond to specific heresies of the time. Claiming that issues such as baptism, hell or original sin were not treated as issues over which Christians declared one another to be heretics is therefore an argument from silence. If those issues had been in contention when the creed was formulated, it may well have spoken to them. I’m not saying it would have—merely that the fact that it didn’t doesn’t actually say anything about how those issues were perceived in terms of heresy at the time.

    Of course they can, but they’re overstepping the mark if they then say that they possess the authority to declare another Christian to be unorthodox or perhaps not really a fellow believer if they don’t share their private opinion.

    I don’t think orthodoxy is typically defined in terms of personal beliefs. I think personal beliefs are typically defined in terms of some orthodoxy or other.

    For example, I would say that I am an orthodox Reformed Baptist. I assent nearly wholly to the 1689 London Confession; and the areas in which I hold reservations were historically areas in which different Reformed and baptistic theologians held differing views. And Reformed Baptists fall into the more general realm of Reformed Orthodoxy (or Calvinism I suppose you could call it) in toto. That in turn could probably be generalized further into historical Protestantism, which would include Arminian theological streams as well.

    Orthodoxy is defined both by creeds, and by what kinds of doctrinal agreements and disagreements were historically tolerated by theologians who regarded themselves as part of the same theological streams. Which leads me to some concrete examples which I think show that you can’t reasonably be considered an orthodox Protestant (at least from a historical point of view):

    1. Arminians and Calvinists have always agreed on eternal punishment.

    2. They’ve always agreed on plenary inspiration.

    3. They’ve always agreed on the historicity of Adam.

    Now, you can almost certainly find some more recent (or possibly even some quite old) theological tradition that takes the views you take. In which case, you’re quite welcome, I suppose, to define yourself as orthodox in regards to that tradition.

    Equally, you could define yourself as orthodox in regards to historical Protestantism, but unorthodox in regards to some of its doctrines. But given the historical importance of those doctrines, I’m not sure that would really fly. It seems more like saying, “I’m orthodox except when I’m not”.

  • Glenn January 10, 2011, 4:00 pm

    Dom, just three comments:

    First, I don’t think it’s terribly clear to say that I’m orthodox in regard to historical Protestantism but not orthodox in regard to some of its doctrines. If I disagree with any of its fundamental doctrines, then I am not orthodox as far as protestantism goes. If I disagree with it’s minor doctrines, then they are not actually points of orthodoxy.

    But I’m talking in broader strokes, about orthodox Christianity – something that would encompass quite different Protestant traditions, like Arminian Baptists as well as very conservative Reformed churches. I am an orthodox Christian.

    Second: I think the “but the Nicene creed is an occasional document” argument really fails on historical grounds. It’s just a mistake to think that the Nicene Creed is ony useful for excluding Arianism, or that the church hadn’t encountered the ideas that I hold that some people regard as unorthodox or worse. Things like physicalism, soul sleep, annihilationism – The church had encountered these doctrines in the surrounding Jewish/Greek and emerging Christian world. And in spite of this, they were not considered important enough to be incorporated in to this statement of orthodoxy. Goodness, before the final version of the Nicene Creed (technically the Creed of constantinople) was finished, we even had a leader in the church (Arnobius of Sicca) defending monism and annihilationism in a work that is now included among the Church Fathers. So it’s really not true that these “errors” had not become well known at the time in the church.

    Third: Yes you could follow a very conservatuive method and arrive at a doctrinal point that many liberals believe, but this is not important – and it certainly doesn’t warrant the “liberal” label, since it is a coincidence.

    As for the quotes from Luther, Calvin and Warfield, I mention them here. Although I do stand corrected – and I will update this blog accordingly. It was Charles Hodge, not B B Warfield. But the point is obviously the same.

  • D Bnonn Tennant January 10, 2011, 4:59 pm

    Hey Glenn.

    First, I don’t think it’s terribly clear to say that I’m orthodox in regard to histrical Protestantism but not orthodox in regard to some of its doctrines. If I disagree with any of its fundamental doctrines, then I am not orthodox as far as protestantism goes. If I disagree with it’s minor doctrines, then they are not actually points of orthodoxy.

    Agreed.

    But I’m talking in broader strokes, about orthodox Christianity – something that would encompass quite different Protestant traditions, like Arminian Baptists as well as very conservative Reformed churches.

    That’s fair. I tend to use a narrower brush than you, I guess. It seems to me that talking about orthodox Christianity in general ultimately comes down to talking about “mere” Christianity. I tend to avoid that construct because it’s problematic. For one thing, as I recently blogged, one can accumulate an awful lot of theological baggage in the form of false doctrines, yet still be a saved Christian. So it doesn’t say much about someone to call them an “orthodox Christian” or a “mere Christian”, since the number of points of agreement are relatively few and the points of disagreement relatively many. To say that someone is an orthodox Christian seems to come down to the observation that he appears not to be so badly wrong about everything that he isn’t saved at all!

    For another thing, it’s uninteresting to talk about an orthodoxy that is so broad. I’m inclined to grant that you’re orthodox in this respect (I know, don’t fall all over me with gratitude or anything). But that’s not a very interesting statement when it comes to defining what kind of Christian you are. An “orthodox Christian” seems to me to be about the broadest kind of Christian there is. It’s a starting point; a passing grade. I find it helpful to talk about how well someone passes, rather than just that he passes (;

    Of course, you’re under no obligation to define yourself in terms of theological traditions or labels of orthodoxy at all. I’m just commenting on what you’ve said.

    Things like physicalism, soul sleep, annihilationism – The church had encountered these doctrines in the surrounding Jewish/Greek and emerging Christian world. And in spite of this, they were not considered important enough to be incorporated in to this statement of orthodoxy.

    Well, okay. Again, I’m the first to admit I’m no historian. But let me just ask a couple of obvious questions:

    1. What was the purpose of the Nicene Creed? Was it specifically to combat Arianism, or to define the essentials of the faith more generally, with little regard for that context?

    2. Could it be that the church had encountered these beliefs in surrounding religions, but didn’t feel it necessary to mention them in a creed precisely because they were from other religions? The problem with the Arians was that they claimed to be teaching true Christian doctrine. The Jews and Greeks, on the other hand, weren’t teaching soul sleep or physicalism as Christian doctrines. You mention one Christian leader defending monism and annihilationism; but that might have seemed inconsequential compared to the fact that pretty much every bishop in Christendom was defending Arianism?

    As I say, I’m just asking. I don’t know enough about the historical context to comment more forcibly. I would observe, though: if it turned out that some Christians were teaching soul sleep etc, and this wasn’t mentioned in the creed, it’s still not much of an argument for these doctrines being considered legitimate. For one thing, the reasons they were omitted aren’t available to us; we have to infer them abductively. And for another thing, it’s not as if the Christians at Nicea were an infallible rule on what is and is not legitimate Christian doctrine.

    Third: Yes you could follow a very conservatuive method and arrive at a doctrinal point that many liberals believe, but this is not important – and it certainly doesn’t warrant the “liberal” label, since it is a coincidence.

    Well, okay, I’ll grant that with the observation that a coincidence of doctrines is still a coincidence of doctrines. I think my comment in response to Matt on Facebook was fair at the time, given that I was speaking specifically to this coincidence of doctrines. But as I think I’ve mentioned above, given the explanation and nuances drawn out here, I wouldn’t be inclined to call you a liberal again. I’d just call you unorthodox in regards to the streams I consider generally orthodox (:

    So I apologize that I used the label in a way that seems to differ from convention, and implies more than I was actually saying. I trust you can see that I didn’t intend to suggest you follow a liberal methodology.

    I am curious, though, about your view of Scripture’s inspiration. I understand your basic stance on its accuracy and truthfulness, but how does that fit in with your exegesis of what it says about itself in terms of God’s guiding of the authors? Maybe you can point me to something you’ve already written if I missed it.

    As for the quotes from Luther, Calvin and Warfield, I mention them here. Although I do stand corrected – and I will update this blog accordingly. It was Charles Hodge, not B B Warfield. But the point is obviously the same.

    Well, those quotes really don’t indicate that Luther or Calvin or Hodge didn’t believe in inerrancy as it’s defined in the Chicago Statement. To the contrary, they seem perfectly congruent with it. In fact, Hodge explicitly affirms inerrancy in the quote you give. Note his statement:

    Admitting that the Scriptures do contain, in a few instances, discrepancies which with our present means of knowledge, we are unable satisfactorily to explain, they furnish no rational ground for denying their infallibility.

    It’s also important to note that the doctrine of inerrancy didn’t develop spontaneously; Calvin and Luther did not have as sophisticated an articulation of it as later theologians.

    Having said that, you’re welcome to have the last word; I don’t think this is the place to have a debate as to the finer points of various theologians’ views on inerrancy (:

  • Glenn January 10, 2011, 6:11 pm

    Dom:

    It seems to me that talking about orthodox Christianity in general ultimately comes down to talking about “mere” Christianity. I tend to avoid that construct because it’s problematic. For one thing, as I recently blogged, one can accumulate an awful lot of theological baggage in the form of false doctrines, yet still be a saved Christian. So it doesn’t say much about someone to call them an “orthodox Christian” or a “mere Christian”, since the number of points of agreement are relatively few and the points of disagreement relatively many.

    Put it in the context of apologetics. Defending mere Christianity is of incredible value, because it means not having to defend a much larger, unwieldy system containing a bunch of beliefs, many of which could be wrong. It means defending the essentials of the Christian faith as true, and if you can do that and do it well, then whether you can show the other stuff to be true or not, you’ve done the most important thing.

    1. What was the purpose of the Nicene Creed? Was it specifically to combat Arianism, or to define the essentials of the faith more generally, with little regard for that context?

    Well it’s not either/or. Of course as an event in history it should be seen in context. The question is whether it was a summary of doctrine with no point other than the denial of Arianism. This seems to be clearly not true, since Arius would have affirmed most of the things in the Nicene Creed.

    My understanding of the Nicene Creed, in very sketchy terms, is that it was a reaction to the development of heresies like Arianism, and it was the church’s way of saying “For future reference, this is what we believe, so any future movements that differ from this are heretical.” It was a safeguard for the future.

    2. Could it be that the church had encountered these beliefs in surrounding religions, but didn’t feel it necessary to mention them in a creed precisely because they were from other religions?

    The reason I mentioned other cultures is that they provided the ideological background that early Christians had when they came to Christ. But as I noted, these doctrines were already issues within Christianity itself. Nobody believes that Arnobius, for example, invented monism and annihilationism all by himself out of nothing and started teaching it. If you have any number of bishops teaching a doctrine then it’s safe to think that we have a representative of a school of thought.

    Now of course I agree, the Christians at Nicea were not infallible. That’s why I’m grateful that they didn’t lay all their personal beliefs upon us – on issues like the soul, the nature of hell, their precise view of Scripture etc. They procalimed as fundamental only those doctrines which are actually definitive of the Christian faith.

    So I apologize that I used the label in a way that seems to differ from convention, and implies more than I was actually saying. I trust you can see that I didn’t intend to suggest you follow a liberal methodology.

    Thank you, I appreciate that.

    Well, those quotes really don’t indicate that Luther or Calvin or Hodge didn’t believe in inerrancy as it’s defined in the Chicago Statement. To the contrary, they seem perfectly congruent with it. In fact, Hodge explicitly affirms inerrancy in the quote you give. Note his statement:

    Actually, notice that Hodge doesn’t mention inerrancy, only infallibility.

    Part of the debate over inerrancy is over the fact that while historical figures like Calvin or Hodge do talk about infallibility (in the sense that the teaching of Scripture is all true), inerrancy is a much stronger claim.

    I’m familiar with the Chicago statement, and as written, I don’t see them allowing for specks of error. And it’s not simply that Luther and Calvin lacked the ability to spell out inerrancy if they wanted to. They easily could have, and yet they in fact allowed for minor errors that did not contribute to the message of Scripture (a message that they regarded as wholly true).

    And yes, I do have the last say, because I’m the boss here 🙂

  • D Bnonn Tennant January 10, 2011, 7:01 pm

    It means defending the essentials of the Christian faith as true, and if you can do that and do it well, then whether you can show the other stuff to be true or not, you’ve done the most important thing.

    True enough. But I think there’s also a lot of value in defending a more rigorous formulation of Christianity. Even fairly simple-minded skeptics want to know about issues such as action theory, foreknowledge, hell and the problem of evil, biblical discrepancies, and so on. Because they’re all part of Christianity; and accepting Christianity means accepting some position regarding those things. That necessarily commits the apologist to positions on these matters. And some positions are more defensible than others.

    For instance, I was an atheist for a long time despite the efforts of people defending mere Christianity + libertarian action theory. Yet a single encounter with Reformed Christianity completely unseated my skepticism, because it seemed apparent that while a libertarian Christianity was incoherent on any number of grounds, the Reformed, compatibilist view with its commensurate doctrines of depravity, unconditional election and irresistible grace was intellectually respectable.

    That’s not to diminish the value of defending more basic or general Christian truth-claims. I just think one has to be prepared to defend more specific claims should they arise; and of course, getting one’s theology right is then very important.

  • Glenn January 10, 2011, 7:25 pm

    Well, I certainly don’t think that accepting Christianity means accepting a stance on action theory. Goodness, there are thousands of Christians who have never even thought about it.

    I think this takes us into the territory of subjective assessments of what appeals to some vs others. I know of some Christian believers who, for example, find some brand of synergism / libertarian free will much more intellectually satisfying. It’s the kind of thing you can change your mind about without changing your mind about Christianity. Another way of putting it is: Give the sceptic less that he can quibble about, and only the facts that he cannot deny, and then he will have to grapple with the smaller things later.

  • D Bnonn Tennant January 10, 2011, 7:54 pm

    On the contrary; accepting Christianity definitely does mean accepting a stance on action theory. It’s just that a lot of Christians don’t know this or consider that stance (: So they have an implicit stance (and it’s usually libertarian because that seems to be what everyone assumes is true intuitively).

    Synergism is actually a much more important question than I think most Christians give it credit for. Given Paul’s comments in Galatians, it seems to me that a consistent synergism in fact obviates the true gospel, which is monergistic by definition. But that’s a conversation for another time…

  • Glenn January 10, 2011, 8:22 pm

    Well, I draw a distinction between thinking in a way that presupposes a specific stance on action theory, and actually accepting a stance on action theory. It’s surprisingly common for people to act and think in a way that presupposes a belief that is inconsistent with what they would actually accept if confronted on the issue. They don;t accept it, but they think as though they do.

    And even if most converts to Christianity were libertarians on free will, it’s much more likely that they didn’t adopt that view when they accepted Christianity. They just already held that view and didn’t change it.

  • D Bnonn Tennant January 10, 2011, 8:25 pm

    Ah right. That’s a good distinction to draw I guess.

  • Jonathan aka Spiritus January 13, 2011, 6:49 am

    Great post, Glenn! Annihilationism seems to be a favorite of some of the Progressive Christians I run into from time to time on the web, but that doesn’t speak to the validness or invalidness of the doctrine. Edward Fudge and John Stott, who are by no means liberal put me into an investigative pursuit regarding the claim. I’ve found it to be a sound position. And yes, for that I have been labeled a heretic, liberal, etc.

    Addendum: Folks from Mr. Fudge’s former ecclesiastical tradition, the non-instrumental churches of Christ, would indeed define him as a liberal and much more, i.e. “lost”, “non-christian” etc. Sad but true.

  • Jim January 13, 2011, 8:27 pm

    Good post. Coming from an evangelical background, I thought mainline churches were full of people like Crossan or Spong. But I found that even though the few mainline churches I attended did not hold to inerrancy or young earth creationism, they still loved Jesus and preached the Resurrection, the importance of confessing sins, and the deity of Christ. I have since been going to more conservative churches, but a couple years “behind enemy lines” really opened my eyes, there are some darn good Christians in these so-called “liberal” churches that hold to the essentials of the faith. I think their beliefs allowed them to be resilient in the face of the modern media’s constant assault on Christian beliefs, which cause many evangelicals that I know to undergo a crisis of belief, often multiple times.

  • Stuart January 14, 2011, 10:47 am

    Hi Glenn,

    BTW, I’m in agreement with all of your post above. A couple of questions…

    I was asked the other day what liberalism was and I answered, it is a response of some theologians, particularly in the latter half of the nineteenth century to the challenges of Darwinian evolution and German higher biblical criticism, that fused Enlightenment thinking with Christian belief such that certain orthodox understandings of essential Christian doctrines changed. (I use “orthodox” here in a Vincentian sense.) This, I take it, is what you refer to as “theological liberalism.” Correct? The followup question I received was which doctrines changed. I had to think about this, and said a whole lot, but particularly; the sinfulness of man and miracles, and consequently the divine authorship of Scripture and the resurrection of Jesus.

    I wonder, is there a sense when people say, “You are a liberal” that they mean something other than that which I spelt out above? (Now obviously the label is used pejoratively.) Something like, “With regard to this issue – an issue I consider essential – you are theologically unorthodox, and coincidentally are in agreement with other Liberals (capital ‘L’).” ?

    In other words, is there another sense of the word “liberal” that does not mean what you spelt out as theological liberalism? Surely there is, because Neo-orthodox theologians, such as Karl Barth, are more liberal than Evangelical theologians but less so than Liberal (with a capital ‘L’) theologians, such as Spong, Borg, Geering, etc. Like a liberal as opposed to conservative scale?

    Thoughts?

  • Glenn January 14, 2011, 2:31 pm

    Stuart: I don’t see Barth as liberal in any sense actually. But I digress…

    There’s a sense in which people use the word to mean “you don’t hold the most popular view within orthodoxy.” That might be the phenomenon you’re talking about, but I think it’s fundamentally wrong. This use of the word suggests that someone is a bit lax in one area, or they are less strict than conservatives in adhering to… well, to something, but to what?

  • Stuart January 14, 2011, 6:09 pm

    I guess the answer would be “less strict than conservatives in adhering to the most popular understanding today of what the scriptures say and in adherence to the various creeds in my (possibly narrow) tradition which is the standard of all things orthodox.” There is some pretense there. I’m inclined not to use the word in that layman’s sense.

  • Glenn January 14, 2011, 10:23 pm

    Yeah, “Less strict in holding to my views than I am.” What a shock 🙂

  • Stuart January 15, 2011, 7:59 pm

    🙂 I guess the next step (blog) is to define theological evangelicalism as its adherents typically contrast their view/s with the “liberal” camp.

  • Jared January 16, 2011, 4:23 pm

    The term “liberal” is one of those frustrating terms for which each person seems to have their own private definition, which makes attempting to discuss it rather vexing.

    —————

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”

  • Glenn January 19, 2011, 9:13 pm

    In a trademark display of his own level of honesty, a would-be evangelical apologist has recently written a blog post about this post that begins thus:

    “Glenn Peoples has done a post defending his liberal theology:”

    Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!

  • Geoff January 19, 2011, 9:59 pm

    he should be shot by the grammar police for a start..

    then by shot by his high school for not being able to put a proper argument together and for not being able to critically interact with a piece of writing (ie, comprehend it).

    “I doubled majored in history and Classics. I have an MAR from RTS. In theology, I’m a Calvinist, creationist, inerrantist, semicessationist, classical Christian theist, and amil (with postmil sympathies).”

    He should also remain in his area of expertise, and stop using jargon to describe himself. The dude has so many labels to live up to, it’s no wonder he can’t write sensibly, he’s spent all his life researching things to call himself.

  • nickosjt January 21, 2011, 6:49 pm

    Hey Glenn,

    love the blog- great work!

    I even put a link from my humble blog to yours.

    cheers,

    Nick

  • ropata January 23, 2011, 3:13 pm

    “Liberalism” is such a broad term that subtle distinctions between theological, ethical, or political liberalism hold critically different meanings.

    Glenn’s erstwhile apologist friend seems a little overwrought & has tangled himself in knots. Why do fundamentalists have to think in such big clumsy brushstrokes? Example:

    BTW, just because Glenn didn’t use the literal phrase “theological liberalism” doesn’t therefore exculpate him from its abuse. It doesn’t let Glenn off the hook.

    The only response I can think of is:
    http://ropata.files.wordpress.com/2008/02/eyechart1337.jpg

  • Alistair February 3, 2011, 5:23 pm

    Hi Glen

    Thanks for the post! food for thought and very helpful.

    If you have time to answer I’m curious as to your view about what (if any) errors do you think the bible contains?

    (If you have already posted on this just throw me the link)

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

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