Tuesday, April 03, 2018

What is Liberal Theology

This was originally from 2008

Most Christians have a juandiced view of liberal theology; for most Evangelicals, the term "liberal theology" conjures up images of the Jesus Seminar, Bishop Sprong assaulting the truth of Holly Scripture, questions about Jesus' exisetence, and the foamenation of dobut and unbleief.Liberal theology has had a long tradition that very much pre-dates the Jesus seminar. The liberal tradition in Christinaity is actually called "the liberal reivisionary tradition" and it streches back to a certain brand of Orhtodoxy that was far more the majority than was the Evangleical movmenet just after the enlightenment. In this series I will breiefly examine the history of liberal theology, and overview a few of my favorite "liberal" theologians.

A fine definition, perhaps the best I've seen, is given my my friend who calls him "Urbild" (the late Scott Gross, see my tribute FN 1) [1] (Logos in German) on my Doxa Message board. Urblid is a doctoral student in Theology at a major liberal seminary, and this was in the "Theology/Bible" section;Posted 03/06/2005 08:27:34 (03/06/2005 03:27:34 PM)

The difference between conservatives and liberals is rooted in two fundamentally different methods of doing theology. The conservative tradition is authoritarian in method. The liberal theological tradition, by contrast, adopts a method in which truth claims are subjected to experience and reason.

Conservative theology begins with the assumption of some divine revelation. This revelation is held to be immune from rational critique, vouchsafed by the testimony of miracles, understood as supernatural intervention. If there is any kind of evaluation of religious beliefs, the evaluation will be governed under norms derived from the tradition. "X is true because the Bible or the church says so."

The liberal theological tradition assumes that Christian stories and belief systems can claim no exemption by virtue of unique origin. No truth claim is immune to criticism. The liberal theologian is not merely responsible to an internal criterion of a particular religious tradition, but is also responsible to the same kind of criteria and debate that guides other fields of knowledge. In other words, theological statements must conform to publicly defensible and revisable canons of investigation and validation. The liberal will humbly concede that this method is fallible, while acknowledging that only God can claim the realization of total knowledge.

Liberal theology is often mistakenly defined as simply a challenge to orthodox belief. On the contrary, liberal theology seeks continuity with the dogmatic tradition. A theologically liberal Christian will attempt to develop all of the possibilities that a particular doctrine has to offer, while recognizing that any doctrine may finally be exhausted. The church's doctrines are respected for what they can teach us, but they are not treated as a set of immutable truths. As in the conservative theological tradition, doctrines will receive a great diversity of interpretation. But this diversity is welcomed, not shunned, as the liberal understands that the cohesiveness of a religious community is not based on agreement, but on the mutual enrichment acquired from encountering differing points of view

We could add to this definition that in the modern era, especially since Baultmann, the impetus of liberal theology is not so much to subject the Bible to reason, as to translate the Gospel into terms meaningful to contemporary society. Be that as it may, I'll get back to that shortly.Liberal theology is most often thought of as a counter to "orthodoxy," but for most of its history the liberal view was more in line with Orthodoxy and the Evangelicals and their forerunners were on the lunatic fringe. Three major movements that preceded the Evangelical; the Pruitans (sixteenth century England), the Pietists (seventeenth century Germany) and the Evangelicals (nineteenth century England and America), all were kept at bay by the mainline orthodoxy which controlled the major denominations, and all three were radical movements that sought to restore a bogus ancient flavor to Christianity while moving away from the liberals who had come to control the Orthodox centers.

The dichotomy between reason and faith in religion goes very far back in Christian origins. In Early modern times it emerges as rationalism vs. voluntarism, but it can be found in the middle ages between Scholastics and nominalists. We should not be at all surprised to find the Enlightenment as a major source of liberal theology, and so it was. Nevertheless, there are other sources that even preceded the enlightenment. Since a major motivational force for liberal theology has been rationalisms, many antecedents from the Reformation and skeptical crisis in Europe can be found, thus pre dating the enlightenment. The same antecedents which pushed the Enlightenment also forged the impetus for liberal theology.

But I'm going to skip up 19th century, because my historical wring is long,boring, and ponderous,and because real liberal theology begins in the 19th century. See comment section for my development the antecedents renaissance and reformation.


It was out of this Kantian quagmire that liberal theology proper really gets going. Libeal theology begins with the attempt of a faithful follower of Kant, Frederich Schliermacher,(1768-1834) to restore God as the object of theological discourse. As a Kantian Schleiermacher knew that God is not given in sense data. Also as a Kantian he knew that God had to be on a par with the necessary categories but that we had to have to some form of interaction with experince. It was out of this problemt that he realized that one could go around the sense data and find interaction of the mind with God in the form of our basic consciousness of the concept of God itself. From this notion Scholeiermacher emerged with his famous dictum, the "feeling of utter dependence." Though this concept God was once again placed as the object of theological disourse and the basic method of liberal theology was born. Schleiermacher is known as "the father of liberal theology" for this reason.

Schleiermacher was important to three theological traditions; he is called "father of liberal theology," meaning liberal protestant theology, during hte nineeth century he was important in circles of German piety and popular among the Evangelicals, and he is also traced as one of the prgeniters of the Unitarian Universalism tradition (Brockie). He's largley forgotten by all three today, although still studied in liberal seminaries. Other figures became important to nineteenth century liberal theology:

Schleiermacher, in On Religion: Speeches to it's Cultured Dispisers, and The Christian Faith.sets forth the view that religion is not reduceable to knowledge or ethical systems. It is primarily a phenomenological apprehension of God consciusness through means of religious affections. Affections is a term not used much anymore, and it is easily confussed with mere emotion. Sometimes Schleiermacher is understood as saying that "I become emotional when I pay and thus there must be an object of my emotional feelings." Though he does vinture close to this position in one form of the argument, this is not exactly what he's saying. In the earlier form of his argument he was saying that affections were indicative of a sense of God, but in the Christian Faith he argues that there is a greater sense of unity in the life world and a sense of the dependence of all things in the life world upon something higher.What is this feeling of utter depenedence? It is the sense of the unity in the life world and it's greater reliance upon a higher reality. It is not to be confused with the stary sky at night in the desert feeling, but is akin to it. I like to think about the feeling of being in my backyard late on a summer night, listening to the sounds of the freeway dying out and realizing a certain harmony in the lfie world and the sense that all of this exists because it stems form a higher thing. There is more to it than that but I don't have time to go into it. That's just a short hand for those of us to whom this is a new concept to get some sort of handle on it. Nor does"feeling" here mean "emotion" but it is connected to the religious affections. In the early version S. thought it was a correlate between the religious affections and God; God must be there because I can feel love for him when I pray to him. But that's not what it's saying in the better version.

The basic assumptions Schleiermacher is making are Plaontic. He believes that the feeling of utter dependence is the backdrop, the pre-given, pre-cognitive notion behind the ontological argument. IN other words, what Anselm tried to capture in his logical argument is felt by everyone, if they were honest, in a pre-cognitive way. In other words, before one thinks about it, it is this "feeling" of utter dependence. After one thinks it out and makes it into a logical arguemnt it is the ontological argument."Life world," or Labeinswelt is a term used in German philosophy. It implies the world of one's culturally constructed life, the "world" we 'live in.' Life as we expeirence it on a daily basis. The unity one senses in the life world is intuative and unites the experiences and aspirations of the individual in a sense of integration and belonging in in the world. As Heidegger says "a being in the world." Schleiermacher is saying that there is a special intuative sense that everyone can grasp of this whole, this unity, being bound up with a higher relatiy, being dependent upon a higher unity. In other words, the "feeling" can be understood as an intuative sense of "radical contingency" (int he sense of the above ontological arguments).He goes on to say that the feeling is based upon the ontological principle as its theoretical background, but doesn't' depend on the argument because it proceeds the argument as the pre-given pre-theoretical pre-cognitive regularization of what Anselm sat down and thought about and turned into a rational argument: why has the fools said in his heart 'there is no God?' Why a fool? Because in the heart we know God. To deny this is to deny the most basic realization about reality.

Albrecht Ritschl

Schleiermacher is called the "father" of liberal theology, but the other foundational figure which spured the development of liberal theology in the 19th century was Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889).German Protestant, taught theology at Bonn (1851-64) and Gottengin (1864-89). His major work translates into English as The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (Vol. I and III, 1872 and 1900).(Columbria Encyclopedia, Barelby.com

Further works byRitschl:Instruction in the Christian Religion, (1875); Theology and Metaphysics,(1881).

Ritschl was in line with Schleiermacher's thinking, he believed religion was primary a matter of revelation and personal experince. He worked agaisnt Hegel and his ilk in ridding theology of speculative metaphysics and philosophical frameworks. This puts him in line with Schleiermacher since Hegel hated Schleiermacher (the two had been class makes in college) and Schleiermacher's feeling of utter dependence worked direct against Hegel's notions of philosophical speculation. Ritschl sees theology as practical and not speculative. He grounds his inquiry in historical criticism and history, and in the revelation of God through Jesus Christ.

With Ritschl we see three lines of theological development shaping up. The first being Schleiermacher and Ritschl with religious experince and historical criticism. The second is an indirect line running thorugh several seeming contradictory figures: Hegel,theolgoian A.E. Beidermann (1819-85), New Testament scholar F.C. Bauer (1792-1860)--Bauer taguht Ritschl but was rejected by him, Philosphers Ludwig Fuererbach (1804-72) Karl Marx (1818-83) Soren Keirkegaard (1813-55).

The third line demonstrates the way the first two began to come together toward the end of the century to produce a distinctive liberal climate for theology. This line is dominated by Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), but just began his carrer at the even end of the century. Johannes Weiss (1863-1814). William Werde (1859-1906), Martin Kahler (1835-1913) Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) (Troelstch would turn out to be the teacher of Paul Tillich). By the end of the century a vast aray of skeptical style theology had been produced, with theolgoians and Bible scholars more skeptical of the validity of the Bible than any atheists every thought about being.Most of what we see on the net, with skeptical boards like the Secular Web are rehashes of arguments raised by ministers and Bible scholars from this era. The emphasis was upon de-mythologizeing the Bible. Chrstainity was seen primarly as an ethical pltform, or a social organization deciated to helping society make a better world.

Liberal Theology in the 20th Century

Until the end of World War I liberal theology proceeded as it had done in the previous century. The first world war changed everything. Liberal theology had become an ivory tower pursuit with nothing to say tot he common man. Suddenly Europe found itself in a crushing war, thousands dying everyday, a whole generation slaughtered on the battle. Massive dissolutionment set in as no one found liberal theology comforting. Karl Barth arose with a new take on theology which came to be called "Neo-Orthodox." Barth was a liberal Calvinist, he understood the Bible not as the word of God but containing the word of God. He under revelation through a dialectic between the reader and the text. Thus theology was infused with divine comfort in the face of over whelming tragedy. Liberal theology responded after the war by seeking out the existential roots in Christian thought. Theology in that century, before the second world war, was dominated by two major camps, Bartian neo-Orthodoxy, and Bualtmannian existentialism (led by Rudolph Bultmann). Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr (as well as his verbose brother H. Richard) would be major champions in the existential camp. This basic division held throughout the rest of the century, but in the 1960s it began to change tremendously.

Theology in the sixties was very exciting. This was the era when liberal theology came into its own. The major event that put liberal theology front and center was the conference called "Vatican II" held in the early 60s. The Church reformed many aspects of its liturgy modernizing itself both in cosmetic appeal and theology. It adopted a position of ecumenism allowing for the salvation of those outside the catholic or even Christian camps. It took most of the Latin out of its Mass, allowed the use of native instruments such as guitar, nuns began wearing civilian clothes and so on. In the field (Latin America) even more radical steps were taken. Priests began joining revolutions and fighting for social change. Some Priests even took up arms and joined liberation forces in the mountains. The first priest to do so was Father Camillio Tores in Columbia. Out of this period a whole movement evolved known as "liberation theology." It swept through Latin America, it was a major force in the U.S. anti-war movement (the Barigan brothers, both priests went to jail for pouring blood on draft records). Martin Luther King Jr. was a liberal theologian. His doctoral dissertation was on Paul Tillich's concept of God as Being itself. The whole civil rights movement was infused with Christian participation and leadership (such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and this fed into the anti-war movement and contributed to the popularity of liberation theology.

Soon Feminist theology followed, just as Feminism grew out of the civil rights and anti-war movements. New calls for all kinds of theologies were going out all the time. It was a very exciting period of fement. Theology was a battle ground. The popular musical Godspell was written by a theology student at that time and was basically a musical "Gospel according to the hippies" (Godspel = Gospel). The most radical movement of all was the God is dead movement. The major leader was Frederick J.J. Altizer. He argued that God poured himself out in Hegelian dialectic, just as Christ gave up his life on the cross, the God himself poured is very life into his creation giving it (man) the ability to make his own way. The phrase "God is dead" began with Nietzsche who meant by that that modern Western culture had killed the spirit of true reverence for the good by codifying it in a hypocritical institution like the church. Altizer just turned that around into a positive act by God on man's behalf. The movement fragmented, it's core idea was never really understood, the mainstream church reacted very harshly. The net outcome was the liberal church turned its focus to the world. An armay liberal Christian social workers and sociologists went forth to serve the good of humanity, to fight in revolutions, to lead political activism, to fee the hungry and protest war and so forth. Marxism was its chief tool for social analysis.

Rather than death of God theology, the new army of socially minded Christian liberals took up process theology. This allowed them to regard God as a depersonalized ideal of Goodness and yet still be motivated by a sense of divine truth. Process theology became the spiritual force of liberal theology in the last quarter of the twentieth century, thus united it with its late nineteenth century forbearer.Process theology and Marxist analysis drove liberal theology pretty much form the 60s to the 90s. After the fall of communism, in the early 90's liberal theology turned to identity politics and postmodernism. After the Jesus seminar and 911 and the war in Irak liberal theology has moved off center stage. The decline in popularity of postmodernism and lumping in identity politics with the "pc crowd" has pushed liberal theology into the background. It has no real social focus now. Some sort of ferment is taking place, a synthesis of the emergent church idea, identity politics, posternmodernism. Some segements may have gone more into a neo conservative phase.

Sources for StudyThe best source for study would be to obtain The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology. This is the authority on modern theology. It is expensive, it comes in to major volumes. One volume is about doctrines, the other is about people. You can look up ideas by the name of the theologian that made them famous, or get a run down on the basic thoughts of the major theologians of the last few centuries, in the theologian volume. Or look up ideas such as "God" or "Bible" in the doctrine volume. This would be crucial for anyone seeking to really understand theology. Another very important book would the History of Christian Thought by Paul Tillich. These are lectures Tillich delivered somewhere and they give an excellent run down on all of Chrsitian theology form the first century to Tillich's own views.

on line resources:

Religion online.org has a very through list of topics linked on their site. Here's a source I love:
Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology, a fine collection of short essay each dedicated to a different major modern theologain:they have them all!Wisdoms Children an intelligent blog, very literate, featuring major theolgoical and liberal arts thinkers. God Web, with an excellent article on Tillich and other liberal theological issues.

Last, and very probably lest, but in the interest of getting people to stop attributing to me ideas I do not espouse, my own theological credo on Doxa.

[1] "Urbie" (Scott Grosss) as we friends on Doxa Forums affectionately knew him, was brilliant, cleaver, hilarious, and true intellectual. He actually knew Schubert M,Ogden world famous theologian  who I studied with briefly at Perkins. Scott was assigned to drive him about while lectured at Clairmont in California. Scott was studding on his doctorate there with Charles Hartshorne. Scott was an expert i process theology andalso knew panpsyhism and he was the person who convinced me to write my book, Trace of God. He was a great guy he contributed a lot to my life I mourn his passing.


Mike Gerow said...

"Some sort of ferment is taking place..."


Things could get interesting still .... (I was reading some of the contemporary "rebirth of the death of God" theologians, myself, over the past year or two....)

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

God is not dead you have to allow yourself to open to the reality and take a stand at some point.

Mike Gerow said...

well, you must realize, that's not exactly what they mean; it's a bit more complicated and oriented sociopolitically than that.

Radical theologians are not the same thing as New Atheists!


Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Joe Hinman said...
I know what they mean,I know Altizer. You are wrong, they can rationalize with lots of fancy packaging and get high marks in granddaughter school but the final analysis they do have no relationship with God.

Remember Atizer sort of killed Tillich, Tillich was shouting your are not hanging this on me. Altixer kept insistimng we are following the implications of your theology

Mike Gerow said...

Hehe! Tillich seems to get flack from both sides of the theological divide these days, & I'll dig up some links too. But hey, at least peeps are still reading him....

Here's a famous quote:

"Paul Tillich once confided to Thomas J. J. Altizer, the most famous of the radical “death of God” theologians, that “the real Tillich is the radical Tillich.”1" from here: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137373830_3

You might also read this: https://d1cam0bj22fh80.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/1-Manning-Radical-Tillich.pdf

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

great thinkers are not necessarily good at knowing their best work. Tillich's real strong suit was transforming classical doctrine into modern ideas.

Mike Gerow said...

"The answering theologian must discover the false gods in the individual soul and in society . . . He must challenge them through the power of the Divine Logos, which makes him a theologian. Theological polemic is not merely a theoretical discussion, but rather a spiritual judgment against the gods which are not God, against those structures of evil, those distortions of God in thought and action. No compromise or adaptation or theological self surrender is permitted on this level. For the first Commandment is the rock upon which theology stands. There is no synthesis possible between God and the idols. In spite of the dangers inherent in so judging, the theologian must become an instrument of the Divine Judgement against a distorted world."

Tillich, ST, (cited in my second link above)

That's a radical tone, no? Sounds almost like Peter Rollins..... anyway I think it's that article where the guy says a lot of how you read Tillich depends on what you emphasize & the "radical Tillich" is found largely outside the Systematic Theologies and more in C2B, etc....

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

yes I love radical Tillich, Radical Tillich was a believer, that;why he refused to be made the mascot of the God is dead movement.

Mike Gerow said...

Hmmm.... Here's a review of Caputos newest book, which has his reading of Tillich in it. ( I haven't read it myself, btw.) His reading's not entirely uncritical, but it shows at least Tillich is still interesting to people and being read, no?


Mike Gerow said...

But Tillich's reception on the "right" of contemporary liberal theology (which runs under the title "Radical Orthodoxy") is even less warm, I think. You're kinda unique in your reading of him, afaik, even tho that's why I think yours is interesting too, cuz you find so much that's classically orthodox in T's panentheism, much moreso than many similarly-minded scholars, it seems....

To say that Tillich does not often appear as a subject of explicit thematization in the work of Milbank and Ward is not to say that Tillich does not loom large in their thought. On the contrary, Tillich is the image par excellence of all that is wrong with modern theology from their perspective. On the first page of his Theology and Social Theory, [John] Milbank famously lays out the dilemma facing Christian theology in the postmodern context as he sees it: either theology will again become a “metadiscourse” positioning all other discourses, or it will be “positioned by secular reason” and “turn[ed] into the oracular voice of some finite idol, such as historical scholarship, humanist psychology, or transcendental philosophy” (Milbank 2006, 1). The danger to which modern theology has succumbed is nothing less than “its false humility” in the face of the onslaught of “secular reason.” As metadiscourse, by way of contrast, theology must (once again) frame all other disciplines, or, as Milbank writes with Ward and Catherine Pickstock, “these disciplines will define a zone apart from God, grounded literally in nothing” (Milbank et. al., 3). The now-famous opposition of Radical Orthodoxy is clear: either a “radically orthodox” Christian theology, by which Ward and Milbank mean their own neo-Platonic, neo- Aristotelian, Anglo-Catholic metaphysical theology, or nihilism.

.... From here: http://www.napts.org/assets/newsletters/NB392.pdf

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

My favorite professor, brilliant guy, taught me how to be a historian and one of the most erudite people I've ever known , William S. Babcock,took Ogdon's seat at Perkins when he left, hated Tillich.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

I don't agree with all of Tilich,

Mike Gerow said...

That name's familiar.. I've heard of him somewhere, I think..."William S Babcock" .. not just in convos with you.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Over the past four years he put out a new translation of the city of God maybe that's it. He's an Augustine scholar, now retired.

Mike Gerow said...

I dunno...the theology world is a pretty small one, in general, tho....