Liberal or evangelical?

I’ve been looking at evangelicals; now it’s the liberals’ turn.

Liberal Christianity is, almost by definition, much broader and more diverse than evangelicalism. Its origins are in the philosophical and religious thought that emerged from the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Liberal Christianity doesn’t have a unified creed of set beliefs, and liberals tend to eschew any preconceived ideas of scriptural inerrancy or the correctness of received doctrines. Liberal Christianity approaches the Bible not as an inerrant divine document nor as a set of unquestionable truths, but as a collection of human writings and narratives recording beliefs and ideas about God within a particular cultural, social, political and historical context. It therefore seeks to apply secular scholarly methods of historical and literary criticism to understand and interpret the Bible. Where liberals do believe in a divinely-inspired Bible, they often interpret it in a figurative rather than literal sense (particularly the OT).

19th-century liberal Christianity focused on Jesus’ humane teachings as a universal standard for human civilisation. Liberal theologians also sought to downplay or remove the supernatural and miraculous elements in the gospel accounts, viewing them as superstitious pagan accretions. Today’s liberals, however, hold a range of views on miracles, some accepting their possibility and others preferring to interpret Jesus’ miracles as metaphorical narratives about God’s transforming power.

Liberal Christianity sits within a wider tradition of liberal religion in general – a tradition based on a belief in the goodness of humanity. Liberal religion celebrates open-mindedness, diversity of belief and freedom from dogma, rather than trying to impose a single authority, scripture or creed.

Theologian James Luther Adams identifies ‘five smooth stones of liberalism’:

  • Revelation and truth are not closed;
  • Human relations should rest on mutual freedom not coercion;
  • It’s our moral duty to strive  to set up a just, loving community;
  • ‘Good’ must be socially incarnated, made real in society and history;
  • We can be ultimately optimistic about achieving change because “there is hope in the ultimate abundance of the Universe”.

The five ‘solas’ these clearly ain’t. 🙂

NB Liberal Christianity isn’t the same thing as political/social liberalism, though they do share some common values. Nor is it quite the same as so-called ‘Progressive Christianity’ (as espoused by figures like Tony Campolo, Bono, Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren), though again they share considerable common ground.

Evangelical vs liberal

Neither Evangelicalism nor Liberal Christianity is monolithic; both encompass a wide range of views and beliefs. For the sake of comparison though, the table below sets out what I’d see as classic or typical (if slightly extreme) evangelical and liberal positions on various points of theology and ethics (feel free to skim-read!):

Subject

Evangelical

Liberal

God’s Sovereignty and will God is utterly sovereign and omnipotent; he has revealed his will fully and finally in Scripture, and we need to obey it. If God can be said to exist, he is dynamic, mysterious, other, largely or wholly unknowable; but he is best known as love and goodness, and best seen in human beings. God may not be particularly strong or in control. His will is love, freedom, mercy.
Salvation By means of Christ’s atonement, being saved from our sins and their penalty – eternal punishment in hell. Salvation is only received by those who repent of their sins and make a commitment to follow Christ. Becoming fully human, free, alive, who we were meant to be; the redemption and restoration of all humanity, all creation and the whole cosmos. This redemption is open to all, and all will (hopefully) ultimately enter into it.
The gospel Focus on crucifixion and divinity of Christ. Christ died on the cross for our sins, to save us from hell and bring us to eternal life if we repent and believe in him. Focus on incarnation and humanity of Christ. Christ came as one of us to model true humanity, freedom and love, that we might learn how to become fully human, fully alive, fully free.
Mission Primarily evangelism: preaching ‘the gospel’ to convert people, saving them from hell and making them disciples of Christ. Active care for people, poor and planet; striving for a just society.
Human nature Human nature is essentially sinful and depraved. Humans are made in God’s image and are essentially good and valuable, while imperfect and needing to grow to full maturity.
Sin Moral lapse, transgression, breaking a commandment. Anything that mars or distorts the image of God in us or others.
Sex/sexuality Dangerous, prime area of sin and temptation; only proper expression is within Christian marriage. Broadly good and wholesome, and a range of expressions are valid; not something to get hung up over.
The world Basically corrupt and under the rule/influence of the evil one. God’s good creation, full of beauty and goodness; God will restore it.
The Bible The inspired, inerrant Word of God; literally true and factually accurate; the ultimate authority and final arbiter on all matters of truth, faith, doctrine and Christian practice. Good and important, even (to an extent) inspired, but at least partly human; not flawless or inerrant; not the final word in all matters. Tradition, reason and experience have equal weighting in decisions about doctrine and practice.
Hell Real place or state of eternal conscious torment for all who have not accepted Christ as their saviour in their lifetime; just and everlasting punishment for all who have died in their sins. If real at all, an existential state of profound alienation from one’s true self or from reality and goodness; a rejection of the image of God in self and others; a loss of self; dehumanisation. Not necessarily permanent, and not the automatic destination of non-Christians.
Attitude to other traditions / religions Suspicion, fearfulness, even hostility; only evangelical Christianity is truly faithful to Christ’s truth as revealed in Scripture; others are mostly heretics, apostates or unbelievers destined for hell unless they repent. Positive attitude, willingness to learn from other faiths and traditions. See most other faiths as valid and inspired, and all on basically the same path.
Satan Very real, powerful being who is constantly seeking to attack, tempt, distract and disrupt the life and ministry of the true believer, leading him/her astray into sin or heresy. Metaphor for all the forces and powers in the world and in humanity that dehumanise and mar the image of God in people and creation, that oppress and enslave and abuse people and planet.
Attitude to the arts Slight suspicion; view that they can be dangerous and lead to sin or heresy; if used, they need to portray clear Christian messages to serve the gospel and evangelism. The arts are a wonderful gift and expression of our God-given humanity and creativity, to be welcomed and embraced. All art is an expression of life and a deeper kind of truth than mere fact; there’s no need to make art deliver overtly Christian messages – that’s mere propaganda.
Christ The divine Son of God, second person of the eternal Holy Trinity, begotten of God not created; the Lord, saviour and redeemer of the world (or at least of the elect, of true believers). The perfect example and expression of humanity, and of the divine potential and spark within all humanity.
Miracles and the supernatural Real and true in the Bible, though probably stopped shortly afterwards (except for charismatics). Miracles and the supernatural may or may not be real but aren’t particularly important. Biblical miracles are mainly metaphorical and symbolic, carrying deeper meanings but not necessarily literally true. This may even extend to the Resurrection, and almost definitely the Virgin Birth.
The cross and atonement Penal substitution: Christ’s perfect sacrifice in our place and on our behalf, bearing the just punishment for our sins and so turning aside God’s wrath from us. Christ’s identification with oppressed and suffering humanity in the face of brutality and evil, modelling for us the way of love and self-sacrifice.
Truth Truth is primarily factual, propositional, binary (right/wrong, true/false, good/bad). The Bible is the final source and arbiter of eternal and unchanging Truth, which we must assent to intellectually and then obey by an act of will. Truth is deep, complex, mysterious, paradoxical, unpredictable, dynamic; it cannot simply be read from a book. Relational, interpersonal and experiential truth are as important as (or more important than) factual, logical truth.

Even if these represent a somewhat extreme parody of evangelical and liberal viewpoints, it’s perhaps small wonder that the two groups often don’t understand or like each other very much. While both may use similar language and engage in similar religious practices, their understanding of what these things mean can sometimes be in complete contradiction.

For me, there are helpful elements in both viewpoints, but neither of the extreme positions works. Humans are not simply essentially bad or essentially good, but a thoroughly complex mixture of both. God is more than the liberal metaphor for goodness or the ‘divine spark’ within, but also more than just the evangelical Sovereign Ruler, Law-maker and Judge. The cross, the gospel, mission and truth are all multi-faceted, multi-dimensional.

Evangelical and liberal?

What I haven’t drawn out are the many areas of common ground between evangelicals and liberals, which bely the common caricatures and stereotypes. Most crucially of course, liberals and evangelicals do generally believe in the same God and the same Christ, even if their understandings of God sometimes seem so different as to be almost incompatible. Few liberals actually reject the Bible or miracles outright, view the cross of Christ as unimportant or have low moral standards. And conversely, many who still wish to identify themselves as evangelicals are widening their understanding of previously unquestionable doctrines and are increasingly open to insights from other traditions and willing to engage in the arts and social action.

So are the labels ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical’ useful? I’d say only if we’re using them with respect and a desire to understand each other’s traditions. Sadly, most of the time they’re just used as insults. When an evangelical calls someone a ‘liberal’, it’s usually to imply wishy-washy beliefs, woolly theology, anything-goes morality. Similarly, used by a liberal, ‘evangelical’ tends to mean rigid, black-and-white, literalistic, legalistic, even bigoted or fundamentalist. And while there may be some truth in both caricatures, they’re far from the full picture.

Is it possible to be both evangelical and liberal, or something that transcends both? The word ‘evangelical’ has its roots in good news, ‘Liberal’ in freedom. Perhaps the two can be different expressions of the same thing – the good news of Christ; the freedom which that good news brings.

Good news without freedom is ultimately not good news; freedom without basis in Christ’s message is ultimately no freedom. So evangelicals and liberals need each other, to avoid on the one hand becoming pharisaical and on the other merely humanist or libertarian. And in the kingdom, neither label will survive, at least not as a badge of exclusion. In Christ there is no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, evangelical or liberal…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Emerging, Evangelicalism, Liberalism, Religion, Spirituality, Stages of faith and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Liberal or evangelical?

  1. dsholland says:

    Well I thought some of the entries in the table were a bit heavy handed. That said, as you point out the truth has aspects of both perspectives (even the heavy handed ones).

    Looking for a unified view I have a mental picture of Peter on the water. It seems we cannot hold all the truth in our minds at once. When we try to walk on the whole it becomes fluid and leaves us without the comfort of a solid stance. So we trim to make the bits intelligible. This is not so bad. We cannot say anything without not saying something too. If I cannot express it how well do I understand it? If I can express it, can it possibly contain the whole mind of God?

    Maybe that’s why Christ said to Peter, “…what is that to thee, follow thou me.” We are each responsible for what He has put on our hearts, and for trusting His righteous judgement. Without that we sink like stones (except of course the liberals, who are so insubstantial the surface tension supports them 😉 )

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    • Spoken like a true evangelical, David! 🙂

      Perhaps some of my entries were a little heavy-handed – they represent my own perspective on evangelicalism and liberalism, and as I said they may be a little extreme or parodied in places.

      I know your tongue was in your cheek, but I think you may be judging your liberal brethren a little unfairly… they’re not all completely insubstantial, any more than all evangelicals are hard-line. There are dangers in both extremes but both sides have some very good points…

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  2. doncher1 says:

    I struggle with the issue of swinging backwards and forwards between where I sit on the evangelical / liberal continuum, and how/ whether it matters. I really like this:
    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09….
    I can really relate to his conclusion that he loves the ‘vision’ of ‘liberal’ Christianity: the inclusive vision of the love of God. but sees the potential dangers of over-sentimentalising this and/ or ending up in a place where ‘love’ simply equates to ‘tolerance’. He contrasts that with the more evangelical speaker, who focuses on ‘training and discipline’ in a counter-cultural Christian lifestyle, and concludes that both are necessary.

    My (very limited) experiences reflect something of this. When I initially ‘became a Christian’, I had a really rough time. Some of the most ‘evangelical’ people in the church were really committed to helping me, and I have no doubt at all that, if I’d continued to need it, they would have been happy to keep meeting with me and offering support for as long as I needed it. I try not to forget this, even though I don’t necessarily agree now on some of the overall ‘big picture’ stuff.

    I realise I’m not really adding anything new to what you’ve already written in your post, just agreeing really…….

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    • I’m actually just as glad to have comments on old posts as on current ones – it’s nice to know they’re still being read and engaged with, and some older posts may well be better or more important than recent ones. That said, my own thinking has quite likely changed slightly since I posted so I can’t guarantee that I still agree with everything I said back then! 🙂

      I really struggle with the evangelical / liberal divide, hence this whole blog and its title – ‘The Evangelical Liberal’ partly expresses my uncertainty and confusion over where I sit on this spectrum. I think I’ve decided that basically I’m Anglican!

      My experience, not unlike yours, is that many (not all) evangelicals are rather better than their theology, whereas some liberals (not all) aren’t quite as good as theirs. I find evangelical doctrine difficult and even repellant, particularly in its more extreme forms, and temperamentally I just don’t think I’m suited to be an evangelical (I’ve tried!). But in a crisis, I know some wonderful evangelicals who would drop everything to help me, even if we disagree fairly strongly on most points of theology.

      But then I disagree with extreme liberals too. So really I’m kind of a hybrid – neither a true liberal nor a true evangelical, but an odd mix. I’m fairly happy with this now, though I occasionally worry that I’ve gone too far and I’m not really a Christian any more!

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  3. doncher1 says:

    I’ve just looked again and seen that this post was written back in 2012!! Sorry…. I’m thinking about this stuff a lot at the moment, so I’m reading loads and dredging up a lot of your old posts. It’s sometimes helpful for me to write a comment, just for somewhere to put my thoughts really, but please don’t feel you need to reply, especially to comments on posts you wrote 3 years ago! 🙂

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  5. Alan G Phillips Jr says:

    The biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann has been the bane of Evangelical theological thinking and scholarship for many decades now. Joining a long list of other “infamous” authors who are included in the Evangelical and Fundamentalist canon, such as Darwin, Marx, Freud, Dewey and Nietzsche, Bultmann is typically castigated and scolded for his “demythologizing” approach to the study of the New Testament and early Christianity.*

    He is vilified by many Christian authors, but why is this the case? ** Could it be because his work effectively hits a bullseye that many religious practitioners refuse to acknowledge?

    A key question I would like to pose is the following: Why is Bultman’s work bemoaned when the actual behavior of many Christians supports one of his central premises–the modern Christian does not (and, frankly, cannot) inhabit the mythic, biblical worldview. Some examples might illustrate this:

    As correctly noted by Bultmann,prescientific belief in demonic entities or angelic beings is effectively dead in modern society (Bultmann 1966, 15-16).

    When emotional or spiritual problems affect congregation members today, pastors rarely defer to exorcists or deliverance “experts.” Instead, they typically look for psychologists who are trained in contemporary methods of counseling and mental health. The triumph of psychology and psychiatry in most Evangelical churches vindicates this part of Bultmann’s analysis. Many no longer live as if they believe in a spiritual realm that influences mental well-being…in spite of occasional protests to the contrary (See Bultmann 1966, 3-4).

    Here is another example to consider. When advising their young adult members, many Evangelical parents and youth ministers today are more positive about those in their ranks who choose STEM fields (= science, technology, engineering and math) and business/ professional options for future career paths.

    For instance, a young person in an Evangelical church that declares a theology, biblical studies or classics major in college might be greeted with a “what’s that…?” Or, a concerned family may send such a misguided young person to a Christian “counselor.” Why do modern secular fields and professions rule when career paths are considered in Evangelical homes?

    Next, many claim to “believe” in miracles and the power of prayer, but Evangelical worry and fear is regularly expressed in public forums over health. Whether it is during frantic debates over “Obamacare” or in desperate cries for better hospitals, the focus andy fixation on the modern medical industry belies a professed trust in supernatural miracles and prayer.
    Even the most ardent Evangelicals and Fundamentalists do not subscribe to the prescientific, geocentric, flat-earth view expressed in the thinking of biblical authors (Bultmann 1966, 3). Pastors and evangelists who deliver their Sunday messages about heaven “up there” and hell “down there,” usually supplement these public statements with modern or post-modern conceptions (hell becomes an interdimensional place, eternal condition, etc.). These “supplements” to stated church teaching are a tacit admission that Bultmann is correct again (Bultmann 1966, 9). In spite of what they CLAIM to believe, modern Evangelicals and Fundamentaliats probably do not ACTUALLY believe in prescientific cosmology. Besides, if they did, their urgency about everyday evangelism would be ramped up. Really, if you sincerely believed people were pouring into unending torment every day, wouldn’t the focus always be on this? Not politics, all-you-can eat buffets, Christian entertainment or shopping jaunts!

    What is my key point? Basically, those who attacked Bultmann for his demythologizing program are also demythologizing as they live their lives every day. Bultmann had his weak points, such as his interpretation of the Resurrection and an uncritical acceptance of mythic themes in Heideggerian existentialim (Bultmann 1966, 24-25). But overall, I think his demythologizing critique of our contemporary situation is accurate.

    Besides, if Christians think about it carefully, long before Bultmann, Jesus was the ultimate “demythologizer.” Let me conclude with two brief examples.

    First, he confronted a common Jewish belief in generational curses. When his disciples presumed a blind man’s malady was a result of past parental sins being divinely visited on him, Jesus challenged their diagnostic myth (John 9:1-12).

    Next, Jesus “demythologized” His followers’ superstitions when they saw him walking on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples were afraid and said, “It is a ghost” (Matthew 14:26) and yelled out in fear. Jesus calmed the source of their false belief, telling them, “Be of good cheer! It is I, do not be afraid” Matthew 14:27, NKJV). Their superstitious fear of phantoms was demythologized right on the spot with the command “do not be afraid.” He challenged them to replace their misguided ghost terrors with the truth of his peaceful presence.

    Jesus demythologized common assumptions during his life and ministry in the service of God’s truth. Isn’t it time that true Christ followers understand their Savior’s willingness to challenge the conventionalism of His time? I believe Bultman would answer that question in the affirmative.

    *For example, see Bultmann, Rudolf. “New Testament and Mythology” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, Hans Werner Bartsch, ed. and Reginald H. Fuller, trans. (NY: Harper and Row, 1966), pgs. 1-44. Also see Bultmann, Rudolf. Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting, Reginald H. Fuller, trans. (NY: Meridian Books, 1962).

    **See Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology, “Chapter 41: Radical Theologies” (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), pgs. 575-576.

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    • Hi Alan, thanks for your long and thought-provoking comment! I’m afraid I probably won’t be able to reply as thoroughly as I’d like straight away.

      I think you raise some very good points and I agree with much of what you say. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that the whole picture may be bigger still, and that there is another side to the story as well. Which is perhaps why I still keep the ‘Evangelical’ in my ‘Evangelical Liberal’ moniker.

      It seems to me that a degree of demythologizing is inevitable and in order, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can confidently go all the way and demythologize until nothing ‘supernatural’ or ‘miraculous’ (depending on what we mean by those terms) is left. I think there is still legitimate scope for the supernatural within Christianity, though perhaps understood in a slightly different way.

      As C.S. Lewis pointed out, even 1st-century peasants understood well enough that virgins do not become pregnant, water cannot be walked on or turned into wine, and dead people do not spontaneously become living again. They knew well enough the workings of the natural world to see that these were impossible events, only made possible by the activity of God. I’m not sure that modern science materially alters the picture here, except to flesh out in greater detail the normal workings of the natural world that these miraculous events disrupt.

      Which is not to say that I’m convinced that all the biblical miracles necessarily happened as reported, or that none have natural or partly natural explanations.

      But I see no problem with the natural and supernatural working hand in hand with each other in a both/and rather than either/or way. For example, I tend to believe in both creation and evolution; in both psychological, spiritual and physical aspects of healing.

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      • I got email notice of this belated exchange from an old post… and I appreciate reading the interaction, with your slightly updated thinking. I think it’s been quite a while since I either read much or contributed on the blog here. So I don’t recall what I may have said here before… I may have mentioned the Process theology approach. It is a sort of “middle ground” approach between historic orthodoxy (Evangelicalism and broader) and classic liberalism (which your summary of both I find quite accurate and well done).

        That is mainly in its conception of the nature of God and the God-world interaction. Although I don’t know that the Anglican Church (or Episcopal in my U.S. setting) is much “into” Process formally, it probably is as close to being in sync as about any denomination…. My own, the United Church of Christ, is also, but not nearly as large or world-wide as Anglican.

        The Wikipedia article on Process theology can serve as a good summary I won’t try to repeat, even in short form here. Let me just focus on my own “process” (not Process) a moment: While I’ve know about and been influenced by Process for over 20 years (I’m about to turn 66), I think it’s just been a year or less that I’ve really focused in on what I now think may be the single most important concept (it applies strongly to the Evan/Lib divide): God, as perfect Love, is never and can never be coercive. “He” is not threatening nor punishing. As non-coercive, God does not even interrupt natural “laws” (e.g., with miracles, nor with “creation out of nothing”). His creation of “our world” was out of chaos (Gen. 1), the difference having major implications for the “problem of evil”, etc. (cf. a great, short book by a top Process guy, David R. Griffin, titled “Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith”).

        The effect of affirming God as only Love (thus non-avenging, non-violent) is to undercut much of “orthodoxy”, including ACTUAL separation from God, need for sacrifice (including Jesus’ as supposedly “substitutionary atonement” or “ransom”), or possibility of eternity in hell. (Jesus did not actually teach any of these, I’m convinced, despite a few Gospel passages that seem to suggest it.)

        Process has a more nuanced view of revelation in Scripture and Jesus than does “liberalism”. Importantly, it also reconciles (at least the best I think it can be done to date) divine PERSUASIVE action (which can LOOK like “miracles”, as can subtle natural processes science tends to ignore or deny) with natural processes (as in evolution).
        In other words, God draws us to creative and/or loving actions that further God’s agenda of unity and peace, and God does NOT punish any failings or even willful resistance to that by us. Ahhhh… we can RELAX! (And deal with our own revenge problem when we see people who hurt others, or us, and seem to “get away with it”.) Now, I don’t buy into this just SO I can relax… Relaxation/peace is the result of this more “real” picture of reality.

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        • Hi Howard, I won’t be able to reply fully now but I just wanted to thank you for your comment – very interesting and thought-provoking as always! I’ll do my best to leave a comment on your follow-up blog post as soon as I can. In short, I find myself very largely agreeing with you, albeit with a few minor caveats and provisos.

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        • Alan G Phillips Jr says:

          I think that in many ways the late Marcus Borg, in his books The God We Never Knew (1997) and Convictions (2014), was trying to take some of the language from process theology and bring it down to a common-level of understanding. His focus on both the immanent and transcendent aspects of God served as a nice corrective to those promoting “God = Zeus” conceptions and 21st century reboots of 18th century Deism. Of course, I think Borg owed a lot to Tillich’s profound distinction between God as Being vs. being in his first Volume of Systematic Theology. Mature understandings of the Divine must keep the healthy tension between the two poles.

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          • Hi again Alan,
            I’m interested in what you’re saying and I like both Borg and Tillich, while not fully agreeing with either.

            My only small aside would be that I’d prefer to avoid using phrases like ‘mature understandings of the Divine’, which (doubtless unintentionally) seem to imply that our own understandings, or those of theologians we agree with, are somehow better or maturer than those of other people. I’m sure that’s not what you meant though.

            Which is not to say that there aren’t maturer understandings of the divine – only that I’m not sure we can ever be confident that we would know what those are.

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