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!):
|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…