What is Liberalism?

What does it mean to be theologically liberal?  The term, like all terms used pejoratively more often than not, is frightfully slippery.  To my American evangelical friends, the line to liberalism is generally crossed somewhere around denying literal six-day creation.  After that point, for many, there’s a pretty straightforward progression running to allowing women deacons, then allowing women ministers, then condoning homosexuality, then ordaining homosexuals (with a denial of the historicity of Scripture thrown in somewhere along that line).  On the other hand, I know and respect a minister here who would be fine with all of the above, but would not at all consider himself a liberal.  For him, the difference is that for him, God is at the center of everything, whereas for the liberal, Christianity is basically humanism with God as a sideshow, an assistant, an important additional factor.  Or, to put it more dogmatically, the difference is perhaps over the deity of Christ; if everything depends on God, then Christ must be God, but if it’s mainly about being a good human, then no need for Christ to be anything more than that.  

This ambiguity is a bit surprising because it’s not as if “liberal” were merely a pejorative term, one of those things that everyone calls everyone else but no one admits to for themselves.  There are millions of Christians who would enthusiastically identify themselves as “liberals” and would wear it as a badge of pride, and there have been for decades.  But the battle-lines have not always been the same.  Originally, they were mainly theological: a liberal was someone who denied fundamental doctrines like the resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the rest.  Now, these yardsticks don’t seem particularly important, and debate seems to center around ethical and gender role questions.  Some might at first suppose that the shift is just one of a retreating battle line–liberals consider their doctrinal innovations already established, and now they’re moving on to other issues.  But that is clearly not the case; many of the people pushing for ethical liberalism are a very different group than the earlier group pushing for doctrinal liberalism, and are indeed often doctrinally orthodox on those earlier disputed points. 

Conservatives might want to say that the common element, the fount of liberalism, is a denial of Scriptural inerrancy and sufficiency.  Once you let that go, then liberalism of one sort or another will follow.  But I’m not so sure anymore if this is as simple and neat a solution as it seems.  For one thing, there are many Catholics who would not hold to a Protestant doctrine of Scripture, but would insist on the ability of tradition to supplement Scripture, an attitude that it seems might open the floodgates of liberalism; but many of this persuasion are staunchly conservative.  Moreover, if we once allow that there is a diversity of genres in Scripture, a simple appeal to Scriptural inerrancy is not so simple.  For instance, I might confess that I believe Scripture is entirely authoritative and without error in what it wishes to teach us about doctrine and practice.  I might just argue that certain portions of Scripture do not aim to teach us doctrine and practice directly, or in all the same way.  Job, for instance, may be intended as an edifying story, not a historical account.  What if I’m convinced that the same is true about Genesis?  Is this liberalism?  What if I believe that Genesis is a perfectly authoritative story, just not perfectly authoritative history, because it was not intended to be history?  Couldn’t I say I am actually taking the Bible more seriously than the fundamentalist, because I am willing to pay serious attention to the variety of genres it presents to me?  Likewise, I might take the Bible with full seriousness, yet argue that some of its particular ethical commands were intended only to be particular, to apply to a certain context, and that they do not apply in other, later contexts.  (For instance, most evangelicals effortlessly do this with things like the usury prohibition.)

Perhaps we could propose something like this as a distinguishing criterion: If someone honestly desires to apply and act on what they take the Bible to be saying to them, they are not a liberal, but if someone says, “Yes, I know that the Bible intends to say to us X, but I think it’s wrong and I will do Y,” then they are a liberal.  The problem, of course, is that this reduces everything to intentionality, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  If someone honestly believes that the Bible’s warnings on homosexuality do not mean to condemn modern homosexual couples, are they not a liberal?  The problem becomes more pressing when we consider dogmatic questions, like the deity of Christ.  If someone honestly believes that Scripture doesn’t teach the deity of Christ, and thinks they are taking Scripture with full seriousness, do we not call them a liberal?  

Alternatively, we could make the criterion straightforwardly credal–if you affirm what is in the Nicene Creed without reservation, you’re orthodox; if you want to amend it, you’re liberal.  But that of course leaves us with the dilemma that much modern “liberalism” is ethical, not dogmatic, and the creeds have nothing to say about ethics. 

I confess that I do not have a clear answer to this question.  Perhaps a clear-cut defintion isn’t necessary, but it would be nice to be able to pin it down more precisely than common parlance seems to.  I welcome answers that any readers might want to suggest.

3 thoughts on “What is Liberalism?

  1. Donny

    The ethical/doctrinal distinction in liberalism I'd never thought of before. Interesting point.I've always thought of liberalism as a disrespect for the word of God, either intentionally or not. Are you being conformed by God's word in His image, or are you conforming His word to your image? The latter makes me think "liberal."Of course, that's assuming "liberal" as bad and "conservative" as good, which I'm generally comfortable with. But there are always two ditches, and conservatives have their own sin of twisting God's word. While liberals may mold it into a golden calf, worshiping and "obeying" their own creation, conservatives who go too far may mold it into a weapon and go around smashing perfectly good stained-glass windows. In both senses, you have God's word, and you have what men twist it into.Not particularly enlightening, and no, it doesn't really draw all the lines very neatly, but when you add the issue of orthodoxy, it's going to get messy. The distinctions I just drew have grey areas. Sure, being "liberal" or "conservative" in those bad senses is sin, but is it heresy? Not always. You can be orthodox and still have liberal or conservative sins in how you approach the bible. In fact, everyone does.But we have to draw lines at some point. Heretical liberalism, whether doctrinal of ethical, definitely exists. Though that makes me wonder what heretical conservatism looks like, especially when you refine what I said above to reflect conservatism's desire to stay put and liberalism's desire for progress. It's easy to see the latter falling into heresy, but I'm not sure how conservatism would, at least from that angle.Anyway, just more rambling.


  2. Kent Will

    How about ditching the terms "liberal" and "conservative" altogether? They're loaded with a few centuries of political, cultural, and religious baggage that render the sort of precise distinction you are making impossible.It'd be easier to distinguish between true and false interpretations of the Bible, with additional qualifiers for sincere or malicious intent behind the true or false interpretations.


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for the input, guys. Donny, you have no equal when it comes to illuminating blog-rambling. You should market the skill and charge commissions to people who want more blog comments. As for your last paragraph, I would say that conservatives' desire to stay put can perhaps turn into "heresy" when it turns into an idolatry of "the way we've always done things" (or more usually, "the way we think we've always done things, though it's probably only a generation or two old"), a sin we're all quite familiar with in the Reformed world. Kent, I think you're right–that was my leaning too, though I wasn't sure enough to say it outright. But that's basically what I was gesturing at–the term has become so flexible and so polemical that it generally muddies rather than clarifies matters. I would much rather hear people saying, "This viewpoint seems to treat God's word and the Christian tradition with disrespect, for the following reasons" rather than saying, "This viewpoint is clearly another slouch into liberalism." That gives us a concrete sin to debate over, rather than just showering on a dose of guilt by association. (Of course, likewise, I think things would get a lot clearer if we ditched these terms in the political realm as well, where they are if anything even less meaningful.)


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