Notes Toward a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Freedom as Social Reality

Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, ch. 7—”The Redemption of Society”:

“It [1 Cor. 14.24] is the paradigm for the birth of free society, grounded in the recognition of a superior authority which renders all authorities beneath it relative and provisional.  We discover we are free when we are commanded by that authority which commands us according to the law of our being, disclosing the secrets of the heart.  There is no freedom except when what we are, and do, corresponds to what has been given to us to be and to do. ‘Given to us’, because the law of our being does assert itself spontaneously merely by virtue of our existing.  We must receive ourselves from outside ourselves, addressed by a summons which evokes that correspondence of existence to being.  ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ (2 Cor. 3.18).  The church of Christ, which professes the authority of God’s summons in the coming of Jesus, has the role of hearing it, repeating it, drawing attention to it.  In heeding the church, society heeds a dangerous voice, a voice that is capable of challenging authority effectiely, a voice which, when the oppressed have heard it (even in an echo or at a distance), they cannot remain still.”
—p. 252

“Freedom, then, is not conceived primarily as an assertion of individuality, whether positively, in terms of individual creativity and impulse, or negatively, in terms of ‘rights’, which is to say immunities from harm.  It is a social reality, a new disposition of society around its supreme Lord which sets it loose from its traditional lords.  Yet individual liberty is not far away. For the implication of this new social reality is that the individual can no longer simply be carried within the social setting to which she or he was born; for that setting is under challenge from the new social cetnre.  This requires she give herself to the service of the Lord within the new society, in defiance, if need be, of the old lords and societies that claim her.  She emerges in differentiation from her family, tribe and nation, making decisions of discipleship which were not given her from within them.  Between the old and new lordships, then, is a step she must take on her own, a responsibility for individual decision; and that, too, is a contribution to liberty, not because it creates a vacuum in which the individual is momentarily free from any society—that is not liberty!—but because it allows her to enrich society by the gift of her self-donation to it.  Individual decision, the act of heart and mind, has now become fully and consciously engaged in and for society; so that society itself is free, being upheld by the free self-giving of each member.  A society founded in conversion and baptism is a society unlike all others.  

“Modern liberalism is not yet ready to leap fully armed from the head that first conceived this thought.  This is not yet ‘freedom of conscience’ in a generalized sense.  It is ‘evangelical liberty’, which is to say, the freedom freely to obey Christ.  Yet evangelical liberty has proved to be the foundation of a more generalized freedom, including a certain, not indefinite liberty for misguided and erroneous judgment.  The logic which leads from the one to the other is that of St. Paul, writing about the ‘weaker brother’: ‘Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?  It is before his own master that he stands or falls’ (Rom. 14.4).  Which is not to say that there is no such thing as evident and unarguable error; nor that each person’s vocation is so hidden that the right and wrong of what he thinks and does is obscure.  It is simply that he has (has, not is) his own master, and his master is not the ruler who governs him in the order of civil society. There are some judgments that may be evident enough, but which do not fall to the ruler to make.  The ruler has to establish a prima-facie interest in the implications for civil order before intervening between andy man or woman and the God who commands.  That is the correct way of stating the liberal doctrine which is often put misleadingly as ‘the separation of law and morality’.  There can be no separation of law and morality; but what there can be, an is, is a sphere of individual responsibility before God in which the public good is not immediately at stake.

“A perennial observation of political philosophy declares that there are two alternative concepts of freedom, a negative and a positive: freedom from control and freedom for self-realisation.  For the sake of exposition one could characterize the two as the freedom-ideal of slaves and the freedom-ideal of aristocrats.  The one consists in the abolition of oppressive constraints, the other in opportunities which are somehow given as a birthright; the one lacks an end beyond the goal of liberation itself, the other never needs liberation to bring its ends within reach.  If we situation the idea of freedom at the point where the church impacts upon society, we shall understand why neither conception will suffice.  An adequate description of freedom has points of affinity with both.  The truth in the negative conception is that freedom is a Gospel which, whether they know themselves to be in need of it or not, is addressed exclusively to those who are, in fact, unfree.  But it is not a Gospel complete in itself, but only the first moment in the Gospel.  The truth in the positive conception is that freedom is evoked and sustained by the command of God.  That command does not merely say ‘Be free!’ and then fall silent; it puts before us a way of freedom, which is the way of Christ’s victory.”
—pp. 254-56

Pretenses of Loyalty and Things Indifferent

John Perry’s remarkable recent book, Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology draws attention with remarkable precision and clarity to the fundamental problem of early modern political theology—what remains, in fact, the central and recurrent problem in defining the relation of religion and politics, church and state.  How are conflicting loyalties to be harmonized?  How are believers to be sure that their allegiance to God will not conflict with their responsibility to serve the common good?   

Perry’s thesis is quite simple, and repeated so frequently throughout his book that the reader cannot fail to grasp it and never loses track of it as the orientating point of the narrative and argument.  Perry argues that modern liberal theory, following (as it supposes) Locke, has been preoccupied with the idea that it is possible to delineate the just bounds of politics and religion, of public and private claims.  The hostilities between these two in principle should be readily resolvable.  And yet, no matter how hard liberal theorists try, the tensions continue to elude resolution.  Why?  Perry argues that modern liberal theorists have in fact ignored an important part of Locke’s project.  Although Locke spoke of the need to “distinguish exactly” between the business of government and religion, he did not think it was that simple.  Locke himself realized what recent communitarian theorists have come to realize; that there is in fact a clash of loyalties going on.  Loyalty to God makes claims on people that appear to contradict the claims that loyalty to the common good makes upon them.  The first thing that must be achieved, then, is a harmonization of loyalties, which, if it is to be persuasive for religious believers, must have a theological foundation.  Locke understood that if he was going to convince Protestants (of which he was one) that obeying God was not in conflict with their duty to be good citizens, he would have to provide a theological argument about what obeying God entailed, rightly understood.  


Perry goes on to do a beautiful job of ascertaining and outlining the theological shape of Locke’s political argument—in his early work and finally in his famous Letter concerning Toleration.  This book’s tightness of focus, however, is its weakness as well as its strength.  What Perry does not sufficiently realize is that the set of issues that Locke was wrestling with and seeking to resolve were nothing new; on the contrary, Locke was simply the latest dialogue partner in a discussion going back to the Reformation.  It would be false to accuse Perry of wholesale ignorance on this front, though it is common enough in literature on Locke.  Perry does indeed recognize that there is a backstory, and that Locke must be read against that backstory; it’s just that he doesn’t know that backstory well enough to realize just how important it actually is.  This becomes particularly clear when he comes to discuss the issue of adiaphora, which he sees as being central to Locke’s early work, The First Tract on Government. 

Although he has briefly treated the issue of toleration as far back as Calvin, his discussion of debates over adiaphora begins after the Restoration (1660).  After the Restoration, the Anglicans were keen to crack down on nonconformity, and their argument centered around the concept of adiaphora, “matters indifferent to salvation”; such matters fell legitimately under the oversight of the civil authorities.  Now, Perry notes that both Anglicans and Puritans believed that there were some things in themselves indifferent, and both were keen to avoid falling into superstition in thier use of adiaphorous rites. “However, they disagreed about what sort of rites crossed the line into legalism or superstition and whether practices inherently indifferent could be made conditionally essential. For example, could the bishop or ruler require kneeling for communion as a practical matter?”  Was it legitimate for things in themselves indifferent to become necessary by virtue of the command of an authority?  The nonconfomist Edward Bagshaw argued in his The Great Question Concerning Things Indifferent that it was not.  

Bagshaw argues for the principle of adiaphora on the standard Reformation bases of sola gratia and sola fide—works must not be necessary to salvation.  He goes on to distinguish, more sharply and clearly perhaps than most nonconformists, but far from uniquely, “between two types of indifferent acts: on the one hand, acts that are ‘purely’ indifferent, such as time and place, which are “so very indifferent” that he does not concern himself with them, and on the other hand, acts that would otherwise be indifferent ‘but by abuse have become occasions of superstition, such as are, bowing at the name of Jesus, the [sign of ] the cross in baptism, pictures in churches, surplices in preaching, kneeling at the sacrament.’”  

 Now, Perry goes on to say that Bagshaw went on to make a unique new argument:

“Part of what makes Bagshaw unique is how he argues against uniformity not strictly on the grounds of freedom of practice but by claiming that once an act is required, it automatically becomes so tainted by superstition that it therefore moves from being indifferent to forbidden. An act is indifferent until it is required, in which case it becomes prohibited. This logic is plain where he writes, ‘So long as a thing is left Indifferent, though there be some suspicion of superstition in it, we may lawfully practice it, as Paul did circumcision. But when any shall take upon them to make it Necessary then the thing so imposed presently loses not its Liberty only, but likewise its Lawfulness; and we may not without breach of the Apostles’ Precept submit to it. So long as there is no rule as to whether I must kneel to receive communion, I may kneel or stand. However, once kneeling is required, I must stand, lest my obedience to the rule become a “work of the law.”’”

In other words, adiaphora are not merely those things which have as a matter of fact been left free to individual conscience, but are such that they must continue to be left free.  Now, this is all very fascinating; the problem is that it is not remotely new.  The same arguments can be seen in the exact same context (the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England) a century before.  Nor are they a uniquely English problem.  They are a Protestant problem.  Wherever the doctrine of Christian liberty was preached, it engendered two rival interpretations: the one just mentioned, and the view that adiaphora have been left free to human decision, which means that they may be disposed of by human authority, so as not to leave the individual free with respect to them any longer.  One finds Bagshaw’s argument spelled out at least as early as Matthias Flacius’s 1548 On True and False Adiaphora.  

 Because Perry does not realize how far back this particular debate goes, neither does he realize the extent to which Locke’s response to it (for Locke was originally an apologist for conformity and uniformity in religion) is part of an ongoing tradition of Protestant political theology.  So Perry writes,

“What set Locke’s argument apart from others that supported uniformity in adiaphora is how thoroughly political it is. It is not an argument that uniformity of practice most pleases God but that uniformity most inclines to civil peace. He naturally offers supporting arguments to show that there is no theological obstacle to uniformity, but these are decisively secondary.” 

He then quotes Jacqueline Rose (who, from her article, appears to have a much more nuanced understanding of debates about adiaphora than Perry appears to):

“What has vanished [from the debate when we turn to] the Tracts is the concept of any distinction between ‘indifferent things of civil as well as religious concernment’…Locke was the sole writer in this Restoration period who sought to provide an explicit theory behind the analogy [of civil and religious law] rather than merely employing it.”

Now perhaps Locke really is the sole writer of the Restoration period to do so, but he is merely treading ground that Hooker and others had not merely trodden, but virtually paved before him.  In the 16th century, conformists had repeatedly understood the question of adiaphora to be a political one, and had argued for the parallel between indifferent civil actions and indifferent religious actions, and the need for order and decency in both.  It was because indifferent religious actions could in fact be understood as a kind of civil action that they could be regulated by civil authority for the sake of civil peace without any religious claim being thereby made.  In most writers, admittedly, this argument was underdeveloped, but it is developed with elaborate systematic support by Hooker.

It is on the basis of this understanding of adiaphora that the early Locke opposes toleration.  Again, Perry finds it significant that toleration is opposed here not on theological grounds—because God cannot abide heretics, or whatever—but on civil grounds: if religious conformity is not insisted upon in things that are indifferent, and hence the proper province of the civil magistrate, then strife and disorder will prevail.  “He professes to be a great lover of liberty but concedes, ‘I find that a general freedom is but a general bondage.’ Without uniformity in adiaphora, the only liberty we would achieve is ‘liberty for contention, censure and persecution [turning loose] the tyranny of religious rage; were every indifferent thing left unlimited nothing would be lawful.’”  In other words, precisely by legislating conformity in adiaphora, the authorities ensure that they remain adiaphora.  If Puritans were left free to decide about them as they chose, they would become bones of contention, as different parties argued for stricter or looser practice and accused the other of being unbiblical or superstitious, etc.  This fear was clearly not without good cause, given the tendency of the Puritan left (in England, Scotland, and America) to splinter into ever-stricter sects.  Locke also argues that those with other seditious agendas will use religious scruples as the basis for their protest (as indeed we see today with the way Tea Party Christians use religious rhetoric to oppose political and economic policies they disagree with and endorse tax rebellion).  Accordingly, Locke argues, the ruler has legitimate authority to command the outward actions of his subjects in all things indifferent; he cannot command their hearts, he cannot trample on the realm of things essential to salvation.  The only question, then, is where we draw the line of what constitutes adiaphora.  Hobbes could, with reasonable Protestant precedents behind him (certain statements of Luther, incidentally), count anything beyond faith alone adiaphorous; Hooker was rather more careful and nuanced.  Locke, in any case, did not have to deal with this question in the Tract, because Bagshaw had granted the matters in dispute to be adiaphorous.


Now, Perry goes on to show how the transition from Locke’s early anti-toleration to his later pro-toleration position is thus smoother than one would expect.  Locke never argues that toleration is illegitimate in principle, but that, empirically speaking, too much discord and rebellion will ensue if the magistrate does not keep tight reins on religious practice in his realm.  Could Locke be shown that it was possible for sects differing in their practice of adiaphora to coexist peacefully with one another, and in subordination to their ruler on all other matters, he would be fine with toleration.  As it turns out, he is so convinced, by a series of circumstances, over the next twenty years; indeed, he comes to the conclusion (which we almost all share today) that so hard do people find it to treat adiaphora as genuinely indifferent, so earnestly do they cling to their convictions regarding them, that enforced conformity creates more strife than it solves.  So he reaches the new conclusion that government can, indeed ought, to tolerate diversity in religious adiaphora; and since indeed this was the only aspect of religion over which government could have ever claimed jurisdiction (since it cannot rule the realm of faith), Locke now argues that government should stay out of all matters that are objects of religious loyalty. 

To make this argument, though, as Perry shows, Locke must make another theological argument, not dissimilar in overall shape to his original argument.  For how can believers be shown that their religious loyalty, their allegiance to God, does not require them to be intolerant?  The objective of his argument now, then, is not to establish an area of adiaphora over which Christians should let the authorities make decisions, but to establish an area of adiaphora over which they should be happy to let other individuals and communities make their own decisions.  As just seen, Locke originally believed, as did many others of his time and before him, that strife was more likely to ensue from people being unable to tolerate their neighbors’ diverse religious practices than from the government simply opting not to tolerate any diversity.  Now he has reached the opposite conclusion, but still recognizes there is a potential for strife that must be defused.  He must convince believers that proper loyalty to God does not entail attempting to vindicate his honor by opposing or attacking all those deemed to be unfaithful.  God asks us, rather, to exercise charity, and reserves vengeance to himself.  From this perspective, even the core teachings of the Christian faith are adiaphora—not when it comes to myself, for my own salvation is at stake in my beliefs, but when it comes to other people.  Other people’s beliefs and practices need have no effect on my own salvation, therefore there is no reason why I should be bothered about them one way or another.  Needless to say, Locke’s argument at this point entails a massive break from the kind of corporate, communal mindset that had continued to dominate even most Protestants up through the early modern period.  Where Calvin would have feared the judgment that God would send down on the community as a whole for its toleration of godlessness in its midst, Locke offers us a hyper-Protestant “every man for himself” political theology.  

Of course, allowing toleration of religious adiaphora requires Locke to come up with some principle for determining the realm of strictly civil concern over which the monarch still has the right to command, and differentiating clearly from legitimate religious obligation. (E.g., religious obligation cannot be claimed as a basis for tax evasion.)  It was his earlier conviction that such a criterion was impossible that led him to argue for civil control over all adiaphora.  He accomplishes this by another theological argument and by a philosophical argument.  The theological argument involves radicalizing early Protestant emphases on the invisibility, inwardness, and otherworldliness of the order of salvation, so that he will deny that the Church has any this-worldly ends or requires this-worldly means.  The philosophical argument is his rejection of the natural law tradition, which Hooker would have used to determine the proper scope of civil jurisdiction, and replacement of it with his massively influential doctrine of natural rights.  The task of civil government, then, can now be understood as oriented solely toward the securing and protecting of “natural rights,” rather than the promotion of the common good more generally, which would naturally include religious matters.


The last couple paragraphs have been an extremely cursory overview of what Locke is up to in his Letter concerning Toleration, which is analyzed with great care and clarity by Perry in chapter five of his book.  Perry does an excellent job of flagging the tensions and weaknesses in Locke’s argument, and the extent to which it depends upon sharing his theological premises.  It is this fact, Perry argues, that accounts for the ongoing struggles of Lockean liberalism to achieve a harmony of religion and politics.  Locke’s solution required a theological argument, specifically a very Protestant kind of theological argument, in order to render it coherent.  That worked fine, as it turned out, because his original audience by and large shared the theological premises.  But clearly, the solution, although intended for a situation of pluralism, finds itself subject to diminishing returns the more pluralist a setting it finds itself in.  This problem has been compounded by the fact that modern theorists have forgotten that there was a theological argument in back of Locke’s political philosophy to begin with.  Perry traces all this in Part III of his book, “John Locke’s America.”

But for now, I will just fast-forward to the conclusion, where Perry offers some tentative (and rather Hookerian, I would say) proposals—not solutions, mind you—as to how to address these problems.  

Perry suggests that liberalism has developed too great a skepticism of rhetoric, of persuasive speech ordered toward the particular situation and presuppositions of one’s audience.  Liberal public discourse must neutralize difference in advance, and thus argue from what claims to be a mere abstract rationality that anyone should share.  If they do not in fact share it, then we’re suddenly at an impasse—our opponent must just be being irrational, and the calm reasoned discussion degenerates into a shouting match.  What we need is a recognition that we do not in fact all share the same presuppositions of what is to count as rational, what ends are appropriate for human beings and for society.  We must regain faith in the possibility of public debates in which such conflicting visions of the good are made explicit, faith that the disagreements need not remain wholly incommensurable.  This requires, in the end, faith in the natural virtues—confidence that, outside of Christian belief, we will find fellow citizens imbued with a certain sense of virtue and a shared desire for truth.  And it requires a willingness to accept the penultimacy of political life; the renunciation of the quest for a final solution like Locke’s that would establish the “just bounds” of rival loyalties for all time.

Red Tory Blues

Concreteness and relevance are this book’s greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses.

Allow me to explain.

Most books from Christian theologians these days (perhaps this term is a stretch in Blond’s case, but as John Milbank himself is rumored to have been the ghost-writer for the meatier core of the book, it is probably apropos) seeking to engage the problems of modern politics and economics with a “third way” that eschews both statism and free-marketism, reasserting a holistic, mutualist, communitarian and ethical kind of human society (and such books are perhaps a dime a dozen these days), suffer from a glaring lack of concreteness. It is effortless for critics to dismiss them, labeling them pie-in-the-sky fantasies that offer no substantive engagement with real-world political realities and no plausible and concrete policy solutions. Such criticisms, I should hasten to add, are more often than not quite unfair, because such concreteness is not always possible or even desirable, at least not the kind of concreteness the critics want. Nevertheless, the critics do have a point. 

Blond’s book, however, is ironclad against such criticism. It is nothing if not concrete. It is aimed squarely at the problems facing Britain in 2010, not “modern society” in general, and it backs up its diagnosis of the problems with an overwhelming dollop of statistics and examples on almost every page. Nor is Blond content (as are so many of the books in the aforementioned genre) with a single slim chapter at the end venturing some “practical solutions” or “blueprints for change”–the whole last half of the book is dedicated to outlining a thorough and specific policy agenda to remedy the problems described in the first half. This latter half is particularly concrete, delving into the minutia of British local-government policy and the inner workings of various bureaucracies and outlining new structures that could be created.

Needless to say, this kind of concreteness was at times rather tiresome even to an American as disenchanted with his homeland and enchanted with Britain as myself. I really had no idea how most of these branches of British bureaucracy worked, and I really couldn’t bring myself to care half the time, much as I tried. This is, of course, why the book took me eight months to read–the majority of that time was spent very slowly picking away at the latter half of the book, which often seemed only very indirectly relevant to Americans or “Red Tory” sympathizers more broadly. The first half of the book, on the other hand, contained (especially in the Introduction) some fascinating critiques of the symbiotic relationship between the ubiquitous state and the liberated free market, critiques of great interest to any citizens whose countries have been infected with the malaise of corporatocracy in the last three decades.  However, even this section was frustrating at times for the sheer volume of statistics that Blond kept pulling out of his hat. We all remember what Mark Twain said about statistics, and even if our society and our politicians are obsessed with them, I don’t see that we should cater to the obsession as obsequiously as Blond does. 

The other great strength of this book is “relevance.” Too many books in the aforementioned genre, for all their wonderful theologizing, are simply inaccessible to a world of politicians and economists that does not share the theological assumptions. Now, that’s no reason to stop doing the theology, or to dumb down our thinking to the secularists’ level, but we do need someone who can translate a diagnosis of the problems and a stab at some possible solutions into terms that the wider world can readily grasp and act on. Blond meets this need, and writes a book distilling many of the concerns and ideas of Radical Orthodoxy (a theological movement all about the need for explicitly theological language) into completely non-religious terms, terms accessible to average policy-makers and even average citizens. 

However, it should come as no surprise that a great deal is lost in such translation. The intentional absence of theological language or explicit Christian commitment in this volume (though it was readily discernible just beneath the surface at many points) gave the whole thing an air of studied vagueness, appealing to platitudinous terms like “community,” “character,” “empowerment,” “justice,” etc. Not only is that frustratingly vacuous at times, but it’s just stylistically annoying too. 

Of course, in the end, the gravest doubt one must express about Red Tory is whether, for all its concessions to be relevant and concrete, it achieves its goal of being realistic. Blond believes (or claims to believe) that there is still enough residual sense of virtue and longing for community in England’s green and pleasant land that, if only the government would stop carelessly trampling out its last vestiges, civic virtue and reciprocal community would spring up anew, bright and promising. But based on what I’ve seen in 15 months here, I am tempted to think that, from a worldly perspective at least, this country is too far gone. The state and the market’s ambition to atomise society into unprincipled, aimless, detached individuals has almost run its course and I’m not sure that course can be reversed, save by an act of God. Which is, of course, why theology, not politics or economics, will have to shoulder the burden.

Still Machen’s Warrior Children?

My friend Davey Henreckson pointed me to a recent blog series in which Carl Trueman examines, with rather more balance and perceptiveness than is typical in such discussions, the anatomy of denominational slides into liberalism.  Conservatives often like to paint such backslidings as the result of some dark conspiracy or a full-on war against the gospel by wicked and recalcitrant liberals, but Trueman suggests it ain’t necessarily so: 


“the underlying story I am trying to tell is that sometimes (oftentimes?) churches go liberal without any initial intention of so doing.   Indeed, I believe a functionalist, rather than an intentionalist, account will often provide a more adequate explanation of why a denomination loses the plot: the cumulative force of a set of often disparate circumstances and actions leads to a sudden collapse in orthodoxy, with the conscious intention of going liberal perhaps only emerging comparatively late in the process.”

In particular, he suggests, such shifts often owe as much to well-meaning moderates and schismatic conservatives as they do to self-conscious liberals.  The former, for “laudable reasons of desiring the peace and unity of the church, and of reading the left as charitably as possible” allow significant changes (like women’s ordination) but attempt to craft a compromise for the benefit of the right.  The compromise, however, rarely works, because many of the conservatives decides that the innovation marks an apostasy and decides to up and leave, leaving the moderates as the new right wing.  The center of gravity accordingly shifts left, and so it isn’t long at all before, after a couple more rounds of this, the denomination is thoroughly liberal-dominated.  

The moral of this story, Trueman suggests, is that perhaps conservatives should think twice before leaving an embattled denomination.  Instead of leaving to keep their consciences unstained, they must “understand that they too must shoulder responsibility for future ecclesiastical trajectories, not only of the church to which they are thinking of going, but also of that which they are leaving….Some times churches go liberal because the men of principle and backbone bail out too early.”  This is a point that I’ve often argued, although I might want to say that conservatives should think not merely twice, but at least thrice, before leaving a denomination.  Also, the article of course raises the question, for me at least, of whether compromise measures are always a bad idea.  Liberals are brothers and sisters in Christ too, and often well-intentioned ones, and sometimes, indeed, ones with some very good points to make.  Sometimes the points being raised are ones that require long and careful dialogue, rather than hasty lines in the sand, and meanwhile, we may have to stomach certain compromises that make no one entirely happy but which maintain the bonds of communion with all those brothers and sisters who share our desire to follow Christ, while we try and hash out what that will mean.  I say “may” because I’m not sure…but I’m not prepared to take for granted, as Trueman still seems to, that the moderates are always wrong to propose their big-tent compromises.  

Nonetheless, the article is well-worth reading, and I must say that it’s quite remarkable and encouraging to hear something this irenic coming from a Westminster Seminary professor.  Where are Machen’s warrior children now?



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.