If you grew up in or are part of a conservative Christian environment you probably have heard people warn against the dangers of theological “liberalism.” Certain churches, denominations, or leaders are informally given the label “liberal” and so viewed with suspicion. Often, the “liberals” are seen as not authentically Christian. Becoming “liberal” is a danger to be avoided as it is viewed as a form of apostasy or falling away from the faith.
But what do we actually mean when we say someone or a church is theologically liberal? It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, but often it’s unclear what constitutes being liberal. Typically, in everyday conversation it just means that person or church is more liberal than me on certain topics.
For example, someone who holds to a literal, six-day view of creation might call someone “liberal” if she believes that God used evolution to create. She may be very orthodox and traditional on other matters such as the divinity and humanity of Jesus, but will still get labeled “liberal” because of her opinion on this one topic.
In the everyday, it doesn’t really matter how one self-identifies, we are all more liberal or conservative than someone else. The literal-six day creationist who watches TV and listens to secular music might be considered liberal by another Christian who strongly believes that Christians should not do those things. Theological conservatism and liberalism is a spectrum which for most people does not have very clearly defined parameters. Compared to the Amish, we’re all pretty liberal!
Even though the terms are pretty fuzzy in laypersons’ conversation, there are some distinguishing marks of true theological liberalism. Because being labeled “liberal” in a conservative community can be damaging to a person’s reputation, it’s important for laypeople to understand what real theological liberalism actually is, so the term doesn’t get misapplied.
Roger Olson, a Baptist theologian at George Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas, is an expert on modern theology and has offered one of the best overviews of what constitutes liberal theology. He summarizes it in this blog post, which I would encourage you to read.
Olson says theological liberalism involves, “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity.” Basically, that means that to be liberal means to implicitly or explicitly elevate modern science, philosophy, psychology, etc. to a level of equal authority with the Bible and Christian tradition.
However, Olson has identified eight major markers that are common to liberal Christians. What is below is taken directly from his post:
1) A tendency to reduce the Bible to “the Christian classic” that is “inspired” insofar as it is inspiring;
2) A tendency to reduce Christianity itself to ethics such that doctrine is an expression of collective opinion always open to revision in light of changing cultural conditions;
3) A tendency to embrace and promote individualism in spirituality and doctrine while insisting on certain controversial ethical positions as matters of justice and therefore beyond debate;
4) A tendency to deny miracles or “demythologize” them so that belief in no miracle is essential to authentic Christian existence;
5) A tendency to emphasize the immanence of God over God’s transcendence;
6) A tendency to believe in the essential goodness of humanity and to deny hell except as inauthentic existence in this life;
7) A tendency to interpret Jesus as different from other humans only in degree (e.g., more spiritually and ethically advanced) and not in kind;
8) A tendency to promote authentic Christian existence as a life of love only without judgment (except of “injustice”).
I would add to this list the tendency to regard Jesus as one way among many to God, though that the implied conclusion of points 6 and 7. True liberals are typically highly uncomfortable or outright hostile to the idea of Christianity as the one true religion. They typically explain the major faith traditions of the world as all different paths up the same mountain, or even equally valid paths up equally valid, yet different, mountains, altogether.
Real liberalism definitely has its problems. I share Olson’s conclusion that,”If fundamentalism tends to be rigid, dogmatic, contrarian, separatist, liberal Christianity tends to be shallow, insipid, plastic, and fuzzy.” I find that it generally fails to offer anything more compelling than a left-wing, progressive political agenda (which I also do not find compelling).
If someone does not demonstrate the above tendencies, he/she is not liberal, by definition. He or she may be closer to being on the liberal end of the spectrum, but that does not make him or her an actual liberal. Therefore, we should not label them as such.
Check out Scot McKnight’s blog post on the major figures of liberalism and more on its defining characteristics. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/09/12/what-is-liberal-theology/
Also, this short video is of a self-professed liberal theologian, Philip Clayton, explaining his understanding of the nature of God. https://youtu.be/fJtPN5Xkx3g