Of all the labels that we commonly use none are more frequently invoked, it seems to me, than conservative and liberal. Most of us want to know, “Is he a conservative?” Or, perhaps, “Is he (really) that liberal?” Whether the debate is about politics or theology the same phenomenon is common. Before I even tackle this question, with regard to myself, I need to provide a few definitions and some background.
The word conservative, used in a broadly understood way, refers to someone who preserves or conserves. A conservative, notes Webster’s New World College Dictionary (1997), “tends to preserve established traditions or institutions and to resist or oppose changes in these (e.g. conservative politics, conservative art).” I believe the same definition works for the way the term is broadly used in our religious debates. A conservative is moderate, generally cautious and desires to preserve belief and ritual with, at most, very modest adaptations.
The word liberal, in some ways, if a far more difficult word to define. Coming from the Latin liberalis and liber, which simply means free, a liberal is someone who “belongs to the people.” In historical use a liberal was someone who believe in maximizing freedom for all. The word had this use politically in America until the twentieth century. A conservative wanted to protect the monarchy, or aristocracy, while a liberal wanted to advance republican forms of government. In this sense America is the foremost liberal nation in the world because we embraced the greatest expansion of liberty for the most people. (We did this very inconsistently thus we fought a bloody war and still fight to work this principle out in our practice!) The word liberal also refers to those who give generously and freely, usually both of their money and themselves.
Getting closer to the Christian use a liberal is defined as a stance that is “not restricted to the literal meaning, or a strict interpretation of the Bible.” A liberal also favors reform or progress in religious matters. A liberal is open, by definition, to ideas that challenge the status quo.
The study of the liberal arts is the study of literature, philosophy, science, languages, history, etc. This is in distinction to the study of professional or technical subjects. So a college that offers a degree in the liberal arts is not the same as a Bible school or seminary that offers an education that is restricted to a profession such as teaching or ministry.
But liberalism has more recently become a synonym, in our modern political context, for radical opposition to almost every historic institution we know. Sometimes this radical liberalism even opposes the expression of common sense realism. Liberals are generally understood as pro-state, or in favor of more government intervention in our daily lives, while conservatives are understood as opposed to the power of the state. This is way too simplistic but it will do for a blog article. The political conservative, unless a libertarian, will actually favor a big role for the state in some issues; e.g, saving the unborn, protecting marriage as we traditionally know it, etc.
But what about the terms conservative and liberal in theology and Christian faith? Here the definitions may be even more difficult, at least in popular conversation. I have been called a conservative, a liberal, a radical, an emergent, extremely dangerous, a heretic who denies the gospel and all other sorts of things. If I didn’t have a sense of humor I think I would sometimes go private and just quit thinking and writing.
In religion a conservative is generally a person who believes the Scripture, church tradition, and personal piety are all supremely important. So far, so good. I am a conservative by this definition. But then comes the stinking problem. Most who use this label then add something like this: A conservative is someone who thinks social action and corporate ethics is neither essential not important to Christian faith and practice. Faith is a private exercise of getting right with Jesus and believing the right things. Often, such a person will conserve only what is rather recent without realizing that they have identified what is recent with Christian tradition, which is very often not the case at all.
The word conservative, as commonly used by Christians with regard to church and faith, does not have the same meaning as “fundamentalist.” A fundamentalist not only believes in an inspired and inerrant Bible but has utter confidence that he (almost never she since women have a minor public role in the matter) knows what the Bible says with near perfect precision. Their motto is: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”
Fundamentalism, at least in Christian use, came into vogue after the 1920s. The quite scholarly articles that were originally published in five volumes as “the fundamentals” coined the phrase in opposition to the inroads made by modernist, or liberal, scholarship in many universities and seminaries. Eventually this scholarship, on both sides, led to a number of ecclesial divisions that are well documented in American church history. The original fundamentalists argued that there were five fundamentals that must be believed. These were:
- The Bible is the inspired Word of God, without flaw in its original form.
- Christ was born of a virgin.
- The miracles of Christ are historical events.
- Christ's Crucifixion is substitutionary atonement (He willingly accepted the judgment for our sins).
- Bodily resurrection.
The term liberal is a bit more difficult to define, at least in my view. In Protestant theology liberalism in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century was a movement in theological development and practice that leaned heavily on the philosophy of the Enlightenment. This led to a growing opposition to church dogma and centuries of established Christian belief. Liberalism among these Protestants, and let us not forget they were Protestants at that time, was intent on developing a scientific approach to the Bible.
Tomorrow: The Birth of Christian Liberalism