The Birth of Christian Liberalism

John ArmstrongChurch History, Religion, The Church

As I noted yesterday the term liberal and liberalism became particularly connected with Christian theology and practice in the late eighteenth-century. The philosophy of the Enlightenment began to influence how Christians thought about the faith and the Scriptures. Old assumptions were challenged and new ideas were entertained like never before. The world was changing and the church would change with it. For some this picture is all dark. For others it is all light and good. For many of us we just wish the faith could be considered with less passion and heat, thus with more love and openness to people and their ideas. But most of us could name some pretty important doctrinal issues that are at stake where Christian liberalism has worked its influence deeply into the life and thought of the church. This is why we cannot embrace its orientation so easily. The problem here is that we are not “revisionists” or “minimalists” when it comes to orthodoxy and the core of the faith. We want to be sure that the foundations are not destroyed while we still truly engage the modern world with an open mind and a teachable spirit. This generally creates tensions for anyone who refuses to embrace the radical left or right.

schleiermacher But where did Christian liberalism begin and why? Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is generally considered the father of modern Christian liberalism. I was told, by fundamentalists in my early years, that Schleiermacher was a bad, dangerous and anti-Christian man. Reading him forced me to a very different conclusion. The “real” Schleiermacher was a pious man who wanted to make the gospel more widely known and believed among people. His basic direction was not that different from many modern evangelicals I’ve known. He wanted religious experience to become normative in matter of faith and practice. He questioned some things, but rather modestly on the whole. His heart seems to have been warm to Christ and the faith of his forefathers. But as with all great thinkers who impact an age and those who come after them Schleiermacher’s legacy set in motion a movement that kept digressing further and further from the message and theology of the Bible itself.

Liberal theology downplayed the eschatological message of the Scriptures, stressing that the New Testament itself reflected a worldview that could not stand up to modern criticism. Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount were retained, in various forms, but the very doctrinal content of the creeds was undermined by the continuous debate about the historical Jesus. How could the real Jesus be heard when there was so much in the story that was myth?

Eventually thinkers like Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) downplayed the uniqueness of Christian revelation and the result was that Christianity was little more than a striking story, or phenomenon, in the history of religion. Faith in modern science, philosophy and progress encouraged schools of theology in Europe to move further and further away from the uniqueness of the Christian message until the results, for the church, were catastrophic.

Liberal theology led Christian leaders to question the authority of the Bible, to believe that the teaching of Christ was not reliable and finally that there was little to be believed or obeyed except for some kernel of social justice teaching. J. Gresham Machen concluded that the result was a liberalism that was “totally different from Christianity.” Machen wrote: “An examination of the teachings of liberalism in comparison with those of Christianity will show that at every point the two movements are in direct opposition.” The conservative apologist Francis Schaeffer said that “liberalism was spiritual adultery towards the divine Bridegroom.”

Christian liberalism, at least in theology, had a radically deleterious impact upon both schools and churches. The results of this nearly two-hundred old movement have been to undermine the living faith of many in the West and beyond. I have no sympathy for liberalism when it is understood in this way. The end result has been a commitment to a type of radical secular humanism that now passes for so-called Christianity. In this context Christianity is judged by the spirit of the age and found wanting. But the truth is that Christianity judges this kind of liberalism as incompatible with orthodox faith and practice.