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Gary Dorrien, an Episcopal Priest, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, and the foremost expert on American liberal theology, explains:

Before the modern period, all Christian theologies were constructed within a house of authority. All premodern Christian theologies made claims to authority-based orthodoxy. Even the mystical and mythopoetic theologies produced by premodern Christianity took for granted the view of scripture as an infallible revelation and the view of theology as an explication of propositional revelation. (The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, xv).

Dorrien goes on to say that later “Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy heightened the Reformation principle that Scripture is the sole and infallibly sufficient rule of faith, teaching that scripture is also strictly inerrant in all that it asserts” (xv). He further argues that Roman Catholicism, Eastern Christianity, and the Anglican tradition were all based on external authority in their own ways as well.

But liberal theology, which Dorrien believes to be “the most creative and influential tradition of theological reflection since the Reformation,” charted a different course. Liberalism is both a tradition, coming out of the late-18th century Protestant attempt to reconfigure traditional Christian teaching in the light of modern knowledge and values, and a diverse, but recognizable approach to theology.

Fundamentally it is the idea of a genuine Christianity not based on external authority. Liberal theology seeks to reinterpret the symbols of Christianity in a way that creates a progressive religious alternative to atheistic rationalism and to theologies based on external authority.

Specifically, liberal theology is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially the natural and social sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people. (xxiii)

Though the theological conclusions may be miles apart at times, it’s important for evangelicals to be familiar with liberal theology. We want to understand it accurately, deal with it fairly, and recognize that some Christians embrace the theology without embracing the term.

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15 thoughts on “What is Liberal Theology?”

  1. I’m not going to “deal with it fairly” or afford it one shred of respect if it involves saying that unborn babies, elderly people, or the disabled have less than human rights. Otherwise well-intentioned people who have been swindled into a pro-choice position are, at the very least, biologically ignorant and should be treated as such. End of discussion.

  2. Elaina says:

    Kevin, great excerpt. We DO need to understand our context and to be able to “deal with it fairly” by engaging intelligently, mercifully and cautiously.

    The exhortation in Jude comes to mind:
    Jude 1:20 “But you, dear friends, must build each other up in your most holy faith, pray in the power of the Holy Spirit, 21 and await the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will bring you eternal life. In this way, you will keep yourselves safe in God’s love.

    22 And you must show mercy to those whose faith is wavering. 23 Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives.”

    Unfortunately, so many of us (like the commenter above) are more committed to a monolithic, head in the sand approach to every situation. Such a mindset will only continue to make us appear bigoted, irrational and unapproachable to those of whom the Lord has entrusted to our ambassadorship. I would rather be used as a vessel to rescue and show mercy to the elect who are in danger of being seduced by the rampant promotion of liberal theology. Yes, I hate the sin that contaminates the lives of those who are being seduced by the enemy, but how can we not have compassion on the souls of those who are being led astray. We should be compelled to engage people by the compassion that leads us to weep over the lost.
    Let’s begin the discussion…

    Thank you Kevin!

  3. CG says:

    yankeegospelgirl – by “understand it accurately, deal with it fairly”, he’s not saying we should “agree to disagree” or any such thing.

    Rather, he’s making the entirely correct observation that we should be able to explain the basic principles of liberal theology in such a way that someone who holds that view is able to say “I couldn’t have said it better myself”.

    No, the average layperson doesn’t need to get a doctorate in liberal theology, but we should also strive not to misrepresent it, either. The better we are able to repeat what they believe, the more persuasive we will be when we set out to show them the insufficiency and errors of liberal theology.

  4. JohnM says:

    Where “the idea of a genuine Christianity not based on external authority” is embraced are we talking about Christians in the first place? We need to know the answer to that question before we know how to proceed. Are we restoring brothers and sisters or are we evangelizing?

  5. Jedidiah Slaboda says:

    A crucial point Dorrien makes in his work, and missing from this post, is the (often positive) relationship of modern liberal theology to Evangelicalism. These two movements are closer cousins than today’s Evangelicals often recognize. I would recommend reading Dorrien’s work for anyone wanting to explore those relationships further.

  6. JH says:

    The lead paragraph is used to imply some conclusions. These seem at odds with the intent of decrying “liberal theology”. Have I missed something?

    1) Anyone who considers (i.e. is open) to the conclusions that are drawn by empirical methods or rigorous observation of the world (natural science), of social, cultural, interpersonal, and historical (social sciences) as informing some aspect of their understanding of God (theology) is a liberal. I think you are missing that the Orthodox position at one time was that the world was flat and orbited by the sun, with excellent proof texts. Also, that we now find burning witches to be in opposition to Biblical teaching (suffer not a witch to live). Augustine believed that anything in scripture which appeared to contradict what was readily agreed to by the intellect and experience of life was an indication that our understanding of scripture was likely faulty. I guess he was a liberal too.

    2) Anyone who trusts that their ability to think critically (reason) and to learn through engagement (experience) to inform their understanding of God is also a liberal. Isaiah said, “Come, let us reason together”. Paul said “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. The psalmist said “Taste and see (experience) that the LORD is good”. Jesus said “Consider (think/reason about your experience) the lilies of the field” and “Have I been with you so long and you still don’t get it”. God encourages reason and experience.

    3) Anyone who believes that Christianity leads to an ethical way of life has a liberal theology?! Really, “What does the LORD require of you but to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”. A Christian life, although not yet perfected, is more just, more merciful, and humble to God. This is exactly an ethical life.

    4) “Moral concepts of atonement” is not clear. Either: Anyone who believes that the atoning work of Christ has a moral benefit OR Anyone who believes that moral behavior (i.e. works) leads to atonement, is a liberal. The first is classic Reformed Theology (God riches (including eventual moral perfection) at Christ’s expense). The second is very evident in the most conservative arms of the evangelical church. Either way, conservatives are liberals by implication.

    5) Anyone who believes that Christianity (I will stick with the reformation understanding) can be reformulated to speak a credible witness to modern people and speak to current culture is a liberal. On Mt Sinai, God gave the Israelites a system of laws and sacrifices that He himself in the person of Christ would replace as promised by the prophets. That God relates to us where we are and in the cultural context we find ourselves in is the time-honored concept of accommodation; God speaks to us as we are able to hear. In Jerusalem, the culture of the Jews (dietary laws, Sabbath observances, etc) were set aside for the Greek believers (cultural accommodation?) or a change in theology. The Jews persisted in believing their practice was theologically correct, it was given by God after all. God himself had to get Peter to see what had changed “Rise and eat…Do not call unclean what I have called clean”. In the Reformation, Luther and Wycliffe took original language and translated to the cultural norm of German and English and one of the earliest Bibles had maps of the Holy Land and commentary so that the common man could wrestle with the things of God as well as the cleric. Was this reformulation? The reformation itself was seen as a heretical reformulation of theology to accommodate the modern people and their culture by the Catholic church.

    What exactly is being said? Maybe Dorrien has a strong claim to a scripturally sound position.

  7. Lou G. says:

    JohnM, I don’t see why this question matters much: “Are we restoring brothers and sisters or are we evangelizing?” The scriptures tell us that those who have fallen away or who have been excommunicated from the church (by their on decision or my the officers of the church) are to be treated as unbelievers — the lost. I think the message and the approach is the same.

  8. JohnM says:

    Lou G., Your reference to “those who have fallen away or who have been excommunicated from the church” presumes a negative answer to my question “are we talking about Christians in the first place”. I don’t disagree but I also don’t (and maybe I’m missing it) see that as a point clearly made in the article, particularly in view of the last paragraph. I think it is important the point be made for the sake of clarity as to what Christianity is and what cannot properly be called Christianity. Let none be deluded. That’s one reason it matters.

    Of course restoring those who have fallen away (which scripture also tells us to do) presumes we are dealing with people who at one time at least did accept “external authority”. The difference may be between confusion and unawareness. In some instances we may be dealing with those who have not yet abandoned the faith once for all delivered to the saints but are vulnerable to doing so, particularly when we neglect the aformentioned clarity.

  9. michal says:

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  10. Scottie Shrefler says:

    Oh my goodness! a tremendous article dude. Thanks However I am experiencing situation with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting identical rss problem? Anybody who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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