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What is theological liberalism?Riverside

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.

Like any “ism,” liberalism is not easy to pigeonhole. But Gary Dorrien’s magisterial three volumes on The Making of American Liberal Theology present a coherent picture of a movement that has been marked by identifiable hermeneutical and sociological commitments. Even if one wishes to avoid liberal theology, it would still be wise to know something about a movement that has exerted such considerable influence over the past 200 years.

Below are seven characteristics of liberalism that have been culled from the first volume of Dorrien’s trilogy. The headings are mine; the indented text is from the book.

1. True religion is not based on external authority

The idea of liberal theology is nearly three centuries old. In essence, it is the idea that Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without being based upon external authority. Since the eighteenth century, liberal Christian thinkers have argued that religion should be modern and progressive and that the meaning of Christianity should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience. (xii)

What’s more, Dorrien recognizes this rejection is something new in the history of the church.

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. Adopting the scholastic methods of their Catholic adversaries, Protestant theologians formalized these assumptions with scholastic precision during the seventeenth century. Not coincidentally, the age of religious wars that preceded the Enlightenment is also remembered as the age of orthodoxy.

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)

Note that Dorrien does not believe inerrancy was a Princetonian invention.

2. Christianity is a movement of social reconstruction.

One of the most influential definitions of theological liberalism was offered in 1949 by an able latter-day proponent, Daniel Day Williams: “By ‘liberal theology’ I mean the movement in modern Protestantism which during the nineteenth century tried to bring Christian thought into organic unity with the evolutionary world view, the movements from social reconstruction, and the expectations of ‘a better world’ which dominated the general mind. It is that form of Christian faith in which a prophetic-progressive philosophy of history culminates in the expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.” (xiv)

3. Christianity must be credible and relevant.

Specifically, liberal theology is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially the nature 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)

4. Truth can be know only through changing symbols and forms.

Bushnell admonished that “all our difficulties and controversies” regarding the truths of revelation were caused by a basic failure to face up to what was known about the clothing of truths in signs and analogies. The problem was not peculiar to New England theology, he suggested; it was an “almost universal sin that infests the reasonings of mankind concerning moral and spiritual subjects.” Throughout the world, people treated the symbolic forms of their truths as the truths themselves. (151)

5. Theological controversy is about language, not about truth.

Bushnell debated various doctrinal points with his adversaries, claiming always that their disagreements were about language usage, not lack of belief: “All my supposed heresies, in reference to these great subjects, are caused by the arrest of speculation and the disallowance of those constructive judgments, or a priori arguments, by which terms that are only analogies, and mysteries that are most significant when taken only as symbols, are made to affirm something wiser and more exact than what they express." (151-52)

6. The historical accuracies of biblical facts and events are not crucial, so long as we meet Jesus in the pages of Scripture.

He cautioned that the faithful reader of scripture is not obliged to assume the truth of the Gospel narrative “by which the manner and facts of the life of Jesus are reported to us.” That was the matter in question, “We only assume the representations themselves, as being just what they are, and discover their necessary truth, in the transcendent, wondrously self-evident, picture of divine excellence and beauty exhibited in them.” Bushnell counseled that the biblical narrative is not very impressive aside from the extraordinary character of its pivotal figure, but the more that we study the figure of Jesus, “a picture shining in its own clear sunlight upon us,” the more clearly we are brought into the source and light of all truth: “Jesus, the Divine Word, coming out from God, to be incarnate with us, and be the vehicle of God and salvation to the race.” (399)

7. The true religion is the way of Christ, not any particular doctrines about Christ.

The Word of Christ is not a doctrine or the end of an argument, but a self-authenticating life; it is morally regenerative spiritual power claimed in Christ’s spirit. . . . Moving beyond their mentor, the Bushnellians accented the humanity of Christ; Munger and Gladden lifted Jesus’ teaching above any claims about his person. In both cases, however, a self-authenticating moral image conceived as the power of true religion was in control. The true religion is the way of Christ. (399-400)

Dorrien observes that this kind of religion was a departure from historic orthodoxy.

Traditional Protestant orthodoxies place the substitutionary atonement of Christ at the center of Christianity, conceiving Christ’s death as a propitiatory sacrifice that vicariously satisfied the retributive demands of divine justice. (400)

The new progressive religion of liberalism understood Christianity quite differently.

By the end of Beecher’s life, it was almost prosaic for Munger and Gladden to assert that Christianity is essentially a life, not a doctrine. (405)


Liberalism is not a swear word to be thrown around. It is a diverse, but identifiable approach to Christianity, one that differs significantly from historic orthodoxy, not to mention evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

Liberals believe they are making Christianity relevant, credible, beneficial, and humane. Evangelicals in the line of J. Gresham Machen believe they are making something other than Christianity. That was the dividing line a century ago, and the division persists.

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21 thoughts on “Seven Characteristics of Liberal Theology”

  1. Curt Day says:

    It is unfortunate that the key parts of theological liberalism were not mentioned above. And what was mentioned was designed to make us reject everything that comes from liberalism. Thus, we religious conservatives have an everything to teach and nothing to learn from liberals mentality, which is an adapted Martin Luther King Jr. phrase. And such an attitude has too many similarities to the attitude that the Pharisee from the parable of the two men praying had.

    The most telling part of theological liberalism is that it almost always reduces reality to the physical. Thus, the supernatural character of Jesus is denied and we are then forced to find alternative meanings to His life events, miracles performed and some of his teachings.

    The 2nd characteristic of theological liberalism is its universalism–that is everybody is saved.

    From these two characteristics comes all of iiberalism’s sins. Take, for example, the characteristics that Christianity must be credible and relevant or that Christianity is a movement of social reconstruction, is everything about those characteristics heretical? For example, shouldn’t those churches, whose members consist primarily of those who are marginalized in society, preach and teach things that are relevant to their marginalization? Those of us Christians who are privileged may not think so, but then again, we have no understanding of the plight of the marginalized. Teaching what is relevant now does not rule out teaching about what is eternal. What would rule out teaching what is eternal would be the reduction of reality to the physical.

    Second, if Christianity teaches that we must repent of our sins and there exists corporate sins on which the status quo of society relies, then shouldn’t part of Christianity be working for social reconstruction as part of preaching the Gospel? Certainly, those Christians who oppose abortion think so.

    Unlike the times of the 1st century Church, the Gospel today has been associated with all sorts of social injustices by either what the predominant branch of the Church aligned itself with or by what the Church was silently complicity with. Remember how the PCA rightfully apologized for its role in sustaining racism in society in the past. Those associations sooner or later become stumbling blocks for unbelievers to even listen to the Gospel. And theological liberalism can sometimes better point out those stumbling blocks than theological conservatism can. History tells us that theological conservatism has formed too many past associations with wealth and power in a nation. Thus, we conservatives can’t afford to hold on to this having everything to teach and nothing to learn from theological liberalism attitude.

  2. Dr. Richard Zeile says:

    Thank you for a very focused and concise summary of the phenomenon of theological liberalism. I believe it meets the test whereby an advocate of such would affirm your characterization. I must disagree with Mr. Day’s characterization of conservative Christianity identifying with wealth and power. The wealthiest denominations are the PCUSA and Episcopal Church, and they are, in the words of Harper’s Magazine, “Trendier than Thou.” No, the Gospel call to put hope in God rather than wealth has not appealed to the those characterized by worldly comforts. But Satan inspires lies among us, such as the ancient pagan canard that Christians practice cannibalism (repeated in Protestant rumors that Catholic nuns sacrificed babies). Churches are criticized for failing to get with the times (Methodism & slavery in the 1820’s), and then damned when times change. There is a certain irony in the liberal denomination which affirms Darwin’s theory and racial equality, an example of affirming what was historically incompatible ideas. Have the Darwinists ever acknowledged their complicity in racism, or is it only Christian assemblies that are compelled to confess?

  3. Jay Carper says:

    I don’t disagree with any of those characterizations, but I think they’re incomplete. Both Curt and Richard hit on the missing elements. As Richard said, the theological liberal probably wouldn’t disagree with any of the points, and, if I interpret them from my own theological perspective, they could apply to me and almost anyone else too. In that sense, they’re not specific enough to be very useful. I think the two points that Curt made make all the difference. It’s only when these characteristics are interpreted from a naturalistic, universalist POV do they really become liberal theology.

  4. Glen Gaboury says:

    Good article but I would take it one step farther. Liberalism is not another way of looking at Christianity. It is NOT Christianity in the first place—just a watered down imitation. Just a casual reading of the Book of Jude as well as Paul’s and Peter’s letters (etc) shows us that tolerance for apostasy and false teaching in the church is not something to be tolerated. In the United Methodist in which I serve (but am not ordained…thank God) liberalism has destroyed our denomination. Our only hope is for a split where we who believe in the Word of God won’t be saddled with the apostasy coming out of our denominational organizations.

  5. Paul says:

    Thank you for this article. By your definition, which I accept, I am more than happy to be a theological liberal. It is the bigotry, self righteousness and anti-intellectualism of the Christian Right which is helping to spawn a new generation of atheists.

  6. Cedric says:

    Some of these characteristics (at least the headlines) seem biblical to me:

    3. Christianity must be credible and relevant (Christ was credible and relevant in his time)

    6. The historical accuracies of biblical facts and events are not crucial, so long as we meet Jesus in the pages of Scripture (is Mark 16:18 true? I guess not and I don’t care)

    7. The true religion is the way of Christ, not any particular doctrines about Christ (James 2:19)

  7. Dr Z says:

    So if I’m reading this right, liberal theology says that one must meet Jesus on the pages of Scripture (#6), but it does not matter which Jesus is met (#7)? I wonder what Jesus is recorded in John 8:24.

  8. Simon says:

    I think the uncomfortable truth that conservatives and fundamentalists must grapple with is that they too share some of the above listed characteristics with liberals. The issue of authority being foremost. Although authority for conservative evangelicals is stated to rest in the Scriptures, this does not play out as such in reality. After all, many liberal protestants would also want to claim to be faithful to the Scriptures. In reality, conservative evangelicals also follow authority of their traditions, which gives them their interpretation of the Scriptures. But why one authority over another? It seems to me the only canon of the complete content of the faith must be the life of the Church – i.e. her Traditions. Otherwise we will always run up against authority issues. Once we realise this, we can quickly move beyond the liberal/conservative divisions as the Church’s teaching does not strictly conform to such a dichotomy. Even within Protestantism you are seeing movements, such as John Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy, that won’t conform to either liberal or conservative categories. He would want to strongly argue that doctrine matters and that conservative and liberal evangelicals are precisely wrong on a whole range of issues from the sacraments to worship and mediation. These are all positions that conservative evangelicals share with liberals. And there are many other issues that conservatives and liberals share in common about the historical faith that the ancient Communions would outright reject. In my mind, the only forms of truly small “o” Christian orthodoxy can be seen in the traditional and ancient communions. This is because they demonstrably uphold all of the Church’s ecumenical councils and creeds without reservation. Conservative evangelicals together with liberals do not uphold the Church’s minimum doctrinal standards for orthodoxy. And this is rather easy to demonstrate with regard to black and white issues such as icons, the Theotokos and the descent of Christ into hell.

  9. It is the basis of external authority that defines theological liberalism more than anything else. But that said, I’d take yesteryear’s broad-church theological liberals, who made space for everyone, over today’s theological radicals who are plain evil. You can take someone like Rudolf Bultmann and say, at least he was asking people to make a decision for the Kingdom. Today it’s make a decision for pan-sexualism.

    Also, no mention of Schleiermacher?

  10. And one more thing, the influence of German Idealism and Romanticism isn’t solely the province of the liberals. The emotionalism and revivalism of evangelicalism and the 19th c. 2nd Great Awakening demonstrate elements of Protestant Liberalism, as does Mercersberg theology or Anglo-Catholicism. And my view is that while the affections of many Protestants were steered towards gothic architecture or bourgeois sentimentality or societal transformation or sacraments in the the latter half of the 19th c., the charismatic and mega-church phenomenons today are similar in the way that they attempt to provide an “experience.” In my view today’s evangelicals are as equally liberal in praxis as the old Protestant Liberals were in theological ethos.

  11. Don Lott says:

    Relating my personal experience is in no way attempting to wade the deep theological waters of the previous comments—but only to say that “liberalism” has been at work in many ways in the church for years. I am close to 80 years old—was raised and sang in and played in the Methodist Church—but when they put the hymnals away and started singing Sesame Street tunes with brief and repetitive lyrics I went down the street to a Baptist Church that had a better orchestra—needed a bass trombone player—did a big Singing Christmas Tree every year—and sang the old hymns. Before leaving my old church for good however—I asked them directly what they were going to program for Christmas—for example—“O come, All Ye Faithful” or some untitled 7/11 tune over and over again? They could not answer me—like they had not thought that far ahead—and many others eventually did as I did and voted with their feet. End of story.

  12. Curt Day says:

    Dr. Richard Zeile,
    I understand your disagreement, but for as long as the conservative Church fails to challenge the economic system along with today’s level of patriotism and instead focuses on personal sins, then it is failing to recognize the corporate sins that have become so much a part of the status quo. And by corporate sins, I am not talking about sins committed by corporations, I am talking about societal and state sins.

    Since the founding of our nation, our economic system has relied on exploitation. In the beginning, that exploitation took the form of taking land by the ethnic cleanings of Native Americans from the land and slavery. Today, not only do we have several forms of worker exploitation, our economic system and way of is also exploiting the environment as well as beginning to shed its responsibility to help those in need. Today’s form of Capitalism is not the Capitalism that followed WW II into the 1970s. It is an Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged form of Capitalism that eliminates the systems stakeholders to major shareholders. It is a form of Capitalism whose adherents believe that once one has made it financially, they should kick away the ladders to prevent others from joining them. One only needs to read about how power follows the consolidation of wealth in our nation and with the growing wealth disparity within our nation, wealth is being consolidated.

    What was said about the economic system does not include what could be said about foreign policies that include war and interventions as well as aid to tyrants and oppressive governments. Many of our foreign policies help those with wealth here.

    And where is the prophetic voice of the conservative Church in all of this? It is rightly challenging the changing sexual mores of society. But it is wrongly doing so in almost an exclusive manner with the exception of also challenging racism. It isn’t challenging the sinful practices that are inherent in our economic system nor is it challenging the attempts to increase society’s neglect of the vulnerable.

    In the pre-revolutionary times of France, France’s dominant branch of the Church supported policies and laws that favored the aristocracy. In Russia, the dominant branch of the Church sided with the Tsar and the Capitalists. And in Spain, the dominant branch of the Church favored the government until it collapsed and then it supported the fascists who fought to overthrow the Revolution. When revolution came to these nations, the respective dominant branch of the Church were understandably identified as enemies of the people and Christians were unnecessarily persecuted and the reputation f the Gospel suffered. In America today, conservative Christianity, by its silence on our society’s and state’s corporate sins, is simply repeating an ugly side of Church history.

  13. Interested Party2 says:

    Mr Day, while I (sadly) snort the use of the titles liberal or conservative to describe theological schools of thought, it nevertheless has become the normative expression, and thus will be what we have to use to talk. Though it’s the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to kill and gnat.

    There’s plenty of rich food upon which one can feast from within the various reformed traditions stemming from Europe and from those influenced by them in the UK and the US that one would categorize as “theologically conservative,” that at the same time would address the fundamental human problem that you are describing. Without sounding flippant, I hope, you’re describing something that scores of people are intimately familiar with. Namely, that greed and power, east of Eden, perennially exist in the world. I’d take issue only with the way that your historical analysis is incomplete because it’s imbalanced. But putting that aside, it’s not exclusively the province of “theological conservatives” to be somehow blind to the evil that manifests itself as groups of sinners form businesses or governments or denominations to err – and err greatly. In fact, brother, there are great examples of saints working tirelessly against evil machinations in the world, and some martyred for it.

    I observe – and it’s not uncommon, and I’m not judgmental about it – that many today are finding it difficult to know how to think theologically in an environment in which everything has become so darn political. The only thing I can say is: use first principles, try to observe through a Kingdom-centered lens, try to see the good and the bad, try to see the grace that is overcoming nature. It’s all there. In a word, be less materialist.

    And really, if anything, what DeYoung leaves out are the philosophical underpinnings of Kantian and Hegelian materialism that form the presuppositions upon which the various elements of Protestant Liberalism are based. Materialism is a road to nowhere.

  14. Curt Day says:

    interested Party,
    It’s no surprise that greed and power exist in the world. But it is common knowledge for those Christians who read the Bible that they are to be resisted.

    My complaint isn’t that greed and power exist in the world, though with the destruction they bring, I could complain about it. My complaint is that the Conservative Church has all too often beaten down individuals regarding their individual sins while either endorsing or remaining complicitly silent about the sins of greed and power of which they take a cut.

  15. These are vague charges Curt, could you cite specific examples?

  16. Curt Day says:

    They are abstract charges, not vague ones. But note how the Conservative Church has paid so much attention to sexual sins, which deserves a lot of attention, but says nothing about the exploitation that is so much a part of Capitalism and has said little to nothing about how our government has interfered or even attacked other nations for reasons other than what it states. Just for an example, the original 9-11 refers to the military coup in Chilé which we supported because we disagreed with the economic policies of the then democratically elected government. That military coup produce Pinochet whose brutal reign was supported by both Reagan and Thatcher. Why has the Conservative Church, to this day, not condemned such interventions?

    Did you know that Afghanistan is the result of Carter’s order to fund terrorists to fight against the Soviet backed government in Afghanistan. It preceded the Soviet invasion and the funding of terrorists was to draw the USSR into into own Vietnam at the expense of the Afghan people. And the country has never known peace since then. Why isn’t the Church speaking out against policies?

    IN Chilé, actions were taken to protect US businesses and in Afghanistan, an unnecessary strategic move was made at tremendous human costs. But most of we hear about from the pulpit is sexual sins, there are other personal sins preached against, and how horrible full equality for the LGBT community is for the country.

  17. Mark Corbett says:

    Thanks for this helpful article. The explanation of liberal theology in the article has an academic tone. This is helpful, especially because many people encounter theological liberalism in an academic context.

    Six or seven weeks ago I posted an article on my own small blog about theological liberalism and postmodernism. My description is more “practical” and in some ways more “spiritual” (in terms of attempting to identify the deepest roots of theological liberalism). This doesn’t mean at all that it is better! But some may find it to be a helpful complement. Here is a link, followed by an excerpt:

    A teacher, church, or institution claiming to be Christian, may be theologically liberal or postmodern if you see any of the following.

    * They cause doubt about whether the books of the Bible which name their authors were actually written by those historical people. For example, if someone causes doubt about whether Paul wrote 2 Timothy, they have been influenced by theological liberalism.
    * They question the truthfulness of any account which is presented as historically real in the Bible. Examples would be Jonah being swallowed by a fish, the virgin birth, and other miraculous stories throughout the Bible.
    * They question the need to win people to the Christian faith from other religions, such as Islam and Hinduism.
    * If someone believes or teaches that any sexual act between two men (or between two women) is not sinful, they are theologically liberal/postmodern.
    * Belief in unguided evolution as a correct explanation for the appearance of life and for all the types of life we see today is a strong indicator of theological liberalism.
    * All, or nearly all, theological liberals deny the Bible’s teaching that husbands are to lead in a marriage and that only men should serve as Senior Pastors in the church. However, there are some Christians who are truly evangelical and theologically conservative overall who are wrong on this one issue.
    * Postmoderns often undermine the Bible’s teaching that the death of Christ on the cross meant that He was acting as a substitutionary atonement on our behalf.
    * If you are reading something on one of the above topics and the author’s view seems unclear and confusing, it is very often the case that the author is theologically liberal or postmodern. A lack of clarity is sometimes just poor writing. But a lack of clarity is also a trademark of some postmodern writing. Their writing causes doubt about things that are clear in God’s Word, while intentionally being worded in such a way that allows the author to avoid an accusation of outright heresy. This is especially common when postmodern authors desire to continue to be accepted by, and to be able to have influence among, evangelical Christians.

  18. Curt Day says:

    Though some of your comments about what theological liberalism and post modernism are true, the basis for their respective beliefs are different.

    Theological liberalism is grounded in modernism and trusts in the metanarratives provided by Science and revelation-free reason. Post Modernism has rejected the metanarratives of both pre modernism, which would include Christianity, and modernism, which would include theological liberalism.

    Both theological liberalism might share some beliefs and reactions to Christianity, but the holding to those beliefs are for different reasons and so I wouldn’t conflate the two. Answering post modernism means we have to account for the misuses of our faith by those who sought to lord it over others. Thus, it is more reactionary. That is not the case with theological liberalism, especially as it originally emerged. The battle with theological liberalism is whether it is the Scriptures or science and reason based on naturalism that best interprets reality

  19. Victor says:

    “The battle with theological liberalism is whether it is the Scriptures or science and reason based on naturalism that best interprets reality”

    If this is true then theological liberalism is nothing less than paganism, the elevation of the created over the created. No thanks.

  20. Victor says:

    That was supposed to say the elevation of the created over the Creator.

  21. Raymond Griffith says:

    Dr. Richard Zeile says “Have the Darwinists ever acknowledged their complicity in racism, or is it only Christian assemblies that are compelled to confess?” — which demonstrates his skewed and flawed perceptions. The work in evolutionary theory as we expanded our understanding of the processes of biology were not geared toward a defense of racism. While some scientists were racist or sexist, science has as a whole long ago repudiated such notions. So we scientists (stuff your prejudicial “darwinist” pejorative!) have indeed confessed our sins. Churches, on the other hand, are loathe to do so. Only recently did the Southern Baptists address their own racist beginnings, and but half-heartedly at that! Such was, in part, a reaction to persistent reports of Southern Baptists in recent years having been noted for their defense of slavery. Social Darwinism was a construct of the rich, warping a growing understanding of science to support their oligarchical ways. You actually hear conservative fundagelicals spouting the same kind of nonsense as they resist such ideas as “black lives matter.”

    In any case, Judgment first begins at the house of God, Richard. Let the church confess her sins, and then perhaps the unchurched will feel the pricking of the conscience by the Spirit. Paul said that the church had to awaken to righteousness and stop sinning. So stop trying to deflect. Scientists have actually repented of racism long before you. Now it is your turn.

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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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