Nineteenth-Century Theological Liberalism And Modern Evangelicalism

Apr 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: Christian Life

The four academic degrees that I have earned are in history and historical theology.  Therefore, the historical perspective is quite important to me.  In this Perspective, I seek to give an important historical perspective to the origin and development of 19th-century theological liberalism.  When I am finished, I will make application to what is occurring within certain parts of current American evangelicalism.

  • First, a brief review of the origins and development of theological liberalism.  The shift really begins with the 18th century Enlightenment, which altered the connection between faith and reason.  Near the end of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) wrote several books that attempted to destroy the traditional arguments for God?s existence.  For Kant, there was no empirical way to answer questions about God, immortality and human freedom.  Kant therefore blocked the road to knowledge of God through reason.  One could not know God for there was no way to verify His existence rationally.  Religion, then, to him, was mostly human-centered in its orientation and grounded in a sense of duty and obligation.  To Kant, religion was not an objective set of beliefs rooted in God?s revelation to man.  Instead, one lived as if God existed and as if one were accountable to Him.  Personal religion was a set of ethics, not propositional theology.  As Kant blocked the road to God through reason, the only road left was the interior life, the realm of subjective experience.  The founder of theological liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), maintained that Christianity was not knowledge or propositional truth, nor a system of ethics; it was a ?feeling of absolute dependence? on God.  This was the essence of Christianity.  Gone was any affirmation of Christ?s deity, His substitutionary atonement or propositional revelation from God.  If Christianity is reduced to feeling and Jesus was merely a suffering man, then the question became, can we trust the New Testament accounts of Jesus?  David Strauss (1808-1874) interjected the term ?myth? into the discussion about the Gospel accounts.  He argued that the supernatural elements in the Gospels were not trustworthy.  The Gospels were not history but mere reflections of the New Testament writers on what they wanted to believe about Jesus.  If the NT contained myth, what then is the distinctive nature of Christianity?  Theological liberalism reduced the Christian faith to righteous behavior, grounded in the ethic of love.  To Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), the center of Jesus? teaching was the kingdom of God and its ethics.  Further, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) asserted that the essence of the Christian faith was ?the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.?  Was Christianity unique?  Not to liberal theology.  From 1880-1920, in what was called the History of Religions School in Germany, Christianity was regarded as a human religion like all others that needed to be studied historically.  Jesus was a historical figure but not the one pictured in the NT.  Liberal theology, then, began a quest for the historical Jesus.  Since we cannot trust the NT, what is the ground on which we can build our understanding of Jesus?  Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) called for the ?demythologizing? of the Gospels, to find the kernel of truth in Christianity.  That Jesus existed, Bultmann argued, is about all that can be claimed as certain.  The antisupernaturalism of the Enlightenment reached its peak with Bultmann.
  • Second, in a recent issue of Time magazine, an article by Jon Meacham summarizes the ?new Christianity? of Rob Bell.  Meacham offers some helpful information on the family and background of Bell and also offers a most positive affirmation of Bell?s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  Bell suggests that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal, that all could have a place in heaven, ?whatever that turns out to be.?  As Meacham writes, ?Bell?s arguments about heaven and hell raise doubts about the core of the Evangelical worldview, changing the common understanding of salvation so much that Christianity becomes more of an ethical habit of mind than a faith based on divine revelation.?  Indeed, Bell suggests, ?I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian.  Something new is in the air.?  All of this sounds hauntingly familiar.  Early in the 20th century, a most gifted Protestant pastor and preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, became the epitome of American theological liberalism.  He preached that we must abandon the literal truth of the Bible and the existence of hell.  It was time, the Fosdick and other liberals argued, for Christianity to surrender its supernatural claims.  Meacham maintains that ?Bell is more at home with this expansive liberal tradition than he is with the old-time believers. . . He believes that Jesus, the Son of God, was sacrificed for the sins of humanity and that the prospect of a place of eternal torment seems irreconcilable with the God  of love.?  Meacham is correct in his analysis because Bell states that ?At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.?  For this reason, Bell?s work is so significant.  History is repeating itself!  Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary, has observed that ?it was the doctrine of hell that marked the first major departures from theological orthodoxy in the United States.  The early liberals just could not and would not accept a doctrine of hell that included conscious eternal punishment and the pouring out of God?s wrath upon sin.?  Therefore, they abandoned it!  Bell strongly contends that ?. . . [the idea that part of] humanity [will] spend forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance of anything better. . . is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus? message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.?  Theologian Albert Mohler correctly observes that ?Bell?s argument is centered in his affirmation of God?s loving character, but he alienates love from justice and holiness.  This is the traditional liberal line.  Love is divorced from holiness and becomes mere sentimentality.  Bell wants to rescue God from any teaching that His wrath is poured out upon sin and sinners, certainly in any eternally conscious sense.  But Bell also wants God to vindicate the victims of murder, rape, child abuse, and similar evil.  He seems to not recognize that he has undercut his own story, leaving God unable or unwilling to bring true justice.?  Bell has abdicated biblical authority, denied biblical truth and presented a false Gospel.  Mohler:  ?It misleads sinners and fails to save.  It also fails in its central aim?to convince sinners to think better of God.  The real Gospel is the Gospel that saves?the Gospel that must be heard and believed if sinners are to be saved.?  Many years ago H. Richard Niebuhr brilliantly distilled theological liberalism down to one sentence:  ?A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through ministrations of a Christ without a cross.?  History is repeating itself?and we within evangelicalism had better sit up and take notice!

See James P. Eckman, Perspectives about Church History, pp. 64-69, Jon Meacham in Time (14 April 2011), and (16 March 2011). PDF

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3 Comments to “Nineteenth-Century Theological Liberalism And Modern Evangelicalism”

  1. Steve Schmidt says:

    I just finished reading Rob Bell’s book. Classic deconstructionism. Interesting that his starting point seemed to be that eternal punishment wasn’t the main thrust of Jesus’ message. Then we reworked the meaning of eternal.

    Rob Bell, if nothing else, is a very good communicator. He will take many with him down this stream of thought. It is interesting that postmodernism is open to mystery, but seemingly not open to the mystery that God is love but will one day judge the world with His holy wrath. Why is it impossible to hold these in tension?

    Thanks for this historical perspective. Indeed we need to be vigilant. – Steve

    • Dante says:

      God defines what is good. Our conscience, being the image of God as we are, tells us that love is good and that good by nature opposes evil. Being good, God must hate evil. God judging sin as opposed to his holy nature (1 Jn 1:5-6; 3:4), God judges the sinner who by nature hates God who is absolutely righteousness (Jn 3:19-20; 1:10-11). God judging the wicked glorifies his justice and is part of our gift of salvation (2 Th 1:5-10). When Christ is revealed in righteousness on the last day, we will not only be finally and fully purified of our sin (1 Jn 3:2-3), we will be saved from God’s enemies who hate him and his children.

  2. Sam Thomas says:

    I am immensely concerned about the influence that theological liberalism has had on theological education in India… a number of professors being trained in the US and Europe in liberal seminaries have imported theological liberalism into a number of theological institutions of India… consequentially, the mainline churches are on the decline in many places… what are pastors who have been trained in liberal institutions going to preach in their churches? Many Christians therefore move to more evangelical and Pentecostal and charismatic churches… What has happened in the West is repeating itself in India…