The Theological Crisis Of 21st Century Liberal Protestantism

May 4th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

In the 1960s 1 in 6 Americans belonged to a mainline Protestant church.  Today it is 1 in 20, and falling.  More broadly, the number of self-described Christians in the US has continued to drop and is now below 70%.  The United Methodist Church (UMC) offers a rather poignant example of the confusion and tension when a Protestant church abandons its theological and doctrinal roots.  The United Methodist Church is the only historically liberal mainline Protestant denomination that retains a ban on same-sex marriage.  The Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Congregational churches have all liberalized their stance on sexuality and marriage.  Why has the UMC not done so? The UMC has 6.8 million US members but nearly 6 million members overseas, especially in Africa, which remains a very theologically conservative part of the UMC.  It is the African UMC that has prevented the larger UMC from liberalizing its stance on sexuality.  The US UMC has lost more than 4 million members over the last 50 years; it currently loses 100,000 members annually.  In contrast, the African UMC gains over 100,000 annually.   Thus, the UMC is the exception, not the rule among Protestant denominations.

What has happened to the mainline Protestant denominations in America (and in Western Europe)?  Simply put, each has abandoned the historic, biblical theology of the Christian faith.  In the late 19 century, an antisupernaturalism inched its way into Protestantism, which eventually denied miracles, the incarnation, the virgin birth, the authority of the Bible and the truth of the resurrection.  This is now the essence of theological liberalism in the name of Christianity.  Permit me to cite current and penetrating example of this abandonment of theological orthodoxy in the name of theological liberalism.

New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, over the last five years at Easter, has interviewed a Christian leader with a series of similar questions about the theology and belief system of Christianity.  This year he interviewed Serene Jones, a Protestant minister and president of Union Theological Seminary.  [Founded in 1836 by the Presbyterian Church USA in New York City, Union broke from the PCUSA in 1893 and is today an independent, nondenominational seminary “in the Christian tradition.”  It sees itself as the center of theological liberalism and has birthed radical theological movements such as Black theology, Womanist theology and others.]  Serene Jones is ordained in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.  She has written and edited several books, including several on womanist theology.   Dr. Jones epitomizes the new “identity theology.” What follows is a series of quotations from Kristof’s interview, each highlighting her opinion about key theological beliefs of genuine, historic, biblical Christianity:

  • Kristof asked her, “Do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection?” Her answer: “There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb.  Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves.  But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”
  • Question: “But without a physical resurrection, isn’t there a risk that we are left with just the crucifixion?” Her answer: “Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs.  The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts.  For me the cross is an enactment of human hatred.  But what happens on Easter is a triumph of love in the midst of suffering.  Isn’t that reason for hope?”
  • In another part of the interview, Jones stated, “But I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being. That is a fabrication of Roman judicial theory and Greek mythology.  That’s not the God of Easter.  The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice and mercy.”
  • Of the resurrection she said: “For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith.  What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb?  Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie?  No, faith is stronger than that.”
  • Of the virgin birth of Jesus she stated: “I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim.  It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message.  The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful.  It also promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that has led to centuries of oppressing women.”
  • When Kristof asked, “What happens when we die?,” Jones answered, “I don’t now! There may be something, there may be nothing.  My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife.  People who behave well in this life only to achieve an afterlife, that’s a faith driven by a selfish motive: ‘I’m going to be good so God will reward me with a stick of candy called heaven.’  For me, living a life of love is driven by the simple fact that love is true . . . hell has a symbolic reality: When we reject love, we create hell, and hell is what we see around us in this world in some many forms.”

Dr.  Serene Jones has embraced not only theological liberalism, which denies the basic supernatural elements of biblical Christianity (e.g., the deity of Jesus, His literal resurrection, the inerrancy of Scripture, etc.), she also personifies what Case Thorp, Senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, has called Identity Theology?  Permit me a summary of Thorp’s helpful observations:

  1. “Entire theologies have developed from one’s self-orientation in an attempt to denounce patriarchy, sexism, racism and homophobia. Feminist theology and black-liberation theology produced womanist theology.  Now queer theology asks in the words of Marcella Althaus-Reid, ‘What can sexual stories from fetishism and sadomasochism tell us about our relationship with God, Jesus and Mary?’  Identity theology breaks down the communal cohesion and deep unity that Jesus and the apostle Paul sought to establish.”
  2. Identity theology perpetuates the Enlightenment’s failed promise in which true meaning rests within someone’s understanding of himself. “Those who cling to this mode of thinking leave behind a God-centered study for a radical focus on humanity.  That amounts to anthropology, not theology.”
  3. Most poignantly, Thorp concludes that “today’s identity theology merely replaces northern European, male, cisgendered theology with another set of adjectives seeking to exercise power over others in the name of justice. But this is false justice, because it lacks the divine righteousness that gives meaning to all lesser forms of justice.  Call it retribution theology, a form of tribalism at its worse.”

A concluding comment:  Protestant theological liberalism, which has birthed identity theology, is sowing inestimable confusion within the broader Christian community.  Kristof’s interview with Dr. Jones demonstrates the vacuous bankruptcy of this brand of Christianity.  It offers no real solutions, but only sows hurt, pain and sickening confusion among those who need hope and purpose for life.  The solution is one offered in the New Testament.  The key to identity is not politics or power; it is Jesus.  About 242 times in the New Testament, the phrase “in Christ” (or “in Him”) is used.  It summarizes the place of security, of purpose and of meaning for the person who has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ.  To be in Christ is to be a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  To be in Christ is to be in a sphere of love and security (Romans 8:31-39).  To be in Christ to be a joint heir with Jesus and to have the promise of a glorious future with Him (Galatians 3-4 and Romans 8).  To be in Christ is to have a blessed hope that the grace of God will give you enablement for the present and hope for the future (Titus 2:11-14).  To be in Christ offers completely and totally what “identity theology” promises but can never deliver—clarity of who I am and why I am important.

Theological liberalism and its child, identity theology, are not in any sense Christian.  In 1923, J. Gresham Machen published a book entitled, Christianity and Liberalism.  As Machen answered the theology of early 20th century Protestant theological liberalism, he observed that this movement should no longer call itself “Christian.”  In abandoning every major truth of historic, biblical Christianity, it lost the right to be called “Christian.”  That observation applies to the theological liberalism and identity theology that Dr. Serene Jones represents.  In rejecting and abandoning everything Jesus stood for and taught, this aberration no longer deserves the precious name of “Christian.”

See the interview with Serene Jones by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times (21 April 2019) and Case Thorp in the Wall Street Journal (24 March 2017).

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