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Liberal Christianity, also known as liberal theology, covers diverse philosophically and biblically informed religious movements and ideas within Christianity from the late 18th century onward. Liberal does not refer to progressive Christianity or to political liberalism but to the philosophical and religious thought that developed and grew as a consequence of the Enlightenment.
Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings, symbols and scriptures. Liberal Christianity did not originate as a belief structure, and as such was not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal doctrine. Unlike conservative varieties of Christianity, liberalism has no unified set of propositional beliefs. Instead, "Liberalism" from the start embraced the methodologies of Enlightenment science, including empirical evidence and the use of reason, as the basis for interpreting the Bible, life, faith and theology.
The word liberal in liberal Christianity originally denoted a characteristic willingness to interpret scripture according to modern philosophic perspectives (hence the parallel term modernism) and modern scientific assumptions, while attempting to achieve the Enlightenment ideal of objective point of view, without preconceived notions of the authority of scripture or the correctness of Church dogma. Liberal Christians may hold certain beliefs in common with Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, or even fundamentalist Protestantism.
Liberal Christian exegesis
The theology of liberal Christianity was prominent in the Biblical criticism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The style of Scriptural hermeneutics (interpretation of the Bible) within liberal theology is often characterized as non-propositional. This means that the Bible is not considered a collection of factual statements, but instead an anthology that documents the human authors' beliefs and feelings about God at the time of its writing, authors influenced by their own historical and cultural context. Instead, liberal Christian theologians have an allegorical interpretation of the Bible which emphasizes the moral or other spiritual lessons which can be learned from its stories.
Liberal Christianity was still hard to separate from political liberalism in the last third of the 19th century. Thus, an Irish bishop was sent by papal authority to Quebec in the 1870s to sort out the two. Several curés had threatened to withhold the sacraments from parishioners who cast votes for Liberals, and others had preached that to vote for Liberal candidates was a mortal sin.
In the 19th century, self-identified liberal Christians sought to elevate Jesus' humane teachings as a standard for a world civilization freed from cultic traditions and traces of "pagan" belief in the supernatural. As a result, liberal Christians placed less emphasis on miraculous events associated with the life of Jesus than on his teachings. The effort to remove "superstitious" elements from Christian faith dates to intellectually reforming Renaissance Christians such as Erasmus (who compiled the first modern Greek New Testament) in the late 15th and early-to-mid 16th centuries, and, later, the natural-religion view of the Deists, which disavowed any revealed religion or interaction between the Creator and the creation, in the 17–18th centuries. The debate over whether a belief in miracles was mere superstition or essential to accepting the divinity of Christ constituted a crisis within the 19th-century church, for which theological compromises were sought.
Attempts to account for miracles through scientific or rational explanation were mocked even at the turn of the 19th–20th century. A belief in the authenticity of miracles was one of five tests established in 1910 by the Presbyterian Church to distinguish true believers from false professors of faith such as "'liberal' Christians."
Many liberals prefer to read Jesus' miracles as metaphorical narratives for understanding the power of God. Not all theologians with liberal inclinations reject the possibility of miracles, but many reject the polemicism that denial or affirmation entails. Therefore, liberal Christian theologians often reject traditional Christian teaching on subjects such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the authority of Scripture.
Influence in the United States
Liberal Christianity was most influential with Mainline Protestant churches in the early 20th century, when proponents believed the changes it would bring would be the future of the Christian church. Its greatest and most influential manifestation was the Christian Social Gospel, whose most influential spokesman was the American Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch identified four institutionalized spiritual evils in American culture (which he identified as traits of "supra-personal entities", organizations capable of having moral agency): these were individualism, capitalism, nationalism and militarism.
Other subsequent theological movements within the U.S. Protestant mainline included political liberation theology, philosophical forms of postmodern Christianity, and such diverse theological influences as Christian existentialism (originating with Søren Kierkegaard and including other theologians and scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich ) and even conservative movements such as neo-evangelicalism, neo-orthodoxy, and paleo-orthodoxy. Dean M. Kelley, a liberal sociologist, was commissioned in the early 1970s to study the problem, and he identified a potential reason for the decline of the liberal churches: what was seen by some as excessive politicization of the Gospel, and especially their apparent tying of the Gospel with Left-Democrat/progressive political causes.
The 1990s and 2000s saw a resurgence of non-doctrinal, theological work on biblical exegesis and theology, exemplified by figures such as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, Karen Armstrong and Scotty McLennan.
Theologians and authors
Anglican and Protestant
- Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834), often called the "father of liberal theology," he claimed that religious experience was introspective, and that the most true understanding of God consisted of "a sense of absolute dependence".
- Charles Augustus Briggs (1841–1913), early advocate of higher criticism of the Bible.
- Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), American preacher who left behind the Calvinist orthodoxy of his famous father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, to instead preach the Social Gospel of liberal Christianity.
- Adolf von Harnack, (1851–1930), German theologian and church historian, promoted the Social Gospel; wrote a seminal work of historical theology called Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (History of Dogma).
- Charles Fillmore (1854–1948), Christian mystic influenced by Emerson; co-founder, with his wife, Myrtle Fillmore, of the Unity Church.
- Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) American Baptist, author of "A Theology for the Social Gospel", which gave the movement its definitive theological definition.
- Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), a Northern Baptist, founding pastor of New York's Riverside Church in 1922.
- Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), German biblical scholar, liberal Christian theologian until 1924. Bultmann was more of an existentialist than a "liberal", as his defense of Jesus' healings in his "History of Synoptic Tradition" makes clear.
- Paul Tillich (1886–1965), seminal figure in liberal Christianity; synthesized liberal Protestant theology with existentialist philosophy, but later came to be counted among the "neo-orthodox".
- Leslie Weatherhead (1893–1976), English preacher and author of The Will of God and The Christian Agnostic
- James Pike (1913-1969), Episcopal Bishop, Diocese of California 1958-66. Early television preacher as Dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City; social gospel advocate and civil rights supporter; author of "If This Be Heresy" and "The Other Side;" in later life studied Christian origins and spiritualism.
- Lloyd Geering (1918–), New Zealand liberal theologian.
- Paul Moore, Jr. (1919–2003), 13th Episcopal Bishop, New York Diocese
- John A.T. Robinson (1919–1983), Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, author of Honest to God; later dedicated himself to demonstrating very early authorship of the New Testament writings, publishing his findings in Redating the New Testament.
- John Hick (1922-2012) British philosopher of religion and liberal theologian, noted for his rejection of the Incarnation and advocacy of latitudinarianism and religious pluralism or non-exclusivism, as explained in his influential work, The Myth of God Incarnate.
- William Sloane Coffin (1924–2006), Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in New York City, and President of SANE/Freeze (now Peace Action).
- Christopher Morse (1935 - ) Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary, noted for his theology of faithful disbelief.
- John Shelby Spong (1931–), Episcopalian bishop and very prolific author of books such as A New Christianity for a New World, in which he wrote of his rejection of historical religious and Christian beliefs such as Theism (a traditional conception of God as an existent being), the afterlife, miracles, and the Resurrection.
- Richard Holloway (1933-), Bishop of Edinburgh 1986-2000.
- Rubem Alves, (b. 1938) Brazilian, ex-Presbyterian, former minister, retired professor from UNICAMP, seminal figure in the liberation theology movement.
- Matthew Fox (b. 1940), former Roman Catholic priest of the Order of Preachers; currently an American Episcopalian priest and theologian, noted for his synthesis of liberal Christian theology with New Age concepts in his ideas of "creation spirituality", "original blessing", and seminal work on the "Cosmic Christ"; founder of Creation Spirituality.
- Marcus Borg (1942-2015) American Biblical scholar, prolific author, fellow of the Jesus Seminar.
- Michael Dowd (b. 1958) Religious Naturalist theologian, evidential evangelist, and promoter of Big History and the Epic of Evolution.
- Douglas Ottati, Presbyterian theologian and author, former professor at Union-PSCE, current professor at Davidson College.
- Thomas Berry (1914-2009), American Passionist priest, cultural historian, geologian, and cosmologist.
- Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (15 August 1917 – 24 March 1980) was a prelate of the Catholic Church in El Salvador, who served as the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador. He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. In 1980, Romero was assassinated while offering Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence.
- Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino (born 8 June 1928) is a Peruvian philosopher, theologian, and Dominican priest regarded as one of the founders of liberation theology. He currently holds the John Cardinal O'Hara Professorship of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, and has previously been a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and a visiting professor at many major universities in North America and Europe.
- Hans Küng, (b. 1928) Swiss theologian. Had his license to teach Catholic theology revoked in 1979 because of his vocal rejection of the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope, but remains a priest in good standing.
- John Dominic Crossan, (b. 1934) ex-Catholic and former priest, New Testament scholar, co-founder of the critical liberal Jesus Seminar.
- Joan Chittister, (b. 1936) Benedictine lecturer and social psychologist.
- Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (born 1938) German feminist theologian and Professor at Harvard Divinity School
- Leonardo Boff, (b. 1938) Brazilian, ex-Franciscan and former priest, seminal author of the liberation theology movement, condemned by the Church; his works were condemned in 1985, and almost again condemned in 1992, which led him to leave the Franciscan order and the priestly ministry.
- William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), Unitarian liberal theologian in the United States, who rejected the Trinity and the strength of scriptural authority, in favor of purely rationalistic "natural religion".
- Scotty McLennan (b. 1948) Unitarian Universalist minister, Stanford University professor and author.
- Biblical hermeneutics
- Christian atheism
- Christian heresy in the modern era
- Conflict thesis (or warfare thesis)
- Death of God theology
- Fountain Street Church
- European Liberal Protestant Network
- Existentialist theology
- Free Christians (Britain)
- Historical Jesus
- Historical-critical method (or higher criticism)
- Historicity of the Bible
- Jesus Seminar
- Liberal Anglo-Catholicism
- Liberal Catholic Church
- Liberation theology
- Modernism in the Catholic Church
- Postliberal theology
- Postmodern Christianity
- Progressive Christianity
- Religious pluralism
- Secular theology
- Unitarian Universalism
- Riverside Church
- "Catholic Encyclopedia: Liberalism". Retrieved 2007-01-27.
- Montgomery, John Warwick. In Defense of Martin Luther. Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1970, p. 57. “Luther’s Hermeneutic vs. the New Hermeneutic.” Quoted in http://www.wlsessays.net/authors/W/WestphalConfession/WestphalConfession.PDF Archived June 16, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
- Robert Collins (1977). The Age of Innocence 1870/1880. Canada's Illustrated Heritage. Jack McClelland. pp. 87–88. ISBN 0-919644-19-8.
- Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 29 online.
- Linda Woodhead, "Christianity," in Religions in the Modern World (Routledge, 2002), pp. 186 online and 193.
- The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805–1900, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), passim, search miracles.
- F.J. Ryan, Protestant Miracles: High Orthodox and Evangelical Authority for the Belief in Divine Interposition in Human Affairs (Stockton, California, 1899), p. 78 online. Full text downloadable.
- Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 164 online.
- Ann-Marie Brandom, "The Role of Language in Religious Education," in Learning to Teach Religious Education in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience (Routledge, 2000), p. 76 online.
- The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), passim, search miracles, especially p. 413; on Ames, p. 233 online; on Niebuhr, p. 436 online.
- Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917.
- "Concluding Unscientific Postscript", authored pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus, 1846.
- History of Synoptic Tradition
- The Courage to Be.
- Kelley, Dean M. (1972) Why Conservative Churches are Growing
- Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
- Alister McGrath. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 5th rev. ed. Wiley, 2011. Look in the index for "Schleiermacher" or "absolute dependence" and see them nearly always juxtaposed.
- Congdon, David W. (2015). The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology. Fortress Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-1-4514-8792-3.
[Per Rudolf Bultmann] his February 1924 lecture on the “latest theological movement”—represented, he says, by Barth, Gogarten, and Thurneysen—when he explicitly contrasts this new movement with Herrmann and Troeltsch as the representatives of liberal theology. Bultmann then states the thesis of his lecture: “The object [Gegenstand] of theology is God, and the charge against liberal theology is that it has dealt not with God but with human beings.” We see in this piece the maturation of the claim stated in his Eisenach lecture of 1920, namely, that liberal theology fails to reflect on the specific content of Christian faith. In that earlier writing he contrasts the spiritual content of genuine religion with the liberal emphasis on a particular moralistic form.
- Peace Action web page accessed at http://www.peace-action.org/history
- "Liberal Theology Today" - International Conference, Munich 2018
- The Progressive Christian Alliance
- Progressive Christian Network Britain
- Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians
- Liberalism By M. James Sawyer, Th.M., Ph.D.
- Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)
- The Christian Left -- An Open Fellowship of Progressive Christians
- Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving, Washington Post