When any discussion develops concerning Christianity and liberalism, it is crucial that one gives a proper definition of liberalism. The term liberal can mean anything from being free in one’s thinking to being a proponent of the latest fad in the realm of theology or any other ideology. The term liberal shifts with the sands of time in as much as yesterday’s liberal may be considered today’s conservative without changing views.
However, when we speak of liberalism in the field of theology, we are not thinking of a frame of mind or a philosophical bent but a distinct historical movement that captured the minds of many churchmen in the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century liberalism followed closely on the heels of enlightenment thought and was married philosophically to many of the ideas that defined modernism. The root idea that defined liberalism was the influence of the philosophy of naturalism. Naturalism asserts that all reality can be explained in purely natural categories without any appeal to the supernatural. As a result, nineteenth-century liberalism saw a wholesale attack on all things supernatural contained within historic orthodox Christianity.
The principal targets of nineteenth-century liberalism included the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament (not to mention all of the miracles recorded in the Old Testament). Those events that are defined or described in Scripture as being miraculous, indeed, caused by the supernatural agency of God, were rejected as naïve, pre-scientific myths that found their way into the original documents of Scripture. The miraculous acts of Jesus were explained away. For example, the feeding of the five thousand was sometimes described as an act of fraud by which Jesus had hidden a cache of fish and loaves in a cave with a secret opening concealed by His long flowing robe. And like the magician who pulls sausages or scarves endlessly out of his sleeves, so Jesus, standing in front of the concealed entrance of the cave, was assisted in His magical work by the disciples, who, working as a bucket brigade, were feeding the fish and loaves through the secret entrance into Jesus’ cloak, out His sleeves, to the masses. Another tack taken by the liberals was to give a moral explanation to the miracles of Jesus. In the case of the feeding of the five thousand, what Jesus did was to persuade those who brought lunches with them to share their food with those who had brought none. This was an “ethical miracle,” by which Jesus promoted the ethic of sharing with one’s fellow human being.
Next on the target list were the supernatural aspects of the life of Jesus. Of particular concern for nineteenth-century liberals was their assault against the virgin birth. Not only was the virgin birth rejected, but every supernatural aspect of Jesus’ life, including the transfiguration, His atonement as a transcendent supernatural event, His resurrection, His ascension, and His return at the end of the age. All of these things were cast aside as so many accretions of early church mythology. Obviously, since the Bible reports the person and work of Christ in supernatural terms involving angels, miracles, and the fulfillment of predictive prophecy, all of those aspects found in sacred Scripture were also rejected. The Bible was the favorite target of this assault, by which critical scholars rejected all predictive prophecy and anything that smacked of the supernatural, reducing the Bible to just another human book of the ancient world.
This new wave of thinking swept through Europe, with its roots principally in Germany, and then it crossed the ocean to theological seminaries in the United States and produced a crisis within many churches. What does one do with billions of dollars worth of church property and the thousands of people who are ordained to be clergy who no longer believe the historic content of orthodox Christianity? Some took the position that the only honest response to this skepticism was to resign from the ministry and find employment in another line of work. However, the overwhelming majority of those who espoused this view decided simply to restructure the mission of the church. The mission of the church became no longer an enterprise of bringing personal redemption supernaturally between the soul and God; rather, it sought social redemption by alleviating, as far as possible, human suffering. This gave way to the birth of the so-called “social gospel,” which saw the good news found in the church’s mission to meet the humanitarian needs of society. The Gospel itself was given a new definition in terms of social action. Along with the denials of particular aspects of historic Christianity, a denial of the importance of Christian doctrine also came in its wake. Doctrine was something that was derived from the teaching of the Bible, and since the Bible was now suspect, there was no need for any significant maintenance of orthodox Christian doctrine.
In every age, the church is threatened by heresy, and heresy is bound up in false doctrine. It is the desire of all heretics to minimize the importance of doctrine. When doctrine is minimized, heresy can exercise itself without restraint. In the twentieth century, the Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, wrote his treatise on the person of Christ titled The Mediator. In that book, Brunner used one word to describe the essence of nineteenth-century liberalism: “unbelief.” He saw in liberalism not a simple change of nuance in the content of the Christian faith but a wholesale rejection of the very heart and soul of biblical Christianity. The twentieth century saw the continuation of the impact of liberalism, particularly in the mainline denominations in America, with the advent of so-called neo-liberalism following the radical criticism of men like Rudolf Bultmann and his successors.
This liberal agenda has by no means disappeared from the life of the church. It has gained almost total control of the mainline denominations and has made its influence felt strongly within evangelical circles. Within evangelicalism itself, we have seen a serious erosion of biblical authority, a willingness to negotiate the biblical Gospel itself, and a widespread rejection of doctrine as being unimportant and in no way foundational to the Christian faith. Liberalism stands in every generation as a flat rejection of the faith. It must not be viewed as a simple subset or denominational impulse of Christianity; it must be seen for what it is — the antithesis of Christianity based on a complete rejection of the biblical Christ and His Gospel.