The Liberal Theological Tradition
Dr Jim Stuart
This statement from Methodist Minister, Rev Dr Jim Stuart of Christchurch, has attracted a great deal of appreciation and support on the Methodist Liberal Society network. We commend it to all who struggle with us to express a liberal appr5oach to theology in these challenging times. We reprint it here with Jim's permission.
The liberal theological tradition within the larger Christian tradition is at least six centuries old. While its roots reach as far back as Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, liberal theology really came into its own during the eighteenth century. According to Gary Dorrien, in his groundbreaking three volume work, The Making of American Liberal Theology, the essence of all liberal theology is ‘the idea that Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without being based upon external authority’. Specifically, Christian liberal theology emerged as a lively and progressive response to two critical developments in western church culture:
Immanuel Kant’s daring challenge in his short essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ To release humankind from ‘its self-imposed tutelage’ and ‘have the courage to think for ourselves’ established the new direction and character of modern thought. The Christian faith community could no longer afford to ignore the claims of reason and a new self-confidence embodied in the modern philosophies, the rise of the natural sciences and the aspiration of an emergent secular society. As a consequence the liberal theological paradigm sought to respond to this new secular spirit, in particular,
The liberal theological tradition affirmed the validity and importance of modern scientific inquiry, the historicity and cultural context of all religions traditions, in particular, Christianity and the paradoxical living relationship that exists between faith and culture. In this ongoing process of theological reflection and engagement with secular culture the greatest danger facing the liberal tradition has been to reduce the Christian faith to a kind of ‘bourgeois theology’ that focuses on individual peace of mind and inner comfort at the expense of prophetic critique and witness.
One could argue that John Wesley exhibited many of the characteristics of liberal theology i.e. his evangelical spirit, his emphasis on the importance of reason and experience, his pragmatic approach to church structures, his consistent emphasis on social justice and the plight of the poor. However it is probably fair to argue that the liberal theological tradition really began with the pietistic experientialism of Friederich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher, in response to the authoritarian dogmaticism of confessional Protestant Orthodoxy, developed by Christian Wolff (1679-1754) published his remarkable book On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799). Orthodoxy had reduced the Christian faith essentially to the uncritical acceptance of an intellectual system and an externally authoritative rule of conduct. Schleiermacher proposed that the proper subject of Christian theology is Christian experience, in particular, Christian consciousness. Christian doctrines, Schleiermacher maintained, were the fundamental religious experiences of Christianity ‘defining and interpreting themselves intellectually’ but as such, they have only relative, secondary values. Over time they change and are modified by new insights and understandings. They are, according to Schleiermacher, simply the forms ‘in which the enduring truth of Christianity, from time to time expresses itself’.
Schleiermacher was condemned by orthodox and conservative Christian communities as ‘too radical and visionary’. Nevertheless, Schleiermacher and later liberal German biblical theologians introduced the historical-critical method in biblical studies which transformed our understanding of the Bible. This new way enabled Christians of a liberal persuasion to read, understand and interpret the Bible and Christian tradition in ways that responsibly engaged the challenges and claims of modernity. Christianity, liberal theologians argued, was a ‘third way’ between the dogmaticism of orthodoxy and the atheism of an emerging secular culture. In this sense then, liberal Christianity continues to be an ‘on-going project’, a third way theology that seeks to mediate transformative encounters between Christ and modern culture, faith and critical rationalism, gospel praxis and social transformation.
The liberal theological tradition is like a braided river which has continued to grow and expand as a viable paradigm within Christian faith communities. Its elasticity of thought and openness to new ways of thinking has given it an extra-ordinary diversity. Because of this diversity, it remains the most creative and influential contemporary theological tradition since the Reformation. For example, Dorrien identifies over twenty distinct theological streams just in the American Liberal tradition! This includes a range of theological agendas from reformed theology to ecumenical theology to liberation theology to process theology to post-modern theology.
The Tenets of Liberal Theology
I have tried to identify below what I believe to be the essential characteristics or tenets of a liberal Christian theology. Briefly they are:
The liberal way is committed to the honest and responsible interpretation of the Christian Gospel that is faithful to the Bible and the Christian tradition and relevant to the lives of persons living in a secular society. It brings understanding to faith and offers faith to those struggling with doubt.
The liberal way seeks to speak truth to power especially in those political-social contexts where vulnerable people are exploited and marginalised. It affirms that the Bible has been written from the perspective of the poor. It holds that the message of the Christian Gospel is not only about personal salvation but also about the struggle of the poor for liberation from poverty and an end to domination and oppression.
The liberal way values the importance of intellectual tolerance, open inquiry and mutual respect especially in an increasingly multi-cultural global society. It welcomes constructive dialogue with the modern sciences and the arts. It acknowledges that faith always emerges within a specific cultural context and the ignorance of cultural and contextual constraints leads to the distortion of faith.
The liberal way takes seriously the reality of evil in the world and emphasises that the Christian faith demands moral responsibility. It believes the divinity of Christ consists not in a substantial unity with God but in Jesus’ unique and potent God-consciousness. Jesus embodied what it means to be fully human.
The liberal way is committed to mutual dialogue and understanding. It affirms the importance not only of dialogue within the larger world Christian community but also with the greater inter-faith community.
The liberal way challenges the priorities and discourses of male interpretations of the Christian faith. It embraces and welcomes the experiences and discourses of communities which traditionally have been excluded from the theological conversation and full participation in the life of the church.
The liberal way has historically been the progressive tradition in Christian theology and as such it remains the touchstone for new and exploratory theological initiatives. It advocates for a relevant Christianity that offers meaning and hope to a changing and struggling world.
One final observation: the English word liberal is derived from the Latin verb liber which means to release or set free. Its derivative words in Latin – liberalis, liberare, liberator or liberalitus – all suggest various aspects of being set free. Thus I want to argue that being liberal is about being set free. Free to think, free to question, free to speak out, free to love. If love is the final meaning of Spirit then the liberal way begins with the experience of God’s love, finds its freedom in this all-embracing love and from this extraordinary freedom offers love and healing to a broken and divided world. I believe this is what Wesley meant when he observed that God’s grace is ‘free in all and for all’.