Why I am not Theologically Liberal

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Sometimes “you can’t win for losing.” Fundamentalist Christians would consider me a liberal for not being a strict inerrantist on scripture–yet I have far more in common with a Fundamentalist Protestant than a theologically liberal Protestant or Roman Catholic. Definitions are important–a theological liberal will not be an inerranist on scripture, but that is not what makes him a theological liberal. Theological liberalism is an attempt to update Christianity for the contemporary period. Such updating may include substantial changes in Christian theological teaching, such as the denial of the full divinity of Christ, His bodily resurrection, His virgin birth as well as a denial of any subjective afterlife for human beings. Liberals may also accept substantial revisions to the doctrine of God such as, for example, denying that God knows the future and believing that God grows along with the universe. Some deny that God can utterly destroy evil. On moral issues, theological liberals tend to accept the rightness of abortion, premarital sex, homosexual practice, and trangenderism. All the above beliefs would be, to any traditional Christian, heretical. While liberals’ acceptance of social democratic economic liberalism is not heretical, one can argue that it is wrongheaded. In some cases, economic Marxists deny that human beings are fallen creatures, and such a belief is heretical.

Theological liberalism has its roots in the eighteenth century Enlightenment. During the age of reason some philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, held that religion should be bound “within the limits of reason alone.” The French were divided between deists such as Voltaire, who believed in a God that created the universe and let it run like a clock; there is little or no divine providence in such a doctrine. Later, in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution seemed to make biology like Newtonian physics–free of any need for a deity. In addition, modern Biblical study methods revealed that Moses did not write the first five books of the Old Testament, and the Biblical books in general are neither historically or scientifically without error. If Christians had read the church fathers such as Augustine, they would have known that earlier Christians recognized the Bible was not a science book. Instead, they hunkered down and accepted a modern, literalist interpretation of the Bible, making it something it was never intended to be. Theological liberals were correct in opposing the Fundamentalists’ strict views on inerrancy.

Theological liberals meant well. Friedrich Schliermacher, the “father of liberal Protestantism,” wanted Christianity’s “cultured despisers” to be open to a revised Christian faith that placed an emphasis on a “feeling of absolute dependence” rather than on specific dogmatic claims. Social Gospel liberals emphasized helping the poor and often supported a social democratic economic system, but some of them rejected the transcendent claims of Christianity about Christ. More recently, theological liberals have tended to become deeply politicized and influenced (though they may be unaware of the source) by the Cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School (Herbert Marcuse and his de facto disciples such as Saul Alinsky). They rejected the traditional moral teachings of Christianity on sexual ethics, holding that they are remnants of an earlier, outdated social and moral system. Their emphasis is on “social justice,” where “social justice” is defined in terms of the social democratic Left. Many of these do not accept the fundamental teachings of traditional Christianity about God and Christ I mentioned above.

I cannot accept theological liberalism. Without its traditional doctrines of God as Trinity, Christ as God incarnate, born of the Virgin Mary, raised from the dead, and the general resurrection of all people and restoration of the universe at the end of time, Christianity collapses into a watered down social gospel with little theological content. While Process Theologians try to insert more theological content, their concept of God is too limited to support the traditional doctrines of Christianity. St. Paul said if there is no resurrection, “we are of all men most miserable” (in I Corinthians 15). Theological liberals who deny the resurrection except in some vague “metaphorical sense” are indeed, “most miserable” even if they deny such.

The theologian most admired by liberal theologians is Paul Tillich, according to polls of theology professors. Yet Tillich, which interesting, was a mix of Schelling’s philosophy with a watered down version of Christianity. His concepts of religion as ultimate concern and his method of correlation, in which philosophy provides the questions and faith the answers, while not wholly original, are helpful. But overall he was a heretical thinker wedded to some kind of belief in a vague “transcendent.” It is sad that his experiences in World War I destroyed his traditional view of God.

Catholic liberal theology is pretty much a variation on liberal Protestantism with some Catholic language added.

Recently, there have been some new theological liberals who accept the resurrection of Christ and the general resurrection from the dead–Jurgen Moltmann and Ted Peters, for example. However, they do not necessarily accept the moral views of traditional Christianity–Peters does not, for example. They are moving in the right direction, however.

It is clear that Jesus Christ made divine claims, even in the Synoptic Gospels, and such claims are central to Christianity, as the Church Fathers also recognized. I cannot call myself a Christian without believing this doctrine. The church’s teachings on sexuality are essential to the integrity of marriage and the bearing of children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” The rules are there because they support the human good. To deny these teachings is not only to deny the natural law; it is to deny Christ.

I am grateful for the vibrant Evangelical movements in some of the liberal mainline Protestant churches. I am grateful for Roman Catholic traditionalists (though the legalism of some of them is unfortunate). I am grateful for my own church, the Anglican Catholic Church, which affirms the traditional doctrines and moral teachings of the Christian faith without lapsing into Fundamentalism on scripture (a few priests here and there may be that way, but the bishops are not). Hopefully we can live the faith better–faith is not merely an intellectual exercise–Satan is theologically orthodox–but it is a way of life, loving God and loving neighbor. Both doctrine and practice, truth and love, are essential to the teachings of Christ and His Church.

 

 

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Premillennialism’s Poisonous Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy

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John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)

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No rational person would deny Israel a right to exist. However, this does not imply that a rational person should support Israel blindly, ignoring historic atrocities against Palestinians, including destruction of Palestinian homes, denial of their basic human rights, and new Jewish settlements into Palestinian territories. In addition, rationality does not demand that the U.S. do Israel’s bidding and go to war with Iran. One of the largest groups backing blind support for Israel are Christian premillennialists. Premillennialism had its beginnings in the nineteenth century with the doctrines of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). His dispensationalism was the ancestor of premillennialism, the belief that Christ will establish an earthly kingdom and reign for a thousand years in Jerusalem. According to premillennialism, an essential part of this process was the reestablishment of the state of Israel. The problem with premillennialism is that it is based on a fundamentally flawed method of interpreting Biblical prophecy, especially the Book of Revelation.

The prophetic books of the Old Testament as well as the Book of Revelation in the New Testament were primarily directed to the people of the time period in which the author lived. No audience would preserve a book that had no meaning for them. One must examine the historical context of a book to determine its original message. The Book of Revelation is part of Apocalyptic Literature, which also includes the Book of Daniel and other parts of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. This literature was written to people in crisis–either under attack by enemies militarily, or under attack via persecution by state power. The message of apocalyptic literature is that God will win out over the evil enemies of His people. This message was designed to comfort those being persecuted. The Book of Daniel, which was set in the period of the Babylonian Exile but was actually written in the second century B. C., was written to comfort the Jewish people who were being persecuted by the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes. The Jews rebelled and eventually won their independence, but before that time the saw their religion attacked and paganism introduced into the Temple in Jerusalem. The Book of Daniel affirms that God is over all kings and will eventually destroy those who persecute God’s people.

The Book of Revelation was written in a similar situation. Christians were being persecuted by Roman authorities. The message of the Book of Revelation to its original readers is that God will overcome the Roman Empire–in the meantime Christians should wait patiently for God’s vengeance. Numbers in the book are symbolic; multiples of seven or ten or twelve refer to completion or perfection (thus “1000 years” is not meant to refer to a literal period of time). “Six,” which is seven minus one, meant lack, and therefore a symbol of evil–so “666” refers to evil times three–there is no fancy meaning hidden behind the obvious symbolism. To take the Book of Revelation as referring to events in the Middle East today is absurd, an example of an ignorant method of Biblical interpretation. What is frightening is that ignorant people who do not know any better (and some people who should know better) are influencing the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth. Such Christian premillennialists may end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back, pushing the United States into a needless war with Iran. Christianity is a powerful force in the United States, and when well-meaning Christians who are ignorant of the most basic principles of historical-critical Biblical interpretation influence the nation to blindness in its dealings with Israel, this becomesĀ  a dangerous situation.

The more rational course is to ignore those whose interpretation of the Bible is based on false premises and do not allow them to influence U. S. foreign policy. Like its dealings with any other nation, the United States should base its treatment of Israel on what is in the national interest of the United States. This does not mean that Israel cannot continue as a friend to the United States, but it does mean that the United States should seriously consider the legitimate concerns of Palestinians. This is not to claim that Palestinians have been saints, but merely that a group who was forced from their homes that they had lived in for hundreds, or in some cases over a thousand, years should have their legitimate concerns addressed. United States foreign policy should be focused on what is good for the United States, not on making the world safe for Israel. A first step in creating balance is to put the Christian dispensational premillennialists in their place and not allow their influence to twist U. S. policy in the wrong direction.

Christian Nonbelievers

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ArtifactSide1

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When I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I believed that I would fit in well. At Harding University Graduate School of Religion, an excellent Churches of Christ seminary in Memphis, I had shed my Fundamentalist belief in Biblical inerrancy and had accepted a historical-critical approach to studying the Bible. I had come close to losing my faith–although I claimed to be agnostic, I was more of a doubting believer.

I quickly discovered that I did not fit in at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Many professors (though all all) denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, something I have always believed essential to Christian faith. In fact, to insist on the reality of the bodily resurrection would not have been good for my future there. And forget about the Virgin Birth–to most professors, that was not even an option to be considered (again, I’m sure there were exceptions). The school promoted a radical political agenda–to even question it was to invite censure. VDS was where I discovered that liberal Protestants and liberal Roman Catholics could be every bit as dogmatic and bigoted as Christian Fundamentalists.

I asked Professor Clement Dore, who taught in the philosophy department, what he thought about the Divinity School and its professors. He said I could quote him, and so I will–“Most of them are atheists, but they read the Sermon on the Mount and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if society would be this way’. So they try to change society.” Thankfully, I took most of my courses in the philosophy department which was more open to genuine discussion of ideas. There, an atheist was an atheist, a theist a theist, and I could tell the difference between the two.

Why are seminaries which are devoted to training Christian ministers filled with teachers who do not believe even one of the doctrines of traditional Christianity? Ultimately, this situation is the effect of the eighteenth century Enlightenment combined with the rise of modern science. Although Newton was a theist (though not an orthodox Christian–he tended toward Unitarianism), the world view of his science seemed more consistent with naturalism. According to naturalism, the world is a closed continuum of cause and effect with no room for supernatural intervention–all that exists is matter and energy. Even if there were a God, He would not interfere in the causal chain.

It is this view that led the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann to propose “demythologizing” the Bible so that the really important message is one of gaining authentic existence. His project was a continuation of the project of liberal Protestantism to find subjective value in Christianity since the objective truth value of its traditional claims was considered to be “false.” So Friedrich Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century said that religion is a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Contemporary liberal Protestants have moved to a more political agenda with such movements as liberation theology, which interprets Christianity according to a Marxist framework.

I have no problem with denying inerrancy or with a historical-critical approach to the Bible. But alleged Christians who deny the existence of a transcendent-immanent God, who deny the Incarnation of Christ, who deny His bodily resurrection, are hypocrites in calling themselves “Christians.” I have infinitely more respect for a crusading atheist like Kai Nielsen than I do for a liberal Protestant who does not believe in God, even though he may hide his lack of faith in the complex language of Continental philosophy.

The good news for traditional Christians is that many younger theologians are more theologically conservative than their older counterparts. Hopefully this trend will continue. As Christianity begins a slow decline in the United States that parallels the radical secularism in Europe, hopefully those Christians who remain, including Christian scholars, will support the fullness of the faith and not some shallow, shadowy substitute.

Don’t “Throw out the Baby with the Bathwater” in Christianity

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Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

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Education can be a painful experience for those who are brought up in Fundamentalist Christianity, especially if they are exposed to evolutionary biology and/or to historical-critical Biblical studies. A surprising number of seminary students graduate either as atheists, agnostics, or as liberal Protestants or Roman Catholics who believe few if any of the standard teachings of Christianity such as the bodily resurrection of Christ.

For me, seminary almost destroyed my faith–and this was a theologically conservative seminary! When I was exposed to historical critical study of the Bible, my former belief in the inerrancy of the Bible in all areas, including science and history, became a thing of the past. And the growing evidence for biological evolution, including evidence for human evolution, convinced me that my literal understanding of Genesis was flawed. When I graduated in 1986, I was an agnostic on the existence of God.

My journey back to faith began with reading the writings of Peter Kreeft and C. S. Lewis. These theologically conservative Christians were neither strict Biblical inerrantists, nor did they deny the findings of modern science. C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, even stated that he believed many of the miracles of the Old Testament were myth and probably did not actually happen. My journey culminated in 1988, when I became a member of the Anglican Catholic Church. Their belief is that the Bible is inerrant in all things necessary for salvation; this does not require absolute inerrancy regarding science or history. And since tradition and reason are used to interpret scripture, the Church sets the limits of required belief–the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds and the dictates of the seven ecumenical councils up to Nicea II in 787. What cannot be proven from scripture (as interpreted through the lens of tradition) cannot be required for salvation. So belief in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the general resurrection of all mankind are essential teachings of the church. But absolute Biblical inerrancy on scientific and historical matters are not. It becomes possible to be both theologically conservative and a non-Fundamentalist on scripture. The Church is also open to the best science of the day; it does not deny biological evolution. Evolution is thought to be the method God used to guide the development of life on earth. Creation and evolution, therefore, are not contrary to one another, but complementary.

Too many Fundamentalists give up their faith when faced with education rather than considering a third alternative. But accepting a strong doctrine of the teaching office of the Church (as do Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and traditional Anglicans) does offer a third way between Fundamentalism and liberal theology. Don’t throw out the baby of traditional Christian faith with the bathwater of nonessential opinions.