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.

 

 

Which is the “Christian Nation” Now?

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() – Emblems of belief available for placement on USVA headstones and markers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the great ironies of recent history is that Russia, the quintessential atheistic society when it was the largest part of the Soviet Union, is returning to Eastern Orthodoxy. While much of its population retains its atheism, the government of Vladamir Putin strongly supports the Orthodox Church and has increasingly supported a traditionally Christian society. Like the African churches (outside of South Africa), the Russian Orthodox Church is theologically and morally conservative, much more so than mainline American churches.

Although the United States was originally more deist and agnostic than religious, after the Second Great Awakening in the late 1700s it, in effect, became a Protestant Christian nation. There was a general understanding held by the vast majority of Americans, including Roman Catholics and Jews, that a fairly conservative traditional morality was to be followed. This morality included opposition to abortion (abortion, over time, was made illegal in most states during the nineteenth century), opposition to premarital sex, adultery, and homosexual activity, and support of a traditional conception of male and female roles in the family. Going to church (or synagogue) was considered a commendable thing to do. Prayer and Bible lessons took place in both private–and public–schools. Although many people violated the common morality, even the violators, for the most part, believed they were committing morally wrong acts. Church attendance remained high. The last religious revival in the United States continued through 1965.

There were precursors to the destruction of the Protestant consensus before the 1960s, but it was after the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, that social change rapidly occurred. The intellectual classes, already quite liberal, did not have the intellectual nor the cultural resources to halt the tide of radical activism. David Horowitz, who participated in much of the activism, was a red diaper baby, a crusading Communist, and he points out that despite the claims of those reacting against the late Senator McCarthy, the radicals behind the 1960s revolution were openly Communist. As such, they were atheists who also opposed the Protestant consensus that included a common morality. The advent of artificial contraception was used as an excuse to defend “free love,” a movement that began as early as the Kennedy years. The late 1960s saw the apex of the debate over the morality of abortion that led to the January 1973 “Roe v. Wade” Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. With marriage effectively separated for childbirth combined with easy divorce (which had been a staple of some states since the late nineteenth century), marriage was seen as a way for someone to become happy rather than as a sacrament and a permanent commitment. Once marriage became separated from the right to have sexual intercourse, it became more and more a civil arrangement–and it was a small step to support same-sex marriage. Given that climate, one wonders how long it will take before American society supports incestuous marriage or pedophilic marriage. Once the foundations of a social order are destroyed, the house quickly follows.

Many of the Christian Churches, especially the mainline Protestant denominations, have more or less yielded completely to the new social norms. The Evangelicals, tied up for years in gimmicks rather than in Biblical teaching, development of Christian character, and the beauty of traditional worship, are rapidly given ground on traditional moral positions regarding sexual ethics. American Roman Catholics remain deeply divided after radical priests and bishops fundamentally changed many churches during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Fundamentalists remain faithful to traditional theology and morals, but too often focus on minutia rather than on the cultural war that they have, in effect, already lost. Stating traditional Christian positions, already a crime in the UK and in much of Western Europe, is becoming socially unacceptable in many American circles. Eventually, stating traditional positions on sexual morality or defending the exclusive nature of Christian claims will become hate crimes in the United States if current trends continue.

The United States is no longer a Christian nation. To claim that is is denies the obvious transvaluation of values that has taken place during the last 50 years. Russia is the last major superpower that can claim, at least at the level of government policy, to be a Christian nation. If the common people of Russian embrace the Orthodox faith again, it will be Russia that will be a shining light to the world, with the United States a decadent shell of its former self.

Christian Nonbelievers

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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.