What is Liberalism?
I have spent the last year or so really working on the question: What is (Christian) Liberalism?” This is a question which is exceedingly difficult to answer: and also very very important in today’s world. Here is what I have so far.
First of all, Liberalism in Christian theology is totally different from Liberalism in politics and education.
Liberalism in Christianity really began in the Enlightenment period, when the humanism of ancient Greece (present but suppressed in the Renaissance era) gave birth to a new humanism. This humanism eventually grew into deism, which contradicted Christianity on all of its fundamental points, including the trinity, original sin, the atonement, miracles, the authority of Scriptures, and the exclusivity of Christianity.
Deism teaches that: 1) there is a distant God in heaven, who is revealed in nature, 2) He has given us a conscience to live by, 3) we must live by this conscience, to be good people in order to pass a final judgment with this God.
From the start, Deism was explicitly anti-Christian – especially in the writings of Voltaire and Hume – but then something new happened. In “Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone,” Immanuel Kant attempted to fit Christianity within the limits of a deistic worldview – or, more accurately, he attempted to explain the deistic religion by using a modified Christian vocabulary.
The result was accepted in academic circles, but did not find wide acceptance in the church until Friedrich Shleiermacher took up Kant’s system, but modified it with concepts from Romanticism. Schleiermacher believed that the unifying aspect of religion was the “feeling of absolute dependence,” or the religious feeling which humans have. Albreicht Ritschl took up Kant’s system, but believed that religion was about morality. To this day, religious feelings and ethics remain the two purposes which Liberals hold for religion. A final important aspect of liberalism is the notion of evolution, and pantheism.
Hegel came up with a system of “Triadic Logic” (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), in which he attempted to explain all of the complexity and intelligence in the world by growth, experimentation and development rather than by divine design. This system was applied to history by Harnack, applied to politics by Karl Marx, and applied to biology by Charles Darwin. Today, the notion of evolution (in society and biology) is an assumed fact in academic circles – despite much evidence to the contrary. Within this evolutionary framework, “God” was increasingly seen by Liberals in a pantheistic way – that is, God is the sum-total of our highest ideals. Thus, He guides us as He himself grows, learns and discovers Himself through our efforts at human evolution.
Although every generation of Liberals contradicts the previous one, they all operate within a very similar framework. According to H. Richard Neibour, “Liberalism teaches that a god without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations (actions) of a Christ without a cross.”
J. Gresham Machen is right in saying that insofar as the above definition of Liberalism is correct, Liberalism is not really a new, or relaxed, or even a defective form of Christianity, but an entirely new sort of religion.
Martin Luther rightly said that there are many religions of works, and only ONE religion of grace. In emptying Christianity of original sin, the trinity, and a real atonement for the sins of the world, Liberalsim has emptied Christianity of grace, and thus preaches an entirely NEW gospel, for which they would have received Paul’s harshest anathemas!
The major author to read on this topic is J. Gresham Machen: his work “Christianity and Liberalism” is a classic on this topic. The books, “THE ORIGIN OF PAUL’S RELIGION: The Classic Defense of Supernatural Christianity,” “What Is Faith?” and “The Christian Faith in the Modern World” are also excellent. Richard Neihbour’s “Christ and Culture” (which has been critically engaged by D.A. Carson as “Christ and Culture Revisited) is also a must-read: see especially the chapter “the Christ of culture” to see a description of the formation of Liberalism.
You can also access my papers “Modernity and the Roots of Classical Liberalism,” and “The man who wrote ‘Christianity and Liberalism” and the sermon “What is the Gospel? A Response to Liberalism and the Emergent Church” if you want to read more on my take on this topic.
I hope this is helpful!