Nineteenth-century theological liberalism is all the rage in evangelical Christianity these days, although it is never identified as such by those who peddle it. It appears, rather, as “enlightened,” modern, thinking—Christianity for the 21st century—respectable, so the world will not think we are odd anymore. Liberal theology is a real thing, not some imaginary boogey man used by Fundamentalists to scare their followers away from new Bible translations and contemporary music (although it is that too).
The essence of theological liberalism, according to Gary Dorrien, a world-renown liberal theologian at Union Theological Seminary, is the belief that Christianity needs no external authority. Therefore, as Friedrich Schleiermacher argued in the early 19th century, the essence of Christianity is an experience of God, a feeling of absolute dependence on the divine. Liberal theology opens the door for higher criticism of the Bible since the reliability of Scripture and the historicity of the events recorded in its pages are inconsequential. The Bible’s importance is to help us have an experience of God. The details are irrelevant.
One of the consequences of liberal theology, surprisingly, is a kind of anti-intellectualism that fights against any attempts to prove the Bible correct. While conservative scholars seek to find answers for the challenges raised by higher critics, liberals pooh-pooh these attempts and typically side with the critics. Liberals believe wholeheartedly in Immanuel Kant’s division between the noumenal and phenomenal. Kant (1724-1804) declared that the phenomenal world (the observable world) could be known, but the noumenal world (God, the self and the “thing-in-itself”) could only be believed. He was trying to make room for faith in a world that was increasingly skeptical of anything that could not be subject to the scientific method. As a result, you can believe whatever you want about religious matters, but they cannot be counted as knowledge.
The net effect of all this in liberal theology is that declarations by those in the hard sciences (biology, chemistry, astronomy, etc.) are taken as gospel truth without question. And for most liberals, the soft sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.) are just as revered. Therefore, for the liberal, the Bible and Christianity must always make way for whatever the “sciences” declare. This leaves little room for anything of historical Christianity. The liberal must focus on religious experience, because that is all he has left. This is anti-intellectualism at its worst, because if the essence of Christianity is religious experience, no experience or belief can be shown to be wrong, because neither is based on the Bible being reliable or authoritative. This leads to rather fuzzy thinking, because critique and discernment are no longer allowed, since the standard on which they are based has been undermined.
Taken to its logical end, this ultimately leads to the kind of pluralism that admits any sincere religious experience, regardless of the subject’s stated religion. Not every liberal goes this far, but neither does he have any grounds to object when someone does choose pluralism. Christianity becomes just one religion among many, useful only to the extent that it leads to an ineffable encounter with the divine. Cue Rob Bell.
This is exactly why J. Gresham Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism almost 100 years ago, and why it still stands as an unanswered challenge to liberals. Machen argues persuasively that liberal theology is not even Christianity, because it denies every major belief that makes Christianity unique. In short, liberal theology is a parasite that attaches itself to a church, denomination, seminary, or otherwise and eventually kills the host by sucking the life-blood out of it.
John Pavlovitz’s article, “5 Things I Wish Christians Would Admit About the Bible,” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/5-things-i-wish-christians-would-admit-about-bible) is a perfect example of the kind of fuzzy thinking and anti-intellectualism that was characteristic of the 19th century version of liberalism. Pavlovitz wants to enlighten us about the Bible so we won’t be so gosh-darned old-fashioned. His five wishes parrot the theses of many of the most popular left-wing Christian writers in the last decade, including Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks, Stanley Grenz, and Greg Boyd.
Since Pavlovitz calls Christians to “admit” certain ideas about the Bible, I will return the favor and call on him to admit what his article assumes about the Bible. These assumptions amount to a rejection of orthodox Christianity’s basis in an authoritative Bible.
- Liberals believe the Bible is a merely human book that contradicts itself.
Pavlovitz’s first error appears almost immediately when he claims that the Bible is not a book, but a collection of books. This is a false dichotomy. The Bible is both a library and one unified book. The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments are considered in one category as early as the writing of 2 Peter 3:15-16, and throughout the history of the church (as evidenced in WCF 1.2). He is correct that the various genres of Scripture require genre-sensitive interpretation.
However, when he writes, “we don’t approach each book the same way,” he introduces ambiguity into the discussion. What does he mean by this? Do we approach some books authoritatively, and others merely as histories not intended to be taken as historical? Because his writing is so vague it’s hard to know what he is implying. It would help if along with recognizing genre differences he would emphasize that all of Scripture is authoritative.
His final paragraph of his first point seems odd to me. While it is true that sometimes those who believe in “literal” interpretation don’t account for literary differences in genre, to say that Christians need to be freed from the confusion of literal interpretation seems to be a way of saying that we don’t always need to accept Scripture at face value, even when it speaks plainly.
His last sentence is problematic, too. I’m not sure what he means when he says that the Bible is a record of God. The Bible is only secondarily that. It is first and foremost a revelation of God. One of the net effects of liberalism is that the Bible, like the sacred books of all other religions, is reduced to a mere record of the religious experiences of its adherents. Whether Pavlovitz means this or not is unclear. Believers should be cautious, however, to guard against the reimagining of the Bible as simply a record.
- Liberals believe that because some passages are difficult to understand, we probably shouldn’t claim to know the true meaning of any passage.
I sympathize with Pavlovitz’s second point. Many Christians do, in fact, use verses out of context, and interpret the Bible the way they want. But these practices are clearly in violation of the way Scripture itself says it is to be interpreted.
Ironically, while Pavlovitz calls for a better reading of Scripture, his article reflects either a rejection or ignorance of hermeneutics and progressive revelation. Of course there are ambiguities in Scripture, but he doesn’t remind his readers at all that there are ways to arrive at the true meaning of a passage. God has not left us to doubt the correct meaning of most of Scripture. It is, as Pavlovitz says, a complex book, but it is not without definite meaning.
This essay will continue in Part 2.