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What can we learn from Liberal Christianity?

This week I am started a series of posts on what we can learn from several different Christian traditions. My own tradition is evangelical charismatic but as well as looking at those two roots I want to look at a few others. I shall start with liberal Christianity.

Isn’t Liberal Christianity dangerous?

Descent_of_the_Modernists,_E._J._Pace,_Christian_Cartoons,_1922If like me you are from an evangelical background you might well be wary of liberal theology – after all liberals don’t really believe the Bible do they?

Yes, liberal Christians has been known for their doubts – doubts about the historical nature of the Bible particularly the supernatural elements of the Bible such as miracles, probably most importantly the miracle of Jesus resurrection. As such many evangelical Christians would consider them the enemy of true Christianity.

Question too many things and you can get accused of being a liberal backslider” as portrayed in Martyn Joseph’s song. The idea is that if we start ask too many questions or doubt the literal interpretation of the Bible then we are on a slippery slope as the cartoon Descent of the Modernists illustrates. Of course I would tend to agree that they do go too far and depart from my understanding of Christianity.

In the end liberal Christianity can end up being nothing more than morality and miss the emphasis on the gospel entirely. It can end up preaching a watered down version of the law and miss the gospel of grace. However, doubts and questions are very important. Our faith needs to be open to scrutiny and surely testing what is right can only strengthen our faith.

What does Liberal Christianity say about interpreting scripture?

Liberals have traditionally recognised that the Bible is a set of documents written within a particular historical setting. They are not just a set of propositions to be followed. Anyone who has done any serious Bible study knows, we need to take care in interpreting the Bible. We need to understand the type of writing and the historical context in which it is written.

If Paul told a church to do something it doesn’t necessarily follow that God is telling us to do that today. The words need to be interpreted before they can be applied in our contemporary setting. Just taking the Bible as rules to follow can lead problems with many issues such as gender roles and head covering as well as understanding prophetic books like Revelation

Liberals are associated taking passages more figuratively understanding that poetry, hyperbole and imagery were never intended to be taken literally. Of cause, the conclusions of liberal scholars sometimes need to be rejected especially when they doubt something fundamental such as the claims of Jesus or deny the resurrection.

I think that it is good that liberals honestly evaluate the scriptures but when their conclusions undermine our faith then we need to be wary. But taken with discernment I believe there are some things we can learned from them. Personally I prefer to read evangelical scholars but I think there are some liberal influences in evangelical writing that can valuable.

For example, evangelical evolutionist Peter Enns has argued recently Genesis (at least the early parts) is probably best seen in mythological terms as many liberal scholars have argued for a long time. But it is not that he is denying the truth of the Bible. Myth is often misunderstood as being untrue rather than as being a story with a spiritual meaning written as history.

I have also enjoyed reading Greg Boyd’s positive portrayal of doubt in Benefit of the Doubt. Boyd challenges the idea of faith being certainty and sees it as being willing to commit even if we are not sure. He clearly and brilliantly places these ideas, which might once have only been associated with liberal Christianity, firmly in a sound evangelical context.

What does Liberal Christianity say about righteousness and justice?

In The Normal Christian Birth David Pawson advocates “a synthesis of the ‘liberal’ emphasis on repentance, the ‘evangelical’ on faith, the ‘sacramental’ on baptism and the ‘pentecostal’ on the Spirit.”

Liberals have not just emphasised rationality and interpretation but also practical application.“Liberal thought has concentrated on repentance,” David Pawson writes, “especially in terms of radically changed attitudes and lifestyles, though in recent years the emphasis has been on social injustice rather than personal immorality.”

Liberals have emphasised the Bible’s teachings about our behaviour – the moral teachings of Jesus such as in the Sermon on the Mount and the call of the Old Testament prophets to care for the marginalised such as widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. We should applaud their integrity when we see their efforts to put this into practice and follow their example.

It is important to distinguish liberal theology from liberal politics here. The left/right distinction in politics hasn’t always been helpful. However it is worthy of note that the liberal branch of Christianity has been associated with important and stands for social justice that have sometimes brought them into conflict with right wing politics.

Of course if social action is your only focus that you have missed an important element of the gospel and ceased to lead people to Christ. But there is no reason why both cannot be emphasised are part of our mission as for instance we see with William Booth and the Salvation Army who took preaching the gospel and serving the poor equally seriously.

So what can we learn from Liberal Christianity?

From our liberal friends we can learn not to just take the plain literal meaning of a text without thoughtful interpretation. We can learn to take into account the nature of the writing and the context in which it was written and how the original readers would have understood it. Of cause we also need to take the Bible seriously and use ‘interpretation’ to avoid what we know it says.

And we can learn the importance of social justice. Though liberal Christianity should not be confused with liberal politics there may be a lot of overlap. Speaking out for and serving the marginalised and poor can be seen as important way to express Jesus love to the world. But again we should not do this at the expense of telling people the good news about Jesus.

I hope you can agree that we would do well to remember these positive elements even if we forget that their liberal origins, be grateful for them and seek to put these into practice in our own lives rather than just criticise this tradition for its short comings.

Further reading

Liberal Christianity – Please check out this Wikipedia entry if you’re unsure about what I’m saying or if you just want to know more about Liberal Christianity.

April 29, 2014 at 8:35 pm
1 comment »
  • April 30, 2014 at 10:49 pmLinda Wickens

    Having been associated with Quakers for many years due to my parents changing from Cof E to ‘Friends’ I have found the thoughtfulness, corporate seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the emphasis on Social action very chalenging. Many would describe Quakers as liberal, but as in David’s comments, I agree that evangelical charismatics should be challenged by much of their very serious and deep thinking on many issues.

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