World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Liberal Christianity

Liberal Christianity, also known as liberal theology, covers diverse philosophically and biblically informed religious movements and ideas within Christianity from the late 18th century onward. Liberal does not refer to Progressive Christianity or to a political philosophy but to the philosophical and religious thought that developed as a consequence of the Enlightenment.

Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings. Liberal Christianity did not originate as a belief structure, and as such was not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal statements. Unlike conservative varieties of Christianity, liberalism has no unified set of propositional beliefs. Instead, "liberalism" from the start embraced the methodologies of Enlightenment science as the basis for interpreting the Bible, life, faith and theology.

The word liberal in liberal Christianity originally denoted a characteristic willingness to interpret scripture according to modern philosophic perspectives (hence the parallel term modernism) and modern scientific assumptions, while attempting to achieve the Enlightenment ideal of objective point of view, without preconceived notions of the authority of scripture or the correctness of Church dogma.[1] Liberal Christians may hold certain beliefs in common with Catholic Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, or even Christian fundamentalism.


  • Liberal Christian exegesis 1
  • Influence in the United States 2
  • Theologians and authors 3
    • Protestant 3.1
    • Roman Catholic 3.2
    • Other 3.3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Liberal Christian exegesis

The theology of liberal Christianity was prominent in the Biblical criticism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The style of Scriptural hermeneutics (interpretation of the Bible) within liberal theology is often characterized as non-propositional. This means that the Bible is not considered a collection of factual statements, but instead an anthology that documents the human authors' beliefs and feelings about God at the time of its writing—within a historical or cultural context. Thus, liberal Christian theologians do not claim to discover truth propositions but rather create religious models and concepts that reflect the class, gender, social, and political contexts from which they emerge. Liberal Christianity looks upon the Bible as a collection of narratives that explain, epitomize, or symbolize the essence and significance of Christian understanding.[2]

Liberal Christianity was still hard to separate from political liberalism in the last third of the 19th century. Thus, an Irish bishop was sent by papal authority to Quebec in the 1870s to sort out the two. Several curés had threatened to withhold the sacraments from parishioners who cast votes for Liberals, and others had preached that to vote for Liberal candidates was a mortal sin.[3]

In the 19th century, self-identified liberal Christians sought to elevate Jesus' humane teachings as a standard for a world civilization freed from cultic traditions and traces of "pagan" belief in the supernatural.[4] As a result, liberal Christians placed less emphasis on miraculous events associated with the life of Jesus than on his teachings. The effort to remove "superstitious" elements from Christian faith dates to intellectually reforming Renaissance Christians such as Erasmus (who compiled the first modern Greek New Testament) in the late 15th and early-to-mid 16th centuries, and, later, the natural-religion view of the Deists, which disavowed any revealed religion or interaction between the Creator and the creation, in the 17–18th centuries.[5] The debate over whether a belief in miracles was mere superstition or essential to accepting the divinity of Christ constituted a crisis within the 19th-century church, for which theological compromises were sought.[6]

Attempts to account for miracles through scientific or rational explanation were mocked even at the turn of the 19th–20th century.[7] A belief in the authenticity of miracles was one of five tests established in 1910 by the Presbyterian Church to distinguish true believers from false professors of faith such as "educated, 'liberal' Christians."[8]

Liberal Christian theologians increasingly turned away from historical understandings of the Bible and Christianity. The German-trained critic, and one of the founders of the biblical archaeology movement, William Foxwell Albright of Johns Hopkins University, was a radical historical critic of the Bible, but his work in biblical archaeology in the Holy Land in the 1920s and 1930s convinced him that "these things really happened." Although Albright described himself forthrightly as "a Christian humanist" (a term also used by Renaissance scholars such as Erasmus of Rotterdam),[9] his defense of the authenticity of the historical traditions of the Old Testament, especially surrounding the conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua, led later liberal scholars to denounce him as a "crypto-Fundamentalist", so hostile had liberal theology become toward the idea that biblical accounts of history might be accurate. However, Albright left behind a legacy of informed, critical historical scholarship, advanced by a cadre of well-trained and well-placed teachers and scholars in the United States and Israel. These scholars rejected the anti-historical tack taken by liberal theology.

Indeed, contemporary liberal Christians continue to abnegate historical interpretations of the Bible. Many prefer to read Jesus' miracles as metaphorical narratives for understanding the power of God.[10] Not all theologians with liberal inclinations reject the possibility of miracles, but many reject the polemicism that denial or affirmation entails.[11]

From the beginning, liberal Christian theologians were adamant about rejecting orthodox Christian teaching on subjects such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the authority of Scripture in favor of a secular-scientific world view. In this sense, many "liberal" theologians were confused with "critical biblical scholarship" which arose in Germany in the late eighteenth century with scholars such as J.G. Eichorn of Goettingen. Yet the German tradition of critical historiography was hardly liberal in all quarters, and many of its leading lights were actually monarchists (such as Julius Wellhausen, and his teacher, Heinrich Ewald, both of Goettingen.) The liberal claim of following historical-critical scholarship has gradually broken down, since liberals classically identified critical scholars such as Martin Noth [12] and Lothar Perlitt [13] as "liberal" when these scholars were quite conservative theologically.

An overarching analysis shows that liberal Christianity did align itself during the late 19th century with the "Progressive Movement" in Western culture and politics. Objectively then, liberal Christianity identified the Left wing of Western culture as the locus of God's revelation in history, following the doctrine of "progressive revelation", and to no little degree that of process philosophy. Moreover, the failure of modern science to provide universal ethical norms outside the Bible for people to follow[14] led to a crisis of moral authority within liberal Christianity, and one that has yet to be resolved.

Influence in the United States

Liberal Christianity was most influential with mainline Protestant churches in the early 20th century, when proponents believed the changes it would bring would be the future of the Christian church. Its greatest and most influential manifestation was the Christian Social Gospel, which involved a de facto "baptism of Christianity into Marxist doctrine." Thus, the Social Gospel's most influential spokesman, the American Baptist Walther Rauschenbusch, identified four institutionalized spiritual evils in American culture (which Rauschenbusch identified as "supra-personal entities"): these were individualism, capitalism, nationalism and militarism. In accordance with Socialist doctrine, these were to be replaced with, respectively, collectivism, socialism, internationalism and pacifism.[15]

Other subsequent theological movements within the Protestant mainline (in the US) included political liberation theology, philosophical forms of postmodern Christianity, and such diverse theological influences as Christian existentialism (originating with Søren Kierkegaard[16] and including other theologians and scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann[17] and Paul Tillich [18]) and even conservative movements such as neo-evangelicalism, neo-orthodoxy, and paleo-orthodoxy. Dean M. Kelley, a liberal sociologist, was commissioned in the early 1970s to study the problem, and he identified the reason for the decline of the liberal churches: their excessive politicization of the Gospel, and especially their direct identification of the Gospel with Left-Democrat political causes.[19]

The 1990s and 2000s saw a resurgence of non-doctrinal, theological work on biblical John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong,[20] Karen Armstrong and Scotty McLennan. Their appeal, like that of the earlier modernism, was primarily found in the numerically declining mainline Protestant denominations.

Liberal Christianity in America has experienced a decline in membership of 70%—from 40% of the American Christian population to 12%—between 1930 and 2010. Conversely, the evangelical denominations have grown greatly in size, and the Catholic Church has seen more modest gains.[21]

Theologians and authors


Roman Catholic


See also


  1. ^ "Catholic Encyclopedia: Liberalism". Retrieved 2007-01-27. 
  2. ^ Montgomery, John Warwick. In Defense of Martin Luther. Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1970, p. 57. “Luther’s Hermeneutic vs. the New Hermeneutic.” Quoted in
  3. ^ Robert Collins (1977). The Age of Innocence 1870/1880. Canada's Illustrated Heritage. Jack McClelland. pp. 87–88.  
  4. ^ Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 29 online.
  5. ^ Linda Woodhead, "Christianity," in Religions in the Modern World (Routledge, 2002), pp. 186 online and 193.
  6. ^ The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805–1900, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), passim, search miracles.
  7. ^ F.J. Ryan, Protestant Miracles: High Orthodox and Evangelical Authority for the Belief in Divine Interposition in Human Affairs (Stockton, California, 1899), p. 78 online. Full text downloadable.
  8. ^ Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 164 online.
  9. ^ Albright, W.F. From the Stone Age to Christianity.
  10. ^ Ann-Marie Brandom, "The Role of Language in Religious Education," in Learning to Teach Religious Education in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience (Routledge, 2000), p. 76 online.
  11. ^ The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), passim, search miracles, especially p. 413; on Ames, p. 233 online; on Niebuhr, p. 436 online.
  12. ^ Ueberlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien and Geschichte Israels
  13. ^ Die Bundestheologie im Alten Testament
  14. ^ Above; cf. Pietschmann, Das Ende des naturwissenschaftlichen Zeitalters.
  15. ^ Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917.
  16. ^ 1846. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, authored pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus.
  17. ^ History of Synoptic Tradition
  18. ^ The Courage to Be.
  19. ^ Kelley, Dean M. (1972) Why Conservative Churches are Growing
  20. ^ Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
  21. ^ Allen, Charlotte (July 9, 2006). "Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins". Los Angeles Times. 
  22. ^ Alister McGrath. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 5th rev. ed. Wiley, 2011. Look in the index for "Schleiermacher" or "absolute dependence" and see them nearly always juxtaposed.
  23. ^ Peace Action web page accessed at

External links

  • The Progressive Christian Alliance
  • Progressive Christian Network Britain
  • Project for a Free Christianity
  • Liberalism By M. James Sawyer , Th.M., Ph.D.
  • Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)
  • An Open Fellowship of Progressive ChristiansThe Christian Left --
  • The Liberal Christians Network
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Hawaii eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.