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A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting hosted by the local Interfaith Clergy Association. Although I never attend this gathering, I chose to participate in this event since the stated purpose was to meet the mayor of the city. While I enjoyed her presentation, it was an odd setting in many ways. The “clergy” didn’t seem comfortable with each other at all. Our brief introductory greetings were punctuated by long stretches of awkward silence, an unusual amount of throat-clearing, and stares off into the distance although the view was anything but picturesque. Of course, I expected this. We can’t look forward to unity amongst a group of such divergent theological, philosophical, and ethical views. Our disagreements were never more on display than when one member of the clergy was asked to “say grace” before we endured a meal together.

Rather than thanking God for the food, the individual engaged in a soliloquy, wherein he pontificated about the “inclusive” nature of the association. When he did speak about God, he consistently used the feminine pronoun “she.” Part way through I was tempted to open my eyes and look around the room to see if anyone was as surprised as I was, but opted against this action. When he finished, I refrained from saying “Amen,” and proceeded to eat my salad.

With the exception of a Jewish rabbi, all those attending represented local churches in the area. Clearly not all present would identify themselves as conservative, evangelical Christians. Rather, they probably consider themselves “progressive,” or “liberal” theologically. But you may be wondering: What does it mean to be a theological “liberal”?

Here’s how Gary Dorrien, one today’s foremost experts on American liberal theology and himself a liberal theologian, explains it:

“Fundamentally it is the idea of a genuine Christianity not based on external authority. Liberal theology seeks to reinterpret the symbols of Christianity in a way that creates a progressive religious alternative to atheistic rationalism and to theologies based on external authority. Specifically, liberal theology is defined by an openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially the natural and social sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people.”[1]

I will limit my response to the three italicized phrases in the above quote:

First, theological liberalism seeks a genuine Christianity not based on external authority. The idea behind this assertion seems to be that external authority is inherently oppressive and that people are not genuinely free unless they can exercise their reason autonomously.[2] But consider this: All human reason must be subject to some kind of moral norm. If we reject God and his revelation in Scripture, then we must either set ourselves up as the standard of truth (which leads to subjectivism) or despair of knowledge altogether (which is skepticism). Either way, everyone must choose something not to question.[3]

The difference between theological liberals and theological conservatives is confidence in the reliability of God’s Word. Without going into all the details, theological liberals are heirs of the Enlightenment way of thinking, which assumes that humans acquire knowledge through rational demonstration rather than divine revelation.[4] This assumption is then linked to confidence in the results of modern scholarship’s use of the higher critical methods in biblical studies.[5] The net effect is a Bible riddled with errors and thus not worthy of our trust. Although theological liberals may give credence to an “inspired” Word of God, they limit biblical inspiration to the message of the Bible, while insisting that the words themselves are not inspired. Furthermore, they insist that only certain portions of Scripture are accurate, while other sections are not. The conclusion? Fallible human writers have given us a fallible Bible. Exactly why readers should believe that God speaks truthfully through false statements is beyond me. And if theological liberals counter by claiming that God “accommodates” himself to humans in this way, their notion of divine accommodation is without basis in the history of the church.[6]

The idea that certain parts of Scripture are true while others are false raises the question posed by E. J. Young (1907–1968) many years ago: “If fallible human writers have given to us a Bible that is fallible, how are we ourselves, who most certainly are fallible, to detect in the Bible what is error and what is not?”[7] I agree with Young: “If God is the Creator, and man a creature, there is no way in which man can set himself up as a judge of what God has revealed.”[8]

The Biblical portrait is of a God who is authoritative and sovereign. And this authoritative and sovereign God has graciously revealed himself to humankind. Simply put, his Word is trustworthy because he is trustworthy.[9] And his lordship over us—while authoritative—is not oppressive. Rather, it preserves human freedom and issues forth in human flourishing.

Second, they conceive of Christianity as an ethical way of life. With the rise of theological liberalism, came the rallying cry, “Deeds, not creeds!” The call was to focus on deeds of love rather than inordinate amounts of time expounding doctrine—especially since, so liberal theologians contended, modern people no longer receive ideas like the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the eternality of hell (to name only a few).

But of course, an atheological Christianity doesn’t exist. Thus, the liberal conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life fails to realize that the gospel is, first and foremost, an announcement. The gospel—the “good news”—is the declaration that forgiveness of sins can be had as repentant sinners turn to Christ in faith. This is because Christ, in his life and death, has accomplished everything necessary for our redemption. His glorious bodily resurrection proves this fact. The ethical implications of the gospel flow from this reality. Thus, to portray Christianity solely as an ethical way of life leaves out large swaths of the biblical message. As J. Gresham Machen pointed out in the 1920s: It would be more appropriate to say that Christianity is “a way of life founded upon a message. . . . In other words it was based upon doctrine.”[10] The call to love our neighbor is not the gospel but an implication of the gospel. Deeds flow from doctrine, but liberalism reverses the order.

For the gospel-minded Christian, liberalism’s call to practice “deeds of love” rings hollow because “love” is never defined. “Love,” as Carl Trueman noted in a recent blog, is “a somewhat nebulous concept when detached from dogma.” This is one of the reasons why we cannot construe theological liberalism as simply another Christian denomination. One cannot deny the essence of Christianity and still call oneself a Christian. Machen, therefore, called the Christians of his day to realize that Protestant liberalism is, to put it matter-of-factly, a completely different religion.[11]

Richard Niebuhr summarized liberal theology as follows: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[12] Period. End of story.

Third, they are committed to making Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people. While Christians certainly want to make their profession of faith credible by doing works of love, we are not called to modify doctrine. Additionally, “cultural relevance is a cruel mistress,” to borrow once again from Carl Trueman.[13] Are Christians supposed to revise doctrines that the culture finds unpalabtable? Such a posture is a far cry from the convictions of early Christians who, like Basil the Great (AD 330–379), stated that “we must care about the truth, not our own safety.”[14]

Moreover, caving to the culture and disavowing historic Christian orthodoxy has not brought an influx of people into mainline churches. Thus it seems that Russell Moore’s comment and following question are appropriate and timely: “People who don’t want Christianity don’t want almost-Christianity. . . . If adapting to the culture were the key to ecclesial success, then where are the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A) church planting movements, the Unitarian megachurches?”[15]

If Jesus didn’t get out of the grave on the third day and this whole thing’s a hoax, why exactly are we getting up early on Sunday morning anyway? I for one would prefer to sleep in. And from the looks of the parking lots of the liberal churches I pass on my way to Crossroads Community Church on Sunday mornings, it seems like a lot of other people are asking the same question.


[1] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805–1900 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), xxiii, emphasis added.

[2] W. Andrew Hoffecker, “Enlightenments and Awakenings: The Beginning of Modern Culture Wars,” in Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, ed. W. Andrew Hoffecker (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 265. This kind of reasoning confuses authority with authoritarianism. On this point see J. I. Packer, Truth & Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 11–22.

[3] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 124. In historic Christian orthodoxy, Scripture is the moral norm: “It is the norm that norms all other norms and that is not itself normed” (Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015], 42).

[4] Hoffecker, “Enlightenments and Awakenings,” 241–278.

[5] On this I recommend reading D. A. Carson, “Redaction Criticism: On the Legitimacy and Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool,” in Collected Writings on Scripture, comp. A. D. Naselli (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 151–178.

[6] See, e.g., Glenn S. Sunshine, “Accommodation Historically Considered,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 238–265. The historic Christian position is that God accommodates himself by communicating to his image-bearers through language, but he never absorbs errors into his words. See further Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 326. Taken at face value, Scripture itself does not lead readers to limit the areas in which it is reliable. On this see Wayne A. Grudem, “Scripture’s Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture,” in Scripture and Truth, eds. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), 19–59.

[7] E. J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth: Some Thoughts on the Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration (1963; repr., Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 75.

[8] Ibid., 189.

[9] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Holy Scripture,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 52; Also cf. Stephen J. Wellum, “The Importance of the Nature of Divine Sovereignty for Our View of Scripture,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4:2 (Summer 2000): 76–90. (This article is available online.)

[10] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 21, emphasis mine.

[11] Ibid., 6–7.

[12] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1937), 197.

[13] Carl R. Trueman, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Chicago: Moody, 2011), 35.

[14] Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit (trans. David Anderson; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 21. 52 (82).

[15] Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 6, 21.