What Is Liberal Theology?

by Joel on September 17, 2006

Beth Quick of bethquick.com reacted to Mark Driscoll’s (Mars Hill Church) claim that liberal theology is contributing to the decline of mainline churches. Locusts & Honey linked to the post and later John Battern put up his own post in support of the accusation against liberal theology. Still later, John at Locusts & Honey posited that the decline issue is more complex than simply liberal theology.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time addressing the issue of whether or not liberal theology is responsible for the decline of mainline denominations. Rather, because some people mean “liberal social positions” (anti-capital punishment, anti-war, pro-labor union, etc.) rather than “liberal theology” when they are speaking of decline, I want to focus on defining the theology, which I admit is a virtually impossible task.

Before I get into that, I will make a few quick observations.

1. Christianity in America is in trouble, period. After years of growth, the Southern Baptist Convention is stagnating in numbers. Non-denominational churches are beginning to plateau.
2. There is growing evidence that the frequently touted number that 40% of Americans regularly attend church is just wrong, that the real number is around 20%, still double much of Europe, but nevertheless a troubling statistic.
3. The mainline churches in the U.S. are declining numerically partially because their members have fewer children than members of non-mainline churches.
4. It could be that rather than liberal theology per se, it is constant negative publicity that has contributed to people leaving mainline churches. Good News Magazine, the Confessing Movement and the Institute on Religion and Democracy have hammered the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations for years, now.

Now, let me first emphasize that there are differences between liberal theology and liberal social positions. One example that comes to mind is Tony Campolo, who in theological terms embraces most conservative Baptist theology, but proposes a radical commitment to the poor. Other examples might be Bishop Will Willimon or Stanley Hauerwas, who have both embraced a number of liberal political and/or social positions, yet might fit more neatly in the “orthodox theology” box. Hauerwas rejects “liberalism” in the same breath that he endorses pacifism and condemns capitalism. For reasons I will outline later, Willimon and Hauerwas also fit into my own understanding of “liberal theology” albeit in somewhat qualified fashion.

Let’s begin with “liberalism” itself. To many a modern ear, it means the same thing as “libertine”, “do your own thing”, “moral relativism”, “free sex”, or “abortion on demand”. True enough that classical liberalism is rooted in liberty and freedom. “The liberal tradition in politics has centered on religious toleration, government by consent, personal and, especially, economic freedom.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) In the U.S. liberalism developed to be less friendly to capitalism. (Id.) Classical liberalism has significant ties to The Enlightenment, a period of intense questioning of institutions, focus on individual freedom, and development of the arts, science, and philosophy. Much of the modern church sees the The Enlightenment in an entirely negative way as being a cornerstone for secular humanism and a too-optimistic view of humankind’s abilities over and above God’s grace and providence. However, The Enlightenment also afforded the church the opportunity to back away from rigidity, harshness, and irrationality and toward the social gospel’s message of reconciling love. The Enlightenment also reintroduced “reason” as an important, indeed necessary, element of faith. “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.” (Immanuel Kant)

Another important aspect of the Enlightenment was “free will” which in a variation is enshrined in Wesleyan thought via Arminianism. There are many folks who hold to liberal social justice positions who do not associate themselves with “liberal theology” for the very reason that they reject Arminianism. The ability of God’s created to choose good (sparked by grace) may be a hallmark of liberal theology, however. Indeed, Wesley had a somewhat favorable view of the Enlightenment as in keeping both with his search for knowledge and his commitment to social holiness.

Here is my understanding of some components of liberal theology:

1. View of the Bible as inspired and not inerrant.
2. An understanding that some passages in the Bible are metaphorical or ‘myth based’.
3. An emphasis on the need to apply human reason, experience and tradition in interpreting the Bible.
4. Application of insights from the social sciences (which are also not inerrant) is crucial to interpreting the Bible. As the social sciences are themselves God’s revelation of truth, they complement rather than compete with Scripture.
5. An emphasis on Biblical criticism and literary analysis.
6. Scripture must be viewed through the lens of time and culture.
7. Doctrines, church authority and Scripture cannot be divorced from subjective personal experience.
8. Community wholeness in relation to God is as important as a personal relationship to God through Christ. (’Shalom’ creation.)
9. An understanding that the Bible contains ‘all things necessary for salvation’ but not necessarily all things related to salvation.
10. A refusal to make creeds a test of faith.
11. Openness to ‘finding Christ in the culture’.
12. Doubt is not inherently the enemy of faith, but can be used by God to engage that very faith.
13. A strong commitment to social justice.
14. The idea that self-reflection is a necessary component of faith.
15. Acceptance that the Bible incorporates an intentional tension between “universal” and “exclusive” salvation. (To remind us that God alone judges?)
16. The possibility that not only may we acquire new understandings of God’s revelation but that it is possible that God is still revealing.
17. Humans, while tending toward depravity, are capable of responding to divine grace.
18. As “imitators” of Christ, we must engage the essential unity of faith and works.
19. That Christian existentialism is criticized but effectively practiced by the “orthodox” and fundamentalists but honestly admitted to by many liberals.
20. Rejection of an over-emphasis on a “personal relationship with Christ” that fails to adequately place faith in the context of community.
21. A strong emphasis on “corporate sin” as being as evil and destructive as personal sin.
22. That while miracles happen, God does not ordinarily suspend the laws of nature.

But then people say (or yell!) Wicca! Sophia worship! Milk and honey rituals! Open theism! Process theology! Universal salvation! These are conclusions that some theological liberals have come to by applying some or all of the above components of liberal theology. However, they are not the essence of liberal theology nor does employing these components necessitate such conclusions. I am sympathetic to aspects of liberation theology, but skeptical of or opposed to conclusions reached by many liberal theologians. I don’t agree with Paul Tillich’s seeming rejection of a personal God, nor with Reinhold Niebuhr’s low view of miracles. No, liberal theology is more a way of approaching and utilizing Scripture than it is any one set of conclusions about God’s exact nature or workings. That is perhaps why I’m willing to place Willimon and Hauerwas in the “liberal theologian” category. Hauerwas in particular rejects “liberal theology” as being divorced from the Trinity as well as the witness of Christ. He believes that it has led to humanism that denies Christ’s atoning work. My view is that some liberal theologians have lost sight of the forest for the trees, but that Hauerwas actually employees many aspects of liberal theology in reaching his conclusions.

A frequent complaint about liberal theology is that it doesn’t accept the Bible as authoritative. I dispute that idea. While conservatives/fundamentalists/traditionalists/orthodox may give greater lip service to the Bible’s authority, I find little evidence that they live their lives as if it is more authoritative. Christ calls us to radical obedience where the proof is in the pudding and not in the words. For example, many who proclaim that they accept the Bible’s authority and that liberals don’t embrace a dubious view of war, economics, and the environment that causes me to believe they are engaging in semantics. All of us struggle with being “doers of the word” which is the real test of how we view the Bible’s authority.

What about the idea that liberal theology denies the working of miracles, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection and such? Again, that is a conclusion that some liberal theologians have reached, but such does not define liberal theology. No theological liberal would agree with everything I’ve written and some would reject my post as mostly missing the boat. Now for the really important part. What does “liberal theology” mean to you?

{ 1 trackback }

What is classical liberalism? | Made for Walking
11.27.11 at 11:55 pm

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }


Steve 09.17.06 at 6:23 am

Great post, Joel. That really makes me think. I (as someone who has no proper theological training and is generally undereducated on the various theological variants) have always viewed “theological liberalism” as you state it in the last paragraph: denial of miracles, bodily resurrection, etc.

I would be interested in hearing what other people think about Joel’s list of 22 items as the components of theological liberalism. As for me, I find myself agreeing with the vast majority of those 22, but have traditionally understood myself as somewhat theologically conservative (but extremely socially liberal, FWIW). Perhaps I was mistaken.


Richard 09.17.06 at 8:40 am

Thanks for that, Joel. One of the biggest obstacles to conversation is a lack of clarity over what labels like “liberal” mean. One of the reasons I hate being called a liberal is that, to me, it means a theology of the 19th century - a theology focussed on the individual (as opposed to humanity), a theology which rejects the miraculous and which offers a God who can never be truly incarnate.


Joel 09.17.06 at 11:12 am

Because theology is an attempt to understand God’s nature and truth, humans can place into it self-serving or misfocused conclusions. For liberal theology, among those are limitations of the incarnation, the miraculous, or the illusion of cheap grace. For fundamentalist theology, the dangers may be a God who condemns more than transforms, who justifies narrow Christian triumphalism, or validates feelings of cultural superiority. There’s no doubt that liberal theology led some astray into humanism (as opposed to God acting for and throught humanity), just as fundamentalist theology has helped to justify others in their bigotries. Theology is an attempt to understand the divine and truth, but is not itself those things. Theology cannot be allowed to be a god. Many of the “orthodox” like to claim that they avoid both dangers, but they too can become ensnared in an impotent or culture-validating God.


Mark Byron 09.17.06 at 3:52 pm

Interesting post. Some of your aspects of liberalism apply to modern “conservative” evangelical thought as well, while others don’t. In many cases, it’s a matter of degree.

For instance, #2 on your list-”An understanding that some passages in the Bible are metaphorical or ‘myth based.’” If ypu look at the passage where Jesus tells us to forgive seventy-times-seven (or 77 times, depending on translation), that doesn’t mean we can clobber our transgressor when they hit tresspass #491. It means we’re supposed to keep on forgiving.

That’s metaphorical, even to a conservative. However, abusing that allows the modern liberal to take the miraculous things of the Bible and write it off as myth.

You’ve go


Mark Byron 09.17.06 at 3:54 pm

Oops, I hit the submit comment button by accident; my laptop is quirky that way.

You’ve got too much meat there to go over in a comment. I’ll have a post on this in reply soon.


Kim 09.17.06 at 4:29 pm

Thanks, Joel, for trying to bring some clarity to the Question “What Is Liberal Theology?” The problem with the term isn’t so much that, like Humpty Dumpty, we can make it mean whatever we want it to mean, as that, as you rightly observe, liberal theology is not a monolithic phenomenon, certainly not in terms of substantive beliefs, where liberals are more uniform in what they deny than in what they affirm. As The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought (1993) states, however, referring specifically to liberalism in the USA, perhaps “the most consistent mark” of liberal theologies “is a methodological one: the supposition that theology should always interrelate the spirit of its own time and the Christian past in a manner that allows each to make an essential and substantive difference to the formulation of theological claims.” By which definition I am proud to be a liberal, as indeed was that putative bête noir of liberalism Karl Barth. Only a few months before he died, Barth wrote:

“Being truly liberal means thinking and speaking in responsibility and openness on all sides, backwards and forwards, toward both past and future, and with what I might call total personal modesty. To be modest is not to be skeptical; it is to see what one thinks and says also has limits. This does not hinder me from saying very definitely what I think I see and know. But I can do this only in the awareness that there have been and are other people before and alongside me, and that still others will come after me. . . Knowing that a limit is set for me, too, I can move cheerfully within it as a free man.” “Liberal” from the Latin libertas - freedom>/i>.

Historically speaking, however, I think it is accurate to say that, as a child of the Enlightenment, liberal theology does gravitate around a cluster of core-beliefs, probably the most significant of which are the priority of God’s immanence over his transcendence (mistakingly presuming that it knows what these terms mean quite apart from revelation), and the principle that the claims of experience are ultimately higher than those of revelation (the appeal of which goes back to the gambit of the Edenic serpent). I say “experience” rather than “reason”: “experience” here ceratinly includes “reason”, but it is a common though demonstrably false belief that reason suddenly bursts on the scene with Descartes. Tell that to the Fathers, to the Schoolmen and, yes, even to the magisterial Reformers! It is just that before the Enlightenment reason was thinking in the wake of revelation, not (if push comes to shove) in the place of revelation. In fact, human “autonomy” rather than experience, reason, feeling, etc. is probably the best term to use in describing this chief feature of classical liberal theology.

We might further observe that unreconstructed liberal theology has been suspicious of the givenness of dogma, particulalrly when it seemed an affront to human humanity (hence its jettisoning of the doctrine of original sin), and, with its privileging of secular historical and scientific discourse, it has found miracle deeply problematical (including the virgin birth and the resurrection). Its one-time love affair with progress, however, has been duly chastened by two global wars, the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear, and now ecological, destruction.

One could obviously say a whole lot more, but this is a blog, not a book, so just two further points. On the question of miracle, for instance, it is important to note that the whole idea that miracles are events that “suspend the laws of nature” is wholly misconceived, and a good example of the way liberalism has a way of letting the Enlightenment dictate the terms of theological engagement (to literally horrendous effect, by the way, on the question of theodicy). As William Placher says, “God does not ‘intervene’ in the world, as if God had for the most part been watching from the sidelines.” And taking up Placher’s point, William Willimon observes that the idea that a miracle is a “supernatural intrusion into the natural workings of the universe . . . is an invention of the Enlightenment’s attempt to push God out of God’s world. For Christians there is no such thing as ‘natural’ and therefore no such thing as intrusion by the ’supernatural’. What the world calls ‘natural’ we call ‘Creation’.”

Finally (as you note, Joel), one of the great insights of liberal theology - an insight which is actually a retrieval - is indeed its emphasis on the inextricable connection between scripture, theology and ethics - and politics - and particularly the politics of poverty. Henceforth the appeals of evangelicals of the right to being Bible-believing become so much hot air. In fact, Christian faith is an embedded thorn in the flesh to all those of a conservative temperament, because it it is an undeniable assault on every status quo. What formative American liberals like Rauschenbusch missed, with most modernists, is the eschatological proviso to all Christian ethics, a proviso Barth did not miss. But let me end with a wonderfully mischievous quip from Barth, who once said that while it may be possible for political liberals sometimes to be right, for political conservatives almost never.

Thanks again, Joel, for your hard work on this one, and for your bringing some light to bear on a subject that tends to generate only heat.


Pam 09.17.06 at 10:11 pm

Excellent post. Linking to it, thanks.

I think that there are a lot of points floating around in the subtext.

But like any good liberal, I do very much think that “what we mean by the term ‘liberal’” is very much a factor in the discussion.


Joel 09.17.06 at 10:29 pm

I can admire the brilliance of a Rudolf Bultmann while also believing that the man reduces Christ to a mere historical figure.

We do tend to reduce the “miraculous” to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes someone will say, “in addition to extraordinary medical care we also need a miracle.” When God is making new, it is always miraculous, by whatever means.

Kim, I get what you are saying about God not “watching from the sidelines.” However, it is the human condition that we will often feel exactly that way. Intellectually I know that God is sovereign, but emotionally, when I look at an event such as the Holocaust, my sensory perception is that “God was watching from the sidelines.” However, unlike some, that doesn’t make me cynical but causes me to embrace the mystery and to seek a greater and deeper encounter with the divine.

I myself haven’t jettisoned the idea of original sin, only the idea that it is something that is passed genetically.

I tend to see God as about equally immanent and transcendent. With too much of the first, it is easy to confuse God and human action and to create a selfish-relationship, with too much of the second it is too easy to withdraw from the world into blissful “escapism.”. However, it is possible you are using the terms slightly differently.


Pam 09.17.06 at 10:49 pm

Post enlightenment, both conservatism and liberalism pretty much swallow enlightenment epistemology hook, line and sinker. On the subject of miracles, for example, most conservatives certainly do not tolerate anything other than miracles being an “act of God intervening to break the laws of nature”. Vanstone and Fiddes, for example, are certainly not considered conservative by conservatives.

There is a conservative “tightening up of requirements” that is very much “enlightenment” in my view. You can’t be a Protestant conservative and say “I choose to believe in the virgin birth because it’s an historic belief of the Church and because of it’s meaning”. Nothink less that “Jesus was born without the aid of earthly insemination” will do.


Pam 09.17.06 at 10:50 pm

Nothink less

How embarrassing! God job I’ve moved out of London! ;-)


Joel 09.17.06 at 11:22 pm

To a certain extent, identifying oneself as a “theological liberal” is akin to identifying oneself as a member of the U.S. Democratic political party. Identifying as a Democrat doesn’t easily proclaim what you are, but tends to rule out a lot of things that you aren’t. In other words, I’m a Democrat, so I’m not a Republican. The reverse is not necessarily true. Identifying as a Republican makes it much easier to accurately guess what someone’s views are.


Ben Myers 09.18.06 at 12:30 am

What is a “liberal”? Here’s one useful definition that I’ve heard (and this really sums up the way many people use the term): A “liberal” is someone considerably to my left, while a “fundamentalist” is someone considerably to my right.



Richard H 09.18.06 at 1:26 am

Too much to deal with in its entirety, but here’s a little comment:

“It could be that rather than liberal theology per se, it is constant negative publicity that has contributed to people leaving mainline churches. Good News Magazine, the Confessing Movement and the Institute on Religion and Democracy have hammered the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations for years, now.”

In my pastoral experience (about 20 years, mostly in Texas), most of the laity in my churches exhibit little or no awareness of these critiques of the UMC. If something makes the local papers they may notice it, but other wise usually not.

One big contributor to loss in the UMC is non-substantive preaching. When I was a youth most of what I remember hearing on Sunday mornings was a bunch of Aggie jokes strung together with tepid moral admonitions of the “God is nice, you be nice too” sort. I can’t see many folks sticking around for that Sunday after Sunday - let alone for the next generation.


John 09.18.06 at 1:48 am

What is a liberal? That’s easy — anyone who disagrees with me.


Joel 09.18.06 at 1:56 am


Oh that I could have given that kind of answer on a seminary essay test. I could have closed my blue book and been out on the tennis court in five minutes!

Anyway, I notice that once in blue moon, someone expresses an opinion that is to your right. Does that make them a right-wing liberal?


oloryn 09.18.06 at 4:46 am

I question if us conservatives have to be that tied to miracles as a ‘breaking’ of natural law. I think C. S. Lewis was on to something in saying that a miracle doesn’t necessarily require a breaking of the laws of nature, merely injection of new events into nature, which the laws of nature then ‘take over’. The laws don’t change, but the result does. I find this attractive because it seems consistent with God’s pattern in redemption: When God’s holiness and moral laws required death as a result of human sin, His reaction was not to change the laws or His holiness, but to inject a new event, taking the penalty on himself. The laws didn’t change, but the result was gloriously different.


Joel 09.18.06 at 8:03 am

If 500 people are pushed off from the top of the Sears Tower, how many of them will die and how many live? I can say with virtual, but perhaps not absolute certainty that they will all die, due to the laws of nature that God created. Could God stop any or all of them from dying? Yes, if he is omnipotent as I believe. Will he? I think not, regardless of whether we speak in terms of “suspending laws” or injecting “new events into nature.” The miraculous nature of God’s work cannot be measured or quantified, but it is clearly ongoing. God is surely “making all things new” but I won’t pretend to fully appreciate or comprehend such. I mean, I believe it, but my senses are also battered by the brokenness. As a sinner, I am part of the darkness, that is, part of humanity, that has not comprehended the light. However, as one who has repented/is repenting I am assured that the light is indeed there.

Richard H,

I agree with you that non-substantive preaching is a big part of the decline of United Methodism. My former Bishop, Bruce Blake, told gathered pastors how disturbing he found it that when he visited churches the sermons were often devoid of Christ or the incarnation but centered in pop-psychology or tips for practical living. (Not his exact words, but the gist as best I remember.) He also noted a far-too wide practice of his pastors using canned sermons.


Pam 09.18.06 at 8:25 am

To a certain extent, identifying oneself as a “theological liberal” is akin to identifying oneself as a member of the U.S. Democratic political party.

As must have been pointed out to you a number of times on cross-cultural fora, this direct association between theology and politics does not exist in the UK. Most of my theologically conservative friends here in the UK support Labour or the Social Democrats - both of which are at least as politcally liberal as the Democratic party. And these people are not less conservative theologically than American conservatives; they are supporting irregular ordinations in the Anglican church and see the bible as inerrant and infallible.

I question if us conservatives have to be that tied to miracles as a ‘breaking’ of natural law.

I’m curious, then, how you’re defining “conservative”. I don’t think you could say any of that in any of the conservative churches I belonged to and get away with it. (I only left conservative Christianity 5 years ago, so we’re not talking ancient history.)

For me, there is also a confusing practical situation between being a conservative in the pew and being viewed as a conservative theological scholar by “The Academy”. Academics can say things and remain “conservative” by other academics but the same ideas are not really tolerated by peer groups in congregations.


Joel 09.18.06 at 8:47 am


I’m not connecting being a theological liberal to being a member of the Democratic party or any political party. I meant, rather, to sort of parallel what American humorist Will Rogers once said: “I’m not a member of any organized political party: I’m a Democrat.” That is, theological liberalism does not have an easily defined or even greatly coherent identity. It is not an organized or systematic theology. Rather, there are some loose principles that can generally be ascribed to liberal theology, some of which I have tried to enumerate. On the other hand, even with exceptions, it is much easier to know what someone means if they self-identify as “fundamentalist.” So, my use of the word “akin” was perhaps the wrong choice of word.

Nevertheless, there is in the U.S., as a more recent development, a signifcant correlation between people who vote for Democrats and who identify themselves as theologically liberal. Beyond, that, and to a much greater degree than Republicans, many Democrats are non-religious.

I consider myself first and foremost a follower of Christ. I identify as a theological liberal, or specifically an evangelical theological liberal mostly to specify that I am definitely not fundamentalist nor do I wish to be boxed in by the category of “orthodox.” Again, though, I reject a great many of the developments that have come via those identified with the theologically liberal camp. I tend to be a “yin and yang” proponent for Christianity, valuing contributions made by both theological liberals and conservatives, however defined.


J 09.18.06 at 12:54 pm

I agree with Richard H that failure to preach the Gospel is a big problem, though it’s interesting that the area he’s talking about (and Joel’s as well) is home to many of the largest congregations in Methodism.

The discussion of miracles surprised me. I see people putting a lot of restrictions on what miracles God will send us, and how they are accomplished. From Kim:

“with (liberal theology’s) privileging of secular historical and scientific discourse, it has found miracle deeply problematical (including the virgin birth and the resurrection). ”

I’m OK with an atheist or agnostic thinking the idea of the virgin birth is ridiculous, but if you believe God is God, why would you question his ability to do things that can be accomplished with a fairly routine surgical procedure? And with Joel’s example from the Sears tower, if we pray and God answers us by altering the past so that the event never happened to begin with, how would we even know? I don’t know that miracles can always be measured or even detected in human terms.

The exasperating task of countering conventional wisdom about miracles can wear down our confidence in them too - I’ve had more than a few of those “no, that happened in the movie ‘The Ten Commandments’, not the Bible” conversations.

Back to the original topic, I’ll second Richard that the term “liberal” is almost meaningless. There’s more truth to to John’s “anyone who disagrees” post than we admit. The same goes for the term “conservative”. What stats led you to observation #2?


Pam 09.18.06 at 1:46 pm

I consider myself first and foremost a follower of Christ. I identify as a theological liberal, or specifically an evangelical theological liberal mostly to specify that I am definitely not fundamentalist nor do I wish to be boxed in by the category of “orthodox.” Again, though, I reject a great many of the developments that have come via those identified with the theologically liberal camp. I tend to be a “yin and yang” proponent for Christianity, valuing contributions made by both theological liberals and conservatives, however defined.

I understood that and I’m actually in personal accord with a lot of your original post. I have often termed myself as “liberal in process and orthodox in theology”.

I see your 22 points almost as points of process.

I think one can have liberal theological processes and arrive at orthodox theology and one can have liberal theological processes and arrive at unorthodox theology. One can have conservative theological processes and arrive at orthodox theology and one can have conservative theological process and arrive at unorthodox theology (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians)

I think it’s a fallacy to think that one can only arrive at an orthodox outcome via conservative theological processes. And I think it’s an even bigger fallacy to believe that conservative processes ensure an orthodox outcome.


Joel 09.18.06 at 3:04 pm


You do realize that Kim is sharing both the weaknesses and strengths of liberal theology. Just because he lists certain tendencies of that theology doesn’t mean he is placing them all in a positive light.

John is probably more influenced by liberal theology than he’ll either admit or recognize.


cseminarian 09.18.06 at 4:48 pm

I would say that a “liberal” is someone who has decided that the constraints of the past are unnecessary. Whether in interpretation — historical interpretation is fairly meaningless, cannonization — the historical cannon decisions are not authoritative, or theology — everyone gets to write their own. It is re-interpretting the past as “well, that was okay for them, but this is today” as opposed to “we should continue on in the authority of the apostles”.

This stems from a completely different understanding of God’s work in the world. As a conservative, I view apostolicity as a primary determinant for what is valid. Why? Because the apostles were chosen by God in a major move of God in history. I don’t personally have a right to change those things, and it would take another similarly-major act of God to do so, and then those who had the closest connection to God’s movement would have the authority to do so.

The liberal view is that God is active equally all the time. Therefore, we are just as able to make theological judgments for our time as the apostles were for their time. We should listen to their advice, but ultimately we must construct our own theology.

The difference is that in the conservative view, God has the ultimate authority, and we are obedient to His actions. In the liberal view, man is the ultimate authority, even on theological issues. It may be because we all have God’s spirit in us, but the reality of the situation is that liberals consider themselves to be responsible for constructing their own theology. Conservatives believe that authoritative theology must be from God Himself, and authenticated through God’s actions in the world.


J 09.18.06 at 4:56 pm

I didn’t infer an endorsement by Kim of any viewpoint, just an observation of why things come to be viewed the way they are. On the miracle issue, my post was meant more as commiseration than argument.


jason woolever 09.18.06 at 9:36 pm

Joel, really good article. thanks for taking the time to clarify things.


John 09.19.06 at 1:44 am

Joel wrote:

Anyway, I notice that once in blue moon, someone expresses an opinion that is to your right. Does that make them a right-wing liberal?

On those rare occasions, I have clearly been badly influenced by Asbury’s liberal theology and am in temporary error. I must then repent in sackcloth and ashes and move further to the right.


Pam 09.19.06 at 10:58 am

the liberal view, man is the ultimate authority, even on theological issues.

I think that this is unfair (and also potentially the sort of statement that shuts down conversation before it can even begin - “I care about God and you only care about yourself”.)

I admit that there are what I call “fundamentalist liberals” - the stroppy sort who say that anyone who doesn’t believe as they do is stupid.

However, liberal processes shouldn’t - in my opinion - work this way. To me, liberalism says we can’t ever be certain we’re 100% correct about God, but that’s OK because God forgives those who truly seek God’s face and who accept God’s forgiveness. Conservatism says humans can and must know God with reasonable accuracy - if not 100%, then reasonably close to it - and that “knowing God accurately according to God’s revelation” is a sign and a token of faithfulness.


Joel 09.19.06 at 3:19 pm


Many conservatives may consider that they accept God’s ultimate authority and that liberals don’t, but at the end of the day, when in seeming appearance of submission to God’s authority, conservatives have made horrendous decisions with terrible consequences, conservatives are left struggling with the same main question as liberals: did I properly understand what God commanded and was I obedient? Scripture has no life until the individual and community incorporate it into their lives. At one extreme of liberal theology, humans can decide Scripture means whatever they think it means; at the other extreme, conservatives can turn the Bible into an idol and approve of slavery because the Bible says “slaves obey your masters.”

Liberals believe that God is sovereign and has ultimate control and authority. We don’t accept, however, that early church leaders got everything right about divine truth. Nevertheless, I hold the early church “fathers” in such esteem as to tremble if I find myself coming to a different conclusion.

One dear lady in one of my churches told me “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just accept what it says.”

Anyway, I consider theology man-made because it is not truth itself but our attempt to understand God’s truth, purposes and way of action in Creation and our required response thereto. Theology is humankinds’s study, not God’s revelation. I don’t consider God’s truth relative, but theology I do.


cseminarian 09.20.06 at 5:03 am

“Many conservatives may consider that they accept God’s ultimate authority and that liberals don’t”

Actually that isn’t what I said. What I said (or at least tried to say) was that conservatives view the establishment of normative behavior as having come from specific moments in history, corroborated with acts of God. What liberals think is that God is equally authoritative in individuals going along through history as any other time. Go back and read what I said, because I think you will find that my definition agrees with yours closer than you think. You simply disagree on an editorial comment I inserted :)

“Nevertheless, I hold the early church “fathers” in such esteem as to tremble if I find myself coming to a different conclusion.”

I find this a respectable viewpoint, and is very close to what I myself hold. Having the “apostolic deposit” doesn’t guarantee 100000% accuracy, but it does guarantee that they are 100000000000x more accurate than I could ever be in my disagreements with them.


cseminarian 09.20.06 at 6:00 am

John –

I just noticed this. Are you trying to argue that Asbury is a _liberal_ seminary? They may be middle-of-the-road, but I’ve always been told by many that Asbury is conservative. Perhaps it just depends on who you’re comparing it to….

I guess I haven’t been engaged in theological blogging long enough to tell if you’re serious or joking.


Joel 09.20.06 at 7:09 am


This is what you wrote:

“The difference is that in the conservative view, God has the ultimate authority, and we are obedient to His actions. In the liberal view, man is the ultimate authority, even on theological issues.”

I think a fair reading of your statement is that liberals don’t accept God’s authority. I don’t agree with that because if man has ultimate authority, then God isn’t sovereign and thus really has no authority. God cannot share authority with humans. The difference perhaps, is simply how we arrive at what God’s authority is.


John 09.20.06 at 10:19 pm

I’m sort of joking. I’m theologically conservative and fit into Asbury’s theology okay. But some of the ideas that I hear advocated, particularly on gender, is disconcerting.


Jerad 09.22.06 at 7:39 pm

Joel, points to you for struggling to clarify terms. You are right in noting that what is understood by “liberal” contrasts sufficiently from person to person to drive wedges into the body of Christ. At Wesley Seminary we understood a liberal theologian to have a high view of humankind’s ability to cooperate with God’s plan, possess a postmillenial eschatology and be accepting of science and other forms of scriptural criticism among a host of other things. Many of your articulated characteristics parallel these traits. Yet culturally the term liberal is hurled as an invective because millions of dollars have been channeled into making it an evil word. These negative mainstream cultural connotations have been adopted indiscriminately by many in the religious blogosphere.

Thank you for trying to shed some light on the subject.


Neil 09.22.06 at 10:23 pm

Thanks for tackling a tough subject and acknowledging the impossibility of pleasing all sides.

What is liberal theology? From personal experience (the liberal theologians I have met, who go to my church, who blog, whom I have read, etc.) I believe it is a theology that denies that Jesus is the only way to salvation, often denies the deity of Christ, always discounts Scripture, usually denies miracles, etc.

Think of the Jesus Seminar plus people somewhat to the right of them. At best they are Dalmatian Theologians, i.e., they think the Bible is inspired and inerrant in spots and they are inspired to spot the spots (though they never can explain their criteria for which spots are right, other than that they appear to like those spots).

It was interesting to note that parts of your list could easily be applied to conservatives.


Neil 09.22.06 at 10:28 pm

P.S. Liberal theologians nearly always support abortion on demand. And while not as many liberal theologians are pacifists, all of the pacifist liberals I know are pro-abortion. If “pro-abortion pacifist” isn’t the oxymoron of the century I don’t know what is.


Joel 09.23.06 at 3:15 pm


Wesley Seminary in D.C.? That’s where I received my MDiv. Thanks for your input. “Cooperation with God’s plan, no cheap grace.” That might be my motto if I were nominated for Bishop. ;-)


I understand where you are coming from. However, one needs to be careful about drawing conclusions too easily. When I was growing up, most theological conservatives seemed to support segregation, the Vietnam war, limitations on women’s access to the work place, and limitations or bans on women’s leadership in the church. However, I am able to see conservative theogy today in a wider context.

Both liberal and conservative are needed. Too much liberal and we are “God”; too much conservative and we know much of the Bible, and little of God.

My most basic definition of liberal theology is “faith wed to reason” in response to God’s grace and God’s wisdom.


RevKev33 09.24.06 at 12:57 am

Greetings all. I am enjoying this conversation. I must confess that the list of 22 characteristics made me wonder “Am I a liberal?!” (A very scary question for an alumnus of Asbury Theological Seminary).

I am a recovering fundementalist, right-wing nut. Asbury does have a rep for being “conservative,” which is why I chose to go there. However, I would say the “middle of the road” description is a fairer assesment (okay they do lean to the “right,” but we never were encouraged to run from liberals or anything.) Brian McClaren even preached at the chapel in recent years!

Anyway, I am in agreement with the underlying sentiment that I find resonating in this thread that labels are meaningless. My desire is to be part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for unity in His body. To that end I read all over the theological spectrum and, to quote Bruce Lee, “Absorb what is useful.”

Grace & PEace,


Neil 09.24.06 at 2:28 pm

Hi Joel - thanks for the comments. I have nothing against reason, by the way, so we could share the “faith wed to reason” phrase!

Re. the issues you mentioned that theological conservatives held: None of those result in 20,000 humans being crushed and dismembered (without anesthetic) each week in the U.S. alone.

Still, I think the bigger and more clear cut issues are the essentials of the faith. For example, if any preacher, anywhere, doesn’t have the knowledge or guts to explain why Jesus is the only way, he/she should be fired that day. I’m not saying you are in that category, just that when I come across a theological liberal they typically hold that position.

There are 100 clear passages in the New Testament claiming Jesus is the only way. That doesn’t prove that it is true (we have other evidence to support the validity of the NT), but it does prove that anyone claiming to be a Christian should hold that view.


Joel 09.25.06 at 10:50 am


I believe that Jesus “is the way, the truth and the life” and that salvation is through him. However, I’m reluctant to place limits on how God’s saving grace is mediated through him. I believe that some conservative Christians spread the ashes of Golgotha rather than the triumph over the grave.

Again, the dangers of extreme liberalism include “cheap grace” and failing to distingish between God’s sovereign delegation and human attempts to be God-like as opposed to acting by grace consistent with being created in the image of God. The dangers of extreme conservatism include acting as God’s judge and executioner in repudiation of God’s call to humble discipleship; in other words, instead of “cheap grace” a grace defined not by Christ’s emphasis on “love of neighbor” but on the worst instincts of “pharisaical” reasoning.

In my ministry, I have discouraged abortion with the same commitment as my opposition to most war.

Thanks much for your comment. Your input is greatly appreciated.


DH 09.25.06 at 4:02 pm

“However, I’m reluctant to place limits on how God’s saving grace is mediated through him.” No one is placing limits on how God’s Grace is mediated when God mentions directly how it is mediated. If God mentions through His Word the mediation and we quote the mediation then it isn’t us but Godthat states the mediation. Therefore it isn’t Pharisaical reasoning but clear understanding from God through His Word. To compare this to the Pharisees who rejected Jesus as God with this seems to be a straw man but for the sake of argument I mentioned the statements previously.


DH 09.25.06 at 4:06 pm

No oneisn’t saying we shouldn’t “love our neighbor” but is some love actually loveat all? If we see a child about to place their hand on a hot plate anybody would try to prevent the child from placing their hand on the plate or if a person is standing in front of an open road about to behit bya car anyone would try to push the person away and thus save their life. However, I understand that people don’t operate with this attitude and some times people are actually on the sidewalk as opposed to the street. That is why we must decern who is on the sidewalk and who is in the street when approached with these situations. If you get my drift with the analogies.


Neil 09.25.06 at 11:33 pm

Hi Joel - I second DH’s comments, but I do appreciate your tone and perspective. My guess is that our theological circles overlap quite a bit. Based on what I’ve seen you write my first reaction would not have been to shout, “Eek! A liberal!” (Not sure if you’ll view that as good or bad :-) )


Joel 09.26.06 at 4:37 am


Perhaps I’m a liberal by process of elimination. We’ve all taken multiple choice tests where all the options seem wrong or partially wrong, so we pick the one that seems least wrong. I believe that is what I’ve done. What I have to be careful of is not to let my theology be a block to further illumination of God’s revelation.


Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your perspective, but significantly disagree. I see salvation as through Jesus Christ but also a certain mystery in his transforming and saving grace. I believe that mystery transcends the human ideas of both exclusivism and univeralism. The atonement is a mystery, not a formula.


“Unity in his body” would be the most effective witness Christians could make.


DH 09.26.06 at 4:05 pm

The Bible doesn’t explain it as a mystery except it being a mystery as to why God would love us enough to be willing to die as a perfect Sacrifice to make atonement available “to all who will Believe” in the first place. The question then remains will all Believe and the Bible never says all will Believe in fact it states the opposite. Jesus mentions “If you deny Me I will deny you before My Father in heaven.” and “….they are condemned already.” (referring to those who have rejected Jesus). Atonement is neither a mystery nor a formula. It isn’t a mystery because God’s Word is clear how Salvation is obtained. It is also not a formula in that it is by one heart that one Believes not as a formula where ones head alone “figures it out”.

How can it be mystery alone when God’s Word states plainly how Salvation is obtained?


Joel 09.27.06 at 2:43 am


In the Eucharist celebrated in United Methodism and Catholicism as well as other traditions, we proclaim “Mysterium fidei” or the mystery of faith. We recognize the power of God’s grace, acknowledge the need for repentance and faith, yet we do not claim to entirely know the “how” because there are doctrines that defy humans’ full ability to grasp.

I respect that you see it otherwise.


DH 09.27.06 at 3:46 pm

I think my understanding of mystery is one of why God would do this as opposed to mystery as we don’t understand how Salvation is obtained when it is mentioned clearly. I guess themystery to me is more of why people would reject something so clearly wonderful than one of questioning God when Jesus’s response to Thomas was one “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet Believe.”

I want to restate something that will help you understand my position better “It is also not a formula in that it is by one heart that one Believes not as a formula where ones head alone “figures it out”. one the other end it is so simple it is hard in that “It isn’t a mystery because God’s Word is clear how Salvation is obtained.”

This is a little different than those who are more extreme than myself. Please don’t project that onto my position even though Salvation is clear in God’s Word for the heart conversion is one of great importance but that heart conversion isclearly definied in God’s Word. The heart choice to accept is a difficult one for many unbelievers.


DH 09.27.06 at 3:52 pm

When the Bible says “If you confess with your mouth the LJ and Believe in your heart that God has risen from the dead you shall be saved.” I don’t see how this can be a mystery (except why God would make this available to us in the first place beyond His love for us.) when the Bible spells it out clearly how one must give their heart and mind to Christ. This requires Beliving things by Faith and aheart change byFaith in equal conjunction.
How beyond humans grasp when all it says is to confess with heart and mind? Explain this doesn’t make sense to me.


Dave Williams 10.27.06 at 10:41 pm

Plenty of food for thought there but not sure whether it really gets to the root of the issue. You could end up with the same problem as for evangelicalism -so many factors that if we are not careful then we find that we “are all liberals now!” Again I’d want to stop at each point and say “What did you mean by that.”

I must admit I tend to run with a more simple question which is what is your direction of focus

There are people who observe the world and then say that the Bible must change in response to science, the social sciences, etc
Then there are people who say that our understanding of the world and therefore what social sciences, natural sciences etc say must change in response to what the Bible says.


Pam 10.28.06 at 7:43 am

There are people who observe the world and then say that the Bible must change in response to science, the social sciences, etc
Then there are people who say that our understanding of the world and therefore what social sciences, natural sciences etc say must change in response to what the Bible says.

I’d want to add a third category of approach. Those who believe that the bible could neither have been written without a cultural lens, nor can it be read without a cultural lens, but that the world must nonetheless change in response to what the Bible says.


rafe 01.10.10 at 5:11 pm

I just went home from seminar about liberal theology. So I google to see more input.
One thing does shock me the most is if liberal theologians believe in God at all, that they deny supernatural events in the Bible?
It’s done injury to their own logical reasoning, how can God be God if He doesn’t have the power, or not allowed to intervene natural law?
If you don’t believe miracles you might as well believe there was no God. And I understand that some liberal theologians refer God as just a concept, not true living God.
And if you’re not believe the whole bible you aren’t Christian. It’s totally different faith from we understand as apostolic faith.


Alison Irving 07.12.11 at 9:15 am

Thank you for this article. Incredibly helpful.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>