How to recognise liberal theology…

Finally after going through that essay that I blogged about recently I thought it would be good to share five pivotal points on how to recognise liberal theology:

1. Liberals believe doctrine needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought.
2. Liberals emphasize the need to reconstruct traditional beliefs and reject the authority of tradition
and church hierarchy.
3. Liberals focus on the practical and ethical dimensions of Christianity.
4. Liberals seek to base theology on something other than the absolute authority of the Bible.
5. Liberals drift toward divine immanence at the expense of transcendence

McLaren fits each of these points like a glove. H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous description of liberalism has not lost its relevance: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.”

In McLarenism there is no original sin, no wrath, no hell, no creation-fallredemption, no definite future, no second coming that I can see, no clear statement on the deity of Christ, no mention of vicarious substitution or God’s holiness or divine sovereignty, no ethical demands except as they relate to being kind to others, no God-offendedness, no doctrine of justification, no unchanging apostolic deposit of truth, no absolute submission to the word of God, nary a mention of faith and worship, no doctrine of regeneration, no evangelistic impulse to save the lost, and nothing about God’s passion for his glory. This is surely a lot to leave out.
McLaren’s Christianity is not new and certainly not improved. I don’t believe you can even call it Christianity. It is liberalism dressed up for the 21st century. We can only hope this wave of liberalism fades as dramatically as did the last.


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8 thoughts on “How to recognise liberal theology…

  1. Vee,

    I’m an evangelical and have no time for liberal theology. However, your first three points are not ones which any thinking Christian can dismiss as “liberal”. Let me elaborate:

    Point 1 – contemporary thought. It’s worth remembering that our understanding of both the Bible and the world has increased greatly over the years. We often have to bring the two together. Once upon a time, people concluded that the Bible says the earth is at the centre of the universe. No-one believes that any more! There are numerous subjects, including ones which are purely theological, where the christian viewpoint has changed dramatically over the years.

    Point 2 – rejection of tradition. Jesus himself famously condemned traditions that detract from the word of God. Traditions are just that – traditions, not divinely sanctioned commandments. And many traditions do not go back to the Biblical era, so why the big fuss? Surely this point also contradicts point 4 (biblical authority)?

    Point 3 – practical applications. Some of the strongest condemnation in both old and new testaments is directed at those whose complied with all the rules of the faith, but who oppressed the poor, for example. Slavery was once sanctioned by the church – were those Christians who fought to abolish it “liberals”? James 2:20 is an often-overlooked verse.

    Basically, we need to stop seeing things as black and white when in reality there are shades of grey. Complex theological issues and matters of faith cannot and must not be reduced to a an over-simplified list of bullet points. To do so is intellectually disastrous and does not advance the evangelical cause.


  2. Point 1: doctrine needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought. Today’s contemporary thought is post-modernism, which pretty much denies absolute truths. I would like to know how the reconcile the words of Jesus being the truth yet no truth can be known absolutely? I would also like to know how to reconcile post-modernism with no truths and the Spirit of Truth who is suppose to guide us into all truth which of course is Jesus?

    The most common Old Testament word for truth is emet and its cognate emunah. Both words are derived from aman (cf. English “amen”), which in its basic stem means “to confirm, support, or uphold.” The basic root is firmness or certainty. The noun emet (the most common form of the root aman) most commonly denotes speaking the truth as opposed to falsity or falsehood.

    It seems to me that even Pilate was a post-modern ahead of his time when he asked Jesus ‘What is truth?’
    An historical, grammatical hermeneutical method of interpretation is a method that I adhere too.

    by Revd Dr Colin Warner


  3. I like the bullet list… we’ve discovered a lot about this topic and for me it helped to have it summarized. Even Calvinism and Arminianism, though complex is summarized using 5 points 🙂 Thanks Vee!


  4. Peter, concerning point 2 I think Vee is defending historic orthodoxy (sometimes referred to as tradition), rather than traditions understood in terms of ritual and practice (which seems to be your definition). If so, she is spot on highlighting how the rejection of historical orthodoxy/tradition is a defining feature of liberal theology.

    Concerning point 1, repackaging the message is fine, indeed much needed. But redefining it is certainly not a feature of historic orthodoxy so much as relativist postmodernism. In short, recontextualisation versus redefinition.

    I agree totally with your last paragraph about not seeing everything in black and white. But taken too far this goes against the very essence of Evangelicalism and also “does not advance the evangelical cause”. Evangelicals indeed must be thoughtful and nuanced, but by the same token relativism and Evangelicalism are antithetical.


    • Calvin, I’m not sure I’m even remotely qualified to discuss this with an academic like yourself. But in my comments on point 2 I was thinking of all sorts of traditions – doctrinal as well as practical. As an example, I’m quite interested in the New Perspective on Paul. But this questions the “traditional” reading of Paul (which as I understand it was developed by Luther) and hence advocates of the NPP are sometimes pejoratively labelled as liberals, which I feel is frequently unwarranted. I think I agree with you on point 1 – recontextualisation as opposed to redefinition.

      I also agree that we need to strike a balance, and I’m not sure the correct point has been arrived at yet. Perhaps it’s valid to say that evangelical christendom is still working out how to recontextualise to a postmodern world.


  5. Peter, NPP is fine to a degree and I, for one, believe reading Paul in his original Sitz im Leben, rather than understanding his writings purely from the vantage point of Luther or Calvin, is not only to be applauded, it is absolutely essential. I fully understand your interest in NPP which, in and by itself is not heterodoxy.

    Yet I would qualify this by highlighting different positions within NPP, better New Perspectives (pl.)of Paul. Too often the debate moves beyond Paul’ Torah/Mosaic Judaism Sitz im Leben to a “Paul as product of Rabbinic Judaism” Sitz im Leben. Actually, the man Paul must be understood within a 1st c. Jewish-Christian rather than a strictly 1st c. Jewish-Rabbinic context, otherwise we see redefinitions of redemption/sin/salvation etc which quite clearly move beyond orthodoxy to heterodoxy (or close to it). A notable example, of course, is Steve Chalk rejecting penal substitution on the grounds it constitutes “cosmic child abuse”. Granted, Chalk is not a theologian, but here NPP driven thought resulted in a clear example of heterodoxy.

    I agree totally with your last comment, and I think the context is important here. I think Vee is orimarily concerned with suggesting McLaren has moved beyond recontextualisation to redefinition, orthodoxy to heterodoxy. I note various well-known scholars make similar judgments, that McLaren’s theology as unduly postmodern and relativist.


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