What is Liberal Theology?

Intoduction and Overview

Most Christians have a juandiced view of liberal theology; for most Evangelicals, the term "liberal theology" conjures up images of the Jesus Seminar, Bishop Sprong assaulting the truth of Holly Scripture, questions about Jesus' exisetence, and the foamenation of dobut and unbleief.Liberal theology has had a long tradition that very much pre-dates the Jesus seminar. The liberal tradition in Christinaity is actually called "the liberal reivisionary tradition" and it streches back to a certain brand of Orhtodoxy that was far more the majority than was the Evangleical movmenet just after the enlightenment. In this series I will breiefly examine the history of liberal theology, and overview a few of my favorite "liberal" theologians.

A fine definition, perhaps the best I've seen, is given my my friend who calls him "Urbild" (Logos in German) on my Doxa Message board. Urblid is a doctoral student in Theology at a major liberal seminary, and this was in the "Theology/Bible" section;Posted 03/06/2005 08:27:34 (03/06/2005 03:27:34 PM)

The difference between conservatives and liberals is rooted in two fundamentally different methods of doing theology. The conservative tradition is authoritarian in method. The liberal theological tradition, by contrast, adopts a method in which truth claims are subjected to experience and reason.

Conservative theology begins with the assumption of some divine revelation. This revelation is held to be immune from rational critique, vouchsafed by the testimony of miracles, understood as supernatural intervention. If there is any kind of evaluation of religious beliefs, the evaluation will be governed under norms derived from the tradition. "X is true because the Bible or the church says so."

The liberal theological tradition assumes that Christian stories and belief systems can claim no exemption by virtue of unique origin. No truth claim is immune to criticism. The liberal theologian is not merely responsible to an internal criterion of a particular religious tradition, but is also responsible to the same kind of criteria and debate that guides other fields of knowledge. In other words, theological statements must conform to publicly defensible and revisable canons of investigation and validation. The liberal will humbly concede that this method is fallible, while acknowledging that only God can claim the realization of total knowledge.

Liberal theology is often mistakenly defined as simply a challenge to orthodox belief. On the contrary, liberal theology seeks continuity with the dogmatic tradition. A theologically liberal Christian will attempt to develop all of the possibilities that a particular doctrine has to offer, while recognizing that any doctrine may finally be exhausted. The church's doctrines are respected for what they can teach us, but they are not treated as a set of immutable truths. As in the conservative theological tradition, doctrines will receive a great diversity of interpretation. But this diversity is welcomed, not shunned, as the liberal understands that the cohesiveness of a religious community is not based on agreement, but on the mutual enrichment acquired from encountering differing points of view

We could add to this defition that in the modern era, especially since Baultmann, the impitus of liberal theology is not so much to subject the Bible to reason, as to translate the Gospel into terms meaningful to contemporary society. Be that as it may, I'll get back to that shortly.Liberal theology is most often thought of as a counter to "othrodoxy," but for most of its history the liberal view was more in line with Orhtodoxy and the Evangelicals and their forruners were on the lunatic friege. Three major movements that preceeded the Evangelical; the Prutians (sixteenth century England), the Pietists (seventeeth century Germany) and the Evangelicals (ninteeth century England and America), all were kept at bay by the mainline orthodoxy which controled the major denomenations, and all three were radical movments that sought o restore a bogus ancient flavor to Christianity whil moving away from the liberals who had come to control the Orthodox centers.

The dichotomy between reason and faith in religion goes very far back in Christian origins. In Early modern times it emerges as rationalism vs. volunterism, but it can be found in the middle ages between Scholastics and nominalists. We should not be at all suprprized to find the Enlightement as a major source of liberal theology, and so it was. Nevertheless, there are other sources that even preceed the enlightenment. Since a major motivational force for liberal theology has been ratianlism, many antecendents from the Reformation and sketpical crisis in Euruope can be found, thus pre dating the enlightenement. The same antecendents which pushed the Enlightenment also forged the impitus for liberal theology.

Reformation Anteceedents:

In The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries an epistemologicalparadigm shift occurred in English thought that left in ruins the scholastic ontology of the supernatural. The transcendent realm of God was cut off from human concern, the immanent ealm of nature became the source of epistemic authority. Moreover, the new paradigm became the watershed of enlightenment thought and scientific hegemony over the “big Scientific Revolution.” (Kuhn, 90). The paradigm shift was really the culmination of a long process beginning with the discovery of the new world, the rise of the new science, the reformation, and the skeptical crisis in 16th century Europe, and finally, the foundationalist project of Descarrtes, Newton, and Byole. It was this culmination of the development in the works of Newton and Boyle, and their reception by the social elite that marks the paradigm shift, and conditions thinking for latter enlightenment anti-clericalism. In trying to create political space for their foundational project, Newton and Boyle, together with their latitudinarian allies created a vacuum in epistemic authority that was filled by a turn from divine revelation to the “book of nature,” and in so doing conditioned future anti-clerical attitudes.

The Christian ontology of the supernatural, the medieval synthesis, bound together the realms of nature and that of grace in a two sided unity; grace exhaulted nature raised it to a higher level, nature illustrated grace analogically. This ontological structure offered social stability through a sacramental system that ordered society according to means and ends in relation to their ultimate ends. Civil authority was part of this sacramental system. Nature was understood as an expression of grace, of the supernatuarl. Thus the supernatural was the ground and end of the natural. Human nature derived meaning from its relation to the higher realm, and all knowledge of the natural world was a marker which pointed to a higher aspect of reality, (Fairweather, p.237). In the late 12th century all of this began to change, as technological advancement and economic need brought about a greater interest in how things on earth worked rather than the ultimate concerns that marked their reasons for being. The real movement away from grace and toward nature as an epistemic source, however, came in the early 15th century with two events, the discovery of the new world, and the Protestant reformation.

Martin Luther began the long process that led to the foundationalist project. When Luther nailed the 95 thesis to the door of the church at Whittenberg (1517) , there were already forces at work pulling thinkers toward an interest in nature, and away form interest in divine revelation. The “discovery” of the “new world,” and Kepler’s discoveries in astronomy were chief among these forces; Amerigo Vespucci’s letters created so much excitement about a whole new realm beyond European knowledge that the new continent was named after Vespucci even though he did very little exploring. Vespucci also created excitement about both elemental nature and human nature in his description of a whole race of people with no knowledge of the Bible or of European society, but drew their understanding of life totally form their contact with nature itself (Popkin, Philosophy… p.4). Nevertheless, it was really Luther who started the actual turn to nature as the source of epistemic authority. Luther began his crusade to refor the church like so many other reformers before him, appealing to the authority of the church in combating ecclesiastical abuses. None of he 95 theses on the Whittenberg door challenged the nature of church authority. He soon found, however, that there were too many authorities in contradiction with on another. He could not privilege his sources above those of his opponents. Why should his councils, popes, and saints be any better than the councils, popes, and saints which were quoted against him?

In 1519, at the Leipzig Disputation, an din his work on the Babylonish Captivity of The Church (1520), Luther went to far as to deny the rule of faith; he critically attacked the criteria of authority itself. He narrowed the filed to just one authority: sola scripture. Scripture alone had epistemic privilege. “It was in this period (1519-20) that he developed from just one more reformer attacking the abuses and corruption of a decaying bureaucracy into the leader of an intellectual revolt that was to shake the very foundations of Western civilization” (Ibid.). The solution backfired, however, and the problem of many authorities resurfaced in a new form. “Scripture alone” still had to be intepreted. Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of the believer made each believer an authority in her own right. Now, the problem was multiplied by as many times as there were believers who could read.

The problem of many authorities intensified with Calvin. “John Calvin, who led his own challenge to authority in the 1520s, made the reformation’s claim to certainty still more explicit,…the faithful are illuminated through the activity of the Holy Spirit” (Stout, p.43). Failure to agree on this point was taken by Calvin’s followers as a sign that the opponent was just not intended to understand (not of the elect). Sebastian castellio of Basel, himself a reformer, developed a skeptical attitude toward certainty. He saw this appeal to inner persuasion, not as a sign of the self-authenticating nature of faith, but as a sign of uncertainty. The heretic Miguel Servetus had been burned for his anti-Trinitairan views. What of Servetus’ inner persuasion, Castellio reasoned, “who is so demented that he would die for denial of the obvious?” (Stout, p.44). Opinions within the reformation began to fragment. Luther, Calivin, Zwingli, and on the “radical wing,” Minos Simmons, all had major doctrinal differences which they back up with scripture. The reformation opened the door to the problem of many authorities, but another religious movement, Christian humanism, opened the door to the anti-foundationalist project.

Renaissance Anteceedents:

The rise of the Protestant reformation coincided with the rise of Desiderius Erasmus’ humanist project. Erasmus was the principle force behind the humanism of the northern renaissance. He produced hi own edition of the Greek text of the New Testament. These texts “…revealed in most shocking fashion the perspectives that could be opened up by abandoning the entire scholastic way of understanding and replacing it by pious human study” (Popkin, Philosophy, p.3). Erasmus hated scholasticim and sought a model of faith based on the simplicity of the New Testament (Ibid.). Moreover, thorugh his scholarly research, he showed that the crucial Trinitarian formulation in the Vulgate version of John’s Gospel was no found in the oldest manuscript. “Erasmus ridiculed the whole intellectual and moral world built up to support Christendom. His inordinately popular and influential work, In Praise of Folly…was like the Emperor’s New Clothes (Ibid.). Both Erasmus and Luther became popular voices of the rebellion agaisnt the established order, hence the saying, “Erasmus laid the egg thtaLuther hatched” (Popkin, p.4). Each of the trends that Erasmus started played into the 18th century and became crucial in the paradigm shift (from divine revelation to nature and scientific authority). His major contribution to that process, however, came through his interest in ancient learning, which helped spark the re-discovery of Greek skepticism, a decisive move in the rise of anti-foundationalism (Ibid.). Erasmus was so influential that Luther sought to enlist his aid in the cause of the reformation, but soon discovered that Eramus was not willing ot abandon the Catholic Church (Donner, p.554). Erasmus argued against Luther that scripture does nt interpret itself. Faith must fall short of certainty. Humans should give up the quest for certainty and rest content with “simple faith” (Stout, p.43). This turn marks the opening salvos of the foundationalist/anti-foundationalist battle.

Between Reformation and Enlighement, Skeptical Crisis in Europe:

The major move toward anti-foundationalism, however, was the rediscovery of ancient Greek skepticism. The writings of Sextus Empiricus appeared in Latin translations (1562-1569). These writings reinforced “skeptical, anti-intellectual, and fideistic tendencies of the 16th century, those writers who questioned the merits of any of the new theories and instead insisted that ultimate knowledge cannot be gained expect by faith” (Popkin, p.9). Gentian Hervet, secretary to the Cardinal of Lorraine, and himself a leading counter reformation figure edited a 1569 edition of Sextus. Hervet saw that Greek skcepticism could be turned against the Calvinists and used to bolster Catholic claims that knowledge could only be gained through faith in tradition (Ibid). During Descartes’ days as a student at La Fleche, the French Jesuits used Sextus’ arguments to fashion an ideology against the Protestants. Before the re-discovery of Sextus, ancinet skepticism of the ‘Academic’ ariety was used, it came through Cicero and argued that no certain knowledge is possible. After Sextus, however, there was a flood of skepticism (Choen, p.297).

Sextus was a minor figure in his day (2nd century AD). By the end of the 16th century, however, the counter reformation knew him as “the divine Sextus.” Sextus’ Pyrrhoist conter-dogmatic had so impressed the French humanist, Micelle Montaigne, that he produced a battery of writings expounding their principles in philosphy, theology and science. In each subject Montaigne argued that one should doubt any statement that goes beyond personal sense impressions. He also argued that the sheer multiplicity of philosophical doctrines indicated the unreliability of reason. Montaigne was aided in his crusade by his distant cousin Fransico Sanchez, and latter by Pierre Gasendi. Montaigne and his alllies argued that one should accept simple faith in God and the Catholic tradition, nature, and custom. Pierre Charron, Montaigne’s disciple, published On Wisdom (1603). This work was translated into English and “swept the intellectual world.” The views of Montaigne and Charron “[were]…read everywhere and became the prevailing view of the avant-garde intellectuals of the 17th century” (Popkin, p.10).

According to Popkin, “the skeptical crisis of the late 16th and early 17th centuries inspired ‘the quest for certainty.’”(Ibid). A host of new thinkers rose up, dedicated to the task of “finding new ways of finding the truth that would overcome alll dobut” (Popkin, p.11). Chief among these thinkers was Francis Bacon (1561-1629) (Ibid.). By the time of Bacon, new interest in renaissance naturalism, the new Biblical scholarship, humanism, alchemy and scientific experiment were dominate trends throughout much of Erope. In Bacon, interest in nature, and the search for foundations grounded in understanding of sense data combine to mark the rise of foundationalism. He set out to forge “…a total reconstruction of science, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations” (Bacon, p.4). Bacon’s method was to focus on nature itself, to gather as many facts as possible about nature. Babcock argues that the reaosn Bacon placed emphasis upon the observations of nature is because the “look” of nature had changed. Bacon wanted to “force the eye to look ‘to things themselves’” (p.12). From this point on, those who sought to solve the skeptical crisis of the 166th centuries no longer sought to do so thorugh appeal to inner conviction, or through the authority of scripture alone. More and More, they sought to build foundations through an understanding of nature and human perfection of the world around them.

Despite the turn to nature and science, the still unresolved problem of many authorityies continued to feed the skeptical crisis. The problem of many authorities had begun as a religious problem, it fed into the social crisis of Europe and affected much more than a tiny handful of thinkers at court. As Stout pints out, from roughly the last session of the council of Trent (1563) to the latter half of the next century, Europe was embroiled in religious wars. “But if the Protestant strategy of radical contraction [of authority] will not work, and if the traditional means can be used to assert authority but not ot justify it, we should not find it surprising that appeals to authoirty wer emore likely to heighten conflict than to resolve it” (p.46). With no standard of scientific proof to which disputants might turn for proof, appeal to authority remained the major means of resolving disputes.

There were two main types of proof available both remnants of scholasticism; opinio and scientia. These terms, rather than “knowledge,” were crucial elements in the vocabulary of the young Dscartes (Stout, p.37). Scientia is the standard of proof in mathematical demonstration, such as geometry, while opinio is probable rather than demonstrative. Today probability has come to mean a mathematical scientice so exact as to assure virtual certainty. In Descartes’ time, however, probability was not mathematical, but authoritative. That which was probable was not a mathematical proof, or argument, nor a matter of evidence, but “probablity is a matter of what the authorities approve.” (Stout, p.38). In the winter of 1628-29, Rene Descartes, already an accomplished mathematician, visited the home of the Papal nuncio in Paris. There he out-argued the invited speaker, an alchemist who advanced the fashionable, probabilistic skepticism in that day. This was not skepticism doubting religious belief, this was the kind Catholic pro-faith skepticism. Descartes insisted that what was needed was a new method to establish absolute certainty. Cardinal Beruile encouraged Descartes in the development of his system (Popkin, History…p.13). Descartes’ project of redical doubt was already the fasion. Having framed the problem in negative terms, the only solution which would suffice was an exacting standard of certainty, such as Scientia.

In Discourse on The Method, he determined to see as false all that was merely probable ( based on opinion). He vowed to accept only that which is certain and cannot be doubted.”This is the step of Descartes’ response to the skeptical crisis which, according to to such anti-foundationalists as Will, actually guarantees a skeptical result. For even the most sweeping forms of doubt arehere declared innocent until proven guilty, and implicitly skeptical standards of judgment have therefore been assumed from the start” (Stout, p.49). From this point Descartes goes on to fashion the Cogito, and to reason his way back out, from proof of his own existence, to proof of the world. Descartes believed that he had overcome all skepticism by carrying doubt beyond what any skeptic was willing to doubt, and then building his way back out to the world based upon a foundation that could not be doubted (Popkin, History, p13). This approach gained many followers, as well as imitators, throughout the 17th century; Melebranche and occastionalism, Leibniz, Spinoza, and the general school of thoguht known as “rationalism.” Descartes’ method was also greatly opposed by figures such as Hobbes and Gassendi.

Descartes took philosophy down the path of scientia, while at Port Royal the problem of many authorities took a turn in the direction of opinio. Pascal, influenced by the English thinkers Chillingwroth, combined his own notions of mathematical probability with new standards of internal evidence worked out at Port Royal. This, according to Stout, was the decisive move that places Descartes on the outdated side of the modern world. Descartes, and indeed all thinkers before him, worked out their solutions before the concepts of internal evidence and mathematical probability were available to them, (p.63). Mathematical probability, and internal evidence (internal consistency and contradiction) allowed Pascal to select from among authorities. Some authorities are better than others; they contradict themselves less often and are more consistent. Thus a new phase in the foundationalist project was born, rooted in the new science, and able to sort out one authority form another; this rendered authority less important than factual evidence but allowed it some measure of acceptance within the range of educated opinion, (Ibid., p.59).Philosophy had moved in the direction of scientific inductive procedures. The problem of many authorities does not end here, but it takes a radically different turn.

The question of many authorities had expanded into the struggle over foundations for certain knowledge. The Cartesians thought they had overcome all doubt, but their solutions were doubted. All the while modern science continued to work its way through socieity in fitful starts. Mature as an epistemic source had been merging with the foundationalist project scince Bacon. During the 17th century, the trends in science (the discovery of natural law), the drift away from interest in the transcendent (revelation), and the foundationalist project came together to create a new paradigm. That paradigm was resolved around nature and authority. Nature almost replaced revelation as divine authority and came to be seen as “the book of God,” (Ibid. p.79). Nature had been one source of epistemic authority since Thomas Aquinas’ notion of “natural religion.” The difference in the new situation was not the identification of nature with a “secular” or “atheistic” world-view; rather, for the first time, authoritative methods were being forged which enabled humanity to understand “facts” about nature. A mathematical standard of proof could be applied to observation about nature and produce factual results. The two problems of nature and authority had finally converged and the new paradigm won cultural hegemony. While this paradigm did not replace religion, it came to enjoy a kind of authority which religion would never again match in Western culture.

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The Religious A priori