I’ve read several books so far this summer. I can’t write a review of all of them. However, because of its direct relevance to issues I often discuss on this blog, I want to share my thoughts on Roger Olson, Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity (Zondervan, 2022). Olson has written a very good book with a simple argument whose relevance will be immediately apparent even to casual observers of American Christianity. The book contains 174 pages printed in larger than average type. It is divided into eight chapters and an introduction. Olson writes in a non-technical style readable by a wide audience, though even those educated in theology can benefit from reading it. It is apparent that Olson works hard to present the ideas of liberal theologians accurately and assess their merit fairly.
As the title indicates, the book criticizes liberal theology and issues a warning to “progressive” Christians. The argument of the book is designed to achieve two goals: (1) to demonstrate that liberal Christianity is not Christianity at all, or at least it that is not biblical, classical, orthodox Christianity. It is a “heresy,” “counterfeit,” “a false gospel, apostasy” (p. 14); (2) to convince progressive Christians not to slide into liberal theology. Progressive Christianity is on a downhill trajectory toward liberal Christianity. Hence those progressive Christians who wish to remain truly Christian need to understand that there is a stable middle ground between a cult-like fundamentalism and full-blown liberalism. Olson urges them to take this path (p. 174).
The introduction and each chapter of the book contributes a different piece of evidence that supports Olson’s conclusion that liberal Christianity is not Christianity but “an alternative religion to true Christianity” (p. 33). In this section I will summarize briefly the essential argument of each chapter.
A standard definition of liberal Christianity is “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity in Christian thinking about doctrines” (p. 6; quoting Welch). Christian doctrines are adjusted or rejected to conform to modern science and progressive morality. If this definition seems rather abstract, it is because liberalism finds it easier to specify what it does not believe than what it believes. Orthodox Christianity submits to a fixed canon whereas liberal Christianity adjusts to the ever-changing spirit of the age.
Chapter One, “The Liberal Tradition and its Theology.”
The story of liberal Christianity begins with the German theologian and preacher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher rejected a Christianity whose content and truth are rooted in external authority. Everything supernatural must be reinterpreted as natural and rooted in human experience. He reframed Christian doctrines as articulations of the human experience of dependency, a kind of mystical experience of our contingency and the reliability of a mysterious ground of our being. Other liberal theologians followed Schleiermacher’s lead in retaining Christian language and churchly practice but changing its inner meaning and the ground of our knowledge of its content and truth. Many liberals following in Schleiermacher’s wake, however, shifted from mystical to moral experience as the source and meaning of doctrine. None returned to the “external” authorities of scripture, tradition, or the church as the source and norms of Christian truth. Christian truth in all forms of liberal theology comes from within the human self. According to Olson, Douglas Ottati in his book A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Eerdmans, 2020), though compensating for changes in science, culture, politics, and morality, reinterprets Christian doctrines in much the same way as Schleiermacher did 200 years earlier.
Chapter Two, “Liberal Theology’s Sources and Norms”
As I indicated above, liberal Christianity refuses to allow scripture and tradition to trump reason and human experience as sources and norms for Christian belief and practice. Whether it is the private or the social self, humanity is the measure of all things.
Chapter Three, “Liberal Theology and the Bible.”
For Liberal Christianity, the Bible is not authoritative in any way that would require us to trust it as telling the truth about God or God’s historical interaction with humanity. Its stories may “form” us but they do not “norm” us (p. 63, quoting Delwin Brown). Not to put too fine a point on it, we can accept the Bible when we agree with what it says and reject it when we do not. It’s not too early to ask a question: if scripture and tradition do not tell us anything we cannot learn from our own experience and we can reject anything that does not resonate with our experience, why read it and why preach it at all?
Chapter Four, “God According to Liberal Theology.”
Liberal theology rejects the traditional doctrine of God as omnipotent, independent, omniscient, and transcendent. It rejects miracles and the distinction between nature and the supernatural. But liberals do not want to move to deism or atheism. According to Olson, they opt for a “third way,” which he calls “panentheism.” Panentheism considers God and the world to be one eternal, ever-evolving reality. God depends on nature and nature depends on God. As some liberals put it, the world is God’s “body.” Olson quotes liberal theologian Donald Miller who explains, “God is synonymous with the search for human wholeness, for confidence in the ultimate meaningfulness of human existence” (p. 87). It seems that Miller here identifies God with a deep dimension of human consciousness. Peter Hodgson avers that “God actualizes godself in and through the world” (quoted on p. 88). As is clear from these two statements there is much diversity among liberal theologians in their affirmative statements. As I said earlier, it is easier for liberalism to tell you what it does not believe than what it believes.
Chapter Five, “Jesus Christ in Liberal Theology.”
For liberal Christianity, Jesus is a religious human being who “saves” us by setting a powerful example of ideal humanity. Jesus is not the incarnate Son of God. He did not die for our sins; nor did God raise him from the dead. And yet liberals keep talking about incarnation, resurrection, and salvation. Donald Miller says the quiet part out loud when he admits, “I presently feel comfortable reciting the creed without editing it or feeling a pang of conscience if I affirm something I do not literally believe” (quoted on p. 109). We might want to ask Miller this question: if you don’t believe it “literally,” why say it at all? Perhaps you’ve worked it out with your own “conscience,” but what about the people listening to you who are deceived into thinking that you are one of them? Olson cites Miller’s confession “as an example of how slippery liberal Christians can be” (p. 109). In brief, for liberal theology, Jesus is either an example or a symbol but not the Lord and Son of God of the New Testament or of the creeds. Reliance on symbols rather than historical reality frees liberals from having to defend the facts of the gospel and supposedly makes Christian faith a matter of inner certainty not subject to refutation by historical research. But it also transforms it into a myth whose truth lies not in the storyline taken literally but in the longings the story evokes in the listener.
To be continued…
Wow! I see no Holy Spirit mentioned in the transcript. My first thought is they do not have the Holy Spirit in their heart. What I see in their statements they have never made a covenant with Jesus and received the Holy Spirit. Liberal Christianity does not believe in the Holy Spirit. Much like the German so called theologian. AS you know there is only one verse in scripture that teaches how to receive the gift the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38. The men writing those so-called theology books for sure are not led by the Holy Spirit of God. So very sad for them. Without the Spirit of God within they will never make it to heaven. God only judges a Spirit person at death. They have made their own judgment according to scripture.
High level, liberal academic theologians write very obscurely. But their influence “trickles down” through their students. Some of them talk about the Spirit, but you have to read what they say with care to be sure they mean the same Spirit that is spoken of in the New Testament. One liberal theologian Peter Hodgson wrote a book with the title Winds of the Spirit. He gets the title from John 3, but I doubt that he has the same Spirit in mind. Jesus says there that we must be “born again.” I don’t think Hodgson agrees.