Progressive Christians: Beware of Liberal Theology (Part Two)

Today’s post is part two of my review of Roger Olson’s new book Against Liberal Theology (Zondervan, 2022).

Chapter Six, “Liberal Theology and Salvation”

Liberal theology rejects the traditional doctrine that salvation comes to human beings through the atonement and resurrection accomplished in Jesus Christ. If Jesus’s death plays a part at all in the process of salvation, it is as a noble example of faithfulness to God. Jesus saves only by the continuing influence of his teaching and example. Salvation in Christ does not involve atonement for sin, supernatural transformation, a new heaven and a new earth, or the resurrection of the dead. For liberal Christianity, salvation is about psychological healing, moral improvement, liberation from oppression, and greater social justice in this life. Salvation is “a new principle of life implanted in the heart” (p. 130, quoting Washington Gladden). According to Gary Dorrien, “The liberal gospel is that the victory of spirit over nature may be won if men will appropriate the light and life which are mediated to them through the impact of the historical Jesus” (p. 128).

Chapter Seven, “The Future in Liberal Theology”

It is not an exaggeration to assert that liberal theology possesses no eschatology. Everything in liberal religion focuses on this life. All liberals agree that the resurrection of the dead, the Second Coming of Christ, the transformation of creation, the final judgment, and heaven and hell are at best symbols of an afterlife and at worse left over imagery from Jewish apocalyptic fantasy. If there is an afterlife at all, which many liberals deny, no one will be excluded. All will be saved. Olson quotes John Shelby Spong who entertains the possibility of an afterlife in which there is “some sense of eternity in which my being, differentiated and empowered by the power of love, is joined with the being of others who are at one with the Ground of all Being” (p. 158). As is the case with so many liberal assertions, what they say is not wholly false from a traditional viewpoint. But the claims they make are ungrounded in the historical events of the gospel and what they leave out is essential to the biblical, orthodox faith.

Chapter Eight, “The Crisis in Liberal Theology”

After the American Civil War, liberal Christianity steadily gained influence in mainline Protestant denominations—Disciples of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran—reaching its high point in the middle of the twentieth century. Since then it has declined precipitously. According to Olson, liberal theology “is frustratingly vague, shallow, limp, unhelpful in answering life’s ultimate questions. It is dying out except in certain mainline Protestant colleges, universities, and seminaries” (p. 174). Liberal theologian Donald Miller may have put his finger on the reason for the decline: “the Christian message [as preached by liberal churches] may become a mirror reflection of the spirit of the age” (quoted on p. 171). Liberal Christianity remains, however, attractive to some people wounded by their narrow, rigid, and dogmatic, fundamentalist upbringing. On their journey toward liberalism (or pure secularity) they move through a progressive stage but do not find it satisfying. Something drives them onward toward liberalism.

What then is “progressive Christianity,” and why does it serve as little more than a rest stop on the way from fundamentalism to liberalism? According to Olson, many on this journey find it [progressive Christianity] “fuzzy, unclear, mediocre, and on a trajectory toward liberal Christianity” (p. 173). Olson observes that,

“Progressive Christianity is not a tradition or a movement or even a real identity. It is simply a label used by many different individuals who do not want to be thought of as conservative and who are attracted to social-justice issues [LGBTQ+, racial justice, etc.], often to the neglect of evangelism, sound doctrine, and traditional Christian norms of belief and life” (p. 173).

In the book’s concluding paragraph, Olson urges progressive Christians to “beware of liberal Christianity, because it is not real Christianity at all. Look for and find a church, a seminary, whatever, that truly takes the Bible and orthodox doctrine seriously but is not cultic in its ethos, like most fundamentalist churches, seminaries, and other ultraconservative Christian organizations” (p. 174).


In Against Liberal Theology, Roger Olson argues that liberal Christianity is not authentic Christianity but another religion. I believe he develops and sustains this thesis admirably. But Olson also wanted to make a case for “putting the brakes on progressive Christianity.” I think the book is less successful in achieving this second aim, though not by any means a failure.  On the positive side, by reading about liberal theology in such detail and realizing that it is not true Christianity but a heresy, progressive Christians may become more self-aware of their drift and reassess their thinking in the way Olson recommends. However I think Olson’s case is weakened by the book’s lack of a detailed description of what makes a theological position “progressive.” Not every Christian who holds “progressive” views uses that label as a self-description. In the absence of a profile of the progressive stance how will individuals number themselves among the book’s target audience? Olson points to progressive Christianity’s diversity and lack of inner coherence. Perhaps this diversity provides an excuse for not attempting to describe progressive Christianity in greater detail. Nevertheless there must be a family resemblance or an inner principle that unites these diverse positions under the label “progressive.”*

Moreover, while Olson warns progressives against becoming liberal, he does not criticize progressive Christianity as such. At the end of the book I am left with several unanswered questions: Do progressive Christians need to rethink their progressivism? After all, it is in Olson’s words a “halfway house” to liberalism. Has progressive Christianity become “progressive” precisely because it has unknowingly adopted and internalized some of liberal theology’s original critical principles, specifically its view that affirming human freedom and dignity demands liberation from all forms of oppression, with such liberation defined as the right and power of self-creation and self-definition? Is there an internal logic at work driving progressive Christianity inevitably toward liberal theology? If so, wouldn’t “putting the brakes” on progressive Christianity require exposing and rooting out the progressive/liberal principle that drives it forward?

*Do a quick Google search for “progressive Christianity” and I think you will see that for many self-designated “Progressive Christian” groups you could substitute the word “liberal” for the word “progressive” without distortion. For example, see The eight points of Progressive Christianity listed on the website.

1 thought on “Progressive Christians: Beware of Liberal Theology (Part Two)

  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Ron.
    I’ve waited before responding again, and so do hope that i’m not too late for this one? There is such a lot to think about in your previous three installments! Fascinating. Thank you.

    ” – man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word of God.”

    In the last paragraph’s question(s) regarding the ‘rethinking of progressivism’ i’m compelled to recommend to you for ‘definitive answers’, a book by Prof Roger Scruton entitled ” The Uses of Pessimism (and the danger of false hope) Atlantic 2010.
    It matters not that it would better have been called ” absolutely no hope whatsoever” from a christian point of view. Yet this book still answers these issues within eight detailed chapters on fallacy, it’s guises and types, and it’s significant contemporary and historical ramifications. I’m not debating the late Scruton’s personal religious views, when this picture is so very much bigger than such sniping; we as confessing christians, should desire the absolute truth (see later), and be very very aware of liberals. On page 223 of this book, you will observe Scruton quite cogently, showing how (yes!) liberalism can encourage thoughts leading to social terrorism or worse.
    In my own opinon, it’s currently a “book for the decade-” and i’d gladly send you a copy if you’d like…
    Sadly, I can’t quote this superb (and tendentious) book without permission, but it’s acclaims are justifed. Yes, i would re-reason some parts of the last three chapters, but that’s not the issue for here; it answers far more questions than it poses, which is the antithesis of the book you mention. To me, Scruton was a ‘literary Einstein’ of this century.

    In such a vane. I return to your previous topic(s) of sound doctrine, Ron, and specifically Exodus 21:21-25. In the absence of any other contributor, i’d like to ( must) point out something critical.
    Your consideration of the OT biblical context was accurate, and the way we read this text, as an argument between two men- then an accidental injury precisely portrays what is meant. But.
    No-one, yourself included seems to want to look at ‘sound scripture’ and ‘sound doctrine’ together? Sorry about that.
    The text quoted by Sterling was incorrect. Exodus 21:23 from the numerous ancient aramaic, koine greek, and hebrew biblical texts has an extra line omitted. It has the aramaic word, which i transliterate as “exelkonismenon” meaning { And if ” it should be completely formed” he shall give life for life}. This completely changs the subject clause.
    The Strong’s concordance ref 1825.2 is also omitted or mistranslated.
    There can be no doubt that there are reasons for this change, but we as christians should be allowed to make up our own hearts and minds about this text, it’s context, and it’s meaning without this obfuscation appearing in 19 of every twenty bibles i’ve read.
    Please see ABP aramaic polyglot original text on BibleHub (select second row, far right ABP option). To view complete aramaic and transliteration. This is an important issue, is it not?
    Suffice it to repeat myself, and dare i say it, a detailed study of early hebrew ‘church’ from the mikvah 539 BCE, requiring the ritual cleansing from touching a body, up until St Cyprian’s insistence that all infants be baptized immediately, enforced by Augustus against Pelagius, and then written into the creeds of Nicean practices, shows that the fully formed foetus was undoubtedly “a person” and with rights as such.
    And so therefore, a wilful termination by any physical means that was deemed to be murder (and not manslaughter), has been liberally removed from scripture? Finally, i just wish to ask Christians to rethink (much as Ron asks about progressivism) how we might understand God, scripture, and Jesus’ reverence of created life to at least think upon it all, before listening to professors making sweeping generalizations.



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