On his blog, Roger Olson addresses the misunderstanding of the label “liberal” and explains its proper meaning. The following is taken mostly from what he wrote in his blog and contains only a couple of my explanations.http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2010/10/liberal-theology/
What is Liberal Theology?
From what I understand, liberal theology has more to do with the method one uses to arrive at conclusions rather than the conclusions themselves. Two people could both hold to the same conclusions about theology, but arrive at those conclusions in very different ways.
While there is flexibility in the term itself, there does seem to be a definition or two we can work with. According to Claude Welch, a “well-known and highly regarded authority on nineteenth century theology, liberal theology is ‘maximal accommodation to the claims of modernity.’ Contemporary expert on liberal theology, Gary Dorrien (author of a three volume history of American liberal religion) defines it as refusal to recognize any authority outside the self.”
What is the Method used?
Schleiermacher (the “father of liberal theology”) introduced a method where it was necessary to adjust traditional Christianity to modernity. He was trying to save Christianity from being in conflict with “the ‘best’ of modern thought. He redefined Christianity as PRIMARILY about human experience.” He ended up separating the realm of religion from the realm of facts that was observable by science and philosophy. If the two were in separate realms, Christianity could not be threatened.
Delwin Brown asks an important question and includes an answer: “’When the consensus of the best contemporary minds differs markedly from the most precious teachings of the past, which do we follow? To which do we give primary allegiance, the past or the present?’
…Liberalism at its best is likely to say, ‘We certainly ought to honor the richness of the Christian past and appreciate the vast contribution it makes to our lives, but finally we must live by our best modern conclusions. The modern consensus should not be absolutized; it, too, is always subject to criticism and further revision. But our commitment, however tentative and self-critically maintained, must be to the careful judgments of the present age, even if they differ radically from the dictates of the past.” Olson comments, Scholarship determines the inadequacies of traditional doctrine and so “the only work is that of re-forming theological thought to the superior insights of the present time.”
Pinnock makes the critique that the liberal allows the Bible “a functional but not a cognitive authority; that is, you will not bow to the content of Scripture but accept it only as a power that authors your life in some (to me) vague way… Lacking guidance from the Scriptures… you are forced to resolve the issue rationally and then cannot do so. “
*Friedrich Schleiermacher (early 19th century) is considered by most to be the
“father of liberal theology” and yet the “ethos” of liberalism started before him and compared to others who came after him, he might be considered more conservative. What Olson called “’classical Protestant liberalism’ appeared first with German Lutheran theologian Albrecht Ritschl and his followers in the later 19th century.”
*“Classical Protestant liberal theology is tied to the METHOD of the Rischlians (not necessarily to all of their conclusions). The leading Ritschlians were Harnack and Willhelm Herrmann. There were, of course, many others. They disagreed among themselves about many things, but they agreed on theology’s basic method which followed that of Schleiermacher but in a somewhat altered way.”
*After WWI Classical liberalism went through some changes with the previous optimism being abandoned. The mid-20th century airs to the movement are often called “neo-liberals”. “The main difference was the recognition of a tragic dimension to human existence and history that was lacking in the pre-WW1 liberals.”
1) Alan P. F. Sell, Theology in Turmoil
2) William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism
3) Kenneth Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism
4) Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology (3 volumes)
5) Peter Hodgson, Liberal Theology: A Radical Vision
6) John Cobb, Progressive Christians Speak
7) Donald E. Miller, The Case for Liberal Christianity
The following are Olson’s posts on the subject. The first two deal more with how the term “liberal” has been misused and the last post will give you the most information on liberal theology and what it is.
For her original post, click HERE.