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The Emergence of Modern Theological Liberalism


The emergence of religious liberalism in America was the product of numerous forces, the more important of which are noted below.


A. The Origins of American Religious Liberalism


1. New England Theology - The emergence of New England Theology is generally dated from the death of Jonathan Edwards (1758). The principal contributors to the demise of Edwardsian Calvinism include:


·Joseph Bellamy (1719-1790) - educated at Yale; studied in Edwards' home; denied the imputation of Adam's sin and was concerned with justifying the ways of God to human reason; he embraced a governmental view of the atonement.


·Samuel Hopkins (1720-1803) - more Calvinistic than Bellamy; lived 8 months in Edwards' home; also denied the imputation of Adam's sin.


·Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745-1801) - also affirmed the governmental view of the atonement.


·Nathaniel Emmons (1745-1840) -


·Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) - the grandson of Jonathan Edwards; he denied the doctrine of original sin and the constitutional depravity of man.


·Leonard Woods (1774-1854) - opposed Finney


·Nathaniel Taylor (1786-1858) - professor of theology at Yale; was Semi-Pelagian; had great influence on Finney.


·Edwards Amasa Park (1808-1900) -


The basic principles of New England theology:


a. A move from theocentricity to anthropocentricity, i.e., God and his glory ceased to be the ultimate goal of life; the purpose of God is to serve the well-being and happiness of man.


b. An affirmation of human ability: 1) a denial of original sin (a severing of any causal connection between the sin of Adam and that of his posterity); 2) a denial of constitutional depravity (sin is no longer viewed as corruption of nature but only as individual acts of free will); 3) gradualism in regeneration (the new birth is not an instantaneous and supernatural work of the Holy Spirit but is a gradual and cooperative work of both man and God).


c. An affirmation of the governmental view of the atonement (hence, a lessening emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement).


d. A stress on the benevolence and love of God to the exclusion of other moral perfections such as holiness, justice, righteousness, etc.


e. A denial of the eternal decrees.


f. An increasing confidence in the ability of man to achieve whatever was the object of his hopes and desires (the excitement of national independence, coupled with the economic and social advances of the American people served to cultivate the vision of "the American man", a new Adam, sinless and innocent and on the verge of a new frontier; mankind's great "second chance").


2. Unitarianism


a. Introductory Period - Unitarianism was largely a post-Revolutionary War phenomenon that was slow in developing. It arose as a result of the Arminian and deistic reaction to colonial Calvinism and provided a religious belief for the individualism and autonomous world-life view of the country. Materialism, wealth and independence struggled to co-exist with Calvinism's doctrines of sin and grace. In essence, people wanted a "God", but one that would leave them alone. They desired the benefits of religion while maintaining human autonomy.


Although there appeared signs of an incipient Unitarianism in such Colonial Arminians as Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy, the movement was pioneered by James Freeman. A graduate of Harvard and quite liberal, he became pastor of Boston's King's Chapel Episcopal Church, America's first Unitarian congregation. Other early advocates of Unitarianism included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, George Washington, and Thomas Paine.


b. Moderate Period - For two decades King's Chapel stood alone in its Unitarianism. With the deaths of David Tappan, Harvard's professor of divinity (1803), and the school's president, Joseph Willard (1804), both of whom were moderate Calvinists, Unitarianism found its open door.


The well-known liberal, Henry Ware (1764-1845), was appointed professor of divinity in 1805. In 1806 Samuel Webber, another liberal, was elected president, and was succeeded in 1810 by John Thornton Kirkland (1770-1840), also a liberal. Three more unitarian professors were appointed in the wake of Kirkland's election and Harvard was now firmly in liberal hands.


The orthodox response was quick. Andover Seminary was founded at Andover, Massachusetts, specifically to counter Harvard's liberal influence.


The emerging spokesman for the Liberal/Unitarian movement was the young minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston, William Ellery Channing. In a sermon entitled "Unitarian Christianity," delivered in 1819 at the ordination of Jared Sparks, Channing spoke of Christ:


"We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly one as we are, and equally distinct from the one God. . . . For though so far above us, He is still one of us, and is only an illustration of the capacities which we all possess."


Channing vigorously denied the biblical doctrine of sin and therefore any need for a substitutionary atonement.


The Unitarian movement began to organize. The Boston Ministerial Association became an informal agency of the movement; in 1820 Channing formed the Berry Street Conference as an informal advisory body for Unitarian ministers; the Amerian Unitarian Association was founded in 1825; several theological journals promoting Unitarianism came into being; virtually everyone on the faculty of Harvard was Unitarian. The aim of Unitarianism, said Channing, was


"the perfection of human nature, the elevation of men into nobler beings" (from the sermon, "The Essence of the Christian Religion").


The problem, of course, is that Channing viewed this as within our reach without the help of divine grace, redemption, or the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


c. Mature Period - Under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) there came a flowering, as well as a shift, in American Unitarianism. With Emerson came a distinct "de-Christianizing" of the movement that entailed a denial of supernaturalism, miracles, and biblical revelation. "God" was humanized, man was deified, the result of which was a form of Pantheism. Mysticism and subjectivism were dominant. Along with Theodore Parker (1810-1860), Emerson led the movement to such an extreme that even the older Unitarians labelled such men as infidels!


3. Universalism - The difference between Universalists and Unitarians is only one of degree: they both denied the Trinity and eternal punishment; they differed only in emphasis:


For the Universalist, God is too good to condemn man. For the Unitarian, man is too good to be condemned!


Two men in particular were responsible for the growth of Universalism:


John Murray (1741-1815) - he actually worked for a time with George Whitefield but later embraced Methodism. He converted to Universalism under the influence of James Relly (1720-80), another British Methodist who had taken Wesley's teaching on universal grace to its logical extreme. Murray was excommunicated in England and came to America in 1770. He preached in several states and finally settled in Massachusetts. He founded the first American Universalist church in Gloucester, Mass., in 1779.


Hosea Ballou (1771-1852) - was a baptist who came under the influence of Charles Chauncy. He denied virtually every cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith: deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, human sin and depravity, etc.


The Universalists grew steadily in strength and by 1831 claimed more than 500 ministers.


4. Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) - Bushnell has rightly been called The Father of American Religious Liberalism. He affirmed the moral influence theory of the atonement and was a modalist.


B. The Influence of European Thought


1. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) - Schleiermacher contended that the essence of religion was neither in belief/knowledge nor in morality/ethics but in feeling, more specifically, an immediate consciousness of absolute dependence on God and consequent union with Him. His was a non-dogmatic, non-doctrinaire, subjective approach to religion that laid the foundation for liberalism in years to come. Religious authority was located in the personal experience of each individual, not in a book (Bible) or a creed.


2. Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) - Ritschl focused on the kingdom of God which he identified with the ethical transformation of society and culture. Sin is societal and thus redemption is equated with the improvement of social structures. Christianity is not an other-worldly religion but one by which this world is transformed through ethical action energized by love.


3. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) - Origin of Species was published in 1859 and was an open attack on Christian theism. It undermined belief in the origin, authority and inspiration of the Bible. The Descent of Man was published in 1871. Two results: 1) science was elevated to the status of a virtually infallible discipline; truth came to be measured by its conformity to scientific discovery; 2) there was now a philosophical world view and framework within which theologians could re-interpret the Bible; that framework was anti-supernaturalism.


C. The Social Gospel


The industrial revolution and the resultant socio-economic exploitation of the common man, fueled by the liberal theology of those noted above, made it appear that the traditional Christian gospel had nothing to offer the hungry and homeless. Gregg Singer explains:


"The Social Gospel was, as the name very clearly implies, an attempt to socialize the gospel, to give it a sociological frame of reference and purpose, and to make it a decisive force in the shaping of the new America of the twentieth century. In order to do this the historic Gospel had to be brought into a harmonious relationship with evolution in such a way that it was both scientifically respectable and oriented toward the Bible. The advocates of the Social Gospel were firmly convinced of the truth of the evolutionary theory of Darwin and they also believed that this theory held out to mankind a marvelous future, much like that offered by a postmillennial interpretation of the Scriptures. Thus, a frame of reference adequate for the America of the twentieth century, with all its promises of material greatness and cultural advancement, was a synthesis of the best aspects of Christianity . . . and the Darwinian account of the ascent of man" (150-51).


According to the social gospel, the sinful mind is the unsocial mind. The kingdom of God must be organized around the principle of love and equality for all. Sin and salvation are supra-individual. The church that does not seek to save society is not truly Christian.


Perhaps the most influential advocate of the social gospel in America was Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) who wrote A Theology for the Social Gospel in 1917. Although born in Germany, he immigrated to the U.S. where he first ministered in Hell’s Kitchen, a deeply impoverished section of New York City. He returned to Germany to study the NT and came under the influence of Ritschlian theology. The focus of Christian ministry is not so much individual conversion but “to transform human society into the Kingdom of God by regenerating all human relations and reconciling them in accordance with the will of God” (Christianity and the Social Crisis [New York: Macmillan, 1907], xi). Rauschenbusch “specifically singled out laissez faire capitalism as a part of the Kingdom of Evil in American life and called on American Christians to lead a new revival, in which not only individual souls but entire corporate entities and social structures would repent and be saved” (Grenz/Olson, 61).


D. Destructive Higher Criticism


Guided by evolutionary thought, the attempt was made by a number of German scholars to determine the origin, literary form, author and date of the books of the Bible. Men such as Johann Eichhorn (1752-1827) and Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) effectively undermined belief that the Bible was written by those who claimed to have written it. E.g., the JEDP theory of the Pentateuch. According to Dillenberger,


"The acceptance of biblical criticism meant the abandonment of the belief that the Bible is an infallible record of divine revelation to men. . . . In short, it was all up with the dogma of the inerrancy of Scripture. This was perhaps the most important development in nineteenth century Protestant thought, even more far reaching in its implications than the influence of the new scientific theories" (Protestant Christianity, 195).


This isn’t to say that liberalism placed no value at all on the Bible. Certainly they had jettisoned any concept of inspiration or infallibility. But they still believed that beneath the husk of Scriptural form and myth (its cultural shape, virtually all supernatural events, angels and demons, etc.) was to be found the kernel of timeless truths that were foundational to right living.


E. The Principles of American Religious Liberalism


1. The liberal spirit - the spirit of total open-mindedness, tolerance, and a distrust of dogmatism and separatism; also entailed is liberalism’s “emphasis on the freedom of the individual Christian to criticize and reconstruct traditional beliefs” (Grenz/Olson, 20th Century Theology, 52).


2. Ecumenism - the desire for sympathy and tolerance among all professing believers, leading ultimately to organizational unity.


3. A reverence for science and the scientific method; i.e., the attempt to subject religious authority (the Bible) to empirical verification; related to this was liberalism’s attempt to reconstruct Christian belief in the light of modern knowledge.


4. Skepticism concerning the possibility of ever attaining certain knowledge of ultimate spiritual and moral reality.


5. Anthropological optimism - Sin is construed as error and limitation which education and the example of Jesus can overcome. Lack of socio-economic and educational opportunity, not willful rebellion from a wicked heart, is the cause of corruption in society.


6. "In place of the infallible Bible and the pronouncements of the church in its dogma, liberalism put the living witness of the religious life" (Dillenberger, 215; emphasis mine). The liberal wants to liberate religion from creedal bondage and give man's moral and rational powers larger scope.


7. Emphasis was placed on the ethical Christ, the meek Christ, the selfless Christ, especially as seen in the Sermon on the Mount. The Christ who is God incarnate, dying a substitutionary death and rising from the dead, was of less interest.


8. Social idealism - stress on the social and corporate nature of the Christian life; belief that man has the potential for improving society, perhaps to the building of a utopia on earth. Walter Rauschenbusch embodied the liberal spirit in this regard:


“The Kingdom of God is . . . a collective conception, involving the whole social life of man. It is not a matter of saving human atoms, but of saving the social organization. It is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into a harmony of heaven” (Christianity and the Social Crisis, 65).


9. A stress on the immanence of God that bordered on pantheism. Rather than God creating and working in and through nature, God is nature and the creation working. Grenz and Olson explain:


“Prior to the Enlightenment, theologians emphasized the disjunction between a radically holy, transcendent God and sinful, finite humans, and they saw the Incarnation as the dramatic event whereby God bridged this gulf. Beginning in the Enlightenment and climaxing in liberalism, in contrast, theologians built from the continuity between the divine and the human as manifested, for example, in the rational, intuitive or moral capabilities. Consequently, they viewed Jesus as the exemplary human rather than as the invading Christ” (52-3).


10. A stress on the ethical aspects of Christianity to the exclusion of theological dogmas.


11. The liberal view of the Bible: a) it is a purely human book and thus full of errors and contradictions, moral absurdities and myths; b) its usefulness consists in its portrayal of people in whose lives God once worked; c) it is not inspired, but it is inspiring; according to orthodoxy, inspiration is what God does to the Bible, whereas according to liberalism, inspiration is what the Bible does to us; d) the principle of accommodation is paramount in interpretation.


12. In sum: to cite Adolph von Harnack (Barth’s teacher in Berlin) and his book What Is Christianity?, the essence of Christianity is the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul. Or, as H. Richard Niebuhr summarized the message of liberalism:


"A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."


Prominent figures in the early development of religious liberalism in America included:


Samuel Harris (1814-1899)

Francis Ellingwood Abbot (1836-1903)

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899)

Washington Gladden (1836-1917)

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)

Crawford Toy (1836-1899)

Charles A. Briggs (1841-1913)

Henry Preserved Smith (1847-1927)

Arthur C. McGiffert (1861-1933)

A. Sidney Crapsey (1847-1927)

William Newton Clarke (1841-1912)

William Adams Brown (1865-1943)

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969)


F. The Decline of Classical Liberalism


1. The Emergence of Neo-Orthodoxy - The political developments in Europe that culminated in WWI and the economic collapse of the U.S., combined to destroy the optimism of many liberals. The optimistic belief in an evolutionary process of ushering in the kingdom of God on earth through the collective efforts of inherently good men was severely shaken.


a. Karl Barth (1886-1968) and his Romerbrief of 1919 (completely rewritten for a 2nd edition in 1922)


Barth was motivated by several factors, chief of which was the obvious failure of theological liberalism in the face of the outbreak of WW I. He was especially upset when 93 German intellectuals, many of whom were his teachers or colleagues, signed a document endorsing the war policy of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He suddenly realized that “their exegetical and dogmatic presuppositions could not be in order. . . . A whole world of exegesis, ethics, dogmatics and preaching, which I had hitherto held to be essentially trustworthy, was shaken to the foundations, and with it, all the other writings of the German theologians” (Karl Barth, biography by Eberhard Busch, 81).


Barth brought to the European scene a renewed emphasis on the transcendence of God, the "absolute qualitative difference between God and man," the vertical dimension of revelation (a theology “from above,” i.e., from God to us in the Bible, rather than “from below”), and an emphasis on sin and atonement. In turning from classical liberalism,


“Barth was rejecting . . . one dominant account of God and humanity, according to which God’s relation to us can be discovered within us and our undertakings, when in fact that relation is constituted solely by the free, disorienting action of God. Thus Barth sought to deny that God’s relation to us is inherent in human nature and activity, especially in its noblest forms; but he sought to preserve the relation itself, though grounded in and thereby chastened by the sheer gratuity of God” (John Webster, Barth [New York: Continuum, 2000], 27).


Other factors:


·Barth’s denial of “natural” theology - Barth’s theology was shaped by his reaction to the liberal emphasis on divine immanence. He thus affirmed the radical transcendence of God and the utter sinfulness of mankind. There exists between Creator and creature an absolute qualitative difference. Time and eternity are two mutually exclusive realms with no common ground or connecting link or point of contact between them. God is thus wholly incomprehensible and ineffable. He is hidden (Deus absconditus) and cannot be known apart from the initiative he takes to reveal himself in the person of Christ. Bruce Demarest explains:


“The infinite, wholly other God cannot be known save by the decisive act of His self-disclosure in the Word. God, who inhabits eternity, breaks into the temporal realm in Jesus Christ like a vertical line intersecting a horizontal plane. From the perspective of radical transcendence, Barth characterizes the God of the bible as ‘the God to whom there is no way and bridge, of whom we could not say or have to say one single word, had he not of his own initiative met us as Deus revelatus” (General Revelation, 116-17).


For Barth, the image of God in man has been so utterly defaced by the fall that all capacity, whether by reason or through nature, to know even that God exists is lost. According to Barth, “we have no organ or capacity for God” (CD, I/2, p. 257). There is no natural propensity or aptitude for God. Indeed, there is only hostility and antagonism. Thus “only the divine revelation in Christ restores to man his original capacity to know God through the Creation” (Demarest, 117).


·The doctrine of divine election (Barth shifts the focus away from God’s having chosen us to his having chosen Christ, in whom he has chosen us). According to Barth, Jesus Christ is both electing God and elected man.


·Barth’s Christological focus


·Barth’s doctrine of revelation and Scripture (the “Word” of God is first and foremost Jesus Christ and only derivatively the Bible; see the discussion of the neo-orthodox concept of revelation and Scripture in the previous lesson). In referring to Scripture as a “witness” to divine revelation, said Barth,


“we distinguish the Bible as such from revelation. A witness is not absolutely identical with that to which it witnesses. . . . In the Bible we meet with human words written in human speech, and in these words, and therefore by means of them, we hear of the lordship of the triune God. Therefore when we have to do with the Bible, we have to do primarily with this means, with these words, with the witness which as such is not itself revelation, but only . . . the witness to it” (CD, I/2, p. 463).


Thus, revelation is always dynamic, never static. It cannot be controlled as an earthly or human commodity, domesticated and packaged for human use. Webster summarizes:


“For Barth, God’s Word is never available in a straightforward way. It is not a deposit of truth upon which the church can draw, or a set of statements which can be consulted. The Word of God is an act which God undertakes. God’s Word is that complex but unitary event in which God has spoken, speaks and will speak, an event which encounters us through the human means of Scripture and its proclamation in the church. The one event of the one Word of God thus has three forms: the act of revelation itself, its attestation in the prophetic and apostolic words, and the preaching of that testimony in the community” (55).


·Barth (“Nein!”) vs. Brunner


·Universalism(?): “I do not teach it, but I also do not not teach it.”


·Did Barth teach “modalism”? His preference for the term “mode” of being rather than “person” when referring to the incarnation of the Word was prompted by his insistence that God has only one personality. Later in life, however, Barth explicitly rejected modalism (see CD IV/1, 200-01).


“When the curtain is rung down on the twentieth century and the annals of its church history are completed, there will surely be one name that will tower above all others in the field of theology – that of Karl Barth. In him a church Father has walked among us, as theologian of such creative genius, prodigious productivity, and pervasive influence that his name is already being associated with that elite group of thinkers that includes Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin” (John Godsey, ed., Karl Barth, How I Changed My Mind [Richmond: John Knox Press, 1966], 9).


[One interesting fact about Barth is that whereas he never completed a doctorate, he was granted 11 (!) honorary doctoral degrees during his career.]


b. Reinhold Niebuhr (1893-1971)


c. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962)


d. Emil Brunner (1889-1966)


Special note should be taken of Brunner’s non-propositional concept of divine revelation. Grenz/Olson explain:


“According to Brunner, words and propositions about God can never have the status of revelation because they inevitably objectify God and fall back within the sphere of ‘it-knowledge.’ In fact, ‘No speech, no word, is adequate to the mystery of God’s Person,’ he declared. Revelation proper, then, is always an event of personal relationship-in-encounter that overcomes the subject-object division and truly communicates God to the human person: ‘Revelation is . . . never the mere communication of knowledge, but it is a life-giving and life-renewing communion.’ The type of nonpropositional revelation Brunner emphasized occurs in two events: historically in the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and presently in the testimonium spiritus internum, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ that makes the believer contemporary with Christ” (81).


2. Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976)


·Form criticism – At the heart of form criticism is the assumption that the original content of the gospel message has been unavoidably altered by the superimposed layers of subsequent church tradition. To recover the original content one must analyze the various linguistic and literary forms and types of expressions which reflect the wide array of developing concerns and theological agendas within the several church communities of the first century. The aim is both to recover the original and authentic message of Jesus as well as reconstruct the doctrinal development within the early church.


·The criterion of “dissimilarity” – In an effort to determine which of the “sayings” of Jesus are authentic, only those are accepted which reflect a decided dissimilarity with both Jewish and Christian teaching and practice. Supposedly this would eliminate from the core of authentic sayings and teachings what might otherwise have been read into them by either Jewish or Christian sources. In other words, in its extreme form this means that on any point where Jesus is found to have agreed with his contemporaries or on any point where his followers appear to have faithfully reproduced his ideas, the saying or teaching is rejected as inauthentic (or at least treated with a high degree of suspicion).


·Demythologization – The pre-scientific, “three-storied” cosmology of the NT, together with its embrace of mythology, Jewish apocalyptic, Greek-inspired gnosticism, and nave supernaturalism has rendered the biblical text largely irrelevant to the modern, scientifically enlightened mind. Miracles, demons, and the like are foreign and meaningless to modern man. Bultmann argued that the kerygma, the original and essential message of Jesus and the NT, can only be retained by divesting it of its mythical framework and its expression in supernatural categories. Demythologization, said Bultmann, “is the method of interpretation which tries to recover the deeper meaning behind the mythological conceptions” (Jesus Christ and Mythology [New York: Scribner, 1958], 18). In other words, to “demythologize” the NT is to “penetrate to the kernel of eternal truth hidden within the mythological husk. We must free the existential meaning, valid for all times, from its local mythological expression in the New Testament” (Ed. L. Miller and Stanley J. Grenz, Fortress Introduction to Contemporary Theologies [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998], 42).


3. The Liberalism of Paul Tillich (1886-1965)


·For Tillich, “God” is simply the symbolic expression for the “Ground of all Being”. Some have accused Tillich of atheism, when in fact his denial is of the classical idea of God. God, said Tillich, is not an individual being who relates supernaturally to our world. He writes: “The God who is a being is transcended by the God who is Being itself, the ground and abyss of every being. And the God who is a person is transcended by the God who is the Personal-Itself, the ground and abyss of every person” (Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality [Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955], 182-83).


·Tillich’s theology is more pantheistic than atheistic


·Tillich is essentially a universalist.


·Faith = “ultimate concern”


·The method of “correlation” – The basic ideas of Christianity must be reconceived and retranslated for any given cultural situation so that the existential questions asked by the latter may be answered in a way that is meaningful. This “method” of doing theology


“tries to correlate the questions implied in the [cultural] situation with the answers implied in the [Christian] message. . . . The method of correlation explains the contents of the Christian faith through existential questions and theological answers in mutual interdependence. . . . The answers implied in the event of revelation are meaningful only in so far as they are in correlation with questions concerning the whole of our existence, with existential questions” (Systematic Theology, I:8,60,61).


4. The Radical Secularism of the 1960's and 1970's


·William Hamilton

·Thomas J. J. Altizer


5. Process Theology