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Liberal Christianity, also known as liberal theology, is a movement that seeks to reinterpret and reform Christian teaching by taking into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics. It also emphasizes the authority of individual reason and experience. Liberal Christians view their theology as an alternative to both atheistic rationalism and to traditional theologies based on external authority (such as the Bible or sacred tradition).
Liberal theology grew out of Enlightenment rationalism and romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was characterized by an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, a utilization of modern biblical criticism and participation in the Social Gospel movement.This was also the period when liberal theology was most dominant within the Protestant churches. Liberal theology's influence declined with the rise of neo-orthodoxy in the 1930s and with liberation theology in the 1960s. Catholic forms of liberal theology emerged in the late 19th century. By the 21st century, liberal Christianity had become an ecumenical tradition, including both Protestants and Catholics.
In the context of theology, the word liberal does not refer to political liberalism, and it should be distinguished from progressive Christianity. Historically, liberal Christianity has also been referred to as Christian modernism (see Catholic modernism and Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy).
Liberal Protestantism developed in the 19th century out of a need to adapt Christianity to a modern intellectual context. With the acceptance of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, some traditional Christian beliefs, such as parts of the Genesis creation narrative, became difficult to defend. Unable to ground faith exclusively in an appeal to scripture or the person of Jesus Christ, liberals, according to theologian and intellectual historian Alister McGrath, "sought to anchor that faith in common human experience, and interpret it in ways that made sense within the modern worldview."Beginning in Germany, liberal theology was influenced by several strands of thought, including the Enlightenment's high view of human reason and Pietism's emphasis on religious experience and interdenominational tolerance.
The sources of religious authority recognized by liberal Protestants differed from traditional Protestants. Traditional Protestants understood the Bible to be uniquely authoritative ( sola scriptura ); all doctrine, teaching and the church itself derive authority from it.A traditional Protestant could therefore affirm that "what Scripture says, God says." Liberals, however, seek to understand the Bible through modern biblical criticism, such as historical criticism, that began to be used in the late 1700s to ask if biblical accounts were based on older texts or whether the Gospels recorded the actual words of Jesus. The use of these methods of biblical interpretation led liberals to conclude that "none of the New Testament writings can be said to be apostolic in the sense in which it has been traditionally held to be so". This conclusion made sola scriptura untenable. In its place, liberals identified the historical Jesus as the "real canon of the Christian church".
The two groups also disagreed on the role of experience in confirming truth claims. Traditional Protestants believed scripture and revelation always confirmed human experience and reason. For liberal Protestants, there were two ultimate sources of religious authority: the Christian experience of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and universal human experience. In other words, only an appeal to common human reason and experience could confirm the truth claims of Christianity.
Liberals abandoned or reinterpreted traditional doctrines in light of recent knowledge. For example, the traditional doctrine of original sin was rejected for being derived from Augustine of Hippo, whose views on the New Testament were believed to have been distorted by his involvement with Manichaeism. Christology was also reinterpreted. Liberals stressed Christ's humanity, and his divinity became "an affirmation of Jesus exemplifying qualities which humanity as a whole could hope to emulate".Liberal Christians sought to elevate Jesus' humane teachings as a standard for a world civilization freed from cultic traditions and traces of "pagan" belief in the supernatural.
As a result, liberal Christians placed less emphasis on miraculous events associated with the life of Jesus than on his teachings. The effort to remove "superstitious" elements from Christian faith dates to intellectually reforming Renaissance Christians such as Erasmus (who compiled the first modern Greek New Testament) in the late 15th and early-to-mid 16th centuries, and, later, the natural-religion view of the Deists, which disavowed any revealed religion or interaction between the Creator and the creation, in the 17–18th centuries. [ pages needed ] Many liberals prefer to read Jesus' miracles as metaphorical narratives for understanding the power of God. [ better source needed ] Not all theologians with liberal inclinations reject the possibility of miracles, but many reject the polemicism that denial or affirmation entails.The debate over whether a belief in miracles was mere superstition or essential to accepting the divinity of Christ constituted a crisis within the 19th-century church, for which theological compromises were sought.
Nineteenth-century liberalism had an optimism about the future in which humanity would continue to achieve greater progress.This optimistic view of history was sometimes interpreted as building the kingdom of God in the world.
Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) is often considered the father of liberal Protestantism.In response to Romanticism's disillusionment with Enlightenment rationalism, Schleiermacher argued that God could only be experienced through feeling, not reason. In Schleiermacher's theology, religion is a feeling of absolute dependence on God. Humanity is conscious of its own sin and its need of redemption, which can only be accomplished by Jesus Christ. For Schleirmacher, faith is experienced within a faith community, never in isolation. This meant that theology always reflects a particular religious context, which has opened Schleirmacher to charges of relativism.
Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889) disagreed with Schleiermacher's emphasis on feeling. He thought that religious belief should be based on history, specifically the historical events of the New Testament.When studied as history without regard to miraculous events, Ritschl believed the New Testament affirmed Jesus' divine mission. He rejected doctrines such as the virgin birth of Jesus and the Trinity. The Christian life for Ritschl was devoted to ethical activity and development, so he understood doctrines to be value judgments rather than assertions of facts. Influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Ritschl viewed "religion as the triumph of the spirit (or moral agent) over humanity’s natural origins and environment." Ritschl's ideas would be taken up by others, and Ritschlianism would remain an important theological school within German Protestantism until World War I. Prominent followers of Ritschl include Wilhelm Herrmann, Julius Kaftan and Adolf von Harnack.
Catholic forms of theological liberalism have existed since the 19th century in England, France and Italy.In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a liberal theological movement developed within the Catholic Church known as Catholic modernism. Like liberal Protestantism, Catholic modernism was an attempt to bring Catholicism in line with the Enlightenment. Modernist theologians approved of radical biblical criticism and were willing to question traditional Christian doctrines, especially Christology. They also emphasized the ethical aspects of Christianity over its theological ones. Important modernist writers include Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell. Modernism was condemned as heretical by the leadership of the Catholic Church.
Papal condemnation of modernism and Americanism slowed the development of a liberal Catholic tradition in the United States. Since the Second Vatican Council, however, liberal theology has experienced a resurgence. Liberal Catholic theologians include David Tracy and Francis Schussler Fiorenza.
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Liberal Christianity was most influential with Mainline Protestant churches in the early 20th century, when proponents believed the changes it would bring would be the future of the Christian church. Its greatest and most influential manifestation was the Christian Social Gospel, whose most influential spokesman was the American Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch identified four institutionalized spiritual evils in American culture (which he identified as traits of "supra-personal entities", organizations capable of having moral agency): these were individualism, capitalism, nationalism and militarism.
Other subsequent theological movements within the U.S. Protestant mainline included political liberation theology, philosophical forms of postmodern Christianity, and such diverse theological influences as Christian existentialism (originating with Søren Kierkegaardand including other theologians and scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich ) and even conservative movements such as neo-evangelicalism, neo-orthodoxy, and paleo-orthodoxy. Dean M. Kelley, a liberal sociologist, was commissioned in the early 1970s to study the problem, and he identified a potential reason for the decline of the liberal churches: what was seen by some as excessive politicization of the Gospel, and especially their apparent tying of the Gospel with Left-Democrat/progressive political causes.
The 1990s and 2000s saw a resurgence of non-doctrinal, theological work on biblical exegesis and theology, exemplified by figures such as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong,Karen Armstrong and Scotty McLennan.
Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus is the Christ, whose coming as the messiah was prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament in Christianity, and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world's largest religion with about 2.4 billion followers.
In Abrahamic religions, the Holy Spirit is an aspect or agent of God, by means of which people become His messenger or servant. The term is also used to describe aspects of other religions and belief structures.
Albrecht Ritschl was a German Protestant theologian.
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to Christian theology:
Rudolf Karl Bultmann was a German Lutheran theologian and professor of the New Testament at the University of Marburg. He was one of the major figures of early-20th-century biblical studies. A prominent critic of liberal theology, Bultmann instead argued for an existentialist interpretation of the New Testament. His hermeneutical approach to the New Testament led him to be a proponent of dialectical theology.
Robert William Jenson (1930–2017) was a leading American Lutheran and ecumenical theologian. Prior to his retirement in 2007, he spent seven years as the director of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was the co-founder of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and is known for his two-volume Systematic Theology published between 1997 and 1999.
The Social Gospel was a movement in Protestantism that applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, lack of unionization, poor schools, and the dangers of war. It was most prominent in the early-20th-century United States and Canada. Theologically, the Social Gospelers sought to put into practice the Lord's Prayer : "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". They typically were postmillennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort. The Social Gospel was more popular among clergy than laity. Its leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the progressive movement, and most were theologically liberal, although a few were also conservative when it came to their views on social issues. Important leaders included Richard T. Ely, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch.
The perpetual virginity of Mary is the doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was a virgin ante partum, in partu, et post partum - before, during and after the birth of Christ. It is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church, and is held also by the Orthodox churches and by some Lutherans and Anglicans.
Neo-orthodoxy or Neoorthodoxy, in Christianity, also including theology of crisis and dialectical theology, was a theological movement developed in the aftermath of the First World War. The movement was largely a reaction against doctrines of 19th-century liberal theology and a reevaluation of the teachings of the Reformation. Karl Barth is the leading figure associated with the movement. In the U.S., Reinhold Niebuhr was a leading exponent of neo-orthodoxy.
Georgia Elma Harkness (1891–1974) was an American Methodist theologian and philosopher. Harkness has been described as one of the first significant American female theologians and was important in the movement to legalize the ordination of women in American Methodism.
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) was an American theologian and Baptist pastor who taught at the Rochester Theological Seminary. Rauschenbusch was a key figure in the Social Gospel and single tax movements that flourished in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also the maternal grandfather of the influential philosopher Richard Rorty and the great-grandfather of Paul Raushenbush.
Postliberal theology is a Christian theological movement that focuses on a narrative presentation of the Christian faith as regulative for the development of a coherent systematic theology. Thus, Christianity is an overarching story, with its own embedded culture, grammar, and practices which, can be understood only with reference to Christianity's own internal logic.
Heinrich Emil Brunner (1889–1966) was a Swiss Reformed theologian. Along with Karl Barth, he is commonly associated with neo-orthodoxy or the dialectical theology movement.
Johann Georg Wilhelm Herrmann was a Lutheran German theologian.
Shailer Mathews (1863–1941) was an American liberal Christian theologian, involved with the Social Gospel movement.
Anonymous Christian is the controversial notion introduced by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904–1984) that declares that people who have never heard the Christian Gospel might be saved through Christ. Non-Christians could have "in [their] basic orientation and fundamental decision," Rahner wrote, "accepted the salvific grace of God, through Christ, although [they] may never have heard of the Christian revelation."
Karl Barth's views on Mary agreed with much Roman Catholic dogma but disagreed with the Catholic veneration of Mary. Barth, a leading 20th-century theologian, was a Reformed Protestant. Aware of the common dogmatic tradition of the early Church, Barth fully accepted the dogma of Mary as the Mother of God. Through Mary, Jesus belongs to the human race. Through Jesus, Mary is Mother of God.
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to Christianity:
The pre-existence of Christ asserts the existence of Christ before his incarnation as Jesus. One of the relevant Bible passages is John 1:1–18 where, in the Trinitarian interpretation, Christ is identified with a pre-existent divine hypostasis called the Logos or Word. There are nontrinitarian views that question the aspect of personal pre-existence or the aspect of divinity or both.
[Per Rudolf Bultmann] his February 1924 lecture on the “latest theological movement”—represented, he says, by Barth, Gogarten, and Thurneysen—when he explicitly contrasts this new movement with Herrmann and Troeltsch as the representatives of liberal theology. Bultmann then states the thesis of his lecture: “The object [Gegenstand] of theology is God, and the charge against liberal theology is that it has dealt not with God but with human beings.” We see in this piece the maturation of the claim stated in his Eisenach lecture of 1920, namely, that liberal theology fails to reflect on the specific content of Christian faith. In that earlier writing he contrasts the spiritual content of genuine religion with the liberal emphasis on a particular moralistic form.