Liberal Christianity

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Liberal Christianity, also known as liberal theology, covers diverse philosophically and biblically informed religious movements and ideas within Christianity from the late 18th century onward. Liberal does not refer to progressive Christianity or to political liberalism but to the philosophical and religious thought that developed and grew as a consequence of the Enlightenment.

Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and savior of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Old Testament and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world's largest religion with over 2.4 billion followers.

Christianity in the 18th century Christianity-related events during the 18th century

Christianity in the 18th century is marked by the First Great Awakening in the Americas, along with the expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese empires around the world, which helped to spread Catholicism.

Progressive Christianity is a "post-liberal movement" within Christianity "that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened." Progressive Christianity represents a post-modern theological approach, and is not necessarily synonymous with progressive politics. It developed out of the Liberal Christianity of the modern-era, which was rooted in enlightenment thinking.

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Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an undogmatic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings, symbols and scriptures. Liberal Christianity did not originate as a belief structure, and as such was not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal doctrine. Liberal Christianity from the start embraced the methodologies of Enlightenment science, including empirical evidence and the use of reason, as the basis for interpreting the Bible, life, faith and theology.

Hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts.

God in Christianity is the eternal being who created and preserves all things. Christians believe God to be both transcendent and immanent. Christian teachings of the immanence and involvement of God and his love for humanity exclude the belief that God is of the same substance as the created universe but accept that God's divine nature was hypostatically united to human nature in the person of Jesus Christ, in an event known as the Incarnation.

Christian Church Term used to refer to the whole group of people belonging to the Christian religious tradition

Christian Church is an ecclesiological term generally used by Protestants to refer to the church invisible, and/or whole group of people belonging to Christianity throughout the history of Christianity. In this understanding, "Christian Church" does not refer to a particular Christian denomination but to the "body" of all "believers", both defined in various ways. Other Christian traditions, however, believe that the term "Christian Church" or "Church" applies only to a specific concrete historic Christian institution, e.g. the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, or the Assyrian Church of the East.

The word liberal in liberal Christianity originally denoted a characteristic willingness to interpret scripture according to modern philosophic perspectives (hence the parallel term modernism, as in Catholic modernism and Presbyterian Modernism) and modern scientific assumptions, while attempting to achieve the Enlightenment ideal of objective point of view, without preconceived notions of the authority of scripture or the correctness of Church dogma. [1] Liberal Christians may hold certain core doctrines that are in common with Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, or even fundamentalist Protestantism.

Christian fundamentalism began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among British and American Protestants as a reaction to theological liberalism and cultural modernism. Fundamentalists argued that 19th-century modernist theologians had misinterpreted or rejected certain doctrines, especially biblical inerrancy, that they viewed as the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Fundamentalists are almost always described as having a literal interpretation of the Bible. A few scholars label Catholics who reject modern theology in favor of more traditional doctrines as fundamentalists. Scholars debate how much the terms "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" are synonymous. In keeping with traditional Christian doctrines concerning biblical interpretation, the role Jesus plays in the Bible, and the role of the church in society, fundamentalists usually believe in a core of Christian beliefs that include the historical accuracy of the Bible and all its events as well as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Liberal Protestantism

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." [2] 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. [3]

Charles Darwin British naturalist, author of "On the origin of species, by means of natural selection"

Charles Robert Darwin, was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. His proposition that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors is now widely accepted, and considered a foundational concept in science. In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.

Natural selection Mechanism of evolution by differential survival and reproduction of individuals

Natural selection is the differential survival and reproduction of individuals due to differences in phenotype. It is a key mechanism of evolution, the change in the heritable traits characteristic of a population over generations. Charles Darwin popularised the term "natural selection", contrasting it with artificial selection, which in his view is intentional, whereas natural selection is not.

Genesis creation narrative creation myth of both Judaism and Christianity

The Genesis creation narrative is the creation myth of both Judaism and Christianity. The narrative is made up of two stories, roughly equivalent to the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. In the first, Elohim creates the heavens and the Earth in six days, then rests on, blesses and sanctifies the seventh. In the second story, God, now referred to by the personal name Yahweh, creates Adam, the first man, from dust and places him in the Garden of Eden, where he is given dominion over the animals. Eve, the first woman, is created from Adam and as his companion.

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. [4] A traditional Protestant could therefore affirm that "what Scripture says, God says." [5] 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. [3] 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". [6] This conclusion made sola scriptura untenable. In its place, liberals identified the historical Jesus as the "real canon of the Christian church". [7]

Bible Collection of religious texts in Judaism and Christianity

The Bible is a collection of sacred texts or scriptures. Varying parts of the Bible are considered to be a product of divine inspiration and a record of the relationship between God and humans by Christians, Jews, Samaritans, and Rastafarians.

Sola Scriptura is a theological doctrine held by some Christian denominations that the Christian scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice.

Biblical criticism scholarly study of biblical writings that seeks to make discerning judgments about these writings

Biblical criticism is an umbrella term for those methods of studying the Bible that embrace two distinctive perspectives: the concern to avoid dogma and bias by applying a non-sectarian, reason-based judgment, and the reconstruction of history according to contemporary understanding. Biblical criticism uses the grammar, structure, development, and relationship of language to identify such characteristics as the Bible's literary structure, its genre, its context, meaning, authorship, and origins.

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. [8]

Revelation the revealing or disclosing of some form of truth or knowledge through communication with a deity or other supernatural entity

In religion and theology, revelation is the revealing or disclosing of some form of truth or knowledge through communication with a deity or other supernatural entity or entities.

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". [2] 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. [9]

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. [10] 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. [11] [ pages needed ] Many liberals prefer to read Jesus' miracles as metaphorical narratives for understanding the power of God. [12] [ better source needed ] Not all theologians with liberal inclinations reject the possibility of miracles, but many reject the polemicism that denial or affirmation entails. [13]

Nineteenth-century liberalism had an optimism about the future in which humanity would continue to achieve greater progress. [2] This optimistic view of history was sometimes interpreted as building the kingdom of God in the world. [3]

Theologians

Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher is often considered the father of liberal Protestantism. [3] 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. [14]

Albrecht Ritschl 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. [15] 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. [16] 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. [15] 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." [16] 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. [15]

Liberal Catholicism

Catholic forms of theological liberalism have existed since the 19th century in England, France and Italy. [17] In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a liberal theological movement developed within the Catholic Church known as Catholic modernism. [18] 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. [19] Modernism was condemned as heretical by the leadership of the Catholic Church. [18]

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. [17]

Influence in the United States

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. [20]

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 Kierkegaard [21] and including other theologians and scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann [22] and Paul Tillich [23] ) 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. [24]

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, [25] Karen Armstrong and Scotty McLennan.

Theologians and authors

Anglican and Protestant

Roman Catholic

Other

See also

Citations

  1. "Catholic Encyclopedia: Liberalism" . Retrieved 2007-01-27.
  2. 1 2 3 McGrath 2013, p. 196.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Campbell 1996, p. 128.
  4. Ogden 1976, pp. 405–406.
  5. Ogden 1976, p. 408.
  6. Ogden 1976, pp. 408–409.
  7. Ogden 1976, p. 409.
  8. Ogden 1976, pp. 409–411.
  9. Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 29 online.
  10. Linda Woodhead, "Christianity," in Religions in the Modern World (Routledge, 2002), pp. 186 online and 193.
  11. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805–1900, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), passim, search miracles.
  12. Ann-Marie Brandom, "The Role of Language in Religious Education," in Learning to Teach Religious Education in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience (Routledge, 2000), p. 76 online.
  13. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), passim, search miracles, especially p. 413; on Ames, p. 233 online; on Niebuhr, p. 436 online.
  14. Tamilio 2002.
  15. 1 2 3 "Modernism: Christian Modernism".
  16. 1 2 Frei 2018.
  17. 1 2 Dorrien 2002, p. 203.
  18. 1 2 Campbell 1996, p. 74.
  19. McGrath 2013, p. 198.
  20. Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917.
  21. "Concluding Unscientific Postscript", authored pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus, 1846.
  22. History of Synoptic Tradition
  23. The Courage to Be.
  24. Kelley, Dean M. (1972) Why Conservative Churches are Growing
  25. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism
  26. Alister McGrath. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 5th rev. ed. Wiley, 2011. Look in the index for "Schleiermacher" or "absolute dependence" and see them nearly always juxtaposed.
  27. Congdon, David W. (2015). The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology. Fortress Press. p. 108. ISBN   978-1-4514-8792-3. [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.
  28. Peace Action web page accessed at http://www.peace-action.org/history

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References