Liberal Christianity

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Liberal Christianity
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{{short description|A method of biblical hermeneutics}}{{for|the political movement|Christian left}}{{Redirect-distinguish|Liberal theology|Liberation theology}}{{Historical Christian theology}}{{Protestantism}}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.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.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.WEB,weblink Catholic Encyclopedia: Liberalism, 2007-01-27, Liberal Christians may hold certain core doctrines that are in common with Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, or even fundamentalist Protestantism.

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."{{Sfn|McGrath|2013|p=196}} 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.{{Sfn|Campbell|1996|p=128}}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.{{Sfn|Ogden|1976|pp=405–406}} A traditional Protestant could therefore affirm that "what Scripture says, God says."{{Sfn|Ogden|1976|p=408}} 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.{{Sfn|Campbell|1996|p=128}} 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".{{Sfn|Ogden|1976|pp=408–409}} This conclusion made sola scriptura untenable. In its place, liberals identified the historical Jesus as the "real canon of the Christian church".{{Sfn|Ogden|1976|p=409}} 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.{{Sfn|Ogden|1976|pp=409–411}} 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".{{Sfn|McGrath|2013|p=196}} 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.Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 29 online. 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.Linda Woodhead, "Christianity," in Religions in the Modern World (Routledge, 2002), pp. 186 online and 193. 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.The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805–1900, edited by Gary J. Dorrien (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), passim, search miracles.{{pages needed|date=March 2019}} Many liberals prefer to read Jesus' miracles as metaphorical narratives for understanding the power of God.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.{{better source|date=March 2019}} Not all theologians with liberal inclinations reject the possibility of miracles, but many reject the polemicism that denial or affirmation entails.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.Nineteenth-century liberalism had an optimism about the future in which humanity would continue to achieve greater progress.{{Sfn|McGrath|2013|p=196}} This optimistic view of history was sometimes interpreted as building the kingdom of God in the world.{{Sfn|Campbell|1996|p=128}}


Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher is often considered the father of liberal Protestantism.{{Sfn|Campbell|1996|p=128}} 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.{{Sfn|Tamilio|2002}}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.{{Sfn|"Modernism: Christian Modernism"}} 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.{{Sfn|Frei|2018}} 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.{{Sfn|"Modernism: Christian Modernism"}} 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."{{Sfn|Frei|2018}} 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.{{Sfn|"Modernism: Christian Modernism"}}

Liberal Catholicism

Catholic forms of theological liberalism have existed since the 19th century in England, France and Italy.{{Sfn|Dorrien|2002|p=203}} In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a liberal theological movement developed within the Catholic Church known as Catholic modernism.{{Sfn|Campbell|1996|p=74}} 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.{{Sfn|McGrath|2013|p=198}} Modernism was condemned as heretical by the leadership of the Catholic Church.{{Sfn|Campbell|1996|p=74}}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.{{Sfn|Dorrien|2002|p=203}}

Influence in the United States

{{Primary sources|section|date=March 2019}}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.Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917.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"Concluding Unscientific Postscript", authored pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus, 1846. and including other theologians and scholars such as Rudolf BultmannHistory of Synoptic Tradition and Paul TillichThe Courage to Be.) 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.Kelley, Dean M. (1972) Why Conservative Churches are GrowingThe 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,Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism Karen Armstrong and Scotty McLennan.

Theologians and authors

Anglican and Protestant

Roman Catholic


See also

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  • BOOK, Campbell, Ted A., Christian Confessions: A Historical Introduction, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996,weblink 978-0-664-25650-0, harv,
  • JOURNAL, Dorrien, Gary, Gary Dorrien, Modernisms in Theology: Interpreting American Liberal Theology, 1805–1950, American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, 23, 3, 200–220, University of Illinois Press, September 2002, 27944262, harv,
  • ENCYCLOPEDIA, Frei, Hans Wilhelm, Albrecht Ritschl, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., March 18, 2018,weblink harv,
  • BOOK, McGrath, Alister E., Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd, 2013,weblink 978-0-470-67286-0, harv,
  • ENCYCLOPEDIA, Modernism: Christian Modernism, Encyclopedia of Religion, Thomas Gale, 2005,weblink {{harvid, "Modernism: Christian Modernism", }}
  • JOURNAL, Ogden, Schubert M., Schubert M. Ogden, Sources of Religious Authority in Liberal Protestantism, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44, 3, 403–416, Oxford University Press, September 1976, 1462813, harv,
  • ENCYCLOPEDIA, Tamilio, John, III, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834): Progenitor of Practical Theology, The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology, 2002,weblink harv,
  • ENCYCLOPEDIA, Theological Liberalism, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., November 5, 2018,weblink harv,

External links

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