Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

What is "Liberal Theology?"

Since I identify with neither the classic liberal theology of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, & Harnack, nor with the neo-liberal tradition of Tillich, I have always resisted being called a theological liberal. But the definition of Joel at Connexions is one I can affirm. If “liberal” theology is defined in terms of method, rather than content, then I am a liberal, I guess. I still prefer other terms (“Anabaptist,” “liberation theologian,” etc.), but this shows the differences with fundamentalism or even the method of conservative evangelicalism quite well. My thanks to PamBG for linking to Joel’s article.


September 23, 2006 - Posted by | liberal theology


  1. I think the problem with Joel’s definition is that he is basically saying that anyone who is not a fundamentalist is a liberal. I think he is using an extremely broad definition of liberal, and thus making the term unintelligible. I would rather use the term liberal to describle the classic liberalism of Schleirmacher, for example, but Joel’s all-encompassing definition makes such use of the term meaningless.

    Comment by Jonathan | September 23, 2006

  2. I normally associate the word “liberal” with what George Lindbeck terms “experiential-expressivism.”

    Joel would probably use his definition of liberal to describe you as a liberal, Michael. I think that is just ridiculous. You are no liberal, at least from what I can tell from my reading of your blog.

    I am no liberal. I don’t want the evangelicals to dismiss our pacifism because they write us off as “liberals.” I want them to engage our pacifism, and discover that it is basically evangelical.

    Comment by Jonathan | September 23, 2006

  3. Thanks for these words, Jonathan. I also associate theological liberalism with “experiential-expressivism.” But experience is one of my criteria, although subordinate to Scripture. I haven’t always liked Lindbeck’s categories: His alternative to fundamentalism and liberalism seems to reduce theology to the “grammar” of a “language game.” I think I’m doing more than playing with words.

    While I don’t want evangelicals to dismiss my pacifism (or worse, the nonviolvence of the gospel!!) as a species of “liberalism,” I also don’t want to demonize anything which legitimately IS liberal. I HAVE learned important things from some aspects of liberal tradition(s).

    I’ve also learned much from conservative evangelicals and don’t want that dismissed cheaply either.

    I tend to occupy the fuzzy ground where the “left” end of evangelicalism (“post-conservative” evangelicals or the “generous orthodoxy” folk) meets the “right” end of “mainline Protestant liberalism” (post-liberals). It’s not the mushy middle or the boring middle, but, I believe the dynamic center where the most exciting biblical and theological work today is being accomplished.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 23, 2006

  4. In my Methodist circles, I bump up against the idea that since John Wesley used experience as one source for his theology, he must have been a fore-runner of liberalism. I firmy reject this reading of Methodism.
    When Wesley talked about experience, he meant something very different from what Schleirmacher and Tillich did. Wesley meant specifically Christian experience that arises out of the community of faith as part of living the life of Christian discipleship. That’s what Wesley meant. He did not mean the sort of general universal human experience that Tillich and Schleirmacher meant. There is no such thing as a monolithic “experience” that can serve as a source for theology, and that’s why, even though as a Methodist I believe in a certain kind of experience, I do not consider myself a liberal.

    Comment by Jonathan | September 23, 2006

  5. Hmm, on my blog, I’ve just said a lot of what has been said here – including the comments about Wesley.

    As someone brought up in a fundamentalist denomination (using the word here to mean viewing the bible as vebally-inspired, inerrant and infallible), my experience is that fundamentalists do, in fact, use the word “liberal” to mean anyone who is not a fundamentalist.

    I’m not in favour of defining theology by linguistics. But I’m also a practical theologian and I don’t think that one can dictate the use of language in the streets or in the pews. Theology is not basic mathematics where 1 + 1 must always equal 2. I think that if one is going to use words like “liberal” and “conservative” one needs to define one’s meaning first.

    I’m curious to know from Jonathan and Michael how many church-going Christians in the US subscribe to Schleirmachian-type liberalism. If it’s anything like here in the UK, the answer would be “hardly any”. Yet my fudamentalist friends in both the UK and the US insist that most of mainstream Christianity holds to this approach. Heck, I even attended public lectures at the most conservative theology college (read “seminary”) in the UK where they were teaching future ministers to witness to mainstream Christians in this way – i.e. by debunking the 19th century liberal assumptions we supposedly have.

    This experience is why I have called myself a “moderate liberal”.

    Comment by PamBG | September 26, 2006

  6. Pam, the only people I’ve seen who use Schleiermacher (J., note spelling) are folk who are NOT liberal and have enough interest in historical theology to note that Schleiermacher doesn’t really conform to all the stereotypes. (Although Jonathan’s point about “general human experience,” vs. “Christian experience” is true.)

    More prevalent are appeals to specific types of experience: feminist & womanist appeals to women’s experience, etc.

    Also, I’d say that Tillichian-type neo-liberals are more common. David Tracy comes to mind, as does the late Langdon Gilkey, John Macquarrie, etc.

    But, like you, Pam, I have seen theological colleges and seminaries of the hyper-orthodox rail against “liberalism” when they are railing against movements that have nearly become extinct.

    Yes, fundamentalists use “liberal” to mean all non-fundamentalists. I don’t want to encourage this. It skews the terms of debate. “Liberal,” and “Conservative” may be good political terms (although even there I prefer less vague terms, like calling myself a democratic socialist), but they are increasingly less than helpful in theology.

    The Liberal vs. Conservative dichotomy assumes one can plot theological positions along one coordinate line, from far right to far left. But, even in the late ’70s, Lonnie Kliever showed this was not true in _The Shattered Spectrum_.

    The 2 biggest 20th C. influences on my theology are John Howard Yoder and Juegan Moltmann–neither can be considered either “liberal” or “fundamentalist.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 26, 2006

  7. I don’t know “The Shattered Spectrum” – I’ll go look it up.

    I agree that liberal/conservative is not linear; in fact, I suspect it’s three dimensional, if anything. (Or four dimensional?)

    One of the things I liked about the article that I linked to is that I thought it opened up a different approach, by making clear that one’s approach and one’s outcome could conceivably be different.

    I’m not sure any one theologian has influenced me. James Alison is the theologian I keep going on about, but it’s because he managed to put into words things I’d been thinking for awhile but hadn’t been able to bring together myself. And it’s less Alison himself than the Girardian hermeneutic that appeal to me.

    I guess Alison is “liberal” simply by virtue of being gay and not seeing homosexual orientation as “inherently disordered”. That said, he’s not been censored as a theologian by the Vatican.

    Comment by PamBG | September 26, 2006

  8. Michael, I’ve always thought that extra e in Schleiermacher was unnecessary. 🙂 By the way, speaking of how to spell theologians’ names, I’ve never seen Moltmann’s first name spelled the way you spell it. Must be something strange and German! 🙂

    I would say, though, that the experiential-expressivist mode of theology is almost the air we breathe in the church today. Goodness, gracious, it’s all over the place! It thrives among those who call themselves liberal and those who call themselves conservative. What they don’t seem to realize is that fundamentalism is a form of liberalism (a system that arose in response to the Enlightenment that is supposedly available universally to all people, regardless of the particularities of their communities).

    A good example of experiential-expressivism (and the liberalism I am describing) is Barbara Brown Taylor’s recent book, Leaving Church, which basically equates Christianity with this really wonderful feeling she gets when she is alone by herself with nature. Schleiermacher couldn’t have said it any better. It stems from a low ecclessiology, and it seems to me to be just rampant in the N. American church. The folks don’t know they are indebted to Schl..whatever..er (in the German, literally ‘mess maker’), but that means his influence is all the more pervasive because it goes unacknowledged.

    Comment by Jonathan | September 27, 2006

  9. Because I can’t put an umlaud over the u in Jurgan in comments sections, I spell it Juergan since the umlaud means that in ancient German history there was an “e” there and the u “absorbed” it. Seriously.

    Your other points are well-taken, although I don’t think ecclesiology is all that would separate liberals from conservatives. That seems as reductionist as Joel’s definition.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 28, 2006

  10. Oh, I think you are right. Ecclesiology is not the only thing.

    Comment by Jonathan | September 28, 2006

  11. Obviously, this thread is dead, but since I didn’t know it existed, I’d nevertheless like to comment, even if just to organize some of my thoughts.

    It is easy to throw out terms like “meaninglness” or “ridiculous” or “unintelligible” instead of seriously engaging what I wrote by item.

    First of all, most conservative United Methodists claim the Bible is “inerrant” or “infallible”. My definition clearly provides that it isn’t.

    Second, my post clearly rejects the narrow “exclusivism” of the conservative approach to John 14:6. (Finding Christ in the culture, for example.)

    Third, many conservative United Methodists are not happy with the quadrilateral. Some would even like to see it taken out of the Discipline or have it greatly modified. I’m clearly affirming it, and as currently written.

    Fourth, most conservative UM’s I’m acquainted with speak very little of corporate sin, so I think that is a defining point. They might even give a little lip service to it, but they aren’t seriously engaged in the issues on the whole.

    Fifth, the idea that God is still revealing (my claim) is rejected by most conservative UM’s. They claim, instead, that we are only finding new understandings of what has already been revealed. That is a HUGE distinction.

    Sixth, the idea that there is any “universalist” language in the Bible is rejected by almost all conservative UM’s I’m acquainted with. I clearly provide that Christianity has “univeralist” aspects.

    Seventh, the Confessing Movement and many conservative UM’s effectively wants to make creeds or a creed a test of faith. My post explicity rejects that.

    Eighth, many conservative UM’s reject the idea that there are things related to salvation that aren’t in the Bible. They insist that UM doctrine providing that the Bible contains all “things necessary to salvation” means that the Bible contains everything related to salvation. I explicity reject that.

    Ninth, when I hear most conservative UM’s discussing the Enlightenment, they do so only in a negative way. I’m saying that there were also some hugely positive events in the Church’s favor coming out of that period.

    My post, as written (rejection of inerrancy, support of a God who still reveals), clearly provides the theological means to reject the idea that all homosexual relations as necessarily sin and to thus allow practicing gays to be ordained on a case-by-case basis. I know of very few conservatives who find any way of looking at theology or the Bible where such could be accomplished.

    As a personal aside, I found it very interesting and revealing that Jonanthan Marlowe wanted to engage me by e-mail on a different issue, but when I wrote that my mother had died, he abruptly ended the interaction with no comment on the event whatsoever. For that reason, I have little regard for anything Jonathan has to say.

    Yes, there are some things that are more a dividingng line between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. So what? In the overall culture, that is a big part of the “rap” on liberals, and conservative UM’s have mostly not defended liberals from fundamentalist attacks.

    The link to my post is greatly appreciated.

    Comment by Joel Thomas | October 8, 2006

  12. Most bloggers who set up their blogger.com accounts allow for self-deletion of comments. This blog doesn’t seem to, and of course it doesn’t have to. A couple of hours after I made my last comment, I went back to delete my comment and then re-post it without the personal reference to Jonathan. That’s when I discovered this blog doesn’t carry the usual “trashcan” icon for comment self-deletion.

    My personal aside should have been handled by me by private e-mail to Jonathan and not made public. I apologize to Jonathan, the blog owner, and to readers for my error in judgment.

    Comment by Joel Thomas | October 12, 2006

  13. Joel, I need to look at the template again and see why self-deletion isn’t there. Thanks for the alert.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 12, 2006

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