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

"My Favorite Liberals": My Essential Dialogue Partners Among Theological Liberals

I must be a glutton for punishment. No sooner do I reassure many evangelical readers of this blog that I am “born again” with testimony of my conversion and faith in Christ, than I write about favorite liberals. What am I thinking? Actually, though, I had been working on this post for some time and, YES, I am planning a companion piece on essential dialogue partners among the Conservative Evangelicals (caps important).

First, let me make two things clear: 1) I do NOT use the term “liberal” in theology to refer to all people who reject biblical ‘inerrancy’ (as I do). “Liberal” theologians, while they have many disagreements, are united in an anthropological starting point (i.e., they begin with some form of general human experience) and in some form of a “method of correlation” (Tillich) between theology and the Modern (Enlightenment and after) world. 2) I do not consider myself a “liberal” since I begin with God’s revelation in Christ through the biblical witness and since, at most, I believe only ad hoc correlations are possible.

The big influences on me theologically are neither “liberal,” nor “conservative.” Those influences: Yoder, Stassen, Marshall, Barth, Moltmann, McClendon, H.R. Niebuhr, Letty Russell, Rauschenbusch, M. L. King, Deotis Roberts, and some others have been or will be the subject of my ongoing series of blog postings on “mentors.” By contrast, the folks below are “dialogue partners,” as are those who will be listed in the companion piece on Conservative Evangelicals.

So, who are my liberal dialogue partners? First, from the Classic Liberal period (19th-mid-20th C.) :

F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), not only the “Father of Liberal Theology,” but the father of all modern and, yes, postmodern theology, too. The first to give theology a truly scientific and systematic shape beyond the summa or the handbook (Calvin’s Institutes clearly was simply a handbook). It is simply not possible to do serious theology since that time without building on Schleiermacher’s legacy, even when challenging or greatly revising it, as Karl Barth knew well. There is much in old Friedrich to deplore, including his anthropological starting point and his reductionism of Christian experience to a feeling of utter dependence, but this is a huge attempt to relate the Pietist tradition to the modern world. Link: Schleiermacher Society.

Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), gave an irreducibly moral shape to modern theology and helped recapture the centrality of the Kingdom of God, which for centuries had just been understood as “heaven.” Ritschl’s view of the Kingdom is inadequate, as was Rauschenbusch’s who drew so much from Ritschl, but the recovery of its centrality is still of incalculable importance. Ritschl’s contention that Christianity is characterized by 2 foci, individual salvation and social ethics, still seems right on the money, to me. Further info. here.

William Newton Clarke (1841-1912), the first in North America (taught in both Canada & U.S.) to write a systematic theology from a Schleiermachian perspective. Theologians debate how much Clarke borrowed from Schleiermacher and how much he simply thought along similar lines. There were also connections to Ritschl and Hermann.

Douglas Clyde Macintosh (1877-1948), Canadian-born Baptist theologian at Yale attempted to make theology an empirical science. He was an enormous influence on the brothers Niebuhr and later Process Theology, but also on the postmodern (ana)Baptist theology of my mentor, James Wm. McClendon, Jr.  Recent study found here.

Adolf von Harnack(1851-1930), for his incredibly encyclopedic knowledge and display of the history of Christian doctrine. (But his reduction of the “essence of Christianity” to the “Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,” was incredibly weak–and patriarchal to boot.)

Top 10 Favorite Liberals: Contemporary and Recent Past

10. Dorothee Sölle, German feminist political theologian. See Sarah K. Pinnock, ed., The Theology of Dorothee Soelle.

9. Marjorie Schucocki, Feminist Process Theologian. Best 1 vol. systematic from a process perspective.

8. Gary Comstock, both for his early work on narrative theology (mapping out some of the varieties) and for his subsequent work on theology from an openly gay male perspective. Whatever one believes about “homosexuality” pro or con, one cannot ignore the theological challenge and Comstock is the best theologian among those proposing full inclusion. I do wish he would relate this to his earlier work on narrative theology so that one could judge the adequacy of connections.

7. Eric Rust, a British Baptist educated in both physics and theology, came to the U.S. after both pastorates and academic positions in the U.K. He taught for decades at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where he forged an “evolutionary theology” that was an early process theology not as fully dependent on the metaphysics of Hartshorne and Whitehead as most later versions. Rust helped many, many reconcile science and theology and was one of the first to see the challenge of the ecological crisis to theology. He related the covenant and salvation history themes of the Scriptures to evolutionary worldview in a very persuasive way.

6. Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004) Chicago’s giant from the early ’60s to the ’90s. Gilkey was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, but, unlike the latter, he forged a “theology of culture” that could actually be understood! Gilkey’s book Naming the Whirlwind essentially demolished the “Death of God” movement. For more info. see here and here.

5. Hans Küng (1928-), the brilliant star of the radical Catholics whose work both led to Vatican II and charted the path further. Sidelined in Catholic life for challenging papal infallibility, Küng’s works On Being a Christian, and Does God Exist? are major apologetic works for our time which take seriously Christianity’s skeptical critics (as conservative apologists seldom do) without capitulating to them. He also has helped pioneer Christian interfaith dialogue in ways that are not just the nonsense of “all roads lead up the same mountain.” Biblio-blogger Chris Tilling’s excellent reflections on Küng’s importance are found here.

4. Daniel Day Williams (1910-1973), was a pioneer process theologian who work was far more connected to the major Christian tradition and its symbols than most in the Whitehead/Hartshorne school. Unfortunately, Williams’ most important works, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope; The Spirit and the Forms of Love; and The Demonic and the Divine are all out of print.

3. Howard Thurman (1900-1981) African-American mystic whom I profiled earlier as a Baptist prophet.  See the Howard Thurman Center at Boston University. There is also a Howard Thurman documentary film project here.  Morehouse College houses the Howard Thurman papers.  The interracial Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which Thurman founded in San Francisco, is still in existence.  Thurman was a major influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.

2. Harvey Cox(1929-) — American theologian most in touch with the currents of culture.  Beginning with Barth & Bonhoeffer, Cox moved from celebrating “the secular city,” to being one of the first liberals to notice that secularism was dying. He rediscovered in a new way the centrality of Jesus in, of all places, his interfaith dialogue! Cox became one of the first mainline liberals to take Pentecostalism seriously, too. Never anything close to a systematician, Cox remains one of the most astute theologians of culture for North America. Currently the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University Divinity School.

1. Marcus J. Borg whose biblical work is among the strongest in the “Jesus Seminar,” but who also has sought to revitalize liberalism in ways that are easily communicable to laity. The Heart of Christianity renews the Pietist tradition of the heart in a radical post-modern world. Do I always agree? No. But it’s not your average liberal who advises congregations to have more Bible studies! More info. here and his books here.

Runners Up: Sallie McFague, Peter Gomes, John Cobb (for relating process theology to liberation thought and ecological theology); Clark Pinnock in “Open Theism” phase; L. Harold DeWolf & Walter G. Muelder for Boston Personalism; Rosemary Radford Ruether; Beverly Wildung Harrison; Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza; Carlyle Marney.

October 15, 2006 - Posted by | liberal theology


  1. Have you read David Tracy?

    Comment by Tyler Simons | October 16, 2006

  2. Some. I find that he gets so stuck trying to get methodology right (constantly writing new prolegoumenae) that he never gets around to actually writing substantive theology. I know many folk who REALLY like Tracy, but I have never been able to get into him.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 16, 2006

  3. I’ve always sorta liked Dick Tracy, though…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 16, 2006

  4. Sorry, Dan. The problem with writing a blog like mine is that I have both a seminary-trained and lay group of readers and interlocutors. Not everyone will be as interested in every post. These names mostly don’t matter to you, I know, although issues addressed would possibly be of interest.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 16, 2006

  5. Great list, Michael — and I’m glad to see Schleiermacher at the top! I didn’t know that William Newton Clarke’s was the first Schleiermacherian dogmatics in North America. I’ve got a copy of this book somewhere, but have never read it — so I’ll be sure to take a look at it now.

    Also: another Catholic “liberal” whose work is very important to me is Schillebeeckx.

    Comment by Ben Myers | October 16, 2006

  6. I’ve been meaning to read Schillebeeckx, but never got around to him, yet. Rahner, I don’t count as a liberal, nor von Balthasar.

    I am just now starting Elizabeth A. Johnson’s, She Who Is, which is a liberal feminist work on the Trinity. Catherine La Cugna was a feminist whose work on the Trinity accepted the older all-male terminology. Sallie McFague proposed a feminist-metaphorical view that ended up with an economic Trinity, but no ontological Trinity–a new modalism. Johnson attempts to have an ontological Trinity that still takes the feminist critique of traditional God language very seriously. So, I’m interested to see if her project works, but I’ve just begun.

    Since my training was in theological ethics and then in philosophical hermeneutics (with minor concentrations in NT in both cases), I have gravitated more toward theologians (liberal, conservative, neoorthodox, etc.) with strong moral/ethical concerns than those for whom this is secondary.

    I wasn’t really ranking the “essential liberals” from the classic era. Schleiermacher topped the list simply because he was first. And I didn’t include the major Biblical folks, Schweitzer, von Rad, Bultmann, Kaesemann, etc. The post was long enough as it is.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 16, 2006

  7. Slightly off-topic, but is Pinnock no longer in his Open Theism phase?

    Comment by graham old | October 17, 2006

  8. As far as I know, Graham, Pinnock is still an open theist. I was contrasting this, which many of his former evangelical colleagues and friends have called liberal, and which does seem to use a liberal methodology, with his earlier mild Calvinism when he was clearly a Conservative Evangelical. Pinnock would argue that he is still Evangelical & he might be, but it’s a close call. The later Pinnock seems to work out of a liberal model, it seems to me.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 17, 2006

  9. Ah, thanks, Michael.

    Comment by graham old | October 18, 2006

  10. Don’t know if anyone is still reading this thread, but what think ye of James Gustafson? He once seemed to be the heir apparent to H. Richard Niebuhr, but now gets mostly ignored, don’t you think? I think he is just so boring to read!

    Comment by Jonathan | December 7, 2006

  11. Jonathan, because I get sent an email every time someone comments on the blog, I notice even when it’s on an old posting such as this one. So, you won’t be ignored.

    As for Gustafson, I like his earlier works, but I find little to excite me in his two volume Ethics From a Theocentric Perspective. Since he cancels out any eschatological hope, he seems to have a God who is blind power–and indistinguishable from the forces of the universe. Yes, this picks up on some strands of HR Niebuhr’s later thought–but without HRN’s robust Christology to keep it from pure pessimism.

    Boring? No, but I don’t find him at all helpful.

    Now, here’s a question: How is it that someone like Gustafson can interact so little with Scripture and yet so stress the importance of such interaction that most of his famous students are known far and wide for their careful uses of Scripture in theological ethics: people like Douglas Ottati, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Allen Verhey, Margaret Farley, Gene Outka, David Hollenbach, S.J., William Spohn, & James F. Childress!!

    Does Gustafson get ignored? The list above shows that he is still widely appreciated because he taught generations of the best ethicists in the USA. But I don’t think his “theocentric ethics” gets much of a following without modification.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 8, 2006

  12. […] Küng ranked #5 on my list of Top Ten Favorite Liberal Theologians.  From his early work on Barth to his attempt, from within […]

    Pingback by Hans Küng’s Theological Memoirs « Levellers | July 9, 2007

  13. […] Jewish Thinkers In previous posts, I have spelled out some of my major dialogue partners among liberal theologians and among conservative evangelicals.  But I have other influences, other dialogue partners, and […]

    Pingback by My Debt to Jewish Thinkers « Levellers | September 6, 2007

  14. […] Index of Posts on Theological Dialogue Partners My Favorite Liberal Theologians […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Theological Dialogue Partners « Levellers | July 28, 2008

  15. […] long overdue contribution to my series on Dialogue-Partners in Theology.  I first wrote a post on My Favorite Liberal Theologians outlining those theologians in the liberal/modernist tradition that I find to be indispensible […]

    Pingback by ialogue Partners in the Wider Evangelical Tradition « Levellers | August 23, 2009

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