Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Making of American Liberal Theology

Gary Dorrien has written a massive three volume history of the making of American liberal theology, and I'm currently working my way through the final volume in the series. It's a solid education reading his books. The most recent volume, for example, has an extensive opening chapter on the influence of personalism (personalism was influential in the life and work of MLK Jr. and our current pope, to name a few significant influences).

In any event, here's Dorrien's working definition of liberal theology:

Fundamentally, liberal theology is the idea of a Christian perspective based on reason and experience, not external authority.

It would be interesting to hear comments just on that definition, but to expand:

"Specifically it is defined by its opennes to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially historical criticism and the natural sciences; its commentment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its advocacy of moral concepts of atonement or reconciliation; and its commitments to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to contemporary people."


  1. I think that this is what I may be steeped in. Very interesting definition. I feel that God gave us our minds, so they are to be used.

    But I've also been wanting to find a deeper discussion of conservative viewpoints, both in American Christianity and politics. So often I run across either the "because I told you so" aspect or the name calling (or other types of less than enlightening discussion) in the more conservative arenas.

    Maybe if conservatives base their viewpoints on the "external authority" model, then there isn't an intellectual framework.

  2. Chip Frontz8:42 AM

    Boy, the making of American (sigh) liberal theology (yawn), sounds fasci...(zzz).

    No seriously, it does sound like an interesting work. Here is what Duane Larson, president of Wartburg, wrote in one of his contributions to Historical Dictionary of Lutheranism:

    "Liberalism can be characterized generally in its preference for history over metaphysics and for human goodness and potential (with the inevitability of social progress) over sin."

    In my mind, one of liberal theology's failings is that it tends to forget that the culture into which it is baptized is just as much external authority as is the thought-world of the Bible or the Tradition. Even if the external authority demands you make your own choices.

    If you take Samuel Simon Schmucker as an historical (Lutheran) example, he was so taken with the idea of a pan-Protestant Union in the promised land of America that he was willing to ditch the metaphysical roadblock of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. No doubt this quite well-meaning man was shocked by the Neanderthal conservative reaction from Krauth and the gang.

  3. I think all non-fundamentalist Christians are at least partly liberal by this definition: they accept the findings of modern science, realize that traditional understandings of the faith may have to be revised in light of new discoveries, etc. I see that negotiation of what we know by the light of natural reason and what we believe by faith to be a perennial task of theology.

    Some of the other stuff is something anyone would assent to. For instance, who would wish to make Christianity incredible and socially irrelevant?

    Where the rubber meets the road in the difference betwee liberals and traditionalists, I think is here: "its commentment to the authority of individual reason and experience...". I think this separates theological liberalism not only from conservatism, but from the kind of neo-traditionalist communitarianism associated with folks like Stanley Hauerwas, who want to deconstruct modernist ideas about rationality, experience, and individual autonomy.

    In other words, I think liberalism, in contrast to conservatism and neo-traditionalist communitarianism, has a more positive attitude toward "modernity" (in its theoretical, social, and political aspects) and takes those parameters as given in working out what it takes to be a credible version of the Christian faith.

  4. Lee, I agree that "liberal" theology is usually much more mixed than this simple definition. But I think Dorrien provides the definition to help clarify things. It is clear as he discusses various theologians that they themselves are never "pure" liberals. They have their own nuanced versions of revelation, tradition, inspired Scripture, etc.

    As a current and lively counter-example to the liberal tradition, the new Brazos Theological commentary on Scripture stands as an interesting development. Of course, taken to an extreme, this might be labeled "positivism", which seems like a better counter-term to Dorrien's definition of liberal than "conservative."