In Defense of Liberal Theology

Tony Sig

“God has called us to unfold a growing message, and not to rehearse a stereotyped tradition” – B.F. Westcott

I have learned a great deal from Ephraim Radner, mostly having to do with Scripture and with attempting to be an academic theologian in a sentimentalist’s theological world, and I’m deeply indebted to him for this – but lord help me, when he ventures onto First Things I’m never sure what to make of his rather incoherent political ramblings. In a recent piece he seemingly assumes that political conservatism necessarily flows from theological ‘orthodoxy,’ or at least ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics.  Though his piece is purposely vague, Radner is quite clear that ‘liberal’ theology leads to a relativizing of Scripture’s authority, to ‘dogmatic dissolution’, and to a ‘laissez-faire’ view of ‘human relations.’ (Whether this statement is simply about sexuality is unclear. Does this indict conservative laissez-faire’ economics as well?)

The difficulty in engaging an essay like this goes back to language usage. Is all ‘liberal theology’ intrinsically unorthodox? Or is it, perhaps, that only liberal theology that ends in unorthodoxy is ‘genuinely liberal?’ My problem with Radner’s usage is that it needs some historization, something which, as a distinguished historical theologian, he ought to be doing automatically. In rereading the essay several times I think we should understand Radner to be suggesting something like ‘liberal theology is unorthodox, or at least leads to unorthodoxology. If it is still orthodox, it is not liberal.’ Bracketing, for the sake of discussion, the politics of what counts as ‘orthodox’ and what does not, I would like to assert that what has historically counted as ‘liberal theology’ is not often in direct conflict with traditional affirmations of the Christian faith. Indeed it is rather part and parcel of what is required of  theological work attempting to articulate a faithful proclamation of the Church’s witness.

But what is ‘liberal theology?’ Rather than answer this straightforwardly, I think it would be more fruitful to point to theologians who have consistently been called liberal. Classic examples from Germany include von Harnack, Schleiermacher, and Bultmann; in the contemporary anglophone world, J.A.T. Robinson, Raymond Brown, or Marcus Borg. But a great deal more than these have been considered ‘liberal,’ at least by their contemporaries, yet their insights have often been normalized and their reputations vindicated through time. Since Dr. Radner and I are both Episcopalians, I think some Anglican examples are apropos.

Bishop Charles Gore comes to mind, obviously, being considered the father of ‘liberal catholicism;’ So also does the Cambridge trio Westcott, Hort, and Lightfoot, whose work on the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers can hardly be overestimated  (Brown touted the genius of Westcott’s commentary on John in his NT Introduction). We might rightly add the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who, like liberal catholics before him, wasn’t afraid to incorporate historical criticism in his exegesis. With perhaps Gore only excepted (for his creative exploration of kenosis), there is hardly any thought that these scholars are not ‘orthodox,’ and while they may not now be considered ‘liberal’ generally, all wrote works that were controversial in their day using liberal methods. Just think of the stink around the usurpation of the Textus Receptus and the revised translation based on the critical text.

Liberal theology  is responsible for critical editions of the Bible, for advancements in historical work, for experimental integration of science and religion, for feminist theology, and a great many other things that have proved invaluable for Christians. It is doubtful whether conservative theology, left to its own devices, would ever have done as much. That liberals can err is no more remarkable than that conservatives can err, and no more clear evidence that they are fundamentally askew than that all conservatives fall prey to arianesque traditionalism. The continuing task of theology will require renewed pressing at the edges of what is respectable language. The tradition, in other words, should be non-identically repeated.  I don’t think we need liberal parties, or liberal identity policing (what is authentically liberal?), but we need the openness to the strangeness and newness of our encounter with God’s active grace; openness to the possibility that some assumed beliefs have grown wild and must be hacked off; that certain traditions cannot be maintained because they are actively harming people. “Christianity is not an uniform and monotonous tradition, but can be learned only by successive steps of life.” F.J.A. Hort

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7 Comments

  1. I’m just not as well versed in the literature like you are, Tony. But I’m glad you’re bringing tradition to bear on the more reactionary elements within Anglicanism…and really in the whole turn towards orthodoxy (of which I am, unabashedly, an enthusiastic participant).

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  2. Tony, thanks for this fine post. I am curious, however, about one particularly odd claim; namely, that ‘liberal theology is responsible … for feminism’? Care to elaborate?

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  3. Yeah, I thought that was probably a vague use. I just wanted to avoid saying ‘theology’ so much. It was a purely aesthetic move and is now clarified.

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  4. Gary Dorrien’s Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit is worth reading in this regard… he traces the roots of modern liberal theology to the German Idealist tradition, but he offers ample space to consider British idealist/liberal theologians. There are still some ambiguities left in place as to what makes a “liberal”, but the book goes a long way in offering a positive account.
    I think there’s an important distinction to be made between liberal critique at the methodological or hermeneutical level, on the one hand, and at the doctrinal level on the other. When one reads Troeltsch, for instance, there is a strong critique of various apologetic moves based on the authority of miracles or prophecy. This is why we continue to read The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions. Troeltsch also disbelieved in miracles “in the narrow sense”, conceived as floating ax heads and the like, but this isn’t what remains significant about his thought. No one reads Troeltsch because he showed us the light about which biblical events aren’t historical. We read him to understand the more fundamental forms of historical consciousness and perhaps for his attempts at a metaphysics of history to make sense of theological realities. Sometimes the methodological and the doctrinal critiques converge – Troeltsch’s christology was significantly effected by his philosophy of history, and he introduces problems here with which we all need to wrestle – but there is a significant legacy of liberal theology, I think, which you are right to embrace here, simply on the level of critical thought in service to the faith and apart from concerns about anemic doctrinal stances (which are certainly present in liberalism, but in no way unique to it).
    What is most significant about liberal theology, in my mind, is the critical spirit that it brings to thinking about the grounds of our faith. That some liberals were and are “unorthodox” on various matters is worth recognizing and a possible consequence worth weighing, but this is the less interesting legacy of liberalism as far as I’m concerned.

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    1. I concur with this. I do think that a liberal ‘critical spirit’ and its attendant tools are not necessarily tied to a ‘liberal program;’ to the extent that there is such a program, it does often seem tied to philosophies of history which can be disputed.

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  5. Good post, Tony. I don’t know what ‘conservative theology’ is, it doesn’t have the sort of historical markers that the term ‘liberal theology’ does, but I do think contemporary theology often narrates something called liberal theology as this monolithic thing, neatly tied to Kant (though, of course, there is warrant for that), and that has — most importantly — been defeated. I’ve heard Catholic theologians talk about this with respect to Rahner in Roman Catholic theology. It seems as if conservatives need Rahner to be the foundationalist liberal, to play the part of what is to be and has been rejected.

    Really, I wonder, rather than defend or criticize a monolith called liberal theology (and I really think you’re just defending a tiny swath, what Ramsey calls liberal, rather than looking at what is ordinarily meant in reference to that tradition, generally – although maybe I’m wrong), it’s better to just do away or be very careful with those terms in the theological domain.

    In other words, it might be there is ‘liberal theology’ as a theological program that stretches back to Kant, a type of embrace of external criteria and foundationalism (or whatever) and there is theologians being called liberal by their contemporaries because of certain stances and strategies. So we embrace much of what is the fruit of something like liberal theology by understanding that stuff like historical criticism needn’t be wed to a program of ‘liberal theology’ in the broader sense.

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