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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Thoughts, Anglo-Catholic: On ‘Traditionalists’ or “You Can’t Handle the Oxford Movement”

Tony SigAs a movement, as a theologically ‘centered’ or ‘coherent’ vein of Anglicanism, at least in my experience, and in the West, traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism is dead.  There are of course many Anglo-Catholics, many of whom drive the theological wheels.  I’d say in fact that the theological heavyweights in Anglicanism are in fact predominately though not exclusively ‘Anglo-Catholic.’  Long-lasting effects of Anglo-Catholicism can be felt in our revived Prayer Books; they can be seen in various liturgical performances; we like to recount the Oxford Movement and the (poorly understood and barely read) ‘Liberal Catholics’ in our histories; but if we are to take it as a continuing theological presence, and if we are to take the Oxford Movement and the Liberal Catholics as paradigms, then I personally don’t see many indicators that ACism sustains a theological vein apart from certain British movements of recent memory.

Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong.  I’ve gotten into not a few conversations about this with people who mostly disagree with me and/or disagree with how I define ‘Catholic.’  But as an example lets look at the possible move of some traditionalist AC clergy from the Church of England on account of the likely move to allow women to be bishops.

Without a ‘conscience clause’ these clergy would have to accept the sacramental and pastoral oversight of a woman if such a thing came to pass.  For these people, this would amount to an abandonment of true sacramentality; a transgressing of the apostolic office and the foundation that Christ himself laid and set out for eternity:  If you have a mitre, you must have XY chromosomes and a penis.

Let us assume for the sake of the argument that the Oxford Movement (OM) and probably even the Liberal Catholics (LCs) would disagree with both womens ordination and especially women bishops.  Current traditionalist ACs until this point have suffered their conscience on the matter of women clergy in the C of E so long as it didn’t happen in their parish.  Indeed, if a ‘conscience clause’ had not been rejected as it seems it will be, even still, so long as they themselves were able to practice their piety in good conscience, then it seems few if any would have been tempted to leave the C of E.

Enter a proposition: AC clergy (in the C of E) will not leave the church even if there are women clergy and bishops in the church so long as they are able to maintain their own practice.

That is, they can suffer a diversity on this issue in their wider fellowship, both in the C of E and in the wider Communion.

Proposition II – AC clergy are in Eucharistic (that is, the highest level of) fellowship with women clergy and bishops and parishoners ‘under’ them.

If we are to assume that a ‘true’ traditionalist AC does not ‘recognize’ the sacramental validity of women clergy, then:

Proposition III – ACs are able to abide ‘invalid’ sacraments in part of their church.

If these three propositions are true, and broadly of traditionalist ACs they are, then:

Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics are in fact high-church Congregationalists.

The OM and even the LCs were very concerned with authority.  Indeed, many in the OM were not even thurible swingin’ high-churchers.  No.  Time and again when you read the Tracts for the Times, you realize that the OM was concerned to establish that the C of E sat in proper sacramental, that is episcopal continuity with the church of the apostles and that it wouldn’t have mattered if they had been allowed a thousand parishes to fill with chant and incense.  What mattered was whether or not they were practicing in the same church and with the same authority as the apostles.  Additionally, this would have had to have been true of the entire C of E, and indeed when Newman and many others deemed that it wasn’t, they left for Roman Catholicism.

Similarly Bishop Gore spent an awful lot of time defending the catholicity of the C of E.  Indeed he wrote an impressive and persuasive book on just that topic. (cf. Order and Unity)

Now, I usually situate myself within Anglo-Catholicism seeing a clear line from ABC Michael Ramsey to Rowan Williams to RadOx.  I would then consider myself a “liberal (charismatic and evangelical) catholic” though not in the way that term is generally used today.

But my point isn’t really in this essay to establish my own perfect catholicity (I’m pretty sure there isn’t such a thing) but rather to show that if traditionalist ACs have so far suffered sacramental invalidity in their church they should never have been in the C of E to begin with.  I wonder if they simply don’t get what it means to be ‘Catholics;’ whatever the case they have a long way to go before they can legitimately say that they stand in continuity with Anglo-Catholicism.