Still, an occasional look at Bishop Alan's Blog had his entry about Brian McLaren's latest book, which I'd looked at a while back, and he was more generous towards it than his commenters. I rather agree with the commenters, if from a different perspective. Anyhow, a discussion formed amongst the comments about liberalism in religion from Si Hollett and Brett Gray in particular using the definition in Grenz, Stanley J., Olson, Roger E. (1992), 20th Century Theology : God & The World In A Transitional Age, Paternoster Press.
Si Hollett wrote:
In their book 20th-Century Theology, Grenz and Olson, no rabid fundamentalists they, describe classic liberalism in five points:
1. Liberals believe doctrine needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought.
2. Liberals emphasize the need to reconstruct traditional beliefs and reject the authority of tradition and church hierarchy.
3. Liberals focus on the practical and ethical dimensions of Christianity.
4. Liberals seek to base theology on something other than the absolute authority of the Bible.
5. Liberals drift toward divine immanence at the expense of transcendence.
Page 52 (1992) outlines these characteristics:
- Reconstructing Christianity in the light of modern knowledge, that elements of thinking since the Enlightenment cannot be ignored. It had to adapt to the new scientific and philosophical mindset.
- Freedom of the individual to criticise and reconstruct traditional beliefs. Even communally orientated (liberal) Christians reserved this right.
- The moralising of doctrine and focus upon the ethical over the speculative doctrinal.
- Foundation other than the absolute authority of the Bible. Historical-critical research undermined supernatural inspiration. For liberals Scripture has an eternal gospel 'within' that will survive the critical process and theology is to find the kernel beyond the supernatural husks.
- More emphasis in immanence than transcendence. Jesus becomes the exemplary human.
Brett Gray's comments are worth recommenting, I think, for each part.
1. 'Liberals believe doctrine needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought'... but what about those who believe that doctrine does develop (a patent truism from Church History) in conversation with new questions that emerge in new contexts? And that tradition is an ongoing faithful discussion, not a static given?
What tradition does, in this sense, is offer a broad road, a set of concepts and a language to use. This language is inherited, and comes from the past. However, in the liberal approach, as you go backwards in time you become aware of the differences of meaning from what has been kept and the language they used that at some point was dropped. In fact it can go all the way back to opposites, such as the journey backwards from Unitarianism to broader English Presbyterianism to the opposite of Calvinism.
2. 'Liberals emphasize the need to reconstruct traditional beliefs and reject the authority of tradition and church hierarchy.' That is protestantism. Are all protestants liberal?
No they are not, but early on some were (seen from our perspective, but they were not and could not be ideologically). Some used 'ordinary comprehension' in their direct reading of Scripture off the page and found a mixture of unitarian and Arian stances, and equally found less doctrine than some Reformers supposed. In other words, most Reformers saw what they wanted to see through their existing doctrinal spectacles, as many continue to do today despite their Bible based claims.
3. 'Liberals focus on the practical and ethical dimensions of Christianity.' Inasmuch as you did it to them, you did it to me. Is Jesus a liberal?
The problem with the term liberal is that it gains meaning from about the 18th century in an ideological sense. To call Jesus liberal is at best to extract him from his supernaturalist last days beliefs and Jewish traditions. Only aspects can be 'liberal' and to use the old view that the liberal has the religion of Jesus as opposed to the religion about Jesus just won't do: they are all about Jesus. However, the liberal focus on the practical and ethical can mean that focus unhooks from Jesus.
4. 'Liberals seek to base theology on something other than the absolute authority of the Bible.' 'Authority' and how it is constructed is an interesting question. Authority is not a univocal concept and 'absolute' as an adjective adds nothing to the clarity of this statement except to say 'No, it's really, REALLY authoritive!' Which leaves 'authority' and how it operates still undefined.
The first reformers who would be continuous with liberals were still completely Bible centred, but ordinary comprehension said something about the individual and the mind of the reader. So that becomes continuous, eventually, with the focus on the individual mind as authority.
5. 'Liberals drift toward divine immanence at the expense of transcendence.' So do some charismatics I know...
This may be why Diarmaid MacCulloch (in his BBC 4 series A History of Christianity) sees some Pentecostalism as marking a route away from Christianity. There is nothing particularly exclusive to liberals about a focus on immanence. The Secular City approach did this, and it was not liberal (in the sense of asking questions, of taking new routes of faith).
Liberalism has so many definitions. Last Sunday, at the Hull congregational meeting (that decides things) one person said being liberal is to be broad and generous in your welcome, like saying someone was liberal in their hosting of a dinner party. That adds one more meaning to so many.