Notes on the Video "Protestant Liberalism"
We often record videos on various cults, but the number of people in all the cults combined, is small compared to all the Protestants who are liberals.
Just how many liberals are there, and how many people in the world claim to be Christian? For those of you who are numbers oriented, here are some statistics. You can double check my charts, for most of these numbers were taken from the 1997 World Almanac.
Of all the 5.7 billion people in the world, about 1/3, or 1.9 billion, claim to be Christian. Of the rest, 1/5 are non-religious, and 1/5 are Muslim. Of the nominal Christians, half are Catholic, ¼ are Protestant, Episcopalian, and Anglican, and ¼ are other.
Of all who claim to be Christian, 13%, or 250 million, live in North America. These 250 million make up 85% of the population of the United States and Canada.
Focusing on the nominal Christians in north America, the second chart shows that half of them are Protestant. Now there are differences among Catholics, and there are liberal Catholics such as Hans Kung, but today we are only going to focus on the differences among Protestants. Of the Protest-ants, only 21% are from denominations and groups that are generally considered conservative. 20% are considered moderate, and 24% liberal. 34% I was unable to differentiate, but I think some of the undifferentiated are in each category. The 15% in the Other category include many independent Christian churches that can be conservative, moderate, or liberal, too. In contrast to this, only 3% are in what people usually call cults.
The third chart show which Christian denominations are generally considered, liberal, moderate, and conservative. Among Lutherans, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is considered liberal, the Missouri Synod is considered to be a mixture, or moderate, and the Wisconsin Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Synod are considered conservative. Among Presbyterian and other Reformed churches, the PC-USA is very liberal, PCA, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and most other Reformed churches are conservative. The United Methodist Church is considered very liberal, but at least 5% of the churches are actually conservative. The American Baptist church is moderate to liberal, fundamentalist Baptist churches are conservative, and there is disagreement among the conservatives and moderates in the Southern Baptist convention.
Thus, if someone becomes a Christian, or a Christian moves to a new town, if they were to pick a nominal Christian church at random, the odds of them picking a liberal church are somewhat greater than the odds of them picking a conservative church.
Larry: Steve, what is your experience with Protestant liberalism?
Steve: I was raised in liberal churches for as long as I can remember until my second year of college. I was first raised in a liberal Presbyterian church, that would be considered a part of the Presbyterian Church USA today. Even in the fourth grade, I saw that many people there did not really believe what the Bible said. However, it was at that time that my desire to study God's word was awakened, primarily through my fourth grade Sunday school teacher. I still remember her name, Mrs. Sturgeon. She taught us not only a song to memorize the names of the books of the Old Testament, but more important, she taught us the revere and love God's word.
I guess two lessons to learn are that even in very liberal churches, there are true Christians who teach God's word, and even in unfavorable environments, God can continue to work through His word.
Larry: Did you stay at that church until college?
Steve: No, we changed churches a few years later, after a couple was kicked out of the church for wanting to teach the High School class out of the Book of Revelation. As I understand it, the problem was not with what they were teaching, but rather with the fact that they wanted to teach out of Revelation at all. After this we attended an Episcopalian church, which in my memory was not very liberal.
It was soon after this that my father took me to a Billy Graham Crusade in a stadium. On Monday night I listened, and he asked people to come down to accept Jesus. I did not do it, because I was too scared to. He asked very night, and on Thursday night, I mustered the courage to go down. I think people feel different ways when they accept Christ. Some may cry, some may be very emotional with joy, but I still remember how I felt. It was a very serious, sobering moment, and it was what I really wanted to do. Later, my father said he regretted taking me to the Crusade.
I am not sure anyone at the church knew of my decision, or even cared about the Billy Graham concert. For things like this, they were neither supportive nor rejecting.
I went through confirmation at this church. We did not hear the gospel in confirmation, but I remember learning about the other denominations. Almost every denomination was started by a regular person. Only the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church were started by Jesus Christ Himself. I do not remember hearing anything of King Henry VIII.
I guess what I learned from this that there are different kinds of liberal churches and churches can be liberal to different degrees. Liberal Christianity is a catch-all phrase that describes various groups.
Larry: How long did you stay at this church?
Steve: We only stayed two or three years before we moved. After we moved, we went church-hopping to look for a church home. The only requirement, from my mother, was that we would not join a church that took the Bible literally.
After looking around, we settled on a United Methodist church. They had an active program, and many adult Sunday school classes on things such as parenting, counseling, world concerns, and a few on the Bible. As they explained, members primarily studied the Bible at home, and learned the "application" at church. In the summer they did not have a VBS - Vacation Bible School program. Instead, they had a VCS, Vacation Church School.
Larry: So what did you think about this church?
Steve: At the time I enthusiastically recommended we go there. In my Sunday school class, the couple that taught were believers; you could see it in their life. Also, there was a girl in the class I liked, too.
Larry: Aha, so the truth comes out! Girls aside, what are some things you learned at this church?
Steve: This church was perhaps the most liberal of all. A number of genuine Christians are within even the most liberal of churches, and they can work to bring others to Christ. However, they can do a disservice to young Christians who need solid teaching, because if they were not there, the young Christians would not see any spiritual life and would go to another church instead.
Larry: Why do you say that this church was perhaps the most liberal?
Steve: It was more serious than just a de-emphasis of the Bible. At one time, the minister told a group of us in his office that he did not believe that Jesus died for our sins. He said that if I wanted to believe that it was OK with him, but he would not believe that primitive thing. My parents were amazed when I told them what he said. They pointed out that every month, during communion, the minister repeated Jesus' words, "this is the blood shed for the forgiveness of sins." He did say that every month, but I heard firsthand that he did not believe it. I guess one thing people should look for in a minister, is whether they are sincere in their belief. That is, do they truly believe in their mind what they are teaching from the pulpit.
By the way, can you guess what happened to the minister? He got promoted and became a bishop?
Larry: Do all Protestant liberals deny this?
Steve: No, Protestant liberals believe different things, and a number of them do not deny this.
The minister also said he did not believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Now 1 Cor 15:1-4 says that if you do not believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead, your belief is in vain. Some months later, I remember the pastor saying he did believe that Jesus rose from the dead. So, maybe he came to believe this after all; however, I never got the impression that this belief was very important.
An assistant minister shared with me how the Bible had many contradictions. As an example, he pointed to the feeding of the four thousand in Matt 15:29-39. They only had seven loaves and a few fish, and 7 baskets were left over. Yet in Mark 6:30-44 and John 6:1-13 Jesus fed 5,000 with 5 small loaves and two fish. 12 baskets were left over.
I thought these were two different occurrences, but I could not support that. I did not know this at the time, but the feeding of the five thousand right after John the Baptist was beheaded and right before walking on the water on the way north to Capernaum and Bethsaida. There was plenty of green grass to sit on. In Matt 15 the feeding of the 4,000 was after this, right before sailing south to Magadan, and they sat on the bare ground. The clincher is that Matthew himself knew these were separate events, because he wrote of the feeding of the 5,000 in Matt 14:13-21 and the feeding of the 4,000 in Matt 15:29-39.
I have always been an avid reader, and I read a few of the books that were in vogue. I remember that one of them discussed Piaget's view of stages of human growth from an allegedly Christian perspective. After reading that book, I asked myself, "if Jesus not come to earth and died for our sins and rose from the dead, would that make one iota of difference in anything the author wrote?" Actually it would not.
One lesson I learned from that is that if your teaching does not need the blood of Jesus, then you do not need that teaching.
Almighty, All-Knowing, All-Loving
Many liberal Methodist ministers graduate from Perkins Theological Seminary at SMU in Dallas. A minister shared with a group of us high school students that one of the deeper issues theologians wrestle with, is that if God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, how come bad things happen to people? Is it because God does not foresee everything; He is not all-knowing? Is it because God cannot stop it, because He is not all-powerful? A popular book by a Jewish Rabbi, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People suggests both errors. Why some conservatives still recommend this book is beyond me.
I might not have been able to answer that question then, but I can answer it now in four points.
First, God is called the Almighty in many places including Isaiah 6:5. As Gabriel said in Luke 1:37, "Nothing is impossible with God.", and if some claim to know more about God than the angel Gabriel, I certainly do not. The only limit on God's power is God Himself, for example, Isaiah 48:9 and 2 Peter 3:9 say that He chooses to delay His wrath for the sake of His glory and for our sake. Also, God, created the universe by His word, He cannot lie from Hebrews 6:18 and He cannot be tempted by evil in James 1:13.
Second, God is knows everything. Psalm 139:16 says "all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." In John 21:17 Peter tells our risen Lord that He knows all things. While Jesus did not know the day or hour of his return in Matt 24:16, that was after Jesus emptied Himself and came earth and before His resurrection.
Third, the Bible never says that God is all-loving. He is extremely, loving, the most loving being in the universe, and He has compassion on all in Ps 145:9 and in one sense is loving toward all He has made in Ps 145:13. However, in the last judgment, God certainly loves the sheep more than the goats. Rom 9:13 says that God loved Jacob but hated Esau. All of us, even Saul of Tarsus in Eph 2:3, are objects of wrath, prior to our being saved.
Finally, bad and unfair things do happen in this fallen world under the influence of its prince, Satan (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 1 Jn 5:19). It is not without reason that Satan is called the god of this world in 2 Cor 4:4, and He is said to have dominion in Col 1:13 and Eph 6:12. As long as we focus only this life, we will be deeply perplexed about God's justice. Nevertheless, if we see the future as Habakkuk did, and remember there will be a day of final judgment when justice will come, we can see how temporary these trials are.
When we did study the Bible, sometimes we used commentaries by William Barclay. I understand that some Baptist churches use Barclay too, and that is unfortunate.
Larry: What is wrong with William Barclay?
Steve: He denies the fact that Jesus died for our sins. I first saw this in reading his commentary on 1 Cor 15. As the Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge 2nd Ed. puts it, "Although brought up in an evangelical home, he rejected the concept of substitutionary atonement and regarded miracles as symbols of what God can still do.
If we wonder where Protestant liberals come from, many of them come from Conservative churches. Perhaps if conservative Christians themselves all stopped using and recommending teachers who denied Jesus' atonement, we would not see that many Conservative church-goers deny essential truths of the Gospel.
Larry: So in this environment, how did you grow in your spiritual life?
Steve: I had some difficult times, but three ways I received good teaching and fellowship were through Young Life, a Bible study at school in High School, and a fellowship at another church I was introduced to. This church was so different, and so alive with prayer, praise, and the study of God's word. This church was also a United Methodist Church. They knew of liberalism well, and they rejected it. Some of the leaders came from Asbury Theological Seminary, in Kentucky. I differed with most of them on one point, because they believe you can lose your salvation. However, that difference is very small compared with Jesus not dying for our sins or not physically rising from the dead. I love those brothers and sisters, and on that point we can simply agree to disagree, until we see each other in heaven.
Larry: What happened when you went to college?
Steve: The summer before I went to college, I went with some friends in a Baptist church to a week-long summer camp, I guy I never heard of before spoke, named Josh McDowell. His messages on apologetics were especially powerful, and I remembered them well. When I came to college, I was in the unusual situation of being able to talk well on historical apologetics, but not being able to explain the Gospel very well. I got involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, where I grew tremendously. The Christian doctrines they taught me were not the most important things I learned, though. Rather, I learned how to study the Bible and learn the doctrines myself.
Anyway, at college I attended a liberal United Methodist Church, probably from habit. One day I asked myself, "what am I doing here?" I told myself the same answer I had told myself for years, that I was there mainly as a light and witness for others. But I remembered what someone told me, that if you are in a place to heat everyone else up, and they are not being heated up, perhaps that is a sign that you are slowly freezing. After visiting a few churches, I became a member of Grace Covenant Church, where I had a tremendous experience learning God's word.
A couple of years later, I was involved with a small group of people, calling ourselves "Operation Omelette" to help bring, not unity, but unity in Christ to Christian groups on campus. We had twenty or so Christian groups that participated in this, and we had a newsletter with a circulation of about a thousand. It would seem unfair to arbitrarily exclude certain groups without sufficient cause. So, we decided that each group, and not us, would determine if it would like to join. I drew up a two page statement of faith that a group had to agree with. This statement of faith would probably be closely scrutinized and possibly criticized, so the statement of faith was nothing more than agreeing with three or four passages of scripture. Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Charismatics, could all agree with no problem.
A close friend of mine was in the Methodist church's student group, and for one of their meetings, I came, invited them to join, and explained everything to them. They had a great deal of disagreement among themselves. I had said that if 51% of them agree, that is not good enough; there really needs to be a consensus. After this, according to my friend, they argued and the group split. It turned out that the student president was an agnostic, and about half of them could not agree with these Bible verses.
Larry: What were these Bible verses that this liberal group split over?
Steve: One was Acts 10:34-43. (Read this)
A second one was 1 Cor 15:1-4 (Definitely read this)
Another one is Acts 4:12. "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
Larry: So can a someone assume that if they attend a church that is not in a liberal denomination, they will be fine?
Steve: No. There are no guarantees. You need to discern for yourself. I heard of one person who is an atheist and was an ex-Baptist. According to what I heard, and I have to admit, this is second hand, his pastor convinced him that the virgin birth was not true. William Barclay had doubts about the virgin birth, too. Anyway, this person reasoned that if that was wrong, you might as well chuck the whole Bible.
Larry: Well just how bad can liberal theology get?
Steve: As I said earlier, all liberal Protestants are not extreme liberals. But to answer your question, I have the liberal theologian Paul Tillich to thank for showing how bad it can get He taught that God is love (Larry: So far, so good). That means that God equals love, and thus love equals God (Larry: Uh-oh) Therefore, anything you do out of love you are automatically doing for God. He gave an example of a German woman who was captured and put in a prison camp by the Russians in World War II. She wanted to be home with her family, and she knew that if she persuaded a Russian soldier to get her pregnant they would let her go. So she seduced a soldier, got pregnant, went home, and raised the baby. That was done out of love, so wasn't that a godly thing to do?!
Larry: (Add your own words)
Steve: I later learned that Paul Tillich taught that God is the ground of being. According to R.C. Sproul, this subtly denies that God is not a personal being himself. In other words, God is a verb, "love", and not primarily thought of as a person.
Types of Liberalism
Larry: What are the differences among Protestant liberals?
Steve: the term "Protestant Liberalism" is a broad brush that paints over many kinds of people. I can describe the extreme cases, and point to where some liberals are "more conservative" on some parts.
Among conservative Christians, there is a spectrum of super-fundamentalists on one-end, and neo-evangelicals on the other end. In my personal opinion, I think C.S. Lewis is about as liberal a conservative as you can stretch and still be a conservative. Among liberals, there is a spectrum of neo-orthodox on the "more-conservative" side, and "Christian atheists" on the far extreme. This chart, shows some of the views.
Symptoms of Liberalism
Larry: So how would you describe liberalism in general?
The answer to how to best describe liberalism depends on whether you want to focus on what is wrong with it, versus what is important to them, versus why do people become Protestant liberals, versus why do people leave liberalism. Let's first describe liberalism as seen through conservative eyes. If you are a Christian liberal, stay with us, because while you might disagree with this first description as describing the essence of liberalism, this could still enlightening to see how liberals are perceived by conservatives. After this first description, we will take a different look a Protestant liberalism, through liberal eyes, and hopefully find some things to challenge your thinking.
1. Do not take scripture seriously
2. Higher criticism (JEPD, Q, etc.)
3. Scripture is not all the word of God and has errors
4. Deny God's power and knowledge
5. No God.
6. Acceptance of the practice of homosexuality
7. Heterosexual relations outside of marriage
8. No call to personal holiness: drunkenness, smoking,
9. Abortion rights
10. No negativism, only positivism
11. No evangelism, just love them into the church
12. Bodily Resurrection of Christ
14. Virgin birth
16. Jesus not the only way, look for the divine in all religions
17. No hell, maybe no heaven
18. We are basically good, as least good enough to get by
19. No atonement by the blood of Jesus
20. Belief does not matter, only love and action
These things are what many Conservatives would key on when they study liberalism. However, I do not think these are the main problems. As serious as these are, these are likes tips of icebergs, symptoms of more serious problems.
Here are the more serious problems:
1. Truth is not absolute. What is true for me may not be true for you and vice versa.
2. Morality is often relative. I must decide and follow God in my own way.
3. Supernatural miracles do not occur.
4. Denial of the goodness and justice of God as found in the Bible.
Not political liberalism
Witness from the Bible
Itching ears denying God's power
Larry: For better or for worse, Karl Barth has seemed to be one of the most popular theologians of this century. How does he relate to neo-orthodoxy?
Swiss Reformed Theologian
Karl Barth (1886-1968)
(also Emil Brunner (1889-1966) )
published over 550 books, sermons, tracts, addresses, and letters
Major work Church Dogmatics 13 volumes, 6 million words
Barth was originally extremely liberal, but later modified his views.
In contrast to liberals, Barth had a fairly high view of scripture, but did not believe it to be inerrant
Still accepted higher criticism though
A criticism is that he changed ancient creeds and doctrines of the church by redefining the terms in a way they did not originally mean
"Theology is Ethics"
also called "Dialectical School of Theology" and
"Theology of Crisis"
Van A Harvay calls it Neo-Reformed
Somewhat of an abused term. Bernard Ramm says some "Neo-orthodox" are really conservatives with a "Neo-orthodox corrective" and some are really liberals with a "Neo-orthodox corrective."
Barth's Good points
necessity, sufficiency, authority of scripture
finished canon of Scripture
Tried not to be grace-centric, truth-centric, or theology-centric, but Christ-centric.
Cannot separate Scripture from God's revelation, but against bibliolatry
"When one judges all of God's work in light of His revelation, in Jesus Christ, no peace could be made with Hitler."
Was not an absolutist: did not claim he or man had the answers for everything
Barth's Bad Points
Christ is the Word of God
Scripture is not as much God's Word as a Human Witness to God's word
Cannot judge scripture's errors, but scripture is fallible, even in the original manuscripts
Scripture has many mistakes, but God's word breaks through even the mistakes.
Religious existentialism (said by Francis Shaeffer)
The authority of scripture is not that of a final authority, but rather as its relation to God's revelation
Theologians against Barth
Cornelius Van Til (extremely against Barth)
John Warwick Montgomery
Somewhat both Critical and Supportive of Barth
Somewhat Supportive of Barth
Carl F.H. Henry
Donald Bloesch (it is possible to learn from his theology while not embracing it as the answer for our times)
Bernard Ramm (Read Barth dialectically)
E. J. Carnall (Barth is an inconsistent evangelical)
Christ died for our sins
No salvation in any other name than Jesus
Really started in 1911 with Karl Barth's published his commentary on Romans
ELCG Friedrich Gogarten
ELCG Rudolf Bultmann
Focuses on the paradoxes of faith instead of the dogmatic statements
Jesus the God-man. Man the forgiven-sinner. God has holy love. Man is both child of death and has eternal life
Barth and Thurneyson Christocentric
Brunner and Bultmann emphasized the problems in knowing God
Influences Karl Marx, Soren Kierkegaard
Barth: "The finite cannot understand the infinite
"Sinful man cannot understand the divine word"
"We know the image of God only because we see its degradation in our sinfulness"
The glory of nature is evident because of 'sin's opaqueness."
Like Calvinists, Barth believed that God chooses control everything
Neoorthodoxy and Karl Barth (1886-1968)
Came from reformed theology, and has been considered by some as a restatement that is true to its roots of Reformed Theology. On the other hand, reformed Cornelius Van Til says, "...the Theology of Crisis cannot legitimately be called a Reformed Theology. In fact, ... the Theology of Crisis may expect to find its bitterest foes in the adherents of the classical Reformed Faith.. Like many others, Van Til called Barthianism a new form of Modernism. (p.67)
"This enemy comes in the guise of a friend; he is all the more dangerous for that." (The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner 3rd ed. 1973 p.3)
valid criticisms of liberalism
People cannot try to comprehend the truths of God from the role of a spectator
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by Steven M. Morrison, PhD.