Friday, March 4, 2011

The faith once delivered?

As a non-theologian who is nevertheless interested, I found Kevin DeYoung's post this morning about "The Making of American Liberal Theology" illuminating. He has been reading the first volume of The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900 by Gary Dorrien and provides quotations from the book intended to answer "So what is [theological] liberalism?" I've recopied the first and last points below but there is much more here. [The bold headings and unindented comments are DeYoung's. The indented material is Dorrien's.]
1. True religion is not based on external authority
The idea of liberal theology is nearly three centuries old. In essence, it is the idea that Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without being based upon external authority. Since the eighteenth century, liberal Christian thinkers have argued that religion should be modern and progressive and that the meaning of Christianity should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience. (xii)
What’s more, Dorrien recognizes this rejection is something new in the history of the church.
Before the modern period, all Christian theologies were constructed within a house of authority. All premodern Christian theologies made claims to authority-based orthodoxy. Even the mystical and mythopoetic theologies produced by premodern Christianity took for granted the view of scripture as an infallible revelation and the view of theology as an explication of propositional revelation. Adopting the scholastic methods of their Catholic adversaries, Protestant theologians formalized these assumptions with scholastic precision during the seventeenth century. Not coincidentally, the age of religious wars that preceded the Enlightenment is also remembered as the age of orthodoxy.

Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy heightened the Reformation principle that scripture is the sole and infallibly sufficient rule of faith, teaching that scripture is also strictly inerrant in all that it asserts. (xv)
Note that Dorrien does not believe inerrancy was a Princetonian invention.
DeYoung proceeds to quote Dorrien with respect to six more distinguishing characteristics of theological liberalism. The final point:
7. The true religion is the way of Christ, not any particular doctrines about Christ.
The Word of Christ is not a doctrine or the end of an argument, but a self-authenticating life; it is morally regenerative spiritual power claimed in Christ’s spirit…Moving beyond their mentor, the Bushnellians accented the humanity of Christ; Munger and Gladden lifted Jesus’ teaching above any claims about his person. In both cases, however, a self-authenticating moral image conceived as the power of true religion was in control. The true religion is the way of Christ. (399-400)
Dorrien observes that this kind of religion was a departure from historic orthodoxy.
Traditional Protestant orthodoxies place the substitutionary atonement of Christ at the center of Christianity, conceiving Christ’s death as a propitiatory sacrifice that vicariously satisfied the retributive demands of divine justice. (400)
The new progressive religion of liberalism understood Christianity quite differently.
By the end of Beecher’s life, it was almost prosaic for Munger and Gladden to assert that Christianity is essentially a life, not a doctrine. (405)
Liberalism is not a swear word to be thrown around. It is a diverse, but identifiable approach to Christianity, one that differs significantly from historic orthodoxy, not to mention evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Liberals believe they are making Christianity relevant, credible, beneficial, and humane. Evangelicals in the line of J. Gresham Machen believe they are making something other than Christianity.

As Shakespeare put it, “Ay, there’s the rub.”
The Making of American Liberal Theology – Kevin DeYoung

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