American Protestant Liberalism grows out of German scholarship of the late 1800s. German scholars came to deny Scripture's power and they undercut the church's effectiveness. Their thought permeates European culture much sooner than it does the American. Because of the Civil War many American scholars were unable to travel abroad for study.

Liberal reflects attitudes in continuity with Enlightenment thought. It reflects an attempt to incorporate modern thinking and developments, especially in the sciences, into Christianity. Liberals tend to emphasize ethics over doctrine while stressing man's freedom--humanism.

I. Darwinian science

CharlesCharles Darwin Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species in 1859. It did not impact America because of the Civil War. His book found acceptance in the United States after the war. Just a few years later, 1871, Darwin added his Descent of Man to his writings. The latter work traced human descent while the first work was more general.

Darwin's work circulated among the scientific community but Herbert Spencer popularized it. Spencer took Darwin's work beyond the biological realm to the social realm. He coined the phrase "Social Darwinism" to describe his ideas that even social structures evolve. Eventually this idea captures most American intellectual thought during the 1800s. It stresses the idea that you can perfect society. Man, using his own intellect and ability, can produce a perfect society--a utopia. Within a decade, by the mid-1870s, evangelical Protestantism generally accepts the idea.

James Fiske, a historian and nominal Congregationalist, next develops the concept of "theistic evolution." Theistic evolution soothes the consciences of those finding it difficult to harmonize evolution with Christianity. Fiske said evolution is God's way of doing things. Many Christians see evolution as God's providential hand in history working change and alterations over lengthy periods. Fiske insisted Genesis is poetic and contains creation's basic order with being historically accurate.

Christians find this reasoning far more acceptable than the idea of evolution guided only by blind chance. Lyman Abbott, Henry Ward Beecher's successor at Brooklyn's Plymouth Congregational Church, brings Fiske's ideas into the church. The influential Abbott's acceptance of "theistic evolution" makes it easier for other preachers to advocate the same idea. By the end of the 1880s, preachers assert that Christianity can assimilate evolutionary concepts without compromise.

II. Biblical criticism

The questioning of biblical truth coincides with the growth of evolutionary thought. During the mid-1700s, Jean Astruc, a French scholar, suggests the Pentateuch should be divided by the various editors who he supposed to have compiled it. This multi-editor or multi-author concept became part of the Graf-Wellhausen Theory, or the JEPD theory. The Pentateuch lost much of its authority as this theory gained acceptance.

[Portrait Of Ingersoll]Some of these ideas made their way into post-Civil War America. Robert G. Ingersoll, the best known agnostic of the period, uses the results of critical studies to lambast Christianity and question the Bible. Ingersoll travelled throughout the country lecturing on the Bible. His wit and self-assurance amused his audience as he regaled them with ribald attacks on the Old Testament. When he lampooned Scripture, his rhetorical skills enabled him to make the Bible appear quite ridiculous. He particularly focused on the flood accounts. Ingersoll calculated just how much water it would take to flood the entire earth. He talked about where that much water would come from, how much pressure it would exert and so on. By the end of the lecture the whole flood account seemed quite foolish.

III. Philosophical world view

We noted something of the world view from which much of this comes when we discussed the Enlightenment. Let's review a bit, then move on.

Friedreich Schleiermacher insisted on a complete reorientation of man's thought about religion. The French Revolution impacted his day and left its mark on French culture. Europeans tended to despise anti-intellectual pietism. Schleiermacher, therefore, insisted religion was neither piety nor rationalism, but a sense of dependence on the infinite. Schleiermacher's ideas effectively reduced religion to mysticism and a reorientation towards an emphasis on subjective feelings. He turned from thinking about God to thinking about man's thought about God. Schleiermacher represents a shift from biblical authority to believer's experience.

Georg Wilhem Friedreich Hegel took the next important step when he taught that the universe is irrational and can't be understood. He taught that culture and society evolves through synthesis development. This idea provided the basis for Marxian dialectic.

Albrecht Ritschl comes next. He sought to make religion practical. To him, religion exists only to create values in man.

Adolph Harnack, a disciple of Ritschl's, defines and refines Ritschl's teachings. Harnack illustrates Liberal reductionism. Harnack argues that since the Bible is unreliable and religious truth merely produces values, one must come to some conclusion about the Bible's irreducible message. His book What Is Christianity? grew out of speeches given to German non-theology students. In his speeches he reduced Christianity to three points: (1) the Kingdom of God and its coming, (2) God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul, and (3) the better righteousness and the commandment of love. Harnack emphasized a basic ethical system, he stresses none of the essential Christian doctrines.

IV. Summation of Liberalism

There are eleven basic characteristics of Liberalism. They are related below:

I. Anthropocentrism. This is the legacy of the Enlightenment. Man is at the center. All religious knowledge finds its source within man. Reason and observation are all important.

II. Autonomy. This is the opposite of heteronomy (the recognition of outside authority). Human reason passes judgment on each belief. Every statement is therefore measured and weighed on its own merit. Edward Scribner Ames said, "The Christian is free from all external authority. Not even Christ imposes any arbitrary demands upon him." (Ames, Divinity of Christ, p. 96) Autonomy simply means the freedom to decide for one's self what is right or wrong.

III. Continuity. This involves a feeling for the oneness of all things. Two major factors are involved.

A. The Unity of Truth. Truth comes from many sources, not just the Bible. This applies to religious truth. Thus, Christian theology is to be constructed from all spheres of information (psychology, sociology, science) as well as the Bible. There is no distinction between special and general revelation. Significance: there is no real distinction between Christianity and other religions.

B. The Unity of Being. All existence is qualitatively the same. There is no sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural, between God and man, between the divine and human in Jesus.

IV. Modernism. This is an implication of the continuity of truth. Two facts need to be noted:

A. Modernism is an openness to truth as discerned through modern efforts in science, philosophy and religious studies. It includes a readiness to adapt Christianity to all modern discoveries. It includes an evolutionary view of truth ("the newer the truer"): change is always good because we are "moving toward the truth."

B. All Liberals were Modernists, but not all modernists were Liberals.

V. The Immanence of God. This is an implication of the continuity of being. Here we need to see not only its meaning but the implications.

A. Immanence is the idea that God dwells in the whole world and works through all of nature, and that he works only through natural processes. God's difference (transcendence) is ignored; miracle is denied. The uniformity of nature is emphasized. Note: God is immanent in his creation, but not as accepted by the Liberal.

B. What are the important implications?

1. There are implications for our view of Christ. If there is no distinction between the supernatural or the natural, then Jesus can only be human! All qualitative distinction between Jesus and other men is erased. God then is "incarnate" in all human life.

2. There is an implication for our view of man. All men have a "spark of divinity" in them. To say that is to say there is a bit of God in everyone. Liberals say the human conscience is the "divine spark."

3. There are implications for metaphysics. There is no distinction between natural and supernatural. Since God is present in all of nature, everything is supernatural, everything is a miracle.

VI. An evolutionary view of the Bible.

A. The Bible originated through ordinary processes just as other religious writings and religions evolved. We are not speaking of a God who reveals himself more and more through time. We are speaking of man's improvement of their concept of God.

B. This is called progressive revelation. It refers to Israel's subjective growth in religious understanding, the growing sophistication of the idea of God in the people's religious experience.

C. An important implication is simply that if this view is accepted it means the Bible contains different degrees of truth! There are different levels of authority, unequal ethical standards.

VII. Reduction of Christianity to its unchanging essence. It is the attempt to boil Christianity down to its essence. It is the attempt to save Christianity by emphasizing its "timeless truths" or "essential message" while acknowledging that its details and historical framework were relative, erroneous, and discardable. What is the framework for judging what is or what is not true: the human mind!

VIII. The centrality of the man Jesus as an ethical example.

A. Jesus is central in Christianity over against the Bible. The life and teachings of Jesus are the "canon within the canon."

B. The important thing about Jesus is his ethical example. Jesus was as perfect as a man can be in his time and place. It is possible to be as good as Jesus! Not so, Christ's divinity makes it impossible to follow him in every detail.

IX. The church as an instrument of social progress. This is the social gospel. Liberals saw the task of the church as the establishment of the "kingdom of God" on earth via social progress.

X. Optimism. this is the concept of the inevitability of human progress. Man gets better and better. Based on the Liberal view of the inherent dignity and goodness of man. Liberals considered sin to be the "residue of evolution." Sin that the Liberals emphasized is social sin. The remedy for sin is education!

XI. Illiberality. Liberals would vehemently deny this! It is true, however, that the Liberal tends to be very close minded towards those who differ.

--Dr. Jack Cottrell

Cincinnati Bible Seminary

Liberals stress Christology--the study of Christ. They emphasize Jesus' person while denying his divinity. Religion becomes Christocentric because Jesus is our supreme example without any stress on soteriology. Liberals stress Jesus' moral teaching while rejecting the inspiration of Scripture. They make a distinction between the Christ of the cross and the Jesus of history.

For the most part, classical Liberalism is dead. Only a few die hards hold on to it as a theological system. What remains is indistinguishable from humanism. If we follow Christ's teachings we can become what Jesus was. He only came to show men how to live; he did not come to rescue from hell. Man is perfectible; society is perfectible. Everyone can potentially become a son of god. In fact, mankind possesses a "spark of divinity," a spark which relates him to God.

Scholars identify two forms of Liberalism at the end of the 1800s. They distinguish between modernistic Liberalism and evangelical Liberalism. Modernistic Liberals attack Christianity and proposed socialistic and humanistic forms. Evangelical Liberalism reduces the emphasis on biblical Christianity but still emphasizes evangelism. Such evangelism saved from "social sin"--guilty, self, ghetto, and social problems. You can't identify any biblical concept of sin as the transgression of God's law.

V. The heresy trials

Mainstream Protestantism does not accept all this easily. Liberalism made slow but sure gains. Each year more and more preachers adopted Liberal views. Soon clashes occurred. Some of the major denominations experience heresy trials beginning in the 1870s.

In 1874, David Swing, a Chicago Presbyterian minister, faces charges of heresy before his presbytery. His accusers base their charges on the Westminster Confession of Faith. The presbytery acquits him but his enemies continued to press for his removal. Because of the continuing controversy Swing left the Presbyterian Church to form Central Church in downtown Chicago.

Southern Baptists charge Crawford Howell Toy, a professor at Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with heresy in 1879. According to the charges, Toy denied the inerrancy of Scripture. Toy quit under pressure and moved to Harvard University where he continued his teaching as a highly respected professor.

Conservative Presbyterians bring charges of heresy against Charles A. Briggs, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, in 1891. Briggs occupied a newly endowed Bible chair at Union. In his inaugural address he openly denied verbal inspiration of Scripture. The presbytery arraigned Briggs for heresy but he was acquitted. The Presbyterian National Assembly reversed the local presbytery's decision and the Seminary withdrew from the Presbyterian Church and became independent. In an effort to get away from continued Presbyterian harassment Briggs joined the Episcopalian Church.

Two other Presbyterians face heresy trials during this period. Henry Preserved Smith at Lane Theological Seminary and A.C. McGiffert at Union. Both men left the Presbyterian Church and became Congregationalists.

It seems Presbyterians have the most trouble. By 1900, almost every northern American Seminary has gone Liberal. Southern schools remain conservative. Southern churches don't catch up to the northerners until the Depression.

| Home | Where to Go |