Liberal-Modernist TheologyThe Liberal or Modernist theologians are those who would accept that the Bible is not inerrant, that most of the stories related about Jesus in the gospels are not historical and, in fact, many of them would probably reject the Trinitarian doctrine of God and some would even dispense with belief in the existence of God altogether. Yet, strange as it may seem to the average person, these theologians still consider themselves Christians. Indeed, most mainline Protestant Churches today subscribe to some forms of liberal-modernist theology.
These theologians would happily admit to most of the findings in this website, but would certainly dismiss them as “insignificant” objections to their faith. Our aim in this section is to examine the central tenets of these liberals to see if there is any truth or substance to them. But before we begin our investigations, an historical summary of the liberal-modernist movement would be of great benefit in appreciating this phenomenon. We then proceed to look at liberal interpretations of the Bible, Jesus and God.
We will see that modernist-liberal theology has no rational basis whatsoever. In fact their continued attempt to couch their ideas in vague terms reveals what can only be describe as an intellectually dishonest streak and an unwillingness to face the common sensical truth-that modern knowledge has shown that Christianity, as it has been known for two thousand years, is false.
The problems continued to pile up in the nineteenth century. The publishing of Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) treatise on evolution, The Origin of Species (1859) meant that science have gone one step further against the theologian. The theory of evolution presented by Darwin showed that man is an evolved animal, no more and no less. If evolution was true, and the evidence marshaled by Darwin in his book was compelling, then Genesis was false; far from being created in God’s image, mankind bore all the marks of an animal ancestry. Within Christendom, the development of biblical criticism, especially in it’s “higher” form, began to show that the Bible was not a unique document. Using critical historical methods common in the study of other historical documents, the higher critics showed that the first five books of the Bible were not written by the Hebrew prophet, Moses, as was traditionally believed. These books show traces of at least four separate authorship. They also showed that some prophetic books such as Daniel were actually written after the events it purports to prophesy about. Even the New Testament was not spared. It began to be seen that the gospels were not written close the events they describe but were written decades and perhaps even up to a century later. The fundamental result of higher criticism was that it revealed that the belief that the Bible is infallible was no longer tenable. 
Thus by the second half of the nineteenth century, it was clear to most theologians that it could longer be “business as usual” for Christian theology; the monolithic fabric of Christian theology was torn, never again to be mended. Christian theology bifurcated into fundamentalist/conservatism and liberal-modernism. [a] The fundamentalists took the overtly irrational route and rejected all scientific findings that contradicted the literal reading of the Bible. Higher criticism was condemned as a tool of the devil. [b] The liberals on the other hand rationally accepted the findings of science and biblical criticism. They tried many different methods to keep their faith meaningful and alive by employing various interpretative methods on the Bible and the traditional concepts of orthodox theology.
The first steps of liberal [c] theology was made by the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). In trying to win back the educated classes to Christianity, he taught that the debate over proofs of God’s existence, biblical inerrancy and miracles are, at best, peripheral issues. The most important issue, according to Schleiermacher, was the feeling present in a believer in experiencing God. Another German theologian, Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), preached that faith not reason must be the bedrock of true religion. Religion, to him, concerns about value judgment whereas reason, which includes science and higher criticism, concerns matters of fact. Thus, even if biblical criticism shows that stories about Jesus virgin birth, his miracles and his pre-existence are false, it does not change the value of the person Jesus. The important thing about Jesus, according to Ritschl, was that he led mankind to the “God of values”; in other words, Jesus made his followers conscious of the highest values of life. Ritschl’s views were popularized by another German theologian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). Harnack criticised most of traditional Christian dogmas and blamed the apostle Paul for corrupting the simple teaching of Jesus by changing the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus. Harnack denied the miracles in the gospels and taught that Jesus never claimed to be divine. Harnack taught that Christianity can be reduced to a few simple elements: the belief in God the Father and the gospel of which Jesus was the “personal realization.” Towards the end of his life, Harnack even campaigned for the ejection of the Old Testament from the Christian canon. 
The conservative-fundamentalists hit back in a way that has become a hallmark of their style: they resorted to political action to remove liberal preachers from the pulpits of Protestant churches and liberal professors from their academic postings in theological seminaries. They had some initial successes but eventually in the third decade of the twentieth century, due primarily to the sheer number of non-fundamentalist theologians, they were forced to retreat into the small denominations and their related seminaries. 
It was quite clear, even to theologians steeped in the liberal tradition, that liberalism cannot continue in its course. That would eventually lead to a complete repudiation of the whole bible and the whole tenets of Christianity: the surefire path to atheism. What was needed was a shift of focus, so to speak. To put the fruits of critical thinking in soft focus and to concentrate on “squishy” issues such as the problems of human existence. This they found in the writings of the nineteenth century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). His philosophy, which eventually became known as existentialism, ostensibly dealt with the problems human existence. He taught that human existence cannot be rationalized. Therefore God, being inextricably linked with our existence, cannot be rationalized by an objective system of rational truths. Thus being a Christian means embarking on a leap of faith in the dark, to commit one’s whole life to Christ. 
Thus when the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) reacted to the more “extreme” doctrines preached by the liberals and affirmed much of traditional theology such as the doctrine of the trinity and the belief of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God, he did not repudiate higher criticism. He merely shifted the focus away from this into existentialist issues. In line with many liberal theologians he did not believe that reason has much use in the field of theological thought. 
Another important theologian in the liberal tradition was the German Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). Bultmann was certainly one of the greatest New Testament scholars of the twentieth century. He was known for two things connected to biblical criticism: “Demythologization” and “Form Criticism”. According to him, and his followers, the myths in the Bible were an obvious reflection of the world view of the early Christians. As they stands, the myths in the Bible can no longer be honestly believed by modern man. Thus, these myths: such as the believe that supernatural beings (Satan, angels, demons and God) regularly interfere in the natural working of the world and that Jesus was a pre-existent being sent to a sacrificial death to atone for man’s sins are all not objective history. They are myths which reflect the early Christians’ understanding of the world.
Demythologization was a program of getting to the kerygma, or the proclamation, of the early Christians behind the myths. In this sense he differs from the early twentieth century liberals that simply jettisoned the myths form their theology. Form criticism is the method that aids in the demythologization process. Recognizing that the stories in the bible were originally handed down orally and that oral traditions have certain structural forms, the form critics were able, in many cases to find the historical setting in which the stories were first told. Form criticism showed that much of the stories about Jesus in the gospels, even the non-mythical ones, were not historical and were the results of the early Christian community belief or expectation about him.
Yet from this position Bultmann, like Barth, affirmed his belief in Jesus via an existentialist viewpoint. He claimed that all the Christian need to know was that Jesus once existed and that he was crucified. To Bultmann, it is irrelevant whether the stories about Jesus in the gospels were true or false. What was important about these stories was that it showed what the idea of Jesus meant to the early Christians who first circulated those stories. Thus for Bultmann, the gospels present, not an historical or scientific truth, but an existential one. 
Bultmann’s contemporary, Paul Tillich (1886-1965), developed his own existentialist brand of theology. The interesting aspect, for our purpose, is Tillich’s assertion that God, as he is formulated by traditional Christian theology, does not exist.  We will have more to say about this later.
The development of liberal thinking eventually led to thinkers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). He believed that traditional Christianity has outlived its usefulness and called for a “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoeffer, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, seemed to believe that there is no afterlife, no message of personal salvation in the Bible. Bonhoeffer, and his intellectual heirs, repudiated the traditional body of the Church, its liturgy and its metaphysics and called for a complete secularization of Christianity.  This “radical theology” as it came to be called, is the modern flag bearer of Christian liberalism.
With this we end our short excursion into the historical background of modernist-liberal theology. It should be mentioned that the liberals did not reach their position by abstruse theological reasoning: they were forced by external circumstances-the findings of science, comparative religions, enlightenment philosophies and historical criticism-to resort to such a method of reasoning for the only other available alternatives are the collapse into complete irrationaility of fundamentalism and the theological resignation of atheism. Our main concern here is to see examine the validity of the fundamental epistemological assumptions of the liberal theology. We will examine in order, the liberal views on the Bible, Jesus, and God.
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The position of the liberals on the Bible can be divided into two broad, not necessarily mutually exclusive, categories: the first is that the Biblical myths convey symbolic truths; the second is that the Bible is a very human and fallible document but some of it was inspired by God and these show the way to the truth. We will look at each of these positions in turn.
Bultmann’s position is of course a good representation of the first position. Demythologization admits openly that many of the stories in the Bible are not true literally. Form criticism attempts to find the symbolic truths behind these myths. Just in case the reader thinks that this position is uncommon, I will give below a quote from a report published in 1938 by the Commission on Christian Doctrine- a report sanctioned by the Anglican Church:
The report above, probably on purpose, never made it clear which clauses of the Anglican creeds were to be understood in the symbolic sense.
The second position asserts that the Bible, while being fallible- with many parts untrue and some unacceptable- is, in general, an inspired word of God. In their book, The Bible Without Illusions (SCM Press, London, 1989), two English liberal theologians, R.P.C. & A.T. Hanson adumbrated this idea. I quote below a summary of their position as given by Carl Lofmark:
With regards to the “myths-symbolic truths” position, the first thing that comes to mind is that Christians for two millennium had always believed that the Bible, where there is no hint of allegory, is literally true. [d] Now if the modern liberals assert that the many parts of the Bible cannot be taken literally, they are saying that for close to two thousand years Christians have failed to understand God’s true message. It is up to these brilliant twentieth century liberals to discover it. Put in this way, the liberals’ position sounds smug and pretentious-not to mention ludicrous.
The second problem is that the question remains as to which passages are to be taken literally and which are to be taken symbolically. If the clear intent of the biblical authors are rejected as the method of selection (which leads to the fundamentalist position), then it leaves the door wide open for selecting which passage should be symbolic and which should not.
Thirdly, how are those passages to be interpreted symbolically? There is no guide or generally accepted method of symbolic interpretation. How is one to know which symbolic interpretation is correct: all the prominent theologians, Barth, Bultmann, Tillich and Bonhoeffer, disagree on many broad categories in their interpretation of the biblical message.
Fourthly, just because the stories are defined as symbolic by the liberals, it does not mean that the issue of the criterion of truth has been successfully avoided. What happens when two liberal theologians come up with two mutually exclusive symbolic truths from the same biblical passage? How is one to chose from the symbolic truths of the Bible and, say, the symbolic truths mentioned in the Hindu scriptures? And finally, many so-called interpretation of the symbolic truths of the bible are actually devoid of any cognitive meaning. Take for instance an Ascension Day sermon written in 1969 for an English newspaper by an Anglican bishop:
From the above passage, only one thing is clear; the good bishop does not believe that the ascension story as depicted in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is to be taken literally. But apart from this, it is very difficult to fathom what it is he is trying to say and how what he is trying to say is derived from that story told in three verses in Acts. The rest of the passage, is, literally, meaningless . It should be mentioned here that if one reads the book of Acts it can clearly be seen that in no way was the story meant by the author to be taken in any other except in its literal sense. The author was wrong, of course, for there was no heaven above the clouds for Jesus to ascend to. But while we can understand the author of Acts for his lack of knowledge of astrophysics, it is hard to know what to do with the bishop. 
As for the “take some and leave some” approach to the Bible, the central question remains: if some parts of the Bible are false or unacceptable, what guarantee do we have that the other parts are true or of any special value? And even if these other parts are true, how does this make the Bible any different from the sacred scriptures of other religions? If the scriptures of other religions are to be dismissed as a collection of myths, legend, some history and some moral teachings; shouldn’t the same be done for the Bible? Thus the moment one admits that some parts of the Bible are untrue or unacceptable, the position of the Bible as the Inspired Word of God becomes impossible to defend. For it becomes more probable that where the biblical authors got it right, whether it be a historical fact or a profound moral insight, they got it right because they were bound to hit the jackpot once and a while amidst so many mistakes.  In many cases these liberal theologians simply do not think about the passages that trouble them in the Bible. Take for instance this passage from the book The Christian Agnostic (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1965) by the American liberal theologian Leslie Weatherhead :
The question here is simple: if he could use his own judgment to accept and reject biblical passages, why rely on the Bible at all?
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What sort of meaning does the theologians find in the nativity story then? Well here is one interpretation of this symbolic truth:
One is tempted to do a double take over here. If the myths are unhistorical, what does it mean then when it is asserted that “Christ comes...from the action of God?”. Just what action of God is the passage referring to, if not the the virgin birth? It is obvious that the above statement on the supposed message of the virgin birth tells us nothing.
But it is on the resurrection that the liberals spun their yarn of meaningless words. It is obvious that all the major liberal theologians do not take the resurrection account literally: i.e they all accept that it is historically false. Karl Barth, for instance, denied that historical verification is of any importance to the “verdict of God” which is the resurrection.  Paul Tillich’s theory of the resurrection is called the “restitution”; so-called because the resurrection, as Tillich understands it is “the restitution of Jesus to the dignity of the Christ (Jesus is one with God) in the minds of his disciples.” This according to Tillich is an “ecstatic” experience of the disciples.  It is obvious that Rudolf Bultmann, although he believed in the actual historicity of the crucifixion, was convinced that the resurrection was not an historical event. One of Bultmann’s theological disciples have these to say about the resurrection:
Now, one may ask, if the resurrection is not any of the above, then it can only mean that the resurrection cannot be understood in any sense.  Take another example, this one from Bishop Spong in his book Resurrection: Myth or Reality. Claiming that he has found the midrash as a method of understanding the symbolic truths of Jesus’ life, he proceeds to explains what the method does:
I have italicised portions of the above to bring the passage into focus. Now, what is actually meant by “dimensions of reality” that cannot be appropriately described by the language of time and space? Dimension is a term used in science and everyday speech as referring to measurable things: thus time can be measured by a watch and space can be measured by a ruler. Now the “language of time and space” obviously means the realm of measurable things. Therefore, the good bishop is saying that his theology talks about “dimensions of reality” that cannot be measured. Now, dimension, by definition, implies the realm of the measurable. A “dimension of reality” that cannot be measured is simply nonsense talk! 
The last sentence is even more intriguing: what can it possibly mean to say that “eternity broke into the consciousness of men living in time”? The use of words like “eternity”, “consciousness” and “time” tends to delude one that something really profound is being mentioned. But let us break the passage down into it’s constituent parts. In everyday speech, “eternity” means, whether literally or figuratively, “time without end”. “Broke into the consciousness of” can only mean “forced an understanding of” and “men living in time” simply means “some men” for all men by definition “live in time.” Thus the passage simply means “The understanding of time without end was forced onto some men.” So while we would not say that this is meaningless; it is, at best, a trivial statement with no profundity. Examples of sentences like these are plentiful in liberal literature.
It is obvious that the liberals trip all over themselves trying to avoid saying the actual truth: that if the resurrection is not historical traditional Christianity, in any form, is no longer valid. This is the skeptic’s position, of course. But the liberals added that the resurrection is to be understood in a different sense, but just exactly what sense is not clear. Their treatise contains so much garbled speech that it is difficult to see if they agree or disagree with one another!
The central issue is this: if the resurrection is unhistorical, simply proclaiming it as true in another sense does not mean that the proclamation has successfully absolved the burden of proof from the liberals. Most of the liberal interpretation involves accepting the resurrection as some kind of internal revelation of the disciples. This experience, they proclaim, is what really matters, not the actual historical fact of resurrection.
But why should it, we ask? Why should the hallucinations of a few ill educated first century Galilean peasants be of any significance and be treated any differently than any other hallucinations all over the world and throughout history? Because it is about Jesus? But take away the historical claims about his supposed supernatural powers, his miracles and his resurrection, what do we have? Another ill educated fanatical first century Galilean peasant.
If it takes the theologians so many volumes to reinterpret his teaching for the twentieth century and still only come up with, at best, a very very vague collections of doctrines, why not just dispense with it altogether? The liberal theologians will, no doubt, have an answer or answers ready for these questions; but chances are, only they will understand it.
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It is difficult to ascribe any clear meaning to the above passage. What possible advantage would it bring to have such an esoteric conception of God? The answer is that, like the liberal conception of symbolic truths in the Bible and Jesus’ resurrection, it takes the question of God’s existence outside the province of reason. Tillich himself admitted as much in the next passage:
In a way Tillich’s refusal to let his conception be analysed rationally summarizes the liberals’ attitude towards the concept of God. (Barth’s “wholly other” for instance is defined as something beyond the understanding of human reason.) How, we may ask, do these theologians get their “blatantly arbitrary” (to quote the atheist thinker, George H. Smith) ideas of God? If it is beyond reason, where did they then get it from? The Bible? But how can they trust the Bible, since it is not all literally true, as they themselves admit. Surely, if you are required to trust a revelation, you would at least expect that those parts of the revelation that you can rationally verify be true.
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