Church Education Resource Ministries



 Liberal Christianity



Liberal Christianity, Progressive Christianity or Liberalism is movement of Christianity that is characterised by these points;

* diversity of opinion

* less emphasis on the literal interpretation of Scripture

* an intimate, personal, and sometimes ambiguous view of God

* wider scope in their views on salvation (including universalist beliefs)

* non-traditional views on heaven and hell

* an emphasis on inclusive fellowship and community

* an embracing of higher criticism of the Bible.


Difficulties in definition

Diversity of opinion is a defining characteristic of Liberal Christianity. It is this particular aspect of Liberal Christianity that makes it so hard to define in a absolute sense. The movement exists in all denominations throughout the Christian world. It is often described as 'modernism' but modernism might more accurately be described as a subset of Liberal Christianity as not all liberal christians are modernists. The American 'Christian Right' might describe it as the 'Christian Left' which is also somewhat of a misnomer. These would be the labels of those who have some division with Liberal Christianity, which sees itself as a much broader and all encompassing movement. Due to its relations to progressive thinking, Liberal Christianity is often described as Progressive Christianity in an attempt to redefine Liberal Christianity as distinct from its previous association with modernism, as more postmodernist views become part and parcel of the liberal christian dialogue. It is even difficult to draw a distinction along theological lines in terms of the individual at least, as many who would subscribe to the label liberal christian have a mix of conservative theological positions and liberal theological positions. To be left or right politically is also not a defining factor in Liberal Christianity.
Ultimately, the word liberal is describing a more progressive attitude towards christianity based on individualism, in its emphasis on individual subjective experience, and liberalism, in its respect for the freedom of the individual to hold and express their views outside of conservative orthodoxy and tradition. Most often the area of disagreement is when there is a perception of a lack of compassion, mercy, love and inclusive community within the traditional conservative stance.

Characteristics of Liberal Christianity

Different and varied views are encouraged in Liberal Christianity as part of the goal to experience Christianity on a personal level. A less hardline approach towards doctrine is taken than in conservative Christianity; unique ways of approaching God and talking about Christianity are encouraged. With this sense of personal freedom and the emphasis on individual experience, dogmatic statements and claims of absolute truth on finer doctrinal points are not part of the dialogue amongst liberal Christians. Many liberal Christians can and do hold conservative postions; the contrast between Liberal Christianity and Conservative Christianity is that appeals to history, tradition, or authority have a notably lessened effect on dialogue in Liberal Christianity. The search for truth is an ongoing task rather than something that has been completed. The Apostle Paul's statement sums up this attitude that prevails in liberal Christian thinking, "For now we see through a glass, darkly;"1 Corinthians 13:12
 A non-literal view of Scripture, is common amongst liberal Christians. Many view the Bible as a book written by men who were inspired by God, rather than an inerrant view of the Bible as a divinely inspired book, written by God through men. Historical contexts and higher criticisms of the Bible play an important part in how they relate their faith and beliefs to the modern world.
 An intimate and personal view of God, is another hallmark of Liberal Christianity. Each person comes to their own understanding of the who, what, how and why questions relating to the nature and purpose of God. Each person has their own perception of how God moves and works in their lives.
 Liberal Christianity tends to have a wider scope in their views on salvation (including universalist beliefs). This inclusiveness often extends to those outside of mainstream Christianity who do not declare themselves as 'Christians' in the orthodox sense of the word. Right action generally takes precedence over right belief.
 Many non-traditional views on heaven and hell are prevalent amongst liberal Christians. These range from ideas about separation from God or temporal punishment to the belief that there is no hell. Views on heaven are similarly varied in their prevalence.
 There is an emphasis on inclusive fellowship and community amongst liberal Christians. With their more inclusive views on God, salvation, women, homosexuality, Scripture, and creation, emphasis is placed on community-based life centered around values of compassion, mercy, and affirmation of human dignity; this is seen in contrast to the focus on sinfulness and moral rectitude one is more likely to find in conservative Christian thought.


Criticisms of Liberal Christianity

 In 140AD, Marcion founded Marcionism. In 144AD, Marcion was excommunicated for what today would be called Liberalism or Liberal Christianity. Marcion taught that the God of Moses and the Jews was not the Christian God. Marcion also brought doubts to the churches as to what scriptures should be accepted as canonical but however comprised his own list. This speeded up the wide acceptance of the canon. Marcionism is similar to but not identical to Gnosticism.
 In contrast, traditional Christians define Liberal Christianity as "A movement that seeks to retain religious and spiritual values of Christianity while discounting the infallible authority of the Bible. Its origins are in the German Enlightenment, notably in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the religious views of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Liberals reject the stated authorship and historical accuracy of many books of the Bible. They are skeptical concerning many or all of the biblical miracles, preferring naturalistic explanations or viewing miracle accounts as legend or myth. They often deny or reinterpret in mythical terms such doctrines of orthodox Christianity as the virgin birth, atoning death, and even the resurrection of Jesus. Liberalism has been most influential in mainline Protestant denominations and is rejected in Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity." -Watchman Fellowship's 2001 Index of Cults and Religions
 "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires," Pope Benedict declared at a pre-conclave Mass in St. Peter's Basilica


Liberal theology

Liberal theology is a branch of religious thinking which emerged in the late 18th and early 19th century, in the wake of The Enlightenment. Like political Liberalism that was emerging at the same time, Liberal theology stresses the value and importance of the individual. Liberal theology became dominant in the mainline churches in the 20th century, though that dominance was waning by the early 21st century with the rise of Evangelical and Fundamentalist movements in Christianity and the associated biblical literalism inherent in these movements.


The tenets of Liberal theology

* Liberal theology is individualistic, and as such values personal and subjective religious experience above doctrines, Church authority or the literal word of scripture.
 * It claims that a religion is a community of individuals united by common intuitions and experiences, and therefore the value of the Church is in providing a supportive framework in which new conceptions of God can be explored, not in issuing decrees, upholding rigid dogmas or in exercising power over the religious community.
 * It maintains that, while God remains immutable, theists relationship with, and understanding of God change through history, and therefore that no religious truths are necessarily fixed, as each person's experience can reveal a novel aspect of God.


Liberal theology and religious language

Liberal theologians view religious language (i.e. descriptions of God, or of religious experience) as inevitably limited. Our language belongs to the world of phenomena, whereas religious experiences exist in the realm of noumena, so no matter how hard we try, our language can never describe God factually, but only in metaphors and analogies, symbols and myths etc.
 These myths, analogies etc. are important in forming religious communities and traditions, and can be a useful way of expressing a particular thought or feeling about God, but we cannot hope for them to sum up God's nature (God is non-reducible, non-naturalisable, and essentially ineffable).
 One of the original Liberal theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher argued that theology's place was to describe internal feelings, rather than external truths or facts.


Liberal hermeneutics

The interpretation of the Bible (hermeneutics) within liberal theology is non-propositional. This means that liberal theologians do not take the Bible as an inventory of factual statements such as 'God divided the light from the darkness', but rather interpret the Bible as a document of the human authors' beliefs and feelings about God at the time of its writing, within a historical and cultural context.
Therefore, religious models and concepts must be updated to reflect the class, gender, social and political etc. context from which they emerge, so that they will appear relevant and interesting. Liberal theologians would not make the claim that any particular apostle's account of their religious experiences could be any more true, or more relevant to an individual than the experience of the individual themselves.
Liberal theology has also been the theistic group most prominent in Biblical criticism in the 19th and 20th centuries.


Liberal Christian Theologians and Authors

 * Marcus Borg, New Testament scholar

* Rudolf Bultmann, Biblical scholar

* Peter Carnley, Anglican Primate of Australia

* William Ellery Channing, pioneering liberal theologian in the USA, who criticised the doctrine of the Trinity and the strength of scriptural authority, in favour of more rationalistic and historicital beliefs

* Harry Emerson Fosdick, Baptist pastor of Riverside Church in New York City

* Karl Heinrich Graf, Old Testament scholar

* Adolf von Harnack, German liberal theologian who sought to return Christianity's focus to the teachings of Jesus, away from complex structures of thought about Jesus and faith.

* John Robinson, author of Honest to God

* Paul Tillich, synthesized Protestant Christian theology with existentialist philosophy

* Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, often called the "father of liberal theology", he claimed that religious experience was introspective, and that the truest understanding of God consisted of 'a sense of absolute dependence'

* Albert Schweitzer, missionary & New Testament scholar

* John Shelby Spong, heterodox Episcopalian bishop

* Leslie Weatherhead, English preacher & author of The Will of God & The Christian Agnostic

* Julius Wellhausen, Biblical scholar



* Yves Congar

* John Dominic Crossan

* Hans Küng

* Edward Schillebeeckx

* Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


See Also

* Christian socialism

* Emerging Church

* Feminist theology

* Liberation theology

* Personalism

* Postmodern Christianity

* Process theology

* Social Gospel




* John Mark Ministries (

* Liberalis (


External links




* Course: Christian Living 104 - Understanding Liberal Christianity (

* Liberalism By M. James Sawyer , Th.M., Ph.D. (

* Would Jesus Love a liberal? You bet! (

* The Center for Progressive Christianity (




* Christianity Against Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) (

* Newman Against Liberalism by Father John Henry Newman, 1879 (

* Glossary of Liberal Theological Terms (

* Evangelical Definition of Liberalism (

* Jewish Christian Definition of Liberal Christianity (

* An open letter to freethinkers, (or an epistle to the Humanist) (

* The "Changing" God of the New Theologies (

* The Jesus Seminar: The Slippery Slope to Heresy (

* Apostasy in the Christian church (