Full Text for American Religious Scene- Volume 56 - Classical Theological Liberalism (Video)

No. 56. >> Aside from some of the groups we looked at while we were discussing ecumenism, most of the things we talked about seem common to the fairly traditional Christian groups. Last year I attended a meeting of a Ministerial Alliance in Orange County. And there were some pastors speaking who had some very radical ideas. Their comments reminded me of what one author I read has called classical theological liberalism. Could you expand on this concept? >>DR. LAWRENCE R. RAST, JR.: Well, Nick, now you've opened up a can of worms. Because to try to get a handle on a movement as broad as Theological Liberalism really is a tough thing to do. But let me give it a shot and we'll see how things turn out as we bring this to a close. Classic theological liberalism. Liberalism as a category was not a pejorative term in the minds of many 19th Century thinkers. In fact, most Americans would have argued that they were, in fact, liberal. Open minded and concerned about matters like freedom. That was pretty much a given. So if that's what liberalism meant, most American Christians would have said: Sure. We're liberals in that respect. But as the 19th Century pressed on, that kind of typical language of liberal began to be more narrowly focused and to be applied more specifically to groups that held to a certain perspective. And the manner in which that played itself out in the realm of theology took on a very unique kind of character. Although it, again, was a fairly broad movement. And it did incorporate a number of different perspectives. So what do we mean by had this? Well first off those who later on identified themselves as theological liberals in the classic sense found their historic roots in of all things the revivalism of Charles Finney believe it or not. Now, how can this be you say? Well, one of the components of Charles Finney's theology was a new definition of vice and virtue. Here again we'll go back to our old theme. It may be a bit tired at this point. But the shift from Calvinism to Arminianism has such broad effects, such wide ramifications. And in this respect we see just one more instance of it. Namely, Finney talked about vice and virtue in a different way than the earlier Calvinists. That is to say, if you were one of the elect, the works you did would be good, no matter what, as they would all in the end lead to the affirmation of your election, your ultimate salvation. The works that you did if you were one of the reprobate, no matter how good they may have appeared to have been, would you have always resulted in damnation. With Finney, however, there is much more of a sense of moral neutrality characterizing the individual human subject. As we've already said, he downplayed original sin. Some might say he denied individual and original sin in the sense that a person was born into a state that led to particular sins. Rather, said Finney, we are born in a social setting that encourages us and teaches us to sin. The result being that we fall into actual sins and carry them out. Those actual sins are learned and confirmed behaviors, if you will, that define our existence. And thus, one of the things we must do if we would be good Christian people is pursue the good. Learn it in the first place. And then cultivate the habit. So one basic point, responsibility for the church is, in Finney's mind, social reform. Improving the social setting so that people will not have the temptation to sin in front of them. Encouraging them to express the better part of their nature by virtue of social structures, individual education and churchly structures that will serve the individual as well as the broader community. And as a result, you see within the Evangelical tradition growing out of the revivals a whole series of important institutions geared towards redeeming society. One of the most important is the temperance movement. The temperance movement grows right out of the Evangelical revivals. No. 1 using it as a biblical basis that we are discouraged strongly, prohibited from Christians, from becoming drunk and pursuing drunkenness. Well, drinking as a problem in the early national period of the United States was a huge issue. Alcohol consumption was enormous. And in fact, in temperance, alcoholism ran rampant. Part of the message of the revivalists was to be truly a Christian was to abstain from intoxicating liquors, as they put it in the first place, and then later on expanded it to any consumption of an alcoholic beverage. Thus, to be considered Christian, one had to sign a temperance card. Now, that applied to one's individual Christianity certainly. But also the idea was by virtue of correcting this problem in the case of so many individuals, we would see a corporate result and an improvement in society. Hence, the churches themselves became the main purveyors of the temperance message. And the encouragers of signing the temperance pledge card and abstaining completely from the consumption of alcohol. On a bit of a side note, that's what leads ultimately to the process of pasteurizing grape juice and the use of grape juice in communion over against communion wine. Which was seen as a way of compromising. If one consumed alcoholic wine in the Lord's Supper, a way of compromising one's temperance pledge. Hence, grape juice begins to be brought in. A little aside. Other institutions of this sort also begin to emerge. The Sunday school, for example, initially is an intentional effort of educating those less privileged. Because it is assumed that a well educated child will be a good citizen. And a good citizen is a good candidate of church membership. The two largely being conflated into one. Who does the education for the underprivileged? The church. On Sunday. But it's not the Sunday school that perhaps you think of like today. My memory of Moses going up on the mountain on a flannel board and that sort of thing. Rather, the Sunday school was specifically designed to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. The primary text, the Bible. So reading out of the Bible. Writing down biblical passages. And doing math out of the Bible. Not unrelated to some of the millennial scheming we've talked about previously. In addition, we also are aware of other movements. And I'll pass over them quickly. But in addition to temperance reform and Sunday schools, there are those who enter into the cities. And as industrialization increasingly becomes a problem, inner city work, social work, largely growing out of the church's activities. Prostitution help for women who have come from the farms into the cities and have fallen into difficulties. Social workers addressing that very specifically. Other social kinds of structures characterizing the church's mission. This ministry of the church, as important as it is to the well being of individuals, over time begins to be conflated with the message itself. And this will be one of the important developments of classical Theological Liberalism. What we'll ultimately call the Social Gospel. And essentially what we have here is the Gospel being identified specifically as works of charity. Washington Gladden and more importantly Walter Rauschenbusch, leaders of the Social Gospel movement, would say: What good does it do a person to talk about justification by grace through faith? That is a theological abstraction. What we need is something concrete. Something specific. And Jesus for all of his discussions about helping the poor, being sensitive to them, also ensured that they had something to eat. James himself says: What good does it do a man if you say to him: Be warm. Be clothed. Be fed. And you don't give him anything. Thus, said the leaders of Social Gospel: The church has spoken enough. Now it is time for it to act. And to act concretely and specifically. Thus, Social Gospel perspective becomes one of the elements of theological liberalists. Other elements are points of biblical criticism about which we've already spoken. The emergence within the American Christian tradition of the higher criticism. People like David Friedrich Strauss, whom we've discussed. Also theologians like FC Baur at Tubingen and other places, who begin increasingly to discuss the difficulties of biblical interpretation. The difficulties of accepting the words of Scripture at face value. And the necessity of recognizing their character as humanly authored documents produced in specific contexts within specific cultures with specific limitations that then become more descriptive of the author, rather than historical treatments in an objective 19th Century scientific way. And finally, one other element that becomes part of the tradition. And that is closely related to our question of biblical criticism. In 1858 Charles Darwin publishes "The Origin of Species" and throws the theological world into chaos as the churches have to come to grips with the challenges he's laid out over against what the Bible has taught regarding creation. And the question becomes: How do you respond to the theory of evolution? Do you simply reject it out of hand? There were plenty of Christians in the 19th Century who did. Do you accept it wholeheartedly? There was a modest group that did that. Do you accept it with reservations? There was increasingly a large group of Christians who did so. So that by the latter part of the 19th Century there were divisions within every one of the denominations over how to accept this teaching of evolution. Whether or not to accept the theory or to challenge it. It is a very challenging time for the churches. But it is also a very exciting time. For many people, it seems to be a time when some of the older shackles really are finally coming off. That is to say we've seen some of the big changes that occurred in the 19th Century. But now as we're poised on the threshold of the 20th Century, it looks like the church is going to enter a new period that weds together who had for so long been separate. Church and science. Now we're finding ways to bring the two back together. Whether through a tempered form of theistic evolution, a modest form of biblical criticism, coupling that with an aggressive promotion campaign that takes this newly updated Christian message out to the world. It could, in fact, be that the 20th Century will be the Christian century. The time when we see all things come to their fruition. The magazine, the periodical, titled "Christian Century," has its roots in that late 19th Century optimism about the theological liberal message. And what it can accomplish in terms of reaching modern man. However, in a marvelous book, insightful in its character, James Moorhead has talked about how that perspective then ultimately dissipated as the 20th Century moved on. For one thing, there was World War I. And when World War I exploded on the scene, all the optimism about human capability and the correction of cultures dissipates within the span of months it seems. And in fact, is replaced by a pessimistic premillennial imminent expectation of the return of Jesus on the part of many people. Others simply begin to transfer their perspective in regard to the ascent of man into other channels. That is to say older post millennialists who expected Jesus to return at the end of the millennium begin to transfer their expectations not to a return of Jesus. But rather, to a transformation of humankind that will take a thousand years to enact. That is to say they press their eschatology out to the point where in praying the ***colics of their churches and ending them "World without end, Amen," they literally come to believe that. That the earth itself will be eternal. And that the transformation of man is itself the process that will engage humankind as into the unforeseeable future. Some of those themes continue in the present. There remains a certain optimism that still characterizes Americans even given the realities of two world wars, difficult social circumstances, the decline of morals and inherent social pressures coming in on every side. Even in the face of that this optimism about human capability continues to manifest itself. And in my opinion, that's probably one of the most lasting features of Theological Liberalism. It's optimism regarding the human condition and human capability. And it's one of those points where Theological Liberalism and the American perspective line up. So that even.in difficult circumstances, you still hear that optimism perspective carried out. How do you answer that kind of perspective? I think one of the ways is to be realistic about the biblical message that shows human beings as inherently self concerned, self absorbed, and at odds with a God who has revealed himself to them in Scripture. But it also gives us the opportunity to move beyond that message of law to one of Gospel. Namely, that that God, whom we have rebelled against is, in fact, reconciled to us through Christ. In other words, where Theological Liberalism consistently turns human society in on itself and puts responsibility for its redemption on the individual acting subject. The message we have to share is one of a God so concerned and so involved in our very existence that he himself and the person of his Son visits, redeems us, as his people. The great message of hope. The true and biblical message of hope. That it is our obligation and our great joy to share.