Apr 1, 1992

The Subtle Lure of Liberalism

8 Min Read

It has been a long time since I met an authentic, bold-faced liberal, one willing to claim that one word as a badge of identity. Many evangelical Christians believe, of course, that such creatures did, in fact, once exist. In the far-distant past, these theological dinosaurs roamed the ecclesiastical landscape, devouring young seminarians, disrupting the life of the church, defrauding simple believers of the faith of their fathers. Now, it is argued, we live in a different age. The climate of civility and the proclivity for pluralism have rendered liberalism obsolete. To be sure, dinosaur bones are still interesting to examine on a rainy Saturday afternoon in the museum. But no one gets carried away by such relics from the past. Not any more.

It was very different in 1923 when J. Gresham Machen first published Christianity and Liberalism, a book which Walter Lippmann, no friend of conservatives, referred to as a “cool and stringent defense of orthodox Protestantism.” Back then the lines were clearly drawn. Machen presented “the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity” over against a “totally diverse type of religious belief,” a nonredemptive religion of recent vintage known variously as modernism or liberalism. While recognizing great diversity within modern liberal religion, Machen traced its root cause to its antisupernaturalist bias: a view of revelation and Christian faith which excluded the creative power of the very God whose love it claimed to extol.

For many years it appeared that the liberalism against which Machen fought had won the day. The Scopes Trial, fissiparous fundamentalism, and snake-handling revivalism relegated conservative Christianity to the backwaters of American church life. Now, with the precipitous decline of the mainline Protestant establishment, liberals are harder to find. Those who advocate a broader, more accommodated form of Christianity are likely to designate their position as progressive, advanced, tolerant, enlightened, or what has been called the all-time favorite among weasel words—moderate.

Where have all the liberals gone? Could it be that what once appeared as a blatant form of compromised Christianity now poses as a more refined, sleeker version of the real thing? During the Middle Ages there was a popular story which circulated about Martin of Tours, the saint for whom Martin Luther was named. It was said that Satan once appeared to St. Martin in the guise of the Savior himself. St. Martin was ready to fall to his feet and worship this resplendent being of glory and light. Then, suddenly, he looked up into the palms of his hands and asked, “Where are the nail prints?” Whereupon the apparition vanished.

Where are the nail prints? This is the test by which every theological system, every seminary curriculum, and every ministry which claims to be faithful to the Gospel (the root meaning of evangelical) must be gauged. Never before in the history of the church has the necessity of discerning the times and testing the spirits fallen with greater urgency on the people of God.

Today subtle forms of unbelief masquerade as seemly virtues or keys to a successful ministry or secular justifications of otherwise embarrassing truth-claims. Satan is less concerned with those ministers who openly deny the deity of Christ, the truthfulness of Holy Scripture, and the supernatural reality of the Gospel. Their apostasy is secure. His chief aim is to corrupt the rising generation of evangelical church leaders by subverting their biblical values and theological conviction until, by osmosis, they have forfeited their birthright and know not that it is gone. Every young minister will face this temptation on at least three fronts.

The Ideology of Indifference

In recent years a new mythology of Christian identity has emerged which runs something like this: “Christians are not essentially a doctrinal people. The Bible means whatever you want it to mean. The basic criterion of theology is individual experience. The right of private judgment in religious matters overrules fixed norms of doctrine.” The upshot of such radical subjectivism is seen in the way candidates for the ministry are casually admitted to the ordained ministry: A sweet smile and a pious declaration of “Jesus in my heart” will often satisfy the well-wishing examination committee. More and more this stance is also reflected in the way theological educators interpret their primary mission as essentially therapeutic: to help troubled seekers come to grips with their own sense of self rather than to train a cadre of Christian heralds to preach, evangelize, shepherd, lead, and serve.

Many evangelicals, seduced by the cult of pragmatism, have bought the liberal line that the way to peace and success in the church is to define the smallest number of doctrines possible, and to hold them as lightly as one can. When, in the sixteenth century, Erasmus proposed something similar, Luther replied that there could be no Christianity without assertions. By assertions he meant “a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, an invincible persevering … in those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings.”

What passes as theology in many seminaries and divinity schools today is noticeably devoid of assertions. “Thus saith the Lord” has been replaced by “It seems to me.” The decline of doctrinal teaching in the seminary bears fruit in the absence of doctrinal preaching in the pulpit. When is the last time you’ve heard a sermon on the Trinity, the second coming of Christ, on heaven and hell? What the old liberalism accomplished by frontal assault, the ideology of indifference now achieves by benign neglect not out of a sense of proper humility for the deep things of God, but rather from a failure of nerve.

The sovereignty of God, the authority of Holy Scripture, and the finality of Jesus Christ are the bedrock convictions from which no true minister of the gospel can afford to slide.

I once had a teacher who said he would rather his students be passionately wrong than disinterestedly right. Without pushing that idea too far, it is clear that Christianity makes claims about God, the human condition, and the life to come which cannot be studied with detached neutrality. Doctrine matters. Luther was right to get upset with Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper at the Colloquy of Marburg (1529), even though, as I believe, he was defending a defective view of the Eucharist. A Luther who would have said at Marburg, “Oh, our differences are not important. Let’s shake hands, be friends, and forget the whole thing,” would never have had the courage to say at Worms, “Here I stand. God help me. Amen.”

Only when we take seriously the content of Christian belief can we distinguish properly those evangelical essentials which orthodox believers of various traditions affirm from those second-order theological concerns about which we disagree. The early fundamentalist coalition was led by an interdenominational, international team of church leaders who faced a common enemy in modern unbelieving theology. They differed widely on many matters: church governance, the sacraments, the nature of sanctification, and the details of eschatology. But they stood shoulder to shoulder in proclaiming the Gospel of the triune God who reveals Himself in a truth-telling Bible, the God who redeems lost human beings through the substitutionary atonement of His Son, Jesus Christ. Now, as then, the renewal of theology must issue in a holistic, ecumenical orthodoxy which, quickened by the Holy Spirit, will build up the church amidst the anxieties of the times.

The User-Friendly God

Since Friedrich Schleiermacher and the “turn to the subject” in theology, the primary datum of theological liberalism has been the religious self-consciousness of human beings. The fatal temptation of the liberal experiment has always been to turn theology into anthropology, to reduce propositions about God to statements about man. Today this tendency is rampant in the faddish theologies which thrive among the educational and bureaucratic elites within many of the old-line Protestant denominations ranging from liberation theologies of various political hues to Jungian analysis and the cult of self-esteem.

Even more disturbing is the loss of a transcendent referent in the way many evangelical Christians do church. Pastors have become skilled salesmen hawking a product to a self-seeking public. The Gospel is “dumbed down” to its lowest common denominator, repentance is no longer a priority, and the work of the Holy Spirit is reduced to a pious platitude. Where indeed are the nail prints?

The sizing-down of God greatly effects the way we study the Bible. Liberal exegesis and evangelical hedonism share a common approach to the Scriptures: both want to make the Bible “relevant” to modern men and women. Yet the Bible is not in the first instance a record of human thoughts about God; it is rather the revelation of God’s judgment on fallen humanity. The role of the exegete and preacher is not to make the Bible relevant to the modern world. It is to show how irrelevant the modern world and we ourselves have become in our rebellion against God.

Karl Barth, who himself conceded too much to the liberal theology he was seeking to overcome, was nonetheless on target when he wrote: “The Bible does not tell us how we should speak about God but what God says to us; not how we may find the way to Him but how He has sought and found the way to us; not what is the proper relation in which we must stand to Him but what is the covenant He has made with all who in faith are the children of Abraham, and that He has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.”

Jesus and Buddha, Too

Liberal Christianity arose in the nineteenth century in response to the intellectual challenge of the Enlightenment. That problem may prove minor, however, when compared to the challenge of religious pluralism in the twenty-first century. The liberal view of world religions has led to a watering down of traditional Christian affirmations about the uniquely divine nature of Jesus Christ and the necessity of conversion. For example, a former Muslim reported that when he walked into a Protestant mission station in Gambia and declared that he wished to become a Christian, the pastor tried to talk him out of it!

Evangelicals are not exempt from the temptation to equate sincerity with salvation nor the implicit universalism which claims that Christ came not so much to redeem lost persons from sin and eternal damnation as to enhance the religious dimension that is innate in the human soul. At a recent missions conference attended by thousands of evangelical students, only one third of the participants indicated their belief that “a person who does not hear the Gospel is eternally lost.” Had William Carey, who launched the modern missionary movement two hundred years ago, accepted the premise of much contemporary missiological thinking, he would never have gone to India in the first place; or, had he done so, he would have embraced there the indigenous Hindu belief that all religions are equally valid paths to the one unknowable god.

The sovereignty of God, the authority of Holy Scripture, and the finality of Jesus Christ are the bedrock convictions from which no true minister of the gospel can afford to slide. Machen’s words written more than three quarters of a century ago are still valid today:

If the Word of God be heeded, the Christian battle will be fought both with love and with faithfulness. Party passions and personal animosities will be put away, but on the other hand, even angels from heaven will be rejected if they preach a Gospel different from the blessed Gospel of the Cross. Every man must decide upon which side he will stand. God grant that we may decide aright!