January 12, 2006

Liberal Christianity: No Sale!

Let's say that you believed that Muhammad was nothing more than a clever guy who didn't really receive revelation from the angel Gabriel, and that his followers simply made up stories about him and inserted their own claims about history and God to further their own interests. Would it then make any sense to call yourself a Muslim?

Or let's say that you believed that Joseph Smith (of Mormon fame) was a schemer and concocted the tale of meeting the angel Moroni and translating the golden plates in order to forge a new religion, and that his successors continued the fiction by extending his ideas as opportunity and need presented itself. Would you think kindly of the religion and be pleased to call yourself a Mormon?

These seem like odd scenarios, and I can't imagine an earnest and right-thinking person subscribing to a religion on such a basis. That is, unless they hoped to use the religion, like its founder, for some self-serving purpose.

Now, imagine that you believe that Jesus was no more "divine" than any other human is or can be, and that he merely made certain wise and "spiritual" pronouncements and showed compassion for the social outcasts of society. Imagine that you believe that his disciples embellished his sayings and mythologized his deeds, and that their followers further reworked the stories and edited the written materials to suit their own theological and political agendas. Imagine that you thought the mainstream historical church to be a body of oppressive, simple-minded literalists who had gotten the real Jesus wrong all these years (assuming we could know what was real in any case). Would you then be anxious to also identify yourself as a "Christian?" Would you view the Scriptures, creeds, and liturgies of this contrived institution with fondness and think all its myths and exaggerations useful in the service of your true spiritual beliefs?

Sound strange? Some do exactly this. We might call them "liberal" Christians. But why go there? Why be a "Christian" if it's a forgery or hopeless historical muddle? Why not pick a different religion, make up your own, or be agnostic?

Perhaps it is for the fellowship and music. But you can get the same at a cocktail party or a witch coven.

Perhaps it is for the charity and social activism. But these are found in political organizations and among secular humanists.

Perhaps for the love of tradition. But tradition is hollow once divested of its purpose and meaning by liberalism; it's just social convention, and why pick the Christian conventions?

Perhaps liberals like some ideas found in Christianity. But why put up with all that is "wrong" in it just to benefit from a few valued items? I like furniture, and it can be found in junkyards, but I don't shop for it there.

Perhaps they just think Jesus is a swell guy. But almost every cult and alternate religion finds a place for Jesus, and without assuming some accuracy to the Bible you can't have any confident knowledge about him anyway.

Perhaps they just find the myths and parables fetching. But I find Homer's Odyssey and the Lord of the Rings fetching, and equally "true" on a liberal accounting. The problem with the Bible is that it claims its "myths" are real and the authors claim to speak for God. If that's not blasphemy then the word simply has no meaning.

Christianity seems to be the preferred ore that people use to forge their own idols. But why should I want to play the spiritual games of a contrived religion under the rubric of a mysterious and mythologized Christ? Be a liberal Christian? No thanks! No sale! I'd rather sleep in on Sunday morning. Rather than that, I'd go where God seemed more profoundly present or I'd cook something up from scratch much closer to my own liking. Fortunately, it's okay to be brash and dismissive about this anyway, since, on a liberal understanding, there's ultimately no final judgment and hell. I can afford to reject liberal Christianity if it is somehow right, but I can't afford to reject classical Christianity if it is true.

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20 Comments:

At 1/12/2006 4:45 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...

That's great logic.

As one of my professors would say, "It's because they are still trying to live off the captial of the Christian worldview."

But you would have to when your system is bankrupt.

Doug

 
At 1/12/2006 5:07 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Exactly right. Most serious Christians bristle at a liberal calling themselves a Christian.

We bristle because they have co-opted a term that doesn't describe them.

We bristle because they are giving a bad name to Christianity to outsiders.

We bristle because they result in the outsiders claiming that Christianity is more fragmented than it really is, that God hasn't spoken clearly, that His revelation isn't sufficient.

On the internet, there is a logical fallacy called the "No True Scotsman Fallacy". I don't think it's a real fallacy, but they claim it's a fallacy when they attack Christianity based on the behavior of some adherents. When we counter that these aren't real Christians they accuse us of this made-up fallacy.

 
At 1/13/2006 6:04 AM, Blogger Jefe said...

God may have spoken clearly, but Man has not understood uniformly. Throughout history, various understandings of God and His relationship to Christ have existed: three persons, one essence; one essence, fully divine; one essence, fully human; three essences; you name it, someone's believed it about Jesus. Evangelical Protestant theology does not have a monopoly on truth.

 
At 1/13/2006 7:19 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Jefe, even though everyone does their best to apprehend truth, experience should tell us all that we are fallible.

You are right to say that God has spoken clearly. At least in some matters (the ones He chooses to be clear on).

That being so, we can conclude that people can understand it too. The fact that many people don't understand it (as evidence by disagreements) is mostly a result of careless study or differing presuppositions.

Rather than saying no one has a monopoly on the truth (which implies the truth cannot be determined with certainty) why not claim that a given idea is true or false and argue that on it's merits? Then we can find out where protestant theology has missed out and where it hasn't.

 
At 1/13/2006 8:26 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Jefe,

I'm wondering if you really even mean that God has spoken clearly, since agreement that the Bible is actually inspired and accurate clears up a lot of disagreement (along with a good dose of systematics and a healthy respect for the laws of logic). The most profound division is between conservatives and liberals, which makes all other differences pale in comparison. Other divisions come from adding some alternate source of authority to that of Scripture, e.g., "tradition," the Pope, or the personal "leading" of the Holy Spirit. These other adjuncts end up, in practice, trumping some of the otherwise clear revelations found in Scripture.

Even so, there is a huge amount of agreement on the essential doctrines of Christianity (among conservatives). I could name numerous beliefs that are held in common by the most diverse camps of Christianity, most notably Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox Churches — in other words, broad unity across Christendom. And this includes those things we hold to be most central to the faith: things like the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the attributes of God, the problem of sin, the need of repentance, the inspiration of Scripture, the resurrection, the second coming of Christ, the final judgment, heaven and hell, etc., etc. And those things you mention — the trinity and the nature of Christ — are things which happen to have been settled in the earliest centuries of the church, and which the vast majority of the denominations remains quite comfortable with. Furthermore, if you show me a denomination that rejects the historic understanding of these things, I will show you a church that is in left field on many of the other basic items I list above.

In my experience, those who raise the objection of denominational division turn out to have issues with the very basics held by most of these denominations (otherwise, they wouldn't be raising the objection; they'd be, as an insider, obliged to answer it themselves). But if you reject these core essentials (as do liberals and cults) then this talk of "various understandings" is simply a trifle compared to the larger issue of being entirely outside the boundaries of classical Christianity. The denominational issue is an in-house debate. Once you are in the house, then you have a better basis for understanding and debating the finer points of Christian theology as well as the ability to sympathize with the desire to draw distinctions, even at points that may seem frivolous to an outsider.

Now, Jefe, are you concerned with my justification for thinking that my particular brand of Protestant theology is the most accurate Biblical expression, or would you, in fact, take issue with the common creeds and beliefs of the historic church?

 
At 1/16/2006 12:55 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I don't understand the appeal to liberal Christianity either. The word "Christian" seems to lose all meaning.

 
At 1/16/2006 1:32 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I think they believe that since it is largely an invention in the first place, then it is fair game to reinvent it for their own purposes. I just heard a quote this morning from a liberal pastor who said, "We wrote the Bible, we can rewrite it if we want to." I say they should go "make up" their own religion.

 
At 1/16/2006 11:16 PM, Blogger Vman said...

I wonder if you can be gay and still be considered a true christian. Or is that a "No Sale"?

 
At 1/17/2006 2:56 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Vman - I suppose that depends on whether or not you consider being sinful as negating your status as a Christian. I think the point of Christianity is that we are all sinful.

 
At 1/17/2006 9:25 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Steve is partly right.

Being a Christian (according to Scripture's definition) includes giving your primary allegiance to God.

If you do not do this, as evidenced by volitionally behaving in a way that's contrary (by this I mean you INTEND to keep up the behavior and/or defend it) then, by definition, you can't be rightly called a Christian.

However, there is certainly room for those who honestly can't help themselves.

 
At 1/17/2006 1:15 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Here's an article I wrote specifically on this issue. And here's the blog post relating to that article if anyone feels compelled to comment.

I guess the bottom line is that if this is indeed a sin (which Scripture seems to affirm), then we could consider it no different than being a thief, prostitute, murderer, or just a selfish person. All are forgivable (no one is outside of God's grace), but to be forgiven and avail yourself of the cross you must first repent of your sin. No matter how difficult the trials and temptations of any given homosexual may be, if they cannot even begin to affirm that there is anything wrong with this lifestyle, then we have grounds to doubt their salvation. It would be the same as asking if someone in the mafia could be a Christian. I'd say "sure," but if the person then stays in the mafia and has no remorse over the guys he's ruffed up and knocked off, then I think he hasn't gotten the point.

 
At 2/08/2006 12:35 PM, Anonymous DavidD said...

"I can afford to reject liberal Christianity if it is somehow right, but I can't afford to reject classical Christianity if it is true."

I've wondered how many conservatives see it this way. I don't suppose there's a good poll about that. As a liberal Christian, I would say the same thing about atheism, but it's not classical Christianity I can't afford to reject. I can't afford to reject who and what God and Jesus really are. Conservatives seem to think that if I disagree with them about that, I must be wrong. I must be making it up. In fact I abandoned all pretense to be able to decide for myself who God and Jesus are, and I wound up a liberal as a result. You think I'll suffer for that. I think you miss out on God's grace for being so closed on the possibility that both God and Jesus are liberals. It's not a matter of making an ironclad argument. It's a matter of praying "not my will, but Yours" and following Jesus wherever He leads you, as a good Christian should.

 
At 2/08/2006 2:00 PM, Blogger Paul said...

But who is Jesus and where is He leading? It is either up to your imagination, which means you can just fill in the blank, or it is matter of going with the historical records and the writings of the church fathers, which all portray a particular kind of Jesus that liberals reject. I can certainly sympathize with the debate over the veracity and preservation of the Scriptures, but if we hold in common the belief that a personal and powerful God is genuinely trying to communicating with us (most notably in Christ) through the Scriptures, then it seems odd to say, "we just can't know the truth." Isn't that just saying either, "God, I know you tried, but you screwed it up too bad for me to sort out the truth from the fiction" or, "God, I know you delivered the goods, but I just can't make heads or tails of it and I don't believe anyone else can either"?

 
At 2/09/2006 6:37 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

DavidD, I agree with you completely that we must put aside our desires for God to be a certain way and conform our understanding and our behaviors to the TRUTH about God.

So now, as Paul has asked, how do we know anything about God? Please tell us if you are different here, but in my experience liberals assume that there is some path to God-knowledge that is more reliable than a systemmatic study of Scriptures.

Why are Scriptures not a reliable path to that knowledge, and how can you justify your alternative path as being better?

 
At 2/09/2006 11:52 AM, Anonymous DavidD said...

"It is either up to your imagination, which means you can just fill in the blank, or it is matter of going with the historical records and the writings of the church fathers, which all portray a particular kind of Jesus that liberals reject."

There are other possibilities than these. Did Paul learn of Jesus on the Road to Damascus in either of these ways? Setting aside how spiritual experiences have taught me about God and Jesus, in prayer and otherwise, even the purely rational approaches one can take toward who is Jesus are more than these two. The liberal books on the historical Jesus make use of what's known about his culture. They look at the New Testament as indeed the only writings that describe Jesus. One doesn't have to believe that the Gospels contain a transcript of the words of Jesus to believe something of who Jesus is.

Of course, even to a liberal it is frustrating that so many authors come up with different nuances of who Jesus was. That is the nature of liberalism. It is about freedom, not orthodoxy. It doesn't have to stop there, though. In going back to God and Jesus in prayer and how one lives one's life, seeking God's direction in all things instead of my own, I find confirmation of my faith, not in terms of exact beliefs, but in terms of a relationship that works not only in providing me with comfort, but in making me effective at helping others and being transformed in the way that Marcus Borg describes in his book The Heart of Christianity.

I guess some would rather have a perfect argument as to whether Jesus made a substitutionary atonement for us as opposed to an atonement by example. Either way Jesus is my Savior. I have God's word in my ears for that. Someone who has only the Bible without a relationship with God has no such assurance.

As far as the Scriptures being reliable anyone can sit down now with an atheist website that shows objections to almost every verse in the Bible along with defenses by apologists that also go verse by verse, either published or posted, and decide for himself or herself if the Bible is trustworthy. Personally I can't get past the first chapter of Gennesis without being convinced that the Bible was written by men, not God. Yet God lives, Jesus lives, my Redeemer lives. It's a long story how I know. In the Bible is some first-hand testimony like that, such as Paul's. Many parts of the Bible strike me that way.

If you wish another path, more specific than prayer, there's John Wesley's quadrilateral. There are many ways to move on from blind orthodoxy.

 
At 2/10/2006 10:10 AM, Blogger Paul said...

David,

There are so many statements here that just beg for a response, and I have a habit of doing point-by-point replies and missing the heart of the dialog, however, I think I can cut to the chase here.

You are using Christian language and appealing to the Christian scriptures, yet you just told me that you believe the Bible to be a product of man, that you reject the substitutionary atonement, and that you think Marcus Borg is someone worth quoting. These are all signs of a perspective of Christianity that is so distant from what Scripture itself claims and what the historical church has held to that it makes the Gnostics, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses look like kissing cousins of orthodoxy. I think you essentially deny that the Bible has anything meaningful to contribute to your own subjective experience. Although, when it says something remotely supportive of your ideas, like Paul having a personal encounter, then you've found your inerrant life-verses.

Let me ask you this:
You say that Jesus is your savior. Just what is it that you are saved from?
You say that your experience of God gives you real knowledge of Him. People of all religions claim to have "experiences," and theirs have the unfortunate effect of telling them things about this god that are absolutely contradictory to your experience and each others. What will you say against their "experiences" without losing your grasp on reason or the objective truth content of your own experience? (That is to say, without permitting logical contradictions to exist or without turning your beliefs into just your own "how I see things" that has no truth or application to anyone else.) And what will you say against the millions of experiences that have told people through the ages that the Bible is really inspired by God and in harmony with the truth of the matter?

You have said yourself: "Even to a liberal it is frustrating that so many authors come up with different nuances of who Jesus was. That is the nature of liberalism." I've got news: it's not just different nuances in many cases, it's categorically different gods. For example I heard Borg's buddy, John Dominic Crossan, in one debate essentially denying that God is an objectively real being. I tried liberal Christianity on my way to orthodoxy, and I found it absolute chaos. And my own "experiences" had an interesting way of always telling me things that I was comfortable hearing versus anything as hard-edged and convicting as Truth.

 
At 2/10/2006 11:02 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

I guess some would rather have a perfect argument as to whether Jesus made a substitutionary atonement for us as opposed to an atonement by example. Either way Jesus is my Savior. I have God's word in my ears for that. Someone who has only the Bible without a relationship with God has no such assurance.

Your implication here is that we are not saved and that the only thing we possess is an intellectual assent to 'orthodoxy'.

That's certainly not accurate. We have a relationship with God through Jesus, and the assurance that we have not from 'feelings' but from God's unbreakable promises found in Scripture.

Now, if Jesus really made a substitutionary atonement, and this is part of the 'Gospel', then aren't you preaching 'another gospel'?
If true, and you've got the mode of the atonement wrong, are you really saved? Can you really use a 'feeling' as valid evidence?

Doesn't the Bible say that "these things are written so that you may KNOW..."? Why doesn't it say "FEEL"?

 
At 2/10/2006 11:19 AM, Anonymous DavidD said...

The Bible was written by men. That doesn't mean it's worthless. That doesn't mean there is nothing of God in it. Your conclusions are about black-and-white thinking. They are not logical. To the extent that apologists are lousy at science or in other ways give a poor testimony for their faith, they are just as off-putting as you have been put off by liberals.

My faith doesn't depend on exactly what the atonement is about. Those who insist on belief in substitutionary atonement for salvation are denying Romans 10:9. I'm sure apologists have tried to smooth that over, but only those who want to be convinced by them are convinced.

I believe the experience of my life following Jesus and God over the experiences of others the same way I believe what I know about physics over what many others believe. Beliefs that come out of human nature are easy to spot after a while, including the idolatries that people turn to because they can't stand the uncertainty of reality. It's not exactly the same. I can learn physics without God, maybe. I can't learn about God without God. If you think orthodoxy gets you around that, then be orthodox. You can come up with some possible consequences if you're wrong, more than the lack of hell that some liberals assert.

Marcus Borg is worth reading. There's a nice chapter in The Heart of Christianity on the difference between faith and beliefs. He is someone who believes in a powerful Spirit, not like those liberals who insist on some handcuffed God in a world that is completely rational. If you read his book, you could at least use him as a benchmark of what kind of liberal you consider not to be Christian instead of painting all liberals with the same brush, an obvious mistake.

 
At 2/10/2006 5:11 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I don't think I've said that the Bible couldn't technically have God in there somewhere, and I'm not claiming that it wasn't "written by men" (God could have used monkeys even). I'm just saying that it couldn't have anything near the kind of "god" in there that the Bible portrays and that liberals are essentially discarding that portrait and shaping their own. Since the authors of the Bible claim in so many places to be speaking the very words of God and claim to be attempting to accurately represent what Jesus said, did, and meant, then we've got something of a problem if we reject their report. It would seem to be saying that we find them to be useless as witnesses (which leads me to wonder why God even bothered with the communication) or that we find them to be dishonest (in which case I don't know why we should believe them on any matters).

My faith doesn't depend on exactly what the atonement is about. Those who insist on belief in substitutionary atonement for salvation are denying Romans 10:9

Let me first quote the verse: "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved."

You are trying to make your point by appealing to a summary statement. This is like saying that I have to "go to the grocery store to get fed." It implies very many things in the statement: what a grocery store is and how I am to get there and what I must do with the food I acquire. I will not deny that this passage contains the heart of it, but you cannot leave out the relevant details (like what "Lord," "believe," and "saved" mean), and Paul gives us much, much more to go on. There's plenty of text in Scripture to which I could appeal in order to make my case (for example, Romans 5:9 & 8:3), but I fear that I will be limited by what you are willing to consider the "inspired" stuff.

Just in this one verse I would point out the obvious thing that is troubling to your theology: that those who do not confess these things are NOT saved. Again, I ask the question: What the heck are we saved from? Why should I pester a non-Christian, who is perfectly happy with his own beliefs, and try to sell him my own (which the authors of Scripture were desperate to do, and died for it almost to a man)?

I believe the experience of my life following Jesus and God over the experiences of others the same way I believe what I know about physics over what many others believe.

In other words, you just believe because they are your own experiences, and you imagine yourself to be more objective than the next guy.

Beliefs that come out of human nature are easy to spot after a while, including the idolatries that people turn to because they can't stand the uncertainty of reality.

Wow, now taking the Bible seriously (which is what tells us about idolatry in the first place) and carefully crafting our theology from it is idolatry! I thought idolatry was making up your own God, which liberalism is necessarily forced to do by virtue of the fact that they've rejected the final authority of the playbook. The fact that liberalism is such a diverse lot is testimony to this personalization, which is driven by their own "human nature." If it were really a matter of following God's leading to the truth about Him, then I'd expect a bit more uniformity among liberals. Or maybe we need to admit that there are really a load of unbelievers among their ranks.

And psychologizing over uncertainty? Gosh, maybe you'd better not study math and science, because that would bring you more certainty in those areas :-) The problem is that the Bible paints a picture of a God who is very keen for us to get some things right about Him, and He seems to get quite angry when we distort some of these ideas. Liberalism takes the Bible to be muddled by human speculation, cultural biases, and downright mythologizing. This means that to hold that God is in there somewhere you must necessarily bear a burden of uncertainty. Who can know what is true about God and what isn't? It's ultimately up to your own subjective speculations. But the thing you cannot do is to assert that the Bible itself teaches uncertainty (e.g., Luke's introduction includes, "so that you may know the exact truth"); you bring that idea from outside of the text.

He is someone who believes in a powerful Spirit, not like those liberals who insist on some handcuffed God in a world that is completely rational. If you read his book, you could at least use him as a benchmark of what kind of liberal you consider not to be Christian instead of painting all liberals with the same brush, an obvious mistake.

I appreciate the spirit of that recommendation, but I don't think I've painted all liberals the same. In fact, I think I've made it clear that one of the problems with liberalism is that once cut loose from the authority of Scripture, there is nothing to constrain the theological drift. So, you will get liberals leaning more toward deism and those with a more mystical flair, as you point out. Who's to say which is correct? How could we possibly arbitrate that dispute?

 
At 2/10/2006 5:31 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

DavidD, Sorry to comment on the back of Paul's comment. Don't mean to overwhelm you.
Also, please don't read in any acrimony here I was hurried and didn't take the time to pepper the text with carefully crafted words to convey proper respect.

"To the extent that apologists are lousy at science or in other ways give a poor testimony for their faith, they are just as off-putting as you have been put off by liberals."

What do we do if I think that you give a poor testimony for your faith? How do we decide which of us is right?

Denying Romans 10:9? I deny nothing about it. I'm glad to know that you don't either. However, if it's written by fallible men and might be one of a few small errors, then how can you consider it authoritative?

As for believing your life experience over someone else's subjective life experience I'm with you 100%. Epistemologically, a subjective experience can only be convincing for the subject that experienced it and not someone else. My experience of knowing and walking with God all these years leads me to believe that Scriptures are inspired in a special sense that makes them true.

"... same way I believe what I know about physics over what many others believe".

So you are saying that what you have discovered about physics takes precedence over what you find in the textbooks, and what other scientists the world over are finding? And you feel justified about believing in a different form of physics than anyone else?

"Beliefs that come out of human nature are easy to spot after a while, including the idolatries that people turn to..."

I agree very much here. How do we avoid these beliefs that come out of human nature? If your internal nature is causing you to move toward a belief/attitude/practice that is wrong how will you know? You can only know when something outside of you, that isn't prone to this corruption, tells you. For me that's Scripture. For you, I don't know but would love to hear what it is.

I'll attempt to not paint all liberals with the same brush. If I have any incorrect assumptions about your brand of faith, please correct me.

And thanks for taking the time to dialog with us so that we can understand your brand of faith better.

 

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