Theological liberalism is the fake news version of Christianity. It uses God words but strips them of their biblical content. Thus they deny all the key doctrines of the faith or radically reinterpret them. They reject the miraculous and the supernatural, they reject the uniqueness of Christ, his virgin birth, his deity and his resurrection, they reject the reality of sin, the wrath of God and judgment to come, etc.
Instead they push a schmaltzy and mushy “let’s love everyone and learn to just get along” version of Christianity. As was said in the 19th century about the religious scene in America’s northeast, especially about the Unitarians congregated in and around Boston, this liberal theology comprised three elements: ‘the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighbourhood of Boston’.
Biblical Christians have been battling this plague in the church for quite some time now. As one classic example of this, back in 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote his brilliant volume, Christianity and Liberalism. It is still worth reading today, and you can see one of my write-ups about it here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/15/theological-liberalism-progressive-christianity/
Much can be said about the dangers and delusions of theological liberalism. One of the biggest tricks in their playbook is to try to separate the ethics of Jesus from the teachings of Jesus. We find this happening all the time. It is a sure sign that you are dealing with theological liberals when you come across this.
They are quite happy to run with the ethics of Jesus. So they readily latch on to things like “turn the other cheek” and “love one another”. These sorts of passages nicely dovetail into their political liberalism as well. Thus if they are pushing things like pacifism, they can happily claim that these texts are the essence of the message of Jesus.
But they want nothing to do with all of his hardcore teachings, since they do NOT fit into their liberal agenda. Passages like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” and “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again,” and “You are of your father the devil” just do not cut it for the liberals.
Needless to say, all this is to do grave injustice to the Bible and to the Christian faith. It is a great way to trash the Bible and disembowel Christianity, but it is certainly not how we uphold Scripture and the heart and soul of biblical Christianity.
Anyone who has championed biblical orthodoxy would have encountered the theological liberals and had to deal with them. I have had my fair share of confrontations with these folks over the years. Let me spell all this out in a bit more detail.
Consider something that even liberals might at least half-heartedly endorse: the Ten Commandments. When we look at them even just a little bit closely, we see how teaching and theology are also part of the ethical injunctions found there. Theology and ethics are intertwined and cannot be separated.
That is, basic biblical truths about God, his monotheistic and exclusive nature, frame and inform the commandments. And the order of the commandments is crucial here. The first four talk about our obligations to God, and then the last six deal with our obligations to one another.
That is always how it must be. We cannot love and do right to our neighbour until we first love God and obey him. So when a liberal talks a lot about love, he must follow the biblical order, or he will merely be tossing up nice, lofty but vacuous ideals.
The latter commandments flow out of, and are based upon, the former. We are fully unable to love anyone as we should, and getting right with God first is how we must proceed. The Ten Commandments are based on that particular order: we must first love God, by his chosen methods, not our own, and then we can begin to love others.
And that is just what we find in the New Testament as well. That is what the gospel is all about. It is only when we agree with God about our sinful condition, turn from our sins and cast our trust in the work of Christ that we can be reborn and for the first time in our lives really be able to truly love both God and others.
Indeed, Jesus fully summarised and affirmed that. Recall what he said when he was asked about the greatest commandment. As we find in Mark 12:28-31:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
The first commandment is taken from Deuteronomy 6:5. Of interest, the Ten Commandments were just discussed in Deut. 5, so to love God means to obey him and keep his covenant conditions. We cannot speak about loving God apart from obeying his commandments.
And the second commandment is taken from Leviticus 19:18, another book full of laws. So a desire to separate love from law is just as unhelpful and unbiblical as is the effort to separate the ethics of Jesus from the teachings and commands of Jesus.
To push for a sentimental sort of love divorced from biblical truth is just a dead-end proposition. We can only love as God intends us to love when we are in a right relationship with God. And that includes obeying his commands. Biblical love and biblical obedience are a package deal.
So the theological liberal can talk all he likes about love and the brotherhood of man. But he will never get close to what God really expects of us. It will just be a sentimental and sickly-sweet emotivism and an attempt to be ‘nice’ to people. Biblical love is much sturdier and much more robust than that.
Since I early on mentioned Machen, let me quote just one portion of his important volume:
When the gospel account of Jesus is considered closely, it is found to involve the Messianic consciousness throughout. Even those parts of the Gospels which have been regarded as most purely ethical are found to be based altogether upon Jesus’ lofty claims. The Sermon on the Mount is a striking example. It is the fashion now to place the Sermon on the Mount in contrast with the rest of the New Testament. “We will have nothing to do with theology,” men say in effect, “we will have nothing to do with miracles, with atonement, or with heaven or with hell. For us the Golden Rule is a sufficient guide of life; in the simple principles of the Sermon on the Mount we discover a solution of all the problems of society.” It is indeed rather strange that men can speak in this way. Certainly it is rather derogatory to Jesus to assert that never except in one brief part of His recorded words did He say anything that is worth while. But even in the Sermon on the Mount there is far more than some men suppose. Men say that it contains no theology; in reality it contains theology of the most stupendous kind. In particular, it contains the loftiest possible presentation of Jesus’ own Person….
In sum, our rebellious and sinful nature will just not allow us to properly love. That is why Christ came. But to ignore his work at Calvary and continue to champion some sentimental hopes for peace on earth and goodwill to men just will not work.
The teachings of Jesus and his ethical injunctions stand or fall together. That is where the theological liberal goes so badly wrong. And that is just one reason why all true Christians must give a very wide berth to any forms of theological liberalism.