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Key Ideas

The Fatherhood Of God
The Brotherhood Of Man
The Infinite Value Of The Human Soul
The Example Of Jesus, The Perfectly God-Conscious Man,
The Establishment Of The Moral-Ethical Kingdom Of God On Earth

Liberalism is a term that is much used and little understood. It is used in the political, religious, social, and intellectual arenas, often without definition. In a practical sense many individuals of a conservative bent would identify a Liberal as anyone more open-minded than they are. In fact, religious Liberalism involved a commitment to a central set of theological and religious propositions. These propositions, when worked out gave birth, in fact, to a new religion which retained orthodox terminology but radically redefined those terms to give them new meaning. For example, nineteenth century Scottish Old Testament scholar and theologian, W. Robertson Smith when told that he had been accused of denying the divinity of Christ, Smith responded by asking, “How can they accuse me of that? I’ve never denied the divinity of any man, let alone Jesus.”

Liberalism as a theological system did not arise in a vacuum, nor was its aim to destroy historic Christianity. Liberalism can only be understood in the historical and philosophical context out of which it arose. In a very real sense Liberalism as a system was trying to salvage something of Christianity from the ashes of the fire of the Enlightenment. B.B. Warfield observed of Liberalism near the turn of the century that it was Rationalism. But a Rationalism that was not the direct result of unbelief. Rather, it sprang from men who would hold to their Christian convictions in the face of a rising onslaught of unbelief which they perceive they were powerless to withstand. It was a movement arising from within the church and characterized by an effort to retain the essence of Christianity by surrendering the accretions and features that were no longer considered defensible in the modern world.1 The rising tide of unbelief that confronted the founders of Liberalism was the Enlightenment.

The Roots of Liberalism

The Effects of the Enlightenment: (The Age of Reason; The Aufklrung)

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the eighteenth century which elevated human reason to near divine status and ascribed to it the ability to discern truth of all types without appeal to supernatural divine revelation. The movement has been termed as The Modern Paganism2

The Enlightenment gave birth to much that we still see today as part of the modern mind. These features include:

    1. The beginning of scientific history

    2. Any truth must justify itself before the bar of reason

    3. Nature is the primary source of answers to the fundamental questions of human existence

    4. Freedom is necessary to advance progress and human welfare

    5. Literary and historical criticism are necessary to determine the legitimacy of our historical legacy

    6. The need for critical philosophy

    7. Ethics as separate and independent from the authority of religion and theology.

    8. A suspicion of and hostility to all truth claiming to be grounded in some kind of authority other than reason, e.g. tradition or divine revelation

    9. Raising to the value of science as the avenue by which man can find truth.

    10. Toleration as the highest value in matters of religion

    11. A self-conscious continuation and expansion of the humanism first developed during the Renaissance3

Philosophically during the Enlightenment man saw it as possible for him to reason his way to God. In a real sense this was the modern tower of Babel with all the hubris that implies.

During this age there arose a group of scholars who have come to be known as the Neologians (or Innovators). It was they who pioneered the work in biblical criticism, attacking the doctrine of biblical inspiration as it had been precisely articulated during the late Reformation period. The Neologians specifically assaulted traditional Protestant doctrines generally and Lutheran doctrines specifically. They attacked the supernaturalism of historic Christianity in general and such doctrines as the trinity, the deity of Christ, the atonement, the virgin birth, the resurrection, Chalcedonian Christology and the existence of Satan.

On another front this age saw the rise of Deism, which asserted while that God was indeed the creator, He had created a clockwork image universe which operated by natural law. God himself would not interfere with his creation, hence miracles became impossible because they would violate the inviolable laws of nature. Works appeared such as Christianity as Old as Time, arguing that Christianity merely republished the revelation of God which was available to man in nature. God himself was transcendent, separated, above and uninvolved in creation.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant marks the watershed between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period which followed. In a very real sense Kant is the last of the Enlightenment philosophers. But as an enlightenment philosopher his Critique of Pure Reason destroyed the hubris of the Enlightenment program of seeking all knowledge through the use of reason. Kant so revolutionized the way modern humanity thinks that philosophers still refer to “Kant’s Copernican Revolution.” As Copernicus changed the way scientists thought about the solar system, Kant revolutionized the way that modern man understands reality. Before Kant, philosophical epistemology had generally been divided into two camps, the idealists who saw ultimate reality in the mind (ratioalists) and the empiricists who said ultimate reality in the physical universe. Enlightenment philosophers debated the status of human knowledge empiricists arguing on the one hand that all knowledge came into the brain from the outside, with rationalists contending that knowledge arose out of the mind itself.

Kant asserted that neither side of the debate was right. Instead human knowledge arose from the interplay of incoming sensory data (absorbed through the five senses) and innate categories built into the human mind which processed that data and in turn made it “knowledge.” He further held that reality was to be divided into two realms, the phenomenal (the created order in which we live and which is open for us to experience) and the noumnenal (spiritual, metaphysical reality). According to Kant’s theory of knowledge the human mind is divided into categories. These included; Quantity (unity, plurality, totality), Quality (Reality, limitation, negation), Relation (Inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, community), Modality (possibility-impossibility, existence-non-existence, necessity-contingency). These are the only categories possessed by the mind and thus the only categories by which to interpret data. Significantly, in Kant’s system there were no categories by which to receive data from the spiritual (noumenal) world. In this way, humanity is like the blind man. He has no organ to receive the light which surrounds him. He believes that light exists and things are there to be seen, but he has no faculty by which to perceive it. Since he is blind to noumenal reality of all types, man cannot know “the thing in itself.” All that can be known is things as they are experienced.

The Enlightenment Philosophers attempt to know God as he is in himself by reasoning up to Him. was, according to Kant, a vain attempt doomed from the outset. God inhabited the noumenal realm and thus could not be experienced by man. Kant did not entertain the possibility that God could break into the realm of history (the phenomenal realm) and reveal himself.

But Kant was not an atheist. He postulated the existence of God, but denied the possibility of any cognitive knowledge of him. It was man’s conscience that testified of God’s existence, and He was to be known through the realm of morality. Kant published another work Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone which set forth his conception that religion was to be reduced to the sphere of morality. For Kant this meant living by the categorical imperative-which he summarized in two maxims:

“Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

“Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”

In other words, every action of humanity should be regulated in such a way that it would be morally profitable for humanity if were elevated to the status of law. In one sense this can be seen as a secularization of the Golden Rule.

Kant as a philosopher made no claims to being a Christian. Throughout his adult life was never known to utter the name of Jesus Christ, nor would he enter a Christian Church. When called upon to attend academic functions at the chapel of the University of Koenigsberg where he taught, he would march in his academic robes to the door of the chapel, then slip out of line and go home rather than enter the church.

Hegel: the philosopher of the nineteenth century

G.F.W. Hegel, a contemporary of Schleiermacher gave the dominant shape to idealistic philosophy during the nineteenth century. A philosopher of history and religion Hegel proposed that all of reality is the outworking of Spirit/Mind (Geist). History is the objectification of Spirit, i.e. Spirit/Mind is working itself out in the historical process and as such history carries its own meaning. From this it follows that there is a continual upward progress in history. History is undergoing a continual cultural and rational (although not biological) evolution, being pushed and pulled forcing culture upward toward its final form by means of the dialectic. Hegel saw historical evolution in terms of a pendulum swing between opposites (thesis-antithesis) which resolved themselves (synthesis) in a position that was higher than either of the opposites. The synthesis then became a new thesis in the upward pull of the historical process.

Whereas philosophy had traditionally been occupied with the concept of BEING Hegel substituted the process of BECOMING. Because all of history was seen as the process of the objectification of Spirit, and human beings were a part of the historical process, all human knowledge was said to be Absolute Spirit thinking through human minds.

An example of how Hegel saw this dialectic working itself out can be seen in his philosophy of history. The original thesis was the Despotism of the ancient period. The antithesis to Despotism was seen as the democracy of ancient Greece. The higher synthesis of these opposing forces was understood as Aristocracy. Aristocracy in turn became the new thesis which was opposed by Monarchy.

Hegel cast his long shadow over the entire 19th century giving it an optimistic cast which dogmatically asserted the progress in history and the perfectibility of humanity. Barth comments , “. . .it was precisely when it (the nineteenth century) was utterly ruled and completely ruled by Hegel that the new age best understood itself, and it was then at all events that it best knew what it wanted.”4 According to Barth, Hegel held sway until the catastrophe of 1914, World War I. His philosophy of history gave the structure adopted by the emerging schools of biblical criticism, as well as the mental cast to the entire century.

Hegel’s philosophy is the philosophy of self-confidence.5 The optimistic slogan that characterized the late nineteenth century Liberalism, “Every day in every way we are getting better and better,” reflects that optimism.

Schleiermacher: Father of Liberal Theology


Friederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, the Father of Modern (Liberal) Theology and arguably the greatest theologian to live between the time of Calvin and Barth, was born into the intellectual ferment of the enlightenment and Kant’s criticism of its program. The son of a Reformed chaplain in the Prussian army, Shleiermacher was educated in the Pietism of the Moravians. From their fervent piety with its emphasis on the life in community and commitment to traditional Lutheran doctrine he received his early religious experiences. While studying with the Moravians he first read the Neologians’ critique of historic Protestant orthodoxy. He was so impressed by their arguments that he left the Moravians and enrolled at Halle, a center of Neologian teaching. The young Friederich accepted the Neologians’ criticism of Lutheran orthodoxy, but rejected their rationalistic and moralistic substitute. About this time Schleiermacher was drawn into the Romantic movement which arose in reaction to the sterile critical and analytical rationalism of the eighteenth century. Romanticism stressed the intuitive and synthetic nature of human reason insisting that truth was to be gained by grasping the whole rather than by an abstract analysis of the parts.

Schleiermacher’s theological program proceeded under three premises (1) The validity of the Enlightenment criticism of dogmatic Protestant Orthodoxy, (2) Romantic Idealistic philosophy gives a better soil in which to ground the Christian faith than the shallow moralistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, (3) Christian theology can be interpreted in terms of romantic idealism and thus allow mankind to be both Christian and modern while being intellectually honest.

In viewing the Neologians’ critique of orthodoxy as correct and in light of Kant’s perceived destruction of the possibility of a rational knowledge of God, Schleiermacher influenced by Romanticism, found a new seat for religion and theology, one that could not be touched by enlightenment criticism--the Gefuhl (the feeling). This feeling is not to be understood as mere emotion. It is the deep inner sense of man that he exists in a relationship of absolute dependence upon God. It is his “god-consciousness” This is the center of religion and piety.

3. The piety which forms the basis of all ecclesiastical communions is, considered purely in itself, neither a knowing or a Doing, but a modification of feeling, or of immediate self-consciousness

4. The common element in all howsoever diverse expressions of piety, by which these are conjointly distinguished from all other feelings, or, in other words, the self-identical essence of piety, is this: the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in relation with God.

In taking this route, Schleiermacher turned the traditional theological method on its head. Rather than starting with any objective revelation, religion was seen at its core as subjective. Experience was seen as giving rise to doctrine rather than doctrine to experience. Theological statements no longer were perceived as describing objective reality, but rather as reflecting the way that the feeling of absolute dependence is related to God. It is this experience which is seen as the final authority in religion rather than the objective revelation of an inerrant Scripture. He says “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech..”

Despite having the potential for God-consciousness, humans are by their nature in a state of “god-forgetfulness” from which they are unable to save themselves. Redemption is found through the experience of Christ through the corporate life of the church. Redemption is "mystical, “centered in the personal communion of the believer with the fully god-conscious man Jesus Christ.

For Scheleiermacher, Jesus Christ was unique. Not that he was the God-man of historic orthodoxy, but rather in that he demonstrated in his life a perfect and uninterrupted God-consciousness,. He displayed the “veritable existence of God in him.” This was the redemption which Jesus accomplished. and brought to mankind. In this understanding the cross is not in a sacrificial atonement, but rather it is an example of Jesus’ willingness to enter into ‘sympathy with misery.’ Redemption was then the inner transformation of the individual from the state of God-forgetfulness to the state of God-consciousness. To put it another way, redemption is that state in which god-consciousness predominates over all else in life. Thus his theology was utterly Christocentric in that it was concerned with the example of Jesus as the perfectly god-conscious one.

Ritschl: Theological Agnosticism

The second major stream in classic Liberalism (which synonomous with Liberalism in its later form) was established by Albrect Ritschl. Whereas Schleiermacher was mystic, seeing the center of religion in the feeling, Ritschl was more closely tied to Kant and saw religion in terms of morality and personal effort in establishing the Kingdom of God (a moral ethical Kingdom). According to Ritschl,

Christianity is the monotheistic, completely spiritual and ethical religion., which, on the basis of the life of its Founder as redeeming and establishing the kingdom of God, consists in the freedom of the children of God, includes the impulse to conduct form the motive of live, the intention of which is the moral organization of mankind, and the filial relation to God as well as in the kingdom of God lays the foundation of blessedness. (Justification and Reconciliation, III., ET 1900, 13)

Religious truth in the Ritschlian conception became different in kind from all other knowledge; it involved moral-ethical judgments which were subjectively determined by the individual. The system surrendered rational knowledge of God and things divine. In its place it substituted, as the essence of Christianity, a subjectively verified personal theism, a devotion to the Man Jesus Christ as the revealer of God and His kingdom, and a subjection to His moral-ethical principles.

Employing the epistemology of Kant (as modified by Lotze) as a foundation, Ritschlianism sought to separate religion and theology from philosophy and metaphysics, founding religion strictly upon phenomenological experience. Kant had asserted that the only knowledge available to mankind was that of experience, the phenomenological. With this proposition the Ritschlians agreed. "Theology without metaphysics" became the watchword of the entire school.6 Following in the Kantian tradition, the Ritschlians asserted that human knowledge was strictly limited to the world of the phenomena, a world which included the realm of verifiable history and the realm of personal experience. Knowledge of God as He was in Himself, His essence and attributes fell outside the possibility of human experience, so, no positive assertions concerning His nature could be made. This was how Ritschlianism represented a "theological agnosticism."7 Ritschl himself asserted (with Kant) that man could not know things "in themselves" but only on their phenomenological relations.8 Since man had no categories by which to perceive God in the world, knowledge of Him fell outside the realm of the "theoretic" (scientific/empirical). Since Ritschlianism was strictly empirical, the value of historical study was elevated as a means by which one could discover God's revelation in history: the person of Jesus Christ.9

Revelation of God and certainty in religion for the Ritschlians took place when one was confronted with the historic person of Jesus Christ10. The truth communicated in this revelation was not "theoretic" (scientific) but "religious." Such a distinction divorced faith from reason. According to the Ritschlians the two realms had to be kept entirely separate.11 Religious truth was no longer to be found in objective, verifiable propositions but in the realm of the subjective experience, in "value judgments". These "value judgments" were of a different nature than scientific knowledge. They gave no definite objective propositional knowledge, rather they set forth their subjective value for the individual.12 For example, the existence of God could not be rationally demonstrated. But since man needed Him, that was proof that He existed.13 However, nothing could be inferred concerning His nature, attributes, or His relationship to the world.14 The God of the Christian might be Jesus Christ, " . . or he may believe in one or another kind of God. His God may not be Christian at all. It may be Jewish, as Jesus' God was. It may be neo-Platonic. It may be Stoic or Hindu. It may be Deistic."15 One could not communicate objective truth about God from his revelation in Jesus Christ; the most one could say was that in Jesus Christ one received the impression that God was present and active before him.16 Thus, religious knowledge (in the objective sense) became the common shared experience of God.17

The whole enterprise was one of religious positivism. It began with the data of experience, the experience which the individual had with the historic Christ. That experience included the freedom and deliverance He imparted to the individual by virtue of His life and teachings. This deliverance could not be denied since it was within the realm of the individual's experience. But the enterprise also ended there. Although it professed to meet Christ in the pages of Scripture, it denied any knowledge of His preexistence, His atoning death, or second coming. Although Jesus was afforded the title "Son of God" and had divinity ascribed to Him, these were but titles of honor, communicating no ontological reality. Such knowledge was beyond the realm of experience.18

Ritschl believes Christ to be God because in Him he is conscious of a power lifting him above himself, into a new world of peace and strength. Why this should be he cannot tell, nor can he give an answer to the man who asks him for an explanation of the fact of his experience. Enough that he point to Christ as the one through whom he has received deliverance, leaving it to the other to make the test, try the experiment for himself.19

Since knowledge in the system was limited to phenomena, Ritschlianism was adamantly anti-mystic. It denied the soul any direct access to God.20 From the perspective of Ritschlianism the aim of mysticism was,

. . . ontologically unsound in that it involves getting back of phenomena to the noumenal. That one may assume a noumenon back of phenomena is of course true but that one can hold valid communion with it--that one can press back beyond phenomena and come into direct touch with it is a delusion.21

God was seen as personal yet unknowable in any real sense. Knowledge of God was mediated through the person of Jesus Christ as He appeared in history.22 Looking back of Christ to God was a vain proposition. Communion with Him involved, not mystic rapture, but moral effort on behalf of His kingdom.

To commune with God is to enter into his purpose as revealed in Christ--to make them our own and to fulfill them increasingly and to gain the inspiration and the power which come from knowing that they are God's will. . . . Genuine communion with God to the Christian is the conscious and glad fulfilling of God's purposes.23

Comparative Religions/History of Religions School


Another development which took place within the context of Liberalism was the birth of the study of comparative religions. Two factors underlie this new discipline which proved to be another threat to the distinctiveness of Christianity. The first was Romanticism. Romantic philosophy led to a curiosity about and appreciation for other peoples’ religions as authentic ways of expressing the human experience. The second factor was the increase of knowledge which came as a result of the colonization of the world by the Western European powers. Vast amounts of new knowledge about the world and competing cultures and their native religions became available. The burgeoning science of archaeology opened the past and now allowed for the Bible to be studied against its cultural milieu in a way that had not heretofore been possible.

These two factors combined to form a new area of scientific study, comparative religions. All religions were seen in their most basic form to lead to one truth (God) and to promote a common ethic of love for one’s neighbor. In Germany, comparative religions took the form of the History of Religions school which studied the religions of the nations surrounding Israel and concluded that Israelite religion had taken elements of the surrounding pagan beliefs and placed these within a structure of monotheism. For example, Israel’s tradition of creation and the flood were said to have been borrowed from the Babylonian Genesis and the epic of Gilgamesh.

The History of Religions school was hostile to Ritschlianism for Ritschl’s lack of sensitivity to the historical background of both Christianity and Judaism. It held that Biblical faith in both its Old and New Testament expressions was not distinct and a result of supernatural revelation, but represented humanity’s evolving conceptions about God and religion.

Adolf von Harnack

Harnack represents the apex of Liberal theology. He was the greatest historian of Christianity of the generation and his work has set a standard for scholarship for the succeeding century. His History of Dogma has been the definitive work on the subject since its publication. Harnack operated totally within the framework of Liberalism, seeing the pristine purity of the gospel as having been corrupted even within the New Testament era, transforming Christianity from the religion of Jesus to the religion about Jesus. Further corruption took place in the succeeding centuries as Christianity moved out of its Jewish background and confronted the Hellenistic world. Controversies over the trinity and the two natures of the incarnate Christ hopelessly confused the Gospel message in Hellenistic philosophy. He argued that the task of the theologian was to get back to the kernel of the gospel by stripping away the husks of Hellenism to find what was real and permanent.

Specifically, the Gospel was seen as having nothing to do with the Person of the Son. It dealt with the Father only.24 In this understanding, Jesus' preaching demanded "no other belief in his person and no other attachments to it than is contained in the keeping of his commandments."25 Any doctrine of the Person of Christ was totally foreign to His ideas. Such doctrine lay not in the teachings of Christ Himself, but in the modifications introduced by His followers, especially Paul.

Harnack held that it was through the work of Paul that the man Jesus Christ was first seen to have more than human stature. It was he who was seen to have introduced modifications to Christianity by which the simple gospel of Jesus was ultimately replaced by adherence to doctrines relating to the Person of Christ. Moreover, Paul was seen as having been the one who first invested the death and resurrection of Christ with redemptive significance.

If redemption is to be traced to Christ's person and work, everything would seem to depend on a right understanding of this person together with what he accomplished. The formation of a correct theory of and about Christ threatens to assume the position of chief importance, and to pervert the majesty and simplicity of the Gospel.26

In his brief but important work, What is Christianity?, Harnack distilled the essence of Christianity as, The Fatherhood of God, The Brotherhood of Man and the infinite value of the human soul. The kingdom he contended was an internal affair of the heart.

Social Gospel

The Social Gospel was the Liberal Protestant attempt to apply biblical principles to the problems associated with emerging urbanization. Key is that it saw the Kingdom as a social/political entity

Late nineteenth century America underwent profound sociological upheaval. The industrial revolution had thrust the problems of urban society upon a nation that had heretofore been primarily rural. As the problems of dynamic sociological revolution manifested themselves in the slums and work houses, the individualistic gospel of revivalism had little to say to the problems that faced the urban dwellers every day. Walter Rauschenbusch spent eleven years in the “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York city ministering among the German speaking immigrants. Here he saw poverty, injustice and oppression. This led him to rethink the implications of the gospel and articulate A Theology of the Social Gospel. His premise was that

The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God tot save every soul that comes to him, But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and out faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.27

While Rauschenbusch was relatively conservative in his theological outlook, those who took up his mantle saw the message the gospel and the task of the church as working to end human suffering and establish social justice.

Major Theological Propositions of Liberalism


God is the loving immanent Father in constant communion with his creation and working within it rather than upon it to bring it to the perfection for which it is destined. God is the loving father who corrects his children but is not retributive in His punishment. “. . . The idea of an immanent God, which is the God of evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker who is the God of an old theology.”28 Such a position breached the traditional barrier between the natural and the supernatural. “Miracle is only the religious name for an event. Every event, even the most natural and common, is a miracle if it lends itself to a controlingly religious interpretation. To me all is miracle”29


No longer was man seen as radically sinful and in need of redemption. Rather he is in some sense in communion with God.. There was no infinite qualitative distinction between God and man. God was even to be known in measure and by analogy through study of the human personality. Emphasis was placed upon human freedom and ability to do all that God required, and eternity was interpreted as immortality of the spirit rather than the resurrection of the body.


Liberal Protestantism rediscovered the humanity of Christ, a truth that had been in practice ignored in previous generations. But, Liberalism went beyond a rediscovery of Christ’s humanity to a denial of his ontological deity. Instead of the incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ became the perfect man who has attained divine status because of his perfect piety (god-consciousness). Jesus is the supreme example of God indwelling man. There is no qualitative distinction between Jesus and the rest of humanity. The distinction is quantitative; He is more full of God that other humans.

    Religious authority:

Whereas previous generations had seen the Bible as the ultimate practical authority for the Christian, Liberalism made authority wholly subjective based on individual spiritual experience. Ultimate authority was not to be found in any external source, Bible, Church, or tradition, but on the individual’s reason, conscience and intuition. The Bible became the record of man’s evolving religious conceptions. The New Testament was normative only in the teachings of Jesus. The rest of the New Testament falls victim to changing the focus of the gospel from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus.


Man is confronted with salvation in the person of Jesus. By following his teachings and the example of his life one enters into communion with him.

    The Kingdom:

This is a moral kingdom with God ruling in the hearts of humans. The kingdom is also manifested in society by the establishment of justice and righteousness in the political sphere. It will be finally established as God works through man in the historical process.


The guiding principles of were distilled by Harnack in his What is Christianity? These were:

    1. Universal Fatherhood of God

    2. Universal Brotherhood of Man

    3. Infinite value of the individual human soul

Additionally, Jesus Christ served as the Supreme example, the man who was perfectly God-conscious at all times, in whom God was perfectly immanent. HE lived his life by a "higher righteousness" governed by the law of love, independent of religious worship & technical observance. He lived out in his life the perfect example of which we may all become.


The term modernism was first used of a movement within Roman Catholicism and pointed to a mentality that was similar to Liberal Protestantism. However, in the United States the term came to be applied to the radical edge of liberal theology (beginning c.1910) . Whereas earlier liberalism was a kind of pathetic salvage movement trying to save the essence of Christianity from the ashes of the Enlightenment, Modernism posed a direct challenge to evangelical Protestantism and fostered a full scale response in the form of Fundamentalism. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the American religious scene was wracked with the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Progressively effected were Congregationalism, Episcopalianism Northern Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist bodies so that by about 1930 many of these bodies were seen to have been “taken over.” This pitted those defenders of historic Christianity against the rising tide of a new “theology” that rejected the normative status of the Bible and even of Jesus Christ . In this Modernism signaled a step beyond Liberalism.

As a movement Modernism embraced the Enlightenment, an optimistic view of history based on the radical immanentism of God which saw the Holy Spirit as operative within both nature and culture perfecting them. This concept marked a direct dependence on Hegel’s philosophy history. The division between secular culture and the sacred were seen as invalid because the Holy Spirit was seen as operative in both realms making “the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Modernism emphasized autonomous human reason focusing on humanity’s freedom and self determination and it gave a religious authorization to modern efforts of man to improve his lot by relying on his own inherent goodness. The radical power of sin and evil were minimized to the level of inconvenience. Truth was seen in the latest findings of science rather than in any supernatural revelation or in any historic person. In this Modernism represented a step beyond Liberalism.

In the U.S. Modernism as a movement found its impetus from Shailer Matthews and the Chicago School (University of Chicago). Matthews used a sociohistorical approach to religion arguing that religion is functional in that it helps people to make sense of the environment in which they find themselves and that theology is “transcendantlaized politics” arising out of the church’s interaction with its particular culture. This meant that Christianity had to be “modernized” in every age in order to remain a live option for each new generation.. As a movement Modernism went into decline in the 1930s under the attacks of Neo-Orthodoxy but key ideas found revival during the radicalism of the 1960s.


Immanentism: loss of personality of God: radical immanentanism that became panentheism; denied miracles

Christianity had historically asserted the doctrine of God’s omnipresence, i.e. that he was present everywhere in the created order while remaining separate form it. The new stress on divine immanence in the world did not represent a return to the classical doctrine of omnipresence. Omnipresence as it had been traditionally understood emphasized the distinction between God and the world, whereas immanence implied an "intimate relationship, that the universe and God are in some sense truly one."30 Thus, a thoroughgoing doctrine of immanence led to a denial of the supernatural as traditionally understood. There were not two realms, a natural and a supernatural, but one. Nor were there miracles in the sense of God breaking into the natural order for God was not perceived as being “out there” to break in; rather, all was miraculous for God was in all.

Lack of a doctrine of sin:

Coupled with this loss of divine transcendence there was an accompanying elevation of the position of man. No longer was he viewed as depraved and separated from God. Rather there was a blending of the distinction between God and man, a blending which emphasized not human sinfulness but human perfectibility. It was a view of man which Machen called "essentially pagan."31

The catch phrase of liberalism: “Every day in Every way we are getting better and better.” gives clear evidence that the doctrine of man propounded by Liberalism was a return to the Pelagianism of the fourth century. Sin was treated as a minor peccadillo rather than a radical evil which necessitated the incarnation and atonement.

Lack of need for conversion/moralistic salvation: redemption as mystical communion with Christ in the community of the church or in establishing the kingdom of God on earth

Lack of an authoritative Bible: The rise of Biblical criticism

The rise of Biblical criticism in the mid to late nineteenth century represented a wholesale attack on the Sola Scruiptura foundation of the Protestant faith and the theology of the post-Reformation period which had articulated a precisely defined doctrine of inerrancy. In some of these explanations the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy was extended even to the vowel pointing of the Hebrew text. The biblical critics blasted such doctrines. The rise of textual criticism shook the confidence of many as to the accurate transmission and preservation of the text. Literary (Higher) higher criticism applied to the Bible the methods of literary analysis used in secular documents. However the critics looked at the books of the Bible itself and concluded from their anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions for example that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. In the New Testament, the work of Strauss, Baur and others purported to demonstrate that much of the New Testament was to be dated from the second century, rather than arising from the hands of the apostles writing as Jesus’ authorized representatives. This all served to undermine the unique character and authority of the Bible both in the scholarly as well as in the worshipping community. No longer was it possible to proclaim “Thus saith the Lord.” This destroyed the possibility of the rational certainty of the faith.

Loss of uniqueness of Christ: The quest of the historical (merely human) Jesus

The identity and status of Jesus during the nineteenth century underwent continual revision. David F. Strauss first attacked the supernatural in the NT as mere myth. This launched the 19th century quest of the historical Jesus; which has been described as Liberalism “looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness [and seeing] only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face . . . at the bottom of a deep well.”

The Jesus of Liberalism, bore little resemblance to the Church's historic understanding of Jesus Christ as having both human and divine natures joined organically in one person. This was largely due to the radical empiricism that the Liberal school applied to the area of religious truth. This empiricism eliminated all but phenomenological data from any truth claim. As this method was applied to Christological doctrine a great reduction transpired. Rather than affirm the historic formulations, a "form of the dynamic Monarchianism of Paul of Samosota [was] revived by Harnack and his followers."32

Any metaphysical speculation about the two natures of Christ was seen as nonsense. A history of Christological doctrine could not rid one "of the impression that the whole fabric of ecclesiastical Christology [was] a thing absolutely outside the concrete personality of Jesus Christ."33 The starting place had to be the historical Christ, the "person" Jesus.34 Any assertion that Jesus was not limited by His cultural milieu and environment as any other individual was limited by his own cultural peculiarities, would be to assert that He was a "specter".35 In their eyes, to be a human implied a complete human body, soul and human personality.36 That Jesus was fully human but only human became the sine qua non upon which the Ritschlian understanding of Christ was built. This man Jesus was the One who was to be found in the pages of the gospels.

Jesus became the great example. He was the founder of a religion who embodied in His own life what He taught concerning God.37 In contrast to the majority of mankind, who came to a knowledge of God through some sort of crisis experience, this God-knowledge was in Jesus from the beginning, flowing naturally from Him "as though it could not do otherwise, like a spring from the depths of the earth, clear and unchecked in its flow."38 The means by which Jesus achieved this God-consciousness and His resulting mission to spread the kingdom of God among mankind was beyond human comprehension; it was "his secret, and no psychology will ever fathom it."39

"Knowledge of God" . . . marks the sphere of Divine Sonship. It is in this knowledge that he came to know the sacred Being who rules the heaven and earth as Father, as his Father. The consciousness which he possessed of being the Son of God is, therefore, nothing but the practical consequence of knowing God as the Father and as his Father. Rightly understood, the name of Son means nothing but the knowledge of God.40

In Jesus' own understanding, His God-knowledge was unique. He knew God "in a way in which no one ever knew Him before."41 It was this unique God-knowledge which constituted Him the Son of God. It was also from this knowledge that his vocation flowed. Jesus knew that it was "his vocation to communicate this knowledge of God to others by word and by deed--and with it the knowledge that men are God's children."42

Whether we shall call Christ divine depends on what we mean by God. If God is substance then Christ is not divine for there is no evidence of divine substance in him. If God is purpose then this does make Christ divine for there is nothing higher than his purpose. Christ's divinity is a conclusion not a presupposition. Yet it is not immaterial whether we call him divine or not. Such an interpretation has importance as showing our conception of God. It does not hurt Christ to not be called divine. If we recognize his supremacy that is enough. But if we do not call him divine it is because we have another and unchristian idea of God. We seek in God something not found in Christ. We get God elsewhere than from Christ. This procedure is due to the unfortunate fact that our theology is not christianized.43

Activity is society centered ignoring personal spirituality

As Liberalism developed in America it took on a decidedly activist cast. The social Gospel sought to right social injustice, but at the expense of a recognition of personal sin and emphasis upon personal piety. The church was the Public Church but it ignored the personal aspects of the gospel and faith. This led to a natural blending of the message of the church with the agenda of secularly dominated political systems, making the agendas often indistinguishable.


J. Gresham Machen denied that Liberalism was Christianity. Whereas Christianity was rooted in supernaturalism, Liberalism was rooted in naturalism. Liberalism as a religious system, was "the chief modern rival of Christianity" which was at every point opposed to historic Christianity.44

“A God without wrath,
led men without sin,
into a kingdom without judgment
through the ministrations of
a Christ without a cross.”

H. Richard Neibuhr


C. Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith.

A. von Harnack, What is Christianity?

J. Dillenberger & C. Welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted Through Its Development.

K. Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism.

L. Averill, American Theology in the Liberal Tradition.

W. R. Hutchinson, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism.

D. E. Miller; The Case for Liberal Christianity.

1 B. B. Warfield, "The Latest Phase of Historical Rationalism," Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), p. 591.

2 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977).

3 Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983) 4-5.

4 Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, (Valley Forge:Judson Press), 386.

5 Ibid., 391.

6 James Orr, The Ritschlian Theology and The Evangelical Faith (New York: Thomas Whittaker, n.d.), p. 57.

7 A.B. Bruce noted that this agnosticism was not absolute, but a severe restriction of the knowledge of God attainable to man. (AJT 1:1-2.) Cf. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (New York: Oxford, 1976), pp. 122-132.

8 Albrecht Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, [eds.] H. R. Mackintosh and A. B. Macaulay (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1900), pp. 18-20

9 It is not without significance that both Harnack and McGiffert were primarily historians, who undertook to clear away the accretions of Greek metaphysical speculations from Christianity in order to discover the pristine gospel taught by Christ apart from philosophical considerations.

10 McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, pp. 172-178. By the "historic" person of Christ was understood the record of the life and teachings as presented in the pages of Scripture. The record of Scripture was seen as only historical, it was not divinely inspired and authoritative (see McGiffert, Apostolic Age, pp. 15-35; 116-121). Furthermore, the strict empiricism of the Ritschlians led them to deny the reality of miracles. Historical criticism became a matter of indifference since faith in Christ did not rest on any particular facet of Christ's life and teaching, but rather the "total impression of His person." Therefore criticism could not affect the fact that the individual had experienced Christ. (William Adams Brown, Essence of Christianity, p. 261.)

11 Ritschl, Doctrine of Justification, p. 207.

12 Ritschl, Doctrine of Justification, pp. 207, 225.

13 J. H. W. Stuckenberg, "The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl," AJT 2 (1899):276.

14 Bruce, "Theological Agnosticism," p. 4.

15 A. C. McGiffert, Christianity As History and Faith (New York: Scribner's, 1934), p. 145.

16 William Adams Brown, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Scribner's, 1902), p. 257.

17 Orr, Expository Essays, p. 8.

18 Adolf Harnack, What is Christianity? (New York: Putnam, 1902), p. 131.

19 W. A. Brown, Essence of Christianity, pp. 260- 261.

20 Orr, Expository Essays, p. 63.

21 McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, p. 176.

22 The restriction of religious knowledge to the Person of Jesus Christ was arbitrary. No attempt was made to show how or why Jesus had received a special knowledge of God. Rather it was an a priori assumption. (Sutckenberg, "The Theology of Ritschl," pp. 276-277.)

23 McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, pp. 177-178.

24 Ibid., p. 147.

25 Ibid., p. 129. Cf. McGiffert, p. 120. "But again when we assert our faith in the Lordship of Jesus, we declare that his moral standards and principles are the highest known to us, and we believe that they are the moral standards and principles of God himself. . . This was Jesus' ethical message to the world: 'Ye are all brethren,' 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'"

26 Harnack, p. 186. (Italics original.)

27 Walter Rauchenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York, 1917) 5.

28 Henry Drummond, Ascent of Man (New York, 1894), 334.

29 F. Schleiermacher, On Religion, 88.

30 Ibid. p. 202. This insistence on the unity of God and creation led to a panentheism which at times became out and out pantheism. (Bernard Ramm, "The Fortunes of Theology from Schleiermacher to Barth," Tensions in Contemporary Theology, Eds. Stanley N. Gundry and Alan F. Johnson [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976], p. 19

31 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 65.

32 Charles A. Briggs, The Fundamental Christian Faith, (New York: Scribner's, 1913), p. 267.

33 Adolf von Harnack, What is Christianity? (London: Williams and Norgate, 1904), p. 234.

34 A. C. McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith (New York: Scribner's, 1934), p. 107.

35 Harnack, What is Christianity?, p. 12.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., p. 11

38 Ibid., p. 34.

39 Ibid. p. 132. McGiffert asserted of Jesus' kingdom mission: "The secret of Christ's permanent hold upon the world is largely this, that he saw visions loftier, more compelling and more enduring than those seen by other men before or since. . . . Jesus brought the vision of a divine Father who careth even for the meanest." (p. 235.)

40 Harnack, p. 131. (Italics original.)

41 Ibid., p. 131.

42 Ibid. Cf. McGiffert, pp. 118, 306-307.

43 McGiffert, p. 111.

44 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977 reprint), p. 2.

Related Topics: Theology, Apologetics

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