Theological Liberalism as Heresy

June 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: What is your assessment of liberal theology?

The roots of modern liberal theology can be traced to the great intellectual and cultural movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, in the main it signals man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage, that is, his inability to think without the guidance of another. As Immanuel Kant has so famously put it, the motto of the Enlightenment is Sapere Aude! (‘Dare to Know’!) – ‘Have courage to use your own understanding’.

In presenting man as the supreme authority, the Enlightenment jettisons all traditional sources of authority, including, of course, the Church and her sacred Scriptures. As Richard Pierard notes, ‘All beliefs must pass the tests of reason and experience, and one’s mind must be open to new facts and truth, regardless of where they may originate’.

Accompanying the Enlightenment is a new approach to interpreting the Bible that uses the ‘science’ of historical research called ‘historical criticism’. Liberal Bible scholars and theologians accept the findings of the ‘historical critical school’ that suggest that the biblical texts are not conveyors of divine revelation, but are instead time-bound accounts of the ancient people of Israel and the early Christians.

In the hands of the liberal theologians, the Bible is no longer regarded as God’s infallible Word, inspired by his Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). Instead, the Bible is merely seen as the work of its human authors and editors who belonged to an age centuries removed from ours, and who are in every way limited by their times. The stories in the Bible must be regarded as myths and fables, purposed to inspire piety and morality.

In allowing reason to usurp the authority of the Bible, liberalism has introduced such mutilating distortions to the basic tenets of the Christian faith concerning God, Jesus Christ, salvation, eschatology that what emerges as a result can no longer be said to be orthodox Christianity. In departing so radically from the ‘faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 1:3), theological liberalism must be regarded as heresy.

Take the liberal revisions to the doctrine of God. In his magisterial work, History of Dogma (7 volumes, published between 1894-99), Adolf von Harnack argued that the orthodox Christianity presented in the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed is the ‘creation of the Hellenic spirit on the soil of the Gospel’ and therefore a profound aberration of the simple religion of Jesus. The Church, Harnack insists, must re-discover the ‘kernel’ of Christianity by removing the ‘husks’, that is, the forms that it has been given as a result of the metaphysical speculations of her theologians.

Following Harnack, liberal theologians have regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as merely symbolic expressions of the Church’s experience of God, devoid of any ontological truth.

Or take liberalism’s understanding of Christ and salvation. In his book, On Religion, Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), Friedrich D. Schleiermacher – who has been accorded the accolade of being the father of modern (read, liberal) theology – describes Jesus not as the incarnation of God’s Word, but as an archetypal man. Jesus was a man who has achieved perfect ‘God-consciousness’ (that is, total dependence on God). He serves as an example that we all must emulate.

Following Schleiermacher’s lead, the late Anglican theologian John Macquarrie also maintained that Jesus is different from other humans only in degree and not in kind. In other words, for Macquarrie, the incarnation must be understood metaphorically, not literally.

Consequently, Macquarrie’s Jesus is hardly different from what he calls the other ‘saviour figures’ like Krishna, Confucius and Buddha. In his highly influential book, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (1990), Macquarrie argues that like Jesus, all these other saviour figures are also ‘mediators of grace’ and ‘emissaries of holy Being’. Like Jesus, they have also ‘given themselves up to the service of a divine reality, who might work in them and through them for the lifting up of all creatures upon earth’.

It should not surprise us that theological liberals have downplayed the seriousness of sin by defining it, not as a depravity that is so comprehensive that if human beings were left to their own devises, they would not be able to rescue themselves from destruction, but as merely a glitch in our relationship with God.

For Schleiermacher, then, ‘redemption’ has to do with a restored relationship with God that can be achieved by emulating Jesus who enjoys pre-eminent God-consciousness and an intimate relationship with God. Schleiermacher – and the liberals who followed him – has very little to say about vicarious atonement, forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

The Lutheran theologian Eugene Klug is surely rightly when he asserts that ‘The true horror of liberalism is evident precisely at the point where it denies Christ’s unique role as Saviour of mankind through his vicarious suffering and death for men’s sins’.

Liberal theology wants to present Jesus as a remarkable man, a pious follower of God par excellence – but not as the incarnate Son of God – to the so-called cultural despisers of Christianity. In so doing, they have seriously distorted what Scripture says about him. As Klug is right to point out, ‘The gospels do not consist in pious embellishments of what Jesus’ followers thought about him, fancifully enhanced by miracles and a fabricated report of his resurrection’. Rather, ‘these gospels consist in the revelation of God, recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, for faith’s acceptance’.

Liberalism is the bastardization of the Christian Faith – to borrow the expression by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. It is the mutilation, corruption and perversion of orthodox Christianity.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.