Sunday, May 24, 2009

Liberal Theology: An Attempt to Understand It

The book, Liberal Theology: A Radical Vision by Peter C. Hodgson (Fortress, 2007) is a rare work of clarity and honesty by a leading liberal theologian, now retired from Vanderbilt. I enjoyed the book immensely, not because I agreed with his understanding of Christianity, but because I appreciated his forthrightness and willingness to declare what he believes. Criticizing liberalism is often like trying to nail jelly to the wall; the resulting mess is enough to convince you that the jelly exists, but precious little of it gets nailed down. In this book Hodgson dares to give it to the reader straight.

Hodgson clearly differentiates Liberal Christiainity from Evangelicalism and Conservative Protestantism, Postliberalism and Radical Orthodoxy, on the one hand, and from secularism and atheism, on the other. His view of the Roman Catholic Church is basically that nothing of note has happened in it since Vatican II.

His vision is that Liberal Christianity stands between Fundamentalism and Atheism as a mediating, correlational theology that strives to preserve a Christian witness in the midst of an evolving and changing society. He strives mightily to incorporate Liberation Theologies (Feminist, Black and Latin American) into Liberalism as legitimate expressions of Liberal Theology's central motif of freedom. In fact, it seems as if everything resolves into freedom for Hodgson. Jesus' message of the kingdom of God is about freedom. God is free. Human beings are free as they emerge from nature to become responsible subjects. Salvation is freedom. The future is freedom. If there is any such thing as sin, it can be defined as that which inhibits freedom. He writes:

"Emancipation from the various forms of evil inflicted by human beings on themselves and nature happens when persons become engaged in the coming of God's kingdom or baileia - a metaphor that is appropriately translated in today's context as God's 'freedom project,' meaning the process and place wherein God's freedom - the freedom of love, forgiveness, and grace - prevails in place of the normal arrangements of domination, retribution, and exchange." (67)

When Hodgson begins his brief narrative of the beginning of Liberal Theology, he begins with the Enlightenment and Kant, accepting the story the Enlightenment tells about itself at face value. He has little time for the patristic-medieval synthesis of theology that culminates in the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. This tradition may be mined for resources, along with heterodox traditions, which may equally well contain nuggets that can be incorporated today into what he terms: "a liberal reconstruction of Christian faith for today." (30) Much of the book (chapter 2) is concerned with a reconstruction of theology along Hegelian lines.

One big problem in the book is Hodgson's struggle to come to terms with the fact that postmodernism, which he finds difficult to refute, has claimed that modernity is passe, when Hodgson's understanding of Liberal Theology is rooted clearly in modernity. He tries to cope with this challenge by arguing that postmodernity has problems too and it is more in continuity with modernity than it tries to let on. His answer is that Hegel's thought is superior to that of the postmodernists. One senses at times that although he is struggling to keep up, history has passed Hodgson (and Liberalism) by.

Hodgson is clear that this reconstructed Liberal faith will differ from orthodoxy at key points:

1. God: He rejects the orthodox teaching on the relationship of God to creation. In orthodoxy, God is simultaneously transcendent (free) and immanent (involved). For Liberalism, God and the universe are interdependent in a panentheism. (44)

As for the doctrine of the Trinity, Hodgson says that "there are no preexisting persons in God but rather potentials for relationships that become actual when God creates the world." These relations, he adds, "should not be thought of mythologically as subsistent persons." That is a brief but efficient demolition job on the most doctrine that makes Christianity what it is.

2. Christ: He rejects the doctrine of Nicaea and the NT that Jesus is one in being with the Father, thus Divine and thus worthy of worship. Describing what he finds of value in Hegel, he writes: "Having a literal divine nature is not what makes Jesus to be the Christ but rather his function as revealer of divinity and mediator of reconciliation." (51) Jesus' prophetic life reveals to the eye of faith that God is present in Christ, but this is "God's speaking, doing, working in a human being." (51)

3. Salvation: Since Jesus is not God in the flesh in the sense of traditional orthodoxy, he is not the saviour of the world either in the sense of doing for us what we could never have done for ourselves to reconcile us to God. Above, I quoted a sentence that describes salvation as freedom. On that page, the next sentence goes on to say:

"Jesus, who employs this metaphor [the kingdom of God] centrally in his preaching, accomplishes emancipation or redemption not in place of us but with us and through us; he does not bring the kingdom on his own but gets us involved in the project. Of course it is God who is involved in our involvement and God's power that empowers our always fragile and unfinished efforts." (67-68)

In the context of inter-religious dialogue, Hodgson speaks casually of God becoming incarnate in "Jesus and other saviour figures," which makes it clear that his concept of "incarnation" is far from orthodoxy and means something more like: a person in whom God works to attain his purposes.

4. Church: Hodgson believes that the Church has a role to play in what he calls "the freedom project" but he is unsure of its long term future. When freedom is attained, will there be any need for the Church to continue? (60) He appears to have no sense of the Church having a primarily doxological function or any sense of the Church as the body of Christ. The function of the Church is reduced to human emancipation projects.

5. Authority: Hodgson approvingly quotes Gary Dorrien as saying that: "Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without bring based upon external authority." (9) He suggests only that this idea needs modification insofar as historical tradition is needed as the raw material upon which the critical reason does its work. There is no real challenge to the Enlightenment concept of the autonomous self (58) or modern critical reason. He writes:

"Liberalism has tended to mistrust external authority, believing that nothing can be taken as true simply because an external authority such as the Bible, the church, or the state says that it is so. Following the philosophical tradition from Descartes to Kant, liberalism has characteristically turned to the subject and internalized authority, assuming that humans are free and morally responsible beings." (59)

The Enlightenment emphasis on the autonomous self as the source of authority is not challenged, but rather embraced by Liberal Theology. Hodgson writes:

"Enlightenment ideas and values - critical rationality, personal freedom and rights, religious tolerance, democratic governance, equal justice - have been internalized by Christian and altered our perception of Christ." (57) [my bolding]

6. Epistemology and Ethics: Not surprisingly, this account of authority leads to a relativistic approach to ethics in which the good is evolving along with the world and an epistemology, which is fluid and corporate. The individual senses the flow of history and moves toward the emerging good and this is understood to be progress.

Analysis and Response:
One astonishing ommission from this book of 130 pages is that with all the dozens of references to freedom as the heart of Liberal Theology, he never once defines "freedom." In trying to figure out why that is I have come up with the folllowing answers: (1) maybe he thinks the definition is so obvious, it does not need to be stated, (2) maybe there is no settled definition; maybe the core of Liberal Theology is itself in constant flux or (3) maybe he does not want to be too self-critical on this point lest he uncover the inner contradiction of Liberal Theology. I tend to lean toward the third explanation as the deeper reason and the first as the superficial reason. Freedom in the Enlightenment is freedom from constraint, the freedom of the will to choose without anything pushing it or pulling it or deternmining it in any way. This unconstrained will, of course, is ultimately nihilistic. If nothing determines value, then one is a nihilist. I think this is a serious inner contradiction that has been hidden in modernity until Nietzsche and even now I think the implications of Nietzsche's thought has yet to be taken with the seriousness it deserves.

What can we say about this account of Liberal Theology? Well, from my perspective it validates J. G. Machen's contention made back in the 1930's at the height of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy that Liberalism simply is not Christianity, but rather a rival religion. When everyone from Justin Martyr to John Calvin must be labeled a "Fundamentalist" you have stretched the word beyond its usefullness and what is termed "Fundamentalism" has become identical with historic, orthodox Christianity - true Christianity.

Liberal Theology is an attempt to re-found Christianity as a new religion based on the Enlightenment and there is a sense in this book that the author is apprehensive about whether or not Liberal Christianity has any future or if its future can in any meaningful sense be said to be continuous with its past. This is the dilemma of Liberalism and this uncertainty contrasts with the words of the prophet that: "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever." (Isa. 40:8)


Bill McReynolds said...

Brother Craig,
Isn't it possible that the approaches of Schleiermacher and of Old Princeton are two sides of the same modernist coin? I mean that both Liberal and Reformed positions epitomize modernity. Is it not interesting that Keller's book (which I have not read) has the word "reason" in the title? So, if this were the case, neither mainline liberal protestantism nor Old Princeton vaccinated with Neo-Calvinism (Kuyper) offer a way through the Post-modern turn. What is your take?
Bill McReynolds

Craig Carter said...

I would think that that is a very large over-simplification and here is why. Although Old Princeton, along with 17-8th Cen. Protestant Orthodoxy in general was influenced methodologically by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the difference between Old Princeton and Schleiermacher is that the Liberal tradition gave up on basic creedal orthodoxy and adjusted Christian doctrines to fit the dictates of Modernity. Old Princeton may have been too rationalistic in method, but it preserved orthodox doctrine.

The challenge is how to recover a more balanced theological method from pre-modern sources and part of that involves not taking the rationalism of modernity too seriously. In that respect, the postmodern ethos is helpful.

I want to go back to the Augustinian-Thomistic synthesis that originated in the Fathers and flowered in St. Thomas Aquinas before the onset of late Medieval nominalism and voluntarism, out of which modernity arose.

Andrew Fulford said...

I have to be honest that, in my very amateurish opinion, I'm having a more and more difficult time seeing a difference between the theology(ies) being advocated by the ressourcement type movements and the "Old Princeton" camp that aren't simply the fundamental differences between magisterial Reformation and Roman Catholic theologies.

How is the type of apologetics that Keller is doing any different then the work of David Deane, really? Deane's is more philosophically sophisticated and narrow (in the sense that he's focusing on one important philosopher, rather than several contemporary cultural objections to the faith), but frankly when I see Drs. Carter and Deane arguing that modernity logically leads to Nietzsche and that Nietzsche leads to irrationalism I see a quite clearly apologetic (reductio ad absurdum) argument operating here. How is that really distinct from the kind of "rationalistic" theologies stemming from Old Princeton as displayed in someone like Keller?

Andrew Fulford said...

PS: My comment perhaps sounds a bit more antagonistic than I intended; I should also note that I am coming from the aforementioned "Old Princeton" perspective myself, so I don't intend comparisons to it to be pejorative...

Craig Carter said...

I have much more sympathy for your argument here than I would have had 10 years ago. Let's try to separate some issues.

First, on apologetics, I agree totally. I do apologetics, Tim Keller does it and David Deane does it. (Even Karl Barth does it.) But what KB actually was rejecting does still need to be rejected; perhaps we need a different label for it. What he really was rejecting was a correlational method for theology like that of Paul Tillich, for example, where phil. gets to frame the questions that theology answers. This puts limits on what theology is allowed to say and is inadequate for that reason.

But reductio types arguments are just fine. Theology would be crippled without them.

As for the rationalism of Old Princeton. Here are some of my concerns. The acceptance of the historical-critical approach that disavows any meaning of Scripture other than the literal one would be too much of a concession for me. OP I think at least tends this way. Another example is the acceptance of the challenge of using "neutral" results of natural science to "prove" the Bible (eg. Creationsim). If you want to disassociate OP from that, then that is fine. Also, the teaching of the doctrine of predestination in such a way that a human decision could not be both a result of human free will and Divine predestination simultaneously (i.e. it has to be either one or the other) would be another example.

Am I being fair to OP here?

Andrew Fulford said...

I'm no expert in the theology of OP, but here's some amateur thoughts:

Regarding the typology thing, I think this is complicated. But you could be right that OP would distance itself from that. On the other hand, I'm not sure how the OP would be that distinct from Antiochene exegesis; in other words, I'm not sure restricting the meaning of the text to the intention of the author (which is what OP is really after, not a comment about genres of statements as the language of "literal" vs something else suggests) is somehow more "rationalistic" than allowing for allegorical interpretations in some sense, at least not any more than Antioch was rationalistic. This debate seems to predate modernity.

Regarding creationism, etc.: Warfield was himself a theistic evolutionist. That should be enough to give some pause about this. And anyone within van Til's/Kuyper's orbit would scoff at the idea of a neutral anything.

Finally, regarding predestination: again, I think this is complicated. But it should again give pause that Calvinists have tended to support the philosophical scheme of "compatibilism"; it is their opponents, those who support libertarian concepts of freedom, who call themselves "incompatibilists". I think that the fact that both sides of the debate can frame their positions as consistent with the classic doctrine of concursus (and present the other side as not doing so) shows that the issue is something else. (Frankly, I think classical theism of the Augustinian/Thomistic variety is basically the exact same as OP Calvinism when it comes to a doctrine of providence and predestination. But I know that would be disputed.)

Regrading the point about correlationism: I think in some ways Warfield was guilty of this, but van Til wasn't, and I doubt Kuyper's position would be (though I don't know). Insofar as Warfield is representative of the OP position, I suppose there might be a valid point about its rationalism (its support of common sense realism or something).

Craig Carter said...

I agree with most points except Kuyper couldn't be considered part of Old Princeton - usually he is considered to be a rival type of Calvinism.

Also, I think maybe the Common Sense Realism might be the key in that maybe it was in epistemology that OP was most influenced by the Enlightenment.

Andrew Fulford said...

True about Kuyper, though I think "Old Amsterdam" would hold a near (if not completely) identical view when it comes to a doctrine of scripture (and the hermeneutical/ethical/theological consequences that follow from such a doctrine), anyway.

I just read an article today criticizing the sloppiness with which the OP guys are accused of being beholden to Common Sense Realism, so I perhaps should chasten my previous comments.

I think this discussion would be more fruitful if we could clearly define what counts as OP and what doesn't, theologically speaking.

Generally the essential feature ascribed to the OP is the plenary verbal inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. But I doubt whether those doctrines were particular to the OP, and I'm not sure how much one could say such views were the consequence of CSR: Warfield seems to treat the inspiration of the scriptures as something like a Kuhnian paradigm, rather than something established on a strictly inductive basis; he also believes it based on (according to him) revelation, which must complicate epistemology to some degree. What exactly makes someone negatively beholden to CSR, or the "Enlightenment" more generally?

All of this aside, certainly the children of the OP movement alive today are not possessed by CSR; any influenced by van Til (rather than, say, the evidentialists) or even someone like Alvin Plantinga are hardly more rationalistic than Barth or Balthasar. So in terms of ecumenical relations today, I think the parties being discussed here (ressourcement, children of OP) are probably closer than many when it comes to the relation of reason/experience to revelation.