The Liberal Threat

Posted: March 18, 2013 by J in Church
Tags: , ,

(This is an edited version of a post from way back)

Have you seen George Clooney’s film Good Night and Good Luck? It’s pretty cool. Complex, with constant layers of sound and action running simultaneously, Robert Altman-style (think Gosford Park). I get bored easily…

Anyway, it’s about the McCarthy era in the US, basically communist witch-hunts. Communism seems like the biggest threat facing mankind. McCarthy is destroying people’s lives by publically labelling them commies. The news guys at CBS decide to take him on. They discover that anyone who attacks McCarthy is likely themselves to be labelled communist. McCarthy sees his crusade as representing America. Hence to oppose him is to be un-American. What Murrow and company at CBS object to is the climate of fear this created, and the way it stopped people freely associating, expressing their views, etc.

Nowadays of course no one worries much about the communist threat. The West has moved on, we’re in a post-Communist-threat world.

I couldn’t help seeing parallels with the church scene I’m part of. We’re evangelicals. And we’ve spent the whole of the past century fighting against theological liberals, both elsewhere and also in our own ranks. There’s been a sense that anyone could at any time start going liberal, get infected so to speak, reject the authority of Scripture, and defect to the other side. The enemy is everywhere, the enemy could be any one of us. We live in a constant state of vigilance.

We’ve tended to identify doctrinal faithfulness with certain leaders, big men we could call them, so that loyalty to them was a sign of orthodoxy, and conversely any criticism a sign of suspicious doctrine. Of course the big men change over the generations, but we always have them, and we always rally around them. After all it’s a war you know.

The liberal threat shows different faces over the generations too. 80 years ago it was the doctrine of the virgin birth that was the litmus test of orthodoxy/heresy. Later it was the historicity of Scripture narratives (esp. the Gospels). More recently divergent views of justification and Pauline theology have been the threat. It’s always something. The threat’s always there.

When a leader is identified as having crossed over, things can get ugly. I’ve seen ministers labelled and cast out. Ostracised. Denigrated. They become the enemy within. I’ve been warned against going to work at certain churches, because my reputation would suffer. I’ve seen people rehabilitate their rep by linking up with ‘kosher’ churches. Seriously.

We’ve had these habits of mind for a long time, they’re deeply ingrained by now. We feel that maintaining evangelical orthodoxy is like walking a knife edge, you could slip at any time. Our natural tendency is to fall away from it, reject the authority of Scripture, and smash our faith in the deep ravines of liberalism. Only constant vigilance can keep our churches from this terrible fate. I grew up in this mind set.

Well, now I’m going to out myself. I’m afraid I’ve started to doubt. I’m just not sure any more about that knife-edge. I’m not sure about the whole threat. I know there’s heaps of liberal Christians out there. But I don’t feel so sure that liberal rejection of the Bible’s authority is the natural temptation of all people. I’ve been a Christian for a few decades now. I’ve known heaps of evangelicals in that time, and the huge majority of them have stayed pretty committed to a high view of Scripture. When I try to look into my own heart, I find many sins and temptations there. But the temptation to embrace  a Christianity that denigrates Scripture is just not one of them. I had heaps of mates at college,  none of them seemed inclined to lower the status of Scripture. They loved it. They revered it. They still do.

So here’s my thought. Could it be that the liberal threat which had come to seem like the natural state of things, could it be that it was just a phase? A long phase, granted, a whole century. But could it be that we’re now entering a post-liberal era? An era when Christians generally won’t be tempted so much in that particular direction? Could it be that that particular war is ending, and we can kind of… give up the hunt?

If I can speak again for myself and some of my closest Christian friends who are in ministry, I think for us the authority of Scripture is a sort of given. It’s just not an issue. Inspiration by the Holy Spirit, we get it. We believe it. We don’t worry about it. We kind of – I know this is going to sound bad, but it gets the point across – we kind of take it for granted. In the struggles and controversies of fighting the good fight, it simply isn’t where the action is.

In fact, a lot of the questions that liberals and evangelicals fought over, seem very dated to us. “Can miracles happen?” That just sounds so modernist and unsophisticated. We’re asking, “how does God’s action in the world leave us space for real agency as creatures in his image?” – and we’re wanting trinitarian answers.

“Is the new testament history?” For us the historicity of the Gospels is a given. We accept it. We don’t stress about it. We’re more interested in, why did the apostolic circle feel it necessary to tell the history four times over, borrowing so much from each other’s accounts? Was there something each of them felt hadn’t been said by the earlier Gospels? What were Luke and John and Matthew trying to say by telling the story the way they told it? Yup, we’re more interested in narrative issues and theology than in revisiting historicity. There are a few people out there who reject Christ because they can’t accept the historicity of the story. A couple of people I’ve met even remember the Da Vinci Code! But for every one of them, I reckon there’s a thousand who ignore Jesus because his people don’t seem to have a compelling and convincing vision for life to offer them. Historicity just isn’t where the battle is. The struggle is to articulate how the gospel speaks into the lives of ordinary people today.

Even more, I worry that the defensive mindset leaves us evangelicals vulnerable to being manipulated by power-hungry leaders. It’s the oldest trick in the book – get people scared about a threatening enemy, then they’ll rally round you for protection. They need you! You can do what you like with them then. Leaders like that have a vested interested in keeping the threat alive.

So there it is, I’ve come out of the closet. I don’t see that particular threat as very relevant any more. I might be seriously naive. I may be totally misguided. If I am, please let me know! But I seem to be living in a post-liberal Christian scene. So I’m calling it the way I see it. Good night and good luck.

  1. Jono,

    I’m sympathetic to your views and agree that Evangelical Paranoia is something is unhelpful for the spread of the message of Jesus.

    I do, however, want to push back a little on some of your terms of reference. A lot hangs on how you define a “high view of Scripture”. The original “liberals”, such as Schleiermacher, could in their own way be seen as having a “high view of Scripture”. The difference was in what they believed Scripture was and how it functioned in the Christian life. This is why, despite Schleiermacher’s personal piety, love of the Bible, and his preaching of Jesus’ saving death, Evangelicals recognised in his theological method fatal flaws which (over the next 100 years in the hands of his successors) led to the erosion of orthodoxy across much of the Protestant world. A similar thing might also be said of the Pauline debates of the last 20 years. No serious critic (that I’m aware of) has accused the proponents of the New Perspectives as having a Low View. The question was rather one of consistency of exegesis and how much was lost by placing The Righteousness of God in Ecclesiological rather than Soteriological categories.

    I guess my point is that one might have a “high view of Scripture” and so avoid one of the hallmarks of “liberalism” yet still be unorthodox in matters of faith. Perhaps our own Doctrine of Scripture needs to be better understood and explained at all levels to avoid a simple Liberal vs Orthodox dichotomy.

    On another point, I have been surprised over the years by the number of “evangelicals” who claim the authority of Scripture but who are willing to “fudge” on particular points (e.g. claiming that “the Apostle’s perspective on this is limited/unreliable”) in order to make their own personal theological views Fit The Text. Even if they only do it once they cease to be Evangelical, but if you called them on it they would probably be highly offended and cry Conservative Persecution

    • Matt Moffitt says:

      I am just a little bit tired of the liberal boogeyman being used to keep evangelicals in check. Not only is the ‘Slippery Slope to Liberalism’ a logical fallacy, it is historically wrong (on which see ‘The Dying of the Light’).

    • Jonathan says:

      thanks for your comments, Luke. I agree re Schleiermacher and co. that ‘The difference was in what they believed Scripture was’. My point is that in our scene we’re not really tempted to adopt their sort of view of Scripture. It’s not where we’re at.

      To me the New Perspective thing seems to be a pretty different case. Some of those guys profess to accept the inspiration and authority of Scripture. I.e. the same view as us about Scripture and generally how to approach it. Not sure that they have much in common with Schleiermacher?

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