The Rise and Fall of Liberal Theology?

The Rise and Fall of Liberal Theology?

By Peter Toon

 On Theology and Doctrine

   Theology is from two Greek words, theos meaning “God” and logos meaning “rational study.”  From the twelfth to the seventeenth century we find that Roman Catholics and Protestants both agree that theology is the study or science that treats God, His nature and attributes, and His relations with angels, man, and the universe.  In brief, it is the science of things divine.  Put another way, what was called in Latin textbooks theologia is the knowledge of God and what God reveals, pursued not merely for academic ends but so that man should enjoy and glorify God forever.  Normally it was studied after preliminary work in the liberal arts known as the “trivium” and “quadrivium.”

      Therefore, theology has traditionally been the word that covered and included that whole body of knowledge that (since the nineteenth century) has been subdivided into what we call disciplines (or autonomous subject areas) and that we know, for example, as the study of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the creeds, Christian morality, and the history of the church.  In fact, what was once the purpose of the whole science of theologia – a systematic presentation of truth as revealed by God and understood by man – has now become one part or discipline of the whole and goes by the title of “systematic theology.”  As such it is equal to the other disciplines even though it seeks to utilize some of their conclusions in its own presentations.

      The profound change in the Western appreciation of what is theology, how it is studied, and for what purpose it is pursued came about primarily because of the adoption of the principles of the Enlightenment within the universities of Europe, particularly in Germany, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Theology, along with other subjects in the universities, came under the general principles of “proper evidence” (in contrast to the previous authoritative norms and principles deduced from Scripture and tradition), and as such it was subject to pluralization and specialization.

      Here we may stop in our tracks and recall that the word divinity, from the Latin divinitas meaning either “the Godhead” or “the study or science of God,” has also been used as a synonym for theology in its older and fuller sense.  A long time ago I received from the University of London in England the Bachelor of Divinity degree, and my work for that degree included the study of the whole Bible, the creeds, church history, and so on.  Today many people in North America gain the degree of Master of Divinity (which used to be called the Bachelor of Divinity).

      Over the last century there has been a growing specialization in the disciplines of the post-Enlightenment universities.  Academics have become experts in less-and-less knowledge.  So we find that within what used to be called the faculty of theology there are subsidiary departments of Old Testament, New Testament, church history, and so on.  Among these will be the Department of Systematic Theology.  While there is a certain necessary cooperation between these departments, it is often the case that members of each discipline feel a closer bonding with members of similar departments in related institutions of higher learning than they do with members of the next department along the corridor from them.  Then there are, of course, professional associations for each of these subsidiary areas, and so each separate discipline has a certain autonomy.  And what is true of the university is also true of the seminaries, for they have followed the universities in the way theology is studied.

      Students working for their Master of Divinity degree today get a little of many things, but rarely do they receive an ordered, rational understanding of God, His nature, and His attributes from their years within the faculty of theology.  Most likely they receive an intellectual, religious box containing an assortment of virtually independent parcels of knowledge that will not easily be tied together.  To use concepts associated with Isaac Newton and the law of gravity, we may claim that instead of modern study being centripetal (tending toward one center), it is more often than not centrifugal (flying off from the center).  This is well illustrated by the book What Theologians Do (Healey, 1970).  Its twelve contributors (and each one is called a theologian) provide a description of a specific discipline within the modern faculty of theology.  So there are essays in the book by the distinguished academics on these topics – the New Testament, the Old Testament, the inter-testamental literature, church history, creeds and confessions of faith, Christian doctrine (systematic theology), scientific study of religion, philosophical theology, applied (pastoral) theology, worship (liturgy), Christian ethics, and ecumenics (ecumenical theology).  Yet, apart from a brief introduction by Healey, there is nothing concerning the unity of theology as theology, divinity as divinity.  Theology is merely described as including these subject areas, and it is pointed out that it is necessary to study all the subjects in order to grasp what is involved in professing-Christian belief today.  In fact the book could be said to illustrate (from a seventeenth-century and pre-Enlightenment perspective) the rebellion of the disciplines of theology against the classical meaning and purpose of theology as a unitive study.

      Theology as the science of things divine is apparently now a shattered spectrum in the West.  At best, systematic theology, or as the English Anglicans say, Christian doctrine, is the attempt of one discipline within the Department of Theology to appear to do what the whole science was intended to achieve in earlier times.  Regrettably, it is often the case that where it exists, that which is now called systematic theology is something very different from the old subject of theology as theologia!

      Further, and this somewhat complicates the picture I have drawn, we need to recognize that, especially since the 1960s, theology has also been used to mean the ordered religious thoughts of specific interest groups within, or on the fringes of, liberal denominations.  So a person working in any of the disciplines of a faculty of theology or religious studies who supplies an intellectual presentation of a contemporary social concern will both call and find others calling his contribution “theology.”  Well-known examples are black theology, feminist theology, and liberation theology.  What usually occurs here is that a legitimate social concern is set in a religious context, given a justification on religious grounds, made into a call for action, and then called theology.  Such a theology will use, according to the stance of the writer, a variety of sources.  These will normally include the Christian Bible but may include the holy texts of other religions as well, together with whatever other sources are deemed appropriate and useful in the enterprise.  Obviously, the main themes here are not “God, His nature and attributes” understood in the traditional sense; rather they are specific social, political, and economic concerns.

      Roman Catholic seminaries often refer to theology under three or four headings –fundamental theology, systematic theology, practical theology, and spiritual theology.  In these areas they cover much the same type of material (but from a different perspective) as do Protestants in apologetics, systematic theology, pastoral (or practical) theology, and spirituality.  Like Protestants, Catholics have been deeply affected by the winds of modernity primarily since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and thus much later than liberal Protestantism.

      It is perhaps obvious to my reader that I much prefer to use the word theology in its older, comprehensive sense as theologia and to see students getting a comprehensive, unified body of knowledge; but I must be realistic and pragmatic and recognize its contemporary usage.  Let us then be clear as to what this modern usage is.  First of all, theology remains as a kind of umbrella word referring to the title of the faculty wherein the various disciplines of the study of religion are pursued.  On the same reasoning it refers to all that is studied in a seminary and is part of the requirements for the Master of Divinity degree.  Second, theology refers to the specific work and products of those who seek to engage in the specific discipline of systematic theology.  Amongst this small group there will be found a great variety of methods of doing theology and of the use of sources that are deemed to be authoritative.  Then also, the different schools of thought within modern theology will be represented (e.g., process and narrative theology).  In addition, there will be those attached to the theology of specific writers – the theology of Karl Barth or the theology of Paul Tillich, for example.  Finally, theology refers to the contribution of specific interest groups and their spokespersons – groups such as blacks, feminists, the poor, and those concerned with the physical environment (the ecologists).  In this book we are concerned primarily with the second and third meanings.

      Now to the word doctrine, which comes from the Latin word doctrina, meaning “teaching.”  It has no specific religious meaning, and so in the past we find that a body of Christian teaching is called sacra doctrina, “sacred doctrine.”  It is sacred or holy because of its subject matter, the holy God.  In England I taught for some years that which the Church of England (the Anglican Church) then officially called Christian doctrine, and thus I was known in my college as the tutor in doctrine.  (Had I been in Presbyterian Scotland, I would have taught systematic theology.)  In teaching doctrine, it was assumed that, as a minimum, I was explaining in a modern way, relevant to our times, the official teaching of the Church of England.  Perhaps it is true to say that in general the word doctrine is used today primarily of official statements of faith, be they from a denomination, a parachurch organization, a missionary society, or a college or seminary.  There is, of course, no reason why it cannot be used of both that which is taught by a specific person, normally a distinguished teacher, and that which is the general position of an interest group.  Thus, it makes perfect sense to speak both of the doctrine of John Calvin and the doctrine of the movement for the ordination of women.

 Liberal Theology and Its Children

     Liberal theology is a cluster or family of theologies that originated in Europe in the confidence of the early nineteenth century.  It was the theology of liberal Protestantism.  That is, it was an accommodation of the teaching of historical Protestantism (e.g., Lutheranism) to an increasingly scientific and secularist age.  It was motivated by a deep sense of the need to adapt the received faith to the intellectual, social, and moral needs of the new epoch in Western history.  To use the analogy of a family (as developed by the late Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen), liberal theology was the offspring of two nineteenth-century parents.  In this marriage of ideas, one parent was the new intellectual outlook of that age that had emerged from the European Enlightenment.  The chief mark of this outlook was a new confidence in the power of reason to discover truth.  The way to find things out, it was claimed, was not by believing what someone else in authority said, but by considering the evidence, reflecting on it, and accepting only what could be proved at the bar of reason.  The other parent was the genuine religious resurgence of that period (in contrast to the general lack of religious vitality in the European churches of the late eighteenth century).  Yet, as we will see, a major casualty of this marriage was the gradual erosion of the notion of doctrine as a body of authoritative teaching that prescribed and explained what the Christian faith means and demands of believers.

 The Parents and the Offspring

       From the one parent, whom we will designate as the male, came two basic endowments.  The first was an intellectual perspective expressed in an openness to receiving new truth from experimental and empirical science.  With this went a critical approach to the historical documents, holy traditions, and the varied legacy of Christendom.  The second endowment was a basic theoretical assumption that there is a continuity between special revelation, recorded in the Bible, and natural revelation, known by the inductive method from the study of the cosmos.

       From the other parent, whom we will designate as the female, also came two basic endowments.  The first was a spiritual vitality and power, expressed in lofty ideals, moral consciousness, and a sense of unity with the spiritual wisdom and moral achievements of the past.  The second was a central and regnant conviction that the Jesus of history, known by historical research, and the living Christ of today, known in religious experience and in Christian worship, are a single organic, indissoluble, personal reality.

       The offspring of this union also inherited a conscious rejection of what seemed to them to be a spiritually barren, even dead, Protestant orthodoxy in either its Reformed or Lutheran form.  New wine could not be kept in old wineskins.  This meant the setting aside of traditional metaphysical assumptions (e.g., the claimed knowledge of God-as-God-is-in-Himself; the Blessed Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and His eternal attributes), and the adoption of seemingly practical doctrines (e.g., knowledge of God-as-God-is-toward-us, around and within us).  It also meant the bringing of what had been previously known as the inspired, infallible Bible to the bar of the judgment of reason; here it was deemed to be not the Word of God in the words of men, but the words of men describing their experience of God.  Human experience of God, rather than a claimed self-revelation by God, then became the basis for theological reflection in the faculties of theology.  Within the churches, the slogan “life, not doctrine” communicated the priority of activity over study and inner experience over doctrinal norm.

      These confident offspring were affected by the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Pietism because they emphasized rationality, feeling, and genuine religion.  In their genes were the inheritance of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), the great thinker that we associate with the Enlightenment, and the insights and feelings of the first great modern theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) of Berlin.  In Schleiermacher we encounter both a response to the Enlightenment and the mood of Romanticism in (what he judged to be) the service of Jesus Christ – and all this from a personal background within Pietism.

Schleiermacher is rightly called the father of modern or liberal theology.  In brief, he held that religion is of the heart, the feeling of absolute dependence on God, and that in Christianity the religious purpose is to experience that same dependence on God that Jesus Himself experienced.  In fact, it is the extent of Jesus’ God-consciousness and His perfect realization of the human ideal that sets Him apart from other men and makes Him the Savior, for His disciples are to seek to experience that consciousness of God that He experienced in fullness.  Thus, the church is that part of mankind that participates in and also shares the Christian consciousness. (The general criticism of this view is that it promotes the idea that ‘feeling or experience’ becomes the source of religious validation over the revelation of God’s word, thus creating an ‘autonomous’ position as judge over God and His word.)

Theology is an ordered account and interpretation of religious experience – a task done brilliantly by Schleiermacher in his Christian Faith: Presented in Its Inner Connections According to the Fundamentals of the Evangelical Church (1830).

Immanuel Kant claimed to present a critical philosophy that gave a rightful place to the emerging natural science and that preserved a sphere for religion and the good life flowing from it.  It has been said of him that he is the last great thinker in whom the Western mind is held together.  Kant proposed that knowledge and belief be seen as two different mental activities.  Knowledge, as the possession of science, is gained by the study of the phenomenal world with its observable data and its rationally grounded laws.  However, this world can neither be the basis for faith nor an effective obstacle to faith.  Natural science has its sphere and validity, and this is the exercise of pure reason; but it has nothing to say concerning the moral and spiritual life of man.

The latter sphere belongs to the exercise of the practical reason where belief is appropriate.  Man has a spiritual nature, and as a spiritual being he believes that there is a transcendental world of spirit and freedom that pure reason and knowledge cannot reach.  Yet, man cannot speak of this spiritual realm except through symbolism, because he has no knowledge of it; he only has the sense of and belief in this noumenal world, which is a sufficient basis for religious faith.  So we see that Kant appeared to make room for both the advance of the sciences and the practice of religion.  As we noted with Schleiermacher, however, theology became the study of the belief and experience of the Christian church, not the claim to discuss knowledge of God given by God in self-revelation.

After Kant and Schleiermacher, anyone who sought to do theology in what can be called a pre-modern mode and to treat the Bible as the source of true propositions concerning both God-as-God-is-in-Himself and God-as-God-is-toward-us was to be out of the intellectual mainstream of Protestant thought and theology.  It was to swim against the tide.  Of course there were those, especially in the parishes and in the new evangelical movements of the nineteenth century, who did swim against the tide and sought to keep alive the older Protestant ways of doing theology.  Yet even here there was a tendency to be deeply affected by the cultivation of what John Wesley called experimental religion (the inner experience).  There were also those who sought to swim with the tide, seeking not to be overwhelmed by its force, as well as those who swam with the tide, seeking not to be driven too forcefully by it.

Outside Protestantism, within the Roman Catholic seminaries and universities, as well as in Greece and Russia, theology generally continued as it had before the Enlightenment.  The winds blowing through Protestantism in the nineteenth century did not really get to blow through Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy until the twentieth century.

For those in the early nineteenth century who had come through the Enlightenment or lived in its atmosphere, there was another alternative route to that of Kant via Schleiermacher and into liberal theology.  This was to follow in the philosophical ways of Georg W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), who taught in Berlin at the same time as Schleiermacher.  His was the route of idealist philosophy, which as an intellectual movement persisted into the early twentieth century.  While Schleiermacher sought to secure in his theology the uniqueness of Christian faith (the experience of believing), Hegel attempted to ground or embed the faith in the cosmic movement of reason.  His motto was: “The real is the rational and the rational is the real.”  To this extent he was very close to the Enlightenment.  Hegel, however, also had a high regard for history, and he succeeded in incorporating the new historical consciousness of the early nineteenth century into his theology.

The idealism that Hegel taught is absolute because he saw all reality as gathered up into the all-embracing, all-encompassing, impersonal Mind/Spirit, or Geist, which is God.  Further, in all reality (both physical and mental/spiritual), he saw a particular rhythm or pattern of movement of three stages that he called dialectic.  This is the movement from a starting-point (the thesis) to another point (the antithesis), which is over against or opposed to the initial point.  Finally, there is the reconciliation and reintegration of the thesis and antithesis at a higher level in what he called the synthesis.  This rational dialectic was a restatement of a favorite theme of the Romantic movement (which affected Hegel as well as Schleiermacher), known as the coincidence of opposites.  By this theory the Romantics sought to escape from the older rationalist insistence on the law of non-contradiction and allow for the discovery of the new – the interplay of opposites and the connection between the whole and the part, the inner and the outer, the individual and the universal.

In Hegel’s system, the coincidence of opposites occurred as dialectic spoke eloquently of a total system of the movement of God as Geist through projection (thesis producing antithesis) and its return as synthesis.  Thus, the Trinity is this threefold, universal dialectic process, and the doctrines of creation and incarnation are the antithesis produced by Geist – the thesis in its self-projection as Nature.

Moreover, the Hegelian dialectic contributed to the growing awareness of, and appreciation for, history.  It made this contribution by providing a means for understanding history as a dynamic process of struggle, conflict, and risk as it moved toward a greater or higher end.  Not surprisingly, therefore, Hegel’s philosophy gave a strong impetus to the study of Christian origins and the history of the development of theology and Christian thought.

Hegel had many disciples who may be said to belong to the right and left wings of Hegelianism.  The right wing consists of those who sought to develop his philosophy of absolute idealism, among whom are some distinguished British names – Edward Caird, F. H. Bradley, Josiah Royce, A. S. Pringle-Pattison, and J. M. McTaggart.  The left includes those who used parts of his philosophy for particular ends – e.g., Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Søren Kierkegaard.  Also, his concept of dialectic was used for historical study by some radical German New Testament scholars – e.g., F. C. Baur and D. F. Strauss.  (Those who have read C. S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy [1955] will recall that he was attracted by idealism as taught by Bradley in the 1920s before becoming a theist.)

To find influential examples of [those] who lived in the atmosphere created by the teaching of Kant, Hegel, and Schleiermacher, one need only study the writings and encounter the theology of such German theologians as Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89), the founder of the liberal Protestant school and his disciples, Johann Wilhelm Herrman (1846–1922) of Marburg, Julius Kaftan (1848–1926) of Berlin, and Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), also of Berlin.  We shall notice only Ritschl and Harnack.  Behind and through their creative and brilliant writings several basic Christian doctrines were abandoned (e.g., that of original sin) and others were reinterpreted (e.g., Christology, the identity of Jesus Christ).

Carl F. H. Henry, an evangelical who understood liberal theology, described its dominance at the close of the nineteenth century and in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century.  He saw both the philosophical influence (via Hegel and idealistic philosophy) and the theological influence (via Ritschl and his school):

The theology which captured the seminaries and universities, which seized the initiative in the publication of religious literature and the presentation of its viewpoint in the scholarly societies and journals, which came increasingly to control the machinery of the large denominations, and which was projected by many of the most active enthusiasts for world church unity, was rooted in the philosophies both of immanentism and evolutionism, and rejected the objective authority of the Scriptures, the necessity and possibility of miraculous revelation, and with these the biblical pattern of sin and redemption.  Walter Marshall is surely right when he singles out the period from 1849 to 1914 as “the great age of liberalism.” (Fifty Years of Protestant Theology, 30–31)

Henry insisted that by 1900 liberalism was a single movement, howbeit with many expressions, and that its chief foe was traditional orthodoxy (evangelical theology).  Thus he wrote:

In Germany, on the British Isles, in the United States, and elsewhere as well, it busied itself along identical lines: evangelical theology was proclaimed to be obscurantist and outmoded, liberalism had the scholarship and genius to restate Christianity definitively in modern categories.  Biblical theology was being “remade” in terms of the modern mind.  The determinative principles, inherited from the nineteenth century, were those of immanental and evolutionary philosophy, with their rejection of special revelation, miracle, the unique deity of Christ, and a divinely ordered redemption, or in a summary word, the trustworthiness of the Bible. (Fifty Years, 32–33)

Henry well understood that at that time there seemed little or no reason to question the prevailing notions of man’s natural perfectibility and the automatic advance of human history and civilization.  This was because both of these concepts gained their cogency and attractiveness from idealist philosophy, with its teaching of the progressive externalization of the Absolute (God) in man and his future in space and time.  These concepts also were (seemingly) confirmed by the way European civilization was advancing over the earth and scientific endeavor was mastering the elements of the world.

For various reasons, the beginning of the demise of liberal theology in America came some twenty or so years later than in Europe.  Until the 1930s it was dominant in most of the faculties of theology and seminaries in America belonging to the old-line churches.  These were organized on the model of the faculty of theology in the German university with the separation of the various disciplines.  And, as we would expect, this organization allowed for the dominance of post-Enlightenment thought and liberal theology.  A much-used exposition by students was W. N. Clarke’s Outline of Christian Theology (1898), and with this we should mention the writings of both H. C. King (1858–1934) and Shailer Matthews (1863–1941) of the Chicago school.  The general character of American liberalism may be stated in terms of four basic affirmations.

First of all, American liberalism emphasized the importance of the inductive method of inquiry that had proven so successful in other fields for the study of religion.  This had important consequences for the study of the Bible and meant the adoption not only of lower criticism (textual study) but also of higher criticism (the historical-critical method).  Thus, the Bible was generally viewed as only the human witness of God, rather than the true Word of God in the words of men.  From the perspective of ordinary parishioners, who received these new ideas as processed by the minds of their pastors, it seemed at times as if the Bible was a book primarily for scholars.  Furthermore, much of what they thought was Christian had been based, it appeared, on imperfect study, faulty knowledge, and out-of-date cosmology.

In the second place, there was the reliance on experience.  Of course, this included the experience of people recorded in the Bible, and particularly the unique experience of Jesus; but it did not stop there, for it also included the experience of all Christians through the centuries and in fact the whole of human life.  To study and to arrange in order this large field of evidence, reason needed to step in.  Each person needed to develop his own faith on the basis of personal experience, rather than on the dogmatic utterances of others.  So, though the Bible had become a partly closed book for the laity, they now were encouraged to see Christianity in life rather than in doctrine and to find God at work in the movement of history and in their day-to-day experiences.  Such a position fitted in well, of course, with the growing sense of individualism, both utilitarian and expressive, in Western society (for that see the next chapter).

In the third place, there was a great emphasis on the unity of truth about God and man.  A continuity was thus claimed and seen between God and the human race, as well as between revelation and reason.  To study human beings is also to study God, it was claimed.  Such thinking was possible because liberals emphasized the immanence and omnipresence of God and said little about his transcendence and majesty.  He was the God of space and time rather than the God above and beyond space and time.  On this basis, the adoption of the theory of the evolution of the species came reasonably easily to liberals.  They saw in it a confirmation of the continuity of the human race not only with the whole created order but also with God as present within the cosmos.  At the parish level, especially as modern Western individualism steadily entered human consciousness and experience, the thought of the nearness of God as benevolent, uniting, and sustaining Spirit was attractive and supportive.

Finally, there was an optimistic estimate of human potential.  If the social, physical, and economic environments were improved, then human beings would improve, and the social order would approximate more closely to the ideals of the kingdom of God.  In fact, the strength of the social-gospel movement in America at the beginning of the twentieth century is a testimony to this optimism.  No person so clearly stated its basis and goals as did Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), the leading and articulate theologian of the social-gospel movement, who often quoted Ritschl.  He believed that most human imperfections could be traced to the environment and that one generation of human beings corrupted the next.  Society had to be remade, and he declared that we love and serve God when we love and serve our fellows, whom He loves and in whom He lives.  His Theology for the Social Gospel(1917) is a moving plea that the Ritschlian idea of the kingdom of God become the controlling theme of Christian theology.

Outside the seminaries and universities, one of the most articulate and significant spokesmen for liberal theology was Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), pastor of Riverside Church, New York City.  His preaching ministry there from 1930 to 1946 was one of the most, if not the most, influential in the United States because he spoke both to a vast congregation in person and to thousands more via the radio.  He spoke against fundamentalism and obscurantism on the one side and against reducing the truths of Christianity to contemporary wisdom in the name of faith and reason on the other side.  He attempted to present what he called the abiding truths of the faith in the changing categories appropriate for the modern world.  His books of sermons and presentation of Christian liberalism presented liberal theology and a social gospel in simple and attractive terms.  However, toward the end of his public ministry he did acknowledge that there were severe deficiencies in the liberal theology with which he had identified.


Evangelicals in America recall that as early as 1923 J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), representing what has been called the scholarship of consistent supernaturalism, published his attack on liberal theology, Christianity and Liberalism.  As a Presbyterian evangelical who saw liberal theology infiltrating his own tradition and who had no interest in neo-orthodoxy, Machen demonstrated conclusively that the message of Protestant liberalism (which he took to be the general fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man) was not the Gospel of the New Testament.  What Machen appears not to have seen as clearly perhaps as we can see today is that liberal theology had a fine aim – to make Christianity relevant to the changing intellectual and social scenes in the Western world.  Certainly it must be judged to have failed in this aim, and what it offered as the Christian faith was at best a very diluted form of this faith.

Having mentioned evangelicals, it is perhaps appropriate here to recall the publication from 1910 of The Fundamentals in twelve volumes containing some ninety essays or articles.  Sponsored by two wealthy businessmen, these tracts for the times were intended to check the advance of what was then called the new Christianity and the new theology (i.e., liberal Protestantism and its doctrines).  Although they provided an excellent presentation of a wide evangelical consensus on basic doctrines and refutations of perceived errors and heresies, they served primarily to strengthen the evangelical cause and made little or no impact on the so-called new Christianity.  It is not surprising, then, that this same period witnessed the gradual separation of a distinctive evangelical Protestantism from the dominant liberal Protestantism.  The evangelical movement both stayed within the old-line churches and also moved outside them.  It founded its own educational colleges and theological seminaries; but it also soon showed by its own internal divisions that it is all too easy, even for those who seek to be faithful to Scripture, to major on minors and thereby lose a basic unity.

Since the second decade of this century, the evangelical movement has remained a significant yet divided movement, with its members often attacking each other’s theologies more enthusiastically than those of their opponents within the liberal camp.  In addition, the movement, while enjoying a high profile on the American scene and criticizing the liberalism of the old-line churches, has also made significant accommodations to the spirit of secular modernity.  These accommodations have been clearly explained by both James D. Hunter in his American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity (1983) and by David F. Wells in his No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (1993).  In fact, the claim is sometimes heard today that some modern reforming evangelicals, who seek to have a relevant and definite social gospel for modern America, are in essence restoring the better insights of liberal theology.  So it is said that they are the true heirs of the social-gospel movement of seventy years ago and that liberal theology is alive and well in left-wing evangelicalism.

Also, it is noteworthy that there has moved from liberal Protestantism to right-wing evangelicalism the torch of support for American democracy.  A new alliance between the American experiment in democracy and right-wing evangelical religion was forged in the 1970s at the same time that the alienation of liberal Protestantism from American democratic faith was becoming apparent.


By 1950 the major question being asked by American theologians was not (as during the former liberal era), how can the Christian faith be made intelligible within, and in harmony with, the highest idealism and scientific thought of Western civilization?  Rather, the question was, what is there in the Christian faith that gives us such an understanding of ourselves that we must assert our loyalty to the Holy God above all the splendid and yet corruptible values of Western civilization?  The reason for the change of question may be traced primarily to one Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, and one movement, neo-orthodoxy.

The First World War (1914–18) seemed to shake the very foundations of the world for Europeans.  Many of the leading liberal theologians had supported the war policy of the Kaiser in 1914 as necessary for the defense and maintenance of Christian civilization.  But Barth, in his small Swiss parish of Safenwil, knew early in that cruel war that not only the political ideals but also the theology of his former teachers (e.g., Herrman and Harpack) had been shattered.  The identification of Christianity with the best of German culture (what was called Kulturprotestantismus) was not only wrong, it was sinful.

Further, that other great theme of liberalism, Ehrfurcht vor Geschichte (reverence before history), also lost credibility.  If there was progress through history, what kind of progress could be claimed from the carnage and devastation of the battlefields of this war?  As a result, Barth and other young men rejected the liberal theology and began to look in other directions in their search for truth.  Thus dialectical theology was born.

Together with Barth, exponents of this rebellion against liberal theology included such well-known names as Emil Brunner (1889–1966), also from Switzerland, and the Germans Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) and Friedrich Gogarten (1887–1967).  The leaders of this school spoke of a crisis, pointing to the krisis (Greek for “judgment”) of God on mankind and its sinfulness.  They also followed the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard in using the method of statement and counter-statement, never daring, as sinners who only knew God and His ways in part, to produce the last and final word.  They were extremely conscious in their finitude of speaking of eternity and infinity and thus emphasized the need for dialectic.  The theologian must speak God’s yes as well as God’s no and realize that while the opposites seem contradictory to us, they are not so to God Himself. While the members of this school did not agree among themselves in all their positive proposals (and later parted company), they were of one mind in their decisive rejection of the central themes of liberal theology concerning human progress and perfectibility.

Barth’s mature thought is to be found in his massive Church Dogmatics, begun in 1932.  Here is the new orthodoxy in that the dialectic is much reduced and the biblical and patristic components are greatly increased.  The central focus of his attention is Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh who dwelt among us.  Since Jesus is truly God and truly man, He is the mirror by which we see who God is and what the nature of man is.  Jesus is also the key to understanding both the purpose of human existence and the creating, reconciling, revealing, and redeeming work of God.  So neo-orthodoxy from Barth’s pen is Christocentric.  It involved a reworking and restating of the classic, patristic doctrine of the person of Christ (one person with two natures, as defined at the Council of Chalcedon and set forth in the Athanasian Creed); and it also involved a fresh statement of the “being” of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Barth s friend and mentor, the Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance, wrote:

Karl Barth has in fact so changed the whole landscape of theology, evangelical and catholic alike, that the other great theologians of modem times appear in comparison like jobbing gardeners.  When Karl Barth died on December 10, 1968, I thought that we might well apply to him what Albert Einstein once wrote of Isaac Newton.  “To think of him is to think of his work.  For such a man can be understood only by thinking of him as a scene on which the struggle for eternal truth took place.”  That is surely what we must remember about Karl Barth, for in him there took place a profound struggle for the eternal Word of God in which the whole framework of the church’s understanding of God from ancient to modern times was subjected to critical and constructive inquiry in the search for a unified and comprehensive basis in the incarnate grace of God for all theology.  (1990, 1–2)

It would seem to be the case that we must place Barth not only in the company of Schleiermacher, Calvin, and Luther, but also in that of Augustine and Athanasius.  He was a truly great theologian.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, we note that Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was probably the most attractive and influential exponent of neo-orthodoxy in America.  He began his ministry in 1915 in Detroit, committed to liberal theology, and pastored there until 1928.  While in the Detroit pastorate, he recognized man’s absolute need for the grace of God, as well as his need to turn to a modern form of orthodoxy, which owed much to Barth and Brunner.  This can be read in his An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1937) and his massiveThe Nature and Destiny of Man (1949).  It may be claimed that his neo-orthodoxy rested on two pillars, both of which were indispensable to his theology.  One is the utter powerlessness of the world to save and to redeem itself.  The other is that the Gospel of God, concerning Jesus Christ, tells the truth about the world and also supplies the grace of God wherein is salvation and redemption.

From the writings of Barth and those of his followers in Europe and North America it is possible to summarize neo-orthodoxy in terms of five specific emphases.  First, in contrast to liberal theology, neo-orthodoxy appeared to have a high view of the divine inspiration, unity, and authority of the Bible.  The Scriptures contain, it was affirmed, not correct human thoughts about God but God’s thoughts concerning man.  The holy books set forth not lessons on how we should talk to God, but details of what God Himself says to us.  The Bible declares not what we are to do to have a right relationship with God, but what He has done to place us in a right relationship with Himself.  Furthermore, while the general findings of higher criticism were accepted (e.g., that Moses is not the author of the Pentateuch, but rather that the first five books of the Old Testament are composed from various literary sources; that Mark is the earliest gospel, and both Matthew and Mark are dependent on it; and that Paul is not the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews), it was nevertheless claimed that there is a supernatural character to the Bible, and this makes it entirely different in religious value to all other books.  This is because it witnesses to Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.

Second, the neo-orthodox insisted that the revelation from God on which Christianity is based is unique.  There is no continuity between other religions and Christianity or between natural religion and Christianity.  Barth gave his famous nein to the possibility of a natural theology based on the observation of the cosmos and the human race.  Brunner severely criticized him for this in 1934, and while Barth modified his position as the years went by, he never changed it fundamentally.  His followers, however, tended to move toward Calvin and Brunner, both of whom allowed for the general revelation of God in nature and thus, in principle, the possibility of a natural theology.

Third, the neo-orthodox emphasized that Jesus, the Christ, was truly God in the flesh.  Jesus was not merely the fullest spiritual and moral development of man, but He was in the words of the Nicene Creed “very God of very God, one in substance with the Father.”  Thus, He was one person with two natures, and in His human nature He truly suffered and died as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Yet God, the Father, by the Holy Spirit, raised Him from the dead; and this resurrection was nothing less than a mighty act of God and the establishment of the new creation, the new order of the kingdom of God.  In fact, the whole New Testament was written in the light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and this message was the central proclamation of the early church.

Fourth, the neo-orthodox were very much aware of the inherent sinfulness of man and insisted that it is because of its sinfulness that the human race needs the grace of God and the gift of eternal salvation.  They spoke freely of the limitations and corruption of human nature and followed the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard in their descriptions of the weakness of man before God, who is infinitely and qualitatively different to man.  Aspects of this approach are found in the book The Nature and Destiny of Man by Reinhold Niebuhr, who makes clear that the sin of pride is so pervasive that it affects all interpersonal relationships.

Finally, neo-orthodoxy is characterized by the constant contrast between God and man, eternity and time, heaven and earth, grace and sin.  God is holy and the wholly other, for nothing can be compared to Him.  His majesty is in total contrast to both the sinfulness and the greatness of man.  God is certainly immanent and present within the created order, but His immanence flows from, and is dependent on, His glorious transcendence because of the infinite, qualitative difference between the living God (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and the human creature made in His image and likeness.

Neo-orthodoxy was the dominant theology in American old-line Protestantism (with the exception of the Episcopal Church, which was influenced by British theology) from the 1930s to the 1960s.  Since then it has maintained a steady following but is now only minimally influential within the old-line denominations.  Yet, when it arrived on the scene between the First and Second World Wars, it gained great attention and a wide following in North America.  In 1933 John C. Bennett claimed that “the most important fact about contemporary American theology is the disintegration of Liberalism” (cited by Henry, Fifty Years, 62).  About the same time, C. S. Patten commented that before Barth’s influence was felt, the old liberal theology patterned after Ritschl’s teaching reigned without serious rivals in academia.  Therefore, such doctrines as “the Trinity, Incarnation, Miracles, the Fall of man, the Atonement, and Heaven and Hell, dropped out of discussion” (ibid., 68).

The Remnants

       To return to the period 1930 to 1960, we may observe that it seemed that neo-orthodoxy, which eclipsed evangelicalism in the academic (but not popular) arena, had crushed liberal theology by 1960.  But this sentence of death was premature.  Certainly the specific forms of liberal theology expressed in Harnack’s What !s Christianity? (1901) and preached by Harry Emerson Fosdick in New York City in the 1930s were gone forever.  However, the family of liberal theology lived on not only in the theology of correlation from Paul Tillich and process theology/panentheism from Charles Hartshorne but also in scattered attempts to revive the best of classic liberalism in the old-line churches.

Further, the former liberal theology multiplied in its grandchildren who… bear such varied names as the theology of hope, theology of play, liturgical theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, third-world theology, black theology, hermeneutical theology, political theology, and revisionist theology.  These grandchildren may readily be encountered within the deliberations and reports of the World Council of Churches as well as in many seminaries, conventions, synods, and publications of Protestant and Roman Catholic churches from the late 1960s through to the 1990s.  These twentieth-century offspring have obviously intermarried with other families (e.g., those of Eastern religions and of modern psychologies and philosophies) to produce more descendants whom we may deem to be (in the spirit of the age). Thus, in modern pluralist, multicultural, and democratic America you can find many different descendants of the first parents not only within academic institutions-departments of religion and theology of the universities and colleges and seminaries – but also in the headquarters of the old-line denominations and in many suburban churches.

Further, and this is very important, these grandchildren have also intermarried with post-Vatican II Roman Catholic families.  In any survey of the post-1960s revisionist theologies as well as liberation, feminist, and environmentalist theologies, it is impossible fully to prize the Protestant and Roman Catholic apart from the other, for they are in a sense symbiotic.  Already we noted in chapter one how modern liturgies in both the Roman and Protestant churches are very similar in structure and content.  Here we can add that modern forms of theology in both Catholicism and Protestantism are also very similar.


      The Roman Catholic Church in Europe and America existed in the same general culture as the Protestant churches.  Unlike the Protestants, however, the Roman Church had a powerful central organization in terms of the papacy and the Vatican City.  Faced with the questions and pressures that caused Protestants to adopt liberal theology, Roman Catholic seminaries and bishops were directed to look back and find their theology in that of the great medieval theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) and in his major interpreters of the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  By his encyclical of 1879, Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo XIII launched a massive revival of Thomist or Scholastic method in philosophy and theology.

While it is true that the Scholastic way of doing theology and its relation with philosophy was new (modern) in medieval Scholasticism, for it was part of an emerging civilization in Europe, the neo-Scholasticism of Pope Leo XIII was self-consciously anti-modern in the late nineteenth century.  It was a determined attempt to look away from modernity into medieval antiquity in order to maintain and control dogma, doctrine, and morality in a fast-changing world.  With only a few exceptions, this neo-Scholastic approach and method dominated Catholic intellectual life until the Second Vatican Council that opened in 1962.

The Scholastic method emphasized logical relations and metaphysical distinctions among the various truths to which biblical and patristic sources witnessed.  In the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, this method is used with great power and clarity.  With the help of Aristotelian philosophy he gave to the inherited Augustinian theology from the late patristic era a thoroughly rational basis.  He carefully distinguished between a double order of knowledge and being (a natural basis and a supernatural superstructure), two powers of knowledge (natural reason and faith through grace), two levels of knowledge (natural truth and revealed truth through grace), and two sciences (philosophy and theology).  It was this great work that was a primary textbook for the learning of doctrine.

It was accompanied by another text, this time a nineteenth-century compilation.  Affectionately (or, these days, pejoratively) known as “Denzinger,” it was a collection of the statements of Scripture, the Fathers, and the Councils on all aspects of doctrine.  Its full title was, A Manual of the Church’s Doctrinal Decisions, with a first edition in 1854, the Marian year (i.e., when the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was promulgated).  Since 1854 it has gone through many editions.

Virtually no place was given in either text to the historical situationalism of these truths (i.e., when and where they were first stated and how the context affected the way they were stated).  Thus, Roman Catholic seminaries, unlike Protestant academies, had little, if any, of the use of the historical-critical method in either the study of the Bible or of the Fathers.  Those who made use of this method were known as the Catholic modernists.  Hans Küng, the Tübingen theologian, was trained in this atmosphere, and, writing in the mid-1980s after he had shaken himself free of it, he complained of the Vatican bureaucracy that tried “to impose the medieval-Counter-Reformation paradigm on the whole church in the grand style (Neo-Scholasticism, Neo-Romanticism, Neo-Gothic art and architecture, Neo-Gregorianism)” (Theology for the Third Millennium, 1988, 185).

The first major challenge to the reign of neo-Scholastic theology occurred in France after the Second World War and is associated with Yves Congar, Henri du Lubac, Jean Daniélou, and Henri Bouillard.  Through their writings the modernity of science and history began to make an impact not only on theology but also on liturgy.  Then there appeared on the scene two Jesuits – the French Canadian Bernard Lonergan and the German Karl Rahner, in whose work a serious challenge to the old neo-Scholasticism began.  It is common to follow Otto Muck’s argument in his study of them in The Transcendental Method (1968) and portray both Rahner and Lonergan as developing a revision of traditional Thomism in terms of the transcendental method known as transcendental Thomism.  This method is an attempt to uncover, at the preconceptual level in human beings, a universal experience of divine presence or grace.

Since the Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, it is fair to claim that both Rahner and Lonergan have been deeply influential in the speedy attempt by Roman Catholic universities and seminaries to make their theology truly contemporary.  The Vatican Council opened the windows of the Church to the world, and in the powerful winds of modernity that blew through the church the moderately-revisionist theology of Rahner and Lonergan seemed sure anchors on which to hold.  However, Hans Küng, who shared for a long time an enthusiasm for the new insights and fresh air that Rahner’s writings generated, now stated:

For a long time, schooled as I was by Aristotle, Thomas, Hegel and Heideggeг, I have admired Rahneг’s lofty dialectic, just as I have affirmed (and still do affirm) a concern for the unity and continuity of the church expressed so diversely in this interpretation of creeds and doctrinal propositions.  Isn’t this [Rahner’s theology, which emphasized historical and temporal relativity] a brilliantly successful way to interpret a formula “dialectically” so that the language remains (and that is the main thing for “conservatives”), but the content is remolded (which is what the “progressives” are interested in)?  (Theology for the Third Millennium, 187)

In fact, Küng believes that Rahner was the last great (and stimulating) neo-Scholastic.

Maybe Rahner was the last great neo-Scholastic, but he was also deeply influenced by Martin Heidegger, the German existentialist philosopher.  In his book Being and Time, Heidegger argued that the ontological categories used from the period of Greek philosophy (Plato) through to the seventeenth century (Descartes) are inadequate and unable to describe the reality of the temporarility, historicity, and facticity of human existence and life in the world.  Therefore, he replaced the old categories with new ones that he called existentials.  The new categories characterize what is specific to human existence in the world: being toward death, care, self-interpretation.  Rahner accepted and used Heidegger’s new categories.  Moreover, Lonergan, in a parallel manner, dropped the traditional faculty psychology of Scholasticism and moved to what is called intentionality analysis.  The result of this was that the basic terms and relations of systematic theology became for him psychological rather than metaphysical as in the older theology.

Certainly, in the writings of such theologians as Hans Küng himself, along with the American David Tracy and the Dutchman Edward Schillebeeckx, modern Roman Catholic theology has moved on from Lonergan and Rahner into what can best be termed an ecumenical theology from a Roman Catholic perspective (see further the appendix to chapter five).  Further, in the freedom of post-Vatican II, there have appeared a continuous stream of modern theologies of liberation, feminism, environmentalism, and spirituality.  These often also have an ecumenical face to them.  Thus, while the forces of modernity were gradually accommodated or absorbed by the major Protestant churches over a period of a century or so, the Roman Catholic Church has had to accommodate and absorb these forces in the space of only twenty or thirty years.  Visibly this is symbolized in much modern Roman Catholic worship where the emphasis is more on the experience of community (celebration) than on the majesty and transcendence of God (reverence).

A very readable and illuminating introduction to modern Roman Catholic theology in America is provided by Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives (2 vols., 1991).  Significantly, in this ecumenical age it was published by the Lutheran Augsburg Press.  It is a collaborative work, and in their carefully written preface the editors, Francis Schüssler Fiorenza and John P Galvin, tell us that they had five specific goals in mind that they shared with their contributors.

The first was that the work was to be rooted in Roman Catholic theology.  Of course, they did not mean the old deductive method of the traditional manuals of theology.  Rather, they meant that they were to present the teaching of the Roman Church and discuss significant theological reflection from leading Catholic theologians (e.g., by Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Gustavo Gutierrez) since Vatican II.

The second goal was that the work was to reveal what a major impetus had come to Roman Catholic theology from historical studies.  Not only has there been the adoption of the historical-critical study of the Scriptures, but there has been a utilization of the historical method for the examination of the whole tradition of the Western church.  This has led to changed attitudes toward, and new interpretations of, the tradition.

The third goal was that the work should take into account current hermeneutical theories and philosophical reflections.  It is the case that philosophers such as Kant and Heidegger, as well as Gadamer and Ricoeur, have deeply affected contemporary theologians. “Phenomenology as well as critical theory, literary theory as well as neopragmatism, have all had their impact.”

The fourth goal was that the work should take into account the ecumenical dimension of modern theology, especially the consensus reached by various interdenominational theological commissions.  This meant that the contributors “were to explain Roman Catholic theological statements in a way that is sensitive to other Christian churches, especially where the views of other Christians should lead Roman Catholic theologians to be more self-critical.”

Finally, the fifth goal was that the work should be attentive to the current emphasis on practice, which has been especially evident in recent theologies of liberation.  “Roman Catholics and all Christians should be sensitive to the social and practical dimensions of their beliefs and reflections.”

Thus, in presenting a post-Vatican II, modern Roman Catholic theology, influenced by historical and ecumenical studies, open to new philosophical currents, and sensitive to diverse historical and cultural situations, the Roman Catholic writers have provided a text that could also be used (and is being used) in a modern Protestant seminary.


       There is little doubt that any modern theology that desires truly to be contemporary faces challenges that are political, scientific, economic, religious, social, and cultural.  Further, the way theologians face these challenges determines how they do their theological thinking.  Referring specifically to the challenge faced by modern Roman Catholic theologians, Professor Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School writes:

If theologians assess the present situation as secularized, as being characterized by the absence of past moral values and the demise of traditional religious meanings, then they view the retrieval of these values and the reactualization of these meanings as the paramount theological task.  If they place the political, social and racial oppressions in the forefront, then overcoming these oppressions is a major goal of theology.  If they take human alienation or personal inauthenticity to be the basic problem, then the attainment of authenticity and the overcoming of alienation are the primary goals.  (Systematic Theology, 1991, 1:66)

Much the same can be said, of course, of modern Protestant theology.  It is certainly true that the position and assumptions from which one starts affect the way the theology is done and to which public it is primarily addressed.


*This article is a condensed/ edited version of the Preface to Peter Toon’s book titled: The End of Liberal Theology by Crossway Books, copyright, 1995. (Condensed/Edited by Pete Coker). It can be viewed in its entirety @ or through

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