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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Walter A. Elwell
Liberalism or sometimes called Modernism is a major shift in theological thinking which occurred in the late nineteenth century. Liberals insist that the world has changed since the time Christianity was founded so that biblical terminology and creeds are incomprehensible to people today. Although most would start from the orthodoxy of Jesus Christ as the revelation of a Saviour God, they try to rethink and communicate the faith in terms which can be understood today.
It rejects religious belief based on authority alone, rather insists that beliefs must pass the tests of reason and experience. They point to the fact that the Bible is the work of writers who were limited by their times, it is neither supernatural nor an infallible record of divine revelation, and thus does not possess absolute authority. It sees God as present and dwelling within the world, not apart from or elevated above the world as a transcendent being.
Liberalism also manifests a humanistic optimism. Society is moving toward the realization of the kingdom of God, which will be an ethical state of human perfection.
Theological liberalism originated in Germany in the late nineteenth century where most of the major theologians had studied. Many of them had come to accept the principles of higher criticism and Darwinism. Kant's ethical idealism and rejection of all transcendental reasoning about religion had the effect of limiting knowledge and opening the way for faith. Schleiermacher introduced the idea of religion as a condition of the heart whose essence is feeling.
This made Christian doctrine independent of philosophical systems and faith a matter of individual experience of dependence upon God. Hegel went off in another direction with his absolute idealism, as this emphasized the existence of a rational structure in the world apart from the individual minds of its inhabitants. The main contributions of Hegelian idealism were support for the idea of divine immanence and the fostering of historical and biblical criticism.
Higher criticism questioned the authorship and dating of much of the biblical literature and rejected the traditional understanding of the Scriptures as divinely revealed oracles. The life of Jesus was studied with the intent of striping off the dogmatic formulations of the church and getting back to the concrete, historical human personage.
Liberals welcomed the finding of science and readily accommodated to the challenge of Darwinism. Evolution vindicated divine immanence, since this explained how God had slowly built the universe through natural law. God revealed himself, they believe, through an evolutionary process, as the Israelites began with backward, bloodthirsty ideas and gradually came to understand that the righteous God could be served only by those who are just, merciful, and humble. Redemption is seen as the gradual transformation of man from a primitive state to that of obedient sonship to God. Just like the physical realm, culture and religion had evolved, and there was no fundamental antagonism between the kingdoms of faith and natural law.
Students of comparative religion have suggested that the religions of mankind evolved from lower stages to ever higher stages, the highest of all being monotheism. They propose that Israelite religion began as animism, the belief that every natural object is inhabited by a supernatural spirit. After animism the idea developed in Israel that some spirits were more powerful than others and deserved to be called 'gods.' Eventually the most powerful of all became preeminent above the others, and the people believed in his supreme authority and worshipped him alone.
Finally, Israel became willing to admit that the lesser gods had no existence whatever.