"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." I Timothy 3:15
Modernism - Liberalism
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.