Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 1): Experience Creates the Faith
An increasing number of evangelicals are becoming liberal evangelicals, which is to say, they are becoming liberal. Liberalism narrowly considered is identified with a movement in Europe and American in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but its theological impulse — to conform the Faith to the spirit of the age — has been around since the Garden of Eden. (In this sense, the ancient Jews, when they syncretized their faith with the surrounding pagan nations, were notorious liberals.)
In the first half of the 19th century in Europe, this accommodating spirit was Romanticism, the enthronement of emotion and feelings to counter the acidic effects of Enlightenment, which judged all things by universal human reason or objective human experience. The liberalism of that time did not want to give up the gains of the Enlightenment, but it also did not want to give up Christianity, as the Enlightenment seemed to be forcing people to do if they were to judge everything by universal human (as opposed to God’s) standards. In this way, liberalism could protect Christianity from Enlightenment — the problem is that the Christianity it protected had nothing to do with the Christianity of the Bible.
So liberalism hatched a cosmic salvage operation: keep Christianity around but anchor it in feelings and emotions and not reason and truth. Friedrich Schleiermacher, first major Romantic liberal, in his tellingly titled On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, writes:
Whence do those [orthodox] dogmas and doctrines come that many consider the essence of religion? Where do they properly belong? And how do they stand related to what is essential in religion? They are all the result of that contemplation of feeling, of that reflection and comparison, of which we have already spoken. The conceptions that underlie these propositions are, like your conceptions from experience, nothing but general expressions for definite feelings. They are not necessary for religion itself, scarcely even for communicating religion, but reflection requires and creates them. Miracle, inspiration, revelation, supernatural intimations, much piety can be had without the need of any one of these conceptions. But when feeling is made the subject of reflection and comparison they are absolutely unavoidable…. (p. 87, emphases supplied)
Christian beliefs — atonement, resurrection, Second Coming, Biblical inspiration — are simply a reflection on the internal Christian experience, which is the essence of religion. They are not true in any objective sense. Real religion is a particular kind of feeling.
Liberal evangelicals today increasingly echo this definition of religion. Roger E. Olson, himself at the vanguard of the movement, writes of the post-conservative (i.e., liberal) evangelicals:
Postconservatives seek to broaden the sources used in theology. Stanley J. Grenz refers to this as “revisioning evangelical theology” (the title of his recent programmatic statement of evangelical theological method). According to Grenz and others, the essence of evangelicalism is an experience and a distinctive spirituality centered around it. The experience is an act of God the Spirit known as conversion, and the spirituality is a community-shaped piety of the converted people of God. Theology is second-order reflection on the faith of the converted people of God whose life together is created and shaped by the paradigmatic narrative embodied in scripture. The essence of both Christianity and theology, then, is not propositional truths enshrined in doctrines but a narrative-shaped experience. This is not to demean or demote doctrine. Postconservative evangelicals believe that doctrine matters — but not as an end in itself. Doctrines are the necessary rules that reflect and guide the converted community of God’s people. (emphases supplied)
That is, we get our theology from our communal experience. With a few minor corrections here and there, Schleiermacher would have said much the same thing.
Of course, Christian experience is a critical aspect of being a Christian, and there can be no Christianity without it. But the Faith is not created by our experience. The Faith creates our experience.
Whenever you hear an evangelical assaulting propositional truths or propositional revelation in favor of individual or communal experience, which then forms theology or doctrine, you’re listening to a liberal evangelical — whether he or she knows it or not.
And you’re listening to somebody soon likely to give up the Christian Faith.