Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 2): The War on Certainty
Posted on July 26, 2012
I already observed in part 1 of this series that liberalism reengineers the Faith, and creates theology, in terms of man’s experience and feelings. The objective dimensions of Christianity (Bible, doctrine, church) become nothing other than a projection of man’s subjectivity. This means that when man’s experience changes, his religion changes. This is also why liberalism (not liberal Christianity, for there is no such thing) spawns such a dizzying hydra of theologies: gay theology, feminist theology, liberation theology, black theology, and so on. The call for radical diversity in theology and the church is almost always a call for liberalism. There’s plenty of valid diversity within the pages of the Bible (different gifting, different emphases, as in Jew and Gentile churches), but the Bible presupposes that all Christianity will be anchored in the Word itself, because God alone can tell us what to believe and how to live. This Biblical diversity isn’t the diversity that liberalism has in mind, to put it mildly. By radical diversity, therefore, I mean a diversity untethered to objective divine standards, I.e., the Bible. This is the diversity of liberal theology and life.
Radical diversity presupposes a lackadaisical attitude toward truth. If you believe in religious truth, radical diversity is impossible. We might assume that this lax attitude toward truth and the certainty it furnishes is very recent, very postmodern, but in fact it’s one of the cornerstones of good, old-fashioned 19th century liberalism. “Tentativeness or skepticism as to the possibility of achieving certain knowledge of ultimate reality,” is, in the words of Dillenberger and Welch (p. 213) one of the chief marks of liberalism. This skepticism grows out of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the epistemological fountainhead of liberal theology (epistemology is the study of the source and acquisition of knowledge).
For liberals, the way to get rid of competing truth claims is to hold that we can’t really know the truth, not to prove that one claim is right and its competitors are wrong. Besides, such truth claims put a crimp on human autonomy, and man must at all costs call the shots in his life — and especially in his sexual practices in today’s world.
This war on certainty, therefore, was around a long time before postmodernism got here, and it’s at the root of liberalism.
It’s also and equally a war on fixed theology and, in fact, a war on certainty precisely so it can be a war on theology. If we need to be tentative about belief, we need to be tentative about all belief, including the truth of the Bible, miracles, answered prayer, the deity of Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection, Biblical sexual ethics, and so forth. The problem is that the Bible isn’t at all tentative about these things, and whoever isn’t tentative about the authority of the Bible won’t be tentative about what the Bible clearly teaches.
One of the most gifted liberal evangelicals, John Franke, by contrast, puts his views this way:
A nonfoundationalist [epistemically tentative] conception envisions theology as an ongoing conversation between Scripture, tradition, and culture in which all three are vehicles of the one Spirit through which the Spirit speaks in order to create a distinctively Christian “world” centered on Jesus Christ in a variety of local settings. In this way theology is both one, in that all truly Christian theology seeks to hear and respond to the speaking of the one Spirit, and many, in that all theology emerges from particular social and historical situations. Such a theology is the product of the reflection of the Christian community in its local expressions. Despite its local character, such a theology is still in a certain sense global in that it seeks to explicate the Christian faith in accordance with the ecumenical tradition of the church throughout its history and on behalf of the church throughout the world.
There simply is no final word in human history because Christians cannot escape their local, time-bound humanity. Moreover, there is no way of judging between competing local visions of the Christian Faith, since each faithfully expresses local reflections on God’s truth, which cannot directly be known. It is precisely this reasoning that got liberals to gay theology, feminist theology, liberation theology, black theology in the first place: local theologies lacking direct access to the Word of God and, therefore, free to reflect on their own local experiences and fashion a theology from them.
The early church would have found this modesty strange indeed, believing as they did that they had access in the Scriptures to the very living Word of God, the very voice of God as it were.
When liberal evangelicals enshrine tentativeness as a cherished virtue in theology and/or Christian ethics, they are talking like — and becoming — liberal. In calling for a radical diversity (many local theologies) not itself subject to a final, accessible revelatory Word, they tiptoe — or dash — to liberalism.