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Posted by on Apr 10, 2014 | 27 comments

On the Merits of Liberal Theology; or why we should put another face on Janus

In a previous post, Lance observed that many theological students are confounded by their studies. What may have seemed like a simple task—to “dig deeper”—into their faith became complex and disorienting. This is especially true for those who come to the study of divinity from Christian experiences that are not well rooted in the global and historical stories of the faith. As a result, discovering strange, new things about Christianity is destabilizing. The pluriformity of voices past and present can seem to be a “cacophony.” According to Lance, such theological dissonance often directs seminarians and other educated Christians toward either of the two poles of belief, traditionalist faith (e.g., Roman Catholicism, various permutations of Orthodoxy) or post-modern atheism. Theology students are made to be a sort of ideological Janus. He concludes that theologians know too much either to subscribe to a shallow religious fundamentalism or reductionist scientific materialism; they often prefer the “mystery” of Christian tradition or continental philosophy.

To some extent I want to challenge his depiction. While there is not much in his analysis that I would want to contest, I do think he has ignored at least one other possible outcome—that of liberal Protestantism.[1]

liberal theology

The face of liberal theology, between traditionalism and atheism.

I think that the liberal tradition in western Christianity recognizes many of the difficulties that Lance outlined in his post. Liberal theologians would, by and large, agree that evangelical and fundamentalist understandings of the faith are stunted, contextualized aberrations in the long history of the Christian religion. Moreover, those who worship in liberal congregations are often the most enthusiastic practitioners of the mystical practices, which Lance highlights as the boon of the tradition.[2] Liberal theology, however, critically addresses something which severe traditionalism will not: contemporary concerns. For all of its beautifully brocaded vestments and sedulously transportant rites, old time religion is essentially opposed to new and pressing concerns that could jeopardize such tried and true forms of worship and spirituality. Where liberal theologies are willing to assess the treasure of the faith piece by piece, retaining what is good, true, and beautiful in the light of current circumstances whilst jettisoning what does not appear so, a traditionalist theology would see the whole storehouse of the faith as a single item that can be accepted or rejected only as a whole. The implausibility of the latter situation may very well lead a student of theology toward the thought of Derrida or Sartre—such a requirement was a salient reason for my decision not to convert to Catholicism—but I think the freedom fostered by the former is a fruitful avenue for theology in any age. The genius of liberal theology is its critical faculty.

Depending on one’s own theological disposition, what I have just expressed could appear to be disastrously heretical. To such a reaction I offer a case study that, for me, highlights the importance of a liberal, critical theology that is unwilling to accept traditional positions just because they happen to be part of the tradition: such a case is the historic faith’s position on the ontology and vocation of women. Feminist theologian, Mary Daly, brings the contemporary situation of women in the church into stark focus. Commenting on a recent experience of the Eucharist, Daly observes:

The contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the “princes of the church” and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women was appalling. Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic.[3]

The set-up for such a “bizarre picnic” is purely rooted in traditional theology. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “‘[o]nly a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.’”[4] In the Roman Catholic Church, only men are allowed to become priests. The reason for this is because in Catholic theology, the priest is functioning vicariously as Christ during the celebration of the Eucharist. During Mass, the priest is acting in persona Christi. Since Christ was historically a man, it is “clear and unambiguous” that all of his priests must be men.[5] Jesus wanted all the “princes of the Church” to have all of the same bits as he did. If women were made to feel as ants during worship services, it would be simply because the Church was just practicing its traditional ontology of sex.

Obviously, a liberal theologian should not let such a grievance as voiced by Daly stand unattended, but what distinguishes a liberal theologian from another mode of activist is the source and inspiration of her social criticism. The demand for justice, in this case for women, is compelled by one’s faith. This has been a central tenet of liberal theology since its earliest generations. In the words of Friedrich Schleiermacher,

Piety was the mother’s womb, in whose sacred darkness my young life was nourished and was prepared for a world still sealed for it. In it my spirit breathed ere it had yet found its own place in knowledge and experience. It helped me as I began to sift the faith of my fathers and to cleanse thought and feeling from the rubbish of antiquity.[6]

The more that I have studied theology, the more that I have found that Schleiermacher’s liberal stance—rather than traditionalist or post-modern alternatives—captures the drive of my faith, and accordingly, we need to add another visage to Lance’s Janus.

[1] I do not want to exclude the possibility of liberal iterations of other strands of the faith; there certainly are, at least, liberal forms of Roman Catholicism, but I have not found in my own experience that many disquieted evangelicals cross the Tiber in order to be self-consciously liberal Catholics. Though—I must say—I did at one point in my life intend to do that very thing.

[2] Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004); From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2006).

[3] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, republished ed. (Boston: Beacon, 1985), 10.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 1577.

[5] John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, Encyclical Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, 15 August 1988,

[6] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 9.

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I, like Hunter S. Thompson and Artimus Pyle before me, was born in Louisville, Kentucky. I desire nothing more than to ride my own melt into the sunset, drink English ales, and listen to early Tom Petty.
  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ryan.

    I must say though, I have my doubts about this entire paradigm. That includes, I suppose, the elements which Lance contributed. No one can deny, of course, that there is a cohort of educated young theologians who go traditionalist, athiest, or liberal. As a description of the existential side of this phenomenon, I suppose this three-faced Janus might hold up.

    You refer to Lance saying that theological students “know too much either to subscribe to a shallow religious fundamentalism or reductionist scientific materialism” and so go either towards traditionalist religion (read Roman Catholicism/Eastern Orthodoxy) or continental philosophy’s atheism. You go on to suggest liberalism as a third option for those who agree that “evangelical and fundamentalist understandings of the faith are stunted, contextualized aberrations.” This, however, is where the red flags start going up for me. I have no issues speaking of fundamentalism as “stunted,” but I’m far less convinced that this is an appropriate label for evangelicalism. I know far too many committed evangelicals with rich views of the faith (Bruce Hindmarsh and Iain Provan to name just a few) to buy this as an accurate description.

    Of course, you’re not necessarily accusing evangelicalism of this, but rather describing how these educated students who leave it for traditionalism, athiesm, or liberalism might see it. I’m not sure that the reason for this lies in knowledge, however, or at least not in knowledge in a fuller sense that includes wisdom. I am more and more convinced that those who quickly leave evangelicalism for one of these other options do so not so much because of their knowledge, but because of their youthful rashness. Many young people going away to seminary have experienced “on the ground” evangelicalism, which naturally often has a stunted view of the faith, and at seminary encounter the rich heights of carefully thought out Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and liberal theology. Comparing that to what was “on the ground” their past experience with evangelicalism, they abandon that heritage and go elsewhere. Of course, what they find when they do is on the ground Roman Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, or liberalism that can be just as stunted as the evangelicalism they knew. So, I don’t think it can be said, at least not in a positive sense, that it is knowledge that drives this move.

    I want to add a few caveats, however. I know that there are people who make the move you and Lance describe and make it carefully and with consideration. I suspect that this is probably the case with your own move towards Protestant liberalism, especially given your former flirtation with Roman Catholicism.

    I am also, of course, not opposed to a ressourcement of the tradition, and I think we can also helpfully do the same with both liberal theology and continental atheism. I know that in my own faith journey I have avoided (thus far anyway) heading away from Protestantism for traditionalist churches for the vary reasons you spoke of, but neither have I gone liberal or atheist. Indeed, I remain a convinced protestant, and still something of an evangelical, but I have found my faith greatly enriched by the various resources of the tradition, and to a lesser extent of these other “faces.”

    My own experience, and more importantly that of wiser men like Iain and Bruce, thus make me question this paradigm as far too neat.

    I look forward to your response.

    • Thanks for such a robust response, Kevin. I appreciate the engagement.

      Perhaps I was not clear enough at the outset of my post—I did not intend to provide a paradigm that would explain the experiences of all theology students, at all times and in all places. What I wanted to do was expand the heuristic that Lance posited in his original post. As I understood him, Lance was exploring why certain students choose certain paths in reaction to their education. I wanted simply to add another major category to his. Once again, to reiterate a point that you’ve already made, I know too many evangelicals that have completed their education only to become more intellectually formidable evangelicals.

      I think that you’re right to point toward the existential dimension of both Lance’s post and my response to it. We both were writing out of our own experiences as angst-y theology students. Phenomenologically speaking, either of us could do nothing other.

      The upshot of all this being that what was presented here was a heuristic not a unduly neat paradigm.

      • Thank you for the clarification, Ryan. I stand corrected.

  • LA Green

    Great post, Ryan.

    I think you read me well. I was not attempting to say there are only two roads of which young scholars go: Rome or pomo-atheism. Instead, I was picking up on the greatest and most common of extremes. That particular idea was important to highlight and was in need of clarification as it seemed to have been misinterpreted by a few…

    It is indeed a fact that liberal theology is part of the paths young scholars travel. Coming for a liberal seminary and more liberal undergrad, I can definitely affirm that without hesitation.
    And I actually agree with some of your issues with ressourecment projects. While folks are so concerned with getting back to a proper theology, they fail to engage with contemporary culture and issues. Constructive theology (which I really think is just dogmatics) is necessary. What I think is important to note, however, is that a constructive theology can come from anywhere, from any facet of this thing called Christianity, heretical or not; pushing boundaries or not.
    What this constructive theology should look like– how it should read scripture, see itself in the wake of the Christian tradition, in the wake of orthodoxy, and all the rest– is another discussion entirely.

  • Have you guys come across Graham Ward’s article called “The Future of Protestantism” which can be found in “The Blackwell Handbook to Protestantism” ? He basically argues that postmodernity has meant that protestantism doesn’t have a future. Curious, coming from a Protestant. One of my PhD student friends here (a recent convert to Lutheranism) was so impacted by the article that the entire 1st chapter of his PhD is dedicated to demonstrating why Protestantism DOES have a future in spite of what Ward says. (btw I have electronic copy of Ward if anyone wants)

    • LA Green

      You must be mistaken, no one converts to Lutheranism.

      • Alexander Arden

        yep, they just hang out along side of the real Lutherans.

      • Alexander Arden

        as conconverts.

    • I read that article last week, and I will say that I was roundly unimpressed with Ward’s conclusions. While I respect his desire to provocative, I found his whole argument to be without basis.

      For one, he holds Protestantism accountable for all major cultural achievements that occurred during its European ascendancy. To my mind, this wholesale theological accountability for culture is absolutely ludicrous. Just because certain baleful cultural experiments happened on Protestantism’s watch (which is also wholly perplexing to me—where is this all-seeing eye of Protestant faith?) doesn’t mean that they were necessary outgrowths of Protestant theology. In fact, as we all know, most people, politicians, and nation-states make decisions quite apart from the intricacies of theology, so to expect them all to make calculated decisions based on fine understandings of particular strains of Christian thought is asinine.

      Secondly, I don’t know where Ward gets off thinking that Orthodox and Catholic traditions are not liable to the same dissolution wrought by post-modern thought as Protestantism. It seems to me that both traditions, with their well-defined dogmas and hierarchies, are much more susceptible to epistemic critiques than Protestantism.

      All that being said, I generally like Ward’s work, so this was quite a disappointment.

      End rant.

      Anyways, what were your thoughts on the article, Barney?

      • Jon

        Given Barney is using my name in vain, I thought I should just briefly comment 😉 I’m the PhD student convert to Lutheranism who uses Ward in his introduction &c.

        In many respects I’m in agreement with you Ryan. Ward’s genealogical argument is too heavy. Of course Prot. isn’t the efficient cause of Modernity. And stare

        That said, it has played a major role in its cultural ascendency. Which is not to say it should flagellate itself still but we should return and ask the question as to the relationship between the two. Not because it raises questions vis-a-vis the genesis of Protestantism but because it raises questions about the nature of Protestantism today. Because in buying into the Modern paradigms if human experience

      • Jon

        Sorry. Phone playing up.

        …Protestantism has assimilated huge swathes of Modern logic into its theological ideas.

        My Phd is concerned with unlearning these accounts of human experience through a whistlestop tour of Barth, Merleau-Ponty and Martin Luther himself.

        Hope this explains my recognition of Ward’s article as important for Protestants.

  • Matthew J Thomas

    Thanks for this, Ryan. One question that comes to mind is this: from the standpoint of this paradigm, how does one adjudicate between competing claims to represent Christianity? For instance, if one were to arise claiming that something you and I would disagree with is genuinely Christian (such as being against the Jews, for example), what criteria would we have recourse to in order to demonstrate that they are mistaken — besides that we, by our own private tastes or judgment, do not happen to share in this opinion? Or, conversely, is the question of something being ‘genuinely Christian’ itself misplaced, so that every claimant is equally an heir?

    • I think your question, heard within the paradigm of Schleiermacher’s theology, would be appreciated as wholly alien. For this mode of liberal theology, Christianity only exists insofar as it exists in lives of contemporary communities of faith. Individuals can only speak out of their own experiences, so it is a fool’s errand to try to authenticate other’s experiences as genuine or otherwise. To your example, I could only say that an anti-Semitic Christianity is at odds with my own (and my community’s) understanding of the faith, but I would lack any sort of recourse to metaphysical standards by which to say that such an expression wasn’t Christian in some essential way. That level of discrimination would be left only to God to whom both groups are ostensibly relating.

      All in all, I think that this is a persuasive understanding of the complexities of Christian practice and belief, but I imagine that it is not sufficient for you. I am very curious how you would approach such issues of Christian identity. If you were to feel compelled by my gentle request, I would love to hear your take.

      • Matthew J Thomas

        Thanks for this, Ryan. So as not to take away from the current discussion, I’ll hold off on the question of my approach for now — I’d be glad to take it up elsewhere, and I imagine you can guess much of it already.

        I imagine you may be right regarding Schleiermacher, but I don’t think this diminishes the practical significance of the question. When, to continue with the example, those in power (say the National Socialists) wish to co-opt Christianity for their anti-Semetic purposes, an approach that says “anti-Semetism corresponds with your experiences; it doesn’t necessarily with mine; there’s no way to adjudicate between these, so let’s agree to disagree” does not seem worthy of being adopted, much less commended to others. It’s hard to see what such a paradigm stands for besides the affirmation of each person’s individual likes and dislikes, and possible integration into a community insofar as it furthers the pursuit of these likes and dislikes. In bracketing the possibility of assessing competing truth claims, I don’t think such an approach avoids nihilism as a practical endpoint. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.

      • John Orchard

        Out of interest Ryan, does that mean that you don’t regard the epistles as good pastoral and polemic examples? With the possible exception of Ephesians, I think they all at some point take serious issue with something that is acceptable in another faith community, not on the basis of their own preferences or experiences (primarily) but on whether that belief or behaviour is consistent with scripture read through the prism of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The same can be said of all the prophets, a lot of the wisdom literature and a lot of the teaching of Christ himself.
        I realise that I’m talking like an evangelical stereotype, but surely even from a liberal standpoint the Bible should in some way be the foundation? I want to give you the ability to say that something is actually wrong when something awful happens. I keep imagining MLK explaining that while it’s alien to him to describe racial segregation as wrong, it is at odds with his own church’s understanding of the faith. 😉

      • Perhaps I have played up the relativistic, Schleiermachian, element of my theology too much. I don’t mean to say that I don’t judge other expressions of Christianity according my own understanding of the faith—I certainly do. This is inescapable.

        The danger that I want to avoid is twofold: first, knowing full-well the noetic affects of sin, I don’t ever want to lay down my interpretation of truth as some kind of timeless verity which is not open to criticism, modification, or outright rejection. Secondly, I don’t want my theology to ever arrogate to itself the perspective of the Divine. God is perfectly capable of speaking for Godself. When my thoughts on divine things become ossified, they are not open to further acts of God, which is the precise outcome that my project of liberal theology is intending to avoid.

        The upshot here is that I want to strike a confident declaration of “Deus vult” from my theological lexicon. Much injustice itself as stemmed from such blithe pronouncements coming from “traditional” expressions of Christianity, traditional expressions to which MLK’s more liberal theology stood opposed.

      • Matthew J Thomas

        Ryan: I do not think whether or not you judge other expressions of Christianity according to your own understanding is in doubt; the question is whether you can present any criteria for such a judgment beyond your own personal likes and dislikes. If, according to the paradigm you commend to us, there is indeed some sort of principled basis by which one can judge what is and is not Christian, it would be very helpful to hear it. If not, one can only conclude that not unlike a certain band of ferret-wielding Germans, such an approach would require us to believe in nothing beyond our own personal wishes and desires (in their case zee money, in yours the promotion of contemporary liberal values, etc).

        It’s hard to see how the “Deus vult” point here avoids running into similar problems; if there is nothing with which we can say with confidence “Deus vult,” we have no basis upon which to say anything about Christianity at all. And without such a basis, what can disputes over Christianity amount to beyond well-articulated versions of this?:

        (It does appear, by the way, that some sort of criteria have sneaked their way in by your use of ‘injustice’; is such a statement simply an expression of taste on your part, or do we now have recourse to some set of metaphysical standards which had gone missing previously?)

      • I think you have taken quite a stunted view of personal experience. Speaking for myself, my own personal likes and dislikes have been informed by more than just my ego; they have been impacted and shaped by my experiences with God. At bottom, I can’t ever claim more than that—my beliefs and actions are what they are because this is how I have interpreted my intercourse with the Divine. This is axiomatic. It seems to me that what you’re asking for with regards to criteria amounts to some sure-fire method for discerning the character of true Christian belief. If that truly is the case, then my argument is wanting; I have no method.

        This doesn’t mean that I can’t believe things and hold to them quite strongly. I do have strong views about justice, and they have been informed by my experience of the Christian life. I will espouse them as such, and I may even argue for them against the views of other Christians—e.g. traditional Catholic views on the ontology and vocation of women. While these two views may ultimately be irreconcilable, I am unable to say confidently that my view is *the* true Christian view vis-à-vis Pope John Paul II. I can’t objectify my view in the form of timeless truth, once for all. That’s why I oppose the “Deus vult.” Declarations like that—it seems to me—objectify one’s view into a kind of divine decree, which is invulnerable to further revelation, critique, or rejection. My theology is “liberal” to the extent that it wants to be free to appreciate all three of those phenomena. (This openness may of course, in the end, lead me all the way back to traditional understanding of things. I always have to be amenable to that possibility, for sure.) This theological stance, as I have already said in my response to John, seems to best comport with the realities expressed in the scriptures (viz. the prophets, Peter, and Paul contra established religious systems, established works of the law, established understandings of religious identity).

        In the end, it seems to me that you have taken a rather Kantian view of personal experience, believing subjectivity to have no access to the noumenal realm tout court. That may be the case, but I, for one, believe that in the end, “truth is subjectivity.”

      • This is a fascinating discussion with which I have a great deal of sympathy for both sides. I think in many ways my starting point is the same as that of Ryan: one cannot start anywhere other than from one’s own experience of God. In that sense, truth is indeed subjectivity.

        And yet, philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Ricoeur, and theologians such as George Lindbeck and David Tracy have pointed out the inescapably linguistic aspect of all experience which is interpreted in terms of a particular linguistic tradition prior to conscious reflection. There is therefore a dialectic between experience and language/tradition in which each mutually affects the other.

        If this is true, then it means our understanding of our experiences can be shaped by means of dialogue with others. The importance of community as a dimension of religious conviction thus becomes apparent. There is, however, still a dialectic which goes on here: the individual’s experience contributes to the common paradigm of the community, and the community in turn checks and guides the individual’s understanding of their experience.

        It follows that both the tradition and the individual need to exercise a level of flexibility with regard to how their experiences are interpreted into language and action. The alternative to this is a postmodern fragmentation of the type envisaged by Lyotard or Derrida.

        A quotation from David Tracy may help to elucidate this point:

        “What any particular Christian may believe or disbelieve in the traditional christological formulations produced throughout the long history of that tradition, they will ordinarily believe because of their fundamental trust in the tradition mediating that event and person, or will disbelieve as a result of some exercise of critical reason or some new experience of the Christ event in some new situation. {Footnote: The seeming inability of many church leaders to recognize at least their pastoral responsibility to the latter kinds of ‘dissent’ remains one of the major scandals of Christianity to those both within and outside its tradition. It is sometimes difficult to trust a tradition which too often seems to distrust itself: by distrusting its own ability to hand on the event and memories entrusted to its care in ever new interpretations in ever new and diverse cultural situations. The kind of theological sense of responsibility represented in the actions of a classic pastoral leader like Pope John XXIII was present not only in his extraordinary praxis but in his words: ‘in essential matters, unity; in doubtful matters, freedom; in all matters, charity’. On John XXIII, see the fine tribute of Hannah Arendt in ‘Men in Dark Times’} Even the power to dissent is a power released by the freedom from and for the world disclosed in the very Christ event which the tradition mediates. History itself — for what is historical existence other than ethical life in a community and a tradition — can be trusted to sort out in the long run the truths and falsehoods for the Christian community, a community trusting in the Spirit’s presence to it. The collaborative character of theology as a discipline can be trusted to sort out the theological aspects of those same realities in teh short run of mutual, responsible criticism.” (Analogical Imagination, 428)

      • Barney, I think this kind of mutual flexibility is a pipe-dream. In practice, who is asked to bear the brunt of it? History seems to show us that most often it is the individual that must be most flexible or risk being trampled. My question is how do those within the institution avoid being “descendants of those who murdered the prophets”?

      • Matthew J Thomas

        Ryan: Thanks for this — you quote from one of my own prophets!

        There’s a number of questions that come to mind, but since we are both taken up by our respective occupations of lowly research student and sugar daddy in the publishing biz, I’ll limit this to three, if that’s okay —

        1) Let’s say I have read your piece and as a result have been persuaded to convert to liberal Protestantism. In the absence of clear and determinate reference points for defining what is and is not Christianity (such as those affirmed in early Christianity, for example), how would you advise a new adherent such as myself to avoid the Feuerbachian trap of worshipping the projection of my deepest values?

        2) If the paradigm commended here indeed best comports with the realities expressed in the scriptures (ie the prophets, Peter, Paul), how does this not necessitate a very early and drastic fall paradigm, given that the authority paradigm found in the early centuries of the church and stretching through the ‘great tradition’ differs so greatly from what you have presented? Indeed, it would appear to necessitate a fall paradigm of such a nature that would make many Protestants blush, as instead of the church falling into error on one major issue or another, this paradigm sees the entire foundational structure for how one determines what is ‘Christian’ or not — which underlies not just one, but all major issues — as being fundamentally mistaken up to the Schleiermacherian period (a phrase which I made up for this special occasion). (I recall a previous opposition of yours to fall paradigms, of course, but perhaps this has shifted?)

        3) If the traditional church has indeed been mistaken in its authority paradigm, would it not seem appropriate for extant products of this mistaken paradigm — such as the biblical canon and the shape of the traditional liturgy — to be revised along the lines you have proposed as well? With respect to the canon, for instance, this passage in Schleiermacher comes to mind:

        “And later on, when the first season of [the Holy Spirit’s] flowering was past and it appeared to be resting from its works, these works, so far as they were contained in the holy writings, were without authorization declared to be a closed code of religion. This was brought about only by those who took the slumber of the spirit to be its death, those for whom religion itself had died; and all who still felt its life in themselves or perceived it in others have always protested against this unchristian beginning. The holy writings have become Scripture by their own power, but they prohibit no other book from also being or becoming Scripture, and whatever had been written with equal power they would gladly have associated with themselves.”

        (Also, it probably bears mentioning that while I do not intend to undervalue the role of experience in the prophets, Peter and Paul (or simply the individual Christian, such as you or I), my sense is that it’s being leaned upon more heavily here than it is properly meant to bear. Wright makes the point numerous times in his new Paul book that ‘experience’ does not function as a kind of trump card or defining category for Paul; I’ve typed up three samples of his arguments below:

        “[Religious] experiences are never made the basis of any argument: the only thing that was ever ‘revealed’ to him [Paul] which functions in that way is the gospel itself, given ‘through the revelation of Jesus the Messiah’ (Galatians 1.12, 16). If someone, perhaps in the Jewish tradition, tries to make a claim about having seen visions and dreamed dreams and now insists that other people follow along, Paul is quick to dismiss it.” (414)

        “Paul is not here [in Gal 2] recounting his own ‘religious experience’ for the sake of it. He is telling the story of what has happened to Israel, the elect people of God — and he is using the rhetorical form of quasi-autobiography, because he will not tell this story in the third person, as though it were someone else’s story or as though he could look on from a distance (or from a height!) and merely describe it with a detached objectivity. It matters of course that this was indeed his own story. No doubt the experience Paul had on the Damascus Road in the few days immediately afterwards may well have felt as though he was dying and being reborn. But what we have here is not the transcript of ‘experience’, as though he was appealing to that (curiously modern) category for some kind of validation. Peter had ‘experience’ as well; so did Barnabas; so, not least, did James and the people who had come from him in Jerusalem. So, of course, did the Galatians. By itself, ‘experience’ proves nothing. ‘Yes, Paul’, they would have said; ‘That’s what happened to you, but for us it was different.’ No: what mattered, for Paul, was the Messiah, and the meaning of his death and resurrection in relation to the category of the elect people of God.” (852-53)

        “For Paul what mattered was not that he, Paul, had had a particular kind of ‘experience’, but that Israel’s Messiah had been crucified and been raised… Thus, when he speaks in 2.19-20 of his own co-crucifixion, and his own messianic new ‘life’ the other side of that, he is not saying ‘I have had this experience; you should have it too’. He is saying, rather, ‘this is what it means for everyone that Israel’s Messiah was crucified and raised’… nor should we mistake his first-person description for a mere ‘record of his own experience’. That would have been useless in the implied rhetorical situation. Peter could have responded, as I think Alan Segal might like him to have done, ‘Well, Paul, that’s how it was for you, but of course for many of us believing in Jesus as Messiah hasn’t been like that,’ and the whole conversation would have been at a shoulder-shrugging impasse.” (1424-25))

      • Have we reached 21 questions yet?

        In response to your first query, I must say that on this side of paradise I am not sure if anyone can definitively claim that they are not worshipping a human projection. Both individuals and institutions, which are really collections of many individuals, are liable to project their own values beyond themselves. Liberal or conservative alike must deal with this disquieting possibility—the πατέρα παντοκράτορα of the Apostles’ Creed could just a soon be a projection as the Divine Mother of radical feminist theology. Feuerbach’s baleful shadow looms over all without favor.

        Secondly, I am not sure that anything in my sketch of liberal theology necessitates a fall paradigm, at least not a fall as complete as the one which you suggest. The point of liberal theology that I highlight here is its critical character: this means that for it to be truly liberal—i.e. free—it must be able to “sift” the tradition(s) in order to find that which comports best with the individuals own experience of God. Just because a liberal theologian discards the ancient understanding of authority doesn’t mean that she has to pronounce the remainder of past reflections upon God as null and void.

        Moreover, I do have a fairly deep-seated concern about the status of the Great Tradition and, more specifically, the appropriate way in which we may use it. Even though the word “tradition” gets bandied about a lot, I am still unclear as to what anyone means when they reference it. Is there a definitive explanation of what constitutes (the) tradition? Can there even be one? It seems that, to my cynical eye at least, the utility of tradition is often found in its serviceability for a project of critiquing another part of the tradition. Where Henri de Lubac can appeal to St. Augustine to argue against neo-Thomistic understandings of the Eucharist, it is conceivable that a hypothetical thinker could propose a similar project of ressourcement where one looks to Ratramnus of Corbie or Berengar of Tours in order to argue against real presence in favor of Christ’s presence only in figura. I imagine that the former case would be considered by some, if not most, Catholics today as a “good” use of the tradition whilst the latter would most likely not be greeted with the same applause. If this be the case, then I don’t see how the tradition could be anything other than a theological will-to-power: I (or the ecclesial body to which I defer) cherry-pick the tradition to find things with which I (or said ecclesial body) already agree.

        I know from my own experience that the common rejoinder to this line of argument is that a full-bodied ecclesiology would want to see the work of the Holy Spirit to be guiding the Church as she endures through the centuries. As a result, the tradition properly subsists in the definitive statements of the visible Church throughout the centuries. Perhaps I am too much a Protestant or an heir of 60s contempt for authority, but I just can’t countenance ceding that much submission to an institution that is peopled by fallible human beings. To do so—i.e. trust fully the direction of the Church—would seem to render any real role for prophetic critique nugatory. If the rudder of the Church were always and ultimately guided by the hand of God, how temerarious would one have to be to stand against her? Furthermore, an attitude of such strong complaisance for the Church seems to me, at least, to place God in a box as it were. From my reading of Scripture, I find God capable of acting at odds with institutions, practices, and authorities that were themselves ostensibly installed by holy writ. As we have it in the Old Testament, the “works of the law” were established by God without any indication of their expiration date. It was only the charismatic teaching of Jesus and the experiences of Peter and Paul that called things such as the food laws and circumcision into question. Now, it could be said that Paul performed his own sort of ressourcement in arguing that the people of the promise were established prior to the rite of circumcision, but I think such an argument would have appeared to the Jewish authorities of his day more like an appeal to Ratramnus than St. Augustine.

        Thirdly, let me be clear about what I am not saying—I am not saying that I expect God to somehow dissolve all traditional markers of Christian identity and tradition sometime in the near future. I hope that this is not the case! Expecting that God would somehow abrogate the dogma of the Trinity seems supremely foolish to me. I do fear, though, that sometimes appeals to tradition are liable to place a set of standardized expectations upon the missio Dei that might be ill-advised. Perhaps I have read too much Barth and Bultmann, but I don’t think that we can or should objectify God like that. So, ultimately the dilemma that I have is one where I don’t know how to balance a generous respect and appreciation for my faithful Christian forbearers while maintaining an openness to new and fresh movements of God’s Spirit in the world today.

        Finally, I don’t find Wright very persuasive on this matter. I don’t know how he can defend his generic distinction between experience of the gospel and religious experience more broadly. Is there a subset of special revelation—viz. special “gospel” revelation? This seems risible to me.

      • Matthew J Thomas

        Thanks (once again!) for your response, Ryan.

        It is perhaps true that if there were no God-given authority on earth to preserve the faith (and to make judgments in doing so), every individual would be on an equal playing field with respect to falling into Feuerbach’s projection-trap, with the elevation of any individual’s or institution’s theological views being no more than an exercise of the will to power. In relation to this (and as you know), the earliest Christian sources we have attest that Christ invested his apostles with authority for these tasks of preservation and adjudication, for which they appointed specific successors, and so on (following the Bible, 1 Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus, etc), with the ‘great tradition’ continuing in affirmation that the judgments of these successors are not examples of the will to power by a collection of individuals, but rather are carried out by a power that is ordained and sustained by Christ.

        I myself am not from a tradition that engages with this claim (and I confess to having very little natural enthusiasm for it), but simply at a historical level, I find the evidence for it compelling to the point that I no longer have a persuasive counter against it. (For example, Clement, writing from Rome in AD 69-70 or 95-96 to the Corinthian church, makes no bold assertions regarding such appointments, but simply references them as the common knowledge of both churches.) This evidence, for me, is compounded by statements made regarding God’s fidelity to the church and the church itself in scripture, as well as the recognition that the first 1500 years of Christianity (and most of the faith since) has held the veracity of these claims as basic first principles, upon which hang subsequent theological judgments (canon, creeds, etc) that I take for granted as basic to Christianity. This is a long-ish way of saying the Feuerbachian problem is engaged differently from a ‘traditionalist’ view with its understanding of authorized and sustained succession, and my attempts to assail it on historical grounds have been (thus far) unsuccessful.

        In relation to tradition, perhaps it would be helpful to take the example of the Trinity that you bring up. Your own personal view is that it would be foolish for it to be abolished. However, in evaluation of the liberal paradigm, the question at hand seems to be this: is it not just as consistent within this paradigm for the Trinity to be abolished as it is for it to be retained?

        With respect to the liberal paradigm and fall paradigms, it may be helpful to lay this out point by point:

        1) The view of the original apostles with respect to authority (which, as has been noted, is at the foundation of all other theological issues) best comports with the liberal paradigm you commend.

        2) The church which followed immediately after these apostles, and those following them, and those following them (and so on) universally and quite uniformly misunderstood or neglected this view on authority — which lies at the foundation of all their other decisions, such as the canon, creeds, liturgy, you name it — and the original view was effectively lost until the advent of liberal protestantism.

        3) The view of the original apostles on authority was recovered in the Schleiermacherian period of 19th century liberal protestantism.

        4) … can you help me to see how this is not a fall paradigm? (The rejoinder that one can still ‘sift’ for pieces that one likes in this period does not help, as nearly all fall-paradigmers do this; for example, one such as R.C. Sproul freely quotes from Cyprian when it comports with his experience, and even von Harnack himself does likewise.)

        In relation to Wright, I am still struggling to see how the various conflicts that arise in scripture with respect to the differing experiences of differing parties would be solved under this paradigm; perhaps you might lay this out, as my sense is that the establishment of different communities based on different experiences isn’t what you would make a case for.

        Finally (and summing things up), I have difficulty seeing how one makes application of the principle that liberal theology “must be able to “sift” the tradition(s) in order to find that which comports best with the individuals own experience of God” in a way that sustains something as recognizably Christian over the long term, and in some cases even the short term.

        For example (to pick three that are close to me at the moment):

        What does this paradigm say to my best friend and his family, who are convinced by their experience of God that the Trinity is a falsehood?

        What does it say to the atheist vicar of our most prominent church in Oxford, whose experience compels him to deny the existence of God?

        What does it say to my former roommate, who in examining that which comports best with his experience, becomes convinced that God does not love him?

        Now this is not to say that I do not, as a native Protestant, share your fears regarding the possibility of actual prophetic critique in the ‘traditionalist’ approach, or that I do not share similar questions regarding how one defines good and bad ‘traditions’. (The presence of prophetic critique from Irenaeus to Catherine of Siena to de Lubac is encouraging on the first point, and my nascent understanding of the positive role authority can play in the church helps with the second; since these fears are in some sense hereditary, however, they are not easily appeased, and I can’t say I believe they should be easily appeased either.) But granted this, I am still struggling to see how using the individual’s experience with God as the standard by which we measure all else can end up anywhere but in incoherence. If the liberal paradigm’s elevation of individual experience makes equally valid the affirmation and denial of the Trinity, equally valid the existence and non-existence of God, and equally valid a God who loves and a God who does not, it is hard to identify it as anything besides the initial outlines of the second side of Janus, which progresses quite naturally into the full visage.

        A wise man once said to me, “I keep trying to find a third option between Catholicism and complete nihilism, and I just don’t think there is one.” I myself cannot say if a third option exists, but if there is one, I do not think this is it.

  • John Orchard

    Isn’t this is a bit of a throw-back? These views were in vogue about 150 years ago; before the liberal approach to source-criticism was proved to be a bloated exercise in speculation, and before we saw that churches embracing liberal theology don’t tend to make converts; they coax people from orthodox churches or they empty. I don’t understand how someone can be a theology student (and so must have read at least some Barth) and write this.

    He writes “Where liberal theologies are willing to assess the treasure of the faith piece by piece, retaining the what is good, true, and beautiful in the light of current circumstances whilst jettisoning what does not appear so, a traditionalist theology would see all the whole storehouse as a single item that can be accepted or rejected only as a whole.”

    Quite so; the question is, who gets to decide which bits of God’s word are good, true and beautiful, and if it’s not God himself, how will we ever hear him when he rebukes us (which unless we’re perfect, he must)? This approach gags God, and sets ourselves up as the arbiters of truth in his place, and so inevitably reinvents God in our own image (a recurring criticism of liberal theologians). Worshipping ourselves is something we can do very well without any kind of Christianity. Liberal theology dominated the Church in Germany in the 30s and blinded most of it to the evil of the Nazis because the obvious Biblical rebukes were rejected “in the light of current circumstances” or “the progress of modernity” (the evangelical “Bekennende Kirche” group to which people like Niemöller and Bonhoeffer belonged stood almost alone).

    Either God has spoken or he hasn’t, his whole storehouse IS a single item that can only be accepted or rejected as a whole, but that’s fine. Evangelical Christianity is far from the novel or shallow thing the author makes out.

    • Hi John, thanks for taking the time to respond to me. I appreciate your pushback.

      You might be surprised that I am actually in agreement with much of your thoughts on the matter. I am absolutely opposed to any attempt to gag God, a position that has forced me to adopt my liberal theological stance. I do so not because I want to affirm culture over and against divine revelation but rather because I want to prioritize the latter all the more. God speaks—for sure—and I want to open to his past speech as well as to any and all future divine speeches.

      For me this openness to present and future acts of revelation forces me to hold onto the traditions of the churches somewhat more lightly than more “conservative” theologians would. An attitude of strong complaisance for the Church and her traditions seems to me, at least, to place God in a box as it were. From my reading of Scripture, I find God capable of acting at odds with institutions, practices, and authorities that were themselves ostensibly installed by holy writ. As we have it in the Old Testament, the “works of the law” were established by God without any indication of their expiration date. It was only the charismatic teaching of Jesus and the experiences of Peter and Paul that called things such as the food laws and circumcision into question. This at least problematizes the notion of a singular storehouse of divine truth ever and always.

      In the end, my theology needs to be free—i.e. liberal—enough to allow God to speak and act in our time.

      • John Orchard

        Dear Ryan, I hope you don’t mind me replying to both comments together to avoid multiplying threads. You make some very important points that I’m delighted to hear, and I think we’re coming to a partial synthesis. But I’m surprised to hear you describe your desire to be “liberal” with tradition in order to hear God’s scripture as “liberal theology”.
        I’m from a Reformed Evangelical background which emphasises what you call the noetic effects of sin (or total depravity – when that’s correctly understood not as “everyone is as bad as they could be” but “every act and thought is tainted by our sin and so even at our best we fall short and rely on God’s grace), and so the need for all our thinking, practices, creeds and traditions to be held accountable to scripture; the assumption being that creeds, and to a lesser extent traditions will rarely be rebuked having stood the test of time, our moral and intellectual frailty means that our attitudes and practices need to humbly undergo a process of constant reformation as we are corrected by the word; whether that’s as we grow in our understanding, or more often as we’re reminded and convicted of something we knew but have neglected.
        This belief in total depravity should at least in theory keep us from believing that anyone outside scripture is infallible, ourselves especially.
        I have always understood liberal theology to mean liberal with scripture, and so having set themselves above God’s word were plagued by such arrogant foolishness, that since seminary I’ve seen no point in reading what they’ve had to say. You appear to define Liberal Theology differently, are you unusual in that regard or has Liberalism moved on?

      • John, I think you might have uncovered at least one of my implicit reasons for using the term “liberal.” In part, I chose that particular modifier for my theology because it is a flashpoint. My intent, as far as rhetoric was concerned, was to provoke a conversation about one’s theological stance in relation to Christian tradition. And to this end, I think I have succeed—we have indeed had a robust discussion of theology as a result.

        This is not to say that there were not substantive reasons for using the term “liberal” to describe my theology. There surely are, and they relate to our relationship to God. I want theology to be free to hear the Word of God as God wants to reveal it. This desire certainly comports with Schleiermacher’s interest in emphasizing the individual’s complete dependence upon God and his wish to let the resulting experience guide one in his or her appropriation of the artifacts of Christian tradition. To this extent, I am fully in line with what is known as classical liberal theology.

        The problem with liberal theology (and this might be where I need to distance myself from the use of the term) is that when one frees oneself from the confines of objective authority—e.g. the creeds, confessions—one has the tendency to think that one’s own thoughts and predilections should fill the void. This manifests itself in the “liberal” historical-critical methods of interpreting the Bible. The ironic thing is that such interpretations, which arose in opposition to the traditional teaching authority of the church and tradition, have themselves taken up a similar, unquestioned authority—as if these scientific understandings were able to parse whence and whither God speaks. Let the record show that I am opposed to this ramification of liberal theology.

        I am much more in line with Kierkegaard and early Barth, theologically speaking, than I am with late-19th century form-critics or the Jesus Seminar. Perhaps, then, in future discussions, I should not be so flippant in my terminology, but then again, where’s the fun in that?