Review of Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022)
In the introduction to Against Liberal Theology, author Roger E. Olson states that his goal in writing the book was to provide “a warning aimed mainly at those who think of themselves as progressive Christians,” a warning about “not sliding into true liberal Christianity.” As he considers “Progressive” a label too “flexible to pin down, with no tradition to track and no movement to follow, his chapters center on and trace a “Liberal Christianity,” and—more specifically—American Liberal Christianity—which “constitutes a tradition that grew out of a movement.”
Olson, now an Emeritus Professor at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, comes to this exploration having taught Christian theology for forty years in three Christian universities, most recently Baylor. He has authored more than twenty books including The Story of Christian Theology and The Journey of Modern Theology. An avowed evangelical Arminian, Olson is multi-denominational having been Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, and Presbyterian.
The author traces the beginnings of Liberal Christianity to German pastor-theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1854) and to the individual Olson considers the “prototype, influencer,” German theologian Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89). Olson notes that many Americans studied under these men and returned home eager to “modernize” their own country’s Christianity, and the ideas from these thinkers were melded with those of later German liberal theologians including Adolf von Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch. Olson relies heavily, in his tracking of theological liberalism on the written works of liberal historians Gary Dorrien, Kenneth Cauthen, and William R. Hutchinson.
Olson acknowledges that Liberal Christianity is not “monolithic or homogeneous,” rather it is “a diverse tradition with some common unifying features. He summarizes liberal Christians as finding “the ultimate authority for deciding what is true…within the individual. Further, most also tend to “reinterpret Scripture, doctrine, thought and religious experience in terms of modernity, giving modern thought authority alongside, if not over, Scripture and tradition. In most cases that means a non-supernatural interpretation of the Bible and Christianity, a Christianity without miracles.”
In this thinking, Jesus is reduced to a mere man who revealed God to people, a man different in degree but not in substance, a man who was not, himself, God. This funnels into Degree Christology, wherein the Trinity is denied and the door is opened to religious pluralism where Jesus is just one of many saviors and lords. The book’s short introduction lays out much of the foregoing; these themes and others are then fleshed out in the ensuing chapters. Throughout the book, Olson contrasts Liberal Theology with the “classical, historical, biblical, orthodox” theology that was codified in the ecumenical and historic creeds of the Christian faith. Olson doesn’t venture into whether he believes liberal Christians are indeed Christians. Instead he asserts that their theology is not authentically Christian as measured against classical, historical, biblical, orthodox Christianity—the transdenominational Vincentian Canon—what has been believed everywhere, always, by all Christians.
Olson unpacks what Dorrien referred to as the “gospel norms” and “mythical aspects of Christianity” that liberal theology has viewed as “problematic” and in need of displacement or replacement. These include “the Bible as God’s supernaturally inspired Word; God as a personal being above nature, sovereign, omnipotent, and unchanging; the Trinity as three eternal, distinct persons united by one essence and substance; Jesus Christ as God the Son, equal with the Father, different in kind and not only in degree from other humans; God incarnate yet truly human, the one and only savior of humankind; miracles, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; and salvation as God’s loving and merciful rescue of sinful persons from hell and into an eternal relationship of blissful communion with himself in heaven.
Beginning with the doctrinal chapters (three and following), some degree of familiarity with orthodox theology across denominational boundaries is assumed. In each of these chapters, Olson summarizes the consensual orthodox doctrine and brings alongside the contrasting, alternative liberal views. So, for example, in the chapter on the Bible, the author contrasts the orthodox Christian consensus that the Bible is “the supernaturally given revelation of God,” with liberal Christianity’s treatment of the Bible “as a human book of great insight and spiritual wisdom that is not divinely inspired or uniquely authoritative.” He finds that God’s immanence (His being in and with the world) is emphasized in liberal theology to the point of losing God’s transcendence, so God’s greatness is sacrificed, leaving in His place in liberal theology, “a pathetic God who seems more like a nice, heavenly grandfather.” The orthodox belief in Jesus as fully God and fully human (the hypostatic union, the union of two complete natures in one person) is denied as is salvation in Jesus alone by grace alone; liberal theology replaces this belief with a humanistic religion of self-realization, a human-centered religion where what is necessary is the turning over of a new leaf. The Parousia (the literal/actual return of Jesus Christ) is viewed as symbolic, metaphorical, not at all to be taken literally. God’s creation of the universe ex nihilo is denied. Olson asserts that liberal theologians believe in universal salvation and deny hell except as a lack of God-consciousness. Eschatological issues, he finds, are often treated agnostically or relegated to a footnote. Many liberal Christians, he notes, tend to settle for “vague hopes for the future of both the individual after death and for the world.” Finally, in liberal Christian theology, “the return of Jesus Christ in glory, divine judgments, a fulfilled kingdom of God, a new heaven and a new earth free of sin, sickness and death, where there will be no more tears, all get treated as myths or symbols. We are left almost entirely with this world and virtue as its own reward.”
In the book, Olson delves into further elements found in liberal Christianity including higher criticism; symbolic realism (the Bible made up of humanly-created symbols that point to some “Reality); degree Christology (similar to Paul of Samosata’s adoptionism); Pelagianism (self-salvation through good works); semi-Pelagianism (the belief that the initiative in salvation belongs to the human person); and Process Theology wherein God is viewed as absorbing into Himself everything that happens with the result that His life is enriched or impoverished by what we do.
Olson traces liberal theology’s shared beliefs with Unitarianism and Universalism. He touches upon Tillich, DeWolf, Churchill King, Miller, Hodgson, Ottati and other liberal theologians to expand upon the range of nuances in liberal thinking.
He laments the influence liberal Christianity has had on the mainline churches in the United States where Bible-based Christian doctrine has been replaced in many pulpits with therapeutic sermons. He laments the rise of a social gospel that reduced religion to ethics while rejecting the concepts of individual sin and the need for personal salvation in Christ. His examination of the writings of Marcus Borg (of the Jesus Seminar) and the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong called to mind for this reviewer the incursions by New Age (NAM) theology into the mainline churches. The NAM’s emphases on panentheism and monism—are found as well in liberal theology.
I heartily recommend this book. It is straight forward in its analysis of the twisting and turning of the biblical faith by liberal theologians. Olson carefully sets forth the elements of classical, biblical, orthodox theology and then, unsparingly—without apology, but deeply and richly imbedded in apologetic reasoning—his critique of liberal theology. One of Olson’s writing techniques this reviewer especially appreciated was the use of stops for probing questions. Examples: if one asserts that “the best of modern thought” and “the careful judgments of the present age” are to be used in gauging the truth of Scripture, “what if the best of modern thought is only a passing fashion of thought, a philosophy of the moment, a cultural fad?…Is Christianity endlessly flexible, changeable, mutable? Is everyone’s ‘hat’ his or her own church? How much can an individual Christian’s beliefs differ, be unique to him or her, while maintaining that we have one God, one faith, and one universal church?” While Christians may debate secondary issues, there are non-negotiables: what has been believed everywhere, always, by all Christians.
This is a well-documented, thorough-going, meaty, revelatory, critically-needed, brilliant piece of work set out masterfully in just 174 pages. Olson makes a convincing case that liberal theology has cut “the cord of continuity between itself and biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity” and is “a new, invented religion with roots in Christianity” akin to other sects and cults that have veered off from authentic, Bible-honoring, Christ-centered, theologically-sound and rock-grounded faith. He concludes that Liberal Christianity, if it is Christianity at all, is what the apostle Paul called “a ‘different gospel”…a false gospel…They may call it good news, but those who know how helpless we humans are to have a right relationship with God on our own, apart from God’s supernatural intervening grace and power, know that this liberal gospel is bad news…spiritual poison because it betrays the truth God has revealed about himself and us and how we can find fulfillment, hope, joy and peace.”
Donna F.G. Hailson is an award-winning writer, editor, educator, administrator, and photographer focusing on theology, nature and the arts as spiritual ambassadors for the Christian faith. She has served as a professor of Christian spiritual disciplines, evangelism, world religions, and practical ministry, and directed a Doctor of Ministry program centered on personal, congregational and community renewal. As an ABCUSA ordained minister, she has pastored congregations in three states. She is at work on her sixth book, a memoir centered on how life has changed in the days following the devastating stroke suffered by her husband in 2020. Her articles, columns, and book reviews are found in professional journals and popular magazines.