The question of this Christian age is, “What does this passage mean to you?” It used to be asked, “What does this passage mean (period!)?” Therefore today, meaning has shifted from the concrete to the abstract. An author’s intent in writing is no longer the emphasis. The emphasis is rather how the author makes you feel or in what way he subjectively speaks to you. This is theological liberalism. And it has cast its dark shadow to varying degrees in nearly every pocket of Christianity. The Lord said, though, that we are the light of the world, and there is therefore no room for darkness or shadows or obscurity or skepticism or general agnosticism toward the Bible.
In 1947 at the World Conference for Christian Youth in Oslo, Norway, this was the conclusion of the conference (listen closely): “The criterion of inspiration was generally taken to be the testimony of any passage to, or in accordance with, the spirit of Jesus Christ.” That’s a nice word jumble, but it means, “Go; study the Bible, and find the parts which seem like they represent Jesus, and then throw out the words that don’t seem like Jesus.”
To that same tune, some time back I was in an airport and the fella next to me saw me reading the Bible and said, “You know, I have a real problem with Paul.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “The Christianity of Jesus was simple and pure, but Paul came along and convoluted the whole thing.” He then encouraged me to stop reading Paul’s writings objectively but to “read into Paul the things Jesus would say.” If Jesus didn’t say it; and if it doesn’t feel like Jesus, toss it! This is theological liberalism.
So how in the world did we get here?
Shifting Presuppositions in the Sciences
A categorical shift in the presuppositions of scientists took place about 300 years ago in Germany. The respectable earlier scientists—Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Newton—maintained that the universe had very definite laws and systems that, if left untouched, would continue predictably forever. But they also held the conviction that outside of the world, unaffected by the laws of nature, a sovereign God existed; and if he so chose, he could place his finger into creation and transcend any natural law with the supernatural.
Here’s an example of how to perceive their perspective: In Genesis 1:14 God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.” These are the natural laws of astronomy observed by Galileo and Copernicus; however, as I said, they maintained that if God so chose, he could step in and transcend those laws for a time as he willed. Therefore, there’s no conflict with the laws of nature when in Joshua 10:13-14 it reads, “The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. 14 There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel.”
The older scientists supported both of these passages. The philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment, however, suggested—without good reason—that the universe was closed to the hand of God (and always had been). Thus, for them, there is no supernatural activity; there never was; there never will be.
The novelty of this idea spread rapidly through Europe, and as the theological institutions in Germany were being outnumbered by new secular thinkers, they gave way. Francis Schaeffer, looking back at the turning point, said that they didn’t conform because the new arguments were so compelling; they conformed because of the pressures to conform.
So the Biblical scholars, in almost no time at all, went from thinking that in the historical past God had worked miracles to thinking God had never worked a miracle. Instead, they decided that God had made the world like a giant machine and then completely stepped away from it.
Distant God, Defective Bibles, Different Rules
But if we assume the universe is closed to God—and that he’s never reached into it to work a miracle—then what do you suppose happens to our conception of Jesus? He never worked a miracle; he was never raised from the dead. What happens to the authority of the Bible? It isn’t truly inspired by God—because he hasn’t supernaturally spoken into creation through the prophets.
Those assumptions of theological liberalism distance God (because the universe is closed off from him), render our Bibles defective (because it is no longer the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit), and encourage a new set of rules as we personally experience or feel something is or isn’t right (because it is our job to sift out the human parts from the divine parts). Therefore, we now ask, “What does this passage mean to you?” And you can imagine how innumerable are the answers to that question!
One of the leading theological liberals of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, suggested that the Bible is not the word of God, but that it contains the word of God. He said that the Bible is full of flaws, both historical and mythological, and that each person must look within themselves to find its real meaning.
For the remainder of our time, I’m going to offer two relevant, clear-cut indicators of theological liberalism in our day, and then I’m going to offer three good reasons to abandon this spirit of dissent.
Theistic Evolution and Its Biblical Retreat
Francis Schaeffer said, “Unless we see the new liberalism as a whole and reject it as a whole, we will, to the extent that we are tolerant of it, be confused in our thinking, involved in the general intellectual irrationalism of our day and compromising in our actions.”
So, we can’t be slightly theologically liberal and expect that it won’t affect other areas of our spiritual life. One very common trend today in evangelicalism is the embrace of what is called “theistic evolution.” This is really the same kind of thing the German theologians 300 years ago embraced, they just lived before Darwin’s theory.
The idea is this: Darwinian models of creation are presumed to be true, but instead of seeing the progressions of evolution as random (like Neo-Darwinists), theistic evolutionists believe it was God who guided the process. So it adheres to the idea that there’s a God, but it accepts the anti-Biblical notion that we share a common ancestor with monkeys.
Now, whenever I’ve talked with anyone who holds this perspective, they turn to Genesis 1 to say that, “God didn’t literally create the world in seven days,” because with God, “a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day.” So they propose that the Genesis account is merely a poetic way of saying that God made the world. It didn’t happen over the course of a week; it happened over the course of billions of years.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of anyone who believes this way. The problem is, we typically don’t realize that in forfeiting the Biblical creation model, we are doing away with much more than one chapter in Genesis. In fact, by this perspective, we contradict Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament explanation for suffering and death.
Jesus said in Matthew 19 that Adam and Eve existed “in the beginning.” So Jesus himself didn’t believe in theistic evolution because he said at the very beginning of time, Adam and Eve were there.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:47, “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust.” — He didn’t transition from some ape-like ancestor—he came from dust! Just as Genesis says.
Here’s the biggest problem with theistic evolution, though: It removes the Biblical explanation for suffering and death. The most difficult question and the most oft-asked question of the current generation is, “If there’s a God, why is there so much suffering and death?” And the question is posed from the angle that death shouldn’t be happening if there is a God; or death shouldn’t be happening if God is good.
Theistic evolution follows the Darwinian lead, however, and says that death has been happening from the beginning of time. The Bible, however, says that God made his creation to be very good! There’s nothing good about death. The entirety of the Bible says death is a curse. In fact, Paul said this: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:13).
The profoundly deep answer from the Bible as to why the world experiences death is rooted in the fall of Adam and Eve at the beginning of time. If we remove the Biblical creation story, we forfeit a central message of New Testament Christianity. If we believe God created death from the beginning, how can we call him “good?” And how can we conceive of Christ’s crucifixion as a break of the curse of death?
Truly, when we adopt theistic evolution, we are partaking in theological liberalism—and it has a ripple effect of confusion as we look for ways to explain the Bible’s reason for death.
[By the way, it isn’t my purpose tonight to dispel the model of Neo-Darwinism; but young people, there’s good argumentation against it. Search for truth fearlessly; don’t be swayed by the institutional giants who oppose you and the Bible.]
Abandoning Biblical Sexuality
A second symptom of theological liberalism is the rapid abandonment of the Biblical standard for sexuality—that it be between one man and one woman within the confines of marriage.
A study conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that the majority of millennials believe there is nothing at all wrong with homosexuality and that the church should simply be accepting of it.
Why are thoughts like these trending? Well, they’re certainly not trending because the Bible permits them. In Romans 1, Paul said that the homosexual act occurs when God gives somebody up after they chose to worship the creation, rather than the Creator. That our culture worships sex is not at all a mystery. And that our culture’s homosexual problem is increasing is also not a mystery. Hozier’s popular song, “Take Me to Church,” criticizes the church for its sexual standards, and he says that the closest anybody can ever get to true worship and true divinity is within the act of free sex.
Young men and women in the church are listening to Hozier over the apostle Paul. Why? Because they’ve been taught that the Bible isn’t the absolute standard. It is merely a human attempt to understand God, but since the Bible is imperfect, we can look to it and readjust as we see fit. Such a view of sexuality is not only oppositional to the Biblical demand for purity (Paul said sexual immorality forfeits our salvation), but it has had lastingly negative social effects.
When we abandoned Biblical sexuality, the state looked to how we might limit unplanned pregnancies. So as sexual promiscuity rose in the 1960’s, guess what quickly followed? Roe v. Wade, and the legalization of abortion. One dramatic effect of the sexual revolution has been the murder of more than sixty million souls.
Additionally, since we’ve embraced “free love,” and abandoned the Bible’s standard on sexuality, more children are being raised in single family homes. Psychologists are realizing the incredible damage this has on the individual and society as a whole. The family structure commanded in the Bible has always been the most profoundly good standard.
Further, since we abandoned Biblical sexuality, nature has taught us something about our sins. Sexual diseases are higher than ever before. 25% of American adults have an incurable sexually transmitted disease. The Bible is the standard not because some rule-bent men wanted to control their populations. The Bible is the standard because its way is perfectly sure.
Theological liberalism is dangerous because it systematically replaces the entirety of the Bible with culture’s whims. Culture is never steady, though. It shifts here and there and everywhere.
#1 This View is Inconsistent
The world has operated for centuries by the logic of antithesis; that is, if a statement is true, then the opposite is necessarily what? False. Right? If we agree that I’m a man, then logically I can’t also be a woman. But theological liberalism asserts that my truth may not be yours.
When Miranda and I first moved to Cayman, I got a call from a presbyterian chaplain who asked if I’d be willing to sit down with him for a cup of coffee. I agreed to it and met with him, and in the course of the conversation he told me that he believes we shouldn’t impose our faith on anyone else but should let them express their spirituality in whatever way they see fit. So, naturally, when a Muslim is having a surgery in the hospital, he said he prays with them in whatever way they feel most comfortable—to Allah. He doesn’t ever mention Jesus Christ.
He said he’s also exercised quiet meditations with Buddhists before they enter into surgery. Whatever the people want, he accommodates. Why so? Well, because this is theological liberalism! The facts about doctrine, deity, and spirituality don’t really matter. It only matters that we’re sincere in what we’re doing. After all, God can only be verified through subjective experiences—not by observation or Scripture.
So anyways, a short time after I met with him, he called me and asked if I’d help lead an island-wide ecumenical church conference for World Prayer Day. I met with him in person and told him that I wouldn’t be able to help because I don’t believe church fellowship can be artificially created. The fact is, every church has its own unique set of doctrinal beliefs which conflict with the others. He looked at me and said, “I’m disappointed in you.” I immediately said back to him, “How can you be disappointed in me? It is you who fellowships with Muslims and Buddhists and feels it isn’t proper to impose your own view on anyone else. So why is it okay to tell me I’m wrong in my faith? He was speechless for several seconds.
Theological liberalism is inconsistent with itself because, whereas it suggests that the absolute truth cannot be determined, the moment you challenge them with absolute truth, they’ll magically jump back into the world of antithesis.
#2 This View Contradicts the Bible
I’ve mentioned a couple times now that theological liberalism asserts that the only kind of meaning in the Bible must be that which is subjectively experienced or felt in a person’s encounter with God.
But do you notice what’s happened in this kind of method? No longer is the Bible the authority over man, but man is the authority over the Bible. Listen to what God said in Isaiah’s prophecy: “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?” (Isaiah 45:9).
So the very book that theological liberals say is subject to man’s whims is one that says, “You’re just clay! You can’t take God’s Word and tell it what you want from it!”
Listen to what Peter said, “[Know] this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from private (individual, Gr. ἴδιος) interpretation. Because no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
So Peter’s saying, you can’t read Scripture with your own interpretation! Why not? Because it came from the singular, autonomous, unified mind of the awesome, Triune God! Exactly what liberals are doing with the Bible is what Peter said, “Don’t do!”
#3 The Bible Has Proven Itself Historically Accurate
I wish I had time to expound on the countless historical and archaeological discoveries made in validation of the Bible, but let me just read to you a couple quotes from some guys who know archaeology as well as anyone whose ever lived.
The renowned archaeologist, William F. Albright (who himself was a theological liberal!), said, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament Tradition.”
Nelson Glueck, another highly esteemed archaeologist said, “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted (denied the truth of) a Biblical reference.”
What if you met somebody, and over years and years of experience with them, you found—through third party sources—that never once have they been inconsistent or found to be lying. Would you trust them? The very fact that the Bible has been shown time and again to tell the truth ought to build its credibility! Couldn’t it be that Jesus really did walk on water? Couldn’t it be that God really did part the Red Sea?
Miller Burrows said, “More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation of Palestine.”
So while the theological liberals are saying, “This book is full of myths,” they’re tripping right over the incredible testimony it bears in real history. Nothing in the Bible has ever been contradicted by what we’ve found in archaeological research.
A Final Challenge
I mentioned earlier that the first theological liberals conformed to secularism, not out of necessity, but out of laziness. They didn’t want to think. They didn’t want to stand up and fight for truth in the face of adversity. They didn’t want to be ridiculed—all of which Jesus said his followers should expect to experience if they’re really, truly following him.
So, church, we’ve gotta look about today and ask, “In what ways am I personally rejecting the plain word of God in order to follow the curve of secular thinking in America? And if I’m doing it, why am I doing it? Am I conforming because I don’t want to be called a bigot? Am I conforming because I don’t want to be called an anti-science fundamentalist? Am I conforming because I’m too lazy to think things through, search out the Scriptures, and to pray to God for wisdom in order to present the Bible as the legitimate authority that it is?
When I look about on social media, I see many brethren—both liberal and conservative—who are being lazy in their convictions and understanding. Liberal brethren are conforming and feel the euphoria of pioneering a “new way,” but their ideas aren’t new or novel—they’re just the same as those before them. They aren’t pioneering anything; they’re following a well-beaten path. Conservative brethren are fighting tooth and nail on Facebook church pages, but they’re not presenting reasonable arguments—primarily because they don’t know why they believe what they believe. So they’re presenting the gospel emotionally and in hostility—which turns others away very quickly.
Remember what Paul told the church in Colossae: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). And to Timothy he said, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Theological liberalism, at its very core, conforms to secular thinking out of laziness and an aversion to persecution. And if we haven’t yet bent to theological liberalism, then we should expect we won’t effectively fight it if we are lazy in our approach. Going forward, we must:
Educate our youth on an open universe, susceptible to God’s reordering
Educate our youth on the laws of antithesis; something can’t be both right and wrong
Root our children in the Bible’s message
This message was delivered in Oklahoma at the North MacArthur Church of Christ's Summer Series, "Dangerous 'Isms' Affecting the Church."
© Finding Canaan. All rights reserved. "Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who steal my words from one another" -- Jeremiah 23:30