The Tradition of Liberal Theology -- A Review

THE TRADITION OF LIBERAL THEOLOGY.  By Michael J. Langford.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.  Viii + 166 pages.

Am I a liberal Christian?  The answer may depend on who you ask.  In my own church, there are those who would definitely number me among the liberals, but others might see me as conservative – at least on theological matters.  In our current religious climate many “liberals” have abandoned that moniker for “progressive.”  It seems that being “liberal” has a negative connotation in many quarters.   In The Tradition of Liberal Theology, Michael J. Langford, an Anglican priest and former professor of philosophy and bioethics at Memorial University of Newfoundland, seeks to define liberal theology for our day as “a recognizable tradition in which there is a balance between religious faith and human rationality” (p. 1).   It is a tradition that stretches back at least into the second century, if not before.  Thus, liberal theology is not a modern invention. 

It needs to be underscored that this is but one vision of liberal theology.  It is one that prizes rationality, though not to the exclusion of experience or revelation.  In the mind of the author this tradition is mainstream, even moderate.  He speaks of it in terms of “liberal orthodoxy,” a version of the faith that is in line with the Apostles’ Creed.  It is a tradition that doesn’t include either Friedrich Schleiermacher (too radical) or Karl Barth (too conservative and dogmatic).  It seems clear from Langford’s list of thirteen exemplars of the liberal tradition (all prior to the twentieth century), that the best expression of this tradition, at least since the Reformation can be found in the Church of England.  The tradition that he hails begins with Justin Martyr, and includes Origen, Peter Abelard, Sebastian Castellio, Queen Elizabeth I, Richard Hooker, William Chillingworth, John Smith (Cambridge Platonist), Jeremy Taylor, Hannah Barnard, F.D. Maurice, Joseph Lightfoot, and Frederick Temple.   While Hannah Barnard is Quaker, the others from Queen Elizabeth on are affiliated with the Church of England.  They represent the Latitudinarian or Broad Church tradition, a tradition that has valued moderation and rationality.  As a historian of the eighteenth century English church I’m curious as to why he jumps from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.  Is there a reason why an eighteenth century theologian/cleric isn’t included?  Perhaps Benjamin Hoadly or Samuel Clarke, both of whom sought to incorporate the thought of John Locke in their theological work? 

If the exemplars of this tradition are to be found within the Church of England (and before the dawn of the twentieth century), what are the markers of this liberal theological tradition?     According to Langford, the relevant markers include: not always reading the Bible in a literal fashion; the harmonization of reason and revelation; a non-legalist vision of redemption (embracing a variety of atonement theories); the possibility of experiencing salvation outside the Christian faith; toleration of religious belief systems; original sin, but not original guilt (Reinhold Neibuhr would agree); free will (affirms the idea of a Fall, but not in a deterministic manner); the idea of providence that respects the integrity of the natural order; insistence that faith and works belong together; the affirmation of a minimalist creed; and finally affirming a range of acceptable lifestyles, including homosexuality (though he’s coy about how this works).   As you can see it is a very rational vision, though one that allows for mystery. It is open and tolerant, but not radical.  While recognizing the problem of the miraculous, in his version of liberalism the resurrection is a special case.  It is truth even if not provable.  That is, he’s not completely comfortable with the idea of a physical resurrection, but he believes it’s a genuine experience.  Thus, it is more than a metaphor for a spiritual experience.   

As for the liberal tradition since 1900 – he chooses not to provide a list, but does lift up themes that are present in this period.  These include conversation about gender and human sexuality, women in ministry (Hannah Barnard serves as a precursor of later developments), ongoing conversation about the role of science and faith, capitalism, and the environment.  He doesn’t delve very deeply into these more recent themes, but presents them as topics of conversation. 

There is a chapter that notes alternatives from fundamentalism to the Roman Catholic magisterium to dialectical theology and materialism.  At issue in these conversations, except for materialism, is the matter of authority.  For fundamentalists and evangelicals there is an over adherence to a narrow Biblicism.  Roman Catholics place too much power in the role of authoritative teachers.  Materialists simply reject the place of religion.  The section that troubles me the most has to do with the discussion of dialectical theology, where he responds to Karl Barth.  While Barth does reject the liberal theology of his day and places revelation as the foundation of theology, Langford seems to attack a caricature of Barth’s position, and doesn’t give sufficient credence to Barth’s context where natural theology had proven insufficient to respond to Nazi ideology.  Barth may not fit Langford’s definition of a liberal, but he wasn’t a hidebound conservative either.      

As I read the book, I found myself largely comfortable with the liberal tradition that he described.  That is, I think I fit – but then I think that Karl Barth could affirm most of these criteria as well.  What concerns me is that narrowness of his vision.  It’s clear that Karl Barth doesn’t fit his definition and he excludes Schleiermacher, but what about other more recent theologians.  Where does, for instance, Jurgen Moltmann fit or the Process Theology movement, let alone feminist and liberationist theologians?   While he broaches the relationship of Christianity to other religions and social ethics, he doesn’t push this very deeply.
           So what do I make of the book?  I think it’s useful.  The eleven markers of liberal theology are quite useful.  But modern Progressive theology, while prizing reason, places much more emphasis on experience than reason, so more attention could be paid to this reality.  In other words, it’s useful, but it’s not definitive.  Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is the recognition that there has always been a liberal vision within Christian theology.  It may not always be mainstream, but it’s been there all along.    


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