May 13, 2014

Learning from Liberals

by Nathan Busenitz

Dead Germans.

They are the subject of a lecture I give every spring in my church history classes: a brief overview of German theologians from the 19th and early-20th centuries.

It’s kind of a depressing lecture to deliver — the sad tale of skepticism intersecting with scholarship; a dismal depiction of the disaster unleashed by unrestrained doubt and disbelief.

Despite standing in the shadow of the Reformation, many German Protestant theologians abandoned the historic truth claims of biblical Christianity due to the mounting popularity of Enlightenment rationalism. In so doing, they shipwrecked their own souls while simultaneously devastating the faith of millions of others.

Higher critics, such as Johann Eichhorn and David Strauss, denied the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, they claimed; nor did Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John write the four gospels. To make matters worse, they suggested that the Jesus of the Bible is not the same as the real Jesus of history. In their “quest to find the historical Jesus,” the critics created a “Jesus” of their own imaginations — essentially reducing him to a nice guy who couldn’t do any miracles, never claimed to be God, and was largely misunderstood by first-century Judaism.

Liberal theologians, from Friedrich Schleiermacher to Albrecht Ritschl, similarly disavowed the truth claims of the Bible. They looked instead for a new foundation on which to base their contrived version of Christianity. Some found it in the personal experience of romanticism; others in the moral ethics of the social gospel. But by denying core Christian doctrines (like the substitutionary death of Christ and His bodily resurrection), liberalism denied the very essence of the gospel message (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4). As Richard Niebuhr explained — summing up the bankruptcy of liberal theology — liberalism asserted that a “God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America, 193).

As you might imagine, the material in this lecture unfolds like a catastrophic train wreck … as we watch theologian after theologian jump the rails by abandoning the most-basic fundamentals of biblical Christianity.

(Thankfully, the subsequent lecture is on the modern missions movement, which gets everything back on track.)

But, in the midst of the chaos and carnage, are there lessons that we can learn from the German liberal theologians and higher critics, even if it is almost entirely from their negative example? I think so.

Here are seven such lessons, arranged in no particular. (I include these in the class notes for the seminary students I teach.)

7 Lessons We Should Learn from the German Liberal Theologians and Higher Critics:

1. The way to reach skeptics with the gospel is not by watering down the gospel. Many of the liberal theologians thought they could make Christianity more appealing to Enlightenment rationalists if they abandoned the historical authenticity of the text; and if they redefined the gospel as something other than salvation from sin through Christ (thereby making it less offensive to modern minds). But, in so doing, they actually undid the very gospel they thought they were helping to preserve.

2. True religion can be lost in just one generation. Most of the German liberals were the sons of orthodox, Protestant ministers. The fact that they turned their backs on the faith of their fathers is tragic. As those training to be pastors, seminary students need to make sure they are shepherding their own families first and foremost.

3. German liberalism does not represent merely a divergent form of Christianity, but — in actuality — a completely new religion. If historical fact is removed from the gospel it is no longer the gospel. The apostle Paul makes this point clear in 1 Corinthians 15, where he asserts that if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, then we are fools and our faith is worthless.

4. The liberals honored doubt as being noble and intellectually honest. In reality, doubting God’s word is a heinous sin. It is a sin that Satan has been promoting ever since the Garden of Eden (in Genesis 3). To doubt God’s Word is to make God a liar. It is also to reject the true gospel for a gospel of one’s own imagination. As Augustine told the heretic Faustus, “You ought to say plainly that you do not believe the gospel of Christ. For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel.” (Against Faustus, 17.3)

5. German liberalism teaches us that ideas have consequences, and that bad ideas have very bad consequences. Millions of people in the last few centuries were tragically led astray through the influence of the liberal theologians and higher critics. The warning of James 3:1 certainly seems apt here: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.”

6. The social gospel of the liberals is still alive and well in many mainline Protestant churches. The skepticism of the higher critics is still very much part of biblical studies in the academic world. Future pastors need to be ready to confront these kinds of errors with biblical truth (Titus 1:9).

7. Higher criticism, in particular, is built on the notion that the wisdom of man trumps the revealed wisdom of God. This is the height of arrogance. But it is not surprising, since Paul himself noted that the wisdom of God seems like foolishness to the world (1 Cor. 1:18). We must guard ourselves against the temptation to covet worldly praise and academic accolade. To be faithful to the gospel, we will necessarily be thought out-of-vogue with many of today’s leading philosophical thinkers. While we must avoid anti-intellectualism on the one hand, we must also guard ourselves against the allure of whatever is popular in the secular academic community.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Mick McDaniel

    Thanks Nathan. I just finished Murray’s book, “A Scottish Christian Heritage” and he addresses the German liberal influence in Scotland in the late nineteenth century. I was wondering where Karl Barth falls in your assessment of German liberalism…

  • “As those training to be pastors, seminary students need to make sure they are shepherding their own families first and foremost.” Amen! that goes as well for ALL Christian fathers!

  • newbreedcp

    I enjoyed this article so much that I put a partial version with links to your site on my church planting network site. Thanks for the writings of the Cripplegate Team. You guys rock. I look forward to Cripplegate articles every morning while I’m waiting for my coffee to brew.

  • Pingback: Learning from Liberals: 7 Lessons We Should Learn from the German Liberal Theologians from the 19th and early-20th centuries and Higher Critics | Truth2Freedom's Blog()

  • Anthony MT Fisher

    Just a thought, but it seems to me that the Liberal German
    theologians/the historical critical school of thought are simply, in the end,
    the natural out growth of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura. It started
    with denying the infallible authority of the Church. “I don’t need the
    Church to tell me how to interpret the Bible; I can do that myself.” When
    the Church’s authority as a Magister (Teacher) was rejected, then people looked
    at the book themselves, each coming up with different interpretations.
    Eventually, you get to the point of not only denying the authority of the
    Teacher that used the Book, but the Book itself. If the infallibility of the
    Church is called into question, why shouldn’t the authority of the Scriptures
    also be questioned?

    Augustine is quoted above, “You ought to say plainly that
    you do not believe the gospel of Christ. For to believe what you please, and
    not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel.”
    But Augustine, responding to another set of heretics, the Manicheans, why he
    was able to make that statement: “I do not believe Manichæus to be an apostle
    of Christ. Do not, I beg of you, be enraged and begin to curse. For you know
    that it is my rule to believe none of your statements without consideration.
    Therefore I ask, who is this Manichæus? You will reply, An apostle of Christ. I
    do not believe it. Now you are at a loss what to say or do; for you promised to
    give knowledge of the truth, and here you are forcing me to believe what I have
    no knowledge of. Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to
    find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet
    believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not
    believe? FOR MY PART, I SHOULD NOT BELIEVE THE GOSPEL EXCEPT AS MOVED BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you—If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;— Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing
    their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or
    not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason? It is therefore fairer and safer by far for me, having in one instance put faith in the Catholics, not to go over to you, till, instead of bidding me believe, you make me understand something in the clearest and most open manner.” (Adversus Manichaeus 6, emphasis added in all caps, as I don’t know how to italicize things on blog comments)

    -My $0.02

    (But otherwise, good summary of what we can learn from the
    Liberal Protestants)

  • Good article Nate. These are lessons we need to remember today in modern seminaries.

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