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.