April 12, 2012

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.
  • I agree with much of what you have said. But there is a danger in biblicism, as well (on the right).

    I think that the center is the place to be concerning the Bible as ultimate authority, vs. the Word as ultimate authority.

    ‘In the beginning was the Bible and the Bible was ith God and the Bible was God.’ See what I mean.

    Christ Himself is the Word. And then Christ in the preaching and teaching of His law and gospel. And then the Bible.

    As another famous German said, “If they use the Scriptures against Christ, then we will use Christ against the Scriptures.”

    Food for thought.

    Thank you.

    • Steve Bang

      Well, how do you know anything about Jesus? Is it not from the Bible?

    • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

      Dear Steve,

      What were Jesus’ thoughts about God’s Word, the Bible? He relied upon Scripture alone when being tempted by satan.

      But he answered and said, IT IS WRITTEN (notice He said written), Man shall not live by bread alone, but by ever WORD that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Mat 4:4).”

      And we know that Jesus is God, so His words are the same as the Father’s words.

      John 12:49, For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, He gave me commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.

      John 12:50, And I know His commandment is everlasting life: whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, I speak.

      Here is what Calvin thought of Scripture.

      “Our faith in doctrine is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author. Hence, the highest proof of Scripture is uniformly taken from the CHARACTER of Him whose WORD it is. If then, we would consult most effectively for our consciences, and save them from being driven about in a whirlwind of uncertainty, from wavering, and even from stumbling at the smallest obstacle, our conviction of the truth MUST be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons: namely the secret testimony of the Spirit.”

      Notice to: Now He said to them, “These are “My words” which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets
      and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
      45 Then He opened their minds to understand the “Scriptures,” which He referred to as “MY WORDS.”

      How does one go about separating God from His words?

      Professor Busenitz,

      This is such a SIGNIFICANT comment that you made: “As those training to be pastors, seminary students need to make sure they are shepherding their own families first and foremost.”

      Great article!!!!

    • This very attitude, of not being “too extreme” because we run the danger of “bibliolatry,” is itself a result of the liberal mindset, an idea promoted by some liberal scholars of the 20th century. It sounds pious, but is actually part of the overall post-modern uncertainty and the pride in claiming to not know everything, that we cannot know for certain.

      Christians do not worship the Bible, but we do reverence the Scriptures, because Christ Himself affirmed their importance. We worship the Christ of the Scriptures.

      • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

        Excellent, Linda. My point is that God cannot be infallible in His person, and speak fallible words. This is an egregious concept. We should never be too eager to pass off any thing that would question the veracity of the Most High. He is the full embodiment of truth. You cannot separate God from the very words He speaks; they are one in the same. God cannot lie; therefore Scripture (God breathed words) are truth, and something Christ “Himself” stood firmly upon.

        EVERY WORD of God is pure (Prov 30;5), and true; and Scripture is God breathed (out). If Scripture is infallible and true, then it only stands to reason that it comes directly from a source that is infallible and the very truth itself.

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      Steve Martin,

      Are you a Lutheran?

    • …the Bible as ultimate authority, vs. the Word as ultimate authority.

      What’s great is the fact that these are not competing authorities. They never contradict each other, because the latter is the Source of the former.

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your comment. Hebrews 1:1-2 establishes the fact that God has revealed Himself both through His written Word (the Bible) and through His incarnate Word (the Lord Jesus Christ). Thus, they are both authoritative; and there is no discrepancy between the two.

      Throughout His ministry, Jesus affirmed the Old Testament in its entirety (Matthew 5:17–18), historical reliability (cf. Matthew 10:15; 19:3–5; 12:40; 24:38–39), prophetic accuracy (Matthew 26:54), sufficiency (Luke 16:31), unity (Luke 24:27, 44), inerrancy (Matthew 22:29; John 17:17), infallibility (John 10:35), and authority (Matthew 21:13, 16, 42). He also authorized the New Testament, by promising His disciples that He would give them additional revelation through the Holy Spirit (John 14-16).

      As God in human flesh (e.g. John 1:1–4; 5:18; Philippians 2:6; Hebrews 1:3), Jesus Christ gives divine witness to the inspiration and authority of His Word (cf. Colossians 3:16; 1 Peter 1:11). In the words of British theologian John Stott, “The chief reason why the Christian believes in the divine origin of the Bible is that Jesus Christ himself taught it” It is appropriate, then, that incarnate Word of God (John 1:1) stand as our final, authoritative witness to the written word of God.

      Hope that helps! Thanks again for your comment.

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  • Chris Nelson

    Excellent. This lack of reason paved a destructive path for Mr. Hitler.

  • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

    Another really good source to read concerning the “Dead Germans” is The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant.

    If I am not mistaken, I believe it was the philosopher, Hegel, who had such a terrible effect upon Hitler.

  • Heber Torres

    Great article!

  • whipple

    Professor Busenitz, perhaps you might unpack what it is that you meant by, “The liberals honored doubt as being noble and intellectually honest. In reality, doubting God’s word is a heinous sin.”

    While doubt may not be honorable (faith, of course, being honorable), I am not so certain that it is specifically dishonorable in all cases. If anything, it is human to doubt, and often, it seems to be the crucible in which stronger faith is purified. I suspect that there are divergent types of doubt. There is that doubt which, in a militant fashion, seeks to disembowel the truth out of fear of it, and there is that doubt which seeks truth beyond the walls of preconception.


    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Whipple,

      Thanks for your comment. I probably could have phrased point 4 in a way that would have been more clear.

      I don’t see anywhere in Scripture where doubting the Word of God is applauded as being a good thing. While believers do battle doubt at times (cf. Jude 22), it is not something that should be applauded or championed. Rather, any such lack of faith should be prayerfully battled against (cf. Mark 9:24).

      But that is not really what I was talking about in point 4. The doubt that characterized the German liberals and higher critics was far worse, because they allowed it to run amok into outright disbelief. They championed skepticism, elevating it as something noble and using it as a weapon to attack the Word of God. To paraphrase Romans 1, professing to be intellectually honest they became fools; and the souls of many were capsized in their wake.

      Anyway, I hope that helps. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify!

  • Richard Blight

    Very well said! I have just been reading the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and was reminded of the crippling effect of liberal theology on the Lutheran church in the first decades of the 20th century – arguably making them much more of a pushover for Hitler and his party. . . . and Bonhoeffer was remarkable in his movement from liberalism toward Biblical Christianity. If only there had been a hundred more with his passion and intellect in Germany . . . .

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  • Liked it.

    Except I have a few questions.

    You say, “They redefined the gospel as something other than salvation from sin through Christ.”

    Isn’t the gospel more than salvation from sin through Christ?

    A friend shared this video with me the other day from David Platt that deals with that subject indirectly.

    Also, I had a guest post from a professor at my blog that deals with it.

    So I guess I wonder if I am going liberal if I believe that the gospel is more than just salvation from sin through Christ. The social gospel (depending on how you unpackage this phrase) does have a place. Being saved isn’t just about us getting freed from sin and receiving a ticket from heaven, but it is also about bringing God’s will into this world.

    The liberal theologians were reacting to a Christianity filled with theology and knowledge but lacking action. They overreacted and went off the rails. But do we do the same if we remove the social element from the gospel?

    Also, you attack doubting. Do you ever have doubts? I know I do. Does that make me a liberal?

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Pilgrimboy,

      Thanks for your questions.

      I would agree that the gospel has implications for how Christians live, both as individuals and as members of society. However, the essence of the gospel centers on the salvation of sinners from the eternal wrath of God through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, a sacrifice which God vindicated when He raised Jesus from the grave.

      By denying essential truths (like substitutionary atonement and the bodily resurrection of Christ), the liberals denied the essence of the gospel. Their emphasis on morality and social ethics, then, became a watered-down subsitute for true Christianity; rather than a genuine outgrowth of it. And that is a critically-important distinction.

      With regard to doubts, please see my reply to Whipple above.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      • Dan Marrs

        Hi Nate! Question: How are you using “essence” in this comment? Are you talking about the Greek idea of “essence” vs. “accidents”? Or some later Catholic version of that notion, such as we see in Aquinas? Or some other sense? In any case, I’m concerned with how you frame this issue–the stripping down of the Gospel to an “essence” that consists of a transaction between the Father and Son. In a sense, I agree with you. But Christ also tells us that he came that we humans might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10), that we are meant to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and so forth. The Gospel is the entire good news of Christ, God-with-us. Morality and social ethics are not just an outgrowth of true Christianity, as you put it…they are part of (and thus essential to) the full picture of God’s will–God’s plan to dwell with us as our God, and for us to be his people.

        I would never advocate losing sight of the fact that Scripture does indeed use a penal-juridical framework and substitutionary language to describe aspects of the person and work of Christ, but there is much, much more. Identifying one element of Scripture’s account of Christ’s life and work as the “essence” of the Gospel, with everything else existing as a non-essential appendage (or as accidental to the essence of the Gospel) could end up being just as harmful as the loss of key theological and historical truths in German liberalism. For example, I think the kind of theological framework that you seem to have (not to be presumptuous…I’m just very familiar with The Master’s Seminary) actually makes it difficult to hear and respond to the full force of certain parts of Scripture, especially verses like “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).

        Additionally, the distinction mentioned in a comment above about the importance of a distinction between Jesus Christ as the Word and Scripture as the Word should not be too quickly collapsed, at least, not without carefully investigating why you believe it is so important that Scripture be raised to an epistemic status of complete factual accuracy. All too often, the anthropological framework out of which such a high view of Scripture emerges (which I think is very good in itself) also includes a particular modern (i.e., a trend that began in the late medieval era and really came to fruition in the last 500 years) view of the human as an individualistic knower, with a mind fitted for understanding divine truth unproblematically (the intellectual obstacles being only the sinful will and pride). All too often, it is assumed that a) Scripture is clear, and b) as having been regenerated by the Spirit we can understand what Scripture is saying: therefore, I have the divine truth, period. If it were this easy, there wouldn’t be so much disagreement in Bible-believing churches. The fragmentation of the Church today is partially a reflection of a fragmented, individualistic anthropology, which is not biblical at all!

        I know these are all parts of much larger discussions that can’t be gotten into here. Suffice to say, for all of the explanatory and rhetorical power of a simple, incisive framework such as that posited at Master’s, I’m afraid that it’s still much too embedded (unconsciously, which makes it all the more dangerous) in a relatively new understanding of anthropology, in which the focus is epistemological and individual, rather than ontological and personal (in a sense that does justice to the individual but also the inherently communal/social aspects of being humans before God, and being the church as the sanctorum communio). It can lead to operating under the delusion that we are minds connected directly to Truth (in Scripture), when the fact is, we are historical creatures using many frameworks (consciously and unconsciously) as we approach a text which speaks clearly about a very mysterious truth: the Trinitarian God’s revelation of himself and presence with us.

        The Gospel is new life, new creation–not just (or essentially) imputation/substitution. I know this oversimplifies your view, but the way you and others have framed the Gospel, I fear that it becomes increasingly difficult to articulate why works matter…or why ecclesial practices are not just memorial of Christ’s work (or accidental to the essence of his work) but are the actualization of the reality accomplished and embodied by Christ himself, and a mode of Christ’s presence in the world. Instead, of entering fully into this new life in Christ as his Body, we get caught in endless oscillations between faith vs. works, invisible church vs. visible church, God’s sovereignty vs. human free will, etc.–all debates which thrive only in an understanding of God that has robbed him of his transcendence on one hand and fails to think through the ramifications of the Incarnation on the other. This may sound over-dramatic, but I think the Gospel is on the line! I’m far from figuring out these things, but I believe that the answers you give in this blog post and in the comments constitute a serious oversimplification which does not really serve the truth.

        Blessings to you and your ministry. Both Master’s and Dr. MacArthur’s teaching have been instrumental in my own life, and I’ll always carry that with me. I hope nothing I’ve written is unkind or harsh–these are just things that came to mind while reading your blog post above and the comments that followed. Lately I’ve been reading Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio (his first dissertation)–far from perfect, but he’s a great example of someone who interacted deeply with German liberalism (and to the end of his life identified himself as one who carried this heritage within himself), saw its dangers clearly, was able to diagnose various pathologies of modernism, embraced but modified the pivotal works of Luther, and reconnected modern Protestantism with early patristic thought–really wonderful stuff. It seems to me that he might be a good place to start for anyone wanting to “learn from liberals.” ;P

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