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Defining Beliefs - Liberals

by John Miles

| Defining Beliefs | Critique | Response |

Dear Friends,

Over the next few weeks I am going to try to delineate the beliefs of the three groups in Methodism, liberal, moderate, and conservative. This week I want to attempt to describe the liberal position on the incarnation, atonement, resurrection, human nature, scripture and Christian ethics. I am especially grateful for the book "A LAYMAN'S GUIDE TO PROTESTANT THEOLOGY" by William Hordern. This book is dated but still useful.


For Hordern, liberalism attempts to ground Christianity in the modern world, it filters doctrines through reason and experience, and emphasizes the immanence of God over God's transcendence.

Incarnation- The doctrine of a literal Virgin Birth is rejected by liberal Christianity as supernaturalism. As to his divinity, Hordern writes, "Those liberals who find meaning in the divinity of Jesus usually insist that it must no longer be interpreted in terms of the Nicene Creed, which says that Jesus was of the same substance as God; rather it must be interpreted in terms of character and spiritual unity." Pg. 82.

Atonement- For liberals, Jesus did not come into the world to die. He went to Jerusalem to call for transformation. His death on the cross therefore was not a literal act of substitutionary atonement in which the Son of God substitutes himself for the sins of the world; rather, the cross is important as a symbol of God's love for the world and the sacrificial nature of God's character.

Resurrection- "The truth of the resurrection is not dependent upon an empty tomb or a vanished corpse. Rather, the truth of the resurrection is grounded in the experience of Christ as a living reality beyond his death." Marcus Borg, JESUS: A NEW VISION, pg. 189.

Human Nature- "Liberals, as a whole, have usually denied the doctrine of original sin. This does not mean that liberals have been unaware of the fact that man is less than perfect; but the liberals have insisted that there is nothing radically wrong with human nature as such. There is no sharp cleavage between God and man, for man at his best is like God." Hordern, pg. 82

Scripture-Liberals embrace higher criticism of the bible. The Bible traces the evolution of thought about God from a jealous, blood thirsty God to one of love and justice. Because of the evolution of thought in scripture, scripture must be evaluated by reason and experience. Biblical revelation is only one example of how God continually reveals God's reality to humanity. Biblical evolution finds it's highest mark in Jesus. The quest to find the real Jesus behind the picture of him as the supernatural son of God becomes the great quest for the liberal movement.

Christian Ethic-Liberals develop two distinctions in ethics. First, they are driven by the principal of love that was held up by Jesus. Christian ethics is first and foremost, loving God, loving neighbor and loving self. Second, Christian ethics is also about social change. Liberals believe deeply in promoting a just society through social change.

Next week I will devote my article to your responses. If you disagree with me please write briefly what you think liberals believe about these issues.

Your Brother,


John Miles is:

  • an Elder in the North Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
  • is currently pastor of Heber Springs United Methodist Church
  • is a graduate of Hendrix College and Perkins School of Theology
  • is on the Board of the Confessing Movement of Arkansas and is active in Walk to Emmaus and Kairos Prison Ministry
  • In 1997 his church won the large church of the year award for the North Arkansas Annual Conference

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