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Response - Liberals

by John Miles

| Defining Beliefs | Critique | Response |

Dear Friends,

I had some great responses to my letter on liberals. The frist writer wanted to be anonymous so I only included the first paragraph that raises a very powerful question. Jim Hiedinger and Chuck Case affirm my position. Tom Letchworth a card carrying evangelical and Confessing Movement buddy offers a mild rebuke of my position and Andrew Tan a native of Singapore raises some excellent questions.


Though I consider myself by your terms a "moderate, and close to being liberal", you are not really ready to say "that liberals aren't CHristian." Better re-think that view just from a practical standpoint. Who could follow you in your pulpit that disagreed with you, when the people had been told that a liberal wasn't a Christian. You'd set up a situation where their would be a no win situation, and split the church.

John: I think your conclusions about liberalism are right on target. It is, in fact, another religion. Those who hold to it naively may still have a heart for God, but even that is bound to be affected by wrong doctrine. But others who embrace liberal thought, for them it is disaster and will have tragic consequences.

Thanks for your excellent summary.

Jim Heidinger

Dear John,

One thing written to the earlier church in the first letter of John is that "every Spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God"(4:3). In today's doctrine trashing church that may mean to some that all one has to do is stand and proclaim the name Jesus and all is well. However, the rest of the letter makes it clear that to some degree a correct understanding of Jesus' ministry and reason for incarnation is paramount to an individual's faith. I hear many ministers preaching a way out of humanities destructive ways and at times even an atonement for world. However, much of this talk has nothing to do with anything more than following the example of "Christ" and spreading love to all that we can. If one takes the premise that the scriptures are an inspired work and that a complete and sufficient revelation for salvation is between the covers (and I for one do), then I would have to agree that the new lingos and understandings preached from the liberal branch cannot properly be called Christian. I commend you for having the guts to take such a stand, John. I pray for many others like you in our church today!

Charles Case
Keep Looking Ahead,
But Don't Forget the Past!

Dear John,

About your liberal letter: I have to admit to some conflicted feelings. My Dad was a card carrying liberal. He believed that the virgin birth, the second coming, and the like, were fables or myths. And yet he had a very high Christology. He believed Jesus was the divine God-Man. He took seriously the words, and often quoted the phrase on Jesus' lips, "I and the Father are one . . .If you have seen me you have seen the Father." I have met other liberals who held a somewhat low view of biblical authority, yet a very high Christology.

Let me, as a self-avowed orthodox evangelical Wesleyan, defend the liberals, or at least some of them. Liberal, meaning "free" etymologically, isn't such a bad thing. My father's liberalism 'liberated' me to search openly and honestly for the truth. That search led me not to the relativistic unanchored conclusions of theological indifferentism, but to a firm commitment to Christ as the way, the truth and the life. But in this culture of complexity and diversity and relativism, had I been told that I could not even consider or examine the other answers, I probably would have rebelled.

I guess what strikes me as odd is the somewhat "unliberal" approach of some liberals. The presumption that God is limited by the natural laws that we human beings have "discovered" is just that: presumptuous. Of course, the dogmatism of fundamentalism may be just as presumptuous, with its insistence on a narrow and rigid propositional set of words that are the repository of truth. I think both are wrong.

What strikes me more and more as I grow older in the faith is the mystery of God. Granted, we have some revealed truth in scripture: but what we grasp is like a tiny ice crystal on an icicle on the tip of a vast iceberg. Who can fathom God or God's ways? But it seems folly to me to dismiss the virgin birth or the feeding of the 5000 or the resurrection or the second coming merely because modern science doesn't have the vocabulary or the paradigm to comprehend these events. In some ways, ancient mythology has become reality in the breakthroughs of modern science in ways that Pasteur and Newton could never have imagined. Could Newton ever have imagined nuclear fission and a hydrogen bomb? But the writer of the Upanishads might have when he wrote "I am Shiva the destroyer of nations." Could Pasteur have imagined the work of Watson and Crick with the DNA molecule? Yet Homer or Hesiod might have appreciated its implications for the creation of almost unearthly creatures that may be possible, the combination of genes and even the cloning of human beings. My point is, simply because the liberal lacks the imagination to understand the mystery of the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection is no reason to take his/her dismissive scorn too seriously. There are too many things that I cannot understand at all that I quite regularly rely on: this computer, my vitamins, and so on.

Perhaps the problem with most liberals is that they are not liberal enough. Tony Campolo told a group of his colleagues about a healing he had participated in wherein a boy's twisted and helpless legs were healed. One of his colleagues said, "I'm sorry Tony, but my theology doesn't allow for that sort of thing." Tony was amazed at the presumption: "Your theology doesn't allow? Your theology doesn't allow? Have you ever stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, God is bigger than your theology?"

I guess, though, the one problem I have with your definition of liberal is that it is exclusivist. My father believed in the divinity of Jesus but not the virgin birth. I would call him a liberal, but I would also want to say that he was a Christian. Now, granted, for words to have any meaning at all, they have to mean one thing and not another. If you say you are a Christian, it must imply something that other words do not. Someone told me that if a European was asked if he were a Christian, he might say, "Of course," because his family and culture were Christian. But when asked if he believed in Christ, he might say, "of course not," as if he he'd been asked if he believed in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. Christianity has become a cultural identity rather than a faith commitment. I think what you are getting at is, what is the sine qua non of being a Christian? Is it belonging to the church, is it acting in a Christian manner, or is it believing certain doctrines?

In our tradition, Wesley would say that "orthodoxy, or right opinions, are but a slender part of religion, if at all." He would say that truth may consist with a thousand errors. He would suggest that we may not all think alike, but we may walk alike. He sounds very liberal here. The emphasis is on holy living and experimental Christianity, not dogma. And yet, he would insist firmly upon the essentials of the faith in his sermons, those issues that cannot be compromised: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the resurrection, all those doctrines suggested in the Analogy of Faith, the order of salvation. Wesley was heavy on orthopraxis, but orthodoxy on the essentials was a given for him.

I am reluctant to suggest that we need another church council to determine what is essential to believe in order to be a Christian. I talked to a member of the Orthodox church whose essentials were more narrow than my own: he said that the very liturgy of the Orthodox church, passed down unreformed and unrevised from the Apostolic Church, was essential. As a freewheeling, "contemporary worship" United Methodist, I was uncomfortable with that on several levels. But I can at least say that the trinitarian nature of the Godhead, the deity of Christ and his resurrection are essential. I believe in the virgin birth, the second coming, and the miracles as well. I know for me if someone says that Jesus was "adopted" as son, and that his bones remain moldering in the grave, I have trouble calling that doctrine Christian - as you say, the Moslems and the Unitarians can believe that.

But to say that liberal doctrine is de facto unChristian may be rather much. Parts of it are, but I'm sure that parts of my doctrine and life will be revealed as unChristian at the last judgement as well. Thank God for grace, or there is no hope!

I can embrace a bleeding heart liberal who loves Jesus and acknowledges him as divine Son of God. However, I would say to liberals who are unprepared to accept the virgin birth, the second coming, etc.: Try to be a bit more humble. Be willing to borrow from Weatherhead who proclaimed himself a "Christian Agnostic" about some of the doctrines he couldn't understand. At least an agnostic, like Thomas, can be confronted by the scars on the hands and side of the risen Jesus, and change his/her mind.

I think a more pertinent question about liberalism is, what is the relation between faith and works, between doctrine and ethics? If our work and our ethics flow from our faith and doctrine (as I believe they do), then it has some serious implications for our lives together as Christians. I've already suggested to you in conversations that Monicagate is, in my opinion, the result of that pernicious Calvinist doctrine commonly called "once saved always saved" by our Southern Baptist brethren (a group not to be confused with theological liberals). The danger of liberalism is not just in weakening the foundations of our faith and causing confusion among the faithful as to the difference between a Christian and a Reformed Jew or moderate Muslim. The corollary danger is in destroying the moral law that is inherent in scripture. If scripture is equivocal or subjective, then its moral tenets are equivocal and subjective as well. I think a liberal would say, "Of course not! Ethics must always derive from the law of love!" But in an Alice in Wonderland world of relativism, I would argue that even "love" may become a very flexible and sinister tool in the hands of sinful, self-interested human beings. Without the moral context of Judeo-Christian moral absolutes, love becomes a wet noodle in the face of a Hitler or a Jeffrey Dahmer or a Larry Flynt. To paraphrase Dostoevsky, "If God is liberal, then all things are permissable."

Well, I have rambled enough. Obviously, this is one subject on which I can see both sides. I was raised a liberal and now am a fully persuaded orthodox Christian. But the tensions in my own theological system still remain, and probably will until Jesus resolves them once and for all at his final advent.

Thanks for listening.

In Christ,


Dear John,

The Jesus Seminar is the most publicized group of "liberal" scholars. But they are really at the margins of Biblical scholarship. Take a look at Raymond Brown's "An Introduction to the New Testament" or Robin Fox's "The Unauthorized Version" for a contrast of mainstream methods with that of the Jesus Seminar. Brown is Catholic, and Fox is an agnostic. Both are excellent models of historical reasoning based on evidence, as opposed to constructing a story based on preconceived notions of theology, be that theology liberal, moderate, or conservative.

Substitutionary atonement: C.S. Lewis offers a different picture than that of substitutionary atonement of the function of the crucifixion in "Mere Christianity". In the Narnian chronicles, there is certainly some element of substitution, but the explanation of how it functions is, in the final analysis, avoided, and instead described as "deep magic". I think Lewis's view was that all the theological mechanisms for redemption through Christ's crucifixion are faulty, and are helpful as a form of imagery, to be retained for how they speak to the heart, rather than seen as some sort of reductionistic mechanism. There is also some scriptural warrant for not accepting substitutionary atonement as THE most important mechanism of salvation: Paul writes that if we are saved by Christ's death, how much MORE shall we be saved by his resurrection.

The physical resurrection is also not central, I think. One cannot just say, I accept the resurrection stories as they are, and refuse to say whether the resurrected body was made of electrons and quarks etc. Given modern science, to refuse to say that the resurrection body was made of leptons are quarks is also to deny the physical resurrection. A recourse to some form of "new matter" is not really a belief in the physical resurrection. Since that new matter had to have a way of interacting with matter (such as the disciples were made of) as we know it, one must postulate that this "new matter" also gave off photons and electric fields. But clearly, the belief about photons and electric fields being radiated by the "new matter" is not central to Christian belief.

I think theologically, one can accept the resurrection as a real event in history, without having to postulate about its physicality or to spiritualize it away. What is central to all the appearance stories is that this was the way in which Jesus was revealed finally as Lord to the disciples. We should admit that there are a good many difficulties with the resurrection stories as found in Scripture, but we can say: the disciples experienced something which confirmed their faith in Jesus as Lord. Their experience has been passed down to us in these stories, which do have many difficulties. But we too, like the disciples, believe that Jesus is Lord, though we have not seen, in the hope that others too may come to know the good news.


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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