We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Definitions
Liberals pull something called Christianity out of a hat.
by Michael Spencer
As a competitor to traditional Christianity, liberalism is a fascinating opponent. When it comes to generals and officers, they have more than they need. But when it comes to actual troops committed to the battle, it’s a different story. After an auspicious start in the mid-nineteenth century, liberalism within Christianity took a dip, and more recently a dive. The numbers of members in liberal denominations has drastically declined in recent years. With few exceptions, liberal Christianity has given every sign of becoming a fractious five percent of the Christian world.
I should underline the word “fractious,” for as their numbers decline, the volume of their protests has increased. Being on friendly terms with the dominant media culture, liberals never fail to appear at press conferences, conventions, talk programs and photo ops. They rule the classrooms of academia and have influence far outweighing their numbers in politics. Their voice is heard, while most of their churches are becoming empty.
Dominating seminaries, denominational hierarchies and most political and ecumenical organizations in the mainlines, liberals can lull themselves into ignoring the fact that they are dying off and shrinking. Evangelical and conservative churches are booming around the world. Note the considerable embarrassment of pro-gay Anglicans that their African brothers believe they are blasphemers. Living within their own world, liberal Christians seem frequently oblivious to the fact that evangelical-Pentecostal-Charismatic-Third Wave-Traditional Christianity has overwhelmed them.
Liberalism within the Southern Baptist Convention makes a good study, as it is the only denominationally established liberalism that was officially displaced in the seminaries and leadership of the denomination. Today, SBC liberals squabble among themselves in their tiny pseudo-denomination, counting any church that sends a dollar from a disgruntled member as one of their number. Pro-gay protesters attend SBC conventions, while pro-gay churches make up less than one-half of one percent of the SBC (generously speaking.) Liberal SBC-ers whine about the persecution of women pastors, while the SBC has no more than a handful of churches interested in having a female pastor. Under conservative leadership the SBC has not uniformly prospered, but the most conservative aspects of SBC life have boomed and blossomed. Writing in their own newspapers and web sites, SBC liberals perpetuate the illusion that the SBC is a denomination that hasn’t made up its mind on homosexuality, abortion, women pastors, universalism and the inspiration of scripture.
What planet are they on?
One of liberal Christians’ most persistent crusades is their claim that the only foundational and necessary Christian belief is the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” I first heard this among liberal SBC-ers in the 80’s, as they sought to distance themselves from what they saw as a pro-creedal SBC. While the SBC isn’t a creedal denomination (despite the knuckle-headed efforts of conservatives to use the Baptist Faith and Message Statement as a creed), its pastors are not going to buy this one.
Most evangelicals may not know what the minimalist fallacy in theology means, but they know that when a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon says “Jesus is Lord” it’s not gonna take down at the church. If they’ve read anything on those cults, they would know that these groups have a totally different understanding of Jesus than the Bible teaches. They understand what it means to “use our vocabulary, but not our dictionary.” Liberals, beware. Your secret is out.
The minimalist fallacy says that when someone reduces a belief system to a simplistic statement, he may be substituting an entirely different belief system and meaning. This is exactly what many liberals are attempting to do. Their “Jesus is Lord” comes out of a framework that virtually no Christian of the past two millennia would recognize. To this, liberals make an amazing claim: Christianity can’t be limited or defined, but only believed and experienced. It’s self-authenticating and no one with the opinion that they are a Christian can be challenged. (This would certainly be news to the writers of the New Testament.) In its most radical form, this kind of liberalism rejects all definition, all history, all theology and all creeds and confessions as illegitimate because they are an attempt to reduce Christianity to a limited and defined belief system and not just a personal opinion or experience.
It was C.S. Lewis who observed that to understand a thing, we must know what it is. Is the building in front of me a skyscraper, a picture, a hallucination, or a natural accident? In the same way, to understand Christianity, we must be able to define key concepts of the Christian worldview. In teaching the Apostle’s Creed, I must repeatedly make the point that behind the affirmations of the creed were already defined and agreed upon definitions and propositions. For example, almost every statement in the Apostle’s Creed is in the language of the Bible. Christians agreed that the Bible was God’s inspired word, even if that statement is not found in the creed itself.
Liberalism doesn’t just affirm the diversity of Christian belief concerning non-essentials, but denies the essentials themselves. For example, liberalism frequently denies the Virgin birth, the Trinity, the historic resurrection, the atoning death of Jesus and the existence of hell. These basic Christian beliefs are rejected by millions of non-Christians who believe in God, the Great Commandment and some idea of Jesus as being worth listening to. How can liberal Christians maintain that they can reject these beliefs and still remain Christians? They have subtracted essential Christian definitions, but not added the beliefs of Islam or Buddhism, yet they still claim to be Christians.
It reminds me of a kid who comes to get a job at an engineering firm. Everyone in the firm has a degree from an accredited engineering school hanging on the wall. So in walks the kid, and asks for a job. When asked for his qualifications, he pulls out a manuscript from his backpack. “How To Be An Engineer,” it says on the title page. “I wrote it myself!”, he proudly announces.
One must wonder, what is the agenda of liberals in being devoted to the idea of stripping Christianity of the consensus of its history and remaking it into something literally unrecognizable to ANY significant person in the history of Christian orthodoxy? Liberal Christians act as if it is entirely pedestrian to destroy the foundations and collapse the structure, but keep the sign out front. They feel the reaction of traditional Christians is overblown, needlessly exclusive, and of course, unloving. Nothing is more predictable from liberal Christians than the charge that any critic is attacking their “faith.” As one wise man said, “Don’t hate the playa. Hate the game.” Liberal Christians are playing a game of “Bait and Switch” with the most valuable treasure of truth in the universe.
The problem is that liberals are seldom ever bothered by anything the Bible says. They feel little accountability to scripture at all, and usually don’t see the need to judge their assertions in the light of scripture. No matter how many times the New Testament talks about the very things they are doing, or commands Christians to contend for the very things they are denying, they can only say that traditionalists are hateful and nasty. It seems that nothing in scripture is precious enough for liberals to understand our defensive emotions, but if their rights to free thought or their contention that conscience is authoritative are challenged, the reaction will be predictably angry.
Just what is most important here? To conservatives, it isn’t their theology, but the place of scripture and its clear message. To liberals, it’s their rights to think, say, and do as they wish–and to call it all Christianity.
As much as evangelical conservatives like myself might find this unpalatable, it won’t be stopping anytime soon. Liberal Christians are convinced that they have the upper hand with the NPR class and that somehow there is little reason to reconsider the wisdom of consigning the entire project of traditional Christian theology to the dust bin. They hold out some hope that fundamentalism will eventually collapse under the weight of its own arrogance, and all those NASCAR fans and soccer moms will decide it’s time to fake right, but go left.
But there is another reason–a more influential reason–that the liberal fabrication of Christianity won’t be running out of steam in the near future. Liberals may deny virtually everything in the traditional definition of Christian doctrine, but they won’t deny Jesus. Remade into the image of the Jesus Seminar, spun into a clone of Che Guevara, stripped of his divinity and resurrection, and made into a wandering Palestinian pundit and sage, the liberal Jesus is still Jesus. The reason for this loyalty to some idea of Jesus is simple: Liberals want some kind of Jesus to legitimize their agenda. Particularly their agenda regarding homosexuality.
Jesus is the most powerful symbol of approval and legitimacy in Western culture. It is extremely rare for any group promoting a cause to not seek to say that Jesus approves of their goals and methods. Both sides of the abortion debate claim Jesus as a sponsor. Both sides of the slavery debate did the same. Jesus endorses computers, food products and political candidates today. Jesus marched with King and approved the actions of Bull Conner and the KKK. And, of course, Jesus approves and condemns homosexuality and gay marriage, depending on which Christian is talking.
Many conservative Christians observe–rightly I believe–that liberal Christians seem to be more defined by their allegiance to sexual libertarianism than by a commitment to Jesus. (A recent letter writer to IM described the evolution of a liberal Christian minister and family member from one loyal to Jesus to one who doubts everything about Jesus and confesses to being defined by issues of gender and sexuality.) It becomes a real question if most liberal Christians would continue identifying themselves as Christians if, for some reason, they could not endorse the homosexual agenda by way of Christian rhetoric.
This explains why liberal Christians engage in exegesis of the Bible that is embarrassing in its ability to make God approve of what scripture condemns. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for a lack of hospitality. Homosexuality between consenting adults was never a problem in the early church. Gay marriage is obviously acceptable. In fact, isn’t it possible that Paul or even Jesus were gay? Anyone who has been part of the liberal-conservative dialog is used to these kinds of nonsensical claims being tauted as insights of Christian scholarship.
(I am particularly amused that liberals can become regular grammatical fanatics if they think their pro-homosexual position can be extracted from a text. but if the text plainly says homosexuality is a sin, well, then the text is antiquated and useless and can’t be cited with authority. Liberals just can’t seem to decide if the Bible matters or not.)
I want to end this essay with some positive words about the relationship between those of us who are non-fundamentalist evangelicals and our liberal friends. Many times I am greatly blessed by the insights of liberal Christians. I am impressed, and even envious, of their zeal for much that we all should pursue in the name of justice and righteousness. I’m aware–and want others to know–that it was liberal Christians who embraced the civil rights movement, while many evangelicals promoted segregation. I have seen the food pantries, clothes closets, tutoring programs, AA groups and many other ministries sponsored by liberal churches that do not have large resources or growing congregations. I know that many liberal Christians are exemplary in their personal lives, love for others and devotion to the ideals they derive from their faith.
As an evangelical, I am grieved that my liberal friends advocate, in the name of justice and compassion, many things that a Holy God has spoken clearly about. I believe that while liberals may have much to teach evangelicals about service done in love, evangelicals have much to teach liberals about the nature of truth as the definition of love. If the liberal quest is to love neighbor, and thereby to love God, the evangelical quest is to know and love God, and thereby come to be persons who can love neighbor well and rightly. Both evangelicals and liberals must confess that their faith has often been shaped too much by culture and too little by God’s timeless Word. Can we confess this together, and so return to the Rock from whence we all were hewn?
Evangelicalism has thought deeply about the challenge of liberal Christianity. Men like Bonhoeffer, Barth, Lewis, Machen and Henry can help evangelicals speak to the heart of the liberal challenge. Men like Fosdick, Willamon, Craddock and even Borg can help evangelicals understand liberals as sincere fellow travelers on the journey, often on target, but increasingly not always recognizable as fellow Christians.
One closing note. It is a fascinating irony that many liberal churches continue to read scripture in worship and preach from the lectionary, even as they move toward more radical denials of historic orthodoxy. In contrast, many evangelicals rarely hear the Bible in church, but do hear the historic and orthodox truth of Christianity proclaimed and taught in sincerity from their leadership. In churches where the Bible is honored it is often rarely heard, and in churches where the Bible has been radically demoted in significance it is continually heard, even if not heeded. Perhaps the Bible will outlast its embarrassing silence among evangelicals, and triumph in places where its plain truth is a growing embarrassment to those who hear its words.