Roger Olson caused some ripples last week when he posted “Why I am not a Liberal Christian”.  Then Scot McKnight went and took it even farther with “What is a Liberal Anyway”  and said :

“Evangelicals have successfully made “liberal” a pejorative term. So today many liberals call themselves “progressives.”

I want to be clear about 2 things:

  • Liberal and Progressive are not the same thing. I hear this accusation from conservative evangelicals all the time that young/cool liberals just hide behind the term ‘progressive’. This view is very dismissive and not very informed.

I grew up evangelical. Scot McKnight and my father car-pooled to seminary together when I was a kid in Chicago. I went to the Billy Graham School of Evangelism. I get Evangelical.
I am now part of the Emergent stream and I serve at a Mainline church and go to a Mainline seminary. MP900405058

So please believe me when I say that there is as big a difference between Liberal and Progressive and there is between Evangelical and Emergent. 

Liberal simply mean that one’s experience is a valid location for doing theology.

Progressives are folks that would be Liberal but who have learned from Feminist, Liberation and Post-Colonial critiques. *


Here are Olsen’s 6 markers for determining if one is Liberal:

  • First, I look at their overall view of reality. Do they think the universe is open to God’s special activity in what might be called, however infelicitously, “miracles?” Do they believe in supernatural acts of God including especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb? If not, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.
  • Second, I look at their approach to “doing theology.” How do they approach knowing God? Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation? Or do they begin with and give norming authority to human experience, culture, science, philosophy, “the best of contemporary thought?” That is, do they “do” theology “from above” or “from below?” Insofar as they do theology “from below” I tend to think they are liberal theologically.
  • Third, I look at their Christology. Do they think Jesus was different from other “great souls” among us in kind or only in degree? Is their Christology truly incarnational, affirming the preexistence of the Word who become human as Jesus Christ, or is it functional only, affirming only that Jesus Christ represented God, was God’s “deputy and advocate” among men and women? Insofar as their Chistology is functional and not ontologically incarnational, trinitarian, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.
  • Fourth, I look at their view of Scripture. Do they believe the Bible is “inspired insofar as it is inspiring,” a wisdom-filled source of religious illumination and record of our “spiritual ancestors’” experiences of God? Or do they believe the Bible is supernaturally inspired such that in some sense God is its author—not necessarily meaning God dictated it or even verbally inspired it? Another way of putting that “test” is similar to the Christological one above: Is the Bible different only in degree from other great books of spiritual wisdom or in kind from them? Insofar as they view the Bible as different only in degree, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.
  • Fifth, I look at their view of salvation. Do they believe salvation is forgiveness and reconciliation with God as well as being made whole and holy by God’s grace alone or do they believe salvation is only a realization of human potential—individual or social—by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor? Insofar as they think the latter, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.
  • Sixth, I look at their view of the future. Do they believe in a real return of Jesus Christ, however conceived, to bring about a new world of righteousness? Or do they believe the “return of Christ” is a myth that expresses an existential experience and/or social transformation only? Insofar as they believe it is only a symbol, myth or metaphor, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Olson says that the problem with being Liberal is that  “I find it thin, ephemeral, light, profoundly unsatisfying. It seems to me barely different from being secular humanist.”

I object!  Look, I’m no liberal – but I hang out with lots of them and to say that it is barely different from secular humanism is just non-sense. These are people who:
A) participate in the Christian tradition
B) use Christian narrative and vocabulary and
C) belong to Christian community.

Those are 3 powerful and good things – whether or not they have ‘thin’ theology.

Next is where the real contention comes. Olson says:

If I ever wake up and find that I think like a true theological liberal, I hope I will be honest enough to stop calling myself “Christian.”

This is a terrible line of reasoning.  Liberal Christianity is a kind of Christianity! Being a liberal Christian doesn’t mean you are not a christian – it just means that you are not that type of Christian.

This is the Santa Clause problem I keep talking about. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘If there is no Santa Clause and Jesus wasn’t literally born on December 25 – then Christmas isn’t worth celebrating.’  Yes it is. It has all sorts of inherent worth and intrinsic value … it’s just not where you thought it was.

So to both Olson and McKnight I want to say ‘I get what you are up to. I agree with 80% of it. But it is that final 20% that is really concerning and threatens to compromise the integrity of that other 80%’.


*  Progressive does not mean that all change (progress) is good or that history is always progressing toward justice and enlightenment.