Friday, 7 October 2011

What's good about Liberal Christian theology?

I'm serious! Reading around the blogosphere, the old 'liberal vs conservative' battles are clearly alive and kicking amongst Christians - usually each other rather than the forces of evil. (Well, I suppose insofar as each thinks the other represents the forces of evil they are, in their own terms, 'getting on with the job', but that's not what I mean.)

I suddenly had the thought this morning, however, that I really don't have a contemporary handle on Liberal Christianity apart from keeping up with the trading of insults, and so I wondered if readers might recommend some resources.

There are three areas on which I'd really like to focus:
  • Human nature and our place in the universe.
  • The person of Christ and the nature of the gospel.
  • The future fate of the universe in general and humans in particular.
What I'm trying to get a grip on is the core of Liberal theological thinking in these areas today - what are the big ideas and who are the big thinkers?

What I don't want are:
  • Blogs and blog articles.
  • Opinions about other people's opinions.
  • Things which are basically just attacks on religious conservatism.
If I can illustrate what I mean, I was once invited to take part in a public debate on Christianity and Islam when I was a university chaplain. I agreed, but stipulated that each speaker (myself and the other guy) must first present a summary of his own belief and a plea for why people should follow it. In other words, the initial 'pitch' had to rely on the content and merits of the belief itself, not the perceived weaknesses in one alternative system. That's kind of what I'm trying to get at in this case.

So what I do want are:
  • Books and authors of substance.
  • Resources which, if I were coming at this as a naive outsider (which to some extent I am), would explain to me the 'fundamentals' of Liberal Christianity and the outcomes in terms of an 'agenda' for life. How would living as a Liberal Christian be special and, especially, why would it be right to call it Christian (see my point above about the person of Christ and the nature of the gospel)?
  • Anything which addresses what I call the 'Ecclesiastes' mindset - we're here, but we're not where we hoped we'd be, living our lives in the midst of apparently inevitable injustice and certain death.
As the saying goes, "All contributions gratefully received." But NO BLOGS!

Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend:


  1. I found that "Darwin, Creation and the Fall" edited by R.J.Berry and T.A.Noble (Apollos ISBN: 978-1-84474-381-0)was a good starting point. That refers to books by Chris Southgate and Patricia Williams among others if you want to take it further. We do need to understand as far as possible where 'liberal' thinkers aand writers are coming from.
    Terry (Exeter)

  2. This is really just to subscribe to the answers you get, John, but I should say that I know very few (if any) people who would claim to be 'liberal'. It's very much a dirty word in the academic theological circles that I have moved in (I could explain why if you like). The only unashamed book I've come across recently was 'Theological Liberalism' edited by J'annine Jobling and Ian Markham, which was... OK.

  3. I suggest visiting 'Academic Earth' and following Dale Martin's lectures on the New Testament. Also, Don Cupitt's book, 'Who Was Jesus', written before the Sea of Faith stuff.

    Stan. Merseyside.

  4. "Christianity and Liberalism" by J. Gresham Machen.


  5. Things have moved rapidly in the past 10 years or so, and maybe Don Cupitt has been superceded.
    The link to the Patricia Williams book is here:-
    And one by Chris Southgate here:-
    "Christianity and Liberalism" by J. Gresham Machen is of course a critique of the 1920's Liberal position by an 'orthodox' Christian. None the worse for that but maybe not what john is looking for?

    Terry. Exeter

  6. How much do you want? Two textbooks are The Modern Theologians edited by David Ford and The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology edited by Gareth Jones. Then there is Liberal Faith in a Divided Church by Jonathan Clatworthy of Modern Church who recommend several books and their council members by be worth considering

  7. "Keep Your Courage: a Radical Christian Feminist Speaks"
    by Carter Heyward


    "• a new collection of writings by one of the world’s leading radical theologians, who is widely read and admired by a generation of
    feminist thinkers all over the globe..."

  8. I'd recommend Bishop John Shelby Spong's books, particularly "A New Christianity for a New World."

  9. My thanks to those who have responded. It is an interesting, if rather short list.

    I've got the R J Berry and G Gresham Maschen books, but only dipped into the former and not even opened the latter. I might well give Patricia Williams a go if I can be reconciled to Oak Hill library (another story).

    I would have thought Spong and Cupitt were a bit 'way out' to be mainstream amongst liberal Anglicans today. However, I might ditto read Spong.

    I've had a look through the Modern Church list and will try to select a few.

    Many years ago, when I first became a Christian, I got a book from our local library by Leslie Weatherhead. I had no idea back then what 'liberals' or 'evangelicals' were (I'd grown up Anglo-Catholic in a church that went Southwark-liberal in the 60s and thought this was normal), but I clearly remember realizing he was not in the same place as I now found myself.

    However, around the same time I read D M Baillie's "God was in Christ" and quite enjoyed it, even though it was clearly also 'in another place', so it wasn't just a matter of dislike.

    More recently I've read people like Phylis Trible, but not much else.

  10. Roland Cartwright9 October 2011 at 06:47

    Anything by Keith Ward. His "Why There Almost Certainly is A God: Doubting Dawkins" (Lion, 2008) is the best response to Dawkins on the market.

    For your particular topic, either Ward's "Christianity: A Guide for the Perplexed" (SPCK, 2007) or his "What the Bible Really Teaches" (SPCK, 2004) would be worthwhile.

  11. Roland, that's interesting because from my reading of Ward I would not have classed him as a 'liberal', just a philosopher writing about Christianity who is sometimes wrong!

  12. Roland Cartwright9 October 2011 at 12:08

    John, point taken, albeit I'd say sometimes right as well, not least in the measured and well written book refuting Dawkins that I mentioned.

    Perhaps what's needed is a definition of "liberal" at least for the purposes of this post, especially as few claim the title these days. However, in the case of Ward he's the President of "Affirming Liberalism", so I guess he must self-identify as "liberal". At the "Affirming Liberalism" website is a tag "About Affirming Liberalism" that contains 10 aims/beliefs that may address your quest for the "fundamentals" of liberal Christianity.

    Although I've not used the material, the DVD/booklet "Living the Questions" seems to be the equivalent of the Alpha course for Progressives. But I'm not sure that Progressives = Liberals, which takes you back to the need for a definition.

  13. "I would have thought Spong and Cupitt were a bit 'way out' to be mainstream amongst liberal Anglicans today."

    My impression from my own experience of liberals within the church is that Don Cupitt, along with Richard Holloway, has moved a bit too far for most to cope with. But Spong is very popular - both for his friendly approachable personality, and for his books. His is definitely the name most frequently dropped.

  14. Hi John,

    From an Aussie perspective, Peter Carnley (former primate and Archbishop of Perth) has written the most "mainstream" liberal Anglican books on these shores, although he calls himself "progressive orthodox" rather than liberal.
    Reflections in Glass is probably the most well known, although Structure of Resurrection Belief gives a current liberal perspective on the resurrection.
    I doubt either of those were on the reading list at Moore :)

  15. I agree in not classifying Spong & Cupitt with typical liberals, but not being good with classification, I'm not entirely sure what I would call them. A further jump to the left, perhaps? Ditto Holloway, though I find his writing very thought-provoking, and enjoy it.

    Keith Ward I would put in a more typical liberal camp, but that's only based on reading the introduction to "What the Bible really teaches", as the rest remains so far unread. Not that I don't want to read it, I just haven't quite got round to it yet.

    I'm sure this wasn't the intention of the original post, but it did come over to me rather as "Please suggest some books which standpoint I am very unlikely to agree with so that I can rubbish them." The points about "How would living as a liberal Christian be special?" and "How would it be right to call it Christian?" gave me that impression, specifically.

  16. Interesting... I guess it's the most fundamental issues which make this division so 'real'.

    Talking about hell on my blog today will definitely highlight theological divide:

  17. Hi Gill. Glad you managed to post. Please be assured I am much too busy to have time to read books I don't agree with just to rubbish them. ;-)

  18. Thanks John. I'm reassured. :-) I'll be interested to see what conclusions your reading leads you to.

  19. Keith Ward challenges fundamentalism in What the Bible really teaches and his Rethinking Christianity discusses many liberal themes. Many of his other books are more apologetic and present arguments useful to conservatives. James Barr must be the ultimate critic of fundamentalism who knows his Bible. Leslie Weatherhead was honest about the problems in Christian belief at the end of his career but presented a spirituality which is conservative and knew how to preach for a conversion. His Private House of Prayer is a gem. Is there a category of mainline which would include such successful communicators of Christianity as C S Lewis, William Temple, H E Fosdick, William Barclay, E Stanley Jones and W E Sangster. Evangelicals can be too easily critical of others who lead people to Christ. To bring it up to date there are the likes of Steve Chalk, Brian McLaren and Rick Warren

  20. Thanks for the further suggestions, though I think they illustrate the problem I referred to earlier. I am looking for material which might be described as presenting 'liberalism in its own right' not Christian liberalism vs Christian fundamentalism. Hence my specification that it would cover the three areas of 'Human nature and our place in the universe', 'The person of Christ and the nature of the gospel' and 'The future fate of the universe in general and humans in particular'.

    So many authors can't seem to help slipping into a presentation which targets other versions of Christianity, whereas I don't seem to recall many 'evangelical' presentations which rely greatly on critiquing liberalism when setting out their stall. Steve Chalke, for example, has this 'two way' dialogue.

    It always reminds me of Jehovah's Witnesses (oddly enough) who seem to need mainstream Christianity as a foil.

    Probably best to leave the suggestions for now until I've actually had a chance to read something!

  21. The book you should read is 'Christ and Horrors' by Marilyn McCord Adams, recently retired Regius Professor at Oxford. She is not sceptical about God, but is very sceptical about the historicity of the New Testament (common liberal theme) and she replaces the teaching of the Bible about Christ, sin and salvation with a philosophers take on what God owes to the people he has created (second common liberal theme). How can God exist in a world of horrors? By ensuring that everyone has a life of blessedness in the hereafter. Rather than the sinner being under an obligation to God, which Christ fulfils on his behalf, God is under an obligation to sinners to make sure that all is well for them at the end.

    Adams is a person who writes as a passionate and sincere religious believer. She is exceptionally intelligent and knowledgeable. Her book also demonstrates how liberalism continues to be another religion from that taught by Christ and the apostles.

  22. McLaren's a great (and very easy) read if you can get past the rather irritating self-consciousness. "Ooh, this is a dangerous book, you're not going to like it, best get a refund now." Ok, I paraphrase, but that's what the beginning of a Generous Orthodoxy is like. I think he makes some very interesting points, but I can't help wondering why he sets his stall out like this so much before the book even begins, except that there must be a perception somewhere out there that what he's saying is really radical, when it isn't ,really.

    "So many authors can't seem to help slipping into a presentation which targets other versions of Christianity"

    You'll be familiar, of course, with the argument that goes thus: "Liberalism" has always been with us, and was the mainstream, until a more conservative / evangelical way of thinking became more mainstream in the early 20th century, and presented itself as the norm. It's now so widely perceived to be the norm, that even the liberals are explaining their position in relation to it. See McLaren's introduction above.

    Now I'm reasonably sure that the above is an actual theory, but cannot for the life of me remember where I read it, and I'm quite prepared to accept that I may be mis-remembering, or have accidentally made it up! Any making up would be accidental though, promise.

  23. Gill, oddly enough I came across just that argument yesterday in John Barton's new publication The People of the Book.

    I didn't buy it (a) because I don't have the money and (b) because I've read Calvin, Luther, Owen, etc. If they are liberals, count me in.

  24. There is some interesting stuff floating around in the area of Biblical Theology/Biblical Studies, much of which is not so much classically Liberal, but more post-modern.

    Walter Brueggemann would be an example of someone who is very definitely not from a conservative evangelical perspective, but is always very stimulating to read. His Old Testament Theology is brilliant (fatally flawed, but brilliant). The festschrift in his honour (God in the Fray) is also helpful for engaging with some of the issues raised (e.g. immutability, non-realism, theodicy, etcetera).