Tag Archives: Jesus Seminar

Liberal? What do you mean by that?

This is a kind of follow-up post to a comment I made in my attempt to summarise a few of the talks at Greenbelt. In particular, it was my note that Linda Woodhead’s definition of liberalism was little different from a statement of individualism. After posting it, I was pointed to Eddie Green’s blog on the subject where he made a similar objection to Linda’s usage. In it, he gives a very condensed history of liberal theology. Given the extent of that history, I don’t think anyone could do it justice in the space of a blog post, so I shan’t endeavour to improve upon Eddie’s take. Nor is this really a response to Eddie’s, as I partly agree with it, but it is more a launching pad to explain my own usage of the term liberal, particularly as it applies to theology and church life in general.

With the history noted, I first of all recognise that we are shaped by it, but need not be constrained by it. So some uses of the term liberal may have drifted from what they were originally intended to mean. Depending on the precise context, I tend to use it in one four senses, listed below. I think it is also helpful in each case to identify what we might mean by its opposite, as Eddie rightly notes, the term ‘conservative’ is not always apt. This is another example of a phenomenon I have tried to articulate before, whereby we define what we mean by means to saying what we don’t mean; a sort of chiseling away by means of ridding ourselves of various negatives instead of asserting a positive.

In what follows below, please note that I am not advocating a binary liberal/not liberal viewpoint on each topic. There are grey areas and people can be nuanced, complicated mixtures of each. So this comes very much with a sense of “-ish” about it, where I am aiming for a generally, well-rounded picture rather than pin-point precision within a narrow spectrum.

  1. Socially liberal

In this sense, I am referring to particular hot potato topics which tend to be divisive. One forum I am sometimes found at is the Ship of Fools, where such topics are referred to as ‘dead horses‘ and a whole discussion board is dedicated to them. These include whether women should be allowed to hold any and all positions within a church structure, views on homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, etc. I would also include, in a wider sense, the more individualist view, where one has the right to do as one pleases, provided it does not bring harm to another.

In this sense, I would call the opposite a ‘conservative’ viewpoint. Though it is worth noting that people may hold more liberal views on some topics than on others. For example, I would regard myself as liberal when it comes to homosexuality (you may find me on the list of members signed up to Accepting Evangelicals) and I endorse a fully egalitarian view of church leadership, yet I do err towards a pro-life position with regards to abortion to euthanasia. I say that quite deliberately, as I do not wholly agree with many a pro-life advocate, but I would support a sharpening up of the law to protect both women and children.

  1. Economically liberal

This can be a tricky one, as the term most often used is not really liberal, but libertarian. So while it doesn’t quite fit neatly (Hey? What does?) it ought to be addressed given the similarity of the terms. In reality, this is better described as a right-wing view.

As I wryly commented to someone the other day, a libertarian is someone who wants the freedom to economically oppress others. And if you advocate any measure that tries to stop them, they will retort by calling you an authoritarian.

The confusion when it comes to using the term liberal or conservative in this sense is that those who are most liberal/libertarian/right-wing are in fact those who are more likely to subscribe to the economic policies of the Conservative party, where the ultimate expression of liberty is to be found in free market, laissez-faire economics, such as that advocated by the likes of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman (or even Ayn Rand).

  1. Theologically liberal

This brings us back to Eddie’s analysis where I would take a slightly different, but not wholly contrary view. While it is the modern heir of the views of Friedrich Schleimacher, Albrecht Ritschl or Walter Rauschenbusch, it has moved on rather since then, for a variety of historical, philosophical and theological reasons – for good or for bad. Not least we have the rise of fundamentalism as a reaction against German liberal theology and then modern liberal theology arising as a reaction against fundamentalism. The subtle change this entails is that while liberal theology began as a methodology (c.f. hermeneutical liberalism in Eddie’s post) it is now more about the conclusions one reaches.

So when someone talks to me now of liberal theology, I am minded to think not of christians who are merely opposed to the fundamentalism, but those who have swung too far in the opposite direction and play fast and loose with theology, where a prerequisite is that one does not conform to a recognisable orthodox belief. A prime example of this would be the Jesus Seminar. One could look at one member from that group, Marcus Borg, whose views I have critiqued before. Or one could look at the catholic scholar, John Meier, whose epic look at the Jesus, A Marginal Jew, rules out, a priori, the idea of resurrection and where he joins in with the trend of presupposing that the historical Jesus must be different from the Jesus of faith.

In this sense, the opposite of liberal is not conservative, but orthodox. It is worth noting the warnings of Richard Niebuhr about overly-liberal outcomes:

“In a similar manner the idea of the coming kingdom was robbed of its dialectical element. It was all fulfillment of promise without judgement… In its one-sided view of progress which saw the growth of the wheat but not that of the tares, the gathering of the grain but not the burning of the chaff, this liberalism was indeed naively optimistic. A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

– H.R. Niebuhr (The Kingdom of God in America, my emphasis)

The above quote was made in an essay by J.B. Stump in The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought. Yet he (Stump) continues:

“…before joining with him [Niebuhr], we should remember that Christian doctrine has not been static throughout its two-thousand-year history. There was significant development in the fourth and fifth centuries as the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity were articulated in the Greek language; in the Middle Ages, it was the doctrine of Atonement that underwent significant revisions…”

So we would be wrong to think of orthodoxy as something that is necessarily fixed. We must always reserve the right to be wrong and to be corrected. Rather, I think of orthodoxy as something that is faithful, but where a change of view may be necessary. The theological liberalism at the other end of the spectrum is one that looks at orthodoxy and declares it to be old hat, and must be in need of change or updating. So the belief in the historical, literal, physical resurrection comes under fire primarily because it has been a lynchpin of orthodox belief. Yet the older form of theological liberalism, arising out of the dust settling after the renaissance and reformation, need not have had a problem with miracles. Rather, it is naturalism (or hyper-naturalism – at the exclusion of other ways of looking at the world) that gives rise to problems with the resurrection and other miracles.

  1. Ecclesiastically liberal

This is the final sense which I use, which seems sensible to me, but which others consider to be slightly idiosyncratic. While the others have been more to do with beliefs, this is to do with praxis. In particular, a liberal church is one that has a free and open worship, informed by, but not tethered to, tradition. The opposite of this would be a traditionalist, or conformist, church, whereby the practice is very much as it has been for centuries.

Dropping into a Sunday morning service, one would be immediately struck by the differences between, say, a high Anglo-Catholic CofE church and a New Frontiers church. At first glance, one might wonder what similarities there are. Are they even the same religion? Well, to that, I would answer ‘yes’. What differentiates them are what aspects of that religion they choose to emphasise and to then display as the public face of their churches.

To give an example, my parents are very much post-Anglican but after moving house earlier this year went to an Anglican church and described it as like going back in time to the 1950s; nothing had changed in the last few decades.

Another hallmark that can be used to discern between liberal and traditionalist churches is whether they have, and if so, to what degree, any level of segregationalism. This tends to be a hangover from catholic clericalism whereby the church leaders are in any way segregated from the rest of the church. Any use of the rhetoric of ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ would be indicative of this, as would the requirement of the church leaders to wear special clothes which demarcate them from everyone else.

The more ecclesiastically liberal churches have less of this and, tending to have a more congregational approach where one may extend Paul’s great equality slogan of “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” to include “[there is neither clergy nor laity]” just as the more socially liberal (see above) may use “[there is neither gay nor straight]” and in areas where racial tensions may be running high, one might hear “[there is neither black nor white]”. Whether such paraphrasing makes for good biblical study may be answered differently by those who take differing stances on the question of theological liberalism!

So hopefully, you can see that all are in some way linked. Just to reiterate, I use these only as rough guides and recognise that individuals and groups have a variety of ways of expressing themselves and their beliefs which defy simplistic categorisation. To illustrate, let’s look at 3 case studies.

So what sort of person am I?

  1. Well, when it comes to being socially liberal or conservative, I would regard myself as broadly liberal. That doesn’t mean I adopt the label first and then, consequently, sign myself up to what might be consider THE liberal position on each issue. Rather, I consider each on their own merits, think about them and arrive at my own conclusions, and then look at who happens to be my nearest neighbours.
  2. In terms of the economics, I am left-wing. I’ve written about that before so shan’t further elaborate on that here.
  3. In terms of the theological, I would say I am mostly orthodox. The only chink in this is that I do not affirm the historicity of the virgin birth. I simply find the evidence for it to be unconvincing and that I do not think that it is a necessary prerequisite for an incarnational theology. It is not that I reject it as a consequence of the rejection of the possibility of miracles, as seems to be the case with some. Rather, my hermeneutical liberalism doesn’t lead me to the creedal conclusion. I’ve given a sketch of my theological approach before both here (recently) and here (a few years ago).
  4. In terms of ecclesiastics, I am most definitely liberal. I am no great fan of traditionalism and find freedom in worship to be far more preferable to liturgical chanting. Part of the reason I am part of the charismatic church rather than a conformist is because the charismatic gives more room for the Holy Spirit, whereas I’ve found more traditionalist churches, by dint of their rigidly scripted services, make no such room for the Spirit to move and may even, in some cases, verge on the warning of quenching the Spirit.

So that’s roughly where I stand. On the balance of the above, I would choose the epithet ‘liberal’ but I hold onto it very gently, willing to let go in case by doing so I end up aligning myself with views and practices which are less than helpful or faithful.

Another example

I had the mixed pleasure of visiting a different church a few weeks ago. It was a part of the Nigerian denomination, the Redeemed Christian Church of God. What sort of church were they?

  1. Socially fairly conservative – Though very welcoming on a Sunday morning, one need only do a little reading around to find that the official line of the church is at times very homophobic. That said, they do have egalitarian leadership. I’m not sure on their stance on other divisive issues.
  2. Economically right-wing – they place great value in personal wealth and seem little interested in matters of social justice. The posters currently adorning the front of the church depict a woman dreaming of a bigger home with a quote from Isaiah 55:8-9 above it.
  3. Theologically liberal. Linked to the above, they have taken a view that endorses the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. This is not something I would regard as orthodox.
  4. Ecclesiastically liberal. As with most pentecostal churches, their expression is about as far removed from the traditional idea of the English church as one could hope to find. This is loud worship, unscripted, with all joining in. It’s not for everyone, but one would be hard pressed to call it staid.

So here, we would see them mostly as ‘liberal’. Yet because of their socially conservative values, they are sometimes branded as just being a conservative church. Yet I hope that I have shown that it’s not necessarily quite as simple as that.

Yet another look

For further contrast, it might be worth looking at a very different kind of church. This is a description that I have gleaned from a number of conversations with a colleague of mine. He attends a very high Anglo-Catholic church in a fairly rural parish. The church is part of the sub-faction of the CofE known as Forward in Faith.

  1. Socially, it is rather conservative. They certainly adopt a pro-life stance and in the wake of the general synod’s decision to allow women the possibility of becoming bishops, there have been grumblings about the church crossing the Tiber and fully converting to Catholicism in protest. Their views on homosexuality are mixed, with some members being very set against it, others are more accepting and some are affirming.
  2. Economically very right wing. The colleague from whom this information is gleaned is a staunch Thatcherite and very much epitomises the idea of “the CofE is the Tory party at prayer”. I know that’s not true in the whole CofE, as it is a richer, broader church than just that. I’m just looking at one example here.
  3. Theologically orthodox. For the most part, anyway. My colleague is actually rather theologically liberal. As he puts it: “Well, it might be true. I don’t really know. I say the creed and I pray the Lord’s prayer, but that’s because you’re supposed to, not because I’m certain of it.” In some ways, he adopts a Pascal’s Wager approach to faith. As for his particular church, I get the impression they stick fairly closely to the Anglo-Catholic line, even if the Anglo part is rather quiet.
  4. Ecclesiastically traditionalist. This is VERY high church, or “smells and bells” as it’s sometimes called. The kind of church where one might well wonder, ‘do they realise there’s been a reformation or not’. Again, to quote my colleague: “Well, that’s what religion’s supposed to be, innit. It’s less about what you believe and more about what you do. Church without the ceremony just wouldn’t be a proper church.”

Wrapping it up

That’s turned out longer than I intended. If you’ve read this far, thank you for doing so. While I doubt many will agree with me wholly, I hope you’ve found it some of it useful, or at least thought-provoking. If anything, this should serve as a guide for any of you who interact with me regularly to have a clearer idea of what I mean when I use terms such as ecclesiastically conservative, theologically liberal or orthodox.

If anything, this should help explain why I find the epithet “conservative evangelicals” to be rather unhelpful. There are some ways in which evangelical christians are more conservative than others, but there are also some in which we are more liberal. And within evangelicalism, there is great variety and a richness of diversity, without necessarily causing division; as there is in other churches too. To some, single issues may define one as conservative, but that is not my view.

As people, as churches and as Church, we walk along the way to the kingdom of God. The path may be narrow and we may stray off course from time to time, both individually and collectively. I believe that Jesus is the way, not christianity. Christianity is the searching for the way. Sometimes we need minor corrections, sometimes we need big reformations and renewals where we’ve gone completely the wrong way or forgotten things. Even then, we don’t necessarily fix everything, sometimes making wrong that which was right. So of course, I may be wrong; or rather, I may well be wrong about a number of things, as you probably well know!

So, over you now.

  • Do you recognise these 4 criteria as being fair and reasonable, or do you think a different way of looking at things is preferable?
  • Are there any issues which ‘flip a switch’ and make one automatically liberal (or otherwise)?
  • How might you describe a) yourself b) your church in such terms – and is there a difference between the two?

Book Review: Jesus by Marcus Borg

Having read with great interest N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God I was keen to look at a similar sort of style of modern academic writing on Jesus but from a different perspective. Wright is known to be no fan of the Jesus Seminar, though I am aware that he has quite a lot of respect for Marcus Borg. So it seemed reasonable that I might start with Borg. I may follow up with some J.D. Crossan (to whom Borg’s volume is dedicated, along with Sarah Crossan) at a later date.

I have earlier written some thoughts based on what I think is his false premise of a dichotomy of two methods of biblical interpretation, so I would encourage you read that post for a more detailed critique of some aspects of this book. He also employs the argument from authority fallacy on a number of occasions, usually when he lacks any credible reason or evidence for holding the views that he does. Again, I have written separately about that here.

Having tied himself up with his methodological straightjacket, it might seem that there is very little that Borg could say about the historical figure of Jesus. Thankfully, he actually disregards much of his own stated approach and does actually engage with some of what the gospels say. His study then becomes more akin to an interpretation of Aesop’s fables. He is not interested in whether or not there is any historical basis but is more keen on what he calls the “more than literal” meaning.

Early in the book, Borg reveals himself as an adoptionist, a position I have thought about for some time, but have ultimately rejected. Borg’s argument is that if Jesus were to be thought of as in any divine before Easter, then you must regard him as Superman, which Borg sees as docetist. But in rejected one heresy, he seems to have embraced another.

He also advocates panentheism (not to be mistaken for a similar, but distinct, idea of pantheism). That is, God is ‘present’ in everything in creation. However, in stating this position, he makes no attempt to answer what I consider to be one of the strongest arguments against it from a christian point of view; that of how to address the question of evil with a panentheistic paradigm. If any of you know writers who address this issue, please do let me know.

In regards to his actual portrayal of Jesus, though it is arguable as to how complete it is, given his take on the historicity of the gospels, what he does have is certainly interesting, thought-provoking and worth taking note of. His overriding theme is that Jesus was a Jewish mystic. To this, he seems to owe a debt of gratitude to the recently departed Geza Vermes, whose work on re-establishing Jesus’ Jewish identity helped undo many years of latent anti-semitism in the church. However, Borg does take care to define what he means by mystic, so as to avoid the wrath of Karl Barth’s dismissal of mysticism as, to paraphrase, “[misty theology leading to schism]”. Rather, Borg argues for what might almost pass a charismatic interpretation of mysticism, whereby Jesus derived his understanding of God more from a personal relationship than from any scriptural basis. Though whilst Trinitarians might see this as stemming from Jesus’ homoousios with God, Borg’s adoptionist stance forbids him from doing similarly.

He makes an excellent point about prophecy that I wish more christians would pay attention to, in that prophecy is not about fortune telling but is about making a sober assessment of the way things are now. As such, it is anachronistic to say that the likes of Isaiah predicted Jesus, but rather that Jesus acted in such a way as to reflect Isaiah. Though again, one notes that Borg readily accepts that Jesus was perceived as a prophet in his time, but when it comes to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (which follows immediately in the synoptic accounts), Borg sees this as a later addition and does not relate to the pre-Easter Jesus.

While I have questioned his dismissive approach to the historicity of the gospels, much of what he says about the implications of our discipleship is well worth listening to. But I could not let the review pass without discussing his view on the crucifixion, the resurrection and theology surrounding both. While he acknowledges the historicity of the crucifixion, he openly opposes the idea of it as any kind of penal substitution. Instead he favours the christus victor idea. For my own part, I think this either/or is a false dichotomy and that both/and is a far more helpful way to consider the implications of the crucifixion. In so doing, he makes an interesting statement whereby he tries to frame Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship as supporting Borg’s view that God’s grace needs no sacrifice. In other words, he tries to hijack Bonhoeffer as a supporter of ‘cheap grace’ – the very idea that The Cost of Discipleship was most firmly opposed to.  As for the resurrection, while not denying it completely, Borg is rather dismissive of the need to treat the resurrection as historical. It is then interesting to see what Borg makes of 1 Corinthians 15, the longest discourse on the resurrection in the bible. He ignores most of it, only using an English translation of soma pneumatikon as “spiritual body” to mean something that is not physical. For an in-depth study on this topic, I would refer Borg and any of his readers to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whether you agree with Borg or disagree with him, you have to admit that he’s a good communicator. The book is well written though (and I did mention this to the publishers) the American spelling and grammar mistakes were left in, even though he has a different publisher in the US. There are a few times when he comes across as slightly patronising, but he has made a good effort to make himself understandable to the general reader. This is a book for those who ask the question “Who is this Jesus, anyway?” Some of Borg’s answers I find enlightening, some I think miss the mark. Borg’s is a voice to take note of, though I would add, as a word of caution, not in isolation.

“Many Scholars” and the argument from authority

Having reflected on some of the methodology that Marcus Borg outlines at the start of his book, ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a revolutionary’ I wanted to use another aspect of the book to explore something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time: the argument from authority.

I’m guessing most of you are familiar with the basic outline of the argument from authority, but if not you can read a good primer here. There is another manifestation of it which Rational Wiki omits, but which I see from time to time. It is the appeal to “many scholars” or “most scholars” when you wish to convince your readers that you are not a crackpot and have the support of the majority of well-educated men & women.

In reading through Borg’s book, he employs it multiple times when he wishes to push forward an unorthodox idea. An example of this would be his advocacy of the Q hypothesis in the authorship of the synoptic gospels. One of the most insidious things about this argument is that the terms ‘many’ and ‘most’ are used interchangeably. At times, Borg does acknowledge the existence of an alternative point of view, but not always. I wouldn’t mind so much if he actually gave some references, but in citing these many scholars, he fails to name any. Given the nature of the views he espouses, I would suspect that he has in mind his fellow members of the now-defunct Jesus Seminar (pun intented) but one can’t be certain, given the lack of citation.

It brings to mind the motto of the Royal Institution, “Nullus in verba” roughly meaning “nothing on the word of another” or “take nobody’s word for it.” If we were to apply the same of critical thinking that Borg endorses us to, then we must be sceptical about his claim to have the support of many other experts in the field. If they are so numerous, why not name them? In some places in the book, he does provide references, making the inconsistency all the more suspicious. 

Further thoughts

All this does bring to mind some other thoughts I had a while back concerning the argument from authority, its limitations and misuses. In its purest form, it is a logical fallacy, though I would encourage you to look out for times when it may be misapplied.

Whenever I watch the news, I usually notice how ‘expert opinions’ are valued. If there’s a story about the economy, why not have someone who’s job title is “chief economist” take part in an interview? If there’s been a dramatic incident, who better to talk to than an eyewitness? There is good sense in opting for the best informed view, as one might reasonably expect their view to be more reliable than those of the average man or woman plucked off the street. Here, the argument from authority can get a bit blurry. Are we meant to take their word as authoritative or merely informative?

At the same time, applying nullus in verba in all walks of life is not a practical option. It’s an argument I sometimes have with those who take a Dawkinsian view of faith and claim that they don’t use it, though it’s an argument I have grown weary of having over and over again. Let me give an example to illustrate.

One of the first things I do in the mornings is check to see if my train is on time. If I read that there are cancellations or delays I act on trust that the information is more or less correct. I may skip breakfast or otherwise not take as much time as I normally do in getting out of the front door. What I don’t have is the luxury of doing is conductive any great enquiry as to whether the trains are delayed or by how much. I just act on the best information I have. That’s what it means to act on faith. You don’t necessarily settle for not knowing, but you do act on what evidence you do have, even if it’s not complete or conclusive.