Development of Liberal Theology: An Overview (Part 1)

The modern historical era of liberal theology basically encompass four distinct phases of change. The Enlightenment phase extends from the seventeenth century to approximately the middle or late eighteenth century. It is followed by the Romantic phase which is prominent until the mid-nineteenth century when it fades and then rise in the form of Modernism. The final, or perhaps more appropriately, the present phase of liberalism (often referred to as Neo-liberalism) began to surface during the twentieth century.

Even though research indicate liberal thought in actuality antedates the aforementioned phases, for purposes of brevity and clarity, this article shall focus on liberal thought as it developed from the age of the enlightenment to the present.

The age of Enlightenment was characterized by the triumph of reason in religion and the evanescence of the doctrine of revelation. Rationalism stressed the a priori ability of human reason to know truth; what could be known could only be known through reason and what could not be known by reason was not truth. Revelation and authority therefore, were not only dismissed as irrelevant but totally unnecessary as well. The chief exponents of rationalism were Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz.

Rationalism gained its first systematic philosophical formulation in the works of Descartes. He applied the mathematical method to human reasoning and argued for a priori ideas and principles. He attempted to prove God's existence by means of an ontological argument beneath which laid his geometrical method of truth. Mainly, whatever is a certainty (clear and distinct ideas) is truth.

Geisler (Christian Apologetics) believed Spinoza's rationalism was more geometric than Descartes. He felt Spinoza rationalized the absolute perfect idea of a perfect being. Man's reason is competent only up to a certain point; beyond this point man must recognize his incapacity and total dependence. It should be noted that Spinoza's rationalism resulted in pantheistic conclusions.

The basis of Leibniz's rationalism was centered on God around the sufficient idea. His approach begins with an examination of scientific findings from experience. He utilizes both ontological and cosmological arguments for the rationalistic explanation of God.

Theological rationalism then, asserts the claims of reason against authority or revelation. The fundamental principles of religion are held to be innate or self-evident. During this phase of liberal thought rationalism, orthodoxy suffered some serious secular blows. Rationalists were those who believed in reason with a profound faith. They rebelled vehemently against all authorities outside of man's reason and claimed for reason an autonomy which would enable it to examine all questions without interference.

According to Nagler, rationalisms' aim was to liberate the energies of human nature by the free and fearless use of reason. It virtually ignored all dogmas and rules that impeded freedom of scientific inquiry and the questioning of all accepted truth. The Bible, tradition, religious institutions and religious hierarchies had to submit to the rationalists' reason and experience. There was a basic mistrust of tradition and a philosophical analysis of morality and ethics. The Christian faith was reduced to mere reason with prayers playing a prominent place. It was natural then, that God became an impersonal and somewhat aloof deity. And as Nagler pointed out in The Church in History, "rationalism, thinking to explain all life and truth on the basis of pure reason soon degenerated into an intellectual fad." Nevertheless, Enlightenment theology is perceived as the forerunner and ally of liberalism in the struggle against religious intolerance.

As we continue our journey, we enter the Romantic period. Romanticism was to the nineteenth century what Rationalism was to the eighteenth. This phase of liberalism development was marked by the discovery of the uniqueness of the individual and of access to its concrete reality through individual experience. In other words, the human individual was regarded as the path-way into the vast infinite reality. Man and experience was valued over and above all other creative forms. Many believe that a great literary and artistic period was the result of Romanticism. It was a religion of culture which in many ways resembled the religion of the historical Greeks. The demand was for an all embracing concept of life. Nagler observed that one of the most important contributions made to theological thought was its conclusion that intellect was not the only road to truth. Spiritual events were considered to be the release of the individual from the bondage of coercion. Or, as Nagler puts it: "rationalism was rescued from its danger?dangerous tendencies largely by the work of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant?Kant endeavored to show the limits of pure reason in that it could neither demonstrate not overthrow the objects of belief. The latter, such as God, immortality, and freedom-in fact, all the truths and values of the supersensible world come within the realm of what he called the practical reason."

As the emphasis on the worth and dignity of man gradually permeated liberal thought; another great voice rose to champion the cause, W. E. Channing.

From my readings, Channing appears to have been a genuine seeker after a rational faith. He believed in miracles and prophecy as evidences of Christianity. He became a spokesman for American Unitarianism. The concept of a co-equal, co-existing trinity was unacceptable to him intellectually. Like Kant, Channing believed very strongly in the moral perfection of God and the autonomy of man.

(continued in Part 2)

Rev. Saundra L. Washington, D.D., is an ordained clergywoman, veteran social worker, and Founder of AMEN Ministries. She is also the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow: Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances: Homilies that Teach which can be reviewed on her site. Her new book, Out of Deep Waters: My Grief Management Workbook, is expected to be available in July.

You are welcome to visit AMEN Ministries: Your Soul's Service Station for spiritual refreshing, soul edification or to browse our newly expanded mini shopping mall.

Blessings to all!

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