Development of Liberal Theology: An Overview (Part 2)

The American theologian Horace Bushnell also played a vital role in the advancement of liberal theology. Bushnell's liberalism included historical tradition and took into account the emotional nature of religion. He espoused the supernatural character of personality and the immanence of God in personality. By means of preaching, teaching, writing and personal practice, Bushnell attempted to divert man away from dogmas and to seek satisfaction and security in experience. In his book, Religion in America, Hudson pointed out: ?the real key to the influence of Bushnell upon his contemporaries was his success in fashioning a definitely Christocentric theology that was based upon Christian experience rather than upon any external dogmatic authority. Thus the believer was no longer under compulsion to find his security in biblical proof texts. He could not accept the conclusions of biblical scholars with relative equanimity and appropriate the results of other scientific investigations without great difficulty because his faith was validated by the inward testimony of the heart?Bushnell found a freedom denied to those who felt compelled to meet a rationalistic assault with a purely rationalistic defense.

By acknowledging Christ as the center and goal of history, Bushnell helped move man away from an arid rationalism to the Christ; away from a mechanical view associated with theology to the natural and the human; away from dependence upon external authorities to the Divine authority. Certainly, Bushnell could be considered a good friend to orthodoxy.

The leaders in the Romanticist movement, including Rousseau in France and Shelley in England, were intensely interested in religion. Its later period of "phasing out" must not blind us to the relative worth of its earlier contributions, among the main of which was its strong belief that the intellect was not the only road to truth.

The modernist phase of theological liberalism is marked by the significance of historical time and an emphasis upon the notion of progress. A representative personification of this mode of liberal theology can be found in the German Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleirmacher. Commonly referred to as the "father of modern theology," Schleirmacher developed a constructive empirical method of religious inquiry that was both descriptive and historical. Religion to him was an inner experience separated and independent from science, morality, knowledge and philosophy. He considered the essence of religion to be a personal "feeling" of absolute dependence on the universe (God). Authority was not to be found in scriptures, creeds, churches or dogmas, but rooted in the heart of the believer. Schleirmacher adamantly maintained that the great debates over proofs of God, the authority of Scriptures, miracles, and the like, were all on the outside boarder of religion. The heart of religion was and always had been "feeling" as opposed to rational proofs and discussions. According to Schleirmacher, God to the religious man was an experience; a living reality.

Although Schleirmacher's theology seem to possess certain pantheistic touches, his reinterpretation of the Christian religion nevertheless, provided succeeding generations of theologians with a reasonable alternative to orthodoxy. He opened the door to a vast universe beyond absolutes and rationalism; to an exploratory realm beyond the Bible.

Well, if Schleirmacher was the "father of modern theology" then Rauschenbusch was the "father of the Social Gospel." The social gospel was a movement that attempted to utilize, in the spirit of Christ, the material thrown up by the social sciences for the building of the kingdom of God. Rauschenbusch seemed to integrate all the major elements of the liberal tradition. He emphasized the unity between God and humanity and thereby saw the working of God in and through the working of humanity. His emphasis was society's impact on Christianity and the regeneration of man. Rauschenbusch was concerned with the social welfare of the sinner and felt that this was an issue that was not forcefully addressed by the church. He continually emphasized the deep need for dealing with the issue of social justice. And although the Social Gospel looked upon scientific contributions with favor, it did not and does not relinquish its firm grip on the fact that no permanent salvation is possible without the creation of a new spirit.

The decisive events stimulating liberal interest were the Industrial revolution and the explosion of the sciences. Following the general acceptance of Darwins's evolutionary theory, historical interest reached higher plateaus which gave rise to a concern with development of new forms of various fields. Science gave impetus to a new drive toward modernization and a seemingly vehement stressing of the primacy of the present. Christian doctrine was transformed into Starbuck's "Psychology of Religion" or William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience" or Leuba's "Psychological Study of Religion," or the like. William Sumner's "folkways," a sociological study of human behavior which emphasized the social aspect of religion, rejected ideas of the absolute and the eternal. Consequently, modernists sought to consolidate religious thought with scientific knowledge. The authority of the Bible in theology began to wane as philosophy and various sciences assumed ascendancy in the interpretation of religion.

One of the best known advocates for Protestant liveral theology was Harry Emerson Fosdick. He devoted his entire career as a preacher, professor and author to the conflict between religion and science. Fosdick's theological viewpoints focused primarily on four major ideas and were described by Ferm in his "Tribute to Harry Emerson Fosdick." He stated that Fosdick:

1) Attempted to express the abiding truths of the Christian faith in the changing categories appropriate to the modern world. 2) Stressed the importance of reason in faith. 3) Grounded his faith in personal and social experiences. 4) Appreciated, accepted and utilized the scientific method of inquiry. Felt very strongly that science had its place and that the task of theology was interpreting the Christian message in light of scientific knowledge.

(continued in Part 3)

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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