In response to a questioner, I have provided this brief overview of the relationship between Evangelicalism and Liberal theology.
THE ORIGIN OF EVANGELICALISM
The Evangelical movement began in the 1730s in the UK as a massive revival of religion through which the whole of British life was impacted and many hundreds of thousands of people came to Christ from nominal membership of the churches, especially the Anglican Church (alongside the Anglican Church even then there were the Catholics, and the 'Free Churches' founded after the Reformation in the late 1600s and early 1700s - mainly the Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Quakers). The Revival movement lasted fifty years until the end of the eighteenth century and spread to America where it was welcomed by similar leaders who had already experienced something similar (notably Jonathan Edwards, who in turn influenced British thinking). It became hugely influential on American life.
The main Evangelical leaders were the brothers John and Charles Wesley, whose local societies eventually became a separate Methodist Church in England, and George Whitefield, who founded a separate group of societies and sometimes churches. In Wales there were different leaders, mainly connected with Whitefield, and they founded societies which became the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, a denomination which grew to become the largest non-Anglican one in Wales within one generation.
Evangelical belief is generally agreed to be based on four things that are regarded as continuous with the Protestant tradition since the Reformation, but are also to be found in many earlier theologians, including the Church Fathers. However, the ultimate source of them is claimed to be the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. The four things are: personal conversion, the once and for all atonement for sin at the cross, the final authority under Christ of the Bible as God's Word, and the need to live an active life of discipleship. Evangelicalism gave a new emphasis to these four things that reflected changes in European thought at the time, in which a new confidence was being placed in individual thought and judgement without formal academic training, and an increasing suspicion of all 'traditionalism' in beliefs, both in Christian theology and other academic disciplines.
The Protestants always taught the need for personal faith in Christ for salvation, but the Evangelical movement stressed in a new way the need for a crisis moment in life, in which people had a personal and conscious experience of conversion through which they turned from all known sin and received Christ as Saviour and Lord very definitely. Their insistence was in part led by the fact that almost all British people had been baptised as infants into (mainly) the Anglican Church and even might attend church, but without any personal and conscious spiritual life within them. As a result, baptism was seen as entering a failing and unfaithful external church while personal conversion enabled people to enter the spiritual church which is the Body of Christ in all ages. This led Evangelicalism to a wrong and low view of the external church which persists to this day.
With regard to the cross, the Evangelicals emphasised the Protestant message of subsitutionary atonement once and for all - over against the repetition of Christ's sacrifice in the eucharist, but they tended to portray it as something more intensely personal - 'God knew YOU and thought of YOU when Jesus died on the cross. He did this for YOU - so will you scorn such great love?' That kind of thing.
With regard to the Bible, Evangelicals agreed with the Reformers that it is the inspired Word of God standing above all human tradition and reason. However, in the eighteenth century the new intellectual spirit rejecting intellectual traditionalism led to people believing they could and should think for themselves as individuals. This began a long English tradition of amateur scholarship outside the universities, and the emphasis affected the Christian churches. It made people suspicious of simply believing what they were told, even by learned biblical preachers in the pulpit. The Evangelicals told people that they could read the Bible personally and God would show them its essential message directly by the Holy Spirit within them. The Reformers had said the same, but now it was expressed in terms of the modern intellectual climate, called the Enlightenment. This encouraged 'ordinary' believers to study the Bible alone and together in small groups, and for some of them to begin evangelising publicly in their communities without much theological study - or none. Wesley and Whitefield countered the extreme stupidity and even heresy that this occasionally produced by publishing recommended books for study in the small groups alongside the Bible.
Regarding discipleship, Evangelicals took up the new interest in the value of each individual to teach that each believer must develop his own walk with God and personally contribute to the work of God with great zeal and sacrifice. Welsey once said of money, for example 'earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can'. The Evangelicals were widely attacked as extremists by traditional church leaders, especially Anglicans, and were condemned for denying that baptism saves people as well as for 'devaluing' the eucharist. There had been in the preceding generations a general decline of confidence in the Bible and so most traditional churches, sometimes even the traditionally conversionist Baptists, tended to teach little more than 'baptism-communion-loyalty to the church-good deeds' as the pattern for a genuine Christian faith and life. Frankly, the main churches were often spiritually bankrupt, with some bishops even being atheists. The Evangelical message revived the central message of the Reformation but in a new way that gave far more power to the average church member than even the Protestant churches encouraged - though Baptists and Congregationalists were generally more receptive because of their emphasis on 'the priesthood of all believers'. This is a major reason why Baptists have tended to remain traditionally Evangelical when most of the other mainstream churches have drifted away from it - including even the Methodists.
In the nineteenth century, Evangelicalism became a major force in British life for political reforms, largely because the Evangelicals regarded all people as essentially equal before God (challenging - implicitly at least - the British class system as well as more obvious inequalities such as the poor treatment of children at work, prisoners, and the insane). Evangelicals perhaps challenged social conditions they considered would hinder people from seeing themselves as fully human 'souls' loved by God (such as slavery or insanity); or from living according to Christian principles, such as by poverty driving them to crime and prostitution. However, there was certainly a philanthropic principle at work beyond self-interest. Evangelicals saw compassion as a major Christian virtue. During the nineteenth century, therefore, Evangelicals played a major part in abolishing slavery, reforming parliament, lifting people out of poverty, introducing health reforms like clean water supplies and good sewer systems in cities, bringing in new laws to protect and educate children, and reforming conditions in slum areas, prisons and mental asylums. Many Evangelicals entered public life to campaign for these things. It is often said that these changes enabled Britain to avoid the violence of the French Revolution.
THE RISE OF LIBERALISM
The Enlightenment made a great impact on some theologians, who felt that it was now certain that several central traditional beliefs had to be abandoned. The Enlightenment movement included a general rejection of the Bible as a divine authority, and a rejection of the miraculous in favour of 'rational thought' to explain everything in the universe (though some leading scientists were in fact Christians of some kind). This produced two new theological directions. In biblical studies, more attention was paid to the human authorship and message of the Bible, leading to the rejection of some traditional ideas about the date and accuracy of its contents and especially the rejection of any miraculous subjects, for example predictive prophecy and miracles, including the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ. Miracles came to be regarded as attempts to explain mysteries in the thought forms of the time.
In systematic theology, some scholars sought to re-state the Christian faith without the need to depend finally on the Bible and without any aspect of the miraculous. This was especially true in Germany. One leading thinker was Friedrich Schleiermacher (who lived in the middle of the eighteenth century), who is generally regarded as the father of liberal theology. One of his main contentions was that Jesus could no longer be regarded as divine in the traditional sense, but rather as a man who was supremely close to God whose message was simple and basically about the morality all people could achieve because they were not essentially sinful but capable of good. Others sought to retain the spiritual experience of God as a basic human potential, even without the need for receiving a divine and spiritual new life. Liberalism thus led people to reject the Bible, deny the Deity of Christ, portray Christianity as a moral message rather than a spiritual one, and to regard personal conversion to a new spiritual life as outdated superstition or simply a subjective experience without any definite doctrinal implication or basis. The impact of this thinking was considerable in the Protestant Churches by the middle of the nineteenth century. It also impacted Roman Catholicism, producing a 'Catholic Modernism' movement which was eventually condemned and led to the introduction of an 'anti-modernist' vow required of new priests.
Liberalism became diversified during the nineteenth century. One direction was towards mysticism and rejection of all dogmatism. Another was towards intellectual excellence to explore theology beginning from human experience and the supposedly 'proven facts' of modern learning, rather than starting with divine revelation. Another was to restate the Christian Church as not only a spiritual agent but also one for political, economic and social reform based on principles of justice and human equality - the 'Social Gospel' movement as it was called, with its motto, 'The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man'. A more moderate reaction came from some Evangelical theologians who sought to maintain orthodox beliefs while explaining them in more modern categories of thought such a psychology and science.
Many Evangelicals in the early nineteenth century sympathised with the mystical emphasis because of a new intellectual movement dating from around 1800 in Europe - Romanticism. Romanticism emphasised the nobility of human nature, the poetic and mystical as the places where 'truth' was to be found rather than in science and philosophy, and the belief that modern culture had robbed humanity of its ancient simplicity and dignity. As a result, a new interest was shown in ancient peoples (for example Romantics coined the phrase 'the noble savage') and this was when Evangelicals began to venerate the Jews in a special way (they were the most obvious ancient people living in Europe and resisting modernity). They also accepted the Romantic distrust of intellectual and professional learning so that theology and doctrine were downgraded in favour of reading the 'ancient Word of God' literally and simplistically. This gave rise, among other things, to the Brethren movement with its literalistic 'dispensational' scheme concerning the Premillennial return of Christ, the rejection of paid pastors and teachers, and the rejection of all the historic churches as fatally corrupted by 'traditions of men'. That in turn provided a new platform for the Premilliennial theology of Judaism in relation to Christianity, in which the Jews remained the Chosen People and the OT promises were not fulfilled in Christ and the Church, but would instead be fulfilled literally in the future. Premillennialism has existed throughout church history so that this was not something radically new, but it was given a new and more dogmatic centrality in Evangelical thought as well as some novel twists in Dispensationalism. Then, in the 1870s, a new movement influenced Evangelicals in 'Pietism' - the teaching that there are two essential experiences to the Christian life - conversion to Christ and then being filled with the Spirit for victory over sin and spiritual authority. This also usually emphasised that the world was a wicked place due to be destroyed, that Satan was organising a final rebellion in which even the historic churches would become antichrist, and that Christians should keep themselves 'clean' by avoiding the world both culturally and politically in order to give all their time to spirituality and preaching the gospel. Evangelicals as a result largely rejected by 1900 a century of political involvement in British and American life. The Nazarenes are a product of this movement, both of which have roots in Methodism, and the Pentecostals are a product of combining dispensationalism, a 'second blessing' for power, a search for the 'ancient and original' church of the NT in supernatural gifts like speaking in tongues, suspicion of the historic churches even when they are evangelical, and the pietism that rejects wordly involvement as sinful. It must be said, of course, that Pentecostalism has become more moderate in some of these judgments since their foundation.
Liberalism certainly became very popular in the historic Protestant churches, though less so among Baptists where the need for an evangelical conversion and faithfulness to the Bible were more strongly held beliefs than in other mainstream denominations. Between 1900-1930 liberal ideas became fairly dominant but then the influence of a very intellectual critic began to undermine it. He was a Swiss Protestant theologian named Karl Barth. The First World War had diminished people's confidence in the essential goodness of humanity as well. However, after World War 2 a new liberal movement began to grow, often called 'radical theology'. This became very powerful in the 1960's as theologians sought to restate the message of Jesus for people who were turning away from the churches and any kind of traditional belief system. However, it denied so much and came to such extreme conclusions that in the 1970s it began to decline in influence, though it still has its advocates (as does the older liberalism).
At the same time as traditional Protestant theology was losing its confidnece, the World Council of Churches came into being in 1948. Here was a movement that offered a return to the stated will of Christ 'that they all may be one' and invited the Protestant churches to reassess the authenticity of their different systems as historical accidents that should not bind them forever in view of the words of Jesus. However, it tended to favour a sacramental basis for unity in 'our common baptism' and to favour the liberal theological agenda. By 1960 the Orthodox Churhces had begun to join and Pope John XXIII indicated that the Roman Communion should also take it seriously. Evangelicals have reacted with extreme caution on the basis that the sacramental and liberal agenda are antithetical to biblical faithfulness and evangelical experience. It is yet to be seen whether this suspicion will be proved right or wrong and evangelicals remain sceptical, though ecumencial engagement has proved fruitful in renewing evangelical interest in Patristics and has provided the means to defend evangelicals in countries where either religious persecution takes place against them by other religions or even fellow Christians, and in communist countries because of their official atheism. Baptists remain insistent that they will neither accept reunion under episcopacy nor by renouncing their key convictions about the local church and the priesthood of all believers.
POST WAR LIBERALISM AND EVANGELICALISM
After the last world war, the theological situation became even more lacking in coherence because national and regional denominations outside the 'west' began to develop their own theological traditions in repsonse to their various cultural contexts. On one hand, this is unquestionably valuable, since all theology is culturally informed as well as biblically and historically informed. On the other hand, it has sometimes led to denials of such things as the traditional orthodoxy concerning the Trinity or the Deity of Christ, raising the question of what core beliefs are universal and essential regardless of the cultural context in which it is stated. Evangelicals tend to hold firmly to their four distinctives but it is notable that some of the more doubtful popular church movements in the third world appear to trade on evangelical spiritual themes while embracing local religious elements that seem to place them nearer those religions than to biblical Christianity. One regional movement has made a special impact in Arab Israel, and deserves special mention, though it is far from the extremes I have just described.
In Latin America, 'Liberation Theology' was born after 1945 to counter the extreme social injustices and poverty of the continent. Liberation Theology combines spiritual emphases with political ones, especially in 'base communities' that combine worship with bringing about local political change. The movement is essentially a Catholic one in origin, but has found favour in some other churches as well. Its emphases are on developing a local cultural critique from a Christian point of view, a simpler form of Christian community alongside the official church and somewhat critically of it (though it is supported by some senior bishops and theologians in the Roman Communion), and a bottom-up approach to achieving justice and peace in society rather than waiting for official leaders and politicians to act. Theologically, Liberation Theology sees political implications in the atonement alongside, and sometimes rather than, the traditional explanation of satisfying God's love for sinners and His wrath against sin. There is much that is true and valuable in Liberation Theology but it has certain flaws that bother me. The first is its tendency to undervalue a personal and spiritual relationship with the living Christ as the heart of salvation, and that each person is a sinner in need of salvation. It does not deny the spiritual dimension but tends to emphasise more the practical priority of 'redemption' as a social issue, and to present Christ less as a spiritual redeemer than as a radical who challenges the social order and died as a political martyr and hero. Sin may then become understood as the victimisation of the poor and marginalised through social evils, so that people are portrayed as 'sinned against' rather than as 'sinners' before God. As a political and social critique of institutionalised corruption and injustice I value it, but it often seems to lead people to minimise the spiritual aspect of salvation. Its roots in Catholicism also tend to encourage the Christian presence in it as essentially institutional and communal in contrast with the evangelical belief that the church is a local fellowship of committed believers who have experienced Christ for themselves - the fellowship of believers. When placed in an ecumenical context, there is a tendency to deplore even the most serious denominational differences as well, and that is fatal to Evangelical spirituality with its critique of baptism as a 'saving sacrament', the Eucharist as a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ, and of church membership through baptism without a pesonal and sincere profession of faith in Christ.
I have to say that everything I have said is a simplification of some very complex themes, though I hope I have done so without prejudice or gross inaccuracy! I believe the situation today is that all serious theologians, including Evangelicals, are open to learning from each other; so that in one sense, the denominational distinctions between them in academic study are relatively unimportant - at least on the surface. However, it is also true to say that there are now three fundamental schools of thought acknowledged to exist in academic theology: the Liberal, the Catholic and the Evangelical. Each will read and study the others and sometimes express agreement about their conclusions. Also, some of the original liberal themes are now accepted to be genuine scholarly enterprises that were suspected more for their misuse by early liberals to undermine orthodox faith than because they were simply wrong. One of those is the importance of the human aspect of divine revelation, so that there is a shared interest in matters of authorship, date, literary style and cultural context. Another more recent one is that theology must be 'contextualised' for each generation and society, though conservatives are sometimes concerned that this can lead theology away from its historical and biblical roots.
Evangelicalism has grown phenomenally around the world since 1945, especially through Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. However, growth has also led to greater diversity. Theologically, some claim to be evangelical while moving away from the final authority of Scripture in sympathy with postmodern western culture. Some of them look to a kind of mysticism in place of evangelical spirituality, while others have renewed an interest in ancient Christian tradition, notably the Orthodox Church. Some question the conversionist emphasis, or at least have redefined it in less certain terms. Others have questioned the importance of the subsitutionary atonement because of its supposedly ugly emphasis on God's wrath against sin, or have sought alternative theological models for explaining the cross. To the extent that these are biblically faithful they are to be welcomed, but sometimes the shift is from the personal reality of sin in a way that seems to reject the reality of spiritual salvation. Yet others have challenged the Evangelical love of Pietism, with its rejectoin of the world of culture and politics (and this seems to me to have good historical and biblical justification).
It should be said, in conclusion, that thoughtful evangelicals (as did the early Reformers) have never doubted that there exist outside the evangelical fold people from other church traditions with a genuine spiritual life and personal knowledge of Christ. True Evangelicals remain, however, committed to their four distinctives: the ultimate authority of Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture with its implications for Liberalism; the necessity of personal conversion with its implications for sacramentalism; the centrality of the substitutionary atonement with its implication for alternative explanations of the cross; and the call of God to live a dedicated Christian life in the service of Jesus Christ and His Church with its implications for purely nominal or half-hearted Christian allegiance.
Revd. Phil Hill, BA, MPhil,
Head of Ministerial Formation,
Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary