Posted by: Andrew Webb | September 5, 2008

Reinventing Liberalism, and How to Avoid Doing It

For some time now I’ve been thinking that if I were to write a book on current trends in Reformed and Evangelical theology, it would be entitled Reinventing Liberalism.

If one were to trace the course of Evangelicalism as it has stumbled along from the days of Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy and the split with the mainline churches to the present day, I believe we would find that the path that it navigated was actually circular. At the time of the break between Fundamentalists and Modernists, the root issues were the authority and inerrancy of the bible and the role of the culture in the church. Would the church continue to embrace Sola Scriptura, or would it succumb to the siren call of Homo Mensura and once again follow human wisdom into apostasy and oblivion? For years, even as they argued over what the Word taught, Evangelicals did their best to resist being absorbed by the culture and setting human wisdom over the teaching of scripture. Now however, evangelicalism seems to be succumbing on several different levels and in doing so we are actually repeating the fatal errors of the liberals we broke with.

In our seminaries, we are reaping the bitter harvest of pluralism, post modernism, egalitarianism, and the third generation’s cynicism regarding doctrine. We are even seeing attacks on plenary verbal inspiration under the guise of post-modern attempts to overcome “problems” with the text of the bible. Part of the reason for this can be traced to the transition in the way that seminaries operate. At one time they were seen as an arm of the church, and a place where future conservative pastors were prepared for ministry. Because of this, doctrinal integrity was at a premium and innovation was frowned upon. Now Seminaries are increasingly thought of as a part of the academy and virtually unlimited academic freedom is insisted upon. Covenants, vows, and charters are rewritten or simply reinterpreted and while a seminary professor was once a man who was expected to “teach nothing new,” in modern seminaries a premium is placed on that which is fresh and ground-breaking while old theology is considered to be stifling and outmoded. One hears  that the theology of the Reformation was fine for the time of the Reformation, but new times demand new theology. When it comes to our teachers, academic credentials trump all other criteria as their calling has become to fill minds with data rather than to prepare trustworthy shepherds. In this we are repeating almost verbatim the pattern of the mainline seminaries in the 19th century.

In the church, the fruits of the consumer driven church movement and the cultural capitulation of the 1980s and 1990s have become all too apparent. There is no longer anything counter-cultural about the evangelical church. Our worship is largely a sentimental baptized version of pop-culture entertainment and is increasingly packed full of that which appeals most to the senses and emotions of the natural man, but which is denuded of all revelatory or offensive content. Because the gospel is inherently offensive, it has been watered down to the point where in many supposedly evangelical churches, the sermons that are being preached could have been written by 19th century liberal moralists like Fosdick. These days, an evangelical sermon is expected to entertain, not inform, and to comfort, not convict. Sermons are shallow, anecdotal, and moralistic and have more in common with modern political speeches than the good news conveyed by Christ and his Apostles. Modern church-goers would probably object that they cannot be copying liberals, because there is still so much “faith speech” and enthusiasm about Jesus in their churches, but what they seem to forget is that both of these items were found in spades in the modernist movement of the late 19th century. The problem was that the faith had become naked fideism and like today the faith was not faith alone in Christ alone as he is revealed in the Word of God, but faith in faith. As for enthusiasm about Jesus, that is easy to embrace as long as we don’t inquire too closely as to who Jesus is and why we should be so enthusiastic. As a friend once pointed out, Mormons and even New Agers can get enthusiastic about their own version of Jesus, mere enthusiasm proves nothing.

Part of the fall-out of the assimilation of the church into the consumer culture has been a shocking decline in Evangelical ethics. At one time, one could point to clear differences between the mores and practices of Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals. Today the differences between our mores and those of the culture are evaporating. When it comes to issues of some sins in particular, we are actually slightly ahead of the culture, and evangelicals are actually more likely to divorce than atheists. Even more troubling is the increasing willingness of evangelicals to forgive and accept clearly unbiblical practices like homosexuality and extra and pre-marital sex as these have become accepted in the broader society. A recent CT article on the movie “Save Me” highlighted this by speaking in glowing terms of the “steady progression in films about the relationship between the conservative Christian community and the gay community” and the “bridge building” that it represented. At one time Homosexuality was a sin covered under the broad heading of adultery and thus a violation of the 7th commandment. Now it is simply a “condition” that demands understanding. One only has to consider whether we would consider “bridge building” with the “paedophile community” or “drug dealer community” and we’d see how influenced by the broader gay agenda evangelicals have been. It should be obvious but people only build bridges to places they want to go to (pork barrel spending projects excepted of course). Part of the reason for this change is undoubtedly our willingness to accept heterosexual fornication, adultery, and out of wedlock pregnancy as “no big deal” and the resulting acknowledgement that tolerating the sexual sins we are more likely commit but not the ones we aren’t, is hypocritical. But what is worse, secretly doing evil or openly calling evil, good?

Politically, we have also followed the example of 19th century theological liberals who first attempted to use politics as a blunt instrument in creating a moral “Christian kingdom” here on earth without having to depend on Christ’s work in the salvation of individuals and the remolding of the world at the eschaton. When this attempt failed due to the fact that unregenerate men cannot be forced to act in a genuinely regenerate manner and only the very supernatural gospel the liberals rejected can actually change the unregenerate heart and remold society, the theological liberals changed track and threw themselves into progressive politics, universal charity, and the Marxist principle of the redistribution of wealth. Modern evangelicals are presently going through something of the same transition. Their attempts at creating a moral America politically have failed, and increasing numbers of their children are throwing themselves into liberal and progressive politics often under banners of justice, peace, environmentalism, and mercy ministries. The fact that it is far easier and less uncomfortable to help build a house than share the gospel helps, of course. And while society condemns efforts to convert men, efforts to feed and clothe them are generally always applauded. We may be castigated as dangerous fanatics for asking “are you saved?” but we have found that the culture is happy when evangelicals redirect their efforts into “saving the planet.”   Far too seldom do we ask what good it will do someone if they had a full belly and a solar powered home of their own just before they entered into Hell.

But clearly if all we are content to do is identify the problems and their causes without proposing solutions, we would be guilty of merely cursing the darkness instead of lighting a candle. Unfortunately the solutions at this point will be difficult and painful and inevitably involve sacrifices. Before I propose actual solutions though, let me deal with three false solutions to the problems.

The first of these is what I might be called the Amish response. This is where Evangelicals simply flee from their liberalizing churches, seminaries, and denominations and form smaller and smaller fellowships in the hopes that they and their children will not be affected by the overall rot. Not only does this hasten the decline of those bodies as the conservative counterbalance is eliminated, it tends to lead to an endless cycle of ever shrinking and splintering churches. Christ has assured us that in this world we will have tribulation, and therefore if our response to tribulation is to flee, we will never stop cutting and running. In essence we will become a unconnected group of tiny armies that are effectively defeated before the battle ever begins and whose only response is to throw down their arms and run whilst simultaneously bitterly complaining about the unfairness of their plight. Inevitably after only a short period of time these churches also begin to forget that they were called not to strive to maintain the purest possible Christian fellowship even if that fellowship does nothing but dwindle, but to fulfill the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20) in spite of adversity.

The second of these is a return to ancient traditions. This has been very popular of late especially as a reaction to the vacuous pop-culture practices of the consumer driven church. The problem is that this is less of an alternative to liberalism than a branch of it. As liberalism increases in the church, God’s word is increasingly rejected in favor of human wisdom and that which appeals to our senses. The ancient traditions of the church, while they have an air of antiquity and solemnity that is totally absent from the modern seeker-sensitive church, were actually forged in the crucible of human wisdom and represent the fruits of the rejection of the sufficiency of scripture in their own day. A steep rise in liturgicalism was also part of the decline of the mainline churches in the 19th century. In many branches of the church as modernism took hold, people sought solace in the symbols and sensualism of medieval Catholicism and this was reflected in the many protestants who either embraced Anglo-Catholicism or entered the Roman Catholic church. Those who made the shift were often rejecting modernism, but they were also turning away from biblical heart religion and evangelicalism in favor of an unbiblical formalism. In essence, when this happens the Reformation is blamed and then erased. Also the rise of ancient tradition is often simply another expression of the cult of personal preference that is at the heart of the consumer driven church. In the emergent church in particular these traditions are often embraced precisely because of the way they make worshipers feel and thus they are haphazardly incorporated into worship because we enjoy them in the same way we enjoy a particular movie or painting.

The third false solution is to seek a kind of de’tente with the movements that are reintroducing liberalism into evangelicalism in the hopes that we will be able to positively influence them. The evils that are gradually killing seminaries, denominations, and congregations are tolerated in the hopes that we will be able to influence them to abandon liberalism and embrace orthodoxy. This is simply another variation of what Robert Godfrey has called “the myth of influence.” The fact is that in these circumstances it almost always the case that greater and greater latitudinarianism is encouraged amongst conservatives in the hopes that as we move closer to liberals they will move closer to us. This has never happened in Christian history, rather what usually happens is that conservatives gradually become moderates and thus tamed, they no longer provide much more than a speed-bump on the road to liberalism. If one’s objective is to maintain the purity of one’s gold coin, you won’t achieve that end by gradually agreeing to debase the currency.

So if fleeing and tolerating are both inadequate solutions what then are conservatives who don’t want to see evangelicalism become liberal to do?

The answer is to do something we have little stomach for any longer, and that is to resolve to fight the good fight. There are many ways in which this can be done, but here are some of the more obvious ones:

1) Be willing to strive to make your presentation of the truth winsome and appealing. Far too often those defending the truth make their appeals entirely from the via negativa and do so in a way that makes them seem like they have been immersed in vinegar for most of their lives. Everyone hears about what they are against, but never what they are for, and the way they make their appeal repels rather than woos. Evangelicals need to be patiently setting forth what they believe in and why it is better and more biblical than the modern alternatives. This takes time, and will require that we actually care about the people we are speaking to. It will also involve listening and intelligently responding, rather than simply talking at people. Often liberalizers have persuaded evangelicals, and in particular students, to come over to their position merely because they are friendlier and have better people skills. I remember once as a student in Scotland listening to a talk by a conservative candidate for parliament who was so offensive, combative, devoid of content, and patronizing that even I couldn’t stand him by the time he was finished talking, and I’m a conservative myself! If you are conservative theologically, you cannot avoid having enemies, but try to make friends as well.

2) Have the courage to call things erroneous, evil, or heretical. One of the better questions raised by Rudy Giulliani in his speech before the Republican National Convention was who they Democrats were afraid of offending if they had used the term “Islamic Terrorists?” The answer is “terrorists and those who support them”, and why on earth should we care if they are offended? Similarly why should we care if people who are liberalizing the church are offended by the terminology we use if it is accurate? A case in point was the recent dismissal of Peter Enns from his professorship at Westminster Theological Seminary. The reason he was dismissed was that he was teaching a non-confessional view of scripture and had redefined inerrancy in a way that was not compatible with plenary verbal inspiration. Despite this, the administration and board of trustees simply could not bring themselves to condemn his views as erroneous or heretical. They ended up in the bizarre position of attempting to dismiss a man for reasons they would not or could not define. Again and again they ended up sounding as if they felt his views were simply “different” and “not their preference” which actually isn’t a sufficient or biblical explanation. Personal taste is not the criteria we are called upon to use in judging a prophet’s teaching, rather we are called to compare what he says to the teaching of the Word of God, and if they don’t match up, those teachings are to be unequivocally condemned as false teachings and their sources, false teachers. During the Second World War the United States was not fighting a “war on carrier aviation” or a “war on blitzkrieg” they were fighting a war against evil ideologies and their proponents in Japan and Germany. Similarly we are not fighting a war against particular books, the books like carrier aviation and blitzkrieg are merely tools used to effect the ideological designs of their creators. We too are fighting against false theologies and their proponents. We will no doubt be called mean and unloving for accurately describing things as they are, but it is the sin of calling good, evil and evil, good that is really unloving.

3) Be willing to vote against people, to bring charges, and to fire people. Let’s face it, we all naturally want to the win the war without ever having to fight a battle. Battles are bloody and difficult and involve making big sacrifices. But if there is one thing we should have learned it is that false prophets are rarely if ever willing to separate themselves from the true church, rather they endeavor to hang in and wear down their opponents by their persistence whilst simultaneously gathering more and more followers to themselves. The longer they are able to persist in their position the more damage they will do, and the harder it will be to remove them. Therefore we need to be willing to vote against candidates for ordination who we know will liberalize the church, we need to be willing to actually fire men who are teaching error in the seminaries, we need to be willing to vote to remove men who are destroying denominations as members of the administration, and we need to be willing to do the hard work of bringing well drafted and thought out charges against men who are teaching and promoting liberal errors in the pulpits of the church.

4) Be willing to stand on your principles without wavering and fight to the very end. All of us feel the urge to compromise in a conflict, and most of us would rather flee from a difficult situation than continue in it day after day. I personally dream of Presbytery meetings where all the presbyters are in complete agreement with our Confessional standards, but I have never been in such a meeting and doubt I ever will be in my present denomination. It would be far easier to flee to a micro-denomination but we have been called to stand fast in the evil day. Elders in particular need to remember Paul’s admonition: “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” (2 Tim. 2:3) and therefore continue in the battle that you might follow the example of your Lord and Savior.and His faithful disciples .

When we leave or retreat from a position, it better be because we have no other choice if we are to continue faithfully serving the Lord.

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Responses

  1. Thank you very much for a great article. I couldn’t agree more. I appreciate your recommendations for what we are to do, not only what we are to bemoan. While there is definitely a time to bail out (I left PCUSA for PCA), there is more than ever a time to stand and fight (in a winsome and kind way, as much as possible, as you point out). Thank you for the good reminders of what we are called to do in the church and culture. Great blog, by the way – I started reading it in just the past couple months

  2. I appreciate much of what you say here.

    However, one of your points seems to be that one should not be part of the most faithful church possible… that it is somehow more faithful to participate in a corporately less faithful body while one is striving to be more faithful.

    But while there is an alternative of being more faithful by participating in a more faithful body… I don’t see that you’ve made a persuasive case here for this one point.

    If you want to fight liberalism and non-confessionalism, why remain joined to those you ostensibly want to fight? Is that not the myth of influence?

  3. Baus,

    In the Belgic Confession articles 28 & 29 several points are made, first in chapter 28 that we all have a duty to join ourselves to a true church and not to separate from it, and then in the next chapter the marks of the true and false church are distinguished. If the church we are struggling to preserve and reform still confesses the marks of the true church i.e. “If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in chastening of sin” then despite the inroads of liberalism and heresy we ought to be fighting for it through the means I outlined rather than simply cutting and running to a “more perfect” body. It is only when one or more of those marks is lost that we ought to leave. For instance, both the OPC and the PCA were founded only after one or more of those marks was lost in the body they separated from, in fact in the whole Machen debacle we can see how they PCUSA had become a virtual poster child for the marks of the false church as outlined in chapter 29 of the Belgic Confession.

    Now the body I belong to, the PCA has seen liberalism make some serious inroads in the last 20 years, and certainly one could find some congregations that had effectively become liberal (mercifully a couple of those have left to join liberal denominations in recent years) but it has not yet institutionally lost any of the marks of the true church, and therefore I believe that elders have a calling to stay and attempt to reform that denomination rather than abandoning it for a more perfect communion.

    To make a biblical analogy, the apostolic church had entire Presbyteries (the Galatian churches) that appear to have been overcome by the Judaizing heresy, other churches in Corinth were struggling with antinomianism, sensualism, and egalitarianism and one could easily go through the epistles listing the various errors and heresies that afflicted the church of the first century. Yet the Apostles at no point conclude that what they should do is take the “pure congregations and presbyteries” and leave to form a new pure church. Instead they use church discipline, letters, and synods and fight to purify and reform the existing church. Paul never backed down when it came to fighting to preserve and reform the body of Christ, neither should we, and when we leave, it should only be because it is our only choice.

  4. Great post, Andy. What is the best book re: the historical background of the emergence of mainstream liberalism in the 19th c. ?

  5. [...] of their own just before they entered into Hell. –Andrew Webb *Emphasis mine. Found here: Reinventing Liberalism, and How to Avoid Doing It Building Old School Churches __________________ ~James Helbert~, Wytheville, VA Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church, RPCUS [...]

  6. In my opinion even though it’s by Gary North, the best book on the subject of the emergence of liberalism is
    Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church. Any conservative in the OPC or PCA that hasn’t read that book should do so. If you think what happens in Presbytery meetings is troublesome now, it will look a whole lot more ghastly after reading that book.

    So how do you determine when a mark of the church has been lost?

    If there is one pulpit still preaching the true faith the Gospel is that enough for the denomination to retain that as a mark of the church? Or do you need 51%? Same thing for the sacraments? How many churches need to let the failure to present children for baptism without censure before that mark is lost? How many judicial cases do they have to get wrong before you would say they are stripped of the third mark of the church? Does the denomination need to get 51% wrong or 99% or 100% wrong? Over how many years? How many ministers may unrepentantly beat and abuse their wives (some to the point of suicide) without censure, even when the laxity is complained to and appealed to the highest court?

    Or is the rule: not until it happens to you personally? Or until you’ve personally “had enough”? That’s what Machen did – was it not? Not until it happened to him personally, did he pull the plug. Today even among his warrior children it’s pretty hard to get many of them to label PCUSA as apostate.

    How about Titus 3:10? How many first and second admonitions do they get before they are rejected? What does Titus 3:10 really mean by rejected? Reject the heresy, but not the heretic? It seems the OPC and PCA other reports did just that. Fortunately in the OPC we have no FV, so we’re safe there*, but what about the PCA?

    How many years do you have to wait between before you can reject them? You got rid of Wilkins, but what about the rest of them? How many years has it been since the AAPC Pastor’s Conference titled The Federal Vision? Do you think that waiting all those years might have allowed that leaven to diffuse past the point where you can cut out the dough so leavened?

    * At least that’s what seems to be the prevailing thought is in the OPC, its a PCA problem. Although, I think myself that is naive.

  7. Andy –

    Great post! Hopefully many will take it to heart!

  8. Thanks, this is extremely useful. (I read your blog via a feed, but visiting the site today I think I must have somehow missed this one when it was first posted!) And I’m trying not to think too hard to imagine who the Scottish conservative (Conservative?) candidate might have been :)


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