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What Is Liberal Theology?

By Bryce Clinton
Updated May 23, 2024
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Liberal theology is a general term for Christian theological thinking that arose in conjunction with modern thought, particularly elements of modern thought that originated in the Age of Enlightenment, such as social equality. It seeks to reconcile Christianity with progressive modern ideas that eschew certain antiquated or hegemonic worldviews. Liberal theology takes into account a diverse body of evolving thought as it relates to Christianity from the late 1800s to the present. This includes most academic disciplines in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences as viewed from a theological perspective.

During the late 1800s, liberal theology took shape while other major social, academic, and philosophical changes were happening throughout Europe and the United States. In philosophy and metaphysics, it was becoming increasingly apparent that truth cannot be based on an appeal to external authority; thus, liberal theology sought to reexamine absolute truth claims inherent in Christian dogma by reapplying hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) to scripture. Since the writings of Christianity were already based upon interpretation, thinkers launched a new exegesis that would embrace evolutions in rational thought. Part of this effort was to pull Christianity out of the dark ages while keeping it relevant to issues concerning social and spiritual salvation.

The theological growth represented by liberal theology was not designed to discredit Christianity, but to exult its best qualities. Explored mainly by intellectuals learning theology and seminary, it became a way of thinking about traditional Christian teaching that made room for important aspects of modern knowledge such as rationality, science, ethics, and philosophy. Liberal theology was still Christianity, but it represented an openness to intellectual inquiry in keeping with progressive Protestant ideas and the spread of knowledge characterized by the advent of the university and other public institutions of higher learning.

Other sources for early liberal theology includes roots in Unitarian Universalism, which sought to bring Enlightenment concepts into a new understanding of Christian teachings. Many Unitarian thinkers and ethicists are cited in association with liberal theological thought. These include Francis Greenwood Peabody, George Burnam Foster, James Luther Adams, and others, each of whom advocated a humanitarian approach to Christianity. Such a humanitarian approach represented a willingness to allow for personal understanding and growth, as well as progressive social change.

Throughout its history, liberal theology has responded to equal rights issues, first in connection with colonialism and oppressive behavior practiced by old-world Christianity. Later in connection with equal rights for women, people of color, and eventually gays and lesbians; but despite the growth during the last century of public education, liberal theology is still anathematized, even in contemporary times, by strands of evangelism and orthodoxy resistant to modern thinking.

Challenges for liberal theologians and educated Christians in the coming century include promoting open mindedness and progressive Christian ideas among populations largely unexposed to critical thinking or higher learning; while at the same time, advocating Christian ideas and traditions in an academic community whose rational thinking is largely hostile to theology and faith. According to some liberal theologians, contemporary progressive Christianity is in crisis due to this dichotomy.

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