Who are the Liberals?

“Don’t touch that book, it was written by a liberal theologian!” To label someone a “liberal” is often to sound a death knell — we should not touch his books, attend his talks or come anywhere within 100 kilometres of him. But what does it mean to call someone a “liberal” Christian?

The movement of liberal theology started in the late 18th century in Germany, after which it spread to other parts of Europe and also to America. It arose as a response to that pivotal event of the 17th century: the Western Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment exalted human reason above all else. Reason was to be the arbiter of allthings, and anything which reason could not make sense of was to be dismissed as useless superstition; the product of an earlier unenlightened age.

Christianity, which had reigned supreme as the belief system of the West for almost a millennium and a half, fared poorly in the “modern” age inaugurated by the Enlightenment. Many of its long-held beliefs were severely challenged on the basis that they violated the tenets of reason. The Enlightenment started the steady decline of Christianity in the West, a phenomenon which continues to our present day.

Some theologians responded to this dire situation by seeking to “revamp” the Christian faith — to revise its contents and set it on new foundations, so that it might survive and thrive in the modern age. These were the pioneers of liberal Christianity. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that they did a very poor job. They made too many concessions to the spirit of their age. As a result, their revamped Christianity bore little resemblance to the traditional faith.

For example, some of them insisted that Jesus be seen merely as the exemplar and teacher of moral and spiritual truths. Age-old doctrines like Jesus’ divinity and His atoning sacrifice were jettisoned, since reason (as they understood it) could not make sense of these teachings.

The liberal theologians could also be said to have done a poor job because their revamped Christianity did not stop the slide of the Christian faith in the West. In an effort to be relevant, they had stripped Christianity of all that was transcendent and distinctive. What they offered looked too much like a product of their time. Instead of attracting people, this ultimately repelled them — why should anyone become a Christian when all the church was doing was simply echoing the existing values of one’s culture?

The Christian scene in Singapore is largely “evangelical”, meaning that we hold on to the traditional teachings of the faith, and reject the revamped Christianity offered by the liberals. But before we gloat at the failure of liberal Christianity, it would be wise to take a long hard look at urselves.
Are we not also guilty of making too many concessions to the spirit of our age?

We are, in a sense, smarter than the liberals. We leave our beliefs untouched — we can still raise our hands when asked to affirm the divinity of Jesus and other traditional doctrines. But, for many of us, these beliefs are mere words on paper — they don’t affect our lives in a significant way.

It is in the real practical business of organising the life of our church that our “liberal” tendencies really show. In an effort to be relevant, in our desperation to attract new people and retain our members, we have bent over backwards to “revamp” various aspects of our church life in order to suit the preferences of our congregations. If “man is the measure of all things” for the liberal Christians, it might actually be no less so for us.

If this is the case, let the failure of liberal Christianity serve as a stark warning. Capitulation to the spirit of our age might be a short-term fix, but in the long run, our Christianity becomes indistinguishable from our culture, and that can only mean the slow and agonising death of our faith.

Picture by Raywoo/

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Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of Church History and Theology at Trinity Theological College. He is married to Cheng Ping, and they have three children. The family worships at Wesley Methodist Church