A New and Rising Liberalism

There’s a new liberalism making its way through our churches and transforming our denominations. No, this liberalism doesn’t deny the virgin birth or the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. This liberalism is steeped in biblical exegesis and historic-Reformed categories. Today’s liberalism attempts to use the common creeds and confessions we know and love, and it emphasises the importance of using scripture to defend our ideas. This liberalism has a foothold in virtually every major Reformed seminary and denominational group. Like the liberalism that Machen fought, this liberalism isn’t simply an aberration away from biblical Christianity; it’s an entirely different religion. Using the same language, borrowing from the same history, often preached side by side with orthodoxy, this liberalism poses no less a serious threat to orthodox Christianity than did the liberalism of the early 20th century.

The theological liberalism of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy dealt primarily with doctrinal categories. The liberals of the early 20th century wanted to keep the form and trappings of Christianity while also stripping it of any doctrinal content that flew in the face of a rationalist view of science and the world. They wanted the moral authority of a religion without the dogmatic content of biblical Christianity. Today’s liberalism, however, is a different category all-together. Modern Liberalism accepts the validity of miracles, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the authority (at least in theory) of scripture, the resurrection, and the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement. Today’s liberalism isn’t theological; it’s ethical.

Today’s liberalism addresses not what we believe but how we act. Of course theology is always behind our ethics, but examining the doctrinal statement of today’s Modern Liberals will turn over little that’s concerning. It’s in their practice that the concerns are shown. The theological liberals of the early 20th century professed faith in a real Jesus while denying that he ever lived. They claimed to believe the whole of scripture yet consistently undercut every significant doctrine. So today, Modern Liberals profess faith in the same theology as orthodox Reformed Christianity, yet their practice is profoundly different to that of New Testament Christianity.

Good truths are being twisted. Those who emphasize God’s grace and Christ’s love to the neglect of a fully biblical emphasis on the absolute imperative of Christians to live a life of repentance and pursue holiness today demonstrate the theological component behind this rising Modern Liberalism. Those who teach only on justification and the love of God, those who openly deny or tacitly undercut the necessity of sanctification are fuelling the ethical dimension to today’s Modern Liberalism. The Epistle to Titus is abundantly clear: the Christian life is comprised of both right faith and right action, both right believing and right living, both biblical doctrine and biblical practice. True repentance inescapably involves both. Neglecting either point results in a deficient Christianity.

What are some examples of this new liberalism in evangelical churches today?

- ever changing complentarianism; increasing discomfort with male headship

- milquetoast response to gender and sexual confusion in our day

- Christianised ‘me-too’

- shallow politicisation of pulpits

- CRT in the church and theological academy

- deficient or non-existent pastoral theology

- flawed understandings of God’s grace and Christ’s love

- honouring the language of scripture but ignoring the substance

- grace over truth

- love over law

- justification over sanctification

- unity over fidelity

- empathy over communion

- tone over substance

- feelings over the content of faith

- culture over Christ

- The theological liberalism of the past was afraid the modern man wouldn’t think the Christian faith was reasonable in the face of science. Modern Liberalism’s God is worried we might think too highly of him.

- Modern Liberalism has too low a view of sin and God’s word (as did the older liberalism).

- Modern Liberalism has a fundamentally therapeutic view of redemption. The main concern is not that we are actually right with God but that we feel better about ourselves and our relationship with God.

- Modern Liberalism has little to say about the Christian life today. Biblical ethics is almost completely neglected.

- Modern Liberalism is nearly obsessive about the world’s understanding of justice but apathetic about God’s.

- Modern Liberalism worships a God who can save our souls but who either doesn’t or can’t transform our natures in this life.

- Modern Liberalism has virtually no place for a robust doctrine of sanctification, and it lives in fear that any discussion of sanctification is both legalistic and moralistic.

- Modern Liberalism has a low view of the local church and local church pastors.

- Modern Liberalism has little theological discernment.

Reformed Christians have spent the last century dealing with the arguments and categories of early 20th century liberalism, but those battles have already been fought. We will be outflanked if we continue to prepare for the ideological battles of the last century. As those who should understand the times, we need to understand the nature of the liberalism arising in Christianity today. This ethical liberalism, which is really a lack of genuine repentance, threatens to undermine the church in this day and in the next few decades.

A church or pastor may emphasise some of these points without necessarily drifting into liberalism. But the presence of multiple of these markers may also very well indicate that liberalism is making an incursion. Make no mistake: Modern Liberalism is just as heretical as was the theological liberalism of the early 20th century. It is heresy to deny the necessity of sanctification for believers as much as to deny the authority of scripture. To deny that Christ truly transforms his people in this life is as much heresy as it is to deny that he came to save.

The church is compared to a building in the New Testament. Are our churches sturdy homes built on the rock, or are they breezy shacks built on the sand? While holding to the truth we must guard against the tendency to a brittle and loveless orthodoxy, yet that very real temptation should not dissuade us from holding to the truth. Some sturdy homes may smell a bit musty and need a bit of fresh air or revitalisation, but a beachside shack will be quickly blown away and offers no shelter at all.

May God help us hold firmly to the whole gospel with grace and truth.

Aaron Prelock was a pastor in London for 10 years and has a PhD in historical theology (VID Specialized University, Stavanger, Norway).