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Modernism: Christian Modernism


The related terms liberalism and modernism, when occurring in a religious or theological context, are usually no less imprecise than when used with other references. As T. S. Eliot put it: "Liberalism is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite." Accordingly the content of a set of doctrines or principles described as liberal depends upon that of the "orthodoxy" from which such liberalism diverges, or which it relaxes or qualifies. Much the same applies to modernism, which refers not simply to what exists today but to something deemed to be distinctive of today or of the more recent past, and so to be commended as such, in contrast to what represents a settled tradition or a historic inheritance. Defining both terms therefore presents difficulties, and an understanding of what either signifies is best reached by observing how in fact the word has been used, and in particular by recording agreement as to what it at least denotes.

The word liberalism was employed early in the nineteenth century to designate "the holding of liberal opinions in politics or theology." Theologically the word did not at first have a favorable connotation. Thus Edward Irving stated in 1826 that whereas "religion is the very name of obligation liberalism is the very name of want of obligation." John Henry Newman went further and spoke in 1841 of "the most serious thinkers among us" as regarding "the spirit of liberalism as characteristic of the destined Antichrist." Liberalism itself he stigmatized in 1864 as "false liberty of thought, or the exercize of thought upon matters in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place." More succinctly, Newman condemned it as "the anti-dogmatic principle."

Gradually, however, this view point changed with the broader adoption by theologians of opinions more or less critical of received dogma or traditional interpretations of scripture. Employment of the word liberalist came instead to be a mark of approval, in opposition to attitudes referred to pejoratively as traditionalist, dogmatist, or even obscurantist. Moreover, liberalism was taken to signify a readiness not only to modify or actually negate certain doctrines or beliefs usually associated with received religious teaching but also to propagate views of a more positive nature, such as the necessity for freedom of inquiry and research and the conviction that new knowledge, when soundly based, will not prove subversive of fundamental religious truth but rather be a light by which to clarify and enhance such truth. Hence to be identified as "liberal" was regarded as a compliment by an increasing number of Protestant thinkers and scholars in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

At about the same time the term modernism gained currency, especially in Anglican circles, as an alternative, and preferable, designation for such theological liberalism. However, modernism has long been accepted in a stricter sense as indicating a type of "progressive" theological opinion to be found in the Roman Catholic Church during the pontificates of Leo XIII and Pius X, and many would now consider usage of the word best limited to this latter sense. "Liberal Catholicism" also designates certain tendencies in nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism, notably in France. Its concern, however, was more political and social than theological.

Attitudes that could in some sense be characterized as liberal or modernist have been recurrent throughout the history of Christian thought, but the movements or tendencies that usually carry one of these epithets are of nineteenth- or twentieth-century occurrence, and in the interest of clarity the present entry will observe this restriction.

The immediate intellectual background of theological liberalism was the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, with its striving for political, social, and cultural liberty. The criterion of "enlightened" judgment was the use of reason, in which the mysteries of religious faith were prone to seem mere relics of the ignorance and superstition of the past. Deism became the widely prevalent expression of this largely negative standpoint. A new era opened with the later philosophy of the century's greatest thinker, Immanuel Kant, who sought by an analysis of the nature of knowledge itself to offer a rational justification for faith. But the answer he produced in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) was such as to destroy the long-established "natural" theology that most Deist as well as orthodox thinkers regarded as fundamental. In its place he put the witness of the moral consciousness: belief in God was to be seen, philosophically, as a postulate of "practical," or moral, reason. The scientific understanding could not prove the existence of God, but the will, as the faculty of the moral life, required it. Kant's own philosophy of religionor, more correctly, his philosophy of the Christian religionwas embodied in his suitably entitled Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, one of the main sources from which modern theological liberalism derives. Indeed, Paul Tillich is right in claiming Kant's teaching as "decisive for the theology of the nineteenth century" (Perspectives on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Protestant Theology, London, 1967, p. 64).

The perspective within which Kant views religion appears, on the face of it, narrow. Religion, he maintains, is morality; or at all events morality is of its very substance, albeit construed in terms of divine command. In other words, the religious problem is not a speculative one in which the religious object is validated primarily at the metaphysical level; it is a practical problem, pertaining wholly to man's ethical nature. "The illusion of being able to accomplish anything in the way of justifying ourselves before God through religious acts of worship is superstition " (Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, New York, 1960, p. 162). The reductionism that this implies therefore necessitates a critique of traditional beliefs and institutions in anticipation of a more positive statement of what a genuinely rational Christianity must involve. Such insistence on the need for distinguishing between the essential and the nonessentialreason and conscience providing the criteriawas to become the guiding principle of all forms of liberal Christianity, and especially of German nineteenth-century Protestantism.

Liberal Protestantism

Nevertheless, if liberalism is to attain any sort of useful definition, some discrimination has to be made. "Liberal Protestantism," that is to say, is not simply to be equated with "Protestant liberalism." "A moderately orthodox believer," said the French liberal theologian Jean Réville, "may practise liberalism; he will not thereby become a liberal Protestant" (Liberal Christianity, London, 1903, p. 17). Protestant liberalism is in fact no more than the conception of Christianity of those who combine a liberal turn of mind with a broadly Protestant type of religious conviction. Such a position is subject, obviously, to many different sources of influence and offers a wide variety of opinion. Liberal Protestantism, on the other hand, is a designation best applied to the kind of theological thinking that, against a generally Lutheran background, developed in Germany during the nineteenth century under the stimulus first of Friedrich Schleiermacher and then of Albrecht Ritschl. Not that it remained confined to Germany: in France, Auguste Sabatier (18391901) and Jean Réville (18541908) himself, for example, may fairly be classed as liberal Protestants, as are such men as the Presbyterian William Adams Brown in the United States and the Congregationalists T. R. Glover and C. J. Cadoux in Great Britain. Again, Kantian reverberations are as a rule clearly audible in liberal Protestantism, whereas in Protestant liberalism (at all events, in an English and Anglican setting) the prevailing spirit is more that of the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists or the latitudinarianism associated with archbishop John Tillotson (16301694) than that of Kant or, still less, of Schleiermacher.

Yet to press such distinctions too far would be to obscure the very large amount of common ground that liberals of all shades of opinion occupy in contrast to traditionalist, let alone "fundamentalist," views. Differences are less of kind than of degree, and they are inevitably marked by national and denominational characteristics. Thus all liberals desire, first, a broad interpretation of dogmatic formularies, where these exist and retain some authority. Second, they are cool toward theological speculation that appears to have no particular ethical relevance. And third, they are especially sensitive to the impact on traditional belief of new knowledge in the sciences, both natural and historical. Indeed, in the more recent phases of liberal religious thought, a determining factor has been the historical criticism of the Bible and the effect that this criticism is bound to have upon the understanding and use of scripturealways for Protestants the ultimate source of Christian doctrine. Hence the varieties of liberalism arise in the main from differing responses on the part of individual religious thinkers to each of these leading considerations.

The starting point for a study of liberal Protestantism is the work of Schleiermacher (17681834), "the father of modern theology," as he has fitly been called. Kant, for all his anticipation of subsequent trends of thought, was very much an eighteenth-century figure, in whom the individualist note of ethical rationalism was all-pervasive. Schleiermacher, on the other hand, brought to religious reflection a different spirit. For him religion was primarily a condition of the heart; its essence is feeling (Gefühl). Without a deep emotional impulse it cannot be sustained in its true character and becomes either dogmatism or moralism. Authentic religion is, rather, a "submission to be moved by the Whole that stands over against man," a "sense and taste for the Infinite." In his great work on systematic theology, The Christian Faith (18211822; 2d ed., 1830), Schleiermacher called religion a "feeling of absolute dependence" or, for the Christian specifically, a feeling of absolute dependence upon "God in Christ." Thus in Schleiermacher's religious philosophy a fundamental principle of liberalism is already evident, namely, the appeal to inward experience, and therewith an element of subjectivism from which the liberal standpoint can never be dissociated. In this, indeed, Schleiermacher had been anticipated by Kant; but whereas for Kant the subjective determinant was moral, for Schleiermacher it could best be described as aesthetic. In the subsequent development of liberal Protestantism, the moral factor was consistently the more potent.

This is especially so in the teaching of Ritschl (18221889), the most influential German theologian of his era, who for the greater part of his career held the chair of theology at the University of Göttingen. His main literary work was The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (18701874). Ritschl disliked Schleiermacher's emphasis on feeling, and although his own concern was strongly ethical, he believed also that faith must have an objective basis. Such objectivity, however, he found not in metaphysics, Hellenic or Hegelian (for which, as far as theology was concerned, Ritschl had no use), but in history, or rather in the unique historical events of the New Testament. In his younger days he had come under the influence of the eminent Tübingen historian of early Christianity, Ferdinand Christian Baur (17921860), whose skeptical conclusions in this field had to a large extent been dictated by his Hegelian presuppositions. But by 1856 Ritschl had repudiated the Tübingen position, although he welcomed historical criticism as such since he believed that recourse to the original salvific events would bypass the metaphysical Christology of Catholic dogma, which to the genuinely religious mind had become an impediment. In short, he saw Christianity as essentially a life devoted to action, both Godward and manward, in which the ethical imperative is supreme. The corollary of this was that religious doctrines are not assertions of fact, in the ordinary meaning of the word, but "value judgments" (Werturteile) expressive of humanity's attitude to the world about it and relating to its moral and spiritual ends. For the human claim to moral freedom and the responsibility that this entails is, in Ritschl's mind, the necessary counterbalance to the determinism of nature as described by modern science, and the primary role of religion is to uphold this claim. To quote Ritschl: "In every religion what is sought, with the help of the supernatural power reverenced by man, is a solution of the contradiction in which humanity finds itself, as both a part of the world of nature and a spiritual personality claiming to dominate nature" (Justification and Reconciliation, Edinburgh, 18741900, p. 199).

For Ritschl, the distinctiveness of Christianity lay in the unique clue to an understanding of the divine nature and purposes offered by Jesus, who for the Christian is the sole medium of salvation. And Jesus as the Christ is to be known not through any abstruse theology of his person, but by his workthat is, by his own consciousness of God communicated in turn to us, whereby one experiences forgiveness of sin and restoration of the desire and power to do the will of God. The church, to which Ritschl attached high importance, is the only sphere in which justification and reconciliation are experienced. As such, it is the community of the redeemed.

Ritschlianism, however, includes more than the personal teaching of Ritschl himself and comprises the thinking of a number of theologians prominent in German Protestantism down to at least the outbreak of World War I. It also was not without its representatives in the Anglo-Saxon world. Of the German Ritschlians, the most distinguished were Wilhelm Herrmann (18461922), Julius Kaftan (18481926), and Adolf von Harnack (18511930). Indeed, Herrmann's The Communion of the Christian with God (1886) is perhaps the most typical as well as the most sympathetic expression of the Ritschlian viewpoint one could cite. Its author, who was professor of theology at the University of Marburg, was if anything even more anxious than Ritschl to sunder Christian doctrine from all traffic with metaphysical philosophy. For him, as for Ritschl, the heart of the gospel is an ethical ideal, and confessions of theological belief are altogether secondary. The object of a Christian's faith is Jesus as he lived. The more radical side of Ritschlianism is represented by Harnack, for many years professor of church history at the University of Berlin. Here again the bedrock of faith is the historical Jesus. In his well-known What Is Christianity? (1900), Harnack sets aside the entire Catholic tradition of dogma, hierarchy, and cult; indeed, under the guiding light of modern criticism, he goes far beyond Reformation Protestantism in negating the past. To discover the Wesen, the essence, of the Christian religion, the theologian of today must return not merely to the New Testamenttheological distortion had already begun with Paulbut to the teaching of Jesus as preserved in the Synoptic Gospels, the heart of which is the principle of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. The "kingdom" that Jesus preached, shorn of its apocalyptic trappings, must therefore be understood in a purely ethical sense. "The individual is called upon to listen to the glad message of mercy and of God's Fatherhood, and to make up his mind whether he will be on God's side as the Eternal's, or on the side of the world and time."

The final phase of liberal Protestantism is really post-Ritschlian and centers upon the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (history of religions school), typified in the work of Ernst Troeltsch (18651923) and Wilhelm Bousset (18651920). Troeltsch, at first professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg and afterward professor of the history of philosophy at the University of Berlin, was much influenced by the sociologists Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber. The fact, as Troeltsch saw it, that Christianity, like any other cultural phenomenon, must be understood primarily in relation to its attendant historical conditions inevitably posed the problem of the absoluteness of its claims in respect not only to the world's other religions but to cultural change generally. The proper approach to Christianity appeared to be by way of the history and philosophy of religion; dogmatic theology acquired relevance only within this broader scholarly framework. Not surprisingly, it was an opinion that to the more traditionally minded placed divine revelation at the disposal of a relativistic historicism. This, along with the persistent anthropocentrism of liberal theology, was to lead, by the end of World War I in 1918, to the antiliberalist reaction of Karl Barth, whose Epistle to the Romans appeared in the following year, and to the so-called neoorthodox movement generally.

But despite the powerful Barthian influence that lasted for at least four decades into the twentieth century, the liberal aim of communicating the Christian message to modern humanity in terms of its own modernity was not revoked. This aim is evident enough in the work of two of Barth's most outstanding Protestant contemporaries, Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, albeit that the associated philosophy here is existentialism rather than post-Hegelian idealism. Moreover, the distinctively humanist tone that since about 1960 has come more or less to pervade virtually all Western theological thinking is clearly continuous with the older liberalizing attitudes.

In the English-speaking world, liberal Protestantism did not form so clearly defined a force as it did in Germany. At any rate it is more difficult to distinguish between liberal Protestants, in Réville's meaning of the term, and theological liberals in a broader sense. But in this broader sense liberalism is multifarious, depending on varying denominational allegiances, although also to a large extent on individual interests and idiosyncrasies. Classification therefore demands much tact.

The antecedents of English liberalism, particularly within the Anglican context, are to be located in eighteenth-century latitudinarianism, in the "noetic" school at Oxford University in the early nineteenth centurywhose chief exponents are Richard Whately (17871863), Renn Dickson Hampden (17931868), and Thomas Arnold (17951842)and in the midcentury "broad church" as represented by H. H. Milman (17911868), A. P. Stanley (18151881), and Benjamin Jowett (18171893), as indeed by all the authors of Essays and Reviews (1860), including Jowett. Frederick Denison Maurice (18051872), in some ways the most fertile theological mind of his time in England, eschewed the name "broad church," but his teaching, permeated as it was with the influence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had a broadening effect within the Church of England and undoubtedly contributed substantially to the shaping of modern Anglicanism. Maurice himself seems scarcely to have appreciated the unsettling effect on orthodox thinking of the historical criticism of the Bible.

A more self-consciously innovative type of liberalism, however, made its appearance toward the end of the century. It was associated with the names of Percy Gardner (18461937), professor of classicial archaeology at Oxford University; Hastings Rashdall (18581924), dean of Carlisle; W. R. Inge (18601954), dean of Saint Paul's, London; H. D. A. Major (18711961), principal of Ripon Hall, Oxford; and E. W. Barnes (18741953), bishop of Birmingham. All of them were connected with the Modern Churchmen's Union, founded in 1898, and with its organ the Modern Churchman. But their "modernism"to use their own preferred designationhad little theological coherence. Such unity as it possessed stemmed chiefly from a marked opposition to the doctrine and practices of the Anglo-Catholic party within the established church. The Union achieved its highest public notice with its Cambridge conference of 1921 on the general theme of "Christ and the Creeds." Rashdall's paper "Christ as the Logos and Son of God" aroused sharp controversy with such statements as the following: "It is impossible to maintain that God is fully incarnate in Christ, and not incarnate at all in any one else." But by the end of the 1930s Anglican modernism was in decline and is now but the merest wraith of its former self. Indeed, the very name has been virtually abandoned.

A liberalism more akin to continental liberal Protestantism was to be found among the English Nonconformists, or "Free Churchmen," rather than among Anglicans. In the main, however, the Free Church theologians, of whom the most distinguished representatives included P. T. Forsyth and A. E. Garvie (the latter a close student of Ritschlianism), were less inclined to doctrinal novelty than were some of their Anglican contemporaries. The Congregationalist R. J. Campbell (18671956), author of The New Theology (1907), was an exception. So too was T. R. Glover (18691943), a Cambridge classical scholar and author of the popular Jesus of History (1917), the thesis of which is much the same as that of Harnack's What Is Christianity? Another exception was C. J. Cadoux (18831947), whose Catholicism and Christianity (1928) propounded a radical critique of Catholic orthodoxy from a liberal angle. The Unitarian tradition, maintained with high repute throughout the nineteenth century by James Martineau (18051900)perhaps the greatest Protestant liberal of his era in Englandwas also represented, if somewhat journalistically, by L. P. Jacks (18601955).

In America the liberal movement in religious thought may be said to have begun with William Ellery Channing (17801842). Brought up in the strict ways of New England Calvinism, Channing came to be considered a Unitarian. But critical though he was of traditional doctrines, he believed Christ to have been the perfect revelation of God and the living ideal of humanity. Against Calvinism he set a confident faith in an individual's freedom and inherent capacity for good as a child of God. The leader of the New England Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), whom Matthew Arnold, addressing an American audience, described as "your Newman, your man of soul and genius," remains the best-known American religious thinker of the nineteenth century. His religious views are expounded in Nature (1836) and the two volumes of Essays (18411843). The basis of his position was belief in the essential divinity of man; redemption was to be sought in the individual's possession of his or her own soul by original thought and effort. Jesus, he held, was best honored by following his example. A liberal of more orthodox persuasion was Horace Bushnell (18021876), who for much of his career was pastor of the North Church at Hartford, Connecticut. His Discourse on Christian Nurture (1847) took a mediating line between the old orthodoxy, with its preoccupation with Original Sin and human depravity, and Enlightenment theories of human perfectibility. In God in Christ (1849) he applied the moral criterion to dogma, and he insisted that even in scripture the "soul" must be distinguished from the "body."

Nearer the close of the century European influencesand not least Ritschlianismare discernible in American theology, notably in the writings of H. C. King (18581934), president of Oberlin College, Ohio, and William Adams Brown (18651943) of Union Theological Seminary, New York, whose work The Essence of Christianity appeared in 1902. Among historical scholars of a liberal bent was A. C. McGiffert (18611933), also of Union Theological Seminary, who believed religious certitude to be, in the last resort, independent of historical events. Other prominent liberals of the early twentieth century include the well-known New York preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick; Shailer Mathews, whose book The Faith of Modernism (1925) is as forthright a statement of liberal ideals as could be wished; and H. N. Wieman, author of The Wrestle of Religion with Truth (1927).

Roman Catholic Modernism

The use of the word Modernism in restricted reference (hence the capitalization of its initial letter) to a movement of a theologically "modernizing" or liberalizing character in the Roman Catholic Church at the turn of the twentieth century has already been alluded to. But it should at once be said that to describe Roman Catholic Modernism as a movement at all is somewhat misleading, as it had little cohesion, and those to whom the designation "Modernist" has usually been applied do not in any sense constitute a school. As the most famous of them, Alfred Loisy (18571940), expressly stated, they were only "a quite limited number of persons" who individually shared "the desire to adapt the Catholic religion to the intellectual, moral and social needs of the present time." But the exact determination of their overall aim differed from one writer to another, according to his particular interest. Thus the only satisfactory way of studying Modernism is not to attempt to impose upon it a schematization like that of Pius X, by whose encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis it was condemned in 1907, but to examine and assess each author's contribution to the cause as a whole. The countries where Modernist tendencies were most in evidence were France, Italy, and England. Germany, rather surprisingly, was less affected, and in the United States it had no real following at all.

The task that, in one way or another, the Modernists undertook was that of presenting the world of their day with a defense of Catholicism, in both its doctrinal and institutional aspects, which could be accepted as intellectually plausible. In other words, what Protestant liberals had done for the Reformation tradition they would attempt for the post-Tridentine, and their procedure was often no less radical. Thus Loisy, in The Gospel and the Church (1902), approached the whole problem of historical Catholicismits dogmas, its hierarchy, its cultalong evolutionary lines as a natural growth responsive to spiritual and social needs and determined by the continuously changing cultural environment. A direct reply to Harnack's What Is Christianity?, Loisy's book denied that the essence of Christianity could be located at any one stage or identified with any single element within its historical life. The entire historical life of Christianity, he maintained, alone provided the data for a truebecause empirically groundedestimate of what the Christian religion is. In this context, Catholicism will be seen to be justifiedso Loisy arguedby the sheer fullness and diversity of its content. Similar arguments were used by the Anglo-Irish Jesuit George Tyrrell (18611909), notably in his posthumous work Christianity at the Cross Roads (1910).

The peculiar difficulty facing the Modernists lay in seeking to validate a form of Christianity that appeared fatally vulnerable to historical criticism. Indeed, they felt that the main pressure upon faith came from precisely this quarter, and the familiar type of Catholic apologetic, tied as it was to biblical fundamentalism, was incapable of meeting it. Moreover, the question of dogma also raised other issues, of a philosophical order. Catholic philosophy, by official direction, meant Thomism, although more often than not Thomism conceived in a narrow, unhistorical, and scholastic form. A more dynamic religious philosophy was wanted, according to Modernists like the French Oratorian Lucien Laberthonnière (18601932), a disciple of Maurice Blondel (18611949), as well as to the Bergsonian Édouard Le Roy (18701954) and to Ernesto Buonaiuti (18811946), protagonist of the Italians and author of The Program of Modernism (1907). For a more dynamic philosophy they looked not to Kant, as Pius's Pascendi had alleged, but rather to the voluntarist tradition of much nineteenth-century French thought and even to American pragmatism. Tyrrell and Laberthonnière both stressed the role of the will in belief and were disposed to understand doctrine in terms of an ethical symbolism. Le Roy's account of dogma (Dogme et critique, 1907), in particular, represented it primarily as une règle de conduite pratique ("a rule for practical conduct"), without intrinsic speculative content. Thus the doctrine of the divine personality means in effect "Conduct yourself in your relations with God as you would in your relations with a human person." The vindication of dogma, therefore, will rest on its capacity to induce the experience in which it is itself grounded.

However, the Modernist apologetic, whether historical or philosophical, won no approval at Rome, and the movement was summarily suppressed. In 1910 a specifically anti-Modernist oath was imposed on the clergy, or at least those engaged in teaching. The result of the Vatican's action was to retard Catholic biblical scholarship, as well as practically all non-Thomist theological thinking, for many years to come.

Assessment of Liberalism

The strength of liberalism lay in its conviction that the Christian gospel can be offered to modern individuals without affront to their intelligence. It recognized frankly that Christian belief arose, developed, and was formulated in an era and a culture vastly different from that of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western society, and that both its intellectual presuppositions and the language in which it came to be articulated are inevitably alien and even in large measure unintelligible to this age. Unless therefore one tries to seal oneself off from all contemporary influences, one is bound to reassess the basics of faith in the light of the radically altered ways of thinking that the post-Reformation era has brought about. Especially must Christianity be seen in the perspective of scientific history, even though this may no longer support forms of belief that have persisted over centuries. Indeed, it is difficult to see how on this score the liberal case can be refuted; the facts speak for themselves, and any modernized version of the Christian religion has to take account of them from the outset.

Nevertheless, liberalism has had its critics from at least the beginning of this century, and not merely among the partisans of a crass traditionalism. To many, its immanentist theology greatly overemphasized the continuity between the world and God and between humanity and God, at the expense of the received belief, on which the whole scheme of redemption turned, that as between finite and infinite, human and divine, there is a qualitative and not merely a quantitative disparity. (The liberal Christology is usually circumscribed by the humanity of Jesus.) In keeping with this, liberalism seemed to its critics if not altogether to minimize sin and evil, yet to interpret these too easily in terms of ignorance, immaturity, and simple maladjustment, while overlooking the sheer heinousness of sin. In fact, liberalism's view of humankind exhibited an optimism stemming from a combination of Enlightenment notions of human perfectibility and the nineteenth-century ideal of progress. Such optimism is encouraged neither by the traditional Christian doctrine of the "natural" human condition as corrupted by the fall nor by the cumulative evidence of sin to that humankind's historical life bears sorry witness. It is also possible to consider as in principle subjective the liberal conception of the church itself: a fellowship of those who share the same or a similar experience, in recognition of which they meet together in worship, hence expressing the social character of religion. Tolerance is applauded because opinions in religious matters inevitably differ. In sum, the values of liberalism, so its critics complain, are essentially those of a bourgeois ethicism having little or nothing of that sense of the eschatological kairos ("time") and impending judgment that characterizes the New Testament and persists as a motif in all traditional doctrine.

It was the serious inadequacies of liberalismas he felt them to bethat led the young Swiss theologian Karl Barth (18861968), who had been deeply influenced by Kierkegaard, to protest against the anthropocentrism of liberal theologies in the name of the uncompromising theocentrism of the biblical revelation. The starting point of theology, he urged, must not be subjective "religiousness" but rather God's own self-disclosure through his Word: "God is known by God alone" (Church Dogmatics 2.1). Thus neither "religious experience" nor speculative natural theology provides any necessary prolegomena to faith. Instead of the Thomist analogia entis ("analogy of being"), Barth offered the analogia fidei ("analogy of faith"), that is, the insights of faith based on revelation.

The upshot of the Barthian theological revolution was that all forms of liberalism fell more or less into discredit. This "Barthian captivity," as Reinhold Niebuhr called it, of twentieth-century religious thought persisted for some four decades, and only in the years immediately preceding Barth's death in 1968 did its end become manifest. The neoorthodox reaction, although it has not ceased to exert its pull on some mindsconservative evangelicalism unquestionably gained heart from itnow appears to have been less a recovery of the old certainties than a temporary arrêt in a process that is actually part of modernity itself. In other words, the theological difficulties that liberalism had sought to resolve remain, inasmuch as orthodoxy, if it is to uphold its claim to intellectual respectability, cannot avoid the challenge of criticism, whether philosophical or historical. A serious fault in Barth himself was his evasiveness on the historical authenticity of Christianity. These unresolved difficulties have no doubt influenced theologians' disposition to reconsider the achievements of liberalism in a more sympathetic light.

See Also

Evangelical and Fundamental Christianity; Neoorthodoxy; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Petre, Maude Dominica; Vatican Councils, article on Vatican I.


For an understanding of liberalism and modernism, Protestant and Catholic, all the primary works cited in the foregoing article should be studied. Of secondary works, Karl Barth's Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (1952; translated by Brian Cozens and John Bowden, Valley Forge, Pa., 1973) offers an account of nineteenth-century German theological thinking in general that is of magisterial weight, although its whole approach to liberalism is critical. H. R. Mackintosh's Types of Modern Theology (1937; 2d ed., New York, 1958), Barthian also in its viewpoint, is still useful, as is John Macquarrie's Twentieth Century Religious Thought (New York, 1963), which covers much ground but makes only summary presentations of individual thinkers.

Claude Welch's Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, 1972) fills in a good deal of the background of the liberal movement, though as yet only the first volume, covering 17901870, has appeared. One of my own books, Liberal Protestantism (Stanford, Calif., 1968), provides an extended introduction dealing with most aspects of the movement and a selection of texts. Ritschl: A Reappraisal (London, 1978), by James Richmond, offers a fairly full study of a writer whom English-speaking readers have always been apt to find difficult, and Ernst Troeltsch and the Future of Theology (Cambridge, 1976), edited by John Powell Clayton, treats at length the last great representative of liberal Protestantism.

Sidney E. Ahlstrom's Theology in America: The Major Protestant Voices from Puritanism to Neo-Orthodoxy (Indianapolis, 1967) surveys the American scene. H. D. A. Major's English Modernism: Its Origin, Methods, Aims (Cambridge, Mass., 1927), more a manifesto than a history, confines itself principally to Anglicanism. Oliver Chase Quick's Liberalism, Modernism and Tradition (London, 1922) discusses the liberal Protestant and Catholic modernist doctrines of Christ in relation to orthodoxy.

The most authoritative of more recent works on Roman Catholic modernism is Émile Poulat's Histoire, dogme et critique dans la crise moderniste (Paris, 1962), although Jean Rivière's Le modernisme dans l'église (Paris, 1929), the work of a relatively "liberal" Roman Catholic, still provides the most comprehensive survey. In Roman Catholic Modernism (London, 1970), I have again supplied a longish introduction and a selection of texts, including excerpts from the Vatican documents condemning modernism. Thomas M. Loome's Liberal Catholicism, Reform Catholicism, Modernism: A Contribution to a New Orientation in Modernist Research (Mainz, 1979) is especially valuable for its bibliographical material. Also deserving of mention is Gabriel Daly's Transcendence and Immanence: A Study of Catholic Modernism and Integralism (Oxford and New York, 1980).

Bernard M. G. Reardon (1987 and 2005)

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Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.