Origins. During the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers were confident that the human mind could discern all forms of truth through the use of reason alone. To these thinkers the study of nature, not supernatural revelation, promised the most reliable answers to the fundamental questions of human existence. These scholars, who came to be known as “neologians” or “innovators,” questioned the doctrines of biblical inspiration that had been articulated since the Age of Reformation. They also challenged the supernaturalism of Christianity in all its forms, including
the historic Christian doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection, and the atonement. Historic Christianity underwent another round of criticism in the nineteenth century after the rapid expansion of international trade, recreational travel, and Christian missionary efforts brought Western Christians into closer contact with other world religions, which had their own highly developed ethical value systems. Knowledge of these traditions encouraged scholars to re-examine the relationship between culture and religion, to compare the similarities and differences between the various religious traditions, and to analyze critically the sacred texts of each. The new methods of textual criticism were applied to the study of the Bible as well as other ancient texts. One reaction to these assaults against revealed religion was a movement within the churches that attempted to redefine the essence of Christianity in ways to make it appear compatible with the prevailing intellectual currents of the times. This movement to salvage something of the Christian tradition from the assaults of the Enlightenment is known as Theological Liberalism.
Leading Liberal Thinkers. The theologian dubbed the “father of Liberal Theology” was Friederich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who was followed by later scholars such as Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). According to Ritschl, true faith was derived from making “value judgments” about reality, not from intellectually assessing data about the world. For Ritschl the importance of Jesus was his value to the Christian community. If the community believed that Jesus was divine, that belief was what mattered, not any particular set of historical facts about him. Ritschl defined Christians as those who strove to organize humankind in accordance with Jesus’ command to love one another. Self-giving love, not the profession of a set of doctrines, should be the individual’s chief religious priority. For Ritschl, as for other religious liberals, Christian love transcends truth, so rational inquiry was essentially unnecessary. Also focusing on the ethical teachings of Jesus, Harnack asserted that the purity of the religion of Jesus had been corrupted as Christianity spread from its Jewish origins to become a world religion. The task of the theologian, Harnack insisted, was to return to the original message of Jesus, which had nothing to do with the theo-logical controversies that produced the dogmas of the Trinity and the definitions of the dual natures of Christ. In Das Wesen des Christentums (1900; What Is Christianity?), Harnack summarized the essence of Christianity as including the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the infinite value of the human soul.
Although Comte did not believe in God, he promoted the creation of a “religion of humanity, w whose adherents would worship the sacredness of humanity itself. At the heart of this secular religion was a belief in the oneness of the human race. Influenced by his Roman Catholic upbringing, Comte also proposed that the religion of humanity should have a calendar of secular saints’ days, a catechism, and a priesthood of scientists, with Comte himself serving as pontiff. Comte’s church never emerged as a major institution; yet, the central ideas of Positivism—including the premises that nature is orderly and knowable; all natural phenomena have natural causes; nothing is self-evident; all knowledge should be derived from experience; and the methods of science can be applied to the study of societies—influenced the development of several disciplines, including history, sociology, and analytical and linguistic philosophy.
Source: Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism, translated by J. H. Bridges (London: Triibner, 1865).
Criticism. The “Social Gospel” ideals of the liberal theologians aided the humanitarian movements for political reform that arose in industrializing nations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some Christians, however, viewed such liberal redefinitions of Christianity as an assault against the historic faith. In the early twentieth century a group of “Neo-Orthodox” theologians emerged to critique the central ideas of the liberal thinkers. Their views on the shortcomings of Theological Liberalism are summarized in an often quoted statement by H. Richard Neibuhr (1894-1962), who bemoaned that Liberalism struck at the roots of Christianity by suggesting that “A God without wrath, led men without sin, into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Karl Earth, Protestant Thought from Rousseau to Ritschl, translated by Brian Cozens (New York: Harper, 1959).
Warren F. Groff and Donald E. Miller, The Shaping of Modern Christian Thought (Cleveland: World, 1968).