Protestant Christianity was dominated in the 19th and early 20th centuries by liberal theology. This article describes briefly the setting into which it was born, the factors of its coming to be, and its species, insofar as they can be distinguished. In conclusion, it distills out of this description the elements common to the movement.
Setting. In the early 19th century Protestant scholasticism, for a long time on the wane, was in utter disrepute. This was due in great measure to the ascendancy of deism and rationalism, but also to the appearance of revivalism, a movement that rejected the dry speculation of the scholastics, but that by the same token did not really meet the problems raised by the champions of the enlightenment. Also on the scene, of course, was the Kantian synthesis, wherein God and immortality were viewed as postulates of moral experience.
Factors. If theological liberalism be viewed, in the first place, as an attempt to conciliate these conflicting forces, it is just to accord F. schleiermacher the title Father of Liberal Theology. In fact, his first published work was a sort of apologia for religion, addressed to the adherents of the rationalist school. Schleiermacher's idea about religion, moreover, became the leitmotiv for the entire liberal movement. In Der christliche Glaube he articulated these ideas with more precision, indicating that the essence of religion (common to all religions) is the feeling or immediate consciousness of being absolutely dependent upon God, and that the various religions (including Christianity) are peculiar modifications of this feeling. For Christians the attitude of Jesus in this regard is exemplary; and religious beliefs, doctrines, or dogmas are born from reflection on this affective sensibility.
Higher criticism of the Bible was another important factor in the formation of the liberal movement. The socalled Leben-Jesu-Forschung was carried on throughout the 19th century (see jesus christ, biographical studies of); and it is present too in contemporary Protestant exegesis. In general the critics of the earlier period abandoned the notion that the Bible is an infallible record of divine revelation; but their outlook concerning the meaning of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus varied with the numerous philosophical standpoints open to the liberal school. From a purely rationalist starting point, H.E. G. Paulus did away with everything supernatural in the Bible. D. F. strauss was more under the influence of hegel's idealism; and to him is owed the introduction of the category of "myth" into the Biblical question. [see myth and mythology (in the bible).] Strauss's French counterpart, E. renan, reduced everything supernatural in the Gospels to legend. Another group of German liberal critics attempted, on similar bases, a psychologically oriented description of the historical "personality" of Jesus; and for them He was simply the herald of messianism, a profound thinker, and the founder, here and now, of the kingdom of god (see eschatologism).
The contribution of A. ritschl to the genesis of the liberal movement is not to be discounted. The main thesis of his theology of moral values is that the gospel is suspended on an ellipse between two foci: justification and Redemption [see redemption (in the bible) ], on the one hand (the redemptive work of Christ), and on the other the kingdom of God (the fellowship of redeemed persons). Ritschl also insisted that a genuine understanding of the love of God demands a reevaluation of the doctrine of original sin—meaning of course an affirmation of the integrity of human nature. These views are characteristically assimilated into liberalism in all its forms.
The dialectic between religion and science is a final factor in the birth of theological liberalism. Among Protestants the notions of darwin were applied widely in fields other than that of biology, with the effect of reinforcing the following notions: (1) that God is immanent in the world (see immanence); (2) that Redemption consists in a gradual transformation of man from the state of the brute to a condition of obedient sonship to God; (3) that the relation of the Christian religion to other religions is to be understood in evolutionary terms.
The substance of these tendencies was epitomized in the thought of A. von harnack, in whom theological liberalism found its strongest protagonist. In his Das Wesen des Christentums Von Harnack made the core of Christianity to consist in the personality and teaching of Jesus. This teaching, moreover, he conceived as susceptible of being summarized in three simple statements: (1) The kingdom of God is coming. (2) God is our Father and thus the value of the human soul is infinite. (3) Christian life consists in perfect righteousness and the fulfillment of the commandment of love. Von Harnack saw that even in primitive Christianity this pure gospel tended to be cast into the alloy of Hellenistic Christianity—the Pauline synthesis. His program, of course, was a return to primitive simplicity, wherein ecclesiastical structures would give way to the real gospel. The contact of Von Harnack with certain figures in the Modernist crisis is well known.
Species. Though it is difficult to categorize so many different currents of thought, theological liberalism seems to be specified by two main emphases. The first of these consists in an assimilation of the theological view of the Enlightenment, which reduced the doctrines of faith to religious and moral principles capable of being discovered and understood by unaided human reason. In this category one may locate the greater number of liberal theologians whose main endeavor was the Leben-Jesu-Forschung. Such a view is implicit even in the thought of Schleiermacher, who, however, introduced a notion that became very dear to the liberals: feeling or sentiment as the starting point of religion, from which doctrines might be derived.
The other species of theological liberalism harks back to the Hegelian-inspired theory of the Christian religion's being the fulfillment and crown of the progress of the human spirit. Those who followed this bent make up the so-called Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, e.g., D. F. Strauss, A. E. Biedermann, F. C. baur (the last named was distinguished also by his debates with the Catholic theologian of Tübingen, J. A. Möhler). They set forth the doctrine of immanence in terms that constitute a denial of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. In the same vein knowledge of God communicated through Jesus Christ is considered to be quite excellent, but no different in kind from any other knowledge of divine reality.
Common Elements. Throughout the gamut of theological liberalism the same themes occur: a certain confusion of revelation and human reason; the reduction of dogma to the philosophy of religion (see religion, philosophy of); and the identification of the development of the deposit of faith with the speculative unfolding of man's self-consciousness. Certain corollaries of these basic principles also appear frequently: a radical distinction between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of the creeds"; maximum optimism concerning the status of man in relation to God, with an attenuated doctrine of sin and its effects. And throughout the entire system the constantly recurring note is the exaltation of the faith experience as the ultimate authority in matters of religion.
Bibliography: j. dillenberger and c. welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted Through Its Development (New York 1958). a. von harnack, What Is Christianity, tr. t. b. saunders (2d ed. New York 1903). w. lohff, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 6:1005–07. f. mussner, ibid. 6:859–864. j. h. newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, ed. c. f. harrold (New York 1947; Image Bk.1955). f. schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. h. r. mackintosh and j. s. stewart (Edinburgh 1928; 2 v. 1963). d. e. roberts and h. p. van dusen, eds., Liberal Theology (New York 1942).
[m. b. schepers]