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Cults and World Religions

Liberalism



An infallible book is an impossible conception, and today no one really believes our Bible is such a book. 123
Dr. Lyman Abbott

 

One who really cares for the church instead of resigning and withdrawing is conscientiously bound to remain in and bring as many of his brethren as possible around to his way of thinking. 124
Prof. Fagnani, In Praise of Heresy

 

Liberalism: A theological attitude which enthrones human reason as the ultimate authority instead of the Bible. This view ignores the effect of the Fall on the mind. Liberal theologians vary in their conclusions and generally deny or redefine some or all of the essential doctrines of Christianity. 125

It would be fairly easy to argue that the above definition applies to all the groups we have studied thus far. Indeed, most of the cults and false religions have several attributes in common, not the least of which is the placement of man above God. In each century since Christ, man has changed and modified God’s Word. While some doctrines receive more emphasis at a given point in time, a general survey of the false religions of each period would show the following doctrinal errors:

This is, essentially, the Gnostic teachings fought by Paul in its pre-birth form. This sums up the heresies of the early centuries. This is the fight of both the 1800s and the 1900s and will surely be the fight of the 2000s. As Sir William Ramsay wrote, in the late 1800s, of the “modernist”

The Modernist theologian knows all that I do not know. He has no hesitation; he fixes the limits of the possible and knows exactly what is impossible. . . . He knows all things, and he is content and happy in his utter ignorance. . . . He believes in the so-called laws of nature, and thinks that he knows. . . . The Modernist is no more than a survival from the remote past. 126

The present day philosopher will tell you that modernism is dead and has given way to post-modernism. They will explain the differences as being directed toward the rejection of reason. Modernism still believed in reason, while post-modernism does not. The biblical scholar will tell you that liberalism died under its own weight. Each, by its own definitions, will be correct. But, in order to understand modern day society and the new religions which lurk just over the horizon, we must understand liberalism or modernism as it affects Christianity, for as all that has come before, it is really just the past – with a new dress.

History

Although most consider the time frame of liberalism to be from about 1850 until about 1920, its life starts earlier and lasts longer. Its effects have been from the beginning and are still felt today within the church.

To fully understand the history of liberalism, you need to remember the entire history of the Church of Christ as we reviewed it in the chapter on the Roman Catholic Church. As we noted, even though the Reformers broke with Roman, disputes within the various groups, over such matters as the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and the method and place of baptism, quickly divided the Reformers. While the Church returned to the Scriptures, not everyone agreed upon the same interpretation and application of the Scriptures. This was the birth of denominations.

While the major denominations have adopted views about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and the place and method of baptism, some of the other matters remain unresolved and have helped to contribute to the growth of the modern “liberalism.” For example, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was one of the last of the early, great church fathers. One of the battles he faced was with Pelagius over the place of free will in the initial humbling of man to salvation. Augustine’s main work in this battle was On the Free Will (388–395), although he also wrote some thirteen letters against Pelagius.

Pelagius, and his pupil, Celestius, basically argued that man had the ability to turn to God for salvation. Augustine argued that man was so depraved by the initial fall, that all the steps of salvation must come from God. Augustine’s views were adopted by the Council of Carthage (411). Against Augustine, Celestius had argued that (1) Adam died because he was mortal and not because of his sin; (2) there is no original sin; (3) infants are without sin, as Adam was before his fall; and (4) man can live without sin through his own effort.

During the Reformation, Luther would fight with over this same issue. But the great battle was between Calvin and Arminius. Although Arminius’ position was not as different from Calvin’s as some of his followers, the two names are the ones we associate with the two positions. The points at issue are:

While people still will ask you if you are a Calvinist or an Arminian, they probably really do not understand the differences between Calvin and Arminian. If they are Arminian, they have, rather, learned it from John Wesley. Wesley felt that Calvinism taught a defeated attitude, resulting in a failure of evangelism. Wesley saw Arminianism as having several distinct advantages, namely:

Which is right? A close study of these issues leads one to conclude there are grave difficulties with both positions. Neither is completely satisfactory. 127 Calvinism is the stricter, being fatalistic at the extremes leading to a smugness. Arminianism, at it’s other extreme, potentially supports the concept of universal salvation. Those who strictly support either position find efforts at combining the two unsatisfactory. Yet, I believe most conservative scholars, upon close scrutiny, are a little of each. Man does not have enough knowledge to answer all of the questions either system desires to address.

The real problem with either of these is at the extremes. Calvinism leads to a smugness resulting almost in a legalism that creates a laziness. God does all the work so there is nothing for man to do but sit around and enjoy life. At the other extreme, Arminianism, especially for those mainline churches following Wesley, produces the potential for true liberalism to sneak in the door. With liberalism comes man’s ability to change the choices, rather than just participate with God.

Following the Reformation, controversy did not end and the organized church in Rome did not sit still. Consider the following Councils which tended to separate even further the church at Rome from the Reformers:

The Reformation and the formation of the Protestant denominations become the true “start” of the Roman Catholic Church, although its roots go far back into the Church of Christ.

Man “at his best”

On a secular level comes the Renaissance (1350-1650). Man “found” himself. Literature and the artists took center stage. Large building programs and great masterpieces of art became “the thing.” New theories of science and education were developed. It is against this background that liberalism arises. Liberalism refers to the attempt to harmonize the Christian faith with all of human culture. Where Constantine had mixed church and state, liberalism sought to mix church and culture. The major problem with the effort arose from the measuring stick being used by the proponents.

In part, all of those “great” scientists you studied in school led the way. Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo Galilei (1546-1642), and others forged the modern scientific attitude in the Western world. Their views were often opposed by established religious authorities. Unitarianism, a cult we will study shortly, developed during this period. This group denied the Deity of Jesus and would influence others in the development of religious thought.

In a revolt against what was viewed as the strict scholastic approach of the Protestant Reformers, a group called the Pietist arose (1650-1725). This group believed in the inspiration of Scripture, but placed equal (or greater(?)) importance upon individual feelings. While the first generation of Pietists remained faithful to Scripture, each succeeding generation lost its ability to use the Scriptures as a basis for decision. This helped the development of deism, skepticism, and rationalism.

Deism (c. 1625) was a religion mostly of Britain and the Americas. The roots of Deism were much older and developed along a theory of natural theology. Deism teaches God left certain impressions of Himself in all men, so, all religions could be validated. Deism believed in a Creator who then walked away from His creation and did not interfere with its operation – or with men’s lives. This left man in control, the exact position man desired.

Skepticism is the tool of the French (c. 1725). Human reason, science, and education are the way to build a proper society. Religion is not. David Hume (1711-1776) is the leading proponent, arguing that empirical studies (the sciences!) are the proper method of proving religion.

Rationalism was the tool of the Germans. Frances Bacon (1561-1626) sets the stage by arguing that man’s power lies in his own hands, if it is properly used. This allows for a variety of theological methods designed to review, study, and dissect Scripture (commonly called “criticism.” 128 ). Bacon’s approach was inductive. Start with who and where you are and work back to the beginning. The tenets of Deism lead to the materialistic views of Hobbes (1588-1679) and the naturalistic views of Spinoza (1632-1677) and Descartes (1596-1650).

Hume’s statement sums up the true position of all of these. “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” 129

While many of the rationalists were against religion, all of these philosophies move directly into the field of Christianity when Jean Astruc (1684-1766), a French doctor, proposed that the first two chapters of Genesis had different authors. His analysis was based solely upon the use of two different names for God – Elohim and Yahweh. While his theory made little headway for a considerable period of time, the Germans, Eichorn, Graf and Wellhausen (1844-1914), picked up the banner and applied it to the entire first five books of the Bible. Eventually the theory would attempt to explain that the Pentateuch was written well after the life of Moses by several different authors. 130 Along with the Elohim and Yahweh authors, the critics added the Levitical priestly author and the Deuteronomic legal author. Since it was perfectly obvious that it took time for the law and the religious rituals to develop (“evolve”), these passages must have been written toward the end of the Old Testament life of the Israelites. In other words, God did not write the Bible, man did! 131

World View versus Bible

Liberalism arose in the context of attempting to focus Christians on the concerns of society as much as upon personal faith. In the “modern world” the Bible could not be considered a supernatural book. “The Bible can be employed only for theology and basic morality, but not in the details of life because of the change in the position of Christianity in society.” 132

The view expressed, and effectively maintained by all liberal theologians, is that the Bible merely contains the Word of God. The binding elements of this Word will be recognized by the believer by their content in the believer’s life. In other words, the Bible is not the Word of God, it merely becomes the Word of God to a given individual in a given circumstance. Thus, your Word of God will be different from my Word of God.

The second/third great liberal theologian, Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922) summed it up in the statement that an individual “does not become a Christian by submitting to some doctrines but by recognizing the great fact of Jesus. Faith in the doctrines about him cannot be demanded as the prerequisite for salvation by Jesus, but rather as the result of that salvation. . . . The only objective ground for the truth of Christianity is one’s moral transformation.” 133

One might ask, what great fact about Jesus? How can there be any great facts about Jesus without a clear understanding of who Jesus is? Who Jesus is, is doctrine!

Before Ritschl came Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued that man could know God solely from reason verified by experience. Man “did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Horace Busnell (1802-1876) was a key figure in the Unitarian movement and is credited with the redefining of terms to suit his own purposes. This undermined the meaning of traditional theological terms, creating more division within Christianity.

Clearly, what went on was an eroding of the status of God’s Word. Scripture was no longer sacred. The liberals still claim to follow Luther’s “Only Scripture,” but they do not hold the same high view of Scripture as did Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers. Scripture becomes subject to analysis just like any other work. Methods of setting Scripture “in its station in life,” looking for the myths and stories which went into its writing, come into vogue. Science adds its two cents to the pot, for history and science greatly contradict Scripture. Which is to be believed?

The liberals chose science and history!

Liberal Results

The attack on the Bible allowed the liberals to re-write the meanings of Scriptural episodes. Since the point of liberalism was to de-supernaturalize all of Scripture, the list of doctrines affected becomes lengthy. The belief of predestination, the Fall, the total depravity of man, original guilt as a result of original sin, substitutionary atonement, the inerrant inspiration of Scripture, and eternal punishment all went out the window.

Since man was in control, man could reason his way to better things through the proper use of his mind, science, the arts, and so on. But, liberalism, as a religious tool, fell under its own weight. Several events led to this collapse, although it is to be noted that many of the facets of liberalism live on in other philosophical forms.

New Liberalism – Neo-Orthodoxy

But where liberalism has disappeared, the presuppositions of liberalism over the Bible have remained. Liberalism was replaced by neo-orthodoxy, the “new orthodox.” Neo-orthodoxy was the reaction to the failure of liberalism. The theologians suffered a general loss of faith in evolutionary naturalism as well as a conviction that pure scientific objectivity could find historical truth. Although neo-orthodoxy appears to have a higher view of Scripture than did liberalism, the new orthodoxy still denies the inerrant inspiration of Scripture. Karl Barth’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans published in 1919 is considered by many to be the start of neo-orthodoxy, although Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) contributed many of the ideas. Kierkegaard believed God was so far above man that it was impossible to know God, except through experience. 134

Barth (1886-1968) taught that God could not be known objectively but only through experience. This discredits the position of Scripture in knowing God. The Bible is not the revelation but a witness to the revelation. Jesus is the focal point of revelation. But, since the stories of Jesus are history, there can be errors in the stories. In fact, the Bible is mostly a compilation of myths or sagas which are not the Word of God. Man can only get to God by a blind “leap of faith.” Barth was joined by Reinhold Niebhur (1893-1971), Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), and Paul Tillich (1886-1965).

As an approach to religion, neo-orthodoxy has passed from the scene and given way to a variety of “newer” approaches, such as process theology which sees God as all. And pieces of all these may be found in movements such as radical humanism and secular theologies such as “the-death-of-God theology,” liberation theology, feminist theology, Black theology, and a variety of other similar specialized branches. Likewise, much of the modern ecumenical movement stems from the roots of liberalism, including much of the work of Bernard Ramm (1916-1992). And, all of this will help lead to post-modernism and the wide acceptance of the new religions of the New Age movement. 135

Thoughts

Liberalism eroded the fringes of Christianity. This degrading of the place of Scripture resulted in much bad doctrine, initially about the truth and faithfulness of God and Christ, but ultimately about side issues so prevalent in today’s society. Consider:

The concepts of liberalism become the vehicles of “dialogue.” The inter-faith movement relies upon such an approach. By inter-faith I do not mean Presbyterians and Baptists, but Christians and Hindus. This movement will ultimately pave the path for the one-world religion of the Antichrist. By converting views of God from doctrine to philosophy, the Hindu can meet with the “Christian” and find a common ground.

Liberalism is dead, but liberalism lives on. Such are the tools of Satan!

 

The Beliefs of Liberalism, and those who follow

Footnotes:
123. William C. Irvine, Heresies Exposed, New York: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc. Bible Truth Depot, 1917, 116.
124. Ibid., 121.
125. W.A. Criswell, Believer’s Study Bible [computer file], electronic ed. , Logos LibrarySystem, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson) 1997, c1991 by the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies.
126. William C. Irvine, Heresies Exposed, 113, quoting Ramsay from A. J. Pollock, Modernism versus the Bible, 31.
127. For a good summary of the positions, albeit written by a Calvinist, see Erwin Lutzer, The Doctrines That Divide, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1989, 1998. Norman L. Geisler has written a new book entitled Chosen But Free, Bethany House Publishers, which is advertised as presenting a “balanced approach” to the controversy.
128. It should be noted that criticism comes in two flavors. Lower criticism is the valid study of manuscripts in an effort to develop true readings. It deals with the transmission problems of the text. Higher criticism is the tearing apart of what the text says. This is the tool of the liberals.
129. Geisler, Normal L., and Nix, William E., A General Introduction to the Bible, Revised and Expanded, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press) 1986.
130. This is the type of analysis we now call higher criticism.
131. Notice that while Charles’ Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (1859) was not a religious work, his evolutionary principles have been applied to the writing of Scripture.
132. Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, Revised and Expanded, Chicago: Moody Press, 1986, Logos electronic edition, article on Liberalism, quoting Albrecht Ritschl, as found in D. Clair Davis, Liberalism: The Challenge of Progress in Lewis and Demarest, Eds., Challenges to Inerrancy, 67-68, where Ritschl’s The Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1882) is cited. Ritschl (1822-1889) is considered by many to be the father of theological liberalism.
133. Ibid, citing Davis, 73-74.
134. Many call Kierkegaard’s theology the “theology of despair” and mark it as the birth of existentialism, the emphasis on personal experience as the standard of reality.
135. For those interested in a more detailed history of Christianity, I would recommend Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries. The edition I have is marked Revised and Enlarged Edition, Grand Rapids: Academie Books, Zondervan Publishing House, 1954, 1981. I believe there is a newer Third Edition which has been recently released. Another single volume history is Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1982.
136. See Gerstner, The Theology of the Major Sects, 138, for a more detailed listing of liberal beliefs.

 

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