The confusion of liberalism
Propositional teaching versus conversational theology
First published in CMI–UK/Europe Update, May 2023.
As biblical creationists we believe it is necessary to preach the Gospel and teach the doctrines of Scripture from a plain sense perspective, including the opening chapters of Genesis. The theology of Genesis 1–3 impacts upon the Gospel message; for example, the doctrine of Adam and Eve created in God’s image and the subsequent Fall from grace, which affects all of us. This is propositional because we hold Scripture to be the direct revelation of God given to the world.1
The biblical message has been revealed through real people and events—so we read the Bible in a literal (historical-grammatical2) way from the beginning. But we also expound the theology in terms of the symbolic meaning, the moral message, and prophetic insights. This hermeneutical approach to theology understands God’s revelation and the teaching of it as propositional. Of course, if taken to extreme it can become excessively dogmatic and legalistic; that is, if conducted without the direction of the Holy Spirit. As Paul warned when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:6:
“[God] has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Paul goes on to write that he preached the message openly and plainly (2 Corinthians 4:1-2):
“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
Theology as a dialogue
On the other hand, academic theology engages in ‘conversations’, searching for new insights into Scripture (it also applies to scientific research programmes, which develop over time).3 Some of this endeavour may be necessary and good, especially when newly discovered texts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, shed fresh light on the Scriptures. Theological conversations can also be helpful if they lead people to develop and deepen their faith, and if they help us understand another position more accurately.
But such a dialogue can lead the unwary along a pathway where theological concepts change their biblical meaning. The real danger here is that this can lead to liberalism and to compromise over biblical truths. Through a dialogue, or dialectics, the meaning of words may change, which can easily lead to the mistaken belief that truth is relative—leading to changeable values as well. The most obvious example, for those schooled in modern Western philosophy, is Hegelian dialectics, where the two sides of an argument are the thesis and antithesis. The aim of the dialogue is then to reach a new synthesis, if both sides seek accommodation. In terms of theology, this may erode long-held beliefs and doctrines.
With these things in mind, how many of the academic theological institutions are striving to meet the needs of the everyday life of the Church? Are they guilty, instead, of changing traditional doctrines and leading Christians astray? Is it really appropriate (safe, right) to adapt one’s doctrine to fit the latest theological fashion?
For example, through the 19th century the rise of belief in deep-time first led some theologians to accept the compromise of old earth creationism. The adoption of millions of years took several forms: such concepts as the gap theory, pre-Adamic races, and the day-age scenario. Later, with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, many theologians moved to accept full-blown theistic evolution, including the evolution of man from ape-like ancestors.
Today, in the early 21st century, much of the Church has jettisoned a literal Genesis; thus the foundation for respect for human life and morality has been undermined. The pressure for change today is in terms of accepting non-biblical sexual ethics; such as gay marriage, or that a man can transition into a woman, or vice versa.
Along with this pressure for change there is the growing threat of fines or imprisonment if one questions the trend.4 The so-called ‘liberals’ are becoming increasingly intolerant of those they disagree with. We shouldn’t think that liberalism is a loving doctrine; on the contrary, it can be every bit as intolerant and unloving as the legalistic mindset. For instance, the Ozanne Foundation (UK) wishes to criminalise prayers for Christians who struggle with homosexual temptations, with the threat of imprisonment and fines—this despite the claim on its website that “We believe in just love for all”!5 And, sadly, this pressure for change is approved of by many politicians. Former UK Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of the need for “muscular liberalism” in 2011:
“Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.”6
The UK government’s Chief Inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, reiterated this worrying view in 2018:
“Rather than adopting a passive liberalism that says ‘anything goes’ for fear of causing offence, schools [sic] leaders should be promoting a muscular liberalism. That sort of liberalism holds no truck for ideologies that want to close minds or narrow opportunity.”7
She made these comments against a backdrop of the threat of Islamic terrorism, and yet the groups targeted by the policy are often conservative Christians; believers who do not advocate violence, but merely traditional moral and ethical values. The Cameron government rushed through parliament the legalisation of gay marriage. Virtually overnight the centuries-old traditional belief that marriage was between one man and one woman became a social anathema.
This mirrored similar attitudes in many Western governments around the world. In Queensland, Australia, a Uniting Church in Sunnybank Hills was closed down because the conservative, majority Samoan congregation of about 250 people refused to accept the revised, equivocal church policy on same-sex marriage.8
Muscular liberalism attempts to silence traditional Christians, and has itself become ideological and intolerant. It has an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards sexual conduct, but is very intolerant of those who hold to biblical truths. A major problem with sexual liberation is that it objectifies other people; in other words, it devalues people through selfish pleasure-seeking. As a result, we see such things as a break down in marriage, higher divorce rates, and an increase in the number of abortions. Instead, God designed human beings to be temples of God’s Holy Spirit, which can become a reality for those who give their lives to Christ. Paul writes (1 Corinthians 6:18-20):
“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.”
It affects international politics as well. At the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, a conservative Islamic nation, controversy arose over the wearing of ‘One Love’ rainbow armbands by some football players. These emblems were designed to support the LGBT+ agenda, but were later removed by FIFA so as to not upset the host nation. Of course, Islamic nations are not beyond criticism for their harsh treatment of LGBT+ groups, and for their persecution of Christians. But the attitude of the liberal groups is often one of cultural imperialism. While complaining about censorship by the authorities in Qatar, the irony is that many liberal groups are striving to censor Christians in the West.
As a political philosophy, liberalism quickly descends into incoherence; the classic example today is the sometimes-vicious struggle between ‘transgender women’ (biological males) and so-called TERFs (transgender-exclusionary radical feminists).9 This conflict and confusion stems from the post-modern conversational approach to truth, where notions of truth, and even values, can change their meaning. Through such liberal dialogue (and even liberal theological dialogue) love can be turned to hate.10
Persecution and reconciliation
The Bible warns Christians that we will face persecution for holding to biblical truths; the Apostle Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 4:8–9):
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Despite this persecution we have been called to be ministers of reconciliation. Christians are called to hold to biblical truths, but also to be a people who seek reconciliation. First and foremost, between God and mankind, but we also ameliorate the divisions between different cultures and races as we bring people to Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17–20):
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
As Bible-believing, conservative Christians we read and interpret the Bible in the plain sense. We engage in propositional teaching and preaching. We believe the Bible is coherent in its message from the very first verse to the last, which is why we hold to the special creation of Adam and Eve, and to the doctrine of the Fall—doctrines that are watered down or lost through acceptance of theistic evolution and its bedfellow, liberal theology.
Academic theological institutions frequently engage in a conversational approach to biblical study, which risks leading people away from revealed truths (God’s propositional revelation). While certainly not decrying sound theological training, we must question whether theology-as-dialogue approaches are really meeting the needs of the Christian Church. Or are they undermining it? We should be cautious about conversational approaches to studying Scripture; all too easily this can lead to liberalism, where truth and values become relative.
Let us not be beguiled by the false belief that liberalism is somehow a loving doctrine. Instead, through a changing dialogue, and a consequent disregard of the Bible’s propositional teaching, it can become indifferent to the true value and needs of other people. Propositional teaching may become legalistic, excessively dogmatic, and unloving, so we need to remember the vital work of the Holy Spirit who gives life to believers, and guides Christians “into all the truth” (John 16:13). It is Christians who are engaged in the loving ministry of reconciliation in the world, and liberalism is a treacherous counterfeit of that.
References and notes
- A propositional statement is one that is either true or false; and we hold Scripture to be God’s truth. Return to text.
- The historical-grammatical method seeks to get at the original meaning intended by the author. Return to text.
- Philosophers note in reasoning that there is a distinction between the logic of propositions, and a dialogue over concepts. See Larvor, B., Lakatos: An Introduction, Routledge, London, pp. 9–11, 1998; Imre Lakatos (1922–1974) was a Hungarian philosopher of science and mathematics. Return to text.
- Sibley, A., Creation, the image of God, and campaigns to ban ‘conversion therapy’, creation.com/creation-conversion-therapy, 4 Aug 2022. Return to text.
- Ozanne.foundation; accessed 1 Dec 2022. Return to text.
- PM’s speech at Munich Security Conference: Prime Minister David Cameron has delivered a speech setting out his view on radicalisation and Islamic extremism, gov.uk, 5 Feb 2011. Return to text.
- Amanda Spielman’s speech at the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership: HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman discusses diversity, ethical leadership and faith schools at the foundation’s annual conference, gov.uk, 1 February 2018. Return to text.
- Sandeman, J., Sunnybank Church is dissolved, Presbyterians and Free Wesleyans offer help, eternitynews.com.au, 4th April 2022. Return to text.
- Coleby, J., Is muscular liberalism on steroids? eauk.org, 15 Mar 2018. Return to text.
- A welcome antidote is Glen Scrivener’s The Air We Breathe: How we all came to believe in freedom, kindness, progress, and equality, by Glen Scrivener (2022); see this review: Bell, P.B., A fresh Christian apologetic for a WEIRD age, J. Creation 36(3):21–25, 2022. Return to text.