Liberalism and Evangelicalism

Social Engagement Between Evangelicalism and Liberalism

The difference between Evangelical and Liberal social engagement is best summed up by looking at intent or authority. Both groups intend to make an impact in the world. The Evangelicals wanted to call people to join the orthodox Christian position without compromising that position. The issue really comes down to Biblical authority and inerrancy. The Evangelicals “… retained their belief in biblical inerrancy, but were more willing [than the fundamentalists] to engage the culture …”[1] On the other hand, Liberalism left behind the idea of inerrancy and “… made many new claims into which traditional Christianity had to be assimilated.”[2] The differences between Evangelicals and Liberals is the question, why Christianity? The Evangelicals in holding biblical inerrancy accepted the simple, biblical understanding that God intended the salvation of people “… to the praise of his glory.”[3] The Liberals, on the other hand, saw Christianity as the way to right the wrongs of the world. Machen was correct when he called Liberalism “a different religion from Christianity.”[4] In the liberal view, the general moral principles of scripture were first and foremost about making people better. The person need not even believe in the existence of God as long as religion gave them something to ground their life and moral decisions. For example, Paul Tillich (1886 – 1965) spoke of God as “being itself”[5] and many charged him with being practically an atheist.[6] Tillich’s God had been lost in transcendence to where he had no personality or power to do anything. Tillich’s Christianity was simply about helping people explain their existence. Tillich perfectly exemplifies the liberal purpose in using Christianity to engage social issues; making man the center of the question. Evangelicals on the other hand call men to make God the center of everything.

Similarities and differences between Carl F. H. Henry and Walter Rauschenbusch

Carl F. H. Henry

            Carl Henry was one of three great personalities behind the New Evangelical movement; the other two men were Harold J. Ockenga and Billy Graham.[7] Carl Henry was a Theologian and his emphasis was on maintaining an orthodox understanding of scripture without compromise while still engaging the world in a meaningful way. During his time at Fuller, he helped create the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) that welcomed Christian scholars in a “trans-denominational forum of evangelical scholarship.”[8] The one requirement for this society was the agreement on Biblical inerrancy.[9] Carl Henry’s reasons for helping to create this ecumenical  society were laid out in his work, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism in which he depicted the fundamentalist as having retreated from “the full gospel mission.”[10] Carl Henry engaged with scripture as the authority for Christianity and therefore he understood that the world needed a personal savior, because of personal sin.

Walter Rauschenbusch

If Carl Henry represented the new Orthodox Evangelicalism, Walter Rauschenbusch was the poster boy for Liberalism. Well known liberal Baptist pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick who preached a sermon titled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”,[11] said of Rauschenbusch that “he opened a new era in the thought and effort of American Christianity.”[12] The Liberal idea of Christianity, and certainly Rauschenbusch’s idea, was that Christianity was for social reform: righting the wrongs of the world. Reinhold Niebuhr referred to Rauschenbusch as “… the real founder of social Christianity …”[13] All of the men, Fosdick, Niebuhr and Rauschenbusch saw no need for orthodox beliefs and did not believe in inerrancy. Rauschenbusch’s approach to scripture was a mix of myth like Rudolf Bultmann,[14] and existentialism like Schleiermacher and Tillich. In Liberal theology, sin was a corporate thing and Rauschenbusch sought to “… reclaim the ‘sinner,’ America, for the kingdom of God.”[15] Rauschenbusch sought to use the church as a platform for justice reform to the end that the world would be changed for the better.[16] Rauschenbusch saw sin as a corporate malady that needed to be corrected.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Both Approaches

Liberalism

The sides represented by Carl Henry, New Evangelicalism, and Walter Rauschenbusch, liberal, social Christianity, have, at the core, very different ideas about the purpose and application of Christianity. The Liberal goal was to “make Christianity palatable to a mindset that could no longer accept traditional orthodoxy.”[17] To do this, the liberal needed to reinterpret scripture in the light of modern thought and reappropriate orthodoxy.[18] This has the effect of more engagement as there are many who would call themselves a Christian for the purpose of change and would never believe what is traditionally Christian. The problem is that now, the liberal has redefined Christianity, so that fairly leaves open the critique that it is no longer Christianity, but something different. Liberalism becomes something that uses the words of Christianity, the ideas of Christianity and then perhaps some of the morals of Christianity, without the millennia-old meaning of Christianity. Put simply, Liberalism’s weakness is that it is not Christianity in the traditional sense. It may have some social application, but it is not concerned with real guilt before a real God.

Evangelicalism

            What is the nature of God? If the critique of Liberalism is that it does not deal with real guilt before a real God, then the question is what is this God? Carl Henry in speaking for the new Evangelicals based his arguments on the nature of God. If God was real with a mind and a will and that God had revealed himself, then scripture was about understanding and relating to God.[19] The strength of this approach is that it is traditionally Christian. It allows for the Word of God to be used as God intended it. It makes the person morally responsible before a personal God. This approach might be harder for the modern mind to digest; however, a traditionally Christian view, informed by the Bible, is that in the end, any form of Christianity will eventually just be foolishness to the world.[20]

Evangelicals and Fundamentalists

It is a difficult task to maintain an orthodox position and be culturally engaged. The reason that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists split was the difficulty engaging the world in a way that was conducive to conversation without leaving orthodox Christianity. At one time the words Evangelical and Fundamentalist were synonyms. The core tenant that both the Evangelical and the Fundamentalist movements held was that of the inerrancy of scripture. The differences came at first in the method of cultural engagement. Because of this difference about cultural engagement, “Carl Henry, along with others such as E.J. Carnell, George Eldon Ladd, and Paul K. Jewett, decided to launch a revised evangelicalism.”[21] The Fundamentalists would simply make inerrancy the dividing line and would not engage people that did not already accept inerrancy. On the other hand, Evangelicals felt constrained by scripture to be engaged without compromising. The Evangelicals, “… sought to defend and expound Christian evangelical orthodoxy in a way that avoided the vicious polemical tone of the past.”[22] Since the separation the Fundamentalist movement has further separated itself. At one time Fundamentalism was the new hope, but now, even in some Evangelical circles, it is a dirty word. Likewise, since the split, some accuse the Evangelicals of becoming more liberal. Future generations may find themselves with a need to redefine again.

 

Bibliography

[1]. John Woodbridge and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 807.

[2]. D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 149–150.

[3]. Ephesians 1:12, ESV.

[4]. John Woodbridge and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 797.

[5]. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997). 124-125.

[6]. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997). 124-125.

[7]. John Woodbridge and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 807.

[8]. Ibid, 809.

[9]. Ibid, 809.

[10]. Ibid, 808.

[11]. John Woodbridge and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 800.

[12]. Ibid, 215.

[13]. Charles W (William)Weber. 2014. “The Relationship of Walter Rauschenbusch to Foreign Missions: The Social Gospel and Cultural Change.” American Baptist Quarterly 33 (2): 215.

[14]. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997). 89.

[15]. Charles W (William)Weber. 2014. “The Relationship of Walter Rauschenbusch to Foreign Missions: The Social Gospel and Cultural Change.” American Baptist Quarterly 33 (2): 215-216.

[16]. Scott E. Bryant. 2008. “The Optimistic Ecclesiology of Walter Rauschenbusch.” American Baptist Quarterly 27 (2): 117.

[17]. D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 149–150.

[18]. Ibid, 149–150.

[19]. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997). 294.

[20]. 1 Corinthians 1:23.

[21]. Carl Trueman, “Uneasy Consciences and Critical Minds: What the Followers of Carl Henry Can Learn from Edward Said,” Themelios 30, no. 2 (2005): 33.

[22]. Ibid.

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