As a theological force in America, Protestant liberalism is now open to increasing fragmentation. Liberal frontiers are in a fluid state; nobody seems able to chart lines of fixed differentiation authoritatively. A crumbling of positions, along with some realignment of loyalties, is setting in. The term “liberalism” is not self-definitive; its only common feature is a methodology; but the conclusions it draws from that methodology, which involves tentativeness, are constantly being revised. The one sure fact is that liberalism has less a character of its own than a settled temper of antipathy toward central aspects of biblical supernaturalism.
Plurality and variety have in fact marked liberalism since its beginnings. Under the banner of Schleiermacher there emerged in America, as H. Shelton Smith has noted, the traditions of (1) enlightenment (rational liberalism), both deistic and pantheistic, but Unitarian in either case; (2) transcendentalism (romantic liberalism), championed by New Englanders like Theodore Parker and Emerson, whose revolt against Locke was informed by Kant, Schelling, and Hegel in the direction of epistemological intuitionism; (3) Christocentric liberalism, which held a more radical view of sin and appealed to a Christological “norm,” as with Horace Bushnell, W. N. Clarke, W. Adams Brown, and Walter Rauschenbush; (4) empirical liberalism, which erected experience as the only norm and derived “truth” from process, as with James, Dewey, and Wieman.
The early 1930s proved a moment of judgment upon liberalism. Pressed from the right by the logic of evangelical stalwarts like J. G. Machen (in view of what liberalism wished to preserve) and from the left by the logic of naturalistic humanism (in view of what ...1
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