In the preface of Roger Olson’s new book, Against Liberal Theology, we meet a particular type of exvangelical all too familiar in this age of disillusionment and deconstruction. As Olson describes this tribe, “They grew up in fundamentalist churches, found them stifling, anti-intellectual, legalistic, whatever, and rushed past the middle ground to the opposite end of the Christian spectrum, to liberal Christianity.”
These people haunt him. Olson fully sympathizes with their desire to escape the militant dogmatism of churches on the far-right fringe. But he is baffled by the flying leap they have taken from one extreme position to its opposite. It is a leap that carries them over the broad fields of Christianity itself, skimming lightly past every actual position of any churches along the entire scale of theological possibilities.
Why not touch down somewhere before the antipode? Olson is vexed by this quantum leap. But he is more vexed by the actual landing point: the position known as liberal theology, against which he has written this short book.
Cutting the cord
The book’s title is admirably clear about its main goal. Olson’s thesis is “that liberal Christianity has cut the cord of continuity with the Christian past, orthodoxy, so thoroughly that it ought to be considered a different religion.” But the book also has a secondary goal, indicated in the subtitle: “Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity.”
About this thing called progressive Christianity—“whatever that means, exactly,” as Olson mutters in one aside—the book has very little to say. He is not sure that the phrase has any specific meaning, and he suggests that it is “simply a label used by many different individuals who do not want to be thought of as conservative and who are attracted to social-justice issues, often to the neglect of evangelism, sound doctrine, and traditional Christian norms of belief and life.”
Progressive Christianity cannot be pinned down; it’s not “a tradition or a movement or even a real identity,” in Olson’s words. It indicates nothing more than a trajectory away from fundamentalism. Exiting fundamentalism is fine with Olson; he encourages it. But he recognizes that self-styled progressive Christians are often actually on the road to liberal theology without having counted the cost. Olson’s concern is to help them “put the brakes on” their trajectory before they reach a terminal point in actual liberal theology. He hopes to do so by carefully explaining what liberal theology actually is.
Against Liberal Theology has two great merits. The first is that Olson carefully specifies the liberal theology that he is against. He identifies it as a tradition derived from an earlier brand of German theology that took its classical form in the 19th century. More specifically, it began with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and reached its definitive shape in the work and influence of Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89).
Being so specific about the system’s pedigree has a focusing effect. Olson never gives in to the temptation to use liberal as a mere term of abuse or to mean something as loose as “any theological deviation to the author’s left.” For Olson, it is a tag that should be applied only to Schleiermacher’s theological descendants.
It’s a handy simplification of a complex tradition, and it mostly works. I say “mostly” because at key points Olson also broadens his story to include Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), who certainly belongs in the story of liberal theology but equally certainly does not spring from the tribe of Schleiermacher. The Schleiermacher-to-Ritschl genealogical narrative also fails to accommodate a number of Anglo-American thinkers with diverse intellectual backgrounds. Process theology, for example, is rightly reckoned a variety of liberal theology in that it denies God’s unchangeable nature, but its roots are American and British, not German. To extend his analysis, Olson also appeals to a standard definition of liberal theology as any project that gives “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity in Christian thinking about doctrines.”
The phrase is quoted from liberal theologian Claude Welch (1922–2009), and it is characteristic of Olson’s fairness that he calls on actual liberal theologians to secure his definitions. Throughout the book, Olson likewise appeals to liberal historians, chiefly to Gary Dorrien’s excellent three-volume The Making of American Liberal Theology. When he asserts that liberal theology holds a particular position, Olson demonstrates it from primary sources, so that Against Liberal Theology is a little anthology of key statements taken directly from self-identified liberal theologians. This practice should be more common, especially in popular-level polemical works like this. It helps keep reader and writer honest.
The book’s second great merit is its point-by-point, chapter-by-chapter theological analysis of liberal theology. Olson compares liberal and orthodox understandings of the Bible, God, Christ, salvation, and eschatology, as well as the theological method itself. In all cases, he establishes a definite contrast. To use debate terminology, we could say he achieves good clash: The two systems are not talking past each other about different topics but disagreeing on central categories.
Overall, Olson sees liberal theology as a system that emphasizes God’s immanence within creation to such an extent that it fails to take seriously divine transcendence. This judgment should be no surprise to readers who remember that Olson made the same assessment in the widely used 1992 textbook that he coauthored with Stanley Grenz, 20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age. Olson has held the same view of liberal theology across these 30 years.
What is new here is the focused survey of the doctrinal consequences of denying transcendence. For liberal theology, the Bible is a repository of human insights into spiritual matters rather than a supernatural communication from the Holy Spirit himself. In the doctrine of God, theism gives way to panentheism, and God has no life or identity but the one he necessarily shares with creation. As Olson puts it, liberal theology finds it “necessary to empty God of his transcendence, almighty power, self-sufficiency, personhood (in some cases), and wrath.” Christ becomes not so much the unique source of salvation but a kind of symbol representing what salvation can be when it takes shape in human life.
Olson traces the liberal doctrine of salvation as an attempt to bypass the doctrine of sin and replace it with a concept of the kingdom of God becoming actualized in human social achievement. That optimism about saving the world by building the kingdom gives way to a shocking deflation of the traditional doctrine of the future. Liberal eschatology is almost entirely vacuous. Older liberal theologies tended to promote a vague sense of an afterlife, but more recent versions tend to embrace a thorough naturalism terminating in humanity reintegrating into the dust without remainder.
Just over a century ago, in his little classic Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen made the same point: that authentic Christian theology and liberal theology are two different religious systems. Olson gladly aligns himself with the judgment of the older book: “I have come to the same conclusion Machen did, and I think any orthodox Christian, however progressive they might be, must agree that liberal Christianity is not authentically Christian.”
There are, however, some significant theological and temperamental differences between Olson and Machen. Olson repeatedly argues that liberal theology has “cut the cord of continuity” with its Christian past but then goes on to talk about the liberal system as a variety of Christian theology. In other words, he makes the definitional move (liberal theology is not Christian theology) but doesn’t adjust his own terminology. Readers may have to parse some of the resulting sentences rather closely to reconcile them with each other.
Olson is also eager to assure his readers, “I will not argue that liberal Christians are not Christians; I will argue that their theology is not authentically Christian.” Apparently, Olson is confident he can make this clean distinction between doctrine and piety by acknowledging that Christian faith is largely a matter of the heart, whereas theology, right or wrong, is a matter of the head. Still, readers holding in their hands Olson’s own sweeping, six-point argument that liberal theology is not Christian are bound to wonder where the definitional limits lie. It would be an error to insist that perfect theology is what saves us. But being programmatically in error regarding God, Christ, sin, salvation, and Scripture raises some questions about the nature of faith, and Olson’s book would seem less woolly if he had addressed these questions more than just in passing.
Against Liberal Theology may be a confusing read for people who expect clear distinctions to be drawn and maintained. It will certainly be a frustrating book for readers more conservative than Olson. But Olson’s target audience is Christians moving away from a stifling fundamentalism, feeling their way toward a more progressive faith, with liberal theology just over the horizon. Olson has seen that territory and has written this book to explain to such seekers why they should seek elsewhere.
Fred Sanders is professor of theology at Biola University’s Torrey Honors College. His books include The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything and Fountain of Salvation: Trinity and Soteriology.