Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What is the Difference Between Conservatives and Liberals?

Joel at Connexions attempted to make a distinction between conservatives and liberals. I think in his list he missed the core issues at hand. This post is a slightly modified version of what I posted in the comments over there.

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I would say that a “liberal” is someone who has decided that the constraints of the past are unnecessary. Whether in interpretation — historical interpretation is fairly meaningless; cannonization — the historical cannon decisions are not authoritative; or theology — everyone gets to write their own. It is re-interpretting the past as “well, that was okay for them, but this is today” as opposed to “we should continue on in the authority of the apostles”.

This stems from a completely different understanding of God’s work in the world. As a conservative, I view apostolicity as a primary determinant for what is valid in the canon. Why? Because the apostles were chosen by God in a major move of God in history. I don’t personally have a right to change those things, and it would take another similarly-major act of God to do so (with the signs demonstrating as such), and then those who had the closest connection to God’s movement would have the authority to do so. Perhaps someone may have the ability to write into the canon absent that if they had the same sort of multi-century evaluation process that our current canon went through. Maybe.

The liberal view is that God is active equally all the time. Therefore, we are just as able to make theological judgments for our time as the apostles were for their time, and there is no reason to harmonize these. We should listen to their advice, but ultimately we must construct our own theology, hopefully even better than theirs.

That's the fundamental issue, here's my take -- The difference is that in the conservative view, God has the ultimate authority, and we are obedient to His actions. In the liberal view, man is the ultimate authority, even on theological issues. It may be because we all have God’s spirit in us, but the reality of the situation is that liberals consider themselves to be responsible (and maybe even mandated) to construct their own theology. Conservatives believe that authoritative theology must be from God Himself, and must be likewise authenticated through God’s actions in the world.

I heard a little parable once, and I'm sure I'm going to botch it up, but I think it's relevant.

There was a man and a rabbi at the grocery store. The rabbi told the children with him, "go get these items," and immediately they did so. The man said to the rabbi, "I wish my children were so obedient." The rabbi said, "those aren't my children -- those are my students. If those were my children, then you would have _really_ seen service." The man asked, "why do your children respect you so much?" The rabbi said, "you see these children view me as one generation closer to Moses than they are, while your children see you as one generation closer to the apes than they are."

7 Comments:

At 9/20/2006 2:36 AM, Blogger Joel Thomas said...

Although I don't think your assesment of liberal theology is accurate or particularly fair, I greatly appreciate your interaction because I did, after all, ask for your opinion of what liberal theology is. You have graciously provided your understanding and for that I am thankful.

The common use of the term "theology" is the "study of God's nature and religious truth" thus I don't see how theology can be anything other than human-made, because God has no need to "study" anything. Even if you are referring to "systematics" well that is "ordering" and God has no need to order, either, for God IS order.

I can assure you that I don't believe that "man is the ultimate authority." Martin Luther King, Jr. came out of the liberal theology school. Did he really just decide on his own that segregation and discrimination is wrong, or did he look to a sovereign God to find his mandate?

The center piece of liberal theology is that understanding Scripture and accepting its authority cannot be separated from human reason, whereas Martin Luther considered reason the greatest enemy of faith. Liberal theology at it heart is faith engaging reason.

Also, I hope that when you use the term "liberal-bashing" you are referring to the viewpoint or the theology. There has been far too much personal bashing on blogs; unfortunately in my anger I have sometimes been part of that.

 
At 10/09/2006 12:17 AM, Anonymous Cheesehead said...

I think another way of looking at the difference between conservative and liberal theology is that while conservatives may not get everything right about theology they are still at least studying theology. Liberal theology is just sociology doing business under a different name.

 
At 11/12/2006 8:00 AM, Blogger PamBG said...

It's an interesting definition of theologically liberal because - as a definition anyway - it does effectively make all non-cessationists liberals.

I think that there are definitely people who are both theologically liberal and functionally cessastionist.

In your previous post on epistemology, you suggested that we can't actually know for certain what people at any given point in history thought. (Which post actually made me wonder if you were "turning into a liberal" ;-)) How do you reconcile this with the requirements you place on tradition?

I think that anyone who wants to be serious about being a conservative Christian who "does apologetics" toward liberals should throw out these conservative shibboleths like "liberals play fast and loose with tradition and don't care about it at all" (like your Rabbi example).

That may be true for a handful of scholars and possibly true for people who are knee-jerk liberals and who have not studied theology. But I don't think most theologically educated liberals despise history and tradition; we simply make choices that you don't agree with as a conservative.

If you want to put forward the argument that no aspect of theological tradition should change, ever, period; then I think it requires a rigourous internal - probably epistemological - argument. Not a strawman raised toward liberals.

(By the way, I'm here because I find your blog intriguing. I don't mean to "get at you", although we will naturally disagree.)

 
At 11/12/2006 8:42 AM, Anonymous cseminarian said...

"It's an interesting definition of theologically liberal because - as a definition anyway - it does effectively make all non-cessationists liberals."

Not really. What it does do is say that people practicing the gifts do not have the authority to _modify_ what has been laid down. I am actually quite a vocal non-cessationist, but I do think that scripture is used to judge the gifts, not the other way around. A prophetic tradition today does not have equal authority to the apostle's authority laying down the foundation of the Church.

"In your previous post on epistemology, you suggested that we can't actually know for certain what people at any given point in history thought."

I actually don't think you can know _anything_ "for certain". Most things are taken by faith even when we don't realize it. Most people, for instance, don't realize just how faith-based science is.

"How do you reconcile this with the requirements you place on tradition?"

The point of the post is not that tradition is wholly ineffable, but rather that history is best understood by listening to those who lived it or lived soon after it, rather than trying to make fanciful reconstructions based wholly on circumstantial evidence.

In addition, there is a decision to make as to who we think should be considered trustworthy. This is in large part an a priori decision. If one is a Christian, I would assume that the default position of trust would apply to the Christian tradition above circumstantial evidence or other traditions. How someone claims to have faith in Christ but not in the tradition that establishes Jesus as the Christ is beyond me.

"That may be true for a handful of scholars and possibly true for people who are knee-jerk liberals and who have not studied theology."

At least at my seminary, it is far more than a handful. In fact, I would say that at my seminary there are more who would reject the physical resurrection of Jesus and the virgin birth than would accept it by a large margin (students and faculty).

The reason? Because they don't view the revelation as authoritative, they view science as authoritative. Some faculty also put more weight on, for example, the UN declaration on human rights, than on the Bible.

Perhaps I am at more than a liberal seminary, but more of a radical liberal seminary, but this seems to be a growing type of opinion, of which Spong seems to be the leading light.

In fact, most scholars are throwing out tradition altogether, basically viewing most of Israelite history before Josiah as having been either invented or completely rewritten in his reign.

In fact, for a good look at how scholars are starting to be antagonistic against _any_ sort of faith, see the following:

Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View

What's Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature?

 
At 11/12/2006 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know which seminary you are at and I know you didn't want to say, so I'm not going to ask.

I'm trying to understand - from a physical distance - what is happening in US Christian theology in terms of "liberal" and "conservative". Here in the UK, I think that there a lot of theologians who I find both exciting and faithful; people who would find Spong quite far out along with a lot of American conservative theologians. From where I sit, faithful middle-of-the-road Christianity seems alive and well.

I have a problem with the whole "physical resurrection" thing. Not becuase I think that I disbelieve it for my own purposes, but because of the tests that American conservatives seem to keep putting on it. Conservative Christianity seems as steeped in modernism as liberal Christianity. I just preached at a funeral of a very evangelical evangelist on Friday and I said "We do not know what resurrection looks like, we do not know what the rooms in our Father's house look like..." and everyond nodded and said "yes" and "amen". In America, people seem to want the answer that resurrection is going to look like a resuscitated body; any other answer, any faith-based answer and one is automatically labelled as a "liberal" by Americans.

From my point of view, the entire epistemology is entirely too enlightenment-modernist, both conservative and liberal. If conservatives continue to say we can't simply believe these things by faith, but that we have to know that Jesus' resuscitated body walked out of the grave (contrary to the biblical accounts of his resurrected body!), then I can see why people go to the Spong extreme - not that I think it's correct, but I can see why people do it.

By the way, I'm not suggesting that you are saying these things, but these have been my experiences - although admittedly I come from a very, very conservative background.

 
At 11/12/2006 1:45 PM, Anonymous cseminarian said...

By physical resurrection I'm not necessarily trying to indicate exactly what this looked like, but more just trusting the gospel reports -- his body was no longer there, because he was alive! He was able to eat broiled fish, and then he appeared to many.

As far as modernism, at least for me I often use "modernist-speak" but that's just because it's easier than trying to invent a new vocabulary. It's more of a co-option than really going along with the program.

What we consider "liberal" is the idea that the resurrection did not take place -- that it is more of a mental state than an actual happening. I think the problem is that so many people who get ordained in the U.S. usually adopt certain weasel-words or weasel-definitions, so that they can take their ordination vows without actually believing them. That may be what causes some of them to be dismayed at any hedging of resurrection ideas -- they think that you don't really believe in the resurrection but are just using weasel-words to dance around it. In the U.S. that would be very likely indeed. Many, many of the people I talk to in seminary talk about the show they have to put on in Church because of the stark differences in belief, and their condescention to people who take anything supernatural on faith.

 
At 11/13/2006 3:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By physical resurrection I'm not necessarily trying to indicate exactly what this looked like, but more just trusting the gospel reports -- his body was no longer there, because he was alive! He was able to eat broiled fish, and then he appeared to many.

Well, that would be my take on things as well. I find that it's often not "good enough" for a lot of people, though.

What we consider "liberal" is the idea that the resurrection did not take place -- that it is more of a mental state than an actual happening.

Which is quite gnostic, in a lot of ways. But then again, so is the idea of a spiritual heaven. One place that I find myself totally out on a limb amongst both conservatives and liberals (although conservatives don't seem to mind if I believe this and liberals just think I'm weird) is in my belief in a coming, physical Kingdom of God. I found myself grimicing a lot at the funeral on Friday when all these good evangelicals got up and gave their "testimonies" about the "spiritual heaven" (my term) that the deceased had gone to.

I think the problem is that so many people who get ordained in the U.S. usually adopt certain weasel-words or weasel-definitions, so that they can take their ordination vows without actually believing them.

My problem is that I've had this accusation flung at me many times - about not actually believing what I was promising and about not actually believing the creeds - when I *know* that I *do* believe. So I really don't know how to judge the quality of other people's beliefs. You may be right, if you know particular individuals in seminary, but I don't know how to judge the many others.

I guess that, because of my background, I get less upset by liberal doubts than I do by conservative certainties. (Just a reflective comment.)

 

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