Notes from the Future: Evangelical Liberalism in the UK

Article
03.01.2010

The Lord Jesus called me into his kingdom in April 1974 in a Baptist church in Southampton, England. He had blessed me with a Christian family, and my conversion was very much a humble acceptance in my heart of truths I had long known in my head. Then, almost immediately after my conversion, I found myself (as a 15 year old) having to resist liberal theology from my fellow pupils at school, and even more so from my teachers.

I’ve used the word “liberal,” though it felt very different from the liberalism I now see and sense. To get a grip on where things might go in the future, as far as human wisdom allows, I want to think about the difference between liberalism then and now (typical Englishman, looking at history to see the future!). This is my personal perspective, limited by place (England and part of Australia), and by ignorance of much work going on in those places. And, despite the problems outlined here, there is much that is thoroughly encouraging.

OLD-STLE LIBERALS

Back then, theological liberals inside and outside the Church of England were very clear they were not evangelicals. I found them often intelligent, frequently generous, and oddly tolerant of my views, although sometimes patronizingly. For them, my evangelicalism betrayed my personal immaturity and, God willing, I would outgrow it. They set great store on the human intellect. What did not commend itself to their intellects could not be true, even if said by Scripture. With the benefit of hindsight I see this was the legacy of the nineteenth-century “liberal catholic” theological school, led by Charles Gore.

Five things strike me about this legacy. First, I’m struck by the legacy’s conservatism. That sounds odd. But on the ethical issues of the day (abortion, drugs, promiscuity) and on much theology (Is there a God? Did Jesus rise? Is sin a real problem?) it returned conservative answers. That disguised both to them and us the gulf that lay between us.

Secondly, the legacy was so, so English. It was decent and humane, despite its faults, and that resonated very deeply with middle-class social ideals. That was certainly part of liberalism’s attraction, and the social continuity between them and us evangelicals was very powerful.

Thirdly, the legacy was very clear what it was not, namely, evangelical. They had a clear sense of who we were, what we believed, and where the differences on the Bible lay. That did not preclude a relationship, as their attitude was largely condescending rather than hostile.

Fourthly, the legacy had a sinful self-sufficiency. Study of the Bible was in some senses still rigorous, but it was study with a view to agreeing and approving, not obeying. Liberals accepted that the Bible said something definite. People could misunderstand the Bible and get it wrong. To that extent, the Bible was still a book held in common between evangelicals and liberals. We could agree about what Mark 10:45 said, while disagreeing about whether or not it was true. Agreeing but not obeying is hugely tempting to the sinful human heart. All of us, I suspect, find this an ongoing struggle. The passage of the Bible which confronts this old-style liberal attitude is Mark 7:13.

Fifthly, the legacy was unstable. Given its views on the Bible, how on earth could it cling to conservative ethical and theological values? Wouldn’t it have to change the values, or change its view on Scripture? Charles Gore exemplified this. He argued that the human mind is like God’s (theomorphic), and what is not wrong to us would not be wrong to him either. Yet as bishop of Oxford in the 1920s he battled to uphold traditional views on Christ and was criticized precisely because the deniers of the tradition he battled were carrying out his own program. And so it has proved. The liberalism of those days is largely now displaced by “liberalisms” which differ from it hugely in terms of theological content.

The inherent instability of theological liberalism is critical. It helps explain both how things have moved so far since 1974, and why we find contradictory impulses in contemporary liberalism.

Are there still old-style liberals around? Yes, but fewer and fewer. Some old-style liberals have moved theologically, and many are retired. But above all, I think, conditions are not so conducive to producing old-style liberals any more.

NEW-STYLE LIBERALS

So what’s changed? Today, many of those I would call liberals would proudly call themselves “evangelical.” So why aren’t they evangelicals? After all, they affirm miracles, Jesus’ physical resurrection, the need for conversion, and the centrality of the cross. Aren’t those things what evangelicalism is all about?

Recently, we in Britain have had to confront that very question, with prominent evangelicals denying penal substitution but claiming they are still evangelical. On what grounds? Because (they say) they simply teach what they find in the Bible. They want to live under the Bible. How then, they ask, can they be called liberal? This has come up time and again—over penal substitution, over Clark Pinnock and open theism, over questions of practicing homosexuality. These are said to be possible evangelical views, because evangelicals in good conscience hold them as biblical teaching.

Several things strike me about this.

First, there is confusion. This confusion is both doctrinal and relational. Doctrinally, “evangelicalism” now covers positions that would have been deemed “liberal” in my youth. With this doctrinal confusion comes enormous difficulty in the relational matters of rebuke and discipline and correction. I think this stems principally from confusion over the Bible itself. “Evangelicals” all agree that God speaks. But just what does he say?

Secondly, there is cultural conformity. A critical motor behind the three issues so obvious on the UK scene (penal substitution, sexual ethics, and open theism) is the urge to explain and vindicate Christian faith on the basis of what unbelieving people in our culture can accept. The obvious biblical warning against this can be found in 2 Timothy 4:1 and following where Paul speaks of accommodation. There are praiseworthy motives to make the faith attractive here, but, I fear, there are also fatal accommodations. This is why new-style liberalism looks so different in content from old-style liberalism: they are accommodated to different UK cultures.

Thirdly, UK evangelicalism suffers, I think, from a lack of confidence in the Bible. This is counter-intuitive and difficult. It has become very hard to “prove” my interpretation against anyone else’s. Ingenuity and a postmodern outlook risk making the Bible a wax nose, molded into whatever shape one wants. “The reader is the author” runs the post-modern mood, and the tradition of private interpretation of the Bible fits all too easily into a highly individualistic culture. In current debates, I find, appealing to a biblical passage too often does not further the discussion but merely introduces convoluted and indecisive hermeneutical arguments. Thus, there is far less confidence in the Bible as a book we hold in common and under which we sit together. While we sit under passages we like, we risk twisting those we don’t, claiming meanwhile that we are Bible people. Under those circumstances, cultural conformity comes too easily.

Mark 14:18-27 is a key passage we must recover, especially verse 27. In it, Jesus teaches that some interpretations are simply wrong, no matter how sincere the interpreter is.

Fourthly, instability is the inevitable result of our confusion, cultural conformity, and lack of confidence. UK evangelicalism seems to be an unstable beast, comprising contradictory theologies without widely-accepted criteria for resolution. This creates strong pressures towards fragmentation, which is presently occurring, although there are also encouraging signs of co-operation across previous divides.

The instability caused by cultural conformity matters greatly, because our culture itself is changing fast. New-style liberalism, with its nominal profession to be evangelical, will itself be replaced, though we don’t know with what. This puts a premium on a deep and thorough understanding of the gospel, because it must be applied to, and defended from, whatever new cultures we encounter both outside and inside our churches.

FOR EVERY ACTION…

Lastly, the provocations of new-style evangelical liberalism can push one towards something else that is equally unhealthy. Thus against evangelical liberalism’s individualism and anti-authoritarianism comes a new authoritarianism which can mistake obeying a guru for obeying the living God. Against evangelical liberalism’s cultural conformism comes a culture-rejecting attitude that is ghettoizing and exclusivist. Against evangelical liberalism’s antipathy to treating some things as of first importance comes an attitude that sees all things as of first importance. There are signs this reactionary attitude is gathering speed, and it can be just as unbiblical as any of the new-style liberal attitudes I have just outlined.

On reflection, I wonder whether new-style liberalism and its unwelcome mirror image do not both understate a key Christian virtue—humility. The new-style liberal needs the humility to approach the Bible as a reader, not an author. The reactionary needs the humility to live out the truth that disagreement can legitimately take place this side of glory.

By:
Mike Ovey

Mike Ovey is the principal of Oak Hill Theological College in London.