What Lessons Can We Learn from the History of Liberalism?


Evangelicalism today is well positioned for a new liberal departure. There is a widespread sense of crisis among evangelicals. We sense that something has gone wrong with the church, not least because the church seems irrelevant to the persons we are trying to reach with the gospel. Christianity seems to have lost all credit in society. These are the same conditions from which the old liberalism emerged.

Liberalism is a heresy of evangelicalism. Evangelicals often miss this point. We rightly view liberalism as destructive to the gospel and the church, but we mistake the results of liberalism for its intentions. We consequently look for liberalism in the wrong places, among those who are outside the evangelical camp, and are confused when it instead appears within the citadel of the church itself. We are confused because we misapprehend the character of liberalism. We identify liberals as persons who reject the Bible, the church, and Jesus. However, such persons are not liberals. Liberals have always made it their first ambition to honor the Bible, the church, and Jesus. Liberalism does not originate from without the church but from within.


The old liberalism was a response to attacks on the credibility of Christianity. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries European scholars subjected the Bible to scientific—that is, naturalistic—historical criticism. Historical science concluded that many parts of the Bible were not what they claimed to be. Many parts of the Bible were written much later than they claimed, and were littered with fables and fanciful accounts. Scholarship thus discredited Christianity. In response to the church’s loss of credibility, Friedrich Schleiermacher initiated the liberal movement when he proposed that the church itself was to blame. Schleiermacher believed that the church’s preoccupation with dogma and law was foreign to its original character. Since its true character inhered in the experience of the relationship between dependent creatures and the infinite God, it could suffer the criticism of its traditional doctrine and ethics without any true loss to Christianity itself.

A more devastating attack on Christianity’s credibility arose in 1859 from Charles Darwin’s arguments for the evolution of all living organisms, which gained wide acceptance among intellectuals. Darwin advanced a naturalistic explanation of the origin of the species that seemed to contradict the Bible’s assertion that God created them in manifold array. If Darwin was right, then the Bible was wrong. Christianity now stood discredited by science.

For many orthodox Christians, these developments brought about a personal crisis. If they wanted to retain their faith in the Bible, they would have to reject scientific discoveries in history and biology. If they wanted to accept the science, they would have to reject the Bible.

But for many Christian leaders, the missiological aspect of the crisis was more compelling than the personal aspect. Educated persons did not merely reject Christianity as untrue; they also scorned it as disreputable and absurd. Based on evolutionary thinking, intellectuals increasingly concluded that Christianity, like religion generally, belonged to the childhood of the human race. But now that humanity had reached its majority it would stand upon enlightened and scientific reason, and would discard its religious superstitions.

As a result, by around 1900 the church was facing its most perilous intellectual crisis since the second century. Liberalism developed as a response to this crisis. Liberalism’s fundamental purpose was to save the Bible and the church from the attacks of scientific naturalism. It would save the faith by purging it of the philosophical and superstitious impurities that well-meaning theologians had imposed upon it over the centuries. It was time to reform the church and return to Christ. Liberalism would restore the intellectual and moral credit of Jesus, the Bible, and the church in modern society.


Liberals‘ solution was to develop a middle way between scientific naturalism and traditional orthodoxy, a way that would affirm both the new science and the Bible. The key to this solution was a new view of biblical inspiration.

Although evangelicals have often misrepresented liberals at this point, liberals did not reject the inspiration of the Bible. We accused them of “rejecting the Bible” because liberals rejected or redefined many fundamental beliefs of traditional orthodoxy, because logical consistency seemed to require liberals to reject the entire Bible, and because we wanted to emphasize the grave danger that liberalism posed. But in fact their program stood on the premise that the Bible was inspired and authoritative.

Liberals in fact knew that Christianity was true. They knew it in their hearts. They were raised in evangelical churches. They experienced conversion and gave their lives to the service of Jesus. They accepted the Bible as their standard of belief and conduct. Their conversion, their prayers, and their Bible reading shaped their identity, defined their purpose, and gave meaning to their lives. They would not—they could not—abandon their faith or the Bible that revealed and shaped it.

As traditionally interpreted, however, the Bible stood discredited by the new science. It asserted that God created humans by a direct and sudden act, and that he created the vast array of plant and animal species in same way. But Darwinism had allegedly proved that God did not create the species by a direct act. The Bible also asserted that God gave the laws concerning sacrifice and worship at Mt. Sinai upon Israel’s exodus from Egypt. But historical criticism had now allegedly proved that these laws did not develop until hundreds of years after the exodus.

Most evangelicals rejected the premises and conclusions of Darwinism and historical criticism and retained a traditional view of the Bible’s inspiration and meaning. Some, however, accepted the new science and rejected the Bible: that is, they abandoned Christianity. Liberals offered a third way. They accepted the science but did not reject the Bible. But they had to square the Bible with the science. To accomplish this they developed a new theory of inspiration.

The Bible’s inspiration, liberals proposed, guaranteed the truth of its religious message but did not guarantee the truth of its historical message. The Bible’s historical statements could thus be discounted if proven improbable. This did not mean that they were uninspired. They had a religious or spiritual meaning that did not depend on the veracity of the historical meaning. The historical form of the message served as a vehicle to deliver the religious message. The vital meaning should not be confused with the vehicle. The inspired kernel of religious truth was hidden beneath the human husk of historical statement. Since the Bible was inspired in its religious meaning only, a passage could be true religiously but false historically. Liberals held that the scientific discoveries did not falsify the Bible, they merely corrected false views of inspiration.

Their confidence that they were merely following the dictates of rational science prevented most liberals from recognizing that their approach involved cultural accommodation of vast proportions. Karl Barth’s critique in the early twentieth century helped many recognize this fact, but there could be no going back to traditional orthodoxy. As long as they remained convinced of the validity of Darwinism and historical criticism, liberals‘ view of inspiration offered the only plausible way to preserve a place for the Bible and for Jesus Christ in the modern world. The old orthodoxy was no longer credible in light of modern science.

The old liberalism sought to rescue Christianity by making it credible to persons who had adopted a naturalistic worldview, which meant redefining Christianity in largely naturalistic terms. Liberals were convinced that they could preserve the transcendent spiritual truth—supernatural truth—on this basis. They were wrong. They intended to rescue the faith, but in making Christianity more credible to the world, they replaced it with a religion according to the world.


Evangelicals today find themselves in a similar place. Many evangelical scholars find the historical critical arguments of the old liberals compelling, though they generally stop short of their conclusions. Others are proposing new ways of accepting evolution without rejecting the Bible. Most important, many evangelicals today sense that the old orthodoxy is not particularly compelling. The church’s message is no longer credible to the educated, intelligent, and cultured classes. It stands discredited in the light of modern culture.

Modern evangelicals who wish to remove Christianity’s discredit among its cultured despisers are retracing the steps of the old liberals. If the history of liberalism has proved anything, surely it has proved that the gospel must be accepted on its own terms, not on the terms of its despisers, however cultured, educated, and successful they may be.

If evangelicals prove unable to bear the scorn and reproach of cultured unbelievers, then we will attempt to construct another mediating Christianity that aspires to save the church and its message from its cultural crisis. The new liberalism, however, will fare no better than the old—its fundamental aim and its critical principles will devour its content until there is little left of its message. Its children will not find its message or its community compelling, and will not identify with it. But for one or two generations, it will lead millions astray and do permanent damage to the church and the advance of the gospel.

Gregory A. Wills

Gregory A. Wills is the Research Professor of Church History and Baptist Heritage, and the Director of the B.H. Carroll Center for Baptist Heritage and Mission at Southwestern Seminary.

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