The Roots of Liberalism
Theological liberalism found its roots in the writings of German philosophers and thinkers for over a hundred years previously. Immanuel Kant, for example, wrote that no one can know transcendental, infinite truth by his own reason, but must make a step of faith to build a set of ethical principles for life. Another German thinker, the Romantic Friedrich Schleiermacher, said that religion was not about human reason, theological reflection or one’s moral faculties, but about feeling -- imagination and intuition. He called religion “the feeling of absolute dependence” or “God-consciousness”. Theology was therefore only the record of the succeeding religious experiences of each new generation. Schleiermacher denied man’s original fall into sin in an historical Adam, as well as the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Georg Hegel, who believed in the ultimate reality of the mind alone, saw speculative philosophy as the highest form of religion (after animism, the worship of statues and Christianity). Religious language and debate followed an evolutionary process or “dialectic” that could never be absolute. He accepted the ethics of Jesus but his notion of God as the divine mind is not unlike pantheism (“all is God”).
The Development of Liberalism
Building upon these philosophers, F. C. Bauer and the Tübingen School developed what became known as Higher Criticism of the Bible. This method questioned the authorship and dating of the Old and New Testament books and rejected any notion of the Bible as divinely revealed oracles from a transcendent God. Instead the main ideas behind the teaching of Jesus was the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man -- in short, a purely ethical religion.
Liberalism in the late 19th century and early 20th century had no objection to Darwinian evolution, but instead applied its understanding of inevitable gradual change to history, religion and philosophy. Christianity’s highest expression must be the building of the kingdom of God through social activism. After all, they said, society was to blame for corrupting people, so salvation must be redefined; it is not an individual’s turning from his sins and trusting in Jesus Christ for forgiveness, but rather the rescue of society through the transformation of social structures. Liberal pastors and churches therefore focused on the eradication of racial discrimination and advance of democracy. Many of the liberals who pursued these aims were confident their social activism and Christian morals could conquer the world.
World War I punctured this optimism. Furthermore conservative criticism by Fundamentalists was leveled at liberalism’s denial of doctrines that had been held for centuries by orthodox Christians: the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin conception and birth of Jesus, the death and bodily resurrection of Christ, and His future return. Karl Barth also led a movement to revive orthodoxy’s sense of the transcendence of God and the reality of human sin, but without embracing Fundamentalism’s trust in an authoritative Scripture.
Liberalism has not disappeared from the theological map since the end of WW I. Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, Harry E. Fosdick in the United States, and Unitarians in Britain maintained certain strains of old liberalism. They continued to oppose literal interpretation of the Bible, were interested in natural theology and continued to drive for social change as the mission of the church. Some secular theologians in the 1960s even talked about the “death of God” (Thomas J. J. Altizer) as the end of the notion of a transcendent God. In more recent decades the Emerging Church movement has echoed some of the themes of the liberal agenda a century ago.