LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE
1. The main issue in Christianity today is not so much differences between denominations, but rather the conflict between conservatives and liberals within each denomination. Often conservatives feel more in common with other conservatives in another denomination than they do with more liberal people in their own denomination.
2. Each large denomination has a range of people from those tending towards liberal to those tending towards conservative. In other words, a church would be made up of many individuals, and each individual might be at a different spot on a line between conservative and liberal.
3. A person or church could be conservative about one topic but liberal about another, so to analyze a church completely one would have to draw many lines: for example, one line about preferences in music, another line about feelings toward women’s role in the church, and many other topics.
4. The topic which is helpful for understanding the others, because it is foundational, is “View of Bible.” In non-technical terms, the conservative take the Bible at “face-value.” On the other hand, the attempt to “judge which parts are authentic” would correctly be called a liberal view.
5. The large churches that were formed between the 1500’s and 1700’s are often called “mainline churches.” They could be visualized as a long box stretching from the liberal to the conservative end of a spectrum, since there is a wide range of opinion within most mainline churches, from liberal tendencies to conservative tendencies. Some branches of mainline denominations would be drawn as smaller boxes near the conservative end. For example, the American Baptist church would have both conservatives and liberals in it, while the Southern Baptist church is usually regarded as made up mostly of conservatives. Sometimes conservatives leave mainline churches and form new churches. Most of the “Bible churches” and “nondenominational churches” of today were formed in this way.
6. The technical terms for the two views of the Bible are sometimes called “higher criticism” for liberals, and “lower criticism” for conservatives. The word “criticism” here does not mean criticizing, but means “research.” Lower criticism, which conservative Christians accept, includes two things: finding which words of the Bible are most likely the original words, and researching the correct meanings of the words and concepts. Higher criticism goes farther. It forms opinions about questions like “who really wrote the books of the Bible” and “which words of Jesus in the New Testament were really spoken by Jesus.” As higher criticism developed in the 1800’s, it applied two theories to the Bible: one was assuming that miracles probably did not actually happen, and the second was trying to fit the Bible into a theory of the development of religion which thinks that people originally worshipped many Gods and gradually changed to worship one God. This led some of them to look at some stories in the Bible, such as stories about Abraham, and conclude that “These stories couldn’t have come from 2000 BC, because people at that time couldn’t have believed in only one God so early in history. Therefore these stories must have been written later.” The important thing to note is that the data for these conclusions did not come from the Bible itself. Rather, theories emerged from outside the church and were imposed upon the Bible.
7. The following words are often used to describe Christians near the conservative side of the spectrum: fundamentalist, evangelical, and “confessional.” “Fundamentalists” was the name given to conservatives early in the 1900’s. The term means they stood for the historic, fundamental concepts of faith such as the virgin birth of Christ and the physical resurrection of Christ from the dead. After World War II, many fundamentalists preferred to be known as “Evangelicals”. Both groups have equally conservative views about the Bible. One difference is that today’s fundamentalists refrain from cooperating with other Christians who have differing views, while evangelicals are more open to working together. A famous example is Billy Graham, an evangelical. His views are conservative, and are the same as fundamentalist views, yet most fundamentalists criticize him because he is willing to invite all churches to help him in his crusades. The word “evangelical” is used both to describe the conservative people within mainline churches, and to describe the churches that have been formed by conservative people who have left mainline churches. The terms “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are used within the “reformed” church tradition, that is, among the churches that look to Calvin for their theological stance. Among Lutherans, the term for conservatives is “confessional.” The origin of this term is that during the 1500’s and 1600’s documents were written by protestants to explain their positions. These documents were called “confessions.” For example, Lutherans produced a document called the “Augsburg Confession” in 1530. Augsburg is the name of a city. Today, a Lutheran who wants to emphasize that he or she agrees with the understanding of Christianity that was written in the Augsburg Confession will call himself or herself a “confessional Lutheran.” Most of the denominations wrote “confessions” during the years after the reformation, so logically, a conservative member of a “reformed” church could use this term, but today the label “confessional” is used mostly among Lutherans.
8. Another difference between conservative and liberal groups is their view of morality. Conservative groups are concerned with personal behavior standards, such as avoiding sex before marriage and avoiding abortion. Liberal groups are more likely to concern themselves with social issues: the phrase “social justice” is often heard. Examples would be calling attention to the problems caused by big business in the under-developed countries. This does not mean a conservative church would never be involved with social justice. It means that many liberal churches are also characterized by an emphasis on social justice issues, and many conservative churches are also characterized by emphasis on personal behavior.
9. Another tendency is for conservative groups to emphasize Jesus as savior, taking care of our sin problem by being a ransom, and liberal groups to emphasize Jesus as example.
Modern and Postmodern Pietists are explained in the third paragraph
The term “modern era” refers to the four centuries starting after the time of Luther and continuing up to the present day. This time period included the age of reason and the rise of modern science: a characteristic of the modern era is that people regarded these two movements as a basis for truth. Understanding the “modern era” enables us to understand the time periods before and after it by seeing how they contrast with it in terms of where they thought truth was to be found. In the time before the modern era, people were satisfied that truth could be found through authorities, whether it be the ancient Greek philosophers or the church. Those who today call themselves “postmodern” have concluded that we cannot know how to find truth: they feel that neither authority, nor reason, nor science can provide truth. Postmodern views explain literature and human actions in terms of power, or feeling, or individual preference, but not in terms of truth.
In the generation after Luther, the new denominations that had formed during the Protestant Reformation wrote detailed descriptions of their beliefs, so this period in the church is known as the “Age of Orthodoxy.” (1) (Orthodoxy means “correctness,” and the documents produced were called “confessions.”). [The numbers on this page refer to a diagram you can print and fill in while reading.] Outside the church, the “Age of Reason,” (2) also called the “Enlightenment,” began during the 1600’s. Enlightenment philosophers believed that human reason, not authority, was able to discover truth. Some of these philosophers believed in God, but felt that reason, not the Bible, provided the way to explain God. Those who explained God is this way, as someone who set the universe in motion but then let it run by natural laws, were called “Deists (3).” Thomas Jefferson and some of the other founding fathers held such views.
Enlightenment views affected the churches. Preaching was increasingly devoted to showing that truths about God could be found through human reason, and less emphasis was placed on the Bible. This emphasis on reason led to a reaction in the 1700’s. In the arts, the movement away from reason and toward emotion is called the “romantic movement,” and it continued into the 1800’s. In the German Lutheran church, some felt that the emphasis on reason had led to a “dead orthodoxy” (that is, the words may have been correct but they were not shared in a way that would affect daily life). In reaction, some Lutherans stressed religious feelings and personal devotion in a movement called “Pietism.” (4) Before that movement faded away in the 1700’s, it had influenced John Wesley, (5) whose followers, as the Methodist church, spread it to English speaking countries. (Though begun by Lutherans, its influence on Methodists was so great that reference books call it the “Pietist/Methodist” movement.) This approach was spread in America during two revivals called the “Great Awakenings” (6) (one before the American Revolution and one after); and as a result the Deism movement lost influence. Pietists began the modern Protestant missionary movement, and the small group meetings that they favored are used by many churches today, but at its extremes Pietism can lead people to think that the proof of their faith lies in outward behavior standards, including a “personal experience of conversion” to Christ and taboos on “worldly” activities.
Starting in the 1500’s, modern science (7) began to develop. Instead of using deductive reasoning based on the writings of ancient scientific authorities, the new approach was based on experimentation, careful measurement, and inductive reasoning. (Inductive reasoning starts from individual cases and creates generalizations that might explain them, while deductive reasoning starts with a generalization and applies it to an individual case.) Most early scientists were also devout Christians. Since God was creator, they believed that their scientific work would not be fruitless, since God would have created a universe that was consistent. Through science, people would be better able to make use of what God had created, and to have a deeper appreciation of God as creator. Science could investigate God’s visible creation, while the invisible truths about forgiveness and eternal life would remain outside the scope of science.
Philosophers meanwhile tried to supply theories of knowledge that would show why the scientific approach worked. By the 1800’s, they had become so successful that a new view arose. The old view was that some truths were accessible to science, and some were not, because they were beyond the material world. The new view was that the material world was all that exists. Therefore, God, forgiveness, and eternal life were not just matters beyond the scope of science, but these philosophers said they were not even true. This philosophical position is called “naturalism” (8) or “materialism”, meaning that “matter” is all that exists.
Many found this new view to be too far-fetched, because the wonders of creation were so overwhelming that it was unreasonable to suppose that God did not exist. But the work of Darwin (9) in the mid 1800’s provided an alternative to a creator God. His theory of evolution gave people a way to imagine that the wonders of creation could have appeared by themselves, without a God. It is important to note that science has never proved that the material world is all that exists. This is a philosophical position, not a scientific position. Nevertheless, those scientists who hold this philosophical view became increasingly influential into the 20th century. In recent years, their influence is being countered by some scientists who say that life processes are so complex that it is reasonable to suppose that a “designer” is behind it all. (this view is now commonly called “intelligent design.”)
Darwin asserted that new species arose by chance, and that those species that survived did so because they had some advantage over their predecessors. The notion of evolution became so popular that it was applied to other fields of knowledge, such as history and sociology. This phenomenon is called “social Darwinism (9a).” One example would be imposing evolutionary suppositions upon the observed differences in societies, pronouncing some as “advanced” and some as “primitive.” The “materialist” view and the application of evolutionary theories to the history of religions led to a type of Bible scholarship called “higher criticism.” (10) These scholars felt that miracles were impossible, and therefore the Bible could not be true. Moreover, if, as they theorized, religions evolved starting from nature worship, continued through the worship of many gods, to a worship of one God, then the Bible could not be right in teaching that mankind knew the One God at first, and purposely left Him in order to worship idols. New explanations of the origin of the Bible and the supposed (unwritten) history of the Jewish people arose, which diminished the Bible’s authority, giving the impression that it was a fabrication of editors rather than a message from God.
In the late 1800’s, those Christian leaders who accepted “higher criticism” were called “modernists.” (11) Modernism was opposed both by the Catholic Church and by conservatives in the Lutheran and Reformed (followers of Calvin) churches. In 1915, a series of booklets was published which affirmed such historic Christian beliefs as the virgin birth of Christ and the physical resurrection of Christ from the dead. Since these booklets were called “the Fundamentals,” those who rallied around them were called “fundamentalists (12).” Fundamentalists were people found in the Reformed churches who continued the stress on “heart-felt devotion” and “behavior expectations” that had which had come from pietism through the American “Great Awakenings.” Many fundamentalists were outspoken, were accused of being anti-intellectual, and tended to avoid fellowship even with other conservative Christians who did not believe exactly as they did: one touchstone of fundamentalist teaching was a certain theory of the end-times called “pre-millennialism.”. In this view, Christians will be removed from the earth (“the rapture”) just before seven years of tribulations; then will come one thousand years of peace. The majority view throughout the ages is called “amillenialism,” in which the “thousand year rule” or “millenium” referred to in the book of Revelation has been taken to mean the present age, from the time of Christ to the end of the world.
After World War II, it became more common to refer to the modernists by the name “liberals.” (13) Today there are still fundamentalists, but after World War II most prefer to be called “evangelicals.” Evangelicals distinguish themselves from the remaining fundamentalists in that they are more willing to fellowship with other conservative Christians, even if they do not agree on all points of doctrine. (14) Billy Graham is an evangelical, but fundamentalists criticize him because he invites all churches in a given city to join him in his crusades. Conservatives who would not be called “evangelical” because they do not use an “experience of conversion” as a touchstone of true faith often term themselves “confessional (15).” This means they follow the “confessions,” theological documents that appeared in the 1600’s during the “Age of Orthodoxy.” Thus, within the Methodist or Presbyterian denomination, today’s struggle is between “liberals” and “evangelicals,” while in the Lutheran groups, the struggle is expressed as between “liberals” and “confessional Lutherans.” Individuals may vary in their response to all these influences: for example, a recent book was by someone who called himself a “confessional evangelical.”
An additional group that sees itself as distinct from liberals is Pentecostalism (16). Though it began in 1901 among Holiness churches (those who advocated Wesley’s stress on personal holiness), yet today they would see themselves as distinct from the other conservative groups due to their distinctive teachings about the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and “Speaking in tongues.” To add to the complexity, since the 1960’s many traditional churches contain members who accept Pentecostal teachings: they are called “charismatic.”
The term “apologetics” means the answers given by Christians to objections and misunderstandings about their faith. Because the “modern era” looked for truth in reason and science, Christian apologetics during the modern era used philosophy, archeology and ancient documents to show that the Bible is credible. As the years go by, more and more evidence has been discovered that confirms the historical framework of the Bible stories. Also, a movement called “creation science” points out loopholes in the theory of evolution, and shows how the evidence in nature can be explained through creation. In 1996 the book “Darwin’s Black Box” called attention to another critique of evolution called “Intelligent Design,” which points out how difficult it is to explain how complex systems could have developed by evolution’s “natural selection” theory.
Just as the fundamentalists are a reaction against modernism, so the postmodern (17) view is a rejection of the thought of the modern era. The postmodern view first became well known as a form of literary criticism. Books that had been regarded as true accounts were reinterpreted (“deconstructed”) to show that they were meant to keep the ruling class of the day in power. The postmodern view rejects the very things that were important in the modern view: the value of reason and the ability of science to find truth. The postmodern view is that truth cannot be found. All statements are said to be relative (as opposed to “absolute,” so there can be no “absolute truth.”) People are said to make statements because they are trying to gain or keep power, not because they are true. Therefore it is alleged that each person lives for personal feelings and personal priorities that are not necessarily true for others.
The postmodern view need not be seen as an imposing barrier to Christian witness. Christians have said all along that God cannot be known through human reason, so by criticizing human reason, the postmoderns are clearing away one barrier to Christian witness. On the other hand, the postmodern rejection of “absolute truth” stands in contrast to the Christian message that God has revealed absolute truth. While the modern era Christian apologetics which centered on reason and science may not be meaningful to postmoderns, there are aspects of Christianity which can reach postmoderns, such as the age-old qualities of unconditional love, peace of heart, and living in God’s acceptance and forgiveness. Since someone becomes a Christian by a miracle of the Holy Spirit as the gospel is shared, the postmodern rejection of faith in reason and in materialism need not stand in the way of the person becoming a Christian.
Jim Found December 6, 2000; revised January 14, 2004 and August 15, 2005.