Part 6: Reformation to Now. Lesson 6 of 7
Lesson 39. Liberals and Evangelicals

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will not be shaken by those who warn that the Bible is not trustworthy.

1.Liberal and Conservative.  The use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” is common in the church today, but these terms are used with various meanings. A person might be liberal about one topic but conservative about another.  For example, people are said to have liberal views about “music,” or about “formality in worship,” or about “moral behavior.”  And of course, the use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in politics is not related to their use in church.  But if we are talking about the topic of  ”theology” today, there is a common way to use the word “liberal.” While, in the 19th century, the word “liberal” was used for those who based their teachings on various philosophies, in the church today, the clearest way to understand the situation is in terms of “view of Bible.”  Conservative Christians are those who accept the Bible at face value, but those who use literary or sociological methods to analyze the Bible, assuming that the face value is not dependable to some degree, are typically called “liberals.” ¹ The following paragraphs explain how this situation developed.

2.Science. Starting in the 1500’s, modern science began to develop.  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. 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.)

3.Philosophy 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 the supernatural world does not exist, because it cannot be studied by science.  Therefore, God, forgiveness, and eternal life were not only matters beyond the scope of science, but these philosophers said they were not even true.  This philosophical position is called “naturalism” or “materialism”, meaning that “matter” is all that exists.

4.Darwin. Many found this new philosophy hard to believe, because the wonders of creation were so overwhelming that it was unreasonable to suppose that God did not exist.  But the work of Darwin in the mid 1800’s provided an alternative to belief in a creator God.  Darwin asserted that new species arose by chance, and that those that survived did so because they had some advantage over their predecessors.  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 other scientists who show that life processes are so complex that it is also reasonable to suppose that a “designer” is behind it all.)

5.Social Darwinism. The theory 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.”   One example would be imposing evolutionary suppositions upon the observed differences in societies, pronouncing some as “advanced” and some as “primitive.” An evolutionary history of religions was invented, promoting the idea that religions evolved.  The theory set forth that religion started from nature worship, continued through the worship of many gods, and only much later changed to a worship of one God.

6.Judging the Bible.  Some applied the “materialist” view and the evolutionary theory of the history of religions to the Bible, creating the approach called “higher criticism.” ²  As they looked at some stories in the Bible, such as stories about Abraham, they concluded 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.”  Some of these scholars felt that miracles were impossible, and therefore the Bible could not be true.  Moreover, explanations of the origin of the Bible and the supposed (unwritten) history of the Jewish people arose, which diminished the Bible’s authority by treating it as a fabrication of editors rather than a message from God.  The important thing to note is that the data for these conclusions did not come from the Bible itself. Rather, theories emerged and were imposed upon the Bible.

7.Bible questions.  Here are some highlights in the development of “higher criticism:” as early as 1678, someone³ promoted the idea that the first five books of the Bible did not come from one author, but had many sources; up to that time, Christians were in general agreement that Moses had written those five books.  In 1711 someone 4 said the use of two names for God in the creation stories meant they were written by two different authors.  These two names are 1) the name God told to Moses at the burning bush (sometimes spelled Jahweh or Jehovah), and “Elohim,” a general name for god in the Hebrew language.  In 1748 a philosopher 5 said that miracles were not true.  In 1753, a priest 6  not only continued the idea that the Bible was made from various sources, but also used the two names of God to divide up the passages of the first five books of the Bible.

8.Higher Criticism.   In 1787, a German scholar 7 coined the term “higher criticism.”  In 1878 another German 8 promoted the “documentary hypothesis.”  He said the first five books of Moses were edited sometime after King David from four different sources.  Two of the sources were thought to be different from one another because they used the two different names for God.  The third source was rules for priests, and the fourth was sentences about God’s law, basically today’s book of Deuteronomy.

9.Disagreements. This theory of four sources is not without criticism even by other liberal scholars.  As the 20th century proceeded, scholars have produced many different theories about when the final version of the Old Testament was written, and by whom.  Different scholars find different numbers of sources (someone has proposed 38 sources) and don’t agree on which verses were written by what sources.  In 1924 another German theologian 9 denied the four source theory and said the first five books were written by Ezra, from many sources.

10.Form criticism. Besides theories about sources, other theories were devised by those who felt the Bible could not possibly be taken as it stands.  In 1901 a German scholar 10 said each part of the Bible should be analyzed according to the type of literature it is, and the scholar should try to guess at the situation of the writers (it was assumed their situation was not the situation they wrote the stories about); this approach is called “form criticism.”  Some have gone so far as to say that words of Jesus in the gospels were not actually said by Jesus, but were made up by the church in the next generation to fit the needs of that time.  A group of scholars who call themselves “the Jesus seminar” meets regularly to make pronouncements about “which words of Jesus in the New Testament were really spoken by Jesus.”

11.Lower criticism. In contrast to “higher criticism,” the view accepted by conservatives is called “lower criticism.”  The word “criticism” here does not mean criticizing, but means “research.”  Lower criticism 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.  Unlike higher criticism, it does not form opinions about unknown documents that may have preceded the Bible or questioning about whether or not the Bible events actually took place

12.Modernists and fundamentalists. In the late 1800’s, those church leaders who accepted “higher criticism” were called “modernists.”  Theological Modernism was not accepted by those Christians who continued the evangelical views from the previous century, and modernism was also opposed by the Catholic Church at first.  In 1910 some conservative Christians published a series of booklets called “the Fundamentals.” These booklets 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,” their movement was called “fundamentalism.”  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. A touch-stone of the fundamentalist movement was insistence upon the inerrancy of the Bible.

13.Evangelicals. Today there are still fundamentalists, but after World War II, many of them preferred to be called  “Evangelicals”.  (see * in footnotes for a definition). Both fundamentalists and evangelicals 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 criticized him because he was willing to invite all churches to help him in his crusades. Today’s fundamentalists are also more likely to insist that the end-times must be understood according to the premillenial approach devised by Darby.  The word “evangelical” is used both to describe certain people within the historic reformed (Calvin-influenced) denominations who oppose the liberals in their denomination, and to describe the churches that have been formed by conservative people who have left the historic Christian denominations because they felt their churches were becoming too liberal.  Many of these new churches are called Bible churches.  “Bible Churches” are organized according to the congregational system, generally do not have infant baptism, and in other respects follow the Arminian type of Calvinism.  Both fundamentalists and evangelicals would say they are different from Pentecostals, but all would call themselves conservative.  There are also people who consider themselves conservative who would not call themselves Pentecostal, because they do not speak in tongues, and would not call themselves evangelicals, because they do not emphasize the need for a conscious conversion experience. Some call themselves “confessional” because they adhere to the documents called “confessions” that were written in the early centuries of Protestantism.

14.Different emphases. After World War I, it has become more common to refer to the modernists by the name “liberals.”  In addition to their view of Bible, there are other differences between liberal churches and conservative churches.  One difference is the view of morality.  Conservative groups tend to be 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.  For example, a liberal position would more likely focus on the social justice aspects of abortion, defending the right of a woman to make her own choice and calling for financial support so poor women could have access to abortions as easily as wealthy women.   Another tendency is for conservative groups to emphasize Jesus as savior, taking care of our sin problem by his sacrifice on the cross, while liberal groups are more likely to emphasize Jesus as our “example.”  Of course, Jesus is both our example and our savior. The important word to emphasize is “tendency.”  A church might be liberal to a greater or lesser degree.  It is not unusual for a liberal church to question whether miracles actually happened, but it is less common to find a liberal who questions whether Jesus’ resurrection actually happened.

15.Modern research. Modern historical and archeological research increasingly shows that the theory of the “evolution of religions” used in “higher criticism” has no basis.  Many scholars who used “higher criticism” concluded that the concept of “one God” in the Bible really started with the prophet Amos (8th century BC), and the Old Testament as we have it was written at the time of Ezra (6th century BC) or even later.  If the scholars of the previous century had known the things we know today, they would not have come up with these theories that have cast so much doubt on the authenticity of the Bible.  First, there is the matter of “one God.”  There is no need to assume that Abraham and Moses could not have had the concept of “one God.”  In 1966 a scholar 11 wrote that so-called advanced concepts like “one God” and “high moral ideals” were well-known even before 2000 BC in middle eastern countries.  Not only that, but in 1942 another scholar 12 wrote that the time of Moses was a time during which an emphasis on one God was taking place in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.  It is true that only Israel maintained the concept of one God, while those other countries soon reverted to multiple gods.  The history of China also shows the lack of basis for the “evolution of religions” theory.  During the Shang dynasty, people worshipped one God, called “Tian” and later called “Shang Di.”  It was only later, during the Zhou dynasty, that each area of China began to promote its own gods, and the process began that has led the present situation with over one hundred dead people designated and worshipped in temples.  Research then does not in any way contradict the Bible teaching. In Romans 1:21 Paul writes that at one time people knew that there was one God, but in verse 23 tells us that they rejected the one God and turned to the worship of images.

16.Writing laws. A common belief among those who doubt the Bible is that the first five books could not have been written by Moses, since it is doubtful that Moses knew how to write, and doubtful that the concept of “one God” could have been known at such an early time (Moses is assumed to have lived between the 13th and 15th centuries BC).  There is no need to assume that Moses was not capable of writing.  In 1938 a scholar 12 wrote that at least five different writing systems were well known in the middle east during the period 2100 to 1500 BC, well before the time of Moses.  There is no need to say Moses could not have provided the Israelites with laws.  According to another Christian scholar 13  writing in 1954, King Hammurabi of Babylon, in 1700 BC or before, engraved a stone with hundreds of laws.  The Bible laws, however, are not copies of the Babylonian laws.  Hammurabi’s laws do not include concepts like love of God and neighbor, the high value of human life, and the humane treatment of slaves.  There is no need to say that the sacrificial laws in Leviticus could not have been written when the Bible says they were.  Similar laws have been found in two ancient cities in Syria dating from a similar time, the 14th century BC.

17.Place names and people’s names. Other tablets discovered in Syria and Iraq show that many place names mentioned in the Bible, previously assumed to be fictitious, actually existed.  Also, we now know that the names for people mentioned in the Bible were in common use at the time the Bible uses them (but not necessarily later, when “higher criticism” says the Bible was written).  The kind of covenants that God made with Abraham around the year 2000 BC, and with Moses around the 14th century, use the formats that were in common use during those eras.  Archeology and ancient research affirms that those who accept the Bible as a reliable account of the events portrayed are not less scholarly than those who cast doubt upon the Bible. See more details about archeology and the Bible.

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*  Here an evangelical defines what that word means:   The word “evangelical” today most often refers to an expression of Western Christianity that has generated considerable attention and controversy since World War II. But there’s a larger context we should bear in mind. The social reformers of 19th century America count in many ways as evangelicals, as do the revivalists who preceded them in the 18th century. All of these have roots in what we today call the pietistic movement, one of the most powerful responses to—and dimensions of—the Enlightenment era in both Europe and America.

The pietists, very broadly speaking, were those 17th and 18th century believers who insisted that faith required conversion of the heart and not merely assent of the mind. They affirmed devotional practices to nurture intimacy with God, and rooted such practices in the lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture. And they were persistently active in sharing this gospel (the evangel) in word and deed. Historian David Bebbington has identified these unique emphases as conversionism (an emphasis on personal conversion as the mark of the true Christian), Biblicism (the Bible is the key or sole authority for faith and life), crucicentrism (the cross as central to one’s understanding of the faith), and activism (a gospel expressed in both faith and deeds). Those four descriptors resonate with our own experience of evangelicalism, understood across time and place. The earliest evangelicals appeared under various names, but so do many contemporary Christians who share with them those same emphases and priorities.

By Anthony L. Blair, president of Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. From Christianity Today February 5, 2016 weblink:

 1) 虽然在中文,liberal 翻译为 ”自由派“, 但是 事实上 liberal 跟 自由 没有什么关系。在神学,liberal 代表 ”怀疑圣经“ 的意思。
2) “Lower” criticism means understanding the Bible’s grammar and vocabulary.  “Higher” criticism means using other human endeavors, such as history, science, or sociology, as the way to decide whether any statements in the Bible are true.
3) his name was Simon.
4) named Witter.
5) David Hume.
6) named Astruc.
7) Eichhorn.
8)  Wellhausen.
9) Lohr.
10) Gunkel.
11) Kitchen.
12) Albright.
13)  Unger.