Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Liberal or Conservative ... in the past

James McGrath and John Hobbins have been engaged in a discussion regarding the inerrancy of the scripture. Dr. McGrath is arguing for a liberal approach to inerrancy. In this post, McGrath outlines why he calls himself a Christian although he does not believe in the inerrancy of scripture. This would be consistent with a "liberal" theological position. He writes,
    So why am I a Christian? A short answer would be that it was within a Christian context that I had a life-changing religious experience. But given that I do not espouse Biblical literalism and inerrancy, some might ask whether I am still a Christian, and my answer would be that taking the whole Bible seriously is certainly no less Christian than quoting it selectively while pretending to believe it all and take it all literally.

    I find very helpful an answer to this question that Marcus Borg has also articulated. I am a Christian in much the same way that I am an American. It is not because I condone the actions of everyone who has officially represented America, or that I espouse the viewpoints of its current leaders. It is because I was born into it, and value the positive elements of this heritage enough that I think it is worth fighting over the definition of what it means to be American, rather than giving up on it and moving somewhere else. In the same way, the tradition that gave birth to my faith and nurtured it is one that has great riches (as well as much else beside), and I want to struggle for an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes those things.
McGrath counts himself as a liberal both regarding inerrancy and his theological position. He asks John Hobbins if his position could be better represented as liberal regarding inerrancy and conservative with regard to theology. Here is his reading of John's position,
    In your view, Scripture is inerrant, and it inerrantly has different voices, and so its function is not to communicate the view of one of these authors or the other, but to (presumably inerrantly) illustrate to us that it is out of this conversation that truth emerges. This frees you to accept all that liberal and mainstream scholarship has to offer, including its recognition of a diversity of voices (and even invoke Hegel), and yet from that plurality to choose to draw as many conservative conclusions as possible, at least enough to justify continuing to think of yourself in those terms and bear that label.
    Now, there's nothing wrong with that, but it might be fairer if you were to acknowledge that you are thoroughly liberal in your view of Scripture, and only conservative in (some of) what you choose to build upon it.
John responds with this,
    Conservative Christians today, though of course we want to be as intellectually responsible as possible in how we affirm it, stand with the early Christians. Liberal Christians do not (and the neo-orthodox in the mold of Karl Barth do not either; I’m not sure about Schweitzer; a lot of paleo-liberals were orthodox in a number of ways).
Those of us raised in environments where preachers claimed that our community was closer to that of the early Christians know how hollow this claim is. We can never recreate the worldview, the mental framework, the presuppositions and conditions of the past. We can never enter the mindset of previous eras. This is a mirage. All we can do is mine the past, excavate the remains, and assess the extricated fragments as best we can.

We cannot say that the early Christians were conservative vs liberal, in the sense that these words are used today. We can, however, note that some people are liberal with regard to the scripture but conservative in social and theological positions, or vice versa. Many visitors here are selectively liberal in many of their stances, but conservative in their view of inerrancy.


Bob MacDonald said...

I was not reading the 200+ comment thread. I find these conversations and some subjects too much volume (of sound and content) to take in. There are too many names dropped too. But you have framed the issue in a way I might try and respond at greater length at some point. I do mine the Scripture but not as if I can get anything from it except the witness to the same God who has been given to me - not by my tradition but by his own hand, for my abusive tradition was ignorant of its God and preached in vain. But God in Christ uses the worst to show his best.

BTW I have completed a reading of the Song at my new blog - I hope it isn't too much volume to take in :)

Mark Baker-Wright said...

Conservative Christians today... stand with the early Christians. Liberal Christians do not

Errrr, which early Christians? I can easily cite any number of first and/or second century Christian leaders who conservative Christians would no longer "stand with" in regard to their theology. And a number of them which liberals do, indeed quite readily. (And, as much to the point, there is considerable overlap in these categories)

I don't think Hobbins quite understands the implications of what he's suggesting, here. I would suggest that he needs to define his terms more carefully.

EricW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristen said...

To be fair, what John appears to be saying on a close reading is that conservatives stand with the early church not on all issues, but on these particular ones:

1. That Christ was actually raised from the dead, and not simply raised in a literary, figurative or symbolic sense.

2. That Christ was actually born of a virgin, and this was not simply a metaphor for purity or something.

3. That Christ's miracles actually happened and were not embellishments added later by a credulous population.

As far as I know, these points actually are the definitive places where liberal and conservative theology break from one another. And I do tend to think that early Christians did, indeed, take these things as actual events.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

Suzanne, I hope you didn't hurt your hand in that smackdown of John.

Kristen, did you actually wade through all that blathering to get those points? For free?

Truthfully, those are rational points, although I would not agree that the early Jesus movement agreed on all those things. But no way would I have gotten that from JOhn.


EricW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

Why should we even bother arguing with Liberal theology?

By definition it will continually usurp itself. After all if the next generation comes through and accepts the teaching of their (liberal) parents then aren't they then becoming conservative.

Liberals by definition will continually change from generation to generation because to be liberal is to reject traditional teaching.

It's hardly worth worrying about!