Liberals in Evangelical Clothes

1.  “Evangelical Liberalism”

Most evangelicals, despite having conservative views in almost every other area of life, are actually liberal in their theology, or at least in the way they go about thinking of the Christian faith.  Most evangelicals have unwittingly embraced the conditions and presuppositions of liberalism when it comes to Christianity, even if evangelicals generally come to vastly different conclusions as to the nature and content of Christianity than do their liberal counterparts.  The best name for this phenomenon is “evangelical liberalism.”  This title seeks to encapsulate the notion that those who identify themselves as evangelicals nevertheless simultaneously adopt liberal assumptions when it comes to doing theology.  One might even say, they are liberals in evangelical clothes.

This post seeks to explore the implications of that claim by examining the interrelationship between liberalism, individualism, and mysticism.  My argument includes these four parts: 1) liberalism involves a rejection of external authority; 2) most evangelicals reject external theological authorities (like the historic creeds and Protestant confessions which faithfully summarize biblical teaching) and therefore are both essentially liberal and characterized by individualism; 3) evangelicals reject external theological authorities and therefore are susceptible to falling into the trap of mysticism; 4) the remedy to the problem of “evangelical liberalism” is to restore the historic creeds and confessions to their rightful place in the life of the church.

This argument is of great personal interest to me because I grew up in a theological tradition which held, with no lack of conviction, to the dogma: “No creed but Christ!”  The motivation behind this way of thinking is that if it can’t be found in Scripture, then it shouldn’t be believed.  Scripture is God’s word, after all, so we must believe everything it teaches.  But those old creeds and confessions were created by men, and therefore we don’t need them.  In fact, the argument goes, it would be dishonoring to God to use them in our churches!  Taking language from Peter, they argue: we must obey God, rather than men (cf. Acts 5:29).

What I want to do in this post, among other things, is demonstrate that the claim “no creed but Christ!”, even when it is made by those who champion conservative and biblical values, actually arises from a set of liberal assumptions about the nature of reality and the Christian faith.  That is, the claim is motivated by the liberal desire to reject external authorities in the form of the historic creeds and confessions.  What you’re actually doing when you say the words, “no creed but Christ!”, is demonstrating 1) that you do actually have a creed other than Christ (the words “no creed but Christ” are a creed), and 2) that you have no external authority other than who you think Jesus is and what you think he teaches.  In the end, the authority rests not with Christ, but with your own understanding and interpretation of Christ’s person and work.  That is to say, in the end, the ultimate authority rests with you.  Such has been the explicit claim of liberals for hundreds of years, and such is the implicit claim of conservatives who reject the historic creeds and Protestant confessions of the Christian faith in favor of their own individual understanding of Christianity.

2.  Liberalism and Evangelicalism

Historically, evangelicals have been generally conservative in their theology, meaning that they have a high regard for the authority and inspiration of Scripture.  In fact, one of the most agreed-upon elements of evangelical faith is that it is Bible-centered.  As God’s Word, the Bible contains and commands what is true and right and good, and therefore we should believe it.

What it means to be liberal, on the other hand, at least in theological terms, is that you reject the authority and inspiration of Scripture.  This leads to a variety of errors, one of the most serious of which is the rejection (in principle) of all external, objective authorities.  One of the major reasons that many liberals come to reject the authority of Scripture is that the liberal worldview, by definition, cannot tolerate an objective authority outside of the individual.  The individual, according to liberalism, is his or her own highest standard of authority.  This is what it means to be endowed with liberty of will.  No one else, including God, is at liberty to determine who you are or what you can do; you are in charge of your own destiny.  You are free from all external restraints which masquerade as authorities.

Thus, Scripture, while it may be helpful at a supplemental level, cannot stand above the individual as an authority, making claims on who the individual is or what they can and cannot do.  It’s up to the individual to determine who they are and what they do.  Thus, if you were born as a male but want to identify as a female, you have the ultimate right, the ultimate authority, to make that judgment.

Evangelicalism, tragically, has actually succumbed to theological liberalism in a variety of ways.  For all their effort to combat the effects of liberal theology, conservative evangelicals have, ironically, appropriated many of the same theological presuppositions as liberals.  That is, many evangelicals have also, even if perhaps unwittingly, bought into the false notion that there exists no theological authority external to the individual.  Even though the Bible stands formally as the final authority for many evangelicals, in the end what becomes the final authority is not the Bible itself but individual interpretations of what the Bible teaches.  And this notion is not substantially different than what liberals believe.  This is why so many evangelicals, when confronted with a biblical truth with which they happen to disagree, cry, “that’s just your interpretation!”  It’s not the Bible that happens to be the final authority; it’s how one interprets it.

The implication of this is that each individual Christian possesses their own interpretations of the Bible which cannot be subjected to an external authority to prove its truthfulness or falsity.  To put it in colloquial terms: “you have your interpretation, and I have mine.  We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”  The assumption is that there is no external authority, like a creed or confession, or even the objective teaching of Scripture itself, to which both parties can look to see which interpretation is actually true.  We are, then, left to ourselves to determine what is true.

This might be the fundamental reason why theology is seen as virtually useless, at best, in most evangelical circles: evangelicals have succumbed to the notion that doctrine and theology are only matters of private interpretation or preference rather than objective, publicly confessed truths meant to unite all Christians.  Theology, doctrine, creeds, and confessions have no objective authority for most evangelicals because most evangelicals have rejected, even if implicitly, the idea that objective authority can even exist.  Again, even if the Bible stands as the formal, final authority for most evangelicals, how one interprets the Bible becomes the final authority in practice.  Those external standards which seek to act as authorities (like theology, doctrine, creeds, and confessions) lose their value because Christianity, along with its attendant ideas, is viewed primarily as being a matter of private interpretation.

3.  Evangelical Individualism

Here’s another issue to consider: the dogma “no creed but Christ!” is not a legitimate outworking of genuine Christianity, but actually borrows from the liberal worldview which rejects external authorities.  The sentiment behind “no creed but Christ” is that there is no authority to which I am bound other than (my own interpretation of) Christ.  I am not bound by any man-made creeds or confessions.  I am not bound by what any pastor says or what any teacher teaches.  I am only bound by what (I understand) Christ is doing and saying.

This kind of individualism, finding its original home in the liberal worldview’s rejection of external authority, is rampant in evangelical circles.  For example, the most frequently asked question at all of our Bible studies is: “What does the text mean for you?”  The positive implication of this question is that the Bible is actually relevant for our lives today.  This is a good thing.  We should seek to find out everything which the Bible has to say for our lives today.

But the negative implication of this is that there is no objective meaning to be found in what Scripture teaches; all that matters is what you think it means for your life.  This means that Scripture is true for us only to the extent that it is useful for our lives.  Moreover, what the text means for me might be fundamentally different than what it means for you, but, since there are no external authorities to which we can look to adjudicate whose understanding might be correct, we are resigned to futility.  We’ll never really know what the text means.  All I can know is what it means for me.  And this is further reinforced by the popular “Jesus-and-Me” sentiment: “I don’t really need to belong to a church, I don’t really need to be subject to the teaching of a pastor, and I don’t really need to confess the historic creeds of the church; all I really need for the Christian life is Jesus.”  This sentiment is noble, but it is both unwise and unbiblical.

(A more logical and therefore helpful question for our Bible studies going forward might be: “How might we respond to what this text objectively teaches?”  To ask the question this way forces us to consider what the text does actually teach.  Then, based on that, we can think of ways that we might respond in light of the biblical teaching.)

4.  Evangelical Mysticism

The fundamental rejection of objective authority leads not only to individualism in evangelical circles, but also to mysticism.  Mysticism is the idea that you can commune with God without a mediator.  You don’t need anything (like doctrine, theology, a creed or confession, a pastor, or perhaps not even Jesus himself!) to come between you and God in order for you to commune with God.  I mention “perhaps not even Jesus himself!” in order to call attention to the strange phenomenon that many evangelicals claim that God spoke to them personally and told them to do something, but they rarely if ever mention a single word about Christ.  Jesus isn’t (apparently) the one who spoke to them, and what God said had literally nothing at all to do with Jesus.

This strange phenomenon points out the fact that many evangelicals have actually fallen into the trap of mysticism at this point; they don’t really believe that they need Jesus to be their mediator before God.  The thinking goes: we can just experience God directly, without a mediator.  But the Bible teaches that God has spoken finally by His Son (Hebrews 1:1), and that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5).  Therefore, those evangelicals who think they can experience God without Jesus (read: all those who claim that God speaks to them without any reference whatsoever to Jesus) have actually taken up an anti-Christian position.  What they’re really doing is trying to have Christianity without Christ.  No wonder many of them reject the historic creeds and Protestant confessions; they have implicitly rejected the mediating role of Christ as well!

Moreover, the mystics frequently argue, communion with God is often an experience which goes beyond words and language and logic, which further diminishes the need for objective authorities like creeds and confessions.  After all, what good are the words and language and logic of the creeds and confessions if our experience of communion with God fundamentally goes beyond words and language and logic?

Here’s an anecdote: I recently heard someone say that logical thinkers have a harder time communing with God because the ways of God in the world never make sense to us.  And there is some level of truth to that claim: “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing….Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 20).  Paul’s point here is that the ways of God appear foolish to those who don’t believe.

But is he really arguing that the ways of God are illogical, that they go beyond our words and language?  The ways of God are “higher than our ways” (Isaiah 55:9), but that surely doesn’t mean they are fundamentally illogical.  Just because we can’t understand them doesn’t mean they are utterly unintelligible to us.  The motivation behind saying that logical thinkers have a harder time communing with God, I think, comes from a worldview which has unwittingly succumbed to the influence of mysticism.  It is not, at the very least, being controlled or informed by Scripture.

Furthermore, evangelicals are utterly fascinated with determining the answer to this question: “What is the will of God for your life?”  And while it is good to pray to God for wisdom and discernment, and to ask wise people around you to point you in the right direction, this question (and its answers) often take on a more mystical, rather than biblical, flavor.  One need only consider the overabundance of dating advice about making sure your boyfriend/girlfriend is from God.  How can you determine whether it is God’s will to be dating this guy or that girl?  Insert list of unbiblical, mystical indicators here.  (E.g., you’ll never be unhappy; you’ll never question whether this one’s from God; everything will fall magically [or mystically] into place; you’ll never have to work too hard to make it work.)

All of this silliness flourishes in an environment in which external theological authorities are rejected.  What needs to be done, then, in order to combat this unbiblical and unhelpful way of life is to reclaim what has been rejected, namely, the objective nature of doctrine and theology, along with the historical creeds and confessions of the Christian church.  Only by doing this, only by acknowledging that there exists an external authority to which we are accountable in all our thinking about the Christian faith, can we remedy the problem of evangelical liberalism.

5.  Retrieving the Creeds and Confessions

At this point it might be helpful to say that I don’t hate evangelicalism.  Not everything that evangelicals do or say is wrong.  In fact, I think one of the best qualities that evangelicals demonstrate is that the Christian faith is personal.  We really should have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Salvation really is a personal matter, for God saves individual persons by electing them, calling them, justifying them, and glorifying them (cf. Romans 8:28-30).  Theology is personal in the sense that we shouldn’t, and indeed can’t, do it as uninterested bystanders.  We do theology as Christians knowing that we have a stake in the game.  This is God, our God, we are talking about here!

But as Bible-believing Christians we must not be content to say that theology is only a personal matter.  What the Jesus-and-Me sentiment gets right is that the Christian faith involves real, personal commitment to Jesus Christ.  What it gets wrong, however, is that the Christian faith is always more than just a subjective commitment to Christ.  Paul told Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) not only because he wanted Timothy to be personally active with his faith, but also because he exhorted Timothy to “preach the word…for the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2, 3).  Timothy was not commanded to preach his interpretation of the word, but the word itself.  He was not told that there will be a time when people will not endure his interpretation of the Christian faith, but the sound teaching of it.

The point of this is to demonstrate that Christianity is fundamentally objective; that is, the theology and doctrine of the Christian church, as laid forth in Scripture and summarized by the historic creeds and Protestant confessions, stands outside of the individual and makes authoritative claims on them.  Christianity is always more than just our interpretation of particular texts; rather, it is “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).  And this faith is summarized by the historic creeds and confessions.  Therefore, to guard us from error and promote doxology, they should be restored to their rightful place in the life of the church.

Has anyone ever asked you, “What do you believe about the Bible?”  How would you answer such a question?  Regardless of what you say, your answer will be a creed, that is, it will be a summary of what you believe.  Unless, of course, to answer the question you started in Genesis 1:1 and quoted Scripture verbatim all the way to Revelation 22:21.  But since you didn’t do that, since you answered the question by summarizing what you believe, you demonstrate that you have a creed.

So one of the reasons that the church should retrieve the creeds and confessions is that we all have our own individual creeds and confessions.  Everyone is a theologian.  The question is not whether you believe things about God, but what things about God do you believe?  The function of the creeds and confessions is to say: “Here is what we believe.”  They are basic summaries of what we believe the Bible teaches.  Moreover, the creeds and confessions are public documents and can be examined by all.  They can be subjected to scrutiny and tested for error.  We can figure out where they err by comparing them with the truth of the word of God.  Our subjective creeds cannot be easily subjected to scrutiny or tested for error, and therefore they are dangerous in that there might exist a plethora of errors in what we believe, unbeknownst to us, simply because we have not tested our beliefs by Scripture.

And since the creeds and confessions are summaries of biblical teaching, they are therefore subordinate to Scripture.  This is an important argument to make because to this point it might seem like I am saying that the creeds and confessions are either on equal level with or perhaps even above Scripture in terms of authority.  But this is not my argument.  Rather, what I am saying is that creeds and confessions seek to faithfully summarize what the Bible objectively teaches.  Insofar as they capture what is objectively there, the creeds and confessions then become authoritative.  They have no authority in themselves except where they communicate what the Bible teaches, and at those very points they become authoritative.

Thus, we should retrieve and use the historic creeds (like the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed) and confessions (like the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort.  Retrieving them will remedy the problem of “evangelical liberalism.”  The creeds and confessions reinforce the public, objective nature of the Christian faith and therefore combat the evangelical tendency toward individualism and mysticism.  The creeds and confessions provide us with faithful summaries of what the Bible teaches so that we can test teachers, pastors, and even our own personal creeds and beliefs against objective standards which derive their authority ultimately from Scripture.

In sum, the creeds and confessions, governed by Scripture, give us solid ground upon which to stand so that we are not “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).

Thanks for reading.  Have any thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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