Avoid the slide from biblical to liberal theology


Like all other belief systems, reformed, evangelical, scriptural thinking is done within a system of basic tenets. There’s a set of interlinked biblical doctrines and attitudes which underlie it all and these are listed below.

About once a year I go back to this list as a really helpful way of identifying drift from reformed thinking to liberal theology. This exercise is taken from a lecture given by David Field at Oak Hill in 2005.

When liberal, non-reformed theology developed out of reformed theology during the enlightenment, a number of basic tenets were gradually eroded. Once eroded, these behave like a stack of dominoes, when one falls the rest follow. The key to avoiding theological drift is to identify our own Achilles heal. Mine is probably catholicity, wanting to be friends with everyone.

To do the exercise, read the following definitions of the tenets, find your emotional point of entry (the first domino to fall) and then work out which domino falls next. It helps to print off the diagram and draw lines from circle to circle.

Reformed theology to liberalism

Empiricism and inductivism: the belief that science trumps revelation. In this scheme, no human behaviour is inherently sinful, God is not offended by sin. Rather, all behaviour may be explained and changed using a pseudo-scientific method and counselling. And, of course, miracles are not miracles, they can be explained away. The incarnation of God and his resurrection from the dead are myths to the empiricist or inductivist.

Anti-voluntarism: Voluntarism states that God is good and so God’s will dictates what I do. If I think I know better than God, that’s anti-voluntarism.

Anti-determinism: if you don’t think God knows the beginning from the end and that all things work according to the sovereign will of God, that’s anti-determinism.

Anti-enthusiasm: Jeremy Paxman wrote “the English like their religion in moderation.” Instead of intensity, certainty and confidence you display a cool, arm’s length detachment to Christian truth.

(some) People are good (anti-total inability, anti-total depravity): When people only see the image of God in others, and overlook indwelling sin, they conclude “Surely God won’t condemn the good people”. Instead of admitting that people are unable to save themselves from sin and judgement, liberals conclude that God will let the “good” people in.

Reason verses revelation: For a reformed theologian the command to love the Lord your God with all your mind means; think as hard as you can about God revealed in scripture. For a liberal it means think independently as if human reason alone can fathom all mysteries.

Toleration: The bible teaches that God is not tolerant, he is patient. Patience expects change, tolerance doesn’t. The reformed pastor is patient with people but the liberal is tolerant of bad behaviour and/or sloppy theology.

Natural religion: liberals believe that God reveals himself only in creation and all religions sense this. Religion is an attempt by finite humans to put God into a system of words, codes and morals, therefore, all religions are equally inadequate attempts to grasp the ungraspable.

Catholicity and friendliness: the primary goal is for everyone to be friends, regardless of creed.

Anti-dogmatism: this is the belief that doctrine is bad because doctrine divides people. Best not to belief anything to strongly for fear of upsetting someone.

Hebrews 3:7-12 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'” Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.

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8 Responses to Avoid the slide from biblical to liberal theology

  1. Andrew Gray says:

    Another great post. I struggle getting my head around the whole ‘this is liberal, this is reformed’ thing. College lecturers seem to let it trip off the tongue. If only someone could just give me a piece of paper with three columns and put the comparative interpretations next to each other of evangelical, liberal, and refomred theology! You have gone a little way to beginning that process with this post. To the post itself, I wonder though if it works only if you look at each tenet with a black and white perspective? Is it possible for the dominoe then to just have a little wobble, but not actually fall over? Just taking the first tenet, I find science and revelation cannot be greater than one another since they are different disciplines that compliment one another. Does that mean that there is a break in the chain perhaps? Blessings!!

  2. markmeynell says:

    Some very helpful provocations here, Neil. Thanks!
    Now i’m probably being v picky and pedantic here but this has just got me thinking – not so much as a reaction to what you have said but to what i see around the place.
    I worry a bit that by talking in terms of reformed theology as something to depart from, we’re setting that up as itself some kind of construct. I’m pretty reformed (or so I like to think!) – but surely it is about gospel rootedness and faithfulness, conforming to the biblical worldview as true reality, for which we regard a reformed theology as a pretty close and useful means to that end – but it is by no means perfect, as no human theological system ever can be.
    But I’m probably going to be slammed by other comments for having fallen into precisely the trap your post has warned of. I hope I don’t and I hope I haven’t! Keep up the good work.

  3. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Andy, perhaps my post suffers from over abridgement as I’ve tried to squeeze an hour’s teaching into a few hundred words. The question for each tenet is what supposition is primary?

    So, science says miracles don’t happen, therefore they don’t over and against God made the universe and so can do what pleases him, including suspending or altering the laws which govern the universe, therefore the resurrection is possible.

    Any swing from building a biblical worldview to a non-biblical “liberal” worldview will begin with a change in suppositions. Once one supposition falls the rest will, eventually, follow.

    If someone holds that miracles don’t happen, then the resurrection goes, without the resurrection Christianity is only another human attempt to grasp the infinite God, so revealed religion is the next to fall, then comes toleration and so on.

    I might post an example on the method next week, along with the coloured text flow diagram I promised.

  4. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Mark, thanks for your comment and for picking me up. I was loose or unclear with my wording. When I used reformed, evangelical, scriptural I meant to use them interchangeably to say something like “gospel rootedness and faithfulness, conforming to the biblical worldview as true reality” rather than suggest that historic, reformed theology is a fully defined system that we are not at liberty to alter.

    As far as occupying the biblical reality depends on the above tenets I think it is helpful to ask ourselves “do I still hold to what God has revealed in the bible or am I drifting?” And “if I am drifting, why?”

    I hope this answers your point, without me being overly catholic nor you being overly anti-dogmatic 😉

  5. markmeynell says:

    they’re certainly good questions!!

  6. Andrew Gray says:

    ahhhh – I think 😉 Really enjoying your posts and the interaction though. Thanks Neil.

  7. leaderstress says:

    Will pass this on. Thanks.

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