Another tragedy has occurred in our nation and the dividing lines are clear once again. It doesn’t matter what the tragedy or issue is because the dividing lines are the same every time. On issues of sex and sexuality, abortion, race, poverty, and economics, the claws come out on all sides.
Society is divided…that’s not exactly breaking news. And so are Christians. Given that I come out of a theological liberal “tradition” (I was never a "theological liberal", but I was surrounded by it), I hear from that side as well as my own. And because I like a good argument, I like to think I consider all sides and come to conclusions based on sound reason.
But since the society will always be fractured, and so will these two Christian traditions, there comes a point of futility in argument. I know what I believe and why, and so do they. Or at least we think we do. And for years I’ve tried to consider what are the absolute core of the differences to end the debate about the pressing issue (abortion, sexuality, white privilege, etc.) and get on with the debate about more foundational things. Because if our foundations are not shared, let's debate that instead of the heat-of-the-moment tragedy. And if I can persuade a theological liberal to agree with me on my answers to the questions below (or if they can persuade me), then progress may be made.
I think there are two questions to ask a theological liberal to get to the foundational issues. This isn't breaking news, either, but they are easy to remember and so central that they are incredibly useful. The first question is simple: What is your source of authority? If there is a theological liberal who will state and can then defend the assertion that scripture is his sole authority, I have yet to meet him (or her). Of course, theological liberals want the authority of the Bible to support their views and they always claim they hold the Bible out as an authority. Just as with legalists and moralists, the Bible is cherry-picked to justify their views. But inevitably, other sources of authority play a competing role.
Experience is always the first alternative source of authority. While the human experience is important, and we shouldn’t overlook it for fear of perpetuating sin, experience just isn’t a source of authority in a Christian worldview. In a strictly theological sense, it doesn’t matter what injustice, cruelty, or joy a single person or group of people has ever experienced. No amount of any of those experiences will ever change the truth about God. I realize that sounds cruel, and that’s why theological liberals latch on to experience: because to deny it will bring about an accusation of apathy or indifference. But if theology is going to be theology, it has to be rooted in God’s revelation, not in our experience. Once our theology is rooted in scripture, then we can work to better the lives of others as their servants in Christ, as disciples seeking to be faithful to his commandments. But not before.
Another possible source of authority is the Tradition, though is used less often because the Tradition more often than not disagrees with the modern theological liberal. But for the careful liberal, the Tradition can become a vague pool from which to draw. Church Fathers, Mothers, obscure writings, and more modern scholars can become bedrock on which to help build liberal theology. To the extent this “Tradition” differs from scripture is rarely if ever questioned. If they say they’re a Christian, that’s good enough for them, and they become an authority for the liberal. After all, if someone else thinks the same way I do, it must be right.
Perhaps Christian traditions other than generally Reformed traditions can cite other authorities. But you can’t be Lutheran (or Reformed) and have other authorities than scripture. You can pretend to, but you cease being Lutheran the moment you do. Which shouldn’t really bother the liberal since we all know what a bigot Luther was anyway, right? So unless I can be convinced that any other source out there is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), I’ll cling to the scriptures as my one and only source of theological authority. When the question becomes a matter of your interpretation of scripture versus mine, then we will have to examine who is being the most consistent. Inevitably, liberals cannot and do not consistently use the scripture to defend their views.
The second question, of course, is related to the first, but it is critically important to understand. The question is simple: What is the Gospel? Like every patriot wants to wrap themselves in the American flag, every theological liberal wants to wrap themselves in the Gospel. The Gospel (at this point undefined) becomes the justification for the theological liberal’s convictions even if and when they refuse to limit their authority to the scriptures. So once they’ve left the Reformed world of the “solas” (scripture, grace, faith, Christ), they can still cling to the unassailable Gospel to justify their theology as God-stamped and God-approved, even if not God-breathed.
Now, maybe some or much of the theological liberal’s agenda is approved by God. But I have absolutely no confidence that God would approve any view that is contrary to the scriptures and only nebulously connected to the Biblical Gospel. So I want to know how the theological liberal defines the Gospel so I know how he uses that word when claiming that God agrees with his view of the world. And if his definition includes vagaries about justice, equality, and fairness, but nothing about reconciliation, forgiveness, and a cross, you know you’re at a crossroads. You can be certain that while the word “gospel” will be used, it will now be divorced from its Biblical context and will thus become meaningless in any real sense.
Now, I realize that the biblical Gospel has consequences. It does not operate in a vacuum. You can’t believe the Gospel and then carry out injustice. You can’t be a Christian and an adulterer or pornographer. You can’t be a Christian pharmacist and proscribe abortifacients, or be a Christian dating site that “matches” homosexuals, or a Christian university that allows gay men or women to cohabitant as a couple. Therefore, if you want to say that the Gospel doesn’t only deal with a cross, some blood, an innocent man, and the forgiveness of sins, fine. The Gospel also deals with real life and real situations.
But the Gospel isn’t about a fair world. It is about reconciliation between God and man. And that reconciliation was only won one way: through the blood and resurrection of Jesus. It assumes sin, and the forgiveness of sins. And if those things are not discussed, it is a good sign that what is biblically described as sin (in our context homosexuality comes up most prominently) will be ignored for a different set Gospel goodies.
For the biblical theologian, sin doesn’t have to be whitewashed because there is no special pleading. We (I place myself in this camp now) recognize that humanity is broken, our society is broken and we are broken. It is only through God’s grace that we are saved and sanctified, and we place ourselves at God’s mercy every bit as much as we implore others to as well. This is the advantage the biblical theologian has over the liberal theologian, and it is why I am one.
So the next time you are in a debate with a theological liberal (if they will dare to debate you at all), use these questions to put to the side the heated exchange of the day and get to the foundations of why you disagree. You probably won’t change minds, but at least you can point out to the theological liberal that he plays fast and loose with the sources of authority he borrows from to justify his worldview. With any grace at all, his foundations will be righted, and the two of you can work together for a better world from the same foundation.