Protestant Liberalism Reaffirmed

by Deane William Ferm

Dr. Ferm is dean of the chapel at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 28, 1976, pp. 411-416. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Protestant liberalism is not infallible, but what are the alternatives: They are in recent times to retreat behind a revelation claim (neo-orthodoxy), to deny the reality of God (death of God), to dwell on one important yet narrow aspect of the struggle for justice (liberation), or to recite stories. Protestant liberalism opposes these alternatives.

Something is missing in contemporary theology. Religious journals devote special issues to asking "Whatever Happened to Theology?" and symposia like the Hartford gathering try to assess the problem and prescribe the cure. Indeed, since the early 1960s theologians have lost both their confidence and their sense of direction. They have capitulated to the demands of the secular world, with its implicit assumption that what is relevant is more important than what is true and in the nature of things. Changing one’s mind theologically has become as commonplace as changing horses politically. Martin E. Marty, writing in Context, is quite right in complaining that "the secular theologians of the sixties . . . now chide the rest of us for not being transcendent enough in the seventies."

I do not propose to diagnose the situation and to offer a remedy. However, I am bold enough to suggest that the Protestant liberal tradition has a message that needs to be reaffirmed today. To be sure, this tradition has many faces; yet its essential features can be discerned through the study of such giants of liberalism as Friedrich Schleiermacher, William James, Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry Emerson Fosdick. These thinkers, although differing from one another in important aspects, present a united front in the general themes of their religious thinking. Protestant liberals have been caricatured in recent years; I think it important that their cause be given a fair hearing.

The Authority of Experience

What are the motifs of liberal Protestantism? Perhaps the most important one is the priority of firsthand personal experience as the authority for one’s religious beliefs. All doctrines must be extracted from "the inward experience of Christian people," wrote Friedrich Schleiermacher, 19th century progenitor of 20th century Protestant liberalism. To be sure, this view of inward experience or feeling was more narrow and specific than one that today’s liberals would espouse. Experience includes one’s total life: past and present, personal and social, aesthetic and scientific, mystical and moral.

The Bible is an important part of Christian experience since it testifies to the heritage of the community of faith. But the Bible is not the exclusive authority, nor are all of its parts of the same worth (see "Brother, Are You Saved? or How to Handle the Religious Census Taker," by Troy Organ, The Christian Century, October 5, 1975). One should evaluate the Bible as one would evaluate any other book, using historical and documentary criticism. Parts of it are of no value whatsoever; who besides me has ever preached from the book of Obadiah?

Reason is humanity’s attempt to make sense of its manifold experiences. It is the human endeavor to apply the tests of coherence and comprehensiveness in drawing conclusions about the veracity of certain phenomena -- that, for example, axheads do not float on water and the sun does not stand still, that conceptions are not immaculate, that corpses do not rise from graves. Reason applied to religion renders it less a matter of faith and more a matter of fact. It makes intelligent communication possible. It is not infallible and does not pretend to be. Nor is it cold, literal and impersonal, as its critics often claim. Reason is the continuing adventure of the life of the mind, trying to make us more certain rather than less that what we believe is indeed true. It tests all claims to truth, seeking the hypothesis with the fewest loopholes, that which is the most verifiable and which leads to the best consequences. To redeem religion from unwholesome privacy and to give it public status and universal right of way to its deliverances, has been reason’s task" (William James).

The Continuum of Existence

Liberals also believe in the continuity of experience. Human existence is a continuum and all of life’s experiences relate to one another. What we learn in the physical sciences must somehow be interpreted along with what happens in our intense personal encounters. We cannot live in compartments; we must develop an overbelief that attempts to integrate the various dimensions of life harmoniously. One cannot arbitrarily accept any one religion, historical document or personal experience as the final authority without first relating it to the rest of life. For example, one cannot affirm dogmatically the historicity of the literal virgin birth of Jesus any more than one can proclaim the authenticity of the golden plates of Joseph Smith or assert the veracity of the mystical experience of St. Theresa.

Similarly for the Protestant liberal, there need be no conflict between science and religion. The scientist must understand the limitations of his or her tools and outlook, and the religionist likewise must welcome the latest insights from the sciences insofar as these contribute to the full meaning of human experience. Liberals never had serious difficulties with the hypothesis of evolution since their concern was not how God created but that God created. Liberals encourage an openness to truth from any source, a tolerance for a variety of viewpoints, and a humility that bases its claims on probabilities rather than certainties. This same attitude determines the liberal Protestant stand with respect to the relationship between Christianity and the other world religions.

Further, liberals believe that there is continuity between one’s own experiences and what one considers to be at the heart of reality. Most liberal Protestants have been in some sense theists, believing that moral life, consciousness, and awareness of purpose and destiny are clues to the nature of the greater Reality which created humanity. Fosdick declared:

If we are to have a profound religion, we may indeed throw away our old, childish, anthropomorphic ideas of God, but we may not throw away God and leave ourselves caught like rats in the trap of an aimless, meaningless, purposeless universe. These is nothing in that philosophy of life to help a man live from a profound depth of being. And while we may throw away our early, ignorant ideas of prayer, we may not throw away prayer, the flowing of internal fountains that keep their freshness when all the superficial cisterns peter out [The Power to See It Through (Harper & Brothers, 1935), p.133].

Even William James, not known for his metaphysical testimony, still affirmed that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and his ideals. All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves [The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902 (Modern Library), p. 515].

Thus, the God of the Protestant liberal includes a personal depth and embraces both transcendent and immanent dimensions.

Christology and Theology

Protestant liberals find in Christ the highest revelation of God’s will. To be sure, this premise is a reflection of their historical background. Yet more crucial here is what the liberals discover in Christ: a confirmation of the theistic elements in their own experience, the qualities of meaning, hope and love. But liberals do not let their Christology get in the way of their theology. Christ is not the sole source of divine revelation. Christ differs from other persons and prophets in degree rather than in kind. Christ is greater than other persons primarily in terms of the potency of his God-consciousness (Schleiermacher). Liberals have been more interested in Christ’s way of loving and witnessing than in the doctrines concerning his nature and uniqueness. At any rate theology takes precedence over Christology in the same way that universality is a better guide than particularity.

Liberals have further maintained a firm confidence in human beings, in their reason and in their natural abilities. Athens has much to do with Jerusalem! We can through reason learn a great deal about ourselves and our world via analogia entis. We can do much to change our world for the better. Responsible change requires positive action; those who would effect change cannot succumb to impotence or arrogance. Liberals have sought to apply the teachings of Jesus to the social and political arena, insisting that a righteous God demands a righteous society. The "social gospel" of Walter Rauschenbusch was never a naïve and rosy confidence in the ability of humankind to rid the world of all wrongs. "A serious and humble sense of sinfulness," declared Rauschenbusch, "is part of a religious view of life. Our consciousness of sin deepens as our moral insight matures and becomes religious" (A Theology for the Social Gospel [Abingdon, 1917] p. 31). Humanity is not all good, but neither is it all bad.

On the basis of these premises -- experience as the highest authority, the importance of reason, the continuity of all of life’s experiences, God as personal and immanent-transcendent, Christ as the incarnation of God’s love, and confidence in humanity -- I believe that Protestant liberalism can offer an important critique of the dominant theological movements of the past 30 years. Lack of space prohibits the treatment here of such theologians as Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose creative and monumental contributions have had great influence on all recent Protestant theology.

The Dualism of Neo-Orthodoxy

From the late 1930s through the 1950s the major Protestant theological influence was neo-orthodoxy. This school of thought protested against what it regarded as liberalism’s overconfidence in humanity and its scientific ways of thinking, and the subsequent loss of the distinctiveness of the Christian faith. Fosdick sensed this weakness in liberalism when he declared in the 1930s: "What Christ does to modern culture is to challenge it." But his protest came too late to still the rising chorus of voices insisting that something was radically different between the claims of Christ and the assumptions of the modern era.

Neo-orthodoxy’s basic affirmation was the need to return to a new kind of orthodoxy, one that would, recognize the importance of historical research while professing a distinctive and particular Christian proclamation: The Bible is the final and unique authority for Christian faith. It is the manifestation of God’s mighty acts in Judeo-Christian history which culminated in the once-for-all revelation of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Human sinfulness prevents persons from acknowledging the lordship of Christ and the transcendence of God. Reason is corrupt and incapable of coming to terms with this revelation; it is a matter of faith in God’s grace. Thus neo-orthodoxy set up a dualism between faith and reason, the supernatural and the natural, Christianity and other religions, God and humanity.

Liberalism’s response to neo-orthodoxy was unequivocal. The Bible is a norm but not the only or final locus of authority, nor even necessarily the primary one. Further, to affirm the utter finality of the revelation of Christ is to deny dogmatically the truth claims of other religions and to put the exclusive Christian revelation in the same category as Baha Ullah and Joseph Smith. Why accept the one uncritically and not the others? Particular historical revelations cannot be the final arbiter, because who then will decide among the conflicting claims? Universality of religious experience, liberals claim, is a better guide than historical particularity. And to overstress the sinfulness of humanity and the need to depend on God’s grace is to open the door to all kinds of nonrational prejudices and to destroy any hope of one’s making sense out of genuine varieties of religious experience. Somehow the affirmations of religion must be consistent with reason and experience, else they will never stand the stress and strain of continued inquiry. Fosdick declared:

As I recall the critical days when my own mind walked the thin edge between new theology and no theology . . . . I desperately needed someone who would talk to me reasonably about religion. Men who would only pound the table, announce God’s revelation as they understood it, and demand that by faith I accept it with a decisive act of will, would have made Christianity impossible for me. Faith does not take reason by the throat and strangle the beast! Faith and reason are not antithetical opposites. They need each other. All the tragic superstitions which have cursed religion throughout its history have been due to faith divorced from reason [The Living of These Days (Harper & Brothers, 1956), p. 258].

By the early 1960s the particularistic assumptions and dualistic affirmations of neo-orthodoxy no longer seemed viable in the modern scientific culture. The authority of the church in the secular milieu had greatly diminished, and with it went its unique defense of special revelation. These assertions no longer made sense in a postsupernatural age. They served to shield the faith from the questions and answers posed by the modern world. For better or for worse, people now had less faith in the eternal and permanent, and more confidence in the temporal and transient.

Theologies of the ‘60s and ‘70s

The emerging theology of the 1960s was really a nontheology, a surrender to the secular way of looking at things so pervasive that it eliminated God and all things beyond the here-and-now. Perhaps it was inevitable that the first major departure from neo-orthodoxy was a drastic swing in the opposite direction, an acquiescence to contemporary modes of thought and a denial of transcendence and revelation. Yet curiously the "death of God" non-theology held on to Jesus as though allegiance to him were a sufficient and necessary response to the secular world. But more about that later.

The reaction of Protestant liberalism to this non-theology of the 1960s differed significantly from its reaction to neo-orthodoxy. Confronting neo-orthodoxy, liberals reaffirmed the role of reason, the authority of universal human experience, and the insights of contemporary modes of thinking. In the case of the more recent nontheology, liberalism stressed the "more" quality (James) of human experience and the importance of developing an overview of life that gives reason and experience their due, allowing for a cosmology wider than humanity itself. God is still a reality, along with prayer and worship. There is a God, both personal and transcendent, and it remains our destiny to seek and to respond to God. To quote Fosdick:

Personality, the most valuable thing in the universe, revealing the real nature of the Creative Power and the ultimate meaning of creation, the only eternal element in a world of change, the one thing worth investing in, and in terms of service to which all else must be judged -- that is the essential Christian creed [As I See Religion (Harper & Brothers, 1932), P.44].

The nontheology of the ‘60s threw the baby out with the bath, and that is probably why it remained a major influence for such a short time. "If God is not personal," wrote Fosdick, "he can feel no concern for human life and a God of no concern is of no consequence" (The Meaning of Faith [Association, 1918], p. 64). Hence the "death of God" theology was of no consequence.

Theology in the ‘70s is so faddish that it is almost impossible to keep up with the latest and figure out what is being said and why. Two major innovations are liberation theology and telling-one’s-own-story. Liberation theology comes in various stripes (political, black, feminist, etc.), but its major thrust seems to be that to be saved is to be liberated -- i.e., liberated from all forms of human injustice: economic, social, racial, sexual and so on. And liberation involves not mere personal repentance but, far more important, social revolution, freeing the downtrodden from the oppressive structures of society. True liberation involves a full commitment to Jesus as the True Liberator.

Narrow Perspectives on Liberation

Protestant liberalism has two main comments to make with respect to liberation theology. First, shouldn’t theology by implication be liberating in all dimensions of life? That is, if one believes in a God of justice and love and righteousness, is not-this the very reason why salvation means liberation? The all-encompassing demands of the Christian gospel include the absolute need to free the oppressed and to revolutionize the structures of society that prevent human liberation. Genuine theology does take account of the socioeconomic, racial and sexual dimensions, to name but a few. It cannot function apart from society. Read Rauschenbusch again:

Theology has not given adequate attention to the social idealizations of evil . . . The new thing in the social gospel is the clearness and insistence with which it sets forth the necessity and the possibility of redeeming the historical life of humanity from the social wrongs which now pervade it . . . The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls on us for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations [op. cit., pp. 78, 95,5-6].

The basic weakness in all forms of so-called liberation theology is their overstress on one aspect of the struggle for justice. Latin Americans seek liberation from the oppression of economic exploitation, blacks from racism, feminists from sexism. One could and indeed should make the same plea for liberation for American Indians, Chicanos, the elderly, the blind, homosexuals, etc. Each group (and why not, to be consistent, each individual?) tends to view the problem of liberation from its own narrow perspective in its own historical struggle.

Protestant liberalism reaffirms the overarching holistic sense of the theological task, that the God of justice and love is present in all dimensions of history and life. It affirms the conviction that there is a universal dimension to humanity that unites us as children of God regardless of our race or sex or economic condition. We are first children of God -- created in God’s image -- and second Jew or Christian, black or red or white, male or female, and so on. Liberalism further points to the need for reason to criticize and clarify the problems and alternative solutions in the various historical particularities of human oppression. Marxism needs to be evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses as does capitalism or any other economic system. And racism of any color is an evil. Furthermore, angry rhetoric -- especially directed these days against human beings who by the accidents of birth happen to be Americans, white and male -- never solves any of the problems. Come, let us reason together!

Jesus Without God

The second critique of liberalism against recent theology: Why this exclusive allegiance to Jesus? Why hold on to Jesus as the True Liberator? Curiously, the uniqueness of Jesus has been maintained ever since neo-orthodoxy. Note the uncritical acceptance of Jesus that continued in the nontheology of the ‘60s. For example, William Hamilton declared that it was no longer possible to believe in God, yet he still accepted Jesus. Why?

Jesus is the one to whom I repair, the one before whom I stand, the one whose way with others is also to be my way because there is something there, in his words, his life, his way with others, his death, that I do not find elsewhere. I am drawn, and I have given my allegiance [The Death of God Controversy, by Thomas Ogletree (Abingdon, 1966), p. 43].

But still, why Jesus? Is this not an arbitrary choice? Hamilton replies:

I think I accept "arbitrary" as an adequate, if partial, description, of the choice. It is arbitrary in that there are no inherent grounds in the object of that choice that compel my response . . . Jesus is in the world in such a way that he readies me for whatever beliefs and actions and forms of self-discipline I may be obliged to take on. Not the "only," not the "best," but the one, nonetheless [On Taking God Out of the Dictionary (McGraw-Hill, 1974), pp. 18-19].

For the early Paul van Buren there is no place for God, yet he held on to the uniqueness of Jesus, believing that Jesus’ particularity centers

in the fact that Jesus is a free man who set other men free . . . [Christian faith] is a perspective on man, a certain way of viewing the human situation deriving from the "contagious freedom" of Jesus [Ogletree, op. cit., p. 66].

Thomas Altizer puts a different slant on his nontheology, claiming that the death of God occurred in Christ, a kind of mystical orgasm in which transcendence empties into immanence:

The incarnation is only truly and actually real if it effects the death of the original sacred, the death of God himself. . . What is new in the Christian name of Jesus is the epiphany of the totality of the sacred in the contingency of a particular moment of time: in this name the sacred appears and is real only to the extent that it becomes actual and realized in history [The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Westminster, 1966), pp. 54, 57].

In other words, all three of these leading "death of God" thinkers could declare that there is no God and Jesus is his chief prophet. Liberals maintain that belief in Jesus should at the very least include an acceptance of Jesus’ basic affirmations about God. Jesus without God is no Jesus at all!

The Radical Jesus

Recent theologies of liberation have maintained the same kind of exclusiveness with respect to the person of Jesus, and perhaps this is why theology without Christ is of little concern to them. Jesus now becomes the Great Liberator, a revolutionary who fights on the side of the oppressed. Theology becomes a reflection on Christian praxis (a favorite "in" word) in the light of Scripture. Liberation becomes the central perspective, a hermeneutical principle drawn from biblical sources and centering on the radical Jesus. Take, for example, James Cone and his advocacy of black theology and black power. What thinks he of Christ?

Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so detestable to white society . . . the black revolution is the work of Christ [Black Theology and Black Power (Seabury, 1969), pp. 68-69].

In a later book in which he espouses A Black Theology of Liberation Cone writes:

In a society where men are oppressed because they are black, Christian theology must become Black Theology. . . . The norm of Black Theology must take seriously two realities, actually two aspects of a single reality: the liberation of black people and the revelation of Jesus Christ. . . . The norm of all God-talk which seeks to be black-talk is the manifestation of Jesus as the Black Christ who provides the necessary soul for black liberation. . . . If Christ is white and not black, he is an oppressor, and we must kill him [Lippincott, 1970, pp. 11, 79-80, 199].

And how does Jesus fit into this situation?

The finality of Jesus lies in the totality of his existence in complete freedom as the "Oppressed One, who reveals through his death and resurrection that God himself is present in all dimensions of human liberation. . . . He is the Liberator par excellence whose very presence makes persons sell all that they have and follow him [ibid., pp. 210, 213].

Granted that Cone is quite loose in his rhetoric, the fact remains that Jesus is still Number One and that he and no one else is the answer to black liberation.

Protestant liberals believe that this is an uncritical and exclusive misuse of Jesus. What about Jews, Muslims and Buddhists: must Jesus also be their True Liberator? In this emerging world community our challenge today is to look around at the other religions of the world and their prophets and to see what insights we can glean from them in the struggle for justice and freedom. After all, Martin Luther King used to say that his faith in nonviolence was deepened through his empathy with Mahatma Gandhi. We de-emphasize the differences between Catholics and Protestants these days because we have so much in common. Should we not do the same with the religions of the world and save Jesus from becoming a stumbling block to non-Christians? Declared Fosdick:

Divinity is love. Here and now it shines through the highest spiritual experiences we know. Wherever goodness, beauty, truth, love are -- there is the Divine. And the divinity of Jesus is the divinity of his spiritual life [The Hope of the World (Harper & Brothers, 1933), p. 103].

Once again theology should take precedence over Christology and universality over particularity. When, for example, Cone insists that the norm of God-talk is the manifestation of Jesus as the Black Christ, he blatantly misappropriates Jesus for his own racial purposes.

Reason and Autobiography

Finally, a word needs to be said concerning religion as storytelling. Narrative is an important dimension of religion -- especially within the Judeo-Christian tradition. No one denies that. And one can learn something from telling one’s story to oneself and to certain other people. I always enjoyed my Uncle Carl’s stories. But to equate storytelling with theology and thereby to justify regurgitating one’s own autobiography for public consumption is more often than not an ego trip. Stories can be full of inanities and lies. Protestant liberals insist upon the tools of critical analysis, maintaining that reflection on life’s experiences is not a debilitating venture but a necessary task. Narratives are filled with a variety of experiences that need to be interpreted; this is true of Bible stories as well as personal testimonies.

The role of reason is to attempt to make sense out of autobiographical nonsense, to try to keep us honest. What William James said of feeling can also be said of story: "It is private and dumb, and unable to give us an account of itself." Stories need to be critically analyzed. Which accounts are acceptable? Which should be rejected? Which should be reinterpreted? What about their historicity and truth value? Reason is crucial in trying to sort out fact from fancy and reality from baloney. And stories become theological only when they are concerned with God, not with the human narrator.

Protestantism liberalism, I repeat, is not infallible. It has its weaknesses because human beings are weak. Sometimes it may overstress the potential of persons and their ability to learn about themselves and the world and to rid this world of its wrongs. But what are the main alternatives? They are in recent times to retreat behind a revelation claim (neo-orthodoxy), to deny the reality of God (death of God), to dwell on one important yet narrow aspect of the struggle for justice (liberation), or to recite stories. Protestant liberalism opposes these alternatives. It continues to honor the diverse experiences of persons, using their minds to the fullest, seeking always to learn and to respond to the totality of life’s experiences, including above all the reality, of God. This remains the liberal Protestant spirit and purpose.