It is possible to conclude from the last paragraph of my previous post, “Seven Characteristics of Liberal Theology,” that I am suggesting that evangelical Christianity has no interest in becoming relevant to contemporary society. This misunderstanding should be set aside as evangelicals seek to present a Gospel that is not only relevant to society, but also faithful to Biblical revelation.
Historically, liberal theologians ended up transforming or rather trans-mutating the Gospel to accommodate its teaching to the sensibilities of society and culture. In contrast, evangelical theologians engaged in translating the unchanging revealed truths of the Bible as they present a Gospel which confronts society and culture. In short, the issue between liberal and evangelical theology is whether the truth of Christian revelation has been preserved or transformed in the process of making Christianity relevant to modern society.
Millard Erickson gives a helpful contrast between evangelical translation of the Gospel and liberal transformation of the Gospel:
The transformer is convinced that the world has undergone a serious change since biblical times. Whether he is thinking of the technological transformations of the last few years or the large changes in basic science in this century and earlier, the world of today is simply no longer the world in which Christianity arose and grew. Moreover, Christianity’s beliefs as they stand are so inseparably tied to that ancient world-view that they cannot be maintained independently of it. In other words, the beliefs are the dependent variable, the broader intellectual milieu the independent constant. There really is no possibility of retaining the beliefs by merely restating or modernizing them.
Liberals espouse this position. While there are some who prefer the label modernist, seeing themselves as updaters of the old beliefs, they do not really regard the essence of Christianity as bound up with the particular doctrines that were held by ancient believers. Thus, it is not necessary to conserve or preserve those doctrines…
Here modern man is made the measure of truth. Since truth is to a large extent considered relative, man today is the judge of what is right and wrong. In no real sense is there the idea of a revelation from God which somehow is the source and criterion of truth. Thus, there is nothing normative outside human experience, nothing which could sit in judgment upon man’s ideas. If there is to be any alteration to produce consistency between traditional Christianity and modern man’s thinking, it is Christian doctrine which must change, not man. Relevance is the key word, rather than authoritativeness. [Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 3 vols. (Baker, 1983-1985), pp. 113-114]
To the translators, the transformers seem not to have reexpressed the message, but to have substituted another message for it. A Christianity without God, or at least without a transcendent God, and without a qualitatively unique place for Jesus Christ, scarcely seems worthy of being called Christianity any longer. The translators share with the transformers the desire to speak a fresh and intelligible word to the modern world. They emphasize much more strongly, however, the need for making certain that it is the authoritative message that is being spoken. One of their aims is to retain the basic content of the message. In this sense, translators are conservatives. Another aim is to put the message in a new form, to speak the language of the hearer. Just as one would not think of preaching a sermon in biblical Greek to someone who does not know the language, so it is crucial to get away from old and unfamiliar expressions and use synonyms drawn from contemporary experience. The translators attempt to say what the Bible would say if it were being written to us in our present situation…
The translator maintains that man is not the measure of what is true. Truth generates from above, from a higher source. It is God who speaks and man who is on trial, not the other way around. If transformation is needed, it is man, not the message that must be transformed. While the translator aims to make the message intelligible or understandable, he does not expect to make it acceptable on modern man’s grounds. There is a built-in dimension of the message that will always be a cause of offense to natural man. There is thus a sense in which the message must be antithetical to and critical of the contemporary understanding of reality. The message must challenge the contemporary mindset, not simply accommodate to it.
It will not be merely the doctrinal teachings which cause tension between the Bible and contemporary man. Perhaps even more offensive than the belief structures of the Bible are its ethical teachings. These seem to call into question not merely what one believes, but also what he does and even what he is. Whether doctrinal or ethical in nature, a friction will be created by the biblical message, a friction which the theologian and the church should not attempt to remove. [Erickson, pp. 116-117]
It is arguable that the juxtaposition between liberal transformers and evangelical translators should be more nuanced, but the purpose of this typology is not only to compare similarities and differences but to highlight their controlling background beliefs.
The differences are highlighted precisely because liberal theology is regaining influence in Malaysia as church leaders are afraid to uphold and defend traditional doctrines since they could be labelled as narrow-minded and dogmatic by liberal scholars who advocate doctrinal tolerance in the name of inclusiveness.
The doctrinal temptation of liberal theology is only a symptom of a deeper malaise, which is the loss of regard for the awesome holiness of God whose glory and sovereignty ought to put us in humble state. This loss of regard is a subtle and unconscious process, especially for the educated class. Regardless, when we become highly confident of our sophisticated knowledge, we can end up judging God’s infallible word in our cleverness rather than submitting to its authority (indeed, many liberal scholars and young people who are inclined to liberal theology appear ‘smarter’ than conservative and traditional Christians).
Surely, one of the paramount goals of pulpit preaching is to impress the congregation to delight and submit to the glory of our awesome God. Sadly, this is lacking today. God’s people are served thin gruel rather than wholesome food in many pulpits when leaders are negligent in the systematic teaching of the Bible and doctrine. As a result, something else other than evangelical faith and doctrine fills up this biblical-doctrinal vacuum, The younger Christians who have been exposed to sophisticated ideas since their college days naturally look elsewhere for moral and theological guidance, even as they nominally participate in church activities.
Obviously, it is not the fault of younger Christians when they are vulnerable to the corrosive influence of liberal theology. It is the older leaders who have failed them by neglecting to ground them in a faith that is both biblically faithful and theologically relevant. May we share the passion of Paul to build up believers in Christ: “We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ…For I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy, because I have promised you in marriage to one husband–to present a pure virgin to Christ.” [Col.1:28; 2 Cor. 12: 2]