‘Fundamentalism’ & ‘new liberal theology’

An article by the Rev Dr Ian Bradley published in The Times today calls upon liberal theology to take back popular Christianity from the Fundamentalists.  The article ran full-circle for me: Bradley, who happens to be associate minister at the church I am a member of, makes mention of the 1910 launch of The Fundamentals, a series of pamphlets published by the founders of my alma mater, Biola University (called the Bible Institute of Los Angeles at the time).

Bradley writes of what would become the Fundamentalist position:

… advocating the literal authority and inerrancy of the Bible, creationism as against evolution and penal substitutionary atonement – the idea that Jesus was punished in place of sinners to satisfy God.

Bradley urges the Church to ‘escape from the shackles of this modern fundamentalism’.  In trinitarian terms he advocates what he calls ‘a new reclaimed liberal theology’ based upon an acronym central to his thinking (and the title of his new book): GOOD = Grace, Order, Openness and Diversity.  By grace Bradley means ‘overflowing  mercy, love and forgiveness’, which he attributes particularly to God the Father.  Order is particularly attributed to God the Son, ‘represented in classic Christian theology as the personification of Logos or reason.’  To God the Spirit he attributes openness, ‘often envisaged as breath or wind blowing away staleness and constantly revealing new truths and insights.’  Among these three distinct persons of the single Godhead Bradley finds room for his concept of diversity.  It’s all well-rehearsed and his article says very little about the whole topic because it is essentially functioning as an advertisement for his new book, but there certainly is enough substance to start a new conversation.

Bradley characterises—and I would say rightly characterises—the narrow conservatism of the Fundamentalist view by ‘innovation and departure from tradition’, a sort of pseudo-conservatism, as the early Church was more characterised by ‘a broad liberal outlook.’

Like the early writings of Karl Barth reacting in absolute rejection of nineteenth-century liberal theology, Bradley writes off Fundamentalism ‘as the great twentieth-century heresy and aberration‘ without much consideration for why the founders of the movement believed it necessary to fight for.  (I am basing this exclusively on today’s article as I have not yet read his book.)

Anyone who knows me well or reads what I write on this blog probably knows that I am no big fan of Fundamentalism, nor of Evangelicalism for that matter.  But it seems to me that if I am to be a responsible student of Christianity and a true adherent to the Ecumenicism I supposedly aim for I must be open to discover God’s Spirit in many Christian traditions.  (I sometimes find myself far more open to non-religious ideas than those put forth by the Evangelical tradition.)  We cannot ‘wipe out the long shadow of fundamentalism’ as Bradley insists we must.  Instead, we must be as gracious and generous as the progressive and transformative programme we profess to adhere to.  The modern development of ‘Evangelical tradition’, flawed as it may be, has at the very least this merit: a foundational desire to faithfully and fervently seek after the things of God.  It is unfortunate that the Evangelical tradition has reduced the ‘things of God’ to a very narrow and very recent set of ‘fundamentals’, but to say as Bradley does, that ‘God’s goodness is a very liberal theme and one that tends to be downplayed in conservative circles’ and that ‘conservative preachers speak a lot about God’s holiness, awesomeness and judgment but not much about God’s goodness’ is perhaps quite unfair.

In the end these two things are true: God is certainly good and gracious and we all have many beliefs that are shortsighted and flat-out wrong.  I think his goodness can make up for our shortcomings, but let’s have the humility to acknowledge their inevitable existence.

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About Elijah

My name is Elijah and I am a proud Angeleño-Glaswegian. I serve as Minister of Queen's Park Govanhill Parish Church. My other interests include life in active community, writing, performing and partaking of music, collecting vinyl records, hiking/outdoors, urban exploration, Celtic FC and the Detroit Tigers.

6 responses to “‘Fundamentalism’ & ‘new liberal theology’”

  1. Carolyn says :

    Good post. There is no debate about the Goodness of God….among those who know Him. But among those who have not encountered the very powerful person of God….they are compelled to explain Him within the limited reason of the human mind. Those who welcome His ‘goodness’ and grace as an umbrella to cover continued sin not only place themselves under the judgement of God …as did the earlier Nicolaitanes…but they accuse God of being unjust. I would that all doctrines…be they ‘fundamental’ or ‘liberal’ be erased. I would that the true Gospel be experienced around the world. Chist is the Gospel.The Gospel lives only in the very real and resurrected Son of God. All else is man’s tradition, habits, doctrines, and ineffective attemps to take possession of the pearl of great price.

  2. Anna says :

    Elijah, i found this piece very interesting. I think i need to think about this a little more. I’ve never thought myself to be a “fundamentalist” but if believing in “penal substitutionary atonement – the idea that Jesus was punished in place of sinners to satisfy God.” is fundamentalist, then maybe i am. I wanted to caution you to be careful of using a single “Evangelical” to encompass both the British and American traditions which have been know by that name. In my experience they are vastly different in practice and in some content. I would never call myself an Evangelical in the context of American Christianity, for example, but might consider the label more favourably within a British context.

    I think i need to read a little more of Dr Bradley’s book too.

    • Elijah says :

      Anna,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment. I wasn’t trying to conflate American and British Evangelicalism too much because I am well aware that they are very different in some respects, but I would still consider myself neither. I generally am more sympathetic toward the German concept of Evangelical. Either way, I think it’s a reasonable concern, but I was also referring to Ian Bradley’s groupings – he considers the two (American and British) very closely related, as he is writing to a British audience in The Times.

  3. Andrew Faris says :

    Eli,

    You said: “‘God’s goodness is a very liberal theme and one that tends to be downplayed in conservative circles’ and that ‘conservative preachers speak a lot about God’s holiness, awesomeness and judgment but not much about God’s goodness’ is perhaps quite unfair.”

    As much as I appreciate your willingness to criticize, I’d throw out the “perhaps”. The only person who can say this sort of thing is someone who doesn’t listen much to conservatives.

    This strikes me as relevant not only because that statement is not only so patently false, but because it makes me wonder how seriously I should take Bradley’s other comments about conservatism (though I have to say I appreciate that his definition of penal substitution is fair and not at all snarky even while apparently critical).

    One last thing: I appreciate that you separate Fundamentalism from Evangelicalism. My experience has been that some liberals conflate them, and I find that totally unfair.

    Andrew

    • Elijah says :

      Faris,

      I only say ‘perhaps’ because I know Bradley and I know that he is a man of broad experience. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt that maybe he meant, ‘God’s goodness, as I perceive it…’ Does that make sense? Maybe he thinks that when conservatives speak of God’s goodness they are not speaking of an authentic goodness, or at least not the weight of God’s goodness that he seeks to propagate. I’m not certain, but I agree with you that his comments (at least the comments found within this short article) are sometimes ungracious, unfair and divisive.

      As for the difference between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism – I see echoes of the Fundamentalist tradition in Evangelicalism, but if one was to say that Biola, for instance, is the same school it was a century ago, that would be incredibly inaccurate.

      As always, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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