‘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.