Liberalism versus Postliberalism: The Great Divide in Twentieth-Century Theology

Liberalism versus Postliberalism: The Great Divide in Twentieth-Century Theology

Liberalism versus Postliberalism: The Great Divide in Twentieth-Century Theology

Liberalism versus Postliberalism: The Great Divide in Twentieth-Century Theology


The divide between liberal and postliberal theology is one of the most important and far-reaching methodological disputes in twentieth-century theology. Their divergence in method brought related differences in their approaches to hermeneutics and religious language. This split in the understanding of religious language is widely acknowledged, but rigorous philosophical analysis and assessment of it is seldom seen.

Liberalism versus Postliberalismprovides such analyses, using the developments in analytic philosophy of language over the past forty years. The book provides an original reading of the "theology and falsification" debates of the 1950s and 60s, and Knight's interpretation of the debates supplies a philosophical lens that brings into focus the centrality of religious language in the methodological dispute between liberal and postliberal theologians. Knight suggests that recent philosophical developments reveal problems with both positions and argues for a more inclusive method that takes seriously the aspirations of the debaters. His book makes an important contribution to contemporary theological method, to the understanding of liberal and postliberal theologies, and to our understanding of the role of analytic philosophy in contemporary theology and religious studies.


During the 1960s, Antony Flew published a book entitled, God and Philosophy. In the book, he argued that no philosophical support for theology is possible because statements about God are meaningless. His argument relied on the falsifiability hypothesis—that any claim not empirically falsifiable cannot be assigned any meaning. And since theistic claims cannot be empirically falsified, they must be strictly meaningless and incapable of philosophical support. Shortly after its publication, Flew presented his argument in a public lecture at the University of Chicago. Schubert Ogden was assigned to respond, and his critique demonstrated that Flew’s argument failed because the falsifiability thesis was self-referentially incoherent. Since the thesis itself is not empirically falsifiable, it failed to meet its own desiderata and must be considered meaningless. Flew’s response was silence. Since that day, Ogden has become known for the force of the philosophical arguments he brings to theology, and the falsifiability thesis soon was widely acknowledged (even by most of its former supporters) to be incoherent.

Yet the incisive and devastating nature of Ogden’s critique (advanced by various philosophers as well) was a mixed blessing. There is more to the falsifiability thesis than first meets the eye, and this “more” can reveal a good deal about the nature of religious and theological claims and the kinds of arguments that can be used to support them. The falsifiability thesis rests on a particular understanding of language that it shares with liberal theology. If the conversation had lasted longer, it might have resulted in a realization that discrediting the falsifiability thesis also casts doubt on the understanding of language it presupposes. And this realization, in turn, might have led to a

1. Antony Flew, God and Philosophy (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).

2. A report of this event was related to me in a conversation with Franklin Gamwell.

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