The Tradition of Liberal Theology

The Tradition of Liberal Theology

The Tradition of Liberal Theology

The Tradition of Liberal Theology


Describes and defends a long-standing tradition that maintains a proper balance between religious faith and human rationality

Many of the early apologists, including Justin Martyr and Origen, presented a defense of the Christian faith that sought to combine the message of the Gospels with respect for the kind of rationality associated with Socrates and his followers. Michael Langford argues that, despite many misunderstandings, the term "liberal theology" can properly be used to describe this tradition.

Langford's Tradition of Liberal Theology begins with a historical and contemporary definition of "liberal theology" and identifies eleven typical characteristics, such as a nonliteralist approach to interpreting Scripture, a rejection of original guilt, and the joint need for faith and works. Langford then gives vignettes of thirteen historical Christian figures who personify the liberal tradition. Finally, he explores some contemporary alternatives to liberal theology -- fundamentalism, the Catholic magisterium, Karl Barth's theology -- and presents a rational defense of the tradition of liberal theology.


What is commonly referred to as the “liberal tradition” in Christian thinking has a long history, one that goes back at least as far as Origen, who was writing in the third century of the Christian era. This tradition, so I claim, should be understood as a variation on what I call “mainstream” Christianity, that is, one that accepts the statements of the Apostles’ Creed, albeit with a certain latitude in the interpretation of some clauses. It is thus to be contrasted with certain later theological positions, sometimes also called “liberal,” that depart from the kind of faith position supported by Origen and a whole range of followers, including Richard Hooker and William Chillingworth. Because of this strong connection with the core statements of the Creed, I think that the tradition I describe can properly be referred to as “liberal orthodoxy” — though, unfortunately, this term has also been used in different ways.

Needless to say, the tradition that I am investigating here was not called liberal until that term acquired something of its present meaning — according to the Oxford English Dictionary — in about 1780. in the first chapter I provide an initial account of the nature of the tradition and defend the use of the word “liberal” in order to describe it. Thereafter, I seek to explore the essential nature of the tradition in three ways. in the second chapter I describe eleven typical characteristics of the tradition. (In doing so, I respectfully cite Wittgenstein’s claim that many concepts are better . . .

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