Defining Liberal vs Conservative Theology Historically

The words “liberal” and “conservative” get used has a lot of problems associated with it. Among many other things, the terms tend to be very confusingly defined. Today, we have no concrete definition of liberal as compared to conservative theology and the terms usually get used based on the false dualisms of American politics instead. But the labels did at one point hold some more substantial definitions.

To be qualified as “orthodox” in the 17th-19th centuries, you had to believe a huge range of things, a range that changed depending on your denominational tradition. Some of those things, like biblical literalism, had never even been a church hermeneutic until this time when they were suddenly treated as the only thing that mattered. If you rejected any piece of this, you were a not a good enough Christian. When they’re referring to theology at all instead of to politics, this is what a lot of people today usually mean by “conservative” theology: 18th century Protestantism (Lutheran and Reformed).

“Conservative theology”, then, has little to do with historic orthodoxy any further back than that or outside of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. And it still wouldn’t have anything at all to do with politic allegiances until the mid-20th century and even then only really in the United States. Let’s make sure those two points are clear.

But as always happens when faith gets too rigid and is hurting people as much as it helps, there was backlash. The whole idea of “liberal theology” started in the 19th century, largely fueled by a variety of new scholarly techniques on one hand and that backlash. And as usual, the backlash was as dramatic as what they were fighting against was. They wondered why there were so many historical inaccuracies in Scripture and then threw out the baby (pretty much any meaningful faith at all) with the bath water. People questioned whether Jesus really existed. Maybe God existed; maybe not. They mythologized Scripture as valuable stories for life but ultimately not holding truth in the real world. In some ways I can’t fully blame them, as they were just judging Scripture and faith in general by the same extreme criteria that conservatives were insisting on. But it definitely took a while before we are now finally starting to see more of a balance return to theology instead of operating on such false dichotomies.

Here’s my big challenge: don’t let yourself be defined by what you oppose. Just because so many others in history have rushed to dichotomous labels in order to distinguish themselves from others they don’t like doesn’t mean we have to do the same. Especially when the strict dichotomy is so dangerous, trying to pull us toward a theology-centric or a politics-centric faith instead of one based on Jesus.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.