Liberal Evangelicalism

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The term refers historically to those (1) who have based their understanding of the Christian faith in the evangelical tradition of the church, but (2) who have understood their responsibility to the modern world as demanding their acceptance of a scientific world view with its specific commitment to historical and psychological methodology. Used particularly in the early decades of the century by some within the Church of England (e.g., T Guy Rogers, V F Storr, E W Barnes) to clarify their continuing evangelical orientation, the term has sometimes been adopted to describe other theological moderates who have sought a synthesis of the gospel and modern knowledge.

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With evangelicals, these pastors and teachers have emphasized the need for a personal relationship with God, the freedom of the Spirit, the authority of the Bible, the person of Jesus as God incarnate, the centrality of the cross, and the need for conversion. However, with liberals, they have agreed that in a world forever changed by the Enlightenment the message of Christianity must be recast. Bemoaning the decline of evangelicalism in the wider church, liberal evangelicals have seen a major reason as being a lack of sensitivity to the modern age and its thought forms.

While the term "liberal evangelical" is an imprecise one, allowing for a wide range of theological distinctiveness, it has often included the following: (1) The authority of Scripture is understood as residing not in the letter of the text (this would be bibliolatry) but in its dynamic revelation of God in Christ. (2) Older and what is believed cruder penal theories of the atonement have sometimes been replaced by those stressing the redeeming love of God in Christ. (3) Scientific theories such as evolution have been embraced and understood as being compatible with a Christian view of creation. (4) Higher critical conclusions concerning the Bible (e.g., the dating of Daniel, the authorship of II Peter, the redaction of (Matthew) have been accepted.

The English liberal evangelicals of the 1920s (the terms "modern evangelicals" and "younger evangelicals" have also been used) sometimes diverged on these and other specific issues, but they found a unity in their desire to be concurrently evangelical and modern. Their precursors were such British moderates as P T Forsyth, R W Dale, and James Denney; their colleagues outside the Church of England, theologians such as H R Mackintosh; and their successors (though the term was seldom applied), such luminaries as T W Manson, J S Whale, Donald and John Baillie, and perhaps even C S Lewis.

In America, owing perhaps to the early acrimony of the fundamentalist - modernist controversy, no comparable turn - of - the - century moderating group of evangelical scholars emerged. Charles Briggs and Henry Preserved Smith began their careers as evangelicals but in the process of speaking to the modern age repudiated much of their earlier beliefs. In the 1960s and 1970s the influence of C S Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the need for a more responsible biblical criticism, the stress on human fulfillment, and a renewed commitment to social justice have combined to produce a group of younger evangelicals who share with their earlier British counterparts a joint commitment to the evangelical faith and the modern age.

R K Johnston
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

T G Rogers, ed., Liberal Evangelicalism; P T Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ; D M Baillie, God was in Christ; J S Whale, Christian Doctrine; R Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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