A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – Theological Liberalism: The Classic Collection with R.C. Sproul


Recently, I made a trip to Charleston, South
Carolina and had the opportunity to speak in an Episcopalian church there in downtown
Charleston, and when I got to the church they asked me if I would lecture to the adult Sunday
school class there, on the question, what is liberalism? That’s kind of a strange question because
it’s so broad in its makeup. And, I had to scramble for a while to try
to get specific about answering a question as almost hopelessly broad as that question
is, what is liberalism? And, I do think it’s important that we understand
some of these general categories because they’re used so frequently and sometimes quite loosely
in our culture. So let’s take the word and put it here on
the board, liberalism. Let me start at the end rather than the beginning,
and notice the last three letters of the word –ism. Anytime we see that suffix attached to a word,
we know that that suffix –ism, means that a whole cargo of ideas is attached to the
root, that an -ism is a life and worldview, a foundational philosophy. It’s one thing to believe in human existence;
it’s another thing to believe in existentialism. We all are humans, that doesn’t mean we all
embrace humanism. So, as soon as we put that those three letters
–ism, we’re talking now about a philosophy or a system, a systematic way of thinking. So, there is such a thing as a whole framework
with an -ism attached to it that is called liberalism. Now, to understand the –ism, we have to
go now and look at the root. There is another word contained in here. The root word is the word, liber. If you know your Latin, you know that that
word means, or meant originally simply “free.” You get the word, liber arbitrium, which means
“free will” in Latin. You have the word libertas, which is the word
from which we get the English word liberty. All of these words come from this Latin root
liber, which means “free.” I remember when I was studying in Europe and
trying to learn with great difficulty the Dutch language, that a couple of words that
I had to learn for my studies were the following two words, one of those words was the word
rechtzinnig, which means “orthodoxy.” And, literally rechtzinnig means “right or
correct thinking.” And another word that I had to learn was the
word vrijzinnig, and vrijzinnig means “liberal or free thinking.” Now, please be careful here, I don’t mean
this contrast. Usually we contrast the word “liberal” with
the word “conservative.” And, I just gave you two different words,
one that was the word for “orthodox” and the other one for the word for “liberal.” And what I liked about the Dutch word for
“orthodox” was that the meaning of the term was “right thinking.” And I hope and trust that whether we are conservative
or classify ourselves as liberals or moderates or whatever we are, that we all want to be
rechtzinnig, that is, we all want to be correct in our thinking and proper in our thinking. Now, to be liberal, however, in that sense,
of the language, in the Germanic sense, is as the Latin sense implies, to be, quote,
“a freethinker.” Well, free from what? Well, I think in its most noble and virtuous
sense to be liberal is to be able to think critically, in the sense of being free from
the trappings of all human convention and human tradition. I think that our thinking should be under
the authority of God and according to His categories. And I never want to be so liberal that I declare
my independence from the authority of God. But I do want to be liberal in the sense of
having a positive zeal to discover the truth of God, wherever it may be found. And so, the authentic liberal, historically,
is the one who is eager to pursue truth as freely as possible without being enslaved
by human conventions. That, I believe, is a noble enterprise and
a noble word, and I hope that in the sense in which I’m defining “liberal” there, that
every Christian, I hope that no Christian is a liberal in that
sense, because that’s not a rigorous pursuit of truth wherever it may be found. That’s simply being silly, intellectually
silly, to be wide open to any harebrained scheme that comes down without examining it
critically and never allowing the coming to convictions. I remember, of course, when Erasmus of Rotterdam
was engaged in that rigorous debate with Luther that they carried on with the pen, Erasmus
wrote the diatribe. Luther responded with his classic work on
the bondage of the will. And one of the criticisms that Erasmus had
made of Luther was that Luther had come to some conclusions in his thinking. And he said to Luther, he said, I prefer to
remain skeptical on these matters and to be a pure academic, and to hold my decisions
forever in abeyance.” And, Luther responded with vehement Germanic
passion, you know, typical Teutonic Luther. He said to Erasmus, “Away with the skeptics,
away with the academicians.” At this point he said, Spiritus sanctus non
est scepticus, the Holy Spirit is not a skeptic, and the truths that He has revealed are more
certain than life itself.” Don’t be mesmerized or intoxicated by those
who seem to find some virtue in always learning and never coming to a knowledge of truth. Christianity is a religion. It is a faith that is built on the foundation
of convictions, and of affirmations. Luther again said to Erasmus, “You don’t want
to take, you don’t want to make assertions.” He said, “The making of assertions is the
very market of the Christian. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity. And I think it’s important that we understand
that. So that we don’t want to be liberal in the
sense of free-floating and never landing on any kind of truth. Now, apart from these generic views of what
we call liberal and conservative, and the like, in theology, the term liberalism has
a much narrower definition conceptually than the way the term liberal is used just in normal
casual ordinary language. The term “liberalism” in theology refers to
a specific movement with a specific agenda and with a defined theology that occurred
on the theological scene in the 19th century in Europe. So, when a theologian speaks about liberalism,
he’s usually speaking about what we call 19th-century liberalism, 19th-century liberal theology. And, as I said, it has a definite portrait
with a definite agenda and so on. Now, in the 19th century, one of the experiences
of Western civilization was a growing awareness of the shrinking of the globe. Travel was, by modern technology, was increasing,
and cultures were beginning to blend together and mix together in heretofore unprecedented
ways. And the world was becoming a melting pot,
and to use to the vernacular, the world was shrinking, getting smaller and smaller. Just this morning, somebody said to me, “I
bumped into the guy for the second time in two days that I hadn’t seen in a couple years,
two different places, I ran into the same guy.” And he looked at me, and he said, “Boy, R.C.,
it’s a small world.” Then he paused for a second, and he said,
“But I sure wouldn’t want to have to paint it.” It’s small in one perspective, but large from
another perspective. What happened in the 19th century was an increasing
awareness, particularly of European, Western European thinkers of things and ideas that
were going on in other parts of the world, in the Orient, among Islamic religions and
so on. And, a new science emerged on the sphere of
the academic world, and it was the science of comparative religion. So, the students of religion in Western Europe
were not content simply to study Christianity or compare it with Judaism. Now they wanted to study Islam, Buddhism,
Hinduism, Shintoism, Taoism, and so on, and look at all the different religions in the
world. And what came out of this new science of comparative
religion was an effort in examining all the different world religions, is a liberal. Now, sometimes in our culture, the term “liberal”
means something else. It means completely open to any novel idea,
to be open-minded to a degree as to have no convictions, to be always learning and never
coming to a knowledge of the truth, if that’s what we mean by liberal or liberalism, at
discovering the essential core that could be found running through in various ways and
stripes and threads in all these different various religions in the world. In German scholarship, for example, there
was one word in German that began to appear again and again in scholarly publications
in books and journal articles and so on. It became almost a buzzword in the theologian’s
playground of the 19th century, and it was the German word Wesen. Now, if you know any German, you know that
the word Wesen comes from the German participle form of the verb “to be.” It simply means “being or essence.” And so, you kept seeing books that were examining
the essence of religion, or the essence of Christianity. And one of most popular books coming out of
Germany in the 19th-century was written by the great church historian, a great historian
of dogma , Adolph R. Harnack, who wrote a little book for popular consumption called,
What is Christianity? That is, what is its essence? What is its being? Now, this whole movement in German theology,
in liberal theology, had certain basic commitments philosophically and theologically. The one that is most obvious and most evident
of 19th-century liberal theology in its basic thrust, it was fundamentally anti-supernatural
in its orientation, that is, in seeking to discern the essence of religion, it was seeking
to get beyond myths, legends, sagas, that sort of stuff that is contained in religious
stories and cultic practices in various faiths of the world, to get beyond miracle stories
and angels and virgin births and dying and rising gods and all that kind of stuff, and
get to the stuff that you find in Islam in Buddhism and Taoism and so on. And the conclusion they came to was that at
the core of all religions was basically a concern for ethics, for values, that all the
trappings of prayer and the symbols of redemption and the liturgy of salvation, and all of those
things are really the externals, the negotiable peripheral matters that aren’t of the essence. “The virgin birth is not the essence of Christianity,
the resurrection isn’t of the essence of Christian, the atonement of Jesus is of the essence of
Christianity. These things are part of the primitive trappings
of religion, but the essence of Christianity is found in the ethical teaching of Jesus,
for example, on the Sermon on the Mount.” And, Harnack came to this conclusion; he said
that we can reduce Christianity to its core, its two foundational concepts being the universal
fatherhood of God, and the universal brotherhood of man. Universal fatherhood of God, universal brotherhood
of man. Now, one of the strange dimensions of that
reduction of Christianity, and I would have to say that’s what it was, a reductionism,
you know, an inexcusable reduction of the core of Christianity to this simplest common
denominator, is the irony of it, is that the two core concepts
are two concepts that aren’t even found in biblical Christianity. Now, in light of the place where we are in
American culture, it may be shocking for an American to hear me say that the Bible does
not teach the universal fatherhood of God, and maybe even more shocking to hear me suggest
to you that the Bible does not teach the universal brotherhood of man. I mean, how many thousands of times in your
lifetime have you heard that said? Universal fatherhood of God, universal brotherhood
of man, we’re all brothers and sisters and so on. It’s not the language of Scripture. I will admit that on rare occasions, there
are allusions to God as the supreme progenitor of the human race, and is in the sense that
He is the progenitor, the creator of everyone. There is a sense in which in that regard He
could be called the Father of all people. When Paul says to the Greeks skeptics, in
the Areopagus, in Mars Hill in Athens, he said, “As some of your own poets have said,
we are all His offspring.” The Apostle Paul there acknowledges a link
with that, that sentiment, but ascribes the sentiment to a pagan philosopher, not to Moses. Now, the reason I labor the point is this,
that in the Scripture, when the Bible normally speaks of the Fatherhood of God, it is speaking
of a concept far more narrow, far more distinctive and far more precious than merely being a
creature living on planet Earth. Go with a group of Christians, listen to them
pray in a home prayer meeting or Bible study, and invariably, as Christians pray out loud
one after another will address God, how? They’ll start their prayer by saying, “Father,”
or “our heavenly Father.” It’s the most common expression that we as
Christians use to address God. And why, why not? When our Lord taught us to pray, He said,
“When you pray,” say what? “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be
Thy Name.” What could be more basic to Christianity than
to address God as Father? Joachim Jeremias. the German New Testament scholar has done
research on the prayers of the ancient Israelite people, and it is his conclusion that there
is not a single example anywhere in the extant Jewish literature, including the Old Testament,
the Talmud, the Targums and so on, until the 10th century A.D., where a Jewish person addresses
God directly as “Father.” That it simply wasn’t done. People would speak of the Fatherhood of God
among the Jewish people, but no one would address Him directly, “Father.” Jeremias says, you don’t find it until the
10th century A.D. in Italy. Yet in the New Testament, we have the record
of a Jew, a Jewish rabbi, who has many, many prayers recorded for posterity, and then in
every prayer that he prayed, save one, He directly addressed God as “Father,” and that’s
Jesus of Nazareth. And what Jeremias demonstrates is that Jesus’
use of the term “Father” for God was a radical innovation, completely unheard of in Jewish
liturgy. And what He did in His radical departure from
convention, He invited His followers to be involved with. Because what Jesus teaches about the human
race is that by nature we are not the children of God. This was the dispute our Lord had with the
Pharisees, who thought that just because they were born Jewish, that they were children
of Abraham, that they were therefore the children of God. Jesus said, “You are of your father, the devil. God can raise up children of Abraham from
these stones.” Because, what Jesus does is defines sonship
in terms of obedience to God. And because we are not by nature obedient
to God, we are by nature children of wrath, the New Testament teaches us, and not universally
children of the Father. The only way we ever have the right to call
God “Father,” to cry, “Abba” in His presence is because we have been adopted. And the biblical message of sonship and daughterhood
in the body of Christ, is rooted and grounded in this concept of adoption, that only Christ
is the natural Son of God, and only if you are in Christ do you become a member of the
household of God. It is the church in the New Testament that
is called the family of God. It is the church in the New Testament that
is called the household of God. And that unique concept of redemption through
adoption is completely obscured when we talk about the universal Fatherhood of God. Do you see that? Even more so is this concept that Harnack
talked of, the universal brotherhood of man. The Bible doesn’t teach the universal brotherhood
of man. Again, The New Testament sees the brotherhood
as something distinctive, restrictive and special to those who are in Christ. That there is a brotherhood of all of those
who have fellowship in the Beloved, who are invited to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,
who are marked by the sign of baptism, and who are in the family of God. Outside of the fellowship of the church, that
brotherhood does not extend. Now, what does the Bible teach? The Bible doesn’t teach the universal brotherhood
of man; it teaches the universal neighborhood of man. Biblically, all men are not my brothers. If you are a Christian you are my brother
or my sister. If you are not, you’re not my brother or my
sister in the New Testament sense. But whether you’re my brother or my sister,
theologically and biblically in that sense, you are my neighbor. This is the point that Jesus hammered home. You know that the Pharisees wanted to limit
the neighborhood and the command to treat every person in the world, to love my neighbor
as myself, to those simply who live close to me. And they came to Jesus with the question,
“Who is my neighbor?” And you know how He answered that. He said, “A man went down from Jericho, and
he fell among thieves. And he was ignored by the clergy. And a despised Samaritan came along and ministered
to that man, bound his wounds, reached into his pocket, paid for his physical care and
well-being.” Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan
to communicate the point that everybody is my neighbor. And the great commandment, to love God with
all of my mind, soul, heart and strength and everything, and my neighbor as myself, means
that I am to treat everybody in this world with dignity, with justice, with righteousness,
with charity. And, in that sense, there is a universal obligation
toward everybody in the world, but it’s neighborhood, not brotherhood. You see what I mean? Now, the second thing I want to say about
19th century liberalism is that it provoked a strenuous reaction in church history, particularly
in the United States, and the reaction was called fundamentalism. And originally, the fundamentalist response
to liberalism was a response of classical Christian scholarship. Today in our culture, and in religious jargon,
fundamentalism tends to communicate the idea of that which is anti-intellectual, legalistic,
simplistic and primitive. But historically, in the debate between liberalism
and fundamentalism, the fundamentalists were so-called not because they wanted to reduce
Christianity to five or six fundamental points, but they said, “Look, there are lots of issues
in theology that are open for discussion, that we can differ among ourselves in theology
in a wide diversity of ways and of points.” Lutherans disagree with Baptists, and Baptists
disagree with Presbyterians, and Presbyterians disagree with Episcopalians and all of that,
but that there is an essential, there is a Wesen to Christianity. There is an essential core. There is a sine qua non to historic Christianity. There are certain foundational precepts that
are so fundamental to historic Christianity that if you deny those, you have denied the
very essence of biblical Christianity. And what fundamentalism sought to do at the
end of the 19th century, in the beginning of the 20th century, was to spell out certain
cardinal precepts and principles that are the non-negotiables of Christianity. Such statements as the resurrection of Christ. You deny the resurrection of Christ as a supernatural
event, you have denied Christianity. If you seek to construct Christianity without
the resurrection, you have a religion, if you will. You may have an interesting ethical system,
but what you have is neither historic nor biblical Christianity. You see what I’m saying at this point. That was the message of the so-called fundamentalist,
or the conservative scholar at the turn of the century. Benjamin Warfield from Princeton at that time
said that the liberals of 19th century liberal theology did not reject mere peripheral matters,
but foundational principles, such as the incarnation, the atonement and the resurrection. And Warfield said if you negotiate resurrection,
you negotiate Christianity. And so, this was a to-the-death issue. One of the most significant splits in the
history of the struggle of the Christian church, the war between historic Christianity and
19th-century liberalism as a movement. What was at stake was the authority of Scripture
and the very basic creeds of the church. Let me say that it’s been said by church historians
that historically there are only really three generic types of theologies. There are various sectarian distinctives and
the like, but three generic forms of theology, one we would call Pelagianism, the second
we would call semi- Pelagian, and in the third we would call Augustinian. This goes back to a debate that raged in the
fourth century between a monk by the name of Pelagius, who believed that the atonement
of Christ was not necessary for human redemption, and the great theologian Augustine. And, semi-Pelagianism, of course, refers to
sort of the compromise position in between. This church historian that I mentioned says
that the debate between semi-Pelagianism and Augustinianism is a debate that has been going
on for 2000 years and will continue to divide Christians until Christ comes. It’s basically the debate between Calvinism
and Arminianism. But it is a debate among Christians. It is a debate of important matters, but matters
that are not essential, not the Wesen of the church, not of the esse of the church, the
essence of the church. Certainly, issues like your view of predestination
will influence what we would call the bene esse, that is, the well-being of the church,
but don’t necessarily touch the very essence of Christianity. You can differ on these things and still be
a Christian. But what this church historian was saying
is that Pelagianism is fundamentally not only on unchristian, but anti-Christian. And he would have put 19th century liberal
theology in that category of anti-Christian and unchristian theology. Now I keep talking about 19th century liberalism,
I would like to be able to say to you that 19th-century liberalism lived its hour upon
the stage, made a splash in the pan in the scene of history, a blip on the radar scope
of time in the 19th century, and the church came to its good senses and, and defeated
it roundly and soundly at the turn-of-the-century, and that it’s just a matter of historical
interest now. I would say that the greatest heyday of 19th
century theology in the most foundational precepts that it taught and embraced is right
now. We are living in what contemporary theologians
call the age of neo-liberalism, or basically the central and cardinal points of 19th century
theology have in many circles, in many institutions, and in many denominations, not simply made
inroads, ladies and gentlemen, but have, in fact, triumphed, have gained control. And where in the seminaries and in many cases,
so-called Christian colleges, there is an attitude of outward hostility to classical
Christianity for the doctrine of the atonement of Christ is openly ridiculed. We’ve been watching the events in time magazine
of this group of scholars, of New Testament scholars who have have decided that 95% of
the statements attributed to Jesus by the New Testament writers are sheer fabrics of
their creative imagination. You’ve seen that, you’ve read that. Rudolph Bultmann, who’s one of the most important
New Testament scholars of the 20th century and has been described often as a neo-liberal,
wrote in his little book Kerygma and Myth, that nobody can live in the 20th century and
make use of modern conveniences like electricity, the light bulb, the phonograph, the television,
modern medicine, modern technology, atomic energy and still believe in a world where
angels appear to virgins and talk about babies being born without sexual intercourse, and
where a corpse that goes into a grave comes back alive three days later. If New Testament Christianity is going to
speak to modern man, according to Bultmann, it must be recast, it must be revised. We must come to the Bible with what he calls
a certain Vorverständnis, a prior understanding, where we take modern philosophical systems,
such as those from the German Heidegger, and we come to the text of Scripture 2000 years
ago, and ask existential questions and get existential answers to help us in our modern
quest, but we don’t seriously believe in the truth claims of Holy Scripture. Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, who was
by no means orthodox, wrote a book that was important in this debate, in the 20th century
version of it, entitled Der Mittler or in English, The Mediator, in which he gave a
technical and scholarly examination of the mediatorial work of Jesus according to the
New Testament. And in this work, Professor Brunner canvassed
the teaching of liberal theology. And he was very candid in his evaluation. He said that he could, that is, Brunner, could
reduce the driving force of 19th and 20th century liberal theology to one word, “unbelief.” The hostility to Scripture, the hostility
to the core teaching of the New Testament of the person and work of Christ cannot be
seen as a mere difference of opinion on negotiable issues of biblical Christianity. I think Brunner hit the nail right on the
head. This is unbelief, and why don’t people have
the integrity and the honesty to say so. You see, a crisis came to pass that all of
a sudden a generation of ministers were educated in 19th-century liberalism, and they had no
biblical gospel to preach. They didn’t believe it. It’s that simple, but they had to justify
their jobs, they had to justify their professions. And so, they’ve tried to substitute for biblical
Christianity, this 19th century concept of the universal fatherhood of God and the social
agenda program. It’s not that the Christian church doesn’t
have a social action agenda; it should. But the point was, they said all that we have
left are the ethical issues to be involved with. That’s the reason for the church’s existence,
not for questions of personal redemption. They had enormous investment in property and
money in buildings called churches and institutions. What are they going to do? Are the ministry and the clergy going to stand
up and say, “Oh, by the way, we don’t believe this anymore, and so we’re going to turn our
churches into museums.” That’s what happened in Europe, by the way. In Scotland, 4% right now of the people in
Scotland, the home of the Scottish Reformation, 4% of the people of Scotland are members of
churches, and 95% of that 4% attend liberal churches. How do you know whether the church has embraced
this theology of liberalism? Look at the statements that makes, for example,
with respect to the ethics that they teach. The newspaper is filled daily with denominations
wrestling with such basal principles as whether it is ethical for people to be engaged in
sexual activities outside of the sanctity of marriage. When in the history of the Christian church
has such a question even been debated? Before people would say, “I just don’t agree
with the ethic of Jesus and of Jesus’ teaching that the sanctity of marriage. I think He’s nuts. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” But, when did anybody ever had the audacity
in the past to try to make church law say that premarital and extramarital sexual relationships
are within the allowance and the permission of the law of God. You see, liberal theology is not only anti-supernatural
and anti-personal redemption, it is at its core, antinomian, that is, it is openly manifestly
hostile to the law of God. And at that point, it provokes conflict, conflict
with orthodox Christianity. Ladies and gentlemen, if no one has ever called
you narrow-minded, you may wonder about the state of your soul in this day and age, because
if you take the slightest stance for the Word of God in this time and in this generation,
somebody is going to call you a Puritan or Victorian or uptight, reactionary, conservative
or something of that sort. But let’s not make a mistake, that liberalism
in theology has not come to mean a simple, honest, rigorous pursuit for truth, where
it may be found. It does not simply mean that we are free in
our thinking from human conventions. Away with conservatism that is mere reactionaryism. Pharisees were conservatives. The Pharisees exalted the conventions and
the traditions of mankind. That kind of conservatism should always be
suspect in the church. The only kind of conservatism that God wants
is the passion to conserve the truth that He has delivered through His work, and that
it is our obligation to conserve, and not to negotiate because the particular brand
of liberalism that has become pervasive in the Western church is at bottom, I’m convinced,
anti-Christianity, and it has provoked the crisis that I think Christians should be willing
to die to fight against, because what liberalism does, is it doesn’t simply redefine Christ,
it takes away Christ, His person and His work are removed. I went to a seminary where the doctrine of
the atonement was received with outward open hostility by the faculty. When I would try to tell people in the church,
they simply wouldn’t believe me. They said, “Those men are theologians. They’re ministers. You’re not really going to tell us that ministers
don’t believe.” And, I wanted to shake people by the throat
and say, “Who killed Jesus in the first place?” What is it that makes people so naïve to
think that ministers automatically believe what they profess to believe? One of the most strongest motivations that
people have when they are in college and in the university to study religion, and to study
theology is to disprove it. We should be aware of that. And people are being ordained every day who
are openly hostile to biblical Christianity. 19th century and 20th century liberalism claims
a link to historic Christianity, but the historic Christianity to which it claims its link is
fundamentally denied. I don’t know a nice way to say that, but I
say that liberal Christianity is not Christianity at all. That liberalism in its attempt to be Christian,
I believe is the greatest threat to biblical Christianity in this world. It’s a lot easier to deal with paganism, because
paganism declares itself for what it is. But the problem with liberalism in the church
is that it claims to be Christian. It seeks to persuade people that what it is
teaching is in fact Christianity when it is the antithesis of Christianity. And if we haven’t seen that by now, I wonder
if we will ever become aware of it. The good news is, and the point with which
I’ll close, is that I think culturally, nationally and internationally, the world is waking up
to the bankruptcy of liberalism. When I was a seminary student, the five largest
seminaries in United States, in terms of student enrollment were all liberal seminaries. Today, the five largest seminaries in the
United States are all conservative and evangelical seminaries. When I was as a student in seminary, the fastest
growing churches were liberal churches where the evangelical churches were struggling to
survive. The liberal churches in the last 20 years,
however, have been losing in some cases a 100,000 members a year per denomination, scrambling
to have one merger after another just to keep alive, while the churches that are growing
in leaps and bounds are the churches where the Scriptures are being preached, and where
classical Christianity is embraced and proclaimed. And we’ve seen a whole switch. We’re seeing the decline of liberalism and
the reemergence of biblical Christianity. And I hope that we will understand that this
crisis is a battle for nothing less than the very being of biblical Christianity.

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