Liberals, Conservatives & Orthodoxy

Liberal is an interesting label that gets owned proudly by some and flung as an insult by others. It is also used as a modifier on other positions, liberal catholic or liberal evangelical.

But I am not sure it fits me.

For a start it is just too broad. It can encompass everything from creedal but inclusive to atheists who like bible stories. Part of the problem is an Anglo-Saxon predisposition to two party systems, seen in the increasingly Atlantic spanning culture wars. Sorry but you can be a pro-life, socialist, evangelical, republican bishop if you want to even if that doesn’t fit into News International reporting guidelines. For that reason I won’t own the label conservative either.

Orthodox is another label that gets thrown about, one which I am happy to own because of its history. But I dislike the way the way it is being revised to reflect a conservative agenda.

My first experience of the term liberal was in evangelical circles. Liberal was used as a dismissal of theologians, thinkers and Christians, and was applied to everyone who wasn’t ‘sound’. This meant most mainstream theology outside of the evangelical reformed hegemony, including plenty on the evangelical left and catholic or orthodox thought.

As I came to a fuller understanding of faith and embraced the sacraments I discovered that a lot of things that some evangelicals believed were not historically orthodox, but rather were revisionist. Errors like six day creationism, rapture-centric eschatology and some charismatic extremes were far from the Spirit’s witness through the historic faith. Equally some of the things some evangelicals didn’t believe in, such as the Spirit’s witness through tradition, apostolic order, baptismal regeneration and the real presence struck me as significant denials of the supernatural action of God in the world.

This denial of the supernatural action of God in various forms lies at the heart of liberalism. Wycliffe’s heresy rejecting the supernatural action of God in the sacraments was a first step towards some of the Reformers' rejection of the supernatural action of God in apostolic orders, the sacraments and ultimately a rejection of the supernatural action of God through the scriptures. This is not to deny the supernatural action of God in the reformation itself. The Western Church needed to be reformed, but with it came the seeds of liberalism.

Before this is seen as an anti-reformed rant this post was partially inspired by the orthodoxy of some evangelicals in terms of the sacraments and my assertion that I would rather be part of an evangelical reformed sacramental church than a non-sacramental church that shared my inclusive views of gendered sacraments.

Some of my closest friends are real liberals (as some are real evangelicals), who deny or reframe the supernatural action of God. I myself explored the ‘Progressive Christianity’ of Spong and others ‘post-Tillich’, whilst maintaining sacramentalism. The theology served me well through a crisis of faith, but ultimately Tillich’s existentialism gave way to Kierkegaard’s and I found myself somewhere between Neo, Radical and Paleo Orthodoxy.

Which leaves me with a natural soft spot for Progressive Christianity - even though I would now express the questions it raises in terms of negative theology, corporate faith and aspirational belief: I cannot truly say positively what God is, when I doubt we believe, and my heart aspires to what the mind cannot fully embrace.

I suspect that evangelicals who do hold sacramental and other views which are more historically orthodox feel the same way about their evangelical friends who are outside orthodoxy on these essential issues, or rather they choose to see them as non-essential.

In regards to my inclusive stance on gender I acknowledge that I could be wrong. I try to work from an orthodox understanding of the economy of God and recognise with others that logically de-gendering ordination reflects on the gendered nature of the sacrament of marriage. I don’t believe this makes me a liberal. This may make me and others un-orthodox. The discussion continues.

In one sense I am a liberal though. I have no problem accepting that either conservatives or liberals are Christians, although in my less gracious moments I might struggle to express it. The difference that I do struggle with is that evangelical conservatives make a claim to orthodoxy where liberals do not. I suspect that the orthodoxy that they claim would not be recognised by Luther, Calvin and certainly not by the apostolic fathers.

And that same challenge must also go out to liberal catholics in the Church of England who do not work within a orthodox theological framework.

There is another form of liberalism that both conservatives and liberals suffer from; the leading of experience and feelings over the seeking of truth. Being charismatic, ecstatic and pastorally inclusive this rather than denying the supernatural action of God is probably a more dangerous threat to my own (and others) orthodoxy.

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