When I was in seminary at Lincoln Christian University, I took a course which was foundational to my understanding of the radical dichotomy of thinking inherent in the terms “liberal” and “conservative” which seems to have captured the dialogue of the culture we live in. While there is no question it is true for politics, it is also true for theology (though the terms are used very differently in each realm). The course I mentioned defined some of the terminology you often hear thrown around in theological, philosophical, and even in everyday conversations: modern, postmodern, liberal, conservative, etc. Though I believe the issues at the heart of what these terms refer to are actually ancient ones, in our class we began our study with the beginning of the Enlightenment and the impact of Immanuel Kant on contemporary mindsets.
Going into great detail about the development of epistemological assumptions throughout the 19th century and into the 20th would be helpful but would probably end up distracting the reader from the point I wish to make with this already lengthy article and I also don’t know whether I would be the best person to try to summarize it. For these reasons, let me jump to the end—or, rather, the middle. That is that one of the conversations emerging from the Enlightenment experiment in the 19th century is that of theological liberalism and conservatism.
It is important here to distinguish how these terms (liberalism/conservatism) are used differently in theological and political contexts. In contemporary political discourse, conservatism in America is associated with the political “right” and liberalism with the political “left.” Philosophically speaking, both political right and left are, in fact, founded on the assumptions of modern liberal ideology. Central to that ideology is the notion that an awakening (“enlightening”) of humanity has come and that humanity will continue to improve itself through education, technology, medicine, and democracy until such time as we actually will usher in a new era of peace, justice, tranquility, and abundance. This 19th century notion, sometimes referred to as modernity, has been legitimately questioned in the 20th and early 21st centuries as, in the wake of the holocaust, Vietnam, and myriad other wars, terrorist attacks, and horrific events, education has failed to eradicate racism and ignorance, technology has damaged the natural world and given rise to ever more inventive and gruesome ways to kill one another, medicine has become a multi-billion dollar money-maker available to the super-rich and failing to cure diseases such as AIDS, and democracy has failed to keep despots and tyrants from rising and causing pain and trouble for the people under their boots. That questioning of the claims of modernity might legitimately be called post-modernity. And it has led to such theological reflection as the post-liberals, Stanley Hauerwas being a notable and most valuable example.
Theologically speaking, the 19th century modern liberal agenda gave birth to a few fairly significant theological assumptions. First, the text of scripture was to be deconstructed and demythologized through biblical criticism. That is, for the liberal theologian the task of reading scripture is not primarily to believe in it and study it in such a way as it might change us, but, as ”enlightened people,” to figure out what it is meant to say better than those who said it in the first place. For instance, rather than studying the Pentateuch as a set of documents written by Moses chronicling Israel’s story of origin and the Fathers, theories such as the documentary hypothesis (JEDP) suggest that it was put together over a lengthy period of time from multiple sources. Therefore, some of it is reliable and some isn’t. Stories of miracles and supernatural events (such as the crossing of the Red Sea) are almost certainly redacted (edited) as the actual events were passed down as stories, eventually being mythologized into fantastic events by a superstitious pre-modern people.
The liberal critic tends to see criticism as a sort of “test” of scripture to determine which bits are scripture and which aren’t. It assumes that modern, enlightened minds are far better at understanding this stuff than ancient minds (relying on, I think, an inherently low view of inspiration). Pauline literature is often rejected outright when a highly superficial reading offends modern sensibilities, while the “kingdom is near” (now) message of the gospels is hyper-emphasized as a methodology of social change through the world’s power-structures. Meanwhile the eschatological message (not yet) of Jesus is ignored or criticized in such a way as to deny its authenticity. The gospel writers got Jesus wrong when they claimed he had an eschatology. Instead, they claim, he came to teach us how to make this place “heaven” by learning how to be good to each other. Now, the job is work within the powers to establish within them the principles of the kingdom of God. The new era of peace is at hand.
The early 20th century response from “conservative” theologians, on the other hand, is reactionary insofar as it rejects the claims of liberal criticism and affirms the whole canon as authentic. But it also tends to flatly reject the social implications which absolutely are clear in Jesus’ teaching: how we are to treat one another, a commitment to peace and peacemaking, issues of social justice, a rejection of greed and consumerism, enemy love, and so on. Conservatism’s reaction to the liberal critique is wholesale in that it also tends to hyper-emphasize the eschatological (the fundamentalist’s imagination about what it means to “be saved” is captivated by thoughts of “going to heaven when we die”) but the irony is it tends to play by liberalism’s rules. Where liberalism critiques the gospels as not standing up to contemporary standards of literary reliability, instead of critiquing the contemporary standards as false or irrelevant, theological conservatives construct elaborate harmonies of the gospels to prove that they do stand up to that scrutiny.
In other words, while the theological conservatives disagree on the conclusions of the liberals, they fundamentally agree with the methodology they use to reach them. Theological conservatism and liberalism (just like American political conservatism and liberalism) both share the same assumptions about the superiority of enlightenment thought. The liberal just assumes the Bible is outsmarted by it and the conservative assumes the Bible can’t stand up without it. They are both inherently rooted in enlightenment thinking, they just express themselves differently in social and political contexts.
And because they both reject a significant part of the gospel, both have a form of godliness but reject its power.
I, for one, grew up in conservative churches, but, long ago, began to question my theologically conservative roots. When I began to question the crude atonement theology I’d grown up with and read the gospels, and then the epistles and the Old Testament through the gospels, I no longer understood Christianity as merely a means of receiving forgiveness of sins so that I could go to heaven rather than be punished in hell for eternity. I saw, instead, a kingdom instituted by Jesus and working out in the church, a kingdom designed to begin working out the restoration of God’s intent for this world. And, instead of an escape from the physical world, I began to take the apostle Paul quite seriously when he spoke of resurrection of the dead (1 Co 15) and the restoration of the physical world (Ro 8).
Ironically, this understanding of the restoration of all things (specifically resurrection) is no more welcome in liberal churches than in conservative ones. I, currently, am involved in a tradition which has become more comfortable with liberal assumptions (largely, I think, as a reaction to the ever-more-prevalent fundamentalism of the evangelical right). It’s just assumed that if you’re interested in eschatology, you’re not interested in social justice. These things must be mutually exclusive. What I’ve noticed is a resulting allergy to half of the gospel. You either do the now and shun the not yet, or vice versa. It feels like trading faith in republicanism until we go to heaven for “being good to each other” as we attempt to create heaven on earth as Democrats. It doesn’t feel any more complete and I keep running into road-blocks.
If you’re like me and find that you do the now because of the not yet, or in anticipation of it, or as a witness to it…you’re going to be very lonely, I think. Those on the “right” will think of you as a “liberal” because you are interested in social justice and the gospels. Those on the “left” will think of you as “conservative” because you are interested in the epistles and resurrection. But, is this dichotomy true?
My own reflections and writings in recent years have been obsessed with critiques of the conservative positions. Now I am finding a need to say, “Going to the other extreme is surely not be helpful, either.” The critique I have for Christians on the right always focused on the fact that fundamentalism doesn’t seem to know what to do with Jesus’ teaching about how to live. And, because it doesn’t take Jesus’ teaching that seriously, It is far too comfortable with the powers and refuses to think of Christianity as bearing a cross (loving my neighbor, or enemy, enough to die to myself for them) in anticipation of the resurrection.
But the Christian “left” is no different. It has its own comfort-level with the powers. In fact, I think it may actually put more hope in them because it tends to maintain the assumption that the role of the church is to work within them. It tends to see Jesus’ kingdom as merely a tool of modernity—or, rather, it tends to see the claims of modernity (that a new era of peace and justice through education, democracy, medicine, and technology) as the promise of the eschaton. For this reason, eschatological thinking is actually seen as a threat to Christian liberalism: looking forward to God’s final fulfillment of the kingdom, in their mind, necessarily reduces the desire to work to make the kingdom a now reality (a message which Jürgen Moltmann adamantly rejected in Theology of Hope).
In this way, theological liberalism is not much more than a pietistic form of “prosperity theology.” I really mean this as an insult. It does not see itself as an alternative community to the world which will never be quite welcome in the world but which lives as a prophetic witness within it to the now and coming kingdom. Instead, it sees itself as a member of the world’s community trying to bring about the kingdom on its own, through the powers and systems of the world. I think, aside from confusion over Paul’s teaching about women and marital roles, what is probably the more terrifying teaching of Paul’s to them is his understanding of the role of the cross in the daily life of a follower of Jesus. 1 Co 1 contains Paul’s statements about the cross being rejected by the Jews and the Greeks as a stumbling block, and stupid (respectively). For Paul, the “cross” was the power of God to change things; that Jesus was willing to die on a cross in anticipation of the resurrection was what disarmed the powers in that it made them powerless (Co 2:15). J. Denny Weaver’s reading of Revelation describes that by following Jesus on the way of the cross and enduring persecution, the church maintained that tension. Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, in his fine essay on Revelation, similarly focuses on chapter 5 in which John, when looking for a conquering lion, instead finds a slain lamb. According to Yoder Neufeld, the victory of Jesus does not come about through participation in the powers or by overcoming them with violence. Instead, the Lion who conquers the powers does so by being defeated by them as a slain lamb. As Neufeld examines further symbolism in Revelation, he finds nowhere any hope that the powers (Rome or Caesar), once enlightened, would “fulfill” the Kingdom of God, but that the powers would eventually all be undone and that the children of the Son whom the dragon has made war against (Re 12) would continue, in their suffering, to defeat these powers and witness to the rule of the Alpha and the Omega as they await his glorious return.
The reason I think of this liberalism as “prosperity theology” is that it seems to assume that we can work this final manifestation of the kingdom out on our own in a way in which we get to avoid the suffering of those Christians who saw themselves as an alternative to Rome. As Neufeld so gently puts it:
I take the Apocalypse of the prophet from Patmos’ attempt to disrupt the worship of the ekklesiai of Asia Minor with his own songs and visions, speaking the disturbing, angry but also intensely hopeful word of judgment and salvation, summoning the community of the Lamb’s followers to defiant and vulnerable witness in imitation of and in participation with the Lamb…the prophet John…did intend to shake up a community tempted by empire, to shock believers into an awareness of its demonic nature, and to remind them of their mission.
John intrudes rudely into our own orderly and polite worship no less, intending to disturb our cosy relationship with the empire. Like Jesus in the temple, when he leaves we are left with his nightmarish tirade ringing in our ears. Is this a way the Word becomes flesh and takes on voice where flesh is so easily enticed by power and violence?
Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld has struck a vital nerve in enlightenment thinking: that is that it isn’t new or enlightened at all. The promises of modernity are no different than those of Caesar. And it seems to me that the liberal thinking which “cozies” up to the empire (as Neufeld suggests) in order to establish the kingdom of God seems to me to be a refusal to acknowledge the witness of the faithful persecuted church John the Revelator wrote to, a refusal to join the “cloud of witnesses” whom the writer of Hebrews urged his readers to be faithful to (He 12), a refusal to join Jesus in his suffering in order to join him in his glory (Ro 8:17), and a refusal to do as Jesus taught us to when he told us to pick up our crosses and follow him (Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23). The goal seems to be to establish an earthly kingdom apart from an eschaton within the systems of the powers. And, so, on the surface, it is interested in “justice and peace” and it pays lip-service to these things. But it refuses to acknowledge that by working within the powers it is actually collaborating with injustice and violence as a means to accomplish justice and peace. In so doing, it rejects the way of the cross for the way of power. It is no alternative to Rome. It thinks it can “fix Rome.”
However, at no point in the NT does any writer seem to assume that Christianity is going to “fix Rome.” Instead, what is assumed is that the kingdom is an alternative to Rome, and they assume that Rome will always be opposed to them as they live a different kingdom out within Rome. That we think of Jesus’ kingdom as a philosophy for enacting political change to turn Rome into the kingdom of God means we have missed the entire point of the kingdom and that the Constantinian shift which John Howard Yoder has repeatedly demonstrated as a turning point in church history for the worse was, in fact, a good thing. That we think of Jesus’ kingdom as a change agent for the powers rather than an alternative to them means that we are far more influenced by the modern (though not new) assumption that education, technology, medicine, science, and democracy will eventually make the world better. In fact, what has happened is that Jesus’ kingdom message has become a servant to the modern ideal in a new Constantinian shift.
 I think it is important to note that the dichotomy I’ve presented here, the assumption that one is either conservative or liberal, is actually a false one. There are many positions one might have on any theological issue which are neither. That said, it seems like a foregone conclusion in many conversations that these are our only two options.
 See J. Denny Weaver. “Revelation as Narrative Christus Victor” a section of “The Nonviolent Atonement: Human Violence, Discipleship and God” in Brad Jersak, ed. Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of God. Eerdmans, 2007.
 Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld. “Divine Warfare in the New Testament” in Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament. Baker Academic, 2011.
 Neufeld, 134-135.
 Neufeld, 135.