What Does the “Liberal” Mean in “Liberal Theology”?

In my last post, I suggested that “liberal” and “conservative” were becoming (or already were) mostly meaningless terms when applied to theology because they tended to define either non-existent groups (i.e. “conservative Christian”?) or were labels to grossly broad as to express nothing at all. (i.e. Paulus and Averill both being “liberal Christians.”)

However, before I dismiss the words entirely, let me just say that there has been an attempt to define “Liberal Christian” by “Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German who attempted to reconcile Protestantism with the Enlightenment.” John Nilsson, in an old Mormon Matters post, gave a brief overview.

It’s About Human Response

A key point is that we are not talking about liberal vs. conservative politics. So get that out of your mind right away.One could be (according to Schleiermacher’s view) a ‘liberal’ politically and a ‘conservative’ theologically or vice versa.

So what is a “Liberal” theologically speaking then? Schleiermacher’s view…

…emphasized the importance of the subjective human response to religion, rather than the objective truth claim of religion. An example of this would be the assertion that the freedom from anxiety that awareness of Christ’s sacrifice brings us as Christians is more existentially significant than which model of the Atonement is the most accurate or whether the Atonement occurred in exactly the way the Gospels attest.

So far, so good, I say. Sign me up. Seems like this is precisely what God would want us to do – concentrate on our neighbor, not esoteric doctrinal purity.

One concern I might have with this position, however, is if this is all just a cover up for Christian Atheism. Let’s admit that this view expressed above, if stretched to it’s logical limits, really would say nothing about God at all and would instead – rather contradictorily in my opinion – become merely about how human spirituality via belief in a non-existent God can have positive effects in our life.

Treat Scripture Objectively

Another current in “liberal theology” is to apply the same standards to scripture that we would to all historical documents. John explains:

…the biblical critics of the 19th and 20th centuries would make objective investigation of the scriptures a central concern of liberal theology by investigating the authorship of the books of the Bible and by interpreting the texts within the circumstances in which they were written. An example of this would be scholarly findings that some of the raw material of the Pentateuch (serpents as powerful malevolent beings guarding trees of wisdom, a catastrophic flood, giants, ribs taken from men to form women, etc.) was adapted from Sumerian stories known to the Israelites from their captivity in Assyria (and later Babylon).

My initial reaction is “sign me up!” I agree that we need to make an objective investigation of the scriptures and I agree that might lead us to find things like the idea that imagery from the Eden story was similar to Sumerian stories.

But then, the more I think of it, it seems like this might easily become an excuse for Christian Atheism again. We could basically decide that scripture has no value at all, out side of being a cool historical document, or we could decide that scripture is never literally true, but we can still think of it as nice (but fraudulent?) metaphors by which to lead our lives or to explore the ‘mysteries’ of existence.

Liberal Mormonism?

Given those objectives, John goes on to suggest how they might apply to “Liberal Mormonism”:

  1. Reason and evidence must have an appropriate influence on the formation and periodic revaluation of our religious beliefs.
  2. Therefore, the well-established findings of the natural and social sciences, historical methodology, etc., all have things to tell us about Mormonism.
  3. Questions of historicity are thus best decided by historians, anthropology by anthropologists, biology by biologists, and so forth.
  4. Only a few narrowly defined truth claims can be considered binding on a Mormon in good standing. All others may be individually decided, since the subjective response to religion is more important than it’s objective truth, where it is more difficult to obtain clear information. Example: I am very certain that being a Mormon makes me a better and happier person, somewhat less certain that God exists, and least certain that God has a physical body with two hands and two feet.


Is Richard Bushman a Conservative Mormon or a Liberal One?

John suggested that if the above picture fit you, then you were a “Liberal Mormon” whether or not you realized it.

Initially, I rejected the idea that I was a “Liberal Mormon” if for no other reason that the label would be misleading when applied to me compared to it’s more common usage. But I had another concern too. I wasn’t so sure about #3 above. For example, if I interpret it literally, then I have to accept that the current thinking by historians is law, which seemed rather irrational to me given the true nature of history. For that matter, it’s probably a safe bet that if we accept the expert secular opinion on The Book of Mormon that being a “Liberal Mormon” would be more or less synonymous with “Unbelieving Mormon.”

But then John surprised me by saying, in a comment, that Richard Bushman was a liberal Mormon. I was shocked and told him so. After all, Richard Bushman has gone on record stating he believes in The Book of Mormon as literal history.

This suggested to me that perhaps John did not interpret #3 quite so literally.

What’s a Conservative Christian?

But if Richard Bushman fit John’s idea of a liberal Mormon, then clearly he must interpret #3 as merely meaning that we will incorporate such disciplines into our religion using the best scholarly techniques. I have no issue with this whatsoever and have a hard time believing anyone would. Given that interpretation I certainly would have to be considered a “Liberal Mormon.”

But given that interpretation, I’m not sure any rational person could be called a “Conservative Christian” any more. I mean what is left for them? Are they the people that believe we should care about God and not our neighbor, that believe the Bible should not be treated objectively, and that feel scripture overrides science?


It seems to me that the above attempt to define “Liberal Christian” (or Liberal Mormon) casts a net so wide that it includes outright atheists like Paulus to full on believers like Averill – and probably a lot more. For example, you’d think #4 would rule out Paulus. But, of course, it doesn’t. Paulus might feel that the core truth claim of Christianity is that Christ was “a son of God” and that he was “inspired by God.” And perhaps even the word “God” can be rethought to mean “human morality” or “human spirituality.”

In fact, I am worried that this attempt to define “Liberal Theology” is merely a way of not talking about legitimate differences via an umbrella that casts it’s net over all but a chosen fundamentalist few that are intentionally being ousted.

But in any case, I’m glad to know that I’m a “Liberal Mormon.” And so are all readers on M* most likely.

13 thoughts on “What Does the “Liberal” Mean in “Liberal Theology”?

  1. Thanks, Bruce. I think we need to have definitions to understand differing viewpoints. This explanation seems so broad that it is almost meaningless. If Bushman believes in a literally historical BoM, while many others do not even consider it historical, or worse, an inspired fraudulent tome, then how do we separate out the naysayers from the believers? The offering given by John Nilsson does not give us anything of value.

    Could we not construct a “conservative” definition that would also include fundamentalists, Bushman and everyone except for rabid anti-Mormon atheists? If so, then what value is there in that, as well?

    Perhaps there is too much of an attempt to delimit the choices down to only two, when there should be a perhaps several major categories:


    Given such a line to place people in would be better. It is useless to place Bushman and atheists in the same pile, just as it would be to place him with fundamentalists.

  2. Why label at all? No matter what the grouping, your own mores, beliefs, knowledge, etc., are going to separate you in some way from those with who you share the label. We should not limit ourselves or our understanding of others by placing eveyone into an easily defined box.

    That’s the reason why I’m a non-partisan voter, and registered as such. I dont think any of the political groupings are always right, or even more often right, so I leave them to their own devices and do my own research on who and what to vote for.

  3. I can see from the post why there are so many difficulties with these labels. Perhaps we could consider “liberal” less an identity or label, and more of an approach, or practice.

    Someone might hold firm beliefs in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, yet they might approach the gospel with an open-mindedness that allows them to embrace new truths that might come from history or science, and find creative ways of reconciling them.

    Frank has a good point: why proscribe to any label at all? This is a very pragmatic and honest response to the dilemma of the diversity of opinions and views, all of which have some validity.

    I chose to define myself as a liberal. But this doesn’t mean that I think the conservative approach has no value. I feel the conservative approach is already a strong dynamic in the church, I incessantly feel it’s pull towards me. I recognize it’s importance, without having to constantly champion it’s causes. The liberal approach is less well represented, though equally important, in my view, so I choose to be a liberal to promote greater balance. But I would not choose to be a liberal in a vacuum.

  4. I’m a disciple. Or at least I try to be. That’s the label I’m concerned about.

    If the labels are useful at all, I would say that liberal theology looks to change and adapt, while conservative theology appeals to history and precedent.

  5. And, I might add, that in such a case, they aren’t opposites, but just two different tools to use to develop one’s understanding.

  6. You touch on this, but I don’t see how you can have a subjective response to a religion that you have no objective beliefs about (I’m using subjective and objective a little idiosyncratically here, but I think my meaning is clear). Otherwise you end up saying something like ‘my belief that Mormonism is good for me is good for me.’

  7. Adam – True, though telling anyone at all of my non-partisanship is very rare. I rather enjoy the discussions where people have a hard time placing me in any category. The usual times I mention it at all is to show people that its even an option. Too many people think you have to belong to one group or another, without knowing that it’s even possible to choose none.

  8. “they aren’t opposites, but just two different tools to use to develop one’s understanding.”

    SilverRain, I think that’s the best explanation of it I’ve heard.

  9. If the labels are useful at all, I would say that liberal theology looks to change and adapt, while conservative theology appeals to history and precedent.

    if so, wouldn’t any Mormon that believes in a living prophet be considered theologically liberal? After all, besides the BOM, this is something that sets us apart, we CAN adapt and change because of continued revelation, we didn’t have to stop anyone of African descent from getting the priesthood until the end of time. That seems liberal to me.

  10. jjohnson,
    In theory, yes. Few changes have occurred for the current generation to be able to claim that ability. Besides 1978, very minor changes have occurred in my lifetime. Even Blacks getting the priesthood had very little to do with me. So in theory, yes we are all liberal to the degree of being able to change due to a living Prophet. Yet in practice our living Prophet more or less walks the doctrinal path that he was given.

  11. Frank asks:

    Why label at all? No matter what the grouping, your own mores, beliefs, knowledge, etc., are going to separate you in some way from those with who you share the label.

    Whenever one discusses labels, someone will inevitably ask some variant of this question.

    The problem with a question like this is that it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. In fact, it’s not even a very clear question, so it’s difficult to respond to. But let me take a few stabs at several possibilities as to what you might have meant:

    If what you are asking me is “what use are labels at all?” then I would be amazed that the answer isn’t obvious. Labels convey approximate information about a person, concept, or thing that allows us to enact a template in our minds that expresses many ideas without having to computationally explain each of them in programmatic exhaustive detail. This is, in fact, how the human mind works. Put another way, we label because there is no way to communicate without them. Indeed, all words are really just labels. To outlaw labels is to outlaw communication.

    If someone says “I’m a believing Mormon” that label is very effective in communicating a ton of information in a very efficient way. Your point that it won’t be 100% correct is true, but irrelevant. Obviously it’s more efficient to say “I’m a Mormon” as a good first approximation and then to specify differences or exceptions from there. Plus, the vast majority f the time the differences are not relevant to the context in which the label was used.

    On the other hand, if what you meant was “I don’t personally fit the conservative / liberal label” then I will agree that this may well be true. There is no requirement that all people fit all labels or their supposed opposites. Nothing in this post suggested that. Further, my whole point is that these two particular labels seem somewhat pointless because they fail to communicate any information, which is the whole point of labels. They are therefore bad labels and we should not use them and should favor ones that actually communicate information. For example, in Paulus’ case, specifically believing and unbelieving. In Averill’s case, probably traditional vs. non-traditional or something like that. Or maybe inerrancy vs. non-inerrancy. The liberal / conservative label fails to communicate anything that matters and is more likely to confuse than clarify.

    Or perhaps what you were getting at is that labels are inherently problematic. True enough. Be bear in mind that John and Friedrich are *choosing* to label themselves this and presumably for a reason: to communicate something about themselves efficiently.

    In short, labels are good and necessary things. They can be abused just like any word can be abused. They can also be used to mislead people, misrepresent people, etc. But the issue here isn’t labels, per se, but lying.

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