My Favorite Liberal Theologians: A List of Theological Liberals I Find “Essential” as Dialogue Partners
This reprints a post I wrote on my old blog, Levellers, in October 2006. It started a well-received series on “theological dialogue partners.” I will reproduce and index the entire series–and perhaps extend it on this blog. I don’t find anything in this list I would change.
I must be a glutton for punishment. No sooner do I reassure many evangelical readers of this blog that I am “born again” with testimony of my conversion and faith in Christ, than I write about favorite liberals. What am I thinking? Actually, though, I had been working on this post for some time and, YES, I am planning a companion piece on essential dialogue partners among the Conservative Evangelicals (caps important).
First, let me make two things clear: 1) I do NOT use the term “liberal” in theology to refer to all people who reject biblical ‘inerrancy’ (a rejection I share). “Liberal” theologians, while they have many disagreements, are united in an anthropological starting point (i.e., they begin with some form of general human experience) and in some form of a “method of correlation” (Tillich) between theology and the Modern (Enlightenment and after) world. 2) I do not consider myself a “liberal” since I begin with God’s revelation in Christ through the biblical witness and since, at most, I believe only ad hoc correlations are possible.
The big influences on me theologically are neither “liberal,” nor “conservative.” Those influences: Yoder, Stassen, Marshall, Barth, Moltmann, McClendon, H.R. Niebuhr, Letty Russell, Rauschenbusch, M. L. King, Deotis Roberts, and some others have been or will be the subject of my ongoing series of blog postings on “mentors.” By contrast, the folks below are “dialogue partners,” as are those who will be listed in the companion piece on Conservative Evangelicals.
So, who are my liberal dialogue partners? First, from the Classic Liberal period 19th C.-mid-20th C.) :
F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), not only the “Father of Liberal Theology,” but the father of all modern and, yes, postmodern theology, too. The first to give theology a truly scientific and systematic shape beyond the summa or the handbook (Calvin’s Institutes clearly was simply a handbook). It is simply not possible to do serious theology since that time without building on Schleiermacher’s legacy, even when challenging or greatly revising it, as Karl Barth knew well. There is much in old Friedrich to deplore, including his anthropological starting point and his reductionism of Christian experience to a feeling of utter dependence, but his work is a huge attempt to relate the Pietist tradition to the modern world and that remains, in my view, a worthwhile project. Link: Schleiermacher Society.
Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), gave an irreducibly moral shape to modern theology and helped recapture the centrality of the concept of the Kingdom of God, which for centuries had just been understood as “heaven.” Ritschl’s view of the Kingdom is inadequate, as was Rauschenbusch’s who drew so much from Ritschl, but the recovery of its theological centrality is still of incalculable importance. Ritschl’s contention that Christianity is characterized by 2 foci, individual salvation and social ethics, still seems right on the money, to me. Further info. here.
William Newton Clarke (1841-1912), the first in North America (taught in both Canada & U.S.) to write a systematic theology from a Schleiermachian perspective. Theologians debate how much Clarke borrowed from Schleiermacher and how much he simply thought along similar lines. There were also connections to Ritschl and Hermann.
Douglas Clyde Macintosh (1877-1948), Canadian-born Baptist theologian at Yale attempted to make theology an empirical science. He was an enormous influence on the brothers Niebuhr and later Process Theology, but also on the postmodern (ana)Baptist theology of my mentor, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Recent study found here.
Adolf von Harnack(1851-1930), for his incredibly encyclopedic knowledge and display of the history of Christian doctrine. (But his reduction of the “essence of Christianity” to the “Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,” was incredibly weak–and patriarchal to boot.)
Top 10 Favorite Liberals: Contemporary and Recent Past
10. Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003), German feminist political theologian. See Sarah K. Pinnock, ed., The Theology of Dorothee Soelle.
9. Marjorie H. Schucocki (1933-), Feminist Process Theologian. Best 1 vol. systematic from a process perspective.
8. Gary Comstock, both for his early work on narrative theology (mapping out some of the varieties) and for his subsequent work on theology from an openly gay male perspective. Whatever one believes about “homosexuality” pro or con, one cannot ignore the theological challenge and Comstock is the best theologian among those proposing full inclusion. I do wish he would relate this to his earlier work on narrative theology so that one could judge the adequacy of connections.
7. Eric Rust, a British Baptist educated in both physics and theology, came to the U.S. after both pastorates and academic positions in the U.K. He taught for decades at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where he forged an “evolutionary theology” that was an early process theology not as fully dependent on the metaphysics of Hartshorne and Whitehead as most later versions. Rust helped many, many reconcile science and theology and was one of the first to see the challenge of the ecological crisis to theology. He related the covenant and salvation history themes of the Scriptures to evolutionary worldview in a very persuasive way.
6. Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004) Chicago’s giant from the early ’60s to the ’90s. Gilkey was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, but, unlike the latter, he forged a “theology of culture” that could actually be understood! Gilkey’s book Naming the Whirlwind essentially demolished the “Death of God” movement. For more info. see here and here.
5. Hans Küng (1928-), the brilliant star of the radical Catholics whose work both led to Vatican II and charted the path further. Sidelined in Catholic life for challenging papal infallibility, Küng’s works On Being a Christian, and Does God Exist? are major apologetic works for our time which take seriously Christianity’s skeptical critics (as conservative apologists seldom do) without capitulating to them. He also has helped pioneer Christian interfaith dialogue in ways that are not just the nonsense of “all roads lead up the same mountain.” Biblio-blogger Chris Tilling’s excellent reflections on Küng’s importance are found here.
4. Daniel Day Williams (1910-1973), was a pioneer process theologian who work was far more connected to the major Christian tradition and its symbols than most in the Whitehead/Hartshorne school. Unfortunately, Williams’ most important works, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope; The Spirit and the Forms of Love; and The Demonic and the Divine are all out of print.
3. Howard Thurman (1900-1981) African-American mystic whom I profiled earlier as a Baptist prophet. See the Howard Thurman Center at Boston University. There is also a Howard Thurman documentary film project here. Morehouse College houses the Howard Thurman papers. The interracial Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which Thurman founded in San Francisco, is still in existence. Thurman was a major influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. Harvey Cox(1929-) — American theologian most in touch with the currents of culture. Beginning with Barth & Bonhoeffer, Cox moved from celebrating “the secular city,” to being one of the first liberals to notice that secularism was dying. He rediscovered in a new way the centrality of Jesus in, of all places, his interfaith dialogue! Cox became one of the first mainline liberals to take Pentecostalism seriously, too. Never anything close to a systematician, Cox remains one of the most astute theologians of culture for North America. Currently the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University Divinity School.
1. Marcus J. Borg whose biblical work is among the strongest in the “Jesus Seminar,” but who also has sought to revitalize liberalism in ways that are easily communicable to laity. The Heart of Christianity renews the Pietist tradition of the heart in a radical post-modern world. Do I always agree? No. But it’s not your average liberal who advises congregations to have more Bible studies! More info. here and his books here.
Runners Up: Peter Gomes, John Cobb (for relating process theology to liberation thought and ecological theology); Clark Pinnock in “Open Theism” phase; L. Harold DeWolf & Walter G. Muelder for Boston Personalism; Rosemary Radford Ruether; Beverly Wildung Harrison; Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza; Carlyle Marney.
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