The Changing Face of Liberalism

During many discussions in the last twenty years with members of the Christian Reformed Church, I often made the charge that the church had become liberal. The response would almost always be the same. No matter how far they had strayed from the faith of their forefathers they would declare, “I am not liberal.” They would say this because the definition of liberalism they there were taught in seminary or read in various books did not seem to describe what they had become. Since they did not look like historic liberalism, they claimed they did not have to worry about Liberalism. But Liberalism has changed. It has grabbed many churches that had remained free of its tentacles at the turn of the twentieth century only to be caught in its deadly grip at the turn of the twenty-first century.

In his classic work Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen encouraged his readers with these words: “There have been previous great crises in the history of the Church, crises almost comparable to this. One appeared in the second century, when the very life of Christendom was threatened by the Gnostics. …In such times of crisis, God has always saved the Church. But He has always saved it not by theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth.”

Dr. Machen declared that the root of liberalism is “the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity”(p. 2 Christianity and Liberalism). However, the subsequent history of Liberalism has shown that its root is not “naturalism.” Natural Liberalism is but one face of Liberalism.



Little did Dr. Machen know that exactly 70 years after he wrote those words his theological son, Dr. Peter Jones, professor at Westminster West Seminary, would write a book entitled, “The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back.” Dr. Jones recognized a major shift in the religious setting since Dr. Machen. The liberal crisis of the earthy twentieth century had changed. Just as the ancient eastern religions invaded the Greek materialism of the first century and produced Gnosticism, Eastern religions have invaded the spiritual vacuum caused by Naturalistic Liberalism and reproduced the Gnostic religion of the past: New Age Liberalism.

Although anti-naturalistic, this “new age” religion is readily embraced by the historic liberal mind set. Although it can no longer be called Naturalistic Liberalism, it can certainly be called Liberalism. It is rooted in the same denial of a personal God acting in history, in creation, and in redemption.

Naturalistic Liberalism

Naturalistic Liberalism had its birth in the late nineteenth century. It was conceived in a cultural context of a scientific world view. A mind set that elevated science as the ultimate method of testing all truth. The battles against Naturalistic Liberalism were fought in a different cultural setting than we now face.

Naturalist Liberalism was born in the context of a renewed hope in the scientific enterprise. We often forget the time frame of this elevation of science. Charles Darwin had already entered the debate with his theories of evolution. You could find soldiers fighting the battles of the civil war discussing Darwin. A religion of science was emerging. The declaration was made that only what is scientifically verifiable is true. The scientific method of proving a thesis by an experiment was declared the root of all truth.

This view of truth led German theologians of the nineteenth century to question the Bible as a miraculous revelation of God to man and the truths it contains. They “demythologized” the Bible. They stripped it of its supernatural character. They claimed it was necessary to remove the “myths” of the Bible to find the truth of the Bible. They declared the Bible was filled with errors and written by many men and competing views of God. Doctrinal truth was irrelevant. Eerdman’s Handbook to American Christianity summarizes Naturalistic Liberalism with these words:

The key test of Christianity was life, not doctrine. Christianity could be saved by stressing the ethical. This, said the liberals, was the heart of Jesus’ teaching. They faulted Calvinism and other traditional theologies for stressing the judicial elements of God’s relationship to humanity. They claimed Jesus, by contrast, had emphasized the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of mankind. Whatever else might fall before the withering blasts of criticism, the ethics of Jesus would survive (p. 322).

The heart of the gospel became the Social gospel. An ethical life was the most important. Most liberals during the 1920’s were prohibitionists and supported the amendment to ban all sale of alcohol. However, their social gospel, their ethic, was dictated by the whims of society not by the authority of God’s word. Just as their theology was controlled by compromises to naturalistic science their ethical standards were controlled by what was socially acceptability. Prohibition was culturally acceptable. Dr. Machen was ostracized by both liberals and many Christians who supported outlawing the sale of alcohol because he did not favor prohibition.

The influence of Naturalistic Liberalism had a direct result in the churches of North America. Most major denominations in the United States split during the early part of the 20th century because of the Biblical issues raised by Naturalistic Liberalism. Naturalistic liberals believed that the only way the church could survive was to shed what they declared to be the nonessentials in order to remain relevant and popular to the changing world.

In response conservative denominations and individuals declared the necessity of the “Five Fundamentals.” First, the absolute authority, infallibility and innerrancy of Scripture had to be maintained. Second, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ was necessary to a true understanding of the unique nature of Jesus Christ. Third, the miracles of Christ, although unable to be repeated for scientific verification, must be accepted as historical. Fourth, the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ was necessary to a Biblical understanding of God’s saving work. Fifth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ was affirmed in the wake of the denial of a literal bodily resurrection.

These specific issues became the focal point of many conflicts within what is now described as mainline liberal denominations. By 1922 liberalism had sent its claws into the culturally important, large, but theologically weak and ineffective denominations of the day. Methodists, Presbyterians, The Episcopal Church, Baptists, and Lutherans were all influenced by Naturalistic Liberalism. By 1940 most large “mainline” denominations had split and Naturalistic Liberalism dominated historic Christian seminaries.

For example, in 1924 the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church faced these very issues. Thirteen percent of the denomination’s ministers, 1,274 strong, stated that the historic teachings of Scripture were only theories and were not necessary or fundamental to the Christian faith. There was no disciplinary action taken against these ministers by the delegates to the Synod.

The issues came to a head in Princeton Seminary. The result was the establishment of Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) in the fall of 1929. The conservatives of the denomination established a separate missions board. In 1936 the men supporting this action were deposed from office. On June 11, 1936, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed. This same scenario was repeated in other denominations and many Protestant denominations split during this time.

Not everyone remaining in their mother denominations agreed with the liberal teachings of the day. But these fundamentals were no longer a basis of unity in the churches.

The historic battle with Naturalistic Liberalism had been seen by many denominations as the key battle. Because of this, all kinds of denominations, Reformed, Presbyterian and Mennonites, who today are compromising with New Age Liberalism maintain that they have no problem with Liberalism. They think that since they reject Naturalistic Liberalism they are free from the possibility of compromising and becoming Liberal. But they are compromising with New Age Liberalism.

New Age Liberalism

New Age Liberalism is a liberalism that has grasped once more the supernatural. Liberal churches have had a resurgence in the supernatural. There are all kinds of discussions about miracles and the divinity of Christ. Historic liberal denominations have demonstrated a surface return to the supernatural fundamentals that were debated at the turn of the 20th century. The existence of the supernatural is no longer the key point of controversy. The Bible’s explanation of the supernatural is rejected, but the supernatural is once again embraced as acceptable.

New Age Liberalism avoids anti-supernaturalism but they bow down to false gods, the Baals of Gnosticism. This is not a positive move. It is simply one more expression of man’s sinful rebellion to the true and living God. It is not any better than Naturalistic Liberalism. Historic paganism is embraced with a desire to get in tune with the spirit realm.

Former Beatle, John Lennon became a key promoter of Eastern Religions infiltrating Western Naturalistic Liberalism. The impact of Lennon is still seen in our world today. After the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York the entertainment industry proclaimed the gospel of New Age Liberalism. One song they sang was John Lennon’s, “Imagine”:

Imagine there’s no Heaven It’s easy if you try No hell below us Above us only sky

Imagine all the people Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too

Imagine all the people Living life in peace

Just like World War Two dashed the hopes of many adherents of Naturalistic Liberalism, you would think that the destruction of the Twin Towers would shake the foundations of anyone not holding to Biblical Christianity. But the song “Imagine” was presented to untold millions as our ultimate dream. Modern man grasps at the madness of New Age Liberalism. No Savior, no judgment, no God involved in history, only dreams of universal oneness. But we know that there will be wars and rumors of wars until that day that Jesus Christ returns in all His glory.

If you asked Naturalistic Liberals, “Do you believe in the Divinity of Christ?” they would say, “I do not believe in anything supernatural or spiritual. How could I believe in the myth about Jesus being God incarnate.” This was historically a good question to ask to try to get at the errors of liberalism. But if you asked a New Age Liberals this same question they would say, “Yes, I believe in the divinity of Christ.” They would go on to declare that they, too, are divine and that all people are divine In fact, all things are divine. Instead of denying divinity outright, they deny it by denying the uniqueness of divinity. Instead of attempting to lower God to man’s level they elevate man to divinity.

A basic proponent of Gnosticism and New Age religion is that everyone and everything is one. This declaration sounds good to modern ears. New Age Liberalism means this in an ultimate sense. Peter Jones notes that New Age liberalism promotes the breakdown of all distinctions between Creator and Creature. Dr. Jones summarizes Gnostic, New Age Liberalism, teaching in the following way: “Gnosticism rejected the Creator God of scripture….For the Gnostic, the true God was an unknowable, impersonal force, the unified sum of all the separated parts. In anthropology and sexuality, the divine being is thus best expressed by androgyny, that is, the erasure of the male-female distinction”(Gnostic Empire Strikes Back, p. 30).

New Age Liberalism’s failure to make a distinction between God and man has implications in what is believed about the essence of being human. “Androgyny” is not unity of the male and female but it is the merging of male-female into a new being without the distinction of male and female. It is the breakdown of a basic distinction put in place by God at the beginning of creation, male and female. This is the root of many false teachings in New Age Liberalism.

So called theologians have made bizarre attempts at reinterpreting the Bible according to this basic theme. For instance, I have a book in my library entitled, In Memory of Her. Some years ago this book was used as a text for the introduction to theology course at Drew Seminary. The author speculates that at creation there was an original being, both male and female. This being was somehow divided into male and female. The ultimate goal of spiritual progression is that this perversion be overcome by a reunification. This new oneness is a progression because it is a process that brings us closer to “god” who is the unity of all things.

Differentiation is the great evil in this system. Thus, there is no Creator-creature distinction, there is no male-female distinction, and there is ultimately no living and non-living distinction.

In contrast to the breakdown of all distinctions is the fundamental truth revealed in Genesis 1. God’s word from the very beginning makes clear distinctions. A distinction between God and man, between the living and the non-living, between man and animal, and then in man a distinction between male and female. These distinction are attacked by New Age Liberalism. This attack has direct consequences related to controversies in many denominations that historically stood against Naturalistic Liberalism but have compromised with New Age Liberalism.

If there are no distinctions then you would naturally deny the headship of males in the home, church or society. New Age Liberalism supports women’s ordination because of the core belief in breaking down all distinctions. Apply the breakdown of distinctions to the area of sexuality and you conclude there is no difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality. New Age liberalism promotes homosexuality. Evolution continues to have an appeal not because it focuses on the survival of the fittest, a naturalistic concept; but because here is no distinction between human and animal. We become one with the world. New Age Liberalism supports a circle of life naturalism that emphasizes the oneness of nature. It supports a revised from of evolution. The failures to recognize God’s created distinctions are applied by New Age Liberalism to God Himself. And so a book is written, In Memory of Her.

The Ashera (a female goddess) pole of the ancient pagan religions of the Old Testament has returned. Thus the God of the Bible revealed as Father is declared to be “mother.” We are called on to pray to “Our mother who art in heaven.” New Age Liberalism promotes the feminization of God. It promotes the worship of a false goddess.

Cultural Accommodation

These aspects in liberal theology appeal to the general mind set of our culture. New Age Liberals are acceptable in our culture. This harmony between false church and secular culture happened in such a way that it is difficult to discern which influenced which the most. Did the culture influence these churches or did these churches influence the culture? In historic liberal churches it is difficult to say. Culture and false church moved together in continues harmony. But for many denominations that historically stood against Naturalistic Liberalism their historic truth failed to influence the culture. Worse, they have been tainted by New Age Liberalism. New Age Liberalism and our culture have infiltrated these churches with error. They have become liberal.

The heart of Naturalistic and New Age liberalism are the same. First, historic liberalism upheld the universal brotherhood of man and Fatherhood of God. Although this expression of oneness can is no longer accepted because of its gender references, the heart of this aspect of liberalism lives. We are all one, every tribe, tongue, and religion are all one.

Second, liberalism harmonizes or moves with the culture of the day instead of bowing to the absolute authority of God’s word. Liberalism is opposed to moral absolutes. Twentieth century liberalism accommodated to a godless scientific world view, twenty-first century liberalism accommodates to a new age pagan spirituality. The process continues and liberal churches continue to accommodate themselves. Liberal churches are once again accommodating themselves to the culture to attract the word to themselves.

Sadly, there are many examples of New Age Liberalism’s unbiblical reincarnation. One example was found in the local paper of our city following the terrorist attack in the United States on September 11, 2001. The headline in the religion section read, “We Gather Here as One American Family.” The Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenicism organized two dozen faith leaders. Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy as well as Hindu and Bahi speakers spoke of their binding faith in the face of unimaginable tragedy. Universal oneness was expressed. Liberalism was alive and well.

This same universalism was witnessed in the National Prayer Service following the terrorist attack. Jew, Muslim and Christian gathered together to pray. It was evident in the prayer meeting our president called preceding his address to the congress. He asked Jew, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist to join him. The liberal Christian attending declared, “It was an encounter with god.” But it was not an encounter with the true God. Liberalism has taken it toll and has won the mind set of our culture. We need to understand this in order to speak to a culture in rebellion to God.

We also need to understand this in order to speak to the Christian who is in a church that has begun courting and far too often married New Age Liberalism and accepted her views. We need to maintain the truth of 2 Corinthians 6:14-16: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God.”

We must recognize that only Christians, those bought with the blood of Christ, can call upon God as Father as His sons and daughters. We must encourage those who belong to churches tainted with New Age Liberalism to come out from among them.

Rev. Casey Freswick is the pastor of the Bethany United Reformed Church in Wyoming, Michigan.