What is “Liberalism”?

Although everyone seems to know what “liberalism” is, a definition which covers all the representations and representatives of this kind of religious thinking seems to be an impossibility. Liberalism has been compared, therefore, with the proverbial chameleon whose color changes according to its environment.

In an interview with Dr. H. M. Kuitert and Dr. D. C. Mulder, both Dutch theological professors at the Free University of Amsterdam (published in De Spiegel, May 17, 1969 under the title, “Do you still believe in heaven?”) the following was asked and answered:

Questioner: If you want to make clear the difference between your opinions and liberalism, how do you answer?

Dr. Kuitert: I answer that I belong almost completely to the Reformed tradition. And 1 add that people who show such great concern often do not know how greatly flexible that tradition has always been in the past. And what is liberalism? Liberalism has chosen for culture and against holding fast to the orthodox formula. But orthodoxy has also made a choice…people who do not choose are always between the wall and the ship. Probably these people have the greatest amount of common sense.

Dr. Mulder: For me the message of the Cross and the resurrection and the attempt to follow the Lord arc decisive. If a liberal says the same we agree. And if he speaks in a different way, one asks: “Why do you speak in that other way? Don’t you perhaps mean the same thing?”

As I said above, a definition of liberalism which satisfies all is scarcely to be found. In this interview we find a sample of one of the current attempts to reduce the Christian confession. A very brief confession seems to be the ecumenically indicated and required solution for the problem created by the liberalism-orthodoxy distinction.

A very interesting news item appeared in the Presbyterian Journal of July 16, 1969. It began as follows:

BURLINGTON, N.C. – By a narrow margin Orange Presbytery voted here to admit a minister who said he believed Adam was a historical person. The court thus overruled its examiner in theology, the Rev. John Leith, professor of theology at Union Seminary, Richmond. Under examination, along with three other men transferring into the presbytery. was the Rev. Grady Love, assistant pastor-elect of the Northside Church here. Dr. Leith moved that the examination of the other three be sustained and that the examination of Mr. Love not be sustained. In his lengthy examination of Love, who came here from Knoxville Presbytery, Dr. Leith established that Mr. Love believed the Bible to he the infallible and authoritative Word of God. After asking about his belief in the historicity of Adam, Dr. Leith moved on to questions about Mr. Love’s attitude toward ministers who held other views.

The examiner asked if Mr. Love would use the question of Adam’s existence in any future examination of candidates seeking admission to the presbytery, and the response was affirmative.

From this it would appear that some people standing in the Reformed tradition have their difficulties as they try to define liberalism. The liberals, on the other hand, have no difficulty at all to discover the line of demarcation between their position and that of the orthodox. They know that the main line has always been there to be found at the point of the doctrine of the infallibility of Holy Scripture. From this other lines followed: in the previous century that of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, later that of the Virgin Birth of our Lord, and now that of the historicity of Adam.

And they demand freedom, of course, but a freedom after their definition. This lies in their very name: they are, after all, “liberals.” Their creed is based on the idea that anyone is free to hold to his own opinions. They do not want anyone to stand up, however, and say, “No other doctrine than the doctrine of the infallible Word of God.” Against anyone who suggests or says that they will vote. In spite of their vaunted tolerance, they would not admit him to the sacred ministry.

So it was in 1834 (the Secession in The Netherlands).

So it was in 1936 (the beginning of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). So it is now!

I return to the same issue of the Dutch pictorial weekly, De Spiegel ( May 17, 1969). The interviewer asked the following question:

“Are there people who, without knowledge of the Bible, think of a new earth?” Prof. Kuitert answered in part, like this:

I would consider this to be quite a step forward compared with the belief in a heaven as we heard of it when we were children…If one would say, “Man must do it,” he would be expressing himself in terms of competition with God. In my opinion it is this way: God does it, but he uses means. Man is his means. The Great Kingdom comes only if we all become decent subjects of God. All the world must be pacified. That is one of the problems of the future. Another problem is, Does the new earth come in the way of catastrophes or does it exist thousands of years in advance (of its final coming, L.P.)? So that it comes in the way of gradual progress, the moment finally arriving in which we say, Now it does not need to go on anymore. That may be the case, for instance, when biological reproducing ceases. I imagine that a moment will come when we will say, This is it!

It is small wonder that Kuitert answered another question as he did:

Questioner: Has the concept of “hell” receded to the background today?

Dr. Kuitert: Now that we arc able more and more to practise Christianity on earth, there is a decreasing need for the idea that perfect salvation (het heil) is to be found somewhere beyond the horizon…or, for that matter, the complete disaster (het onheil). Both are to be found on this side of the horizon.

Reading these words I was reminded of the description of liberalism offered by a very competent writer,

It was dynamic clement in religious life. It was a revolt against the otherworldliness which had made heaven and hell a reward and a punishment…It was also a loss of the religious heritage,…a weakened sense of the estrangement from God and a corresponding view of the ease with which Jesus the teacher might bring about the full development of the spiritual capacities of mankind. (H. R. Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, pp. 185–193.)

Dr. Louis Praasma is pastor of Fruitland Christian Reformed Church, Ontario.