What is the middle ground between theological liberalism and fundamentalism?

These are broad categories but I’m trying to figure out how EC Christians might describe themselves. On the extreme edges of progressive theological thought there is doubts to the historicity of Christ and the Resurrection, issues of biblical authority, varying soteriological views, etc. For fundamentalists, these issues are unequivocally settled: Biblical inerrancy/infallibility, YEC, ECT, and so on. While any believer would acknowledge a difference between core doctrines like the Trinity as much more central to Christian doctrine than a teaching on tithe for example, Christians disagree on exactly which are the more “essential” ideas. Where does a view on creation and evolution fit into all this? I grew up in YEC fundamentalism being raised in the conservative holiness movement but in the last few months my beliefs on topics such as this one have moved into the “I have no idea” category. This article gets at my question in detail. I like this summary of Pew’s project of how “one could define a position that avoids both extremes: a relativism in which all assertions of truth are deemed to be irrelevant or unattainable, and a fundamentalism in which an alleged truth is propounded in an attitude of aggressive intolerance. Such a position boils down to a seemingly simple, but actually very complex statement: It is possible to have religious faith in the absence of certainty.

I have browsed a few threads to explore beyond the tag line that “evolution is compatible with Christianity” to see how exactly that works. If anything is clear, it is there is not one set view on the details of how this works. The important questions always come up about Adam and Eve, Christ, and how to know which things in the Bible one can take literally and which figuratively. The atheist says Christians just mold Scripture to fit whatever they are trying to get to much like “cafeteria style” political views taken from the Bible. I suppose this is a question of hermeneutics. The discussion in the link went into political applications but since that is off topic for this forum, I’m hoping to stick with the theological/epistemological ideas. Atheists like Sam Harris might describe the Biologos project the best option to “safeguard” the future from religious extremism. In other words, converting people to the light of atheism is too difficult a task but convincing them their religious beliefs are compatible with modern science is a realistic and useful goal. I sense a similar motive in Pew’s project, but this transcript was informative nonetheless: https://www.pewforum.org/2008/03/04/between-relativism-and-fundamentalism-is-there-a-middle-ground/

Small o orthodoxy

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That’s a good question in your title, and I think that’s something many people are having to figure out now. For those of us who were raised in YEC fundamentalism, it was easy to see it all in only two categories – either you were “one of us,” or you were a “liberal,” which could become a derogatory term and often related to politics but could be used of religious people as well.

So in coming out of fundamentalism, there is still this sense, for me anyway, that there are only those two categories, and to no longer be a YEC must mean becoming “progressive” or “liberal.” And many do go that way. But I’ve been trying to reject that false dichotomy (politically as well), because there’s plenty of space in the middle, and I also know how easy it is to simply “toe the party line” when you’re on the extremes.

I like the professor in the article who doesn’t see fundamentalism and relativism as exclusive: “something of one is in the other, something of the other is in the first.”

Pete Enns wrote a book called The Sin of Certainty, which I haven’t read, but I imagine it explores what it means to have faith that is not fundamentalist but not totally relativist either.

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According to this Kevin DeYoung Gospel Coalition article (and we know they don’t think they are theologically liberal, so hopefully that lends some credence to analysis), I don’t think that his seven characteristics of liberal theology apply to myself. I would consider myself theologically to be left of center Evangelical. I think of Progressive Christians as a big spectrum that includes people much like myself who are just fed up with the politically right leaning side of Evangelicalism all the way to those who basically sprinkle a little admiration of Jesus on their agnosticism. In other words, not a super meaningful designation, you have to ask people what they believe.

1. True religion is not based on external authority
I and most Christians around here affirm that orthodoxy is established by the creeds and the traditional first order doctrines of church tradition matter. So, I accept that my identification as a Christian requires a certain amount of conformity to credal, confessional Christian doctrine.

2. Christianity is a movement of social reconstruction.
The example he gives is trying to bring Christianity into harmony with “an evolutionary worldview.” I object to the premise that accepting scientific evidence of evolution is somehow reconstructing Christianity from “an evolutionary worldview.” I have changed my hermeneutic approach to some passages, but none of my first order Christian beliefs have been reevaluated in evolutionary terms. Don’t even really know what that means since evolution has nothing to say about Jesus dying for sins or the inspiration of Scripture, for example.

3. Christianity must be credible and relevant.
Don’t see the problem with that. It’s a main tenant of missiology. What good is preaching good news that no one can believe and has no relevance to anyone’s life? That’s a failure to contextualize the gospel.

4. Truth can be known only through changing symbols and forms.
Not sure what this means exactly. If it is saying that language only has meaning in context and words (as in the words of Scripture) are not static little meaning containers we unwrap but contextualized divine communication, then I agree. But I’m not sure that is what it is saying.

5. Theological controversy is about language, not about truth.
That would appear to me to be the case. People often confuse their interpretation of language in the Bible with truth. An interpretation is an attempt to understand truth. It should be evaluated.

6. The historical accuracies of biblical facts and events are not crucial, so long as we meet Jesus in the pages of Scripture.
I don’t personally think you can paint the whole Bible with a broad brush when it comes to “historicity.” It is a collection of texts that span a thousand years and represent changing cultural conventions for history telling. I think each text should be approached in its own literary and historical context. Clearly some passages are less historically factual than others. I don’t think that necessarily leads to the assessment that “historical facts don’t matter.” The historicity of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection is pretty crucial to Christianity and I take major issue with the theologically liberal claim that the important thing is some accessible transcendent spiritual essence of Jesus’s persona, not his work in human history that changed human history. But I do agree that the message of the entire Bible and its theological validity is not discredited by fact-checking exercises that turn up “inaccuracies.”

7. The true religion is the way of Christ, not any particular doctrines about Christ.
I think this is nonsense. Jesus made and affirmed truth claims. If you just go about turning the other cheek and loving your neighbor, you aren’t a Christian. Christians affirm Jesus is Lord and his Kingdom is coming and that statement implies a whole lot of Christian doctrines.

Liberalism is not a swear word to be thrown around. It is a diverse, but identifiable approach to Christianity, one that differs significantly from historic orthodoxy, not to mention evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Liberals believe they are making Christianity relevant, credible, beneficial, and humane. Evangelicals in the line of J. Gresham Machen believe they are making something other than Christianity. That was the dividing line a century ago, and the division persists.

I think the question to ask when you are evaluating the claims of some self-identified progressive Christian is the extent to which their version of Christianity diverges from first-order orthodox Christian doctrines. Like @Reggie_O_Donoghue said, there is such a thing as orthodoxy. It’s a pretty big tent, but there is a center. Maybe you play on the edges or color outside the lines in one or two areas, I’d still call you a Christian. but if you are on the edges or outside the lines on every doctrine or don’t think there is a tent at all, then I’d say you are something else. A spiritual person influenced by Christian ideas or something.

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I read that book and thought it was pretty accurate in describing dogmatism and the general evangelical ethos I’ve held as the default. I am politically libertarian (but personally conservative) so I’m quite familiar with rejecting the binary options presented in the political arena. As for theology, I resist the idea of liberalism pretty strongly. The beauty of Protestantism to me is that I’m allowed to change my mind on non-essentials (something akin to the scientific method) but if I were a Catholic I would have ceased being one at my first disagreement with the Pope.

There are a hybrid of doctrines one could hold that doesn’t fit neatly under one label. I think both groups are represented in this community, but I’m trying to reassure myself that I won’t end up like Rhett and Link if I go down this path. How a Christian understands the Bible is fundamental.

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I think I agree in terms of the general theological spectrum. The struggle for me is that evolution is not “orthodox.” Obviously, Christians did not even have it on the table until relatively recently, but the orthodox position used to be the Earth was the center of the universe or that the world was flat. From my point of view, Christians (and every religion) have had to reinterpret their core texts to reform it to match modern scientific theories. “Faith and science are compatible” is clearly incorrect from my YEC fundamentalist friends’ points of view. I don’t expect the Bible to be a science textbook, but there’s a certain kind of “looseness” when reading EC into Scripture.

I was really interested in the idea of doubt vs certainty in the transcript. That really is the heart of the theological scale here. I was overly confident in my views until recently. I have this motivation to reach some “destination” where I’ll get the Christian version of enlightenment or something and perhaps EC is a part of that. I hope I’m not changing my views just to be contrarian or hip.

This wording has me equally confused. Postmodernism and relativism look like a big part of theological liberalism. It’s not just about disagreeing with certain facts, it’s disagreeing with how one can even know what is the truth. EC folks appear knowledgeable and while I don’t want to commit the argument from authority fallacy let’s just say I get two very different first impressions from AiG and Biologos. I think Christians who believe God used evolution followed truth where it leads. Rather than saying “I can’t know anything for certain” the middle ground allows us to say “God does allow us to know things with relative certainty.”

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I have also been overly confident in my own theological ideas, so I commend you for trying to change that, and it sounds like you are asking some good, honest questions about your motivations in the process. It is hard to change when even a small change is often viewed as “dangerous” and not many good examples of change are highlighted except those who have changed to be more like us.

I wish you the best, though I and others have found that it’s not always an “aha” moment, but more of a process in most cases. Still, I have had to remind myself that following Jesus is the most important thing, even when it looks different than what I thought it meant, and sometimes I just have to rest on the fact that I’ll never have all the answers and can’t aim to.

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I think one of the dangerous messages many children get in Fundamentalist environments is that God expects them to have the right answers to all the important questions and confidently believe them as demonstration of their faith. It turns faith into a kind of works righteousness. And instead of putting their trust and confidence in God and the hope that all his promises are and will be fulfilled in Christ, and committing to follow him with their lives (what faith really is, it’s not merely believing true things), they are taught that faith is putting your trust and confidence in “answers” that the Bible provides.

The commitment is then to defending the Bible or the right answers. This seems to me to be really damaging. Not only does it short-circuit real relationship with God as the heart of a life of faith and take away the focus on living out commitment to God through growing in love and Christ-likeness, but it leads to a burdensome sort of perfectionism.

1 Cor. 13 assures us that all our knowledge (Bible answers included) is partial and incomplete and will eventually become useless. “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” Our limitations are something God is totally aware of and he doesn’t expect perfection from us in this area.

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I agree with the first part here as God does desire our trust more than (perfectly) “correct” belief.

This is something I kind of pushed back against in Enn’s book. While I agree fundamentalism when taken too far ends up with a Westboro Baptist type situation, I’m not willing to just embrace the mystery like Enns. Everyone says Christianity is rational and can be defended. This can be summed up in WLC’s entire ministry: Reasonable Faith. There should be a discussion on priorities and not dismissing emotions. It feels too much to me like walking away from the debate stage is admitting defeat and giving atheists a loaded gun. Christianity has been defended for 2,000 years and anything less than a solid defense of the core tenets seems like waving the white flag. Anyone who says I “just need more faith” is living a fairy tale kind of faith. They couldn’t last 5 minutes against a street epistemologist let alone an atheist online. I’m not saying the goal is to “win” every conversation but where does 1 Peter. 3:15 fit into this? Now, I will distinguish between having answers and having absolute certainty in those answers. Knowing the arguments does not mean you think every single one is foolproof. Why can’t Christians do both? Understanding philosophical and evidential arguments should not be a pass to neglect the command to love our neighbor.

I’m not saying these two paragraphs are contradictory, but there is certainly tension in saying we should defend truth without getting too wrapped up in the process. I don’t believe in right answers but I have a very strong desire to find those answers. As I mentioned originally, there are some Christian teachings with more weight than others. Having a purely intellectual faith isn’t a good idea. To reference my fundamentalist KJV-only cousin, “If I can’t know that God communicated His Word without error, how can I trust anything else about Christianity?” While I don’t share all his views, I understand the sentiment. Embracing uncertainty doesn’t particularly accomplish anything except to humble ourselves. The world offers questions. Christianity offers answers.

Why in the world would you want a middle ground between liberalism and fundamentalism? If you are going to look for a middle ground then you should look for it between things which actually have some value like between science and Christianity. That is what EC is about – accepting that both of these things have a significant value to them. And this site in particular was established by a scientist who saw value in Christianity, and appeals most to other scientists, like myself, who likewise have embraced Christianity. The so called “Xtians” who cannot see any value in anything their own way of archaic thinking can go to the blazes damning each other to hell to their hearts content. I don’t see any reason for us to waste our time with them.

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People have different apologetic approaches. I am not arguing against seeking answers or saying knowledge is useless. I think it is beneficial when we are talking about the life of the mind of a believer. But I do question the idea that the best Christian apologetic is the ability to decimate atheist arguments. I think the best Christian apologetic is a Christ-like life of love and service. The hope of the gospel is transformed hearts and lives, it’s not intellectual enlightenment. I doubt that when Peter exhorted us to give and answer for the hope we profess he had in mind memorizing natural theology arguments.

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Because you have to use some kind of hermeneutics. Reconciling science and Christianity is a good goal. The issue is that EC could theoretically have 100% of the evidence in its favor, but because of a certain reading of Scripture a YEC would remain unconvinced as the Bible is a higher authority. Some are beyond hope, but I wouldn’t have gotten here if my mind wasn’t open. I think Biologos exists for both sides: atheists to see the “rational” side of Christianity and for fundamentalist Christians to see that not all scientists are heathens. Understanding how the Bible interacts with these ideas isn’t just to “convert” people into EC but to strengthen the understanding of those already here.

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The only middle ground is loving your enemies.

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As a person who would describe himself as a “liberal evangelical” I will go off the things @Christy put down and give my spin on them.

For me and from my Methodist understanding, true Christian religion is the religion of the heart, and if that religion is of the heart i.e. having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, then the issues of authority are based in the Bible but also in the ancient church creeds. Anything outside of those issues that pertain to faith and salvation are minor secondary topics. An example from the United Methodist Confession of Faith in what I have tried to say,

Article IV - The Holy Bible

We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.

While that does relate to issues of hermeneutics, in terms of central doctrines such as the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, all issues that are not secondary are to be kept as central cores of the faith.

The credibility of the faith is a mix of good apologetics and the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people.

From what I understand, we seek to re-discover the original meaning behind the text while also not passing out that the message points to Jesus Christ in one way or another.

I agree with what @Christy says on this issue.

Too a degree yes and no. While some things in the OT might be symbolic and events in the NT are historical, they all point to God working in our world and brining out salvation in the one person Jesus Christ.

This turns back to my first statement, if the religion is the religion of the heart, then that will agree with the essential doctrines of the Christian faith.

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I agree with the point you are making to the extent that it is the choice I would have made if I lived at the time of the Reformation. During the first 6 years in a Catholic parochial school I was encouraged to think that it was an 'either one or the other ’ choice: choose Catholisism OR Protestantism.

During my high school years I started looking into Catholic doctrine that was a step above 1st grade level. Put in the simplest terms: “What was St. Peter, guarding the gates of Heaven, going to ask of me?” The 20th century answer surprised me. It was NOT how closely I followed the doctrines put out by the Vatican. It was how well I followed my personal Conscience, and the effort I had exerted to shape that Conscience to conform to God’s will. If a choice I had made in life was NOT the best in the eyes of God, then claiming that nevertheless it conformed to Vatican doctrine would NOT be an excuse that would save me.

The first test of this ‘liberalized’ doctrine came early in our marriage. During courtship we had decided that six kids would be about right, and that ‘Vatican Roulette’ ought to suffice for spacing them. Our obstetrician (a good Catholic) allowed my wife to endure 3 days of labor before performing a very dangerous C-section that saved our daughter’s life. He knew we had wanted 6 kids, but if we still wanted as many kids as Georganna’s health would allow, then he advised NOT to try spacing them by either Vatican Roulette or total abstinence. Thus our sincere desire for as large a family as possible overrode the Vatican-ordained methods of achieving that end.

As it turns out, we have three precious children (all by C-section) and our love for them makes up in quality whatever it might have in greater quantity. (My youngest daughter, a great grandmother, visited me for Father’s Day, and flew home today to her job as respiratory therapist at Kadlec hospital in Washington.)
Keep safe,
Al Leo

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Is that the defining characteristic of Protestants? They walk out of fellowship at the first disagreement? I guess that would explain why there are so many Protestant denominations wouldn’t it?

Well… I am a Protestant, but I do not walk out of fellowship at the first disagreement, and I don’t think most would either. But perhaps Catholics are a bit more tolerant (at least of their own diversity of thought if not always so tolerant of other churches). Heck I have seen some publications by Catholics which are pretty far out there.

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I think it’s worth coming up with some understanding of what we mean by “fundamentalism” and “liberalism.” Here are my thoughts on the matter.

Fundamentalism means rejecting well established facts, referring to them as “worldview” or “opinion,” or making demonstrably false claims or assertions, in order to maintain a particular doctrine. Young earth creationism is, of course, the canonical example.

Liberalism means changing or rejecting doctrines and practices for purely subjective reasons — cultural, political, social, and so on.

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