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Why I Am Not A (Theological) Liberal

July 2, 2007

One of our recent members said that he was disappointed he missed out on the lively early days of this blog.  He said I should post something controversial to get things going again.  Perhaps this will suffice: 

If you’ve noticed the “What I’m Reading Now” widget in the sidebar, you may be worried that I’m about to lurch to the left.  Anne Lamott, for example, is a liberal.  I mean big time.  Think of the most liberal person you know.  She’s just to the left of that.  But as I read her story, I don’t doubt that she is a born again Christian.  Here it is in her own words:

“My friends like to tell each other that I am not really a born-again Christian.  They think of me more along the lines of that old Jonathan Miller routine, where he said ‘I’m not really a Jew–I’m Jew-ish.’  They think I am Christian-ish.  But I’m not.  I’m just a bad Christian.  And certainly, like the apostle Peter, I am capable of denying it, of presenting myself as a sort of leftish liberation-theology enthusaist and maybe sort of a vaguely Jesusy bon vivant.  But it’s not true….I am a believer, a convert.  I’m probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish on the back of my car, although I first want to see if the application or stick-um in any way interferes with my lease agreement.  And believe me, all this boggles even my mind.  But it’s true.  I could go to a gathering of foot-wash Baptists and, except for my dreadlocks, fit right in.  I would wash their feet; I would let them wash mine.”

So I’m being forced to contemplate in the concrete what I’ve always believed in the abstract–that there are born-again liberals.  This opens a door in my mind to a dark and scary place.  Could I actually be a liberal?  You mean, I am free to consider whether or not I really believe in inerrancy without calling into question my regeneration?  Yikes.  I’ve never asked myself that before.  Do I really believe in inerrancy, or am I just afraid not to?

First of all, I believe in the Bible because God has unmistakably spoken to me through it.  On the night that I believe was the night of my regeneration, God spoke to me through the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:33.  “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.”  So from that night on I’ve believed that Jesus spoke the very words of God.

But for a while I said, “I believe all the words of Jesus, but I’m not so sure about this Paul fella.”  But then I actually read Paul, and I found out that God speaks through him too.  So then I said, “I believe in the New Testament, but I’m not sure about all this weird stuff in the Old Testament.  But then I actually read the Old Testament and I found out that yep, God speaks through the Old Testament too.  So I finally gave up doubting and submitted myself to the whole thing.

Now is it possible that God speaks through a neo-orthodox Bible that contains the words of God but is not at every point the very words of God?  I suppose I must admit the theoretical possibility.   But if this were the case, how would I know which words are to be trusted?  I would have to trust in my own mind to discern the words of God from the errors of men.  And the Bible says (yes, I see the circularity of my reasoning and I revel in it, so neener neener) that the heart is deceitful above all things and that he who trusts in his own heart is a fool.  So, although I believe that the Bible is inerrant, I would actually rather trust even a flawed Bible than a depraved mind. 

Those who hold to neo-orthodox views of inspiration not only trust in the Word too little, but they also trust in themselves too much.   I am totally uninterested of a religion of my own assembly, even if I assemble it from some of the words in the Bible.   So I will continue to take my Bible the way I take my scotch–straight up.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. brothergilbs permalink
    July 3, 2007 10:36 am

    While an undergraduate student at a Christian college in CA, my professors rarely encouraged me to read and engage in so called liberal works. I think within some “conservative” Christian circles, many people think that the exposure to “liberal” theology will only sway Christians from believing in the Bible. Although I have not read Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies,” nor am I familiar with her as a liberal theologian, the paragraph Mike provides is interesting on several levels. Lamott’s confession that she is just a “bad Christian” establishes the idea that there are both “good” and “bad” Christians. Her friends, and those who put an aluminum Jesus fish on their cars, are “good” while she (being a liberal) is “bad.” If indeed Lamott is truly a “born again” “convert” as she suggests, then why the liberalism? What is so appealing about believing in an incomplete, erroneous, Bible?

  2. Ebenezer permalink
    July 3, 2007 11:12 am

    How can one be a “bad Christian”? I mean, all of us are “bad” in that we have all sinned and can’t live up to God’s standard of holiness. But if someone admits they are a “bad Christian,” isn’t that living in perpetual sin, which a truly regenerate believer would feel conviction of and seek to change with the help of the Holy Spirit? Also, on a side note, I knew a pastor that admitted to having “bad theology” in certain areas. Although he was probably being facetious, I don’t see how this is possible as a Christian…to realize (or even have an inking) that you hold to theology that isn’t right. Especially a pastor/teacher/church leader, whom the Bible says are subject to stricter judgment (unless I’m misunderstanding James 3:1).

  3. July 3, 2007 12:03 pm

    This post occasioned an email dialogue with an unbelieving friend and he has given me permission to post it here for your consideration…

    He; …[you] simply choose inerrancy, against [your] better judgement, because the consequence of letting go of that belief is scary.

    Me: I’m not going against my better judgment when I believe in inerrancy. There’s no good argument against the inerrancy of the Bible that I’m ignoring, no compelling contradiction I’m refusing to consider. I’m just saying that I can’t deductively prove the doctrine of inerrancy. I’m admitting the theoretical possibility of a neo-orthodox Bible. But I find it to be a reasonable induction from the evidence of Scripture itself and the evidence of fruit in my own life to believe that the Bible is wholly trustworthy. And everything I have experienced of the trustworthiness of the Bible in the parts that I do understand leads me to trust the parts I still don’t understand. I can testify from my own experience to the truth of Josh 23:14 “not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.

    He: Being a literalist or believing in inerrancy still does not resolve all that much. Such people still greatly disagree. This is because reading, and especially understanding, anything requires interpretation. We interpret any information we read. This is even harder with a large compilation from many authors in several languages from the days of antiquity. If the bible had one author and was written in modern English, it might be easier. But people can’t even agree on what Tolkien is saying with different parts of his novels. :-)

    Me: Sure, there’s disagreement on interpretations of things like the mode of baptism, whether Genesis 1-11 says anything about the age of the earth, the order of the events of the end times, etc. But among inerrantists (so this leaves out Roman Catholics and liberals) there is remarkable consensus on the central themes of the gospel. Sure every now and then you get a total wack job, just like there’s probably someone out there who says that Frodo is really the villain of Tolkien’s novel and Aragorn was really a mole for the elves setting up their future takeover of Gondor. But this doesn’t lead you to despair of ever understanding Tolkien, it just leads you to conclude that these people are morons.

  4. July 3, 2007 12:39 pm

    Oh! I was thinking to myself, “I should read some Anne Lamott” and then I realized that I have read some a long time ago – Operating Instructions, about being a single mother to her son Sam. I LOVED it.

    Not having read “Traveling Mercies” which I will do asap, do you suppose when Lamott says she is a “bad christian” she really just means that she doesn’t fit the stereotype of being a “good christian”? That maybe she still considers herself to be a good follower of Jesus?

    I’m curious…what does she believe about the Bible? She obviously reads it – so in what ways does the Bible inform her life and her politics?

    Isaiah543, I used to sound a lot like your friend – to me the Bible was just a “large compilation from many authors”. I had to realize that it just has one Author, and he’s there in the gospels and he’s there in Genesis and in Revelation and he’s there in the whole arc of the story and he’s there in any particular verse, and he’s strong enough to not let any human author mess up what he’s trying to say. :)

  5. Egana permalink
    July 3, 2007 3:52 pm

    I am uncomfortable with the idea that “if you are TRULY a Christian, then you will or won’t …” and you can end that sentance just about any way you want, depending on what you think is right at the time. You will vote Republican, you won’t drink beer, you will believe the Bible is inerrant, you won’t hit your wife, you will tithe, you won’t dance, you will sing hymns, you won’t smoke, you will be perfect, you won’t make mistakes…

    I have held so many beliefs, and I am so thankful if I am TRULY a Christian, the Lord will finish the good work he has started in me, and bring me into complete, perfect, joyful submission to all of his statutes, laws, decrees, desires, commands, and promises. Until then, I put one foot in front of the other and trust him to correct any egregious step.

    Having said that, I think I would benefit from a more in-depth discussion of exactly what inerrancy is and is not..

    Isaiah543, would you oblige me?

  6. July 3, 2007 7:21 pm

    There are lots of good questions in this thread that I don’t have time now to answer from the public library in Lansing, IA. (check it out on Google Earth, it’s pretty cool. The river is over 3 miles wide here. I’ll wave at the satellite tonight and maybe you’ll see me).

    Let me just make this clarification. All I know about Anne Lamott is that she is a liberal, a fantastic writer, and, apparently, a born again Christian. I have only read 80 pages of her book “Traveling Mercies: Thoughts on Faith” She is not to be misconstrued as a theologian. She’s in the “literature” book pile, not the theology book pile. I like her the way I like John Updike, not the way I like John Owen. I don’t know what she believes about doctrine. But I’m guessing that I would probably deplore just about any theological thing she ventured to say. And yet she seems to be born again by the mercy of God, that’s the point of this post.

  7. July 4, 2007 11:56 am

    call yourself whatever you want as long as you preach the Gospel and say booze is ok.

  8. brothergilbs permalink
    July 4, 2007 1:19 pm

    In response to martian koolaid: How about I call myself a booze drinking neo-liberal Christian who preaches the “Gospel,” is that ok? If I truly am a neo-liberal, and I truly preach the Gospel according to Jesus, then just how neo-liberal can I possibly be? Names/terms have meaning and stand (in this case) for certain theological teachings and beliefs. If this is not the case, then terms such as “neo-liberal Christian” are meaningless…end of discussion. Now where’s the fun in that?

  9. July 5, 2007 3:16 am

    I get what you’re saying in your first comment. I often hear people say, “I know I’m wrong, but these are my beliefs.” And the logical response is that if you know your beliefs are wrong, then change them. Lamott is distinguishing herself from the mainstream views of what Christians are (what Egana described as non-smoking Republicans). This is the good and bad to her. Epistemological correctness is irrelevant these days. Everyone is so concerned about maintaining the status quo that they no longer seek the Truth, not even in universities. “Your truth is your truth, mine is mine.” But we need to talk about theological discussions in order to seek doctrinal accuracy. But liberals, because of their unitarianism/universalism, don’t care about doctrinal accuracy because that doesn’t fit in with their views on Truth. Religions and doctrines should not be considered as equally true, but all equally accountable to the truthh. But liberals don’t believe that, and that’s what makes them liberal.

    One more thought before I click the submit button. Liberals (theological and/or sociopolitical) won’t reject an Weltanschauung or culture because it’s different unless un-Liberal (objective truth, etc.)

  10. July 7, 2007 7:43 pm

    I just finished Traveling Mercies early this week myself, and I loved it :) Even though she throws around her liberal beliefs here and there (wait till you get to the part where she refers to God as “he or she”)… I am absolutely convinced that she is a Christian sister, and probably one I’d really like to hang around. Or write like. There is much truth in her words, and the grace that God draped over her is so evident throughout the book. I wish I’d read it earlier :)

  11. egana permalink
    July 10, 2007 2:14 pm

    still waiting for more infor on “inerrancy”…

    *crickets chirping*

  12. July 12, 2007 10:49 am

    I’m feeling too lazy to write my own summary of the inerrancy doctrine, so here’s a pretty good blogpost I found…

    for way more info, buy this book

  13. Egana permalink
    July 12, 2007 2:01 pm

    Hey, that was very helpful, thanks!

  14. Oddball permalink
    July 16, 2007 1:29 pm

    Does the Vatican really reject innerrancy of Scripture, or just its sufficiency?

  15. July 17, 2007 9:17 am

    I think you’re right, they only reject the sufficiency of Scripture. The consensus destroying effect is the same.

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