I’ve been reading the noted historian, George Marsden, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He tells of the great split that occurred among Protestants in the early 20th c. between “liberals” and “evangelicals.”
Liberals were concerned to save the intellectual respectability of Protestantism.
In response to cultural forces as represented by Darwin, Freud, and scholarly critique of the Bible, liberals reinterpreted Christianity to become a religion of historical processes. That is, God reveals himself through the unfolding of history and culture. The Bible is not a book of prescriptive dogma but a “record of the religious experience of an ancient people.” Human nature is basically good and is being reshaped by God, generation by generation, in and through culture.
Evangelicals, by contrast, held to the historic, credal beliefs of the faith — including a more pessimistic view of human nature and culture. Some took a strong stand against the cultural accommodation of liberal theology. These more combative evangelicals were called “fundamentalists” because they held passionately to the fundamentals of the historic faith and fought vigorously for them.
Knowing the history of this rift between liberals and evangelicals, dating back to the early 20th c., brings perspective to today’s denominational splits and, in the case of campus ministries, to the students who enter university from both sides.
Students from liberal Christian traditions tend to be critics of Christianity. They believe their job is to deconstruct and update the faith according to contemporary standards.
Students from evangelical backgrounds, by contrast, seek to preserve the ancient faith in line with a traditional reading of the Bible.
For liberal students, culture stands as an authority over the Bible and tradition. Underlying assumption: The Bible must be read selectively to filter out the parts that are exclusive, oppressive, and/or intellectually antiquated by modern standards of learning.
For evangelical students, the Bible stands as an authority over culture. Underlying assumption: The Bible, read properly in its own context, liberates the soul and brings shalom to the world.*
Myself, I love students in both camps. I wish to help liberal students fall in love with Jesus as presented by the early church. Reimagining Jesus along modern cultural lines and picking and choosing which parts of his life and teaching to embrace seems to me misguided.
I wish to help evangelical students care more about social justice and culture as given in Scripture and to embody a “whole-life discipleship” rather than the fragmented spirituality and shaky intellectual foundations that are so common in this group.
There you have it, folks. Now I’m probably in trouble with everyone.
Part 2 of this series: how the deep, differing assumptions between liberals and evangelicals shape (and often derail) the dialogue between them.
*Shalom is a deep and abiding peace, goodness, and flourishing.
note: the generalizations made above regarding liberals and evangelicals have many exceptions and are often not so clear in real life. Nevertheless, having worked with hundreds of students in both camps, I believe these “general” characterizations to be accurate.
Recommended reading George Marsden’s Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism