Why do moral progressivism and theological liberalism go hand in hand? The quick answer is that both impulses are rooted in an attempt to escape or undermine Scripture. The long answer is more complicated—but really interesting.
Theological liberalism emerged and gained momentum in the 19th century. Theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher in Germany began to call for a reformulation of Christian doctrine that would replace orthodox Christianity with a more modern version of the faith. Schleiermacher wanted to shift the main theological emphasis from the objective truth of God’s Word to a subjective Christian experience. The authority of the Bible was undermined.
But, interestingly enough, those early liberal theologians did not seek to reject a morality based in the Bible and the Christian tradition. To the contrary, they sought to “rescue” Christian morality from Christian doctrine. Save the morality, ditch the doctrine.
These same currents came to the United States and exploded on the church scene in the early 20th century. Liberals such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of New York’s famous Riverside Church, denied doctrines like the virgin birth, but they would never have argued for normalizing adultery, not to mention homosexuality. They argued that to maintain Christian morality, the church had to discard “outdated” doctrines clearly taught in Scripture.
One of the great conservative theologians of the era, J. Gresham Machen, argued that the liberals had not “updated” Christianity, they had repudiated Christianity and invented an entirely new religion. In Machen’s words, their new religion was “not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so different from Christianity as to belong in a different category.”
Machen was right. The liberals had just followed the secular intellectual currents and replaced Christianity with a new religion, which they claimed to be modernized or liberalized. Secular intellectuals set the pace, and the liberal theologians followed.
But, remember, they wanted to maintain Christian morality after denying Christian doctrine. Predictably, that did not last long.
By the 1960s, a sexual revolution was in full swing, and leading figures in the liberal world were denying any objective morality based in the Bible. They were building an intellectual foundation for the liberal churches and denominations to abandon Biblical morality (especially on matters of sexual behavior) and redefine Christianity to match the revolutionary spirit of the age.
One by one, major churches and denominations joined the sexual revolution and reformulated their teachings on divorce, birth control, premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality. These churches had destroyed any objective foundation for believing there are any consensual sexual behaviors that are inherently wrong. They did not resist the sexual revolution, they joined it.
Don’t miss what had really happened. Once you accept a “progressive” understanding of Christian doctrine, you will eventually have a progressive understanding of Christian morality. It was beyond foolish for the early theological liberals to believe that they could undercut Christian doctrine, deny the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and still maintain Christian morality. Somehow, they had convinced themselves that they could torpedo their own ship and keep sailing.
The central point is that you cannot maintain Biblical morality if you have subverted Biblical authority. The early Protestant liberals believed that the larger secular society would hold fast to traditional sexual morality. It was a foolish mistake. The secular world just added momentum to the sexual revolutions. The new sexual morality celebrated (or justified) sex before marriage, adultery, pornography and other forms of heterosexual misbehavior.
When the gay rights revolution emerged, every major Christian denomination believed and taught that same-sex relationships and behaviors were wrong, sinful and to be condemned. But by the end of the 20th century, the movement to normalize same-sex relationships had expanded to include everything within the category of LGBTQ+. And don’t miss the plus sign. There will be more to come.
When you abandon Biblical doctrine, you set the stage to deny Biblical morality. At the same time, the larger society demands acceptance of its new “progressive” morality, issue by issue.
That brings us to those who describe themselves as today’s “progressive Christians.” The best way to understand this movement is to see it as the latest form of theological liberalism. It comes with the same arguments, like the assertion that Christianity needs to be updated and must get over a bad reputation for being “negative” on matters of sexual morality. More recently, this movement has been arguing for accepting at least some of the claims made by transgender activists. The movement will not stop there.
The waves of “progressive” movements demanding a reformulation of doctrine and morality in the name of the modern age come with predictable frequency now. The secular society grows only more demanding, and those who try to “update” Christianity have to keep moving the moral mileposts. I am now old enough to have seen wave after wave of “progressive” energy wash up on the evangelical shore.
The society around us will demand more and more compromise, and the moral revolutionaries will see the Christian church, bound to Scripture and committed to the Gospel, as the great obstacle to their version of moral progress. And, once you untether yourself or your church from the Word of God, you had better expect the next wave of “progressive” energy to wash you and your church far out to sea. ©2022 R. Albert Mohler Jr.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College, in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of such books as “The Gathering Storm” and “He Is Not Silent.” He is the host of “The Briefing” and writes regularly at AlbertMohler.com.