Thursday, March 31, 2011

Albert Mohler and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology

Albert Mohler has a couple of interesting post about Rob Bell's newest book. The first is his review of Bell's Love Wins" and then his response to Brian Mclaren's defense of Bell from the charges in the Mohler's first review. His review is here and his response to Brian Mclearen's defense is here.

What interested me in both Albert post was the equating the Emergent Church Movement with the older Social Gospel Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. He makes the claim that they both make the mistake of emphasizing God's Love over God's justice. While I cannot speak to Bell's book as I yet to read it, I can point many of historical mistakes on the part Mohler's posts. First, it is interesting that he called the Social Gospel Movement and then grouping Bell as a part of it. It is nice rhetorical move, by equating it to liberal to both Bell and the Social Gospel Movement, he ties both in with a word, "liberal" that most of his readers would find questionable. All three grouped together and the battle is all but over for his readers. Bell=Liberal=Social Gospel=Protestant Liberal Theology=Mainline Denominations=Decline.

There is some good bit of rhetorical techniques within the whole piece like:

"Like Fosdick, Rob Bell cares deeply for people."

Nice. He pairs the Forsdick, a liberal pastor of the 20's,  by something that seemly innocent as caring for people.. Just rewrite it to say, "Like Jesus, Rob Bell cares deeply for people." to see the effect. In both cases, the statements are true, but the effect is quite different.

But now lets get to the historical mistakes. First, he starts by grouping Friedrich Schleiermacher with the Social Gospel Movement. Friedrich Schleiermacher died in 1834, almost 70 years before the movement. While he undoubtedly had an influence on the movement, he was not part of it. Second, he makes the claim that Social Gospel Movement divorced justice from love and by over doing love they make a theological mistake. Yet, if you read them in any great length, you find a large amount of references to justice. In fact, from the temperance movement to the reforms they championed, they cr4ied loudly for justice.  They  did make a theological mistake that proved to be their undoing, but it was not pushing God's love over God's Justice.

The most damning critique of the Social Gospel Movement came for Reinhold Nierbuhr. The essay, "
Let Liberal Churches Stop Fooling Themselves." is a good summery of his points. Because they rejected Christian anthropology and the original sin doctrine, saying the human reason could eradicate evil by discovering truth; they enshrined the American middle class optimistic values of progress and individualism. The individual could work to create the Kingdom of God, they believed. They had no power to stand up to the growing forces of totalitarianism. Theirs was the a naive understanding of the heart of humanity. It was not that they ignored justice, but they had to high a regard of the individual and the individual's power. We still need Jesus.

The last point I find ironic. Mohler finishes by acknowledging Mclaren's firm landed punch:

To more and more of us these days, conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist theology looks and sounds more and more like secular conservatism - economic and political - simply dressed up in religious language. If that’s the case, even if Dr. Mohler is right in every detail of his critique, he’d still be wise to apply the flip side of his warning to his own beloved community.

Mohler's response:

And, in return, I must say that McLaren lands a firm punch with this statement. He is profoundly right in seeing much of presumably conservative Christianity as a sell-out to the idols of the day and a new form of Culture Christianity. He is right to challenge us to call this what it is and to root it out.

He then lets the Mclaren's point dangle on a thread, never to bring up how neo-conservatism has adversly effect Christian theology.

The irony is that in many cases this Neo-Conservative theology is the spiritual heir of the Social Gospel Movement. While the Social Gospel Movement attempts to encrust Christianity with American Middle Class individualism and American Middle Class optimism, the current Neo-Conservative theology attempts to encrusts Christianity with American Middle Class individualism and American Middle Class pessimism. Mohler is correct in saying that:

We are talking about two rival understandings of the Gospel here — two very different understandings of theology, Gospel, Bible, doctrine, and the totality of the Christian faith. Both sides in this controversy understand what is at stake.

What he does not take into account in his manichean choice is perhaps, just perhaps neither side has a handle on Gospel of Jesus. Maybe, just maybe Jesus was a first century Jew and not a middle class American. After all, the gospel is not about our individualism, but about Jesus.