What's Tony Thinking

Grumpy Old Men


A couple weeks ago I mentioned that the Podcast “Crackers and Grape Juice” had recorded an episode with Will Willimon and me. It came out yesterday. Here’s the link if you’re interested. 

For those who don’t know anything of Will . . . he was for a longtime Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, then a Methodist Bishop. He’s written a ton of books, including one novel. He continues to write and publish. He’s been an influential figure in the world of mainline Protestantism for some time.

While there’s nothing particularly complex or academic about our discussion, it occurs to me that appending a short glossary, of sorts, might be helpful to some readers/ listeners.

“Theological liberalism.” Both Will and I were products of twentieth century theological liberalism but became critical of it over time — though he is, I would say, more polemical about it than I am. Both of us have identified with, and been identified with, theological “post-liberalism.”

To me theological liberalism (not the same as political liberalism) was the effort to adjust and accommodate Christian faith to the modern era with its emphasis on rationality and reason as the only legitimate ways of knowing, alongside a materialist world-view. Christianity became all morality, no mystery.

Theological liberals tend to treat most Christian doctrine as symbolic. The resurrection, for example, is a symbol of renewal, nothing more. Jesus was a great man and teacher, nothing more. Theological liberals have tended to orient themselves toward and defer to academic culture and to be embarrassed by the church (when I went to Union in the 70’s quite a few of the faculty had nothing to do with any actual church). They are often more able to speak of what they don’t believe than what they do. I just got to the point where I found this project not very interesting.

Closely related to the theological liberal project is another word that comes up in our conversation, “Pelagianism.” Named after a 4th century British theologian, this is the idea that we save ourselves by our good works and purity of our lives. The problem with this is that whatever you do, it’s never enough. It also tends to end up dividing the world into the good and righteous on one side, and the bad and unrighteous on the other. Pelagianism is in contrast to the idea of salvation by grace, that salvation (in this life and life beyond death) is a gift of God to sinful human beings.

Theological liberalism and Pelagianism dovetail in the way they create to-do lists for their adherents and turn Christianity into moralism. They tend to boil Christianity down to our project of being busy and good, doing good in the world, being care-givers/ care-takers and being on the right side, or “cutting edge” of various causes. They make Christianity less about what God has done and is doing and more about what we have done or are doing. As with any heresy, there’s truth in Pelagianism, i.e. human ethical responsibility. But like other heresies, a partial truth is elevated to the status of complete and ultimate truth (the technical meaning of “heresy.”)

A final term that comes up in the conversation, that relates to all of the above, is “divine agency.” This basically means that God is active, the subject of the verbs, as in “God speaks,” “God acts,” “God intrudes,” “God amazes,” “God heals,” and so on. God is active, has agency. Modernity has been all about human agency.

Theological liberalism tends toward deism, a view that God created the world, set it in motion but isn’t really any longer active in people’s lives or in the world. That brings you back to Pelagianism — it’s all about what we do or fail to do.

The podcast runs a little over an hour. I’m a bit of junior partner in the conversation, Will being more loquacious by nature than I.


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