Dr. Mike Heiser Explains What a Theological Liberal Is

Theological liberal

Today, the term “liberal” has a very different meaning than it once did. In a theological discussion, you should be cautious about bestowing this label on fellow believers.

It may not mean what you think it means.

On Faithlife Today, Dr. Mike Heiser explains what this term means in the context of theology.

Heiser says that in theology, “Liberal refers to the notion, really, of the denial of the supernatural. In some cases the denial of the existence of God. In other cases, if we do believe there’s a god, a liberal would sort of downplay, or deny, totally, that God can do anything, such as miracles. Liberal is a word that is really loaded even still today, and we need to be careful how we use it.”

To the general public, this word obviously means something else entirely, and it is most often used in terms of politics, not theology. However, when the conversation includes people you don’t know, or don’t know well, your use of the word may be interpreted differently than you intend. In that instance, the burden should not be on the listener to not be offended or hurt, but rather, on the speaker to choose appropriate terms out of love.

In response to a comment on the episode, Heiser explained the roots of political liberalism as well.

“Political liberalism has historically been the antithesis of conservatism. The latter seeks to preserve the status quo; the former wants things to ‘progress’ and change. Political liberalism has historically been the antithesis of conservatism. The latter seeks to preserve the status quo; the former wants things to “progress” and change. So, for instance, in the late 19th century the status quo meant the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism and all that went with it (children in industrialized labor, no protections for workers, low wages, tenant towns that were infamous for squalor—but also amazing inventions, mass production, monopolies, and mega wealth that ultimately filtered down to the masses via philanthropy). This era marked the rise of the progressive movement—which is the genesis of today’s liberalism . . .”

Being a political liberal is not the same as being a theological liberal. To the Christian, the difference between political liberalism and conservatism is largely grounded in the relationship between faith and culture.

“Today political liberals may believe in God, but they are opposed to the country remaining moored to its old “outdated” culture (things like an originalist view of the Constitution and Judeo-Christian moral values). They want change—they want “progress”—they want their faith to adapt to the culture (as opposed to the faith challenging or rebuking the culture—a conservative position).”

The point Heiser seeks to make here is to illustrate that we need to be careful with the labels we impose on others.

“Someone who wonders about (or takes a position contrary to the evangelical majority) on things like the authorship of the Pentateuch, Daniel, or Isaiah (just examples) are not theological liberals because of those views. They aren’t denying the supernatural, or the incarnation, or the resurrection, or inspiration. It’s more about real literary phenomena in the biblical text that produce problems for traditional authorship positions. They might agree with a liberal position on authorship of a biblical book, but they wouldn’t agree when it comes to the doctrines of God and Christology.”

The sentiment applies to far more than this one particular label: you should always be cautious to pass judgment on another person (Matthew 7:1–2). You should also always be cautious about how others may interpret the words you choose to use as a Christian.

For more insights from scholars like Dr. Heiser, watch more episodes of Faithlife Today!


  1. Joseph Kim says

    Speaking as a theologian, I find Dr. Heiser’s definition of theological liberalism rather unhelpful and somewhat misleading. While some who may be termed theologically liberal would deny the supernatural and/or the existence of God, that is not really the core of theological liberalism. The key element of theological liberalism is the turn away from the idea that God is transcendent, separate from his creation, to the idea that God is immanent in his creation–identified with it in a fundamental way. Theological liberals therefore seek to find God by looking within, investigating religion on the basis of human reason and experience. The Bible is seen by theological liberals as a record of human experience of the divine, and therefore simply a human book, and not an authoritative word from God. Evangelicals would do well to learn from the course of theological liberalism over the last two centuries that the turn to experience and away from the authority of the Word of God is a path that exalts the human and ultimately leads one away from the historic Christian faith. J. Gresham Machen’s _Christianity and Liberalism_ is still a classic source for understanding this issue.

    Also, in fairness to our brothers and sisters in Christ who would identify themselves as politically liberal, I think it is both false and uncharitable to characterize political liberalism as “opposed to… Judeo-Christian values.” While some political liberals may be so disposed, there are plenty of politically conservative people who are also opposed to Judeo-Christian values. Furthermore, I would venture to say that a number of politically liberal Christians see themselves very much in the mode of rebuking the culture from a position of faith, particularly in issues of race and social justice.

    • Dr. Gustavo P Gianello says

      This reflects my own view of Dr. Heiser who has done most of his work in the area of ancient linguistics and biblical theology. Frankly I find the rationale for some of his conclusions troubling. The apparently unfettered acceptance of higher criticism is to me problematic of the whole issue of authorship etc. in one of his interviews with a podder he dismissed importance of canonicity. I have heard him speak of “inspiration”but never of the infallibility of Scripture. i find the dismissive attitude to canonical issues and the usage of inspiration rather than infallibility and inerrancy to be highly reminiscent of the theology of the neo-orthodox who never failed to affirm inspiration while also insisting on error in Scripture and encounter as the paradigm that explains human/divine interaction. Much of Dr. Heiser’s work is highly insightful, but to affirm that he is a conservative theologically while being ambiguous about the status of inscripturated and canonical revelation–doe the Bible contain historical, geographical or factual errors–creates a situation where anyone who wishes to profit from his work should do so warily. The issue is not whether the text contains Ugaritic, Babylonian and Greek loan word and concepts. That is perfectly acceptable AS NO ONE BELIEVES THAT ANCIENT ISRAEL HAD A HEAVENLY LANGUAGE and culture. The issue is how much of higher critical methodologies and results do you accept in the area of canonicity without harming the integrity of what the Bible claims for itself? Heiser says Moses did not write the Pentateuch. What then do we do with Jesus reiterating constantly reference to the Pentateuch by saying “Moses said” or you “read in Moses” or “Moses testifies of me”, etc. If redactors according to the famous JEPD hypothesis “wrote” Genesisand Moses had no hand in it was Jesus wrong? Then Jesus was mistaken. So what elase was he mistaken about? This looks increasingly like the path that Barth, and Brunner took–the Bible contains the Word of God–and may finally lead to the infamous search for the historical Jesus behind the Christ of the church. I appreciate his passion, intelligence, diligence and intellectual integrity but when a man says that canonical issues dont matter, and that we can get just as much truth from the book of Enoch as Jude, and that the canons of Protestantism or Romanism are equally acceptable, then I begin to wonder if the pursuit of honesty is not simply a path to divesting Christianity of all conservative scholarship and making us vulnerable to the vagaries of naturalistic conclusions. To say that he is not philosophical materialist is no help to us, if he cuts out the ground from under others so they have a reason to NOT become materialists. Today it is pseudo-trito-Isaiah and will it be tomorrow the historicity of the resurrection?

  2. Bob Buice says

    Labels are always tricky. I consider myself a progressive Christian. Many of the old ideas cease to exist if we read the scriptures carefully & study the surrounding history & culture. Moreover, it is essential to read each specific story (birth of Jesus, crucifixion & resurrection, etc.) in each gospel in which they are found, not just in one. It is surprising what we learn.

  3. says

    Labels are always tricky. I consider myself a progressive Christian. Many of the old ideas cease to exist if we read the scriptures carefully & study the surrounding history & culture. Moreover, it is essential to read each specific story (birth of Jesus, crucifixion & resurrection, etc.) in each gospel in which they are found, not just in one. It is surprising what we learn.

  4. says

    I do not boast of being a scholar. I do believe the Bible. Prophecy is not history deceptively written. To deny creation is to deny inspiration. To deny the verbal accuracy of some Scripture portions is to open the door to deny other portions, giving us all the "right" to pick and choose what we want to believe.

  5. says

    God did not learn as time went by as things “supposedly progressed”. God does not see an ancient world and a modern world. These are all constructs of man in the futility of their own minds.

  6. says

    Bob Buice "I accept the theological messages without trying to make them real." "The culture drives my understanding of the Bible, rather than the Bible driving my understanding of culture."

  7. says

    Never though about that before… The label "liberal" without an explicit statement, on which a person has a liberal (or conservative) view, whould have zero relevance. Political liberalism – health insurance for all, integrate and welcome refugees and immigrants, TTIP – yes, I'm liberal. Having gay couples adopt children, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research… no way, I'm conservative.

  8. says

    The use of the word “progressive” to explain “liberal” is as misused in this video as the word liberal. To say that liberals are the only ones that want progressive change is to attribute implied qualities of thinking and character is very misleading. It would lead one to think that they are the ones wanting to lead us out of the condition that we find the world in today, and that is undeniably not true. I also want change, but change in what—certainly not in the acceptance of certain sins that God has already judged.

  9. says

    While I am not a “fundamentalist” in the strict sense, I am a God-fearing, Jesus-following believer. That being said, I am also a left-leaning moderate in the political sense.

    That too many self-described Christians can’t seem to separate the political from the theological is one reason I believe the Church has shrunk in influence. Forgetting that above all else Jesus taught love without judgement is the modern version of selective belief. I am a Jesus-following American… Jesus and His teachings should take precedence over any and all political “theology”.

  10. Bob Buice says

    I do not think the scriptures were ever meant to be taken as literal. The “Word of God” thing came up in the 19th century – from evangelists such as John Nelson Darby. Consider the book of James which says: [ James 2: 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?…..17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead….24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what he does and not by faith alone. ] This totally contradicts the atonement theology preached by the Apostle St. Paul. The reader has to understand James the Just, brother of Jesus, Bishop of Jerusalem – His beliefs, his attitudes, his devotion to Judaism, in order to interpret such passages. I don’t mean to preach but I suggest that the reader listen to the Holy Spirit. If one truly seeks the word of God, he/she will find to.

  11. says

    I concur we have to be careful using Labels; but we also need to remember that in some cases Jesus and the biblical authors did use them. In our pluralistic society today we would not use the term Nicolaitain (sp?) in a negative way BUT Jesus did. As much as it may chaff (sp) or progressive sentiments today the fact remains scripture (God's infallible Holy writ) does label certain groups and people so it is logical the the Children of the Spirit would use or group people using those labels. Does Higher Criticism equal or presume a liberal theology/worldview which denies or createds doubt about the supernatural nature and existence of God? I would add the corrollary (sp) whether Liberalism does not also place doubt that we can trust God to speak to us about life and practice AND seeks to put scripture on par with experience, logic, "that good ole feeling", the "voice" of the spirit, etc. Last did Jesus speak of the LXX with a view that presumed Moses authored it? Did the Biblical auithors also speak of LXX and other old testament quotes as being said by the Holy Spirit?

  12. says

    I believe that the teaching of our Master and Savior Jesus Christ is very clear in warning us not to pass judgement on others. As christians leaders and scholars, we must be compassionate, and wise when interpreting others behavioral attitudes and speaches.
    Although the constructive criticism could lead to spiritual and intellectual growth, it must be done in a lovely manner.
    The apostle Paul is right when stating in Romans 15:1-2: " We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification."

  13. Dan Brandt says

    I believe the usefulness of this information, is in following Paul’s example when he says he must be all things to all people. 1 Cor. 9:19- 23. To go into a discussion of the politics, is the type of warning we are given when we are told not to conform to the patterns of this world. Ro 12:2. The reason would be obvious in that as we get more drawn into the political discussion, we then get drawn away from God and his word. Jesus never identified himself as a Roman Christian or Roman Jew. He indeed paid no attention to the secular government of the time. Mark 12:14 That would seem to be an example that a lot Christians seem to forget as they get more and more tangled in the politics and the government of the current times. You can not serve two masters. And the second choice is not always money.

  14. says

    Well now culture being as it may. Your modern majority is a complete surprise to millions who have not been exposed to your interpertations of life and the Gospels. Your definitons seem to lack any sense of humanity and history as it is/was. Leaving a very narrow stream for anything to flow within. Yes this is raw and from a non scholar.

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