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“Today political liberals may believe in God, but they are opposed to the country remaining moored to its old “outdated” culture (things like an originalist view of the Constitution and Judeo-Christian moral values).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!