Why the Church needs Liberal Theology

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 50:3 - Jul 2009

The first article in this issue was initially presented by Mark Chapman at an inaugural meeting in Oxford of a new group Affirming Liberalism. As Dr. Chapman makes clear their goal is not to form a distinct liberal party within the church, but to affirm the value of a liberal approach within all traditions. Hence one can be a Liberal Catholic or a Liberal Evangelical as well as being the kind of liberal who eschews all such labels.

Dr. Chapman shows full awareness of why liberal theology is criticised both from within and from outside the churches, but he also shows why the church needs its liberals and why without them it would fossilise. He illustrates his argument by exploring the contribution of the 'Broad Churchmen' to the life of the church in the 19th century and how they helped to bring a realignment of faith and reason during the 'Victorian Crisis of faith'. In particular he shows how the church's commitment to pursue the truth is only possible in an environment which tolerates a wide spectrum of interpretation in believing.

The Religious Value of Darwinism

At a time when Darwin is being presented as an opponent of faith it is fascinating to be reminded to read of how a Darwinian understanding of reality motivating the religious thinking of Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sir Alister Hardy: - Two 20th century figures who have done much to strengthen an awareness of the spiritual aspects of human existence.

Marian Rankin's article was originally presented at a joint conference of the Alister Hardy and Teilhard de Chardin Societies. She shows how both men were professionally committed to evolution through their work: Teilhard as a palaeontologist and Hardy as a Professor of Zoology. Yet both were inspired precisely through their understanding of evolution to uphold the spiritual quest and to discern the presence of God within the process.

Darwin and a Christian understanding of the Bible

Jonathan Clatworthy explores the contemporary Darwinian debate. He highlights how novel this controversy about the Bible is and also how relatively quick the church was to fully accept evolution. He rightly points out that for most of the Christian centuries it was taken for granted that the Biblical creation story in Genesis 1 was not intended to be understood as if it were a scientific account of creation.

Jonathan is certainly right on this. One of the earliest theological reflections we have on Genesis chapter 1 come from Origen of Alexandria in the third century. Origen pointed out that it is impossible to take the account as literally true because its ordering of creation doesn't make sense:

What intelligent person would fancy, for instance that a first, second, and third day, evening and morning, took place without sun, moon and stars; and the first, as we call it without even a heaven? Who would be so childish as to suppose that God after the manner of a human gardener planted a garden in Eden towards the east, and made therein a tree, visible and sensible, so one could get the power of living [for ever] by the bodily eating of its fruit with the teeth; or again could partake of good and evil by feeding on what came from that other tree. I fancy that no one will question that these statements are figurative, declaring mysterious truths by the means of a seeming history, not one that took place in bodily form.[1]

Origen was by no means alone in such an approach. Even St. Augustine, though claiming to defend the Literal Meaning of Genesis, acknowledged that one could not and should not seek to defend such details as the creation of light before the creation of the sun. More generally St. Augustine insisted that we should form our judgments on questions in the natural sciences by 'reasoning and observation' rather than seeking to derive such information from the scriptures:

It frequently happens that there is a question about the earth, or the sky or other elements of this world, the movement, revolutions, or even the size and distance of the stars, the regular eclipses of the sun and the moon, the course of the years in seasons; the nature of animals, vegetables, and minerals, and other things of the same kind, respecting which one who is not a Christian has knowledge derived from most certain reasoning and observation. And it is highly deplorable and mischievous and a thing to be specially guarded against that he should hear a Christian speaking of such matters in accordance with Christian writings and uttering such nonsense that, knowing him to be as wide of the mark as the, to use the common expression, East is from West, the unbeliever can scarcely restrain himself from laughing.[2]

St. Augustine's own understanding of God's creation was that it was a gradual event. Like St. Gregory of Nyssa he believed that 'God in the beginning created only germs or causes of the forms of life which were afterwards to be developed in gradual course'.[3] As Bishop Gore pointed out more than a hundred years ago the theory of evolution would have been readily compatible with 4th century Christianity! What is quite baffling is that a form of Biblical interpretation which Augustine argued should be explicitly guarded against, has in some quarters become normative. As Augustine foresaw it has had the consequence that 'unbelievers can scarcely restrain themselves from laughing' at such misuse of the Bible.

Jonathan Clatworthy's article gives a well balanced perspective on the background to the current controversies. He suggests that the acclaim given to Frederick Temple's Bampton lectures on Religion and Science of 1884, which took evolution for granted, coupled with Temple's subsequent appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury shows how quickly mainstream Christian opinion came to accept the value of evolutionary theory. It might also be noted that two years earlier the church had given Darwin a Westminster Abbey funeral and that this had been very warmly welcomed by church newspapers. It was surprising that so eminent a scientist had not been awarded a peerage or at least a knighthood during his lifetime, but at least the church ensured that in death Mr. Darwin was treated with appropriate honour.

Reconciliation and Renewal in Anglican Life

The fourth article by Lorraine Cavenagh is a moving theological meditation on the pain the Anglican Church has inflicted on itself in the last ten years. She argues that hospitality to a range of opinions has long been characteristic of Anglican identity and defended by such leading figures in Anglican tradition as Richard Hooker and F.D. Maurice. She believes that 'In halting the dynamic forward movement of the Spirit in Anglican life, the conflict has severely undermined our confidence in what it means to be Anglican'.

A Dissenter's view of Anglicanism and Establishment

The final article in this edition is by Dr. Janet Wootton of the Congregational Federation. It is the paper she presented at the 2008 MCU conference on Saving the Soul of Anglicanism. It presents a strong critique of many Anglican claims and above all challenges the continuation of the Establishment of the Church of England. She believes that the lively history of the dissenting churches and the impact for good of the non-conformist conscience is a very important though much neglected part of the religious heritage of England. She believes that because of its established status the present turmoil within Anglicanism has a negative impact on the perception of all forms of Christianity. All Christian Churches would benefit if they operated on a level playing field in which each could contribute their distinctive gifts and understandings.


  1. Origen On first principles 4.16 cited from H.M. Gwatkin, Selections from Early Christian Writers (London: Macmillan 1920), pp. 137-38. [back]
  2. Augustine The Literal Meaning of Genesis 1 19 cited from J.V. Langmead Casserley, The Retreat from Christianity (London: Longmans 1953), pp. 21-22. [back]
  3. Charles Gore, Belief in God (London: Murray 1921), p.10. [back]

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.