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The polarisation of the church: liberalism and fundamentalism

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 3 February 2006

It is no secret that Protestant denominations are divided between the liberal and the fundamentalist camps. This schism in the church runs through the whole of church life because it is essentially theological - it is about how we understand God.

While it would be profitable to relate the history of this divide, much insight may be gained from a single idea I encountered in William Stacey Johnson's The Mystery of God. Johnson uses an age-old philosophical dispute about what is real to explain the two different theological approaches at the base of present day theological polarisation. He simplifies the long tradition of thought in this area by drawing the lines of distinction between realists, who acknowledge only that which may be experienced in the present or for which there is reliable data of the past, and idealists who believe that ideas are the only reality that we can know.

Those who have studied philosophy will object that this is a severe reduction of a debate that has raged since the earliest Greek philosophers and continues to trouble us today. Johnson does not enter this philosophical quagmire, but sketches out what he means, giving a list of polarities representing the differences between realism and idealism. A table of these distinctions would look like this:


Johnson does not make the point specifically, but it is obvious the distinction between realism and idealism illuminates the distinction between fundamentalism and liberalism. Johnson’s point is that theology leaning either towards realism or idealism will always be deficient. An emphasis on realism will produce a fundamentalism that takes everything at face value. In particular, the Bible will be read literally. Thought is limited to the commonsense reading of the text. If the text says the heavens and the earth were created in seven days, then that is what the text means, and what happened. No attempt is made to contextualise or to theologise beyond the text.

In this way of thinking it is very important that the events described in the Bible are real - that they actually happened. God is thought of as a real subject in the world, but one who has supernatural attributes. God becomes a part of nature. Most important for the present crisis of the church, is that biblical prohibitions are made absolute, for all time, in spite of the difficulties this produces. The result is a certain blandness, legalism and arrogance, stemming from the conviction everything has been revealed to us. This position is essentially anti-intellectual, and faith is a leap into the dark.

On the other hand, liberalism leans towards idealism, which is attracted to a mode of critical reflection in theology. Access to the real comes not through the particular, the given, but through one's own knowing activity. Idealism has an inherent danger of drifting free from the particular or the given, leaving us with our own unchallenged proclivities. While fundamentalist attachment to the concrete makes theology a part of nature, idealism may be caught up in mystical imaginings bearing no relation to the simple Galilean or the history of Israel.

This description of the present division in the church has the advantage that not only does it accurately describe the inadequacies of both sides and offers a spectrum on which we may place ourselves, but also offers a solution. While any theology leaning too heavily in one direction or the other will end up deficient, a theology holding both together avoids the extremes of either.

This is a theology that will take the Bible seriously and be truly evangelical, yet will not be tied to the literal reading of the text. The given will lead to the non-given. For example, Luke’s story about the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary - that she will conceive of the Holy Spirit - is not limited to a medical miracle, but becomes the information we need to understand who this Jesus is. Idealism is an extension of the given.


Luke constructs a story that tells us who Jesus is - how could he tell us otherwise without writing a theological tome? If we understand the virgin birth as a medical miracle we displace the original intent of the writer, who has no understanding of what that would mean, and we miss his point. By treating the text in a realist way we do not get the theological point the evangelist is trying to make.

Liberalism is tempted to dismiss the tale as a myth. In its apology to modern man it discards the stories it needs to understand the Christian story. If historical-critical study of the Bible has robbed it of authority, one must make a foundation somewhere else. And where else but in what we all know is right and true, common morality, religious feeling, patriotism? If fundamentalism robs Biblical texts of their depth, liberalism robs them of their authority to tell us about the mystery of the world. Jesus is placed among all the other good men and women who have ever lived and we wonder why anyone would be interested.

Holding realism and idealism together means we take the given seriously, because it leads to the non-given, the virgin birth leads to the doctrine of the humanity/divinity of Jesus.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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