A review and reflection of The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism by James V. Heidinger II (Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing, 2017).
Every Pentecostal has heard the warning that formal theological education leads to liberalism and the decline of the church. James Heidinger has presented a compelling case that the decline of Methodism is a direct result of liberal theology that has been espoused in Methodist seminaries. So, we must ask, “What does Aldersgate have to do with Asuza St.?” In other words, is Pentecostalism endangered by encroaching liberalism in higher education? The short answer is “Maybe.”
The story of the Methodist movement is one of triumph and decline. The church that was once Taking Heaven by Storm seems to have lost its way.
Within Pentecostalism, liberalism has been described in terms of smoking, drinking, and wearing jewelry. Or, liberalism is understood in terms of politics – voting for a Democrat. I would point out that there are many theological conservatives who tend to be politically liberal. The liberalism of which Heidinger speaks is much more insidious – it is nothing less than a destructive heresy that has infected Methodism and other churches.
Theological liberalism is a denial of the orthodox historical Christian faith. It is the product of German rationalism and higher criticism that converged with the rise of industrialism, the growth of cities, and social Darwinism. The product of this convergence is the social gospel. Heidinger is quick to point out that John Wesley insisted, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” Even so, the social gospel that infected Methodism is a denial of the orthodox Christian faith of Wesley. Theological liberalism is a series of negations “of what liberal theology no longer believed about traditional orthodoxy.”
- It is anti-supernatural, denying the miraculous
- It denies the concept of special revelation
- It denies the authority and inspiration of Holy Scripture
Therefore, liberal theology denies the historical Christian proclamation about Jesus Christ – that he was the virgin born, incarnate God who died for the sins of humanity, was raised from the dead, ascended to heaven and is coming again. Instead, liberal theology proclaims a social gospel that presents Jesus as the human son of Joseph and Mary who was nothing more than an exemplary moral teacher. The social gospel is nothing more, or less, than a socio-political economic agenda that seeks the flourishing of humanity. There is no dynamic ontological transformation of humanity – no resurrection from the dead, no New Heaven and New Earth.
To be fair, I know of no Pentecostal theologian who would publicly embrace this social gospel. Furthermore, a proper biblical theology does indeed seek the flourishing of humanity and a socio-political economic agenda that reflects the righteousness of God. With that said, I would also suggest that there are some liberal tendencies within Pentecostalism that threaten the movement.
The proponents of the liberal social gospel movement believed they were renewing the Faith. In some ways, the social gospel movement was a restoration movement. They believed that the ancient Faith could not find a home in the modern world. So, they sought to reinterpret the faith for a new age. In other words, they were seeking to be relevant to the urban, industrial and intellectual culture of the early 20th century. In their desire to be relevant, they allowed certain theological accommodations.
As Pentecostals seek to be relevant in the 21st century what kind of accommodations are we willing to make? We have been told that the church should be seeker friendly, that is, we should be careful not to alienate seekers with religious symbols, words, and rites. Furthermore, doctrine doesn’t really matter. What really matters is community. Really? When will we realize that it is our doctrine, symbols, words, and rites that form our community?
As we have this discussion about relevance our churches are in decline. Yes, some churches are flourishing, but the Pentecostal movement in the USA is in decline. Strangely enough, it’s not Pentecostal seminaries that are contributing to this decline. Instead, it is the church growth movement which worships at the altar of pragmatism – whatever makes a church grow has become its core values and doctrine.
Another way of saying this is that we prefer experience over theology – action over belief. This is the ethos of liberal theology. In our day this is demonstrated in a secular social justice movement. Again, social justice is a biblical concern. But a secular social justice movement spurns religious authority and finds its authority in the human experience. Social justice is understood as individual freedom to be fully human as “God (whoever he or she may be) created me to be.” But in this experiencial theology there is no original sin, no need of atonement. The only religious need of humanity is to be fully affirmed. Salvation is freedom from political and economic oppression. The hermeneutic of experience has found a home in some corners of Pentecostal academia. Hence, some scholars within Pentecostalism are flirting with abortion rights, the LGBTQ agenda, radical feminism, and a secularist political ideology. In some cases these scholars have been disciplined by their ecclesial authorities.
Just as Heidinger points out that Methodist seminaries have been complicit in the decline of Methodism, he also points out that orthodox Methodist scholars have been working to save Methodism from liberalism. Pentecostals need to hear this call to engagement. If we acknowledge that liberal academia is a challenge to Christian orthodoxy, then Pentecostals must be committed to supporting orthodox seminaries and scholars committed to the primacy of Holy Scripture. In other words, the Seminary must be accountable to the church it serves; and the church must support Pentecostal scholarship that is faithful to the mission of Christ. The real challenge to the future of Pentecostalism is a lack of serious scholarship.
This book is a must read for anyone in the Methodist renewal movement. It is also a must read for any Pentecostal pastor, leader, or academic who wants to understand church decline and seeks authentic renewal.