The rationalism of liberals and conservatives

What is the difference between a "liberal" versus a "conservative" way of thinking?

Enrique Espinosa, Ph.D., is director of the theology department at River Plate University in Argentina, South America.

However radically different their conclusions, the extreme "left" and the extreme "right" within the church show a surprising similarity: In their approach to the Bible, both depend heavily on an unwarranted rationalism that ultimately leads to a distortion of Scripture.

The 18th century, the era of the Enlightenment (or Aufklarung), created a radical shift in Western thought. There was a tendency to break with all the authoritarian or absolutist systems. Religious traditions and faith were especially weakened in this flux, giving way to the authority of reason.

The criteria of scientific and historical research, not ancient texts, ultimately became the decisive arbiters of truth. The church especially, and religion in general, lost their standing as essential to the search for truth. As these changes took root, the supernatural was no longer deemed real, while "contradictions" in the Bible were seen as proof of its nondivine origin. God and the Bible were rejected or, at best, relegated to the back ground of human interest.

Earlier, during the 17th century, the Jewish philosopher Benedict Spinoza had already used a strict deductive rationalism to construct a system of what might be considered higher criticism. Spinoza limited truth to what is self-evident or mathematically knowable, which is why he had difficulty with the "contradictions" in Scripture. For in stance, Samuel denies that God ever repents (1 Sam. 15:29), while Jeremiah states that God does repent (Jer. 18:8- 10). Because these two texts are "directly contradictory," Spinoza believed that one cannot affirm that the Bible is the Word of God. Rather, he said, "the Bible merely contains the Word of God." 1 Later, this notion would become basic to the classical liberal formula.

The liberal school and Neo-orthodoxy

As an answer to the rationalistic, naturalistic, and even atheistic views that began to dominate, some Protestants of the 19th-century attempted to meet such forces on their own ground and began to look at the Bible through similar eyes. This may be seen as the beginning of the more liberal schools of thought.

Frederick Schleiermacher has been considered the father of this theological current. Protestant liberalism did not at tempt to oppose rationalism; rather, it directed the attention from the "errors" in the Bible and from the "unbelievable narratives" to the broader field of biblical ethics. If the miracles sounded too incredible for the modern mind to accept, liberalism stressed the religious experience that could be nourished by the depiction of these miracles. In other words, what was seen to be important wasn't the miracle itself (which might not even have happened) but the spiritual lesson one can draw from it.

Liberals, for instance, were not willing to accept the factual veracity of the stories of the Flood, of the Creation in seven days, of the supernatural conception of Jesus, of the bodily resurrection of Christ, and so on. They preferred, in stead, to stress the moral or spiritual values taught through these "myths," while they viewed the "errors" and contradictions as proof that the Bible is as human as every other book, even if its spiritual or moral value remained helpful.

The liberal approach denies both the historicity of biblical miracles and the factual reality of many of its narratives, particularly those related to our origins (Gen. 1-11). In brief, the rationalism that stands behind the liberal approach has caused this movement to reject the supernatural nature of the Bible as it is depicted in Scripture. Thus, it separates what is to be believed from what is not to be believed, with rationalism or human reason being the sole arbiter in deciding these distinctions.

In the 20th century another theological trend was born within Protestantism, the so-called Neo-orthodox Movement. These theologians (mainly Karl Barth and Emil Brunner) returned to the Bible as the main witness to God's revelation, even if they could not dispose of the liberal's rationalistic presuppositions. Thus, they too found it difficult to accept all the supernatural interventions of God claimed by the biblical authors. Nee-orthodoxy is also characterized by its denial or rejection of some supernatural biblical features. In neo-orthodoxy, the Bible is not God's revelation but a witness of that revelation instead.


Simultaneously, during the 20th century another trend flourished within Protestantism. This school has fought against both neo-orthodoxy and liberalism (to them, neo-orthodoxy is merely a softened version of liberalism). This trend has been called fundamentalism because it attempts to defend the fundamental beliefs of Christianity as presented in the Bible. Fundamentalists are also known as "conservatives" (of the "extreme right") because they are interested in the conservation of the faith traditionally taught by the church. Obviously, the fundamentalist defends the historicity of the biblical narratives and believes in the miracles and other super natural features of the Bible. However, they share with their theological adversaries a common element: Their submission to rationalistic presuppositions. Unconscious as this tendency may be, fundamentalists have not been able to es cape the influence of rationalism. Their rationalistic presuppositions cause them, and all adherents on the "extreme right," to deny certain traits or features of the Bible that originate with the humanity of the Bible writers themselves.

While the liberal cannot accept as true that Christ multiplied the loaves and fishes, for example, the extreme conservative cannot accept that God tolerated divorce or slavery or that some inspired biblical writers may have made some rather serious mistakes.

The syllogistic way of reasoning on the "extreme right" is as follows: "God cannot make mistakes. The Bible is the Word of God. Therefore, the Bible contains no mistakes." Obviously, they forget that the Bible presents a human element as well as a divine one. Further more, these Christians cannot accept the possibility that the human traits and the individual characteristics of the inspired writers appear in the Bible.

In order to accept the Bible, these conservatives demand the infallibility of the human instrument. It is almost as though they say: "We are going to believe the message of the Bible only if it can be proved to our reason that the messengers who brought forth the truth of Scripture are infallible and inerrant." This is insisted upon even when the Bible gives many evidences that God's messengers were, in fact, neither infallible nor inerrant. Sometimes God had to correct their mistakes; in other instances, the mistake remained, even when the basic message itself was not lost.

An Old Testament example of this kind of mistake in a prophet is found in 2 Samuel 7:1-13. The counsel of Nathan to David was to build a house for the Lord. The prophet had evidence that the Lord was on the side of the king (7:1,3). Nevertheless, the will of God was that David's son, Solomon, was to build the temple. In this case, God corrected the error of reasoning and the mistaken counsel of the prophet. From this we can infer that if it is important for the mistake of a prophet to be corrected, God will step forward to correct it.

A New Testament example of a mistake on the part of the apostles is found in Luke 24:1-11. When the women announced that the Lord's promise of His own resurrection had been fulfilled, the apostles did not believe in the women's proclamation and stated that these women were mad. Imagine what would have happened if this statement by the apostles had remained without correction? But the Lord rectified the situation; He promptly appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and then to the others who were in the room (Luke 24:13-48) in order to give clear witness that He had indeed resurrected.

Avoiding the extremes

It has been said with thoughtful definitude that "the Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human."2 "The Bible must be given in the language of men. Every thing that is human is imperfect."3 The same author says that skeptics and infidels "talk of the contradictions of the Bible, and question the authority of the Scriptures."4 Putting both these statements together would suggest that both extremes, that of the "left" and that of the "right," cannot be properly held on biblical grounds.

The most sound position to take is proposed in yet another quote from the same author: "take the Bible just as it is, as the Inspired Word.... I believe its utterances: in an entire Bible."5

We may indeed be confident in God's leading, and also in God's way of giving us His Word. We can trust the human instruments used by God to give us His instructions, not because of the characteristics of the human instruments themselves, but because of the One who has selected them and continues to use them.

In all of this we must allow God to be God. This means that we should allow Him to act according to His will and not according to our rationalistic presuppositions. God's human instruments, although finite and fallible, were endowed by the Holy Spirit to give us His Word. In spite of the inaccuracies (very few indeed are of any doctrinal consequence) and human mistakes, there is an "underlying harmony"6 in the Scripture that will speak to each of us if, relying on the Holy Spirit, we avoid the extreme rationalism that comes from either the "left" or the "right."

1. Benedict Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, trans. R. H. M. Elwes, vol. 1, Introduction, Tractatus Theologicopoliticus, Tractatus politicus (London: George Bell, 1883), 194, 165.

2. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 1:25.

3. Ibid., 20.

4. Ibid., 19,20.

5. Ibid., 17.

6. Ibid., 25.

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Enrique Espinosa, Ph.D., is director of the theology department at River Plate University in Argentina, South America.

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