The Rev. John Liebler, an Episcopal priest, lost his faith in an ironic place: seminary. Studying for the priesthood in the late 1970s, Liebler was inundated with a theological liberalism that left him believing that Christianity, and all religion, was just a mirror we hold up to our own wishes rather than a window through which we see true spiritual realities. After a few years pastoring, he finally realized his spiritual emptiness.
We asked Liebler, who now leads St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Fort Pierce, Fla., about how he returned to faith, and why he believes orthodox Christians urgently need to reclaim liberalism.
CP: What was it like for a pastor to lose his faith?
Liebler: It was exceedingly painful. Most people who go through a time of doubt or loss of faith struggle with a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness. For a pastor, who must preach every week and speak about God with parishioners, there is an additional sense of dishonesty.
CP: How did you come back to believing in biblical, orthodox Christianity?
Liebler: I had initially come to faith in an Anglican sacramental tradition, enlivened by the charismatic renewal. So we had both the beauty and history of the liturgy along with a powerful sense of the Holy Spirit working among us. I gradually lost my faith through the liberal-progressive vision of Christianity taught in college and seminary.
After struggling on my own for a time, I confided in my then Bishop, Rev. John Howe of Orlando. He encouraged me to read books such as Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict and the writings of other Christian evangelical scholars. As I read, I was overwhelmed with the convincing proofs they set forth for things like the Bible's reliability, the deity of Jesus Christ, his miracles, and his resurrection from the dead. I had heard none of this in seminary. It was the assurance I needed that Christianity really was about truth and not the wishful thinking of human beings.
Yet it was more than reading. As an experiment, I began to preach and pray "as if" it were true, as Bishop Howe suggested. I witnessed incredible changes in my life and in the lives of others that resulted from this holy experiment. My faith returned slowly, like the blooming of a flower. I really credit God's use of the evangelical Gospel vision of Bishop John Howe with leading me back to faith.
CP: If theological liberalism nearly destroyed your faith, why are you calling Christians to rediscover liberalism?
Liebler: Good question. I want Christians to discover true classical liberalism and the reform movements it birthed in Christendom. Or, to put it differently, I want Christians to reclaim the truths in the Bible that many conservatives seem to ignore, because they seem too "liberal"- truths such as God's commands for us to love our neighbors, care for the poor, and pray for our enemies.
Classical liberalism is essentially the idea that individual human beings have intrinsic value, and that scholarly study, guided by the Holy Spirit, and unencumbered by church traditions, is a holy enterprise. This understanding emerged in Western thought in the Renaissance, and it gave rise to the Protestant Reformation. Two centuries later, in the Enlightenment, these same concepts would give birth to modern science. They would give rise to the understandings enshrined in our Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal and ought to enjoy religious and political freedom. Classical liberalism held that these rights are "inalienable," given by "the Creator." This strand of liberalism was the force that led to the founding of the American Republic.
But in contrast to the American Revolution that rooted political liberalism in the truths of the Scriptures, the French Revolution rejected God and the church and resulted in a much bloodier, ruthless, atheistic, and ultimately unsuccessful revolution.
CP: You are talking about political liberalism. What does this have to do with the church?
Liebler: Liberalism, like any philosophy, was initially a complex of ideas that had theological, political, and social applications. In other words, those Christians who believed in freedom and equality began to see such injustices as slavery as violations not only of liberal principles, but also of the Scriptures themselves. This led men like William Wilberforce in England, a devout follower of Jesus Christ, to spend his lifetime fighting against slavery, a battle that was eventually won. It led pastors like John Wesley, working with poor dock workers in Savannah, Georgia, to discourage alcohol and to develop "Sunday School," which taught literacy using the Bible as the principal textbook.
Social reform movements for women's suffrage and the civil rights movement as well as the pro-life movement are all based in liberalism –the idea that every human being has intrinsic rights – but this form of liberalism is tied closely to the Bible and finds the source of those rights in God. These liberal reform movements did enormous good. Most Americans do not know that in the early 20th Century, most British evangelicals were considered liberals!
It's when you divorce liberalism from its roots in Scripture that you begin to see movements that advance abortion and same-sex marriage as "rights." If you take liberalism without the Bible, these movements are the logical results. But if you believe that the freedom of human beings is not absolute, but is limited by the guidance of the Holy Scriptures, then these movements are outside the bounds of Christian understanding.
That is why I believe there is a desperate need for traditional Christians to reclaim liberalism as one of the reform movements within genuine, Biblical Christianity.
CP: Do you see examples of such reform movements growing out of biblically based liberalism today?
Liebler: Absolutely! Take the movement to stop human trafficking in the sex trade and forced labor industries. This movement has been largely led by Christian organizations such as International Justice Mission and the Salvation Army along with many smaller but equally devoted ministries. They are seeing thousands of men and women freed from modern-day slavery and given real opportunity for the future. There is still much to be done. And only recently have secular liberals awakened to this issue.
CP: How does this kind of biblical liberalism differ from what you were taught in seminary, theological liberalism?
Liebler: As I mentioned, liberalism is a movement that was born in the Renaissance, and really arose in force during the Enlightenment. You had thinkers such as John Locke who wrote about human rights being rooted in the existence of a Creator.
But there were others who divorced those rights form any supernatural source. This was a time in which people in Europe were disgusted by a long history of religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. Many wanted to divorce human rights from any religious doctrine. They taught instead, albeit a bit irrationally, that the rights of freedom and equality were intrinsic to humans and not the gift of any Creator. Some of the roots of today's liberalism come from this atheistic and anti-Christian vision. It is this branch of liberalism-without-God that gave birth to liberal theology.
Whereas classical liberalism believed in opposing oppressive or illegitimate authority (such as the American colonists opposing the tyrannical rule of King George III), anti-Christian liberalism believes in the right to reject all authority. That means the Scriptures themselves began to be rejected as a form of authority.
This kind of thinking emerged out of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the universities digested the writings of Freud, Darwin, and Marx. It first influenced theological scholarship through higher criticism, which in turn infiltrated the seminaries. Theologians who followed this strand of thinking felt free, in a sense, to create their own theology apart from the Scriptures. That is what I encountered in seminary. In a sense, we were taught that it is okay to take the parts of the Scriptures we like, and leave the rest. The Scriptures are not the authority; we are.
This is the opposite of biblical liberalism which finds its very source and power in the fact that a Benevolent Authority who himself designed us with free will is the foundation of all real freedom and liberty, cares for the poor and oppressed, and calls us to be agents of liberation. He conveys these principles to us chiefly through the Scriptures.
CP: To conclude, how can Bible-believing Christians distinguish anti-Christian liberalism from those elements of liberalism that are in line with the Gospel?
Liebler: The first principal is to commit yourself not only to Jesus Christ as your personal savior but also to Him as your Lord and Master. As one submitted to Christ, allow no political or philosophical viewpoint to define your identity or to claim your loyalty. Second, let the Scriptures in their entirety speak judgment upon your life. If that judgment seems to be correcting ideas from the right or the left, so be it. Let Christ be your master, not a political philosophy.
Finally, take those biblically inspired injunctions and work to enact them in the world. If Christians today would follow this prescription rather than being hijacked by one political party or another, I believe we would see a new movement of God's power and wisdom applied to the social problems we face in our nation. The result would be increased hope, healing, and freedom to countless people far deeper and wider than any government program can offer.