Is liberal theology heresy?

(image public domain, courtesy Google)

By Spencer D Gear

It has been asked if anyone can prove from Scripture that liberal theology is not heresy?[1] I consider that a better question would be, “Could you please demonstrate from Scripture that liberal theology is heresy?”

However, this begs the question….

What is liberal theology?

One of the seminal critiques of theological liberalism was that by J. Gresham Machen in 1923, Christianity & Liberalism. This is Machen’s (1923:2) understanding of what amounts to theological liberalism:

The present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called “modernism” or “liberalism.” Both names are unsatisfactory; the latter in particular, is question-begging. The movement designated as “liberalism” is regarded as “liberal” only by its friends; to its opponents it seems to involve a narrow ignoring of many relevant facts. And indeed the movement is so varied in its manifestations that one may almost despair of finding any common name which will apply to all its forms. But manifold as are the forms in which the movement appears. the root of the movement is rooted in naturalism – that is, in the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity (emphasis added).

Then Machen proceeded to see how this movement that is “rooted in naturalism” affected core Christian doctrines. He has chapters on the liberal infiltration in these areas of theology: the nature of doctrine, the nature of God and man (human beings), the nature of the Bible, the nature of Christ, the nature of salvation, and the nature of the church.
In this brief article, I don’t show the many faces of theological liberalism that have moved away from orthodox Christianity in their attacks on core Christian teaching.

Dr. Norman Geisler (2002:350f) in his chapter on “liberalism on the Bible”demonstrates how the rise of modern anti-supernatural liberalism had its roots as far back as Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza in the 17th century. He demonstrates how liberalism’s view of Scripture included:

  • An anti-supernatural basis of the liberal view of Scripture;
  • Cultural accommodation is necessary;
  • Negative criticism of Scripture;
  • The Bible is not the Word of God;
  • The Bible is fallible and errant;
  • The origin of Scripture is not by divine inspiration;
  • Sola Scriptura (the Bible is the only written and infallible authority for faith) is rejected;
  • So the Bible contains contradictions, including scientific errors;
  • There is immorality in the OT;
  • Human reason is prominent in interpreting the Bible;
  • There is a strong emphasis on human experience.

While theological liberalism is broad in definition, it also can accommodate the postmodern, reader-response ideologies, etc. of the Jesus Seminar.

What is heresy?

We do see “heresy” in the NT. In NT Greek, the term from which we get “heresy” is hairesis. Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek Lexicon (1957:23) states that hairesis means ‘sect, party, school’. It was used of the Sadduccees in Acts 5:17; of the Pharisees in Acts 15:5. Of the Christians in Acts 24:5. It is used of a heretical sect or those with destructive opinions in 2 Peter 2:1 (“destructive heresies” ESV).

The article on hairesis in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1964:182f) states that its “usage in Acts corresponds exactly to that of Josephus and the earlier Rabbis” but the development of the Christian sense of heresy does not parallel this Rabbinic use.

When the NT ekklesia (church) came into being, there was no place for hairesis. They were opposed to each other. This author states that “the greater seriousness consists in the fact that hairesis affect the foundation of the church in doctrine (2 Pt. 2:1), and that they do so in such a fundamental way as to give rise to a new society alongside the ekklesia” (Kittel 1964:183).

From the NT, we see the term, heresy, being used to mean what Paul called strange doctrines, different doctrine, doctrines of demons, every wind of doctrine, etc. (I Timothy 1:3; 4:1;6:3; Ephesians 4:14), as contrasted with sound doctrine, our doctrine, the doctrine conforming to godliness, the doctrine of God, etc. (I Timothy 4:6; 6:1,3; II Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 10).

J D Crossan, a theological , postmodern liberal

As an example of how liberalism affects the Jesus Seminar scholars, John Dominic Crossan states:

For Christians the New Testament texts and the gospel accounts are inspired by God. But divine inspiration necessarily comes through a human heart and a mortal mind, through personal prejudice and communal interpretation, through fear, dislike, and hate as well as through faith, hope, and charity. It can also come as inspired propaganda and inspiration does not make it any the less propaganda. In its origins and first moments that Christian propaganda was fairly innocent. Those first Christians were relatively powerless Jews and compared to them the Jewish authorities represented serious and threatening power. As long as Christians were the marginalized and disenfranchised ones, such passion fiction about Jewish responsibility and Roman innocence did nobody much harm. But, once the Roman Empire became Christian, that fiction turned lethal. In the light of later Christian anti-Judaism and eventually of genocidal anti-Semitism, it is no longer possible in retrospect to think of that passion fiction as relatively benign propaganda. However explicable its origins, defensible its invectives, and understandable its motives among Christians fighting for survival, its repetition has now become the longest lie and, for our own integrity, we Christians must at last name it as such (1995:XI-XII).

For Crossan, Joseph of Arimathea did not exist and his involvement at the passion of Christ did not happen. It was a creation by Mark (1995:172). Concerning Christ’s passion and resurrection, his view is:

My working hypothesis is that the original stratum [the creation of the Gospel text from AD 30-60] or Cross Gospel in [the Gospel of] Peter had only the guards at the tomb and nothing whatsoever about the women at the tomb. It was Mark himself who created the empty tomb story and its failed anointing as a fitting climax to the literary and theological motifs of his gospel (1995:185).

For a critique of Crossan and the Jesus Seminar see:

Rudolf Bultmann, a theological liberal[2]


Bultmann (AD 1884-1976) applied the philosopher, Martin Heidegger’s, existentialism to the New Testament through his demythology of subjectivism. Bultmann built his case along several lines,

  • There is a three-storied universe with the earth at the centre, the heaven above (where God and angels are), and the underworld beneath (1954:2);
  • The supernatural forces in the NT must be stripped of this “mythological structure”. The mythical view of the world (the supernatural) is obsolete and a blind acceptance of the supernatural in the NT would sacrifice our intelligence (1954:3-4); so
  • The Bible’s picture of miracles is impossible for modern human beings for “man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world–in fact there is hardly anyone who does…. An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable” (1954:38-39).
  • What are his reasons for his anti-supernatural view? He speaks of the incredibility of believing in a mythical event like the resuscitation of a corpse; difficulty in establishing the objective historicity of the resurrection of Christ; the resurrection is an article of faith for which there cannot be miraculous proof; there are other such events that have parallels in mythology (1954:39-40).

How do we respond to Bultmann demythologization of Scripture? This view is built on two unproven presuppositions (assumptions), says Geisler:

  1. His view is that miracles are less than historical because they are more than historical;
  2. There can be no miracles in the world without being of this world.

Both of these presuppositions are wrong, says Geisler, because:

  • Miracles can be more than historical without sacrificing their historical nature;
  • Miracles can be from beyond the world but still be acts/manifestations in the world.

Bultmann has no evidential basis for his mythological events being unverifiable. Also, his view is contrary to the biblical data because there is substantial evidence for the authenticity and reliability of NT documents – in spite of liberals who want to doubt and challenge the reliability of the NT. I recommend Craig Blomberg’s compilation of the evidence in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (1987); Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are they Reliable & Relevant? (2001); and K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (2003).

For assessments of Bultmann’s theology, see:

This is some of the flavour of the broad description of theological liberalism and how to assess some of it. The picture is very bleak. This is what happens when those paid by the church give up believing the church’s core of orthodoxy that has been taught for almost 2,000 years. Why do church leaders and pastors who promote theological liberalism continue to remain in the church and be paid by the church? It like  letting loose in our trade training schools, mechanics who no longer believe in engines. Talk about hypocrisy and contradictions!

Works consulted

Arndt, W F & Gingrich, F W 1957. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (4th ed). London: The University of Chicago Press (limited edition to Zondervan Publishing House).

Blomberg, C 1987. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Leicester, England/Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press.

Bultmann, R 1954. Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate. Hans Werner Bartsch (ed), trans by R H Fuller. London: Billing & Sons.

Crossan, J D 1995. Who Killed Jesus? New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Geisler, N 2002. Systematic Theology, vol. 1. Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse.

Kaiser Jr., W C 2001. The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant? Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Kitchen, K A 2003. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Kittel, G (ed) 1964. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol 1), tr. by G W Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Machen, J G 1923. Christianity & Liberalism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


[1] Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, “Liberal theology via scripture” #1, 8 October 2011, available at: (Accessed 11 October 2011). This person included the theologians of the Jesus Seminar, the universalists, and those supporting abortion and gay marriage, as among those who promote liberal theology.

[2] I am indebted to Norman Geisler (2002: 343-347) for much of the following analysis.


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at 15 March 2016.