an outline of classic liberalism

More from my 1980 Church History class notes:

The old modernist movement came to be known as ‘classic liberalism’ (as opposed to a lesser known ‘new liberalism’ that emerged after WWI). The following is a brief outline describing them.

1850-1914 Classic Liberalism

Result of:

  • Darwinism
  • Higher Criticism
  • Immanental subjectivism of Schleiermacher, Hegel, & Kant

[The roots in Darwinism and Higher Criticism are, I think, fairly well known. The philosophical background in immanental subjectivism is probably less known and understood. To understand modernism, I think one would do well to grasp especially the influence of the three men mentioned here.]

Held to:

  • Evolution as a framework of history
  • Knowledge derived through experience
  • Man is essentially good

Challenges facing classic liberalism:

  • Fundamentalism challenged liberalism from the standpoint of the inerrancy of the Bible
  • Humanism challenged liberalism from the standpoint that liberalism is not theology – i.e., liberal tenets were inconsistent with Christianity
  • History challenged liberalism with the advent of WWI (a blow against the notion of the inherent goodness of man)

[The challenge from humanism is echoed by Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, its thesis being that Liberalism IS NOT Christianity.]

[Following WWI, liberalism morphed into two other movements in response to the challenge mentioned.]

  • Neo-liberalism (repentant liberalism)

Jan 3, 1924 – Christian Century magazine: Christianity according to Fundamentalists and Christianity according to Modernists are two separate and distinct religions. [An admission]

  • Neo-Orthodoxy: an effort to arrive at conservative conclusions on rationalistic foundations
    • Included the following philosophic influences
      • Hegelian dialectic
      • Rationalism
      • Pragmatism
      • Pietism
      • Secularism
      • Latitudinarian posture (“broadness”)
      • Empiricism


Notes in [brackets] are my current additions to my old notes for (hopefully) a little clarity.

As I read through this, I am struck by a couple of thoughts.

One, all of this can be little understood and little appreciated without at least a cursory understanding of the history of philosophy. My senior year at university, I was required, much to my regret, to take two classes in philosophy. The two I ended up with were Introduction to Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. These were survey courses taught by the late George Mulfinger.

Though I entered these courses with a great deal of reluctance, I cannot thank the Lord enough for them. If you have a bit of a glimmer of understanding about how the world thinks, you will pick up a little discernment about what is going on around you. We do not live in a vacuum and a great deal of the problems in the church are the direct result of being influenced by the world’s philosophy in one way or another.

Two, I can’t help but be impressed again by the influence of Kant and Hegel on the unbelieving side of the church (firstly) and subsequently on a good deal of the [apparently] believing side of the church. If you don’t understand something of these two men, you will miss a lot of what is going on today.



  1. You sound intelligent and thoughtful….weird.

  2. Why thank you!

    Not nuanced, though!

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3