According to the ESV Study Bible article on "The Bible in Christianity," "Liberal Protestantism" is best understood by its roots.  This article says that "Liberal Protestantism arose out of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century."  It is clear that the movement was started by German philosophers and theologians.  Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) understanding of epistemology underwent a fundamental change, and he concluded that he could not know for certain what he was actually seeing, and even the simplest thing that is seen is a product of the mind.  So, Kant considered that "the thing in itself" cannot be known.  Rather, only "the thing as it appears" can be known.

Friederich Schleiermacher
(1768-1834) is considered the father of modern theological liberalism (his picture is above).  He applied Kant's paradigm shift in thinking to theology.  So God would be equivalent to "the thing in itself," and therefore would be beyond human ability to know or comprehend.  One can only know his/her own experience of God.  "Theology, then, cannot be the study of God himself but should rather be understood as the study of the human experience of God, in different ways and throughout different cultures."  Thus, God-awareness, not God himself, became the heart of religion.  As a direct result of this paradigm shift, subjective experience took precedence over "Scripture, tradition, church declarations, and creedal statements."

The ESV Study Bible goes on to summarize "The Effect of Liberalism on the Doctrine of Scripture."  They state,

One very important part of this shift was a radically different view of the Bible.  Previously, the Bible had been thought of as divine revelation.  That is, the God who created humankind and sent his Son to redeem them from their sin had actually revealed truth about himself and his plan of salvation, and this revelation was given in God's own Word, the Bible.

The Bible became the "product of various religious cultures and peoples, who recorded their own experiences with God as they imagined him to be."  Therefore, the Bible, in the view of this Liberal Protestantism, could no longer be considered as presenting truth that is binding on anyone today.  It could not longer be considered as "divine truth," because God is beyond knowing.

In the 19th century, this Liberal Protestantism extended its influence to the criticism of the origins of the world and of man as well as Jesus' origin, miracles, atoning death and resurrection.  Any supernatural explanation was considered unscientific and unnecessary since a naturalistic understanding prevailed.  In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and this ended any necessity of God for life on earth in the minds of liberals.  Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) considered the moral value of Jesus as of great worth, even if the historicity of Christ's life could not be verified.  Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) thought that orthodox Christianity was "wrongly preoccupied with doctrines and standards of belief while missing the primary thrust of Jesus' teachings, namely, the moral responsibility to live out the righteousness of the kingdom."  If one concentrated on the latter instead of the former, the law of love would govern all relationships.

The 20th century saw an increasing influence of Liberal Protestantism and sustained attacks on such teachings "as the special creation of Adam and Eve, the literal fall of Adam into sin, the virginal conception of Christ, the incarnation of Christ as fully God and fully human, the miracles that Christ and others performed, the substitutionary atoning death of Christ, and the bodily resurrection of Christ."  In addition, there were attacks on "the full divine inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scriptures, which teaches these doctrines as historically and theologically real and true."  Liberal Protestantism rejected such concepts as sin, wrath and hell.  Therefore, the gospel of the Bible was changed into "the social gospel."

Saving of souls was replaced with relieving people's present physical and social needs.  The "good news" that liberals proclaimed was of a loving God who, through Christ's example of care for the poor and outcast, calls his people to help bring in the kingdom by showing love to others.

Thus, human reason and scientific naturalism replaced revelation, and "orthodoxy simply had to be discarded if Christianity was to survive in this brave new world."

Because of World War I, the optimism of Liberal movement was diminished and a more conservative version of this movement called "neo-orthodoxy" was created.  However, the Liberal movement continued to be very strong in all the mainline denominations.  Gordon Kaufman, "...professor of theology and divinity at Harvard Divinity School, in 1981 published a book whose title beautifully captures the liberal mind-set--The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God."

Thus, Scripture was replaced by the liberal scholar's experience, reason, and imagination.  They are their own authority, and their values simply mirror secular values.  The biblical gospel and the biblical faith has been lost to this movement.  Unfortunately, adherents to this view are now the leaders in universities and seminaries.

  2. On this page, I quoted liberally from the ESV Study Bible's article on "Liberal Protestantism" which is found under the major heading entitled "The Bible in Christianity."