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"The Weaknesses of Liberal Theology"

King, Martin Luther, Jr.
January 1, 1948 to December 31, 1948
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Education


These two essays, probably prepared for George W. Davis's course Great Theologians, reveal that King began questioning some of his previous theological ideals during his first year at Crozer.1 In these assignments, he laments that liberal theologians often neglect the question, “What relevance does Jesus have in 1948 A.D.?”

“The Weaknesses of Liberal Theology” I

For the last few years we have heard a great deal of talk about liberal theology. Ever since the turn of the century this system of theology has been gaining great recognition. This theology grew out of an attempt to wed theology to the dominant thought pattern of the day, which is science. It insists that the real theologian must be as open-minded, as unbaised, and as disinterested as the scientist. Therefore, he can never speak in terms of the absolute. Moreover, liberal theology insists that truth is not a one-act drama that appeared once and for all on the Biblical stage, but it is a drama of many acts continually appearing as the curtain of history continues to open. The liberal believes that the light of God is forever shining through history as the blosom shines through the bud.2 Therefore, there can be no set theology. Liberal theology can never be static. It must forever adjust itself to the changing conditions of history.3

Personally I think this is the best, or at least the most logical system of theology in existence.4 But at the same time I must admit that there are certain weaknesses found in liberal theology which are well worth our attention. In this paper I will only discuss one of the weaknesses found in liberal theology; others will be discussed next week.

One of the great weaknesses of liberal theology is that it to often loses itself in “higher criticism.”5 In other words, the liberal theologian, in many instances, becomes so involved in “higher criticism that he unconsciously stops there.6 This is certainly a weakness that the liberal theologian should attempt to avoid. After the Bible has been stripped of all of its mythological and non-historical content, the liberal theologian must be able to answer the question—what then?7 It is certainly justifiable to be as scientific as possible in proving that the Pentateuch was written by more then one author, that the whale did not swallow Jonah, that Jesus was not born a virgin, or that Jesus never met John the Baptist.8 But after all of this, what relevance do these scriptures have?9 What moral implications do we find growing out of the Bible? What relevance does Jesus have in 1948 A.D.?10 These are question which the liberal theologian must of necessity answer if he expects to influence the average mind.11 To often do we find many of the liberals dodging these vital questions.12 This is the first great weakness of liberal theology.

{lost in a vocabulary}

[signed] M. L. King13

“The Weaknesses of Liberal Theology” II

Last week we concluded that one of the great weaknesses of liberal theology is that it becomes so involved in higher criticism, in many instances, that it fails to answer certain vital questions. Today we will discuss another weakness of liberal theology which is equally pernicious. This weakness lies in its failure to contact the masses. Liberal theology seems to be lost in a vocabulary. Moreover, it seems to be too divorced from life.

This tendency to move out of the market-place of everyday life has led liberal theology to become so theoretical that it forgets the practical.14 This is certainly a danger to any system of theology, for it presupposes that all life is theory, when in reality theory is not effective until it can be reproduced in the realm of the practical. This is certainly a point of warning, for it is the danger that faced the scholastics when they lost their heads to logic. Liberal theology will only be recognized when it begin to grappel with the problems of the unsophisticated man.15

[signed] M. L. King16

1. King’s reference to 1948 suggests he wrote this paper for Great Theologians, his only theology course that calendar year. For more on Davis’s role in the development of King’s theology, see Introduction, in Papers 1:49-50.

2. King repeated the previous three sentences in a 1949 assignment for Davis’s course Christian Theology for Today (see King, “The Sources of Fundamentalism and Liberalism Considered Historically and Psychologically,” 13 September-23 November 1949, in Papers 1:239).

3. In his course notes, King recorded that theology was partly determined by “the [pressures?] conditions of the environment in which the theologian lives. These pressures causes them to seek the nature of God.” His notes continue: “Is our day propitious for great theologians. If ever the stage was set for great theological thinking, it is today. There are two major forces which must be present in society 1. New form and way of thinking 2. Crisis if a great theology is to come” (King, Class notes I, Great Theologians, 30 November 1948-16 February 1949).

4. Davis added a comma after the word “logical.”

5. “Higher criticism,” a type of biblical analysis that examined the historic accuracy of biblical texts, emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Davis added another “o” to the word “to.”

6. Davis added a quotation mark after the word “criticism.”

7. Davis crossed out the second “of” in this sentence.

8. The Pentateuch refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Davis added the word “of” between the words “born” and “a.”

9. Davis crossed out the word “of.”

10. Davis indicated that “A.D.” should have come before “1948.”

11. Davis added an “s” to the word “question.”

12. Davis added another “o” to the word “To.”

13. King folded this assignment lengthwise and signed his name on the verso of the last page.

14. Davis drew a star between the words “market” and “place” to indicate one word, not two.

15. Davis circled the word “only,” drew an arrow to move it between the words “recognized” and “when,” and circled the misspelling “grappel.”

16. King folded this document lengthwise and signed his name on the verso of the last page.

"The Weaknesses of Liberal Theology" I: CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon File, folder 118, "Sermon Material."
"The Weaknesses of Liberal Theology" II: CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon File, folder 165.