Leroy Seat, former theology professor and chancellor at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka City, Japan, is currently Lecturer in Theology at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. The Limits of Liberalism is a companion volume to Seat’s earlier work, Fed Up with Fundamentalism. In that prequel, Seat explored multiple weaknesses in fundamentalism, especially its attitudes toward the Bible, religious freedom, war, women, abortion, homosexuality, and capital punishment. The earlier volume also chronicled Seat’s personal account of his marginalization from his Southern Baptist denomination, as that body has moved in the last three decades from a centrist theology to a more rigid one.
As its title suggests, the current volume explores the polar opposite of fundamentalism. In delineating the limits of liberalism, Seat adheres to the principle that most people are right in what they affirm and wrong in what that deny. While supportive of much of what liberalism embraces, Seat is equally critical of much of what liberalism denies.
The first chapter surveys the 19th and 20th century roots of liberalism in Germany (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Harnack) and America (Bushnell, Briggs, and Rauschenbush). Chapter 2 reviews some of the contemporary leaders in liberalism (Hick, Spong, Borg, Kung, and others). Chapter 3 outlines reasons for liberalism’s appeal, including its tolerance and broadmindedness, its focus on harmony and cooperation, its appeal to a reasonable faith, and its strong focus on social ethics. Chapter 4 explores problems with liberalism, identifying, among others, such matters as its tendency to compromise, its inclination toward arrogance, its excessive optimism, its unwillingness to identify truth over against heresy, and its limited audience (the educated and urbane).
Chapters 5-9 form the heart of the book. These chapters look specifically at liberalism’s understanding of five issues: the Bible, God, Jesus Christ, sin, and world missions. In each of these chapters, Seat identifies positives aspects of the liberal position then notes specific areas in which he considers liberalism to have missed the mark. For example, Seat believes the liberal God is weak in transcendence, the liberal Christ is less than divine, the liberal view of sin is too optimistic about human nature, and the liberal view of world missions is too accepting of religious pluralism.
Seat’s chapter on the Bible serves as a good example of the middle ground he seeks. He commends liberalism’s rejection of biblical inerrancy, its use of biblical criticism, and its freedom to revise interpretations as new information comes to light. Liberalism falls short, however, in its understanding of the relationship between reason and revelation, its lack of clarity on inspiration and biblical authority, and its skepticism concerning historical, factual information in the Bible. For Seat, if one’s understanding of the Bible is flawed, then the rest of one’s theology will likely be unsound. The balanced perspective Seat’s recommends is articulated this way: “ . . . the Bible is the Word of God, which is revealed primarily through Jesus Christ, and the Bible is a record of that revelation and the primary means for being able to know both Christ and God” (p. 142).
Unlike Fed Up with Fundamentalism whose purpose was to help fundamentalist Christians find a more viable form of Christianity, The Limits of Liberalism is written for those who have abandoned the historic faith, often as a reaction against fundamentalism. With that end in view, Seat is convinced that a centric, balanced position between fundamentalism and liberalism is possible, and that a sizeable middle already exists, a view which he designates as the “radiant center.”
The Limits of Liberalism and Fed Up with Fundamentalism, together document that it’s possible for theology to lose its way when it becomes unbalanced. In our current climate where extremes are celebrated, shouting matches pass as dialogue, and centric positions dismissed as fence-straddling, bridge-builders like Seat might be easily dismissed. But Seat is not alone in calling for a middle ground between the narrow dogmatism of fundamentalism and the open-ended relativism of liberalism. “Postconservative evangelicals” (Roger Olson’s term) such as Clark Pinnock, Miroslav Volf, Nancey Murphy, and others have moved beyond the liberal/conservative dichotomy that has generated such harsh rhetoric in the past. The recovery of the “Great Tradition” is well underway in evangelicalism, and The Limits of Liberalism provides another piece of evidence that the center holds.