By Jeff Boldt

It is common to characterize 20th-century theological controversy as a conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism. Most popularly, this has been cast as a battle over the appropriateness of using analogy to talk about God. Protestantism, as the story goes, followed Duns Scotus and Ockham by rejecting analogical speech about God which presupposes a similarity-in-difference between Creator and creation. Against the opinion of Scotus scholars, medieval and Reformation-era nominalists allegedly placed God on the same level of being as creation and turned God into a thing among things: the definition of theological naturalism. Speech about God thereby became “univocal.”

While the doctrine of the analogy of being is important to know, it’s not accurate as a historical account of the conflict between supernaturalism and naturalism. This conflict should be traced to English deism (which spread from there to Germany, France, and America). When they weren’t flirting with pantheism and thus with a “univocal” concept of being, the deists accepted the idea of a Creator. What they rejected was supernatural revelation. To speak accurately, the conflict between naturalistic and supernaturalistic theology was about the legitimacy of Scripture. The problem was not the analogy of being, but the analogy of religion. It is this latter form of analogy that theological liberalism violated by criticizing revelation in a manner reminiscent of the deists.

As Anglicans should know, the hammer of the deists was Bishop Joseph Butler whose understated classic, The Analogy of Religion, outsold all other theological tracts put together in the 18th century. Until WWI, Butler remained the dominant influence in Anglican theology. The Modernists, Tractarians, and Liberal Catholics all dealt with him. The second wave of Liberal Catholicism that rose to prominence in the 30s-50s still paid homage to Butler, but the second wave of Modernism between the 60s-90s seemed to be unaware of him. And as continental thinkers like Barth, Bultmann, Rahner, and Balthasar set the agenda, only a handful of Anglican philosophers of religion paid notice.


Notwithstanding the rise of evangelicalism, liberal theologians were ascendant at the end of the 20th century. That is, until the Protestant mainline abruptly collapsed. It is hard-to-impossible these days to name a liberal theologian under 69 with any ecumenical readership. The most sustainable (perhaps even healthy) denominations and seminaries are evangelical or Catholic. Butler can help us understand why this happened.

Normally we think of Butler as an apologist for orthodoxy, which he was. People read Butler and rejected deism. However, Butler’s thought is founded on an accurate description (or “phenomenology”) of Christian believing. It is common to account for the faith of 2.4 billion Christians in theoretically generic ways. When it isn’t pop-atheist apologists still trotting out the obsolete anthropology of James Frazer to find dying and rising savior myths everywhere, or the lingering flatus of Dan Brown, it’s Nietzsche-Marx-Freud’s more sophisticated hermeneutic of suspicion (in whatever updated form). Christians believe what they do because someone in power strong-armed them into it, pulled the wool over their eyes — or worse, they have deluded themselves. Though lots of this is valid, an account that renders the 2.4 billion as passive sheep led by little Nietzsches is not enough. Isn’t there something about particular Christian claims that attracts belief? In defending revealed supernaturalism, Butler accounts for the believability of Christian particulars: inspiration of Scripture, obedience to commandments, original sin, atonement, the Last Judgment. By altering these basic particulars of Christian faith, liberalism was continuous with deism and discontinuous with the ana-logic of belief laid out in The Analogy of Religion.

Perhaps it would be helpful to summarize liberal dogma in its ideal form and to contrast it with Butler. In the 19th century its main concerns were to deal with Darwin and with biblical criticism (which discontinuously came back to England via the Germans who had been engaging English deism). It is only a little exaggeration to say that pre-Great-War liberalism was just naïve progressivism. Historical science is always putting us in a more privileged position vis-à-vis past Christians. This epistemic privilege is pre-eminently applied to moral insights.

Continuous with deism, ideal liberalism presumed to know in advance what means God would not use to bring about his ends. Would God allow Christ to bear the consequences of our sin so that we could be saved? The end could not justify that unfair means. Never mind that according to Butler, the atonement is only analogous to everyday forgiveness wherein the victim absorbs the consequences of the offender. And where original sin accounted for our birth into suffering and death with reference to the sin of Adam — a doctrine that is analogous to the way innocent people suffer the consequences of another’s sin on a daily basis — liberalism broke that analogy too by protesting against its unfairness. Evolution, furthermore, had called into question a single progenitor of the human race, so liberalism used evolutionary psychology to put together a naturalistic etiology of the human predilection for cruelty. What was amoral cruelty among apes became morally culpable cruelty through a gradual process of hominid enlightenment. If God had a reason for designing this evolutionary gauntlet, it was to give us room to exercise our freedom and become moral heroes like Jesus.

Yet orthodoxy wasn’t at all sure about a mechanism that passed concupiscence down the generations; only that God was not responsible for evil and that humans (and devils) collectively were. Moreover, orthodoxy was sure that Christ had defeated evil on the cross without our help. Our obedience to the commandments is not clearly useful for triggering the resurrection of the dead, which is why liberalism favored “situation ethics”: using our knowledge of the situation to judge the best means toward an eschatological end (hence the exclusive importance of political theology).

Again, Butler simply pointed out the analogy of supernatural religion with childhood. Children don’t typically understand how their education contributes to their success in adulthood, but it does regardless. This is not to say that we trigger the resurrection (which liberalism doubted anyway), only that our faith determines our final destiny. Finally, deism and liberalism presumed in advance to know what was an expedient or an inexpedient method of communication from God to mankind. A collection of diverse books composed by dozens of fallible people over hundreds of years was inferior to the deliverances of a single book and author or, better yet, to the deliverances of reason and conscience. To this Butler replied that the economy of salvation given in Scripture was analogous to the order of creation, which was surprising and excessive in its processes. We live in ignorance of a “theory of everything” about creation; so too with Scripture. It is enough to know they are one. Besides, he said, the purpose of the economy of salvation is not to relay information but to form us in virtue. Indeed, it is quite expedient for our salvation that we learn to live without complete knowledge of God’s ways. Furthermore, Butler says, the strangeness of Scripture is useful as a “hieroglyphic” of Christ.

In other words, Scripture is not even speaking about God in the third person but in the first person, as he speaks personally through its figures. Such figures no doubt provide limitless analogies between Scripture and life; analogies cut off by exclusively reading the Bible through a historical-critical lens.

On the whole, then, liberalism overlooked the low-flying reasons why a normal person would find unique Christian doctrines plausible based on everyday experience. Objecting to inspiration, obedience, original sin, atonement, the Last Judgment and even figural reading on the basis of presumption, they left themselves open to falsification by way of Butler’s apologetic use of analogy. More directly to my point: the more they insisted on different dogmas, the less relevant they became. By and large, 2.4 billion people are happy to believe strange biblical things. In contemporary conspiracist parlance, this is not because they are “sheep.” It’s because of the analogy of religion. It’s because Scripture is attractive.

An addendum on the analogy of being: There have been times in modernity when heterodox doctrines of God gained purchase in response to war. Jacob Boehme’s alchemical rendition of God’s inner life, for example, was a way to come to terms with the Thirty Years’ War. Maybe history is the expression of a tortured God? The same can be said for post-World-War theology. Perhaps the bloody process of human evolution is something God must suffer, too? This God’s being is “univocal” in that he is deeply affected by creatures. What violates the analogy of being here is that God is not exposed to evil through the freely chosen Incarnation of the Word, but that, without reference to the Incarnation, he is always and everywhere on the same level of being as his creatures and, perhaps, he even needs them. This slopes towards monism/pantheism (or, though there’s no agreement on the term, “panentheism”). But why exchange the beauty of Scripture’s God for monism and a “univocal” God?

Not least among the reasons for breaking the analogy of being is that one has already chosen to ignore the analogy of religion. That happens when one has approached Scripture with arbitrary presumptions about God’s methods. The answer therefore to univocal doctrines of God is not to endlessly refine and apply our philosophy of the analogy of being, but to simply let ourselves be conformed to scripture. Liberalism died because of naturalism. What made it naturalistic? The fact that it neither assumed the unity of Scripture nor read it as a “hieroglyphic” of Christ.

Naturalistic religion will always be around because people continue to limit God’s Word by applying flimsy moral presumptions to the text. Liberalism was not so wrong here ­— the Word wants us to be scandalized by the debased forms he uses to reveal his glory. It’s just that the paradox of the Incarnate Word, robed as he is in Scripture’s words, is what makes him compelling and beautiful. We shouldn’t be so surprised then that billions of people think so too.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Boldt is a professor of theology at the Alexandria School of Theology.

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One Response

  1. William Perry

    Thank God I’m not alone.
    (BTW, I am 77 and have been an Anglican since I was six years old).

    I have always taken religion seriously, particularly since a direct Revelation from God in my early 20s, telling me to forego seminary, go into the world, and wait for instructions. This I have tried to do, not always with complete success due to sinfulness, and found the Voice of God leading me to wherever I went. Now my day is now far spent, but God seems to not be quite done with me.

    Rev. Boldt has put in words things that have been bothering me about the Anglican, Protestant, and Evangelical bends Christianity has taken during the last 50+ years. Although using vocabulary that the average person seeking to be a good Christian may have a hard time following, Rev. Boldt has summed up most of the ways I have felt the Church has departed from God. I always thought that the “liberal” approach to theology based on “situational ethics” was wrong headed. I watched in dismay as the Church leaders assumed they knew exactly what God wanted and could figure out themselves how to get it to happen. If the historical facts didn’t fit, they re-wrote history. If the congregations of Christians didn’t like the new liturgy, they ignored to a large extent those dislikes because they knew better.

    In brief, they took the mystery out of religion and assumed they knew what God wanted and how He wanted it done. This has not worked out well.

    Rev. Boldt put the blame largely on Deism and the Enlightenment, which is where I have determined after 50 years is where the problem arises. Whether we like it or not we are all children of the Enlightenment. We believe that if we observe the world carefully through our specie’s eyes, we will learn all we need to know. I have never been comfortable with that; it assumes our species can comprehend God. Look around you and tell me how we have come closer to God through putting our Enlightened minds before God’s Awe and Wonder.

    Now we are on the brink of a huge change in our belief of how the World really functions. When science was taken from the hands of white male Western Protestants and allowed to be practiced by all genders, races, creeds, and ethnic groups (which happened only recently) the result has been to rethink what we learned in school about the universe. The result, to my understanding, is that God works constantly and everywhere at the infinitely small to control everything. Alas, our species is not the sum of creation, but merely a part of the larger whole. That means that the “Liberal” assumption of being able to talk for God is wrong, from beginning to end.

    So what do we do? Why simply go back to our Christian roots and keep the same relationship with God that has allowed Christians to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, called The Christ. Of course, I am not ignorant of how much evil and self-serving has gotten into Church is the past 2000-years plus. That is why we need an accurate history, not only of the Church, but of the World. The “situational ethics” adherents and other children of the Enlightenment have denied us that. Maybe it’s time to return to Butler, or a myriad of earlier Saints and Doctors of the Church whose teachings have withstood the test of time. Maybe we need to look at our history with clear eyes, surrounded by the Wonder of God. Maybe we should learn how to pray sincerely with humility and love of all things in God’s Universe.


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