I recently read an article which caricatured “Millennials” as cultural capitulators with no theological/philosophical backbone. Certainly, this type of caricature is nothing new. Throughout my tenure within evangelicalism, I can remember a number of Christian expletives that were often used to delineate friend from foe. There are five that come to mind right away: liberal, new age, postmodern, emergent, and millennial. You can also add “progressive” to that list.
But I can never understand why some evangelicals insist on making these false characterizations. Are they simply ignoring the facts in order to paint pictures of weak opponents? Or, are they ignorant? How can someone knowingly discard some obvious truth in favor of some obvious falsehood? Isn’t evangelicalism built on the premise of seeking truth? Or is it just seeking a certain kind of truth?
Certainly, this might be part of the problem, but it seems to me the predominant reason is that many evangelicals (not all) are brought up to view the world (in general) and their faith (specifically) a certain way. This is oftentimes the result of teaching people what to think (indoctrination) and not how to think. This can easily result in the ability for someone to look at information that clearly contradicts their premise and, instead of considering it properly, they turn to an apologetic mode of defense. Or, even worse they completely retreat from the faith.
Back in May, I wrote an article called, “Real or Unreal: Why Conservative Christianity Fears Progressive Christianity.” The article was a direct response to the irresponsible actions of a few evangelical churches in Arizona that were unfairly attacking a local “progressive” church through a series of Sunday morning messages that were scheduled throughout the summer. In that article, I included a brief table that “fairly” compared evangelicalism to progressive Christianity.
Many people found that table useful. In this article, I would like to go more in-depth on the various beliefs that both hold to. Although any attempt at synthesizing a worldview will always fall short of being wholly inclusive I find this summary to be a fair and broad representation of the whole. Before I begin let me briefly summarize the role progressive Christianity plays in the larger picture.
What is Progressive Christianity?
Progressive Christians are oftentimes caricatured by evangelicals as hippies who simply want to be accepted by everybody and as such jump on the “liberal” bandwagon proclaiming free love, tolerance, and peace. They are viewed as biblically incompetent and morally insecure.
I have referred to myself for a number of years as a “progressive Christian.” This was long before I knew anyone else used the term. I use it (only speaking for myself), as a way to describe my opposition to the ideology of conservativism. Conservatism by definition is opposed to change; opting instead to defend tradition instead of progress. When you bring together a conservative worldview with an evangelical philosophy you have a formula that perfectly describes what we see in American Conservative Christianity. When people are convinced that they have to fully adhere to a certain brand of Christianity in order to serve Jesus Christ, then there is a problem.
By definition, a “progressive” is one who does not oppose change. For progressive Christians, this means that God did not act in a particular period of time, but continues to act in and throughout the world. Christianity must be understood in light of this dynamism – not in opposition to it. Moreover, the only way to minister within a constantly changing culture is to engage in it, not retreat from it.
Comparing Evangelicalism and Progressive Christianity:
The Nature Of God
God is the source of absolute truth and as such has revealed this truth (maintaining absolute form) to humanity through special and general revelation. The emphasis here is on the communicative aspect of absolute truth.
God is absolute truth. Because God is the greatest possible being of truth any attempt at obtaining that truth (in absolute form), from a being less than God is not possible. Even God is limited by His own absoluteness in His ability to communicate to imperfect beings. And as imperfect beings, we are limited in our ability to apprehend the absolute truth of God.
Most hold to a literal understanding of the historical Jesus. And, in conjunction with their belief about the Bible, everything said about him in the gospels is historically true.
The purpose of Jesus is built upon the premise that all of humanity is inherently wicked and sinful. Therefore, the purpose of Jesus was to be an atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity in order to provide a way for humanity to access God. This access grants the individual entrance into the future eternal kingdom of God.
Progressive Christians generally hold to a contextually literal Jesus. Jesus was a real person, but information about him may or may not be accurate given a wide array of contextual circumstances. Some of these circumstances include transmission of the sources, biases of the writers, memory, and the writer’s political milieu.
The purpose of Jesus is built upon the premise that he was a product of what was promised about him. Namely, that he would be the “savior” of his people. To “save” in this sense is not ethical, but is a restorative function necessary to establish a kingdom based on “doing the Will of God.” Progressive Christianity does not necessarily deny atonement. However, they do not believe that this was Jesus’ primary purpose. In fact, it’s such a minor theme in the gospels that in order to arrive at the conclusion that Jesus purpose is “saving” one has to read and understand the story anachronistically (from Paul to Jesus) instead of contextually (from the OT to Jesus).
Ultimately, Jesus serves as the prototype “Christian” whose existence exemplifies what it means to live the Will of God. His perfection is not necessarily defined by ethical standards but in his ability to accomplish the “Will of the Father.” Although living an ethical life is important, it is not more important than doing the Will of God.
The Bible, Hermeneutics and Truth
As previously mentioned, evangelicals believe that absolute truth is attainable for humans. Based on this assumption, it logically follows that the Bible (God’s direct communication with humanity) is the inerrant (without blemish or error) Word of God.
The Bible’s function is primarily ethical and is ordained by God for humanity. It is the final authority for truth.
Biblical interpretation is oftentimes propositional and literal in nature. This method usually limits the ability to allow context to aid in the interpretation process. (To be fair evangelicals would argue that immediate biblical context aids in the understanding of said propositions. However, that is simply a partial context and still inadequate.)
There is also a tendency to understand the Bible anachronistically. That is, current context and tradition are often the lenses by which the Bible is interpreted. This results in placing the priority of affirming tradition above and beyond affirming scripture.
In general, progressive Christians believe the various writings that makeup scripture should be considered sacred for the Church. The Bible’s primary function is to participate in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit within the Church.
The purpose of the Bible is not to be a manifesto on metaphysical truth, but to empower and embolden the Church for living out the Will of God in the world.
The Bible is not necessarily God’s Word but brings about God’s Word within the believer through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This oftentimes occurs in conjunction with the other spiritual acts of meditation, prayer, worship, etc.
There is still much work that needs to be done regarding biblical hermeneutics. Moreover, the following has been my contribution thus far.
The Bible is to be understood within its proper narrative context. There is an ongoing context which not only stretches back in time through the pages of the OT, but also beyond those pages into history itself. Literalism in this sense is not derived propositionally but goes to the intent of the author. Truth is whatever the author intends for it to be, not what I am able to conclude based on my personal context and biases.
Ethics and Culture
In general culture is seen in opposition to Christianity. Christianity draws in culture. Christianity attempts to change culture’s ethical milieu by controlling (or trying to control) the dominating cultural paradigms they feel are incongruent with the standards set forth through scripture.
Their belief about culture logically follows from their view of Christ. That is, Christ came to condemn sin and save sinners. This is one of the core axioms of evangelicalism.
Social justice occurs through spiritual awakening because inequality is often viewed as a result of sin.
In general, culture is seen as something in need of integration and not necessarily as something in opposition to Christianity.
Ethics is often viewed situationally, instead of absolutely. In other words, the context of the situation determines the overall ethical weight needed for understanding right and wrong. Although the Bible contains ethics one can live by, they too are relative to their context and, as a result, may or may not apply to a contemporary situation.
And while inequality may be a product of a sinful humanity, the practical aspect of suffering and basic human rights can oftentimes be mitigated through the sharing of abundant resources.
Evangelism is a core axiom of evangelicalism. It is oftentimes characterized by some version of the “Romans Road.” The story told is that man was born into a sin they could neither control nor get rid of on their own. This sin has separated them from a Holy, Perfect God. The only way for man to become “right” and “justified” before a Holy God is to accept the free gift of salvation that is offered by Jesus Christ. The job of the Christian is to show the individual to what extent they are fallen.
Salvation is the direct result of an individual committing their life to Jesus Christ through the act of confessional prayer.
Most progressive Christians believe that “evangelism” occurs through the testimony of one’s life that is present in and through the ongoing relationship developed with that individual. That all of humanity is on a path of “working out their salvation with fear and trembling.” That we should live a “real” life before the world instead of portraying the “ideal” as something attainable. The job of the Christian is to build a relationship with that individual demonstrated through various acts of love. That is why for many progressives, “love” is the core axiom of the faith. Love…not judgment; not pie in the sky evangelism; but a real life-long commitment to individuals and their spiritual well being. That’s the model Jesus demonstrated; It’s the model we should live by.
Ultimately it is my hope that when evangelicals want to criticize progressive Christianity that they do so with factual information instead of the false stereotypes they have been taught.