Christian(ities): Progressive vs. Regressive

Eight local churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona have decided to team up to attack the only progressive church in their town with a coordinated sermon series. Recently Scott Fritzsche at Unsettled Christianity asked the 8 pastors a series of questions about their intentions.

Their answers are noteworthy.

For example, notice how they privilege themselves as the gatekeepers of the Nicene Creed: “While it is true that there are doctrinal differences between us, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are shared by all: Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that He was buried, and then raised on the 3rd day according to the Scriptures.”

Those foolish Progressives apparently deny the Nicene Creed, the ecumenical guide of historic Christianity. But I’m not aware of any Progressive Christian that could not recite the Nicene Creed in good faith – the question is how to understand the Creed, not whether or not to confess it. By reciting this litany of doctrines, what these pastors really mean is to see these as objective, historical descriptions of What Really Happened in the modern, Western sense of neutral historical description. But these pastors express the very problem themselves; these descriptions come to us “according to the Scriptures,” that is through liturgical and religious documents. Historical reconstruction beyond the literary documents of the Scriptures is impossible, and hence does not bother Progressives too much. Coincidentally, as a member of the Episcopal Church I recite this creed every week in worship. How often do these regressive churches confess it?

Progressive Christianity leads to a Christ-less Christianity. If Jesus is simply a good man we are trying to emulate and not the Son of God, then we dead in our sin and are dependent on works righteousness.

It’s all about Jesus.  Progressive theology denies the Deity of Jesus, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus.  Sin is not dealt with, thus salvation is not available

This claim is so absurd it is just sad. The fact of the matter is that regressive Christianity turns Jesus into an irrelevancy to the actual lives of their congregations – necessary, perhaps, to have lived perfectly and gotten himself murdered by his father so we could float off to heaven when we die, but beyond that mostly not. Progressive Christians place Jesus at the very heart. Jesus, we might recall, said “Follow me,” not “Think Things About Me.”

Progressive Christians say Jesus isn’t the Son of God? Where? In fact, where have we said any of these things? The truth is that we simply understand these terms differently than they do – and they must be the only ones who can be right. God forbid there be a diversity of opinion on how to understand the Christian faith. No, regressives must impound everyone who deviates from their party line. How dare we present a gospel that is genuinely good news, a God that is genuinely benevolent to all people, a faith that is about love instead of nit-picking rationalism and the primacy of dogma over people.

Progressive Christianity has made it quite clear that they don’t believe in a theistic God, nor do they believe Jesus is the only way to God. Comparatively, Jesus clearly believed in a theistic God (He called Him Father) and it was Jesus Himself who said He was the only way to the Father.

I suppose it is too much to expect that regressives would be aware that the Scriptures employ metaphor to speak about things that are beyond human language, like the nature and being of God and the Trinity. Now, it is true that panentheism is popular among Progressive Christians, but then it was popular among the Eastern Church in the early parts of church history too, which emphasized panentheism and theosis.

Likewise, we should note that saying “Jesus is the only way” and “Christianity is the only way” are two entirely different statements. After the Ascension, Jesus ceased to be an object within the universe and became “enthroned,” a word we use to describe the expansive union of the person Jesus with the divine Logos that indwelt him in his life. Jesus became, in this sense, the cosmic Christ, the Logos in, through, and by the whole world lives, moves, and has its being. We use the words “Logos” and “Jesus” to speak of this “beyonding” presence; Muslims use the name Allah, Jews use the name Yahweh. Precise theological minutia cannot be demanded for salvation, because precise theological minutia is impossible, since God is essentially beyond human language to describe and comprehend. It is simply hubris and human arrogance to suggest anything else. (Not to mention that understanding proper theological doctrines is, then, itself a “work” that man must do in order to be saved.) On this point, Progressives insist upon theological and interpretive humility in the face of that which defies human description.

Thus, one can be saved outside Christianity, but not outside Christ, the cosmic Logos that is in union with the whole creation, by, through, and in Whom we live, move, and have our being.

Doctrine is at the very center of everything we do, but then that would be true for a Progressive Christian as well. In fact, it is at the center of what every human being does; even the atheist. A person only acts on what they believe. The real question is what do you believe? We believe the Bible is the Word of God, as such, inerrant. We then use the Bible as a guideline for the outworking of our faith in day to day life. Fostering that doctrine is really quite simple: blow the dust off the book and read it!

Here we have what is called the “primacy of the intellect.” Originating in Aristotle and Plato, and then employed by the Capitalist bourgeois to define man as an economic being – inherently individualistic and rationally self-motivated. Doctrine and the thought and mind of man, is the highest good for regressive faith. For Progressives, orthopraxis controls orthodoxy. Right action teaches right theology. The center of humanity, for the Progressive, is love, not doctrine. Jesus came to teach us how to live, as human communities, in a new way. He came to show us the way of love, not the way of thought. That isn’t to say thought isn’t important, but it may not take center stage. Those who appear in the judgment in Matthew 25 are evaluated on the basis of their love, not their ability to define superlapsarianism.

The term Progressive indicates something that evolves (changes from one state to a more improved state) over time. Is Christ progressive? Does Jesus evolve? What improvement would you add to His perfection? More to the point, what can man’s knowledge and learning add to Divine perfection?

Does Jesus evolve? No, but our understanding of Jesus certainly does, as even the Scriptures attest.

I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come,” (John 16:12-13).

Here Jesus attests that the Scriptures themselves are simply not enough. The work of the Spirit in the Church, leading us progressively into all truth, is the means by which Jesus provokes us to re-evaluate our interpretations. The Spirit, dwelling in the community of God, will guide us into understanding which were not available to the disciples and to the Church in the past. The Christian faith is a forward-moving faith, not a static faith imprisoned under the totalitiarianism of the dead. Tradition is right and good, so far as it is helpful. Tradition can be and is often wrong. Slavery, women, and Jews, anyone? Where it is helpful, it is retained. Where it is not helpful, it is not needed.

The idea of absolute inerrancy of Scripture simply isn’t taught in Scripture. In fact, the Scriptures directly contradict this very notion. One of the social consequences of inerrancy is to treat the Scriptures as though eternal life was found in them, rather than in the eternal and cosmic Christ himself. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life,” (John 5:39-40).


When the Bible is Wrong

The question of when and whether the Bible is wrong (and how to tell when and where it is) has been an ongoing discussion over the last year or so. I think this is a great discussion to have, because prior to about 1970 most Christians didn’t really care about the Old Testament. Since the 1970s the theological trend has been to see absolute and complete agreement between the OT and the NT. Now we appear to be moving into a stage of understanding that there is neither complete continuity or complete discontinuity between the testaments, and to start seriously exploring where they are different.

In this post, I want to explore whether or not the New Testament believes the Bible can be wrong. And the answer I found is actually quite surprising – the answer is a robust yes.

The epistle to the Colossians declares that the Old Testament is a “shadow of what is yet to come, because the substance belongs to Christ,” (Col. 2:17). The word “shadow” there is the Greek skia, which literally means shadow, but is used figuratively for the “darkness of error.” (For those curious as to where I found this, it is the listed meaning in Strong’s numbers). Isaiah in particular connects darkness with blindness (Isa. 29:18; 42:7, 16), a darkness that the coming of the Messiah would remedy: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those that live in the land of the shadow of death, upon them the light has shined,” (Isa. 9:2). This is not mere incompleteness of the Old Testament’s understanding of God, but—at least in some cases—actual misunderstanding.

Sharply in contrast to this “shadow of error” that represented the Torah and Old Testament, Colossians then tells us that the “substance belongs to Christ.” The Greek word for “substance” here is soma, which literally refers to a body in sound health. Its root is sozo, which is the word the New Testament uses for “saved, salvation,” and which means to be kept safe and sound, to be rescued. Thus, this “substance” that belongs to Christ is the remedy to the “shadow of error” that looms over the Old Testament. Jesus “saves” the Old Testament by reinterpreting it according to his perfect knowledge of God.

The epistle of Hebrews tells us several things about the Old Testament that are important. The very first verses tell us this: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son,” (Heb. 1:1-2). The contrast is clear; long ago God spoke through various people in diverse ways, but now God has spoken with the unified voice of Jesus. The implication here, of course, is that if God spoke through various people in various ways, that communication is not perfectly clear. But now, at last, God has spoken with finality through the unified, single voice of Jesus. These various people were not perfect representations of God, nor did they grasp his inmost depths, because only Jesus reveals this, as the next verse tells us: Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of his nature,” (Heb. 1:3).

In the tenth chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, we read that the Old Testament “possesses a mere shadow of the good things to come, instead of possessing the true realities,” (Heb. 10:1). “Mere shadow” here is again skia, the “shadow of error” or misunderstanding. The “true realities” it does not possess are eikon, the same word which Hebrews 1:3 uses to describe Jesus as the “precise image” and “exact imprint” of God’s innermost being and character. Jesus possesses something which the Old Testament never did, and therefore understands things which it never could.

The use of skia in both Colossians and Hebrews to speak about what the Old Testament lacked is interesting. The word goes quite beyond incompleteness and into error or distortion. Of course, something that is partial, vague, or incomplete brings with it distortion by necessity. The rough sketch is inexact and incomplete; it cannot give us the detail or clarity of the full painting. The crudely-drawn map cannot possess the full accuracy of the topographical map. The whole discussion of both passages depends upon the rhetorical contrast between vague, ill-defined or distorted pictures of God in the Old Testament and the perfect, precise, clear description and fullness of the invisible God displayed in the visible person of Jesus.

Importantly, Jesus himself taught the same thing. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill,” (Matt. 5:17). It has been vogue in the last twenty or so years among evangelicals to see this passage as Jesus agreeing with everything in the Old Testament, but this is not what Jesus means. After all, the rest of the Sermon is a series of contrasts: “You have heard it said . . . But I say to you.”

Rather, Jesus has come to “fulfill” the Torah. The Greek word here is pleroo, which means both to meet the requirements of something, and also to finish, perfect, or complete something. Thus, Jesus is saying that his teachings meets the requirements of the Torah, but that they also perfect or “fix” the Torah. He is correcting the Torah.

This is why Jesus is our standard, our exegesis, our hermeneutic. This is why he has authority over the Old Testament. He is the exact image of the invisible God, unlike the “inexact” image of God we were given in the Old Testament.

Whenever I think about the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament, I always think of the moment when Moses wants to see God, to look on him with his own eyes. God doesn’t really want to reveal himself, but finally he agrees to let Moses see, but only for a moment. He tells Moses to look between two rocks and God will pass by, just for a second. And all Moses sees is the back side of God: “you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen,” (Ex. 33:23). How precise an understanding of a person can be deduced from their back? The Old Testament knew God, but – speaking metaphorically – all they knew was God’s back. Now, Jesus has come as the very face of God, the face that the Old Testament could not see.

Excuses, Excuses . . .

It has seemed to me that, as Christians, our general approach to Scripture has been problematic. I have no high, theological issues to discuss here about inerrancy or the like, merely an observation on how our attitudes frame what is acceptable discourse and what isn’t.

Let me explain. In my Bible study group we’ve been going through the Gospel of Matthew, and we’ve recently gotten into that stickiest of passages, the Sermon on the Mount. Now, the Sermon is not all that complicated in my view, and Jesus’s commands are fairly straightforward. But to my amazement, I watched the straightforward words of Jesus get turned upside down and inside out. As it turns out, most Christians think the Sermon is a highly contextualized document that requires a fine reading that splits all the hairs that are possible. Jesus’s command not to take oaths, for example, now means that oaths are perfectly okay, so long as you mean what you say and actually do it. Not only are religious oaths okay, but so too are oaths of a civil and national nature. It is not a violation of the taking of oaths to say the pledge of allegiance. Obviously. Jesus was totally on board with nationalism, apparently.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find out that not only does Jesus’s straightforward statement “Do not resist with violence those who would harm you” actually mean “go ahead and resist with violence those who would harm you,” but that doing violence and harm to them can itself be fulfilling the command to love one’s enemies. This sort of reasoning, no matter how popular, is really twisted. How exactly is this kind of thing different from how the Pharisees treated the Torah? It does have a long tradition, though. Augustine’s classic commentary on the Sermon says this, “Nor are we thus precluded from inflicting such punishment [requital] as avails for correction, and as compassion itself dictates.” Oh, right, of course. Correcting someone violently is actually compassionate. That’s obviously what Jesus meant. Augustine goes on, “But no one is fit for inflicting this punishment except the man who, by the greatness of his love, has overcome that hatred wherewith those are wont to be inflamed who wish to avenge themselves,” and claims that it is “not a rule for outward action.” Right, that obviously makes sense. That is, basically, so long as you’re not punishing out of inner hatred, you’re in the clear.

Excuses, excuses.

John Calvin was little better. He claims that the “design of Christ was merely to train the minds of believers to moderation and justice, that they might not, on receiving one or two offenses, fail or lose courage.” Right, sure. Don’t use violence against your enemies means inward mind training and extends to “one or two offenses.” Further, for Calvin, it is “unquestionably” true that “Christ did not intend to exhort his people to whet the malice of those, whose propensity to injure others is sufficiently strong: and if they were to turn to them the other cheek, what would it be but holding out such an encouragement?” Again this magical love that lets us overturn Jesus’s own words. You can’t just refuse to defend yourself at all, that’s crazy, right? I mean, if they love violence, then you’re just encouraging them in their sin, and we can’t have that, can we?

Excuses, excuses.

And so here’s my point. Christians spend more time talking about what certain things in the Bible don’t mean than what they do mean. It happens in the Sermon most of all, but also in Acts 2 and 4, because it just cannot mean what it appears to be saying. But why? Why can’t it mean exactly what it says? Why is it that we have to twist and dig and rend and explain the power out of these passages?

There isn’t a good reason. There are just excuses. So when someone tells you that the Bible “just can’t mean that,” stop and ask why not? What happens if it did mean that? Most of the time when this happens, you have some sort of ideology or prior commitment hovering around in the background not too far off.

How to Tell if You’re a Heretic

Because of my recent work on LGBTQ issues and a variety of other theological changes I have gone through in the last year or so, a number of concerned individuals have expressed “concern” about me. Now, in evangelical circles, you know you’re in trouble when people start to express concern, or say they’ll “pray for you.” These are polite ways of saying you’ve gone off the path and they’re worried for your soul–a sort of Christian equivalent to the Southern practice of concealing an insult behind the expression, “bless their heart.”

Evidently–for reasons that are completely beyond me–some evangelicals see the love of God expressed toward gay people to be the equivalent to apostasy. Looking past my befuddlement for the moment, I started thinking about apostasy and the nature of heresy.

Originally, heretics were those who deviated from Paul’s assertion that Gentiles can be vindicated by faithfulness and perseverance in justice and mercy, those who claimed instead that everyone must adhere to the “works of the Torah,” by circumcision and the purity rites of the Torah in order to be vindicated before God. This is what the Pharisees were up to–they focused on the minutia instead of on the heart of the Torah, mercy and justice and doing good deeds, loving their neighbor as themselves. So the original heretics were people who elevated non-essential matters into the heart of things and twisted everything out of shape because of that. Since evangelicals like to elevate everything to the level of faithfulness to the gospel, they might do well to dwell on this for a while.

Today, however, we are pretty happy to apply the “heresy” label to anyone we don’t agree with or who expresses something we are not used to hearing. We don’t like unfamiliar things (apparently, they’re scary and dangerous), and so we apply the “heresy” label to shut up any opposition like the little authoritarians we are. The problem with this approach, of course, is that there will always be people who want to know why something is supposedly off-limits and anathama. They might even read people outside of the approved lists, and generally, they find out these things aren’t heretical, though they might be a bit different from what they’re used to.

The trouble here is that a heretic is a person that goes outside the bounds of the orthodox faith, not somebody who goes outside the parochial reservation of conservative evangelicaldom. The boundary of orthodoxy is generally considered to be the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, which are ecumenical.

That is, unless someone is denying something in the ecumenical creeds, they aren’t a heretic. The things in the creeds are essentials. Everything else is adiaphora, non-essential. The fact that someone disagrees with the Westminster Confession of Faith or the 39 Articles does not make them a heretic, because these confessions are parochial, not universal. They are not binding on the whole Church.

This forces us to distinguish between the things we believe are right, and the things we believe are required. One must believe that Jesus died for us and our salvation, according to the Creeds. One is under no obligation to hold any particular explanation of how Jesus died for us and our salvation, even if that explanation is right. When the universal Church settles on a doctrine of justification, we can have an ecumenical council to add it to the essentials. Until that time, we are free to explore a variety of interpretations.

Now, justification is a pretty important issue, and even it is not a part of the ecumenical creeds. What then of a minor dispute concerning how to read a mere seven passages that may or may not be relevant to gay people today? Such a discussion is so far out in the adiaphora that you can hardly see it because of all the weeds.

So if you think accepting LGBTQ people is heresy, or apostasy, or some other nasty label used to slap around people’s consciences, please do remember that there are essentials and there is adiaphora. The essentials are in the ecumenical creeds. The adiaphora is not. The particular construction of doctrines in the Creeds are not in the Creeds.

So please. Cool your jets. Loving gay people does not endanger the ecumenical creeds, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the death of Christ for us and our salvation, His death and burial, His descent into death, or His resurrection and ascension, nor His kingdom or His bodily return to judge the living and the dead. It does not end one’s belief in the Father or that Jesus was His Son, the Word of the Father come in the flesh, nor the procession of the Spirit or the holy and apostolic Church, the resurrection of the dead, or the life of the age to come.

If you deny one of these things, you’re a heretic. If you don’t, you’re not. And that’s how to tell if you’re a heretic.

Unhelpful Preaching

John Piper has a new blog post out on how to be an unhelpful preacher. Except that he wants unhelpfulness to be a positive trait in the pastorate – apparently.

His concern is to keep speculations out of the pulpit, and while I agree this is a commendable impulse, his approach is precisely the anti-intellectual attitude that implicitly infects American Christianity. The problem with his blog post is that he is not discriminating about the different kinds of “speculations” he is talking about. His list mashes them together, even though they differ by degree and magnitude.

He lumps meditations about appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ with Q-source speculation, whether St. Paul was a widower or divorcee, whether the Red Sea exodus could be explainable naturally, and whether Mary Magdalene had a crush on Jesus.

But there are no distinctions made between these sorts of things. They are mashed together in a great big mess as if they were equally problematic and equally speculative. Certainly naturalistic explanations of the Red Sea are to be rejected outright, and the pulpit is not the place to address source-criticism. But these are different in kind from questions that pyschologize passages (“Did Magdalene have a crush on Jesus?”). The hermeneutic is completely different.

Likewise, while we can certainly agree that whether or not the pre-incarnate Jesus was present in the OT, this is generally not the point of the passages in question. But it is also unfair to characterize this discussion as “speculative.” We already know from St. John that no one ever saw the Father, even in the OT: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made him known,” (John 1:18). The problem with drawing excessive attention to brief moments of the pre-incarnate Christ, it would seem, is that we don’t realize that Yahweh IS Christ, the manifestation of the Father on earth and in the Temple. It was Christ who broke the chains of Egypt and led His people out by pillars of fire and smoke, Jesus/Yahweh who descended on Sinai with thunder and earthquake and lightning, Jesus who spoke the law and Jesus who came and spoke to the prophets. “Thus says Yahweh,” in the OT is “Thus says Jesus.” This is not speculative in the slightest, though it is unfamiliar to us.

The problem with Piper’s suggestion is the implied hermeneutic of abstraction and simplicity to a fault.

My point is that people need solid food, not possible food. They need a sure word from God, not a guess from man. They need a biblical “Thus says the Lord,” not a “Maybe God said.”

A fascinating five-minute homiletic detour into what might have been going in Corinth behind this or that text is a waste of precious time. And I think it trains our people to expect interludes of historical entertainment, and to mistake it for deep insight and spiritual food.

What is really there in the text of Scripture is bottomless, and staggeringly interesting, and provocative.

This sort of claim betrays a serious and fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of context. The whole push for a “sure word from God” seems to carry Piper into dismissal of context. It doesn’t matter what St. Paul’s first-century context was, he seems to be saying, so long as you just say what’s in front of you.

The trouble with this approach is that it does not solve the problem of certainty. It remains true that you cannot know how to apply a passage until you know what St. Paul’s circumstance was. To come at the text blind and “contextless” in this way does not make our applications more sure, it makes them less certain. It matters whether Jesus was talking to Pharisees or the woman at the well. It matters whether St. Paul was addressing a church, a pagan, Gentiles, or Jews. It matters if he was referring to the cult of Delphi or Jewish/Judaizing gnosticism. Ignoring this dimension of the text simply privileges our own biases and elevates them to the level of divine inspiration. Such is the burden of simplistic claims to “expositional preaching.” Without first understanding the context, all application is by default misapplication.

Jesus Our Interpretation: A Hermeneutical Proposal

It is fairly common to hear people in the Church say that “truth isn’t an idea, truth is a person.” What they mean by this is that the Word of God is truth, and the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus. So in a way truth was personified, Incarnated in the Person of Jesus. This is quite true.

But it seems to me we need to take this down into the details. If Jesus is the truth, then Jesus is interpretation. Jesus is the key that allows us to read the Word of God properly. It is now well known that truth depends upon where you stand, truth is effected by where you happen to be standing. To say that Jesus is truth means that we have chosen to stand in a certain place, to hold certain beliefs and allow them to effect what we see around us.

So far we have not said much of what a few Reformed people have said. But there is more.

If Jesus is our interpretation, then we regularly distort the Scriptures. If Jesus is our interpretation, then His emphases in the gospels become primary tools for how we understand the rest of Scripture. But this isn’t what we do. As good students of systematic theology, we take all of the references on a topic and arrange them together in a logical sequence, giving each element equal weight. But if Jesus’s life becomes the hermeneutic by which we understand everything else, then our balance is suddenly seen as imbalance and Jesus’ biases become balanced. Because Jesus reveals to us the inner-most Godhead, His life provides us with a hermeneutic that allows us to reorient ourselves elsewhere in Scripture, provides us with the ability to weight our emphases properly.