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).

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The Doctrine of God

One of the problems with “systematic theology” is its starting point. Theology, of course, is a Greek word that comes from “theos” (God) and “ology” (study). Thus, theology is ostensibly to be about the study of God. But our theology all too often becomes about other things, and this problem is particularly obvious in the practice of “systematics.” Unlike other forms of theology, like Biblical Theology, which approaches the Scriptures as an unfolding and expanding narrative, systematic theology is organized topically. That is, it pulls all the passages about the Church, sin, salvation, and so forth out of the narrative and arranges them in a logical order. This effectively de-contextualizes the passages and flattens all of the contours, tensions, twists and turns of the Bible out into an abstracted ideology that proceeds like a logical argument.

Systematic theology starts, typically, with the doctrine of the Word of God, the Scriptures. Once that is discussed, it moves on to the Doctrine of God Himself. This approach is already problematic (which came first, God or the Bible?), though I understand the idea of establishing the trustworthiness of the book from which we’re drawing our doctrine. But I don’t want to get sidetracked here. My beef is with the way we deal with the doctrine of God.

The doctrine of God is bogged down by complicated philosophical questions and Greek categories like God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes, and the list of Greek words like omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, etc.

But the Bible doesn’t talk this way. The images and symbols of God in Scripture are robust and active, not static Greek idea-forms. But further than this, none of these topics give us a definition of who God is. We have a list of things that God can do, but no definition of His character. I can’t think of a single, easy-to-remember definition of God that stood out to me over the years I spent reading systematics. In fact, if Kenotic Theology is correct, then none of these listed attributes are actually essential to God’s person, because the self-emptying of Jesus (Philippians 2) means He gave up his omni-powers to become human. They are little more than abilities, however noteworthy, not defining characteristics.

In fact, the Scriptures only ever give us one definition of God’s character and personality. “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Yet I remember no discussion of this in any systematic theology I have ever read. Certainly not in more than passing, and in no detail. Nothing that would stand out, or suggest this was the central thing about God which the Scriptures wish us to remember is the most important aspect of God. God is love.

But if this isn’t enough for you, let’s take it a step further. There are personality traits which God defines as “love,” and thus these definitions of love become character traits of God. Paul’s phenomenal definition of love in the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, is as follows:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails, (1 Cor. 13:4-8).

Thus, we can replace “love” with “God” to illustrate God’s character:

God is patient, God is kind. He does not envy, He does not boast, He is not proud. He does not dishonor others, He is not self-seeking, He is not easily angered, He keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, God always trusts, God always hopes, God always perseveres. God’s love never fails, (1 Cor. 13:4-8).

In all my years of reading theology, I have never read a discussion of the Doctrine of God that started or ended here, or paid this much attention at all. I can’t help but suspect that part of our trouble understanding God and His Scriptures starts here – we don’t actually know much about Him. It seems to me we need to start right here and approach the whole Bible again, and let this definition mess with our categories, let it sink down into our bones, talk about it over and over again until it is so natural we simply assume it to be true.

The Bible As Word of God

Recent years have seen a number of different approaches to how we should understand the Bible. Is it the Word of God? The words of some backwoods goat farmers scattered over a millennia and cobbled together over time? Something else entirely?

Even within the umbrella category of believing it to be the Word of God, there are many options. Is it all the Word of God, or just some of it? Are there mistakes in it? What about contradictions? Of such questions and speculations about their answers there is seemingly no end.

I hold that the Scriptures are the very Word of God, issued from the Throne of heaven. That is, every punctuation mark of it was put there by the Spirit to communicate something, and that the words He chose to use are not exchangeable or replaceable. I have read a lot on contradictions and errors in the Bible, but remain unconvinced. Most of the offered errors are weak and come from a lack of attention to the text. None of this is to say there aren’t things in the Scriptures that require resolution. But these things are paradoxes, not contradictions. A contradiction is something we know to be a mistake; a paradox is something that is beyond explanation given our current knowledgeContinue reading “The Bible As Word of God”