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).


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.