Progressive Christianity: Nine Marks

Progressive Christianity: Nine Marks February 27, 2018

From Roger Olson:

Now, to read a good book on this topic, R. Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology

SMcK: I would some additional elements. First, I see progressivism as a kind of eschatology and thus it packages some major elements of liberalism into a theory of progress. Perhaps, second, as important is this: Progressives tend toward centralization of power, both politically and theologically, though the latter is more nuanced than the former.

Once Roger posted on this and I posted too but then I asked UMC pastor, overall good-guy and died-in-the-wool progressive (but is a progressive so described?), Bo Sanders and he said this in response to Roger’s long-ago post that some progressives have taken over the term liberal:

My contention is that saying progressives are really just liberals who don’t like the ‘L’ word is like saying that athletes and baseball players are really just the same thing. While baseball players are athletes, not all athletes play baseball. It’s an inexact statement. They aren’t exactly the same thing.

There is as big a difference between liberal and progressive as there is between evangelical and emergent. There may be some overlap, but to equate the two is unhelpful.

Here is the most basic definition I can provide – it comes from John Cobb, the greatest living American theologian:

  • Liberal simply means that one’s experience is a valid location for doing theology. [SMcK: I’m not so sure it is accurate to locate liberalism in experience only. Liberalism is tied to Enlightenment and therefore liberalism is modernism, too. Which shifts its basis from experience.]
  • Progressives are liberal folks who have learned from Feminist, Liberation and Post-Colonial critiques. *  [SMcK: this didn’t do much for me then and even less now, but what follows is a bit better.] …

Liberal is simply a constellation of positions and answers to question that were established in the Enlightenment.

Liberal is a settled matter. It has accepted the basic inherited framework to be the as-is structure and conceded the basic ground-rules as given. [SMcK: I just don’t know how one could say it is “settled.” My read of liberal theology and liberal theories about society is that they shift. Still, yes, a response to Enlightenment.]

Progressive on the other hand is to question, to wrestle, and to push. Progressives don’t  necessarily think that all progress is good and certainly don’t think that history is inevitable. …

So even if you just want to say that progressives are aggressive liberals, that would be more accurate. [This is where I’d locate the eschatological element and the activist element. I’d also say that their aggression is connected to power, to how social forces are used to effect change — activism, voting, majority. It seems, too, that “aggressive liberal” proves Roger Olson’s point.]

Liberals concede the rules of game, they just want to pick the better of the provided options. Progressives question the as-is possibilities of the given structures. This causes progressive to engage in critical examination and to re-evaluate both the road ahead and the road that delivered us here.

Now to Roger’s list:

Gradually, however, in my experience (as a Christian theologian for almost forty years now), “progressive Christianity” has by-and-large become a replacement for what used to be called “liberal Protestantism” (although it can be found in some Catholic circles as well).

The first signal (of liberal Protestantism disguised as “progressive Christianity”) is a disinterest, especially among Christian leaders (of congregations, denominations, and organizations) in doctrine. That’s sometimes difficult to detect because progressive Christians (as I mean that here) often talk about doctrines but only as historical relics, not as living realities to be protected and defended (even if reinterpreted and translated for the sake of understanding).

The second signal is a distinct tendency to replace doctrines, in terms of importance for membership and leadership, with “kindness” and “inclusion” as well as “social justice”—usually for some newly discovered “oppressed group.” Included in this tendency is a complete abandonment of church discipline especially as that relates to doctrinal accountability and sexual behavior (except for what is illegal).

A third signal is a determination, however, slow and subtle, to accommodate to trends within academic culture—regardless of their fitness with Scripture and tradition. In other words, the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” shifts beyond being an equilateral to being one in which reason (defined as what the American academy and its movers and shakers consider reasonable and normal) and experience (defined as what the American academy its movers and shakers consider normal and acceptable) dominate Scripture and tradition. Something to listen for is this now common saying in progressive Christianity circles: “Who cares what Paul said? I follow Jesus.”

A fourth signal is an elevation of inclusiveness to a virtue bar none (or “par none”) within the church, denomination, and/or Christian organization. Of course, “inclusiveness” is never complete; persons perceived to be “discriminatory” in any manner (language, behavior, sentiment) are marginalized if not ostracized.

A fifth signal is the abandonment of the “language of Zion” by which I mean traditional Christian concepts such as “sin,” “repentance,” “salvation,” “return of Christ,” and, yes, “judgment of God.” These are replaced by concepts such as “Kingdom of God” or “city of God”—interpreted as a condition of social justice including inclusion of all people equally without judgment (except discriminatory or perceived intolerance).

A sixth signal is implicit universalism—a complete abandonment of any mention of hell—except perhaps as a code word for misery in this life usually described as oppression—both the oppressed and the oppressors are in a living “hell” from which they need deliverance through social transformation which often includes social engineering via politically correct language.

A seventh signal is the way in which the Bible is described—not as a supernaturally inspired and unique message from God, possessing final authority for faith and practice—but as “our sacred stories”—different in degree but not in kind from other great and inspiring writings.

An eighth signal is the complete abandonment of belief in the supernatural together with a strong emphasis on the immanence of God in all people. The “imago dei” gets reinterpreted as a presence of God in every human person. Together with this comes a tendency to horizontalize Christian recognition of God’s presence—as totally within historical movements for justice and completely within the “face of the other”—especially the weak, the vulnerable and the marginalized.

Finally, a ninth signal is the adoption of hostile language about groups of human beings who dare to defend traditional values. They are often lumped together with racists, bigots, oppressors, “fundamentalists,” and even “red necks” solely because they hold to traditional “family values” or express the opinion that too much is changing too fast in terms of what is acceptable within the church and society.

As in fundamentalism, within many progressive Christian circles an echo chamber develops. In this one, though, those “out of touch” with the latest trends in sociology, social work, education, journalism and the social sciences in general are effectively silenced. There develops a “fundamentalism of the left” that is not really inclusive at all.


"I'm sorry you live in such abject fear of a tyrannical god that you dare ..."

Woman Pastor Named In The New ..."
"How is it a red herring? There were no Americans available, but there were (admittedly, ..."

Woman Pastor Named In The New ..."
"Quite frankly, the entire point of whether the “elect lady” was an actual lady, metaphor, ..."

Woman Pastor Named In The New ..."
"I suggest that a possible answer to your question, Abby, goes back to the foundations ..."

God’s Creation … What is “Good”? ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment