Is Progressive Christianity counterfeit Gospel? The short answer: no. But, like all questions, a fully-developed answer depends on a number of factors: What exactly is Progressive Christianity? What is the Gospel, for that matter? And how, precisely, would something then be counterfeit?
What is the Gospel?
The first question—what is Progressive Christianity?—can be rather difficult to answer, so we are going to hold off for now, focusing instead on the second: what is the Gospel? Put most literally, the word “gospel” comes from the Greek noun euangelion, meaning “good news,” or, as David Bentley Hart sometimes translates it, “the good tidings.” But, what exactly is the Good News, or the good tidings? Well, that depends on who you ask.
If you ask the Reformed Evangelical, or any number of American Christians, really, they’ll likely tell you something similar to the following:
The Good News is that though you are a sinner and doomed for hell, God mercifully sent himself in the form of a human being to die as a substitute for your sins, thus assuaging his wrath and paving the way for your salvation and restoration in heaven.
We could quibble on the details of the above, but every Christian has likely heard some version of that story.
The problem, as anyone who has studied church history and development of theological thought, is that while the same sort of language can be found in the gospels, as well as in Paul’s writings, this is a very narrow and, might I say, relatively recent theological development, first put forth by John Calvin in the Middle Ages and then expanded upon by his many devotees. If we expand our theological horizons, however, we’ll hear answers that are much different.
For the folks in the Liberation Theology camp, for example, the Good News is that while Jesus Christ indeed came to save humanity—from what? I wonder—he also came to liberate the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. In other words, one cannot separate Christ’s salvific act from his social justice. The two go hand in hand.
On the contrary, for those who adhere to Eastern Orthodox theology, while social justice is important in some circles, you’ll really only hear language that emphasizes Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil—a Good News that is imbued with Christus Victor atonement language.
If you go all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity—the book of Acts—the following timeline is emphasized on at least three occasions:
- Acts 2:23–24: “This man . . . you crucified . . . but God raised him up.”
- Acts 3:15: “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.”
- Acts 4:10: “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”
What is driven home is the following: though Jesus Christ was killed, he was, more importantly, raised from the dead by God. That is the Good News—the Resurrection and its implications for all humanity.
So again, herein lies the same problem we began with: different Christians will have different answers as to what the Gospel is. They will all, to varying degrees, use Scripture as some sort of authority, but that in itself is laden with problems, the biggest being that we can’t agree on how to exegete it, can’t agree on which hermeneutical methods are more valid and which are less so, or even which books belong in the canon. Every answer seems self referential, does it not? An adventure in circular reasoning even the Truest Scotsman could resonate with.
Personally, if I had to give my answer, it would be something like the following:
The Gospel is the Good News that God is actively working toward restoring all people and that, as testified to by the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in the end, all evil, all suffering, and all death will be no more.
Of course, many Christians will disagree with me, or at least add amendments and addendums—which yet again brings us back to our original point that all this hinges upon who you ask.
What is Progressive Christianity?
Okay, so now that we have no more of a clear picture of what the Gospel is than when we started, we’ll move to question two: what is Progressive Christianity?
The short answer is: I don’t know. The slightly longer answer is that Progressive Christianity doesn’t really define itself by what it believes about Jesus, God, or Scripture (orthodoxy), but instead focuses more on how one lives out whatever faith they have in any or all three (orthopraxy) and how we as 21st century people can relate to the Divine while living in a post-postmodern, rational, scientific world.
A caveat, however: some Progressive Christians will be as orthodox as can be, will affirm the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, will read and study their Bibles daily, and will attend church just about every Sunday. Yet others will do none of these things, but will still find inspiration and meaning from the figure of Jesus Christ.
And therein lies the difficulty in answering this question as well. Progressive Christians are hard to pin down. Some are orthodox, others are heterodox, and still others are full-on heretics. But like we’ve said so many times on the Heretic Happy Hour podcast: Everyone is someone else’s heretic.
Now, while I’ve admittedly (and perhaps annoyingly) been a bit dodgy in answering the questions, it’s simply because we don’t have a “unity of text,” as it were (to play off Jacques Derrida’s insights). In other words, the terms we are attempting to pin down in this article are impossible to define because they carry with them different meanings in different groups. Furthermore, because Progressive Christianity covers such a diverse theological spectrum, the question in the title is a bit of an unanswerable one.
What is truly important?
To close, I’d like to meet the original question—is Progressive Christianity counterfeit Gospel?—with a different question: what is truly important? Do our labels and titles—Progressive, Conservative, Orthodox, Heterodox, Heretic, Christian—actually matter? To some degree, yes. Without labels and titles we couldn’t even communicate with one another, as every word in the entire English language is but a label that points at or toward something else. But in a much larger sense these things don’t matter. What matters, according to both my personal experience and many of the teachings of Jesus, is how we treat one another.
Do we visit the imprisoned?
Do we feed the hungry?
Do we clothe the naked?
Do we comfort the widow?
Are we honest and forthright?
Do we put our friends before our self?
Are we there for others when they need us?
Do we hold the hands of our dying grandmothers and grandfathers?
Do we donate our time and money to causes that alleviate suffering?
Of course, based on these questions, it is at this point where most people would call me a Progressive Christian. I’ve elevated orthopraxy over orthodoxy—happily. So, ask yourself this: Does the Gospel I’ve put forth through my Progressive Christian lens sound counterfeit to you? Well, if you’re a Reformed Christian who worships a God who needs an unblemished sacrifice in order to forgive sin, then yes, what I’ve said throughout this piece will sound counterfeit. If you’re an Orthodox Christian who demands a Gospel that includes a virgin birth, literal bodily resurrection, and everlasting punishment for the wicked, then ditto but perhaps for different reasons. But please know this: there will be Progressive Christians out there who are just as orthodox, just as biblical, and just as Christlike as the next Christian, so always remember to approach your faith with grace, humility, and a proclivity toward inward reflection rather than outward judgment. Because to do otherwise would be the real counterfeit.
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