Such is the assertion posed in a recent essay published on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) website. Before we address the claim, it is important to note the trajectory of the writer’s essay. She clearly believes there is a slippery slope between progressive Christianity and atheism. She does qualify much of what she writes, noting she is speaking of “some” progressive Christians and that correlation is not causation.
However, it’s not hard to miss where she is heading; it’s clear what we are to take away: Progressive Christianity is something we should be suspicious of, if not hostile toward. At the end, she even compares progressive Christianity to the serpent’s voice in Genesis. Nice. What a reasonable and charitable reading of progressive Christianity…
So, let’s unpack this a bit:
“[Bart Campolo] explained that his journey to secular humanism was a 30-year process of passing through every stage of heresy. In other words, his theology “progressed” from conservative to liberal to entirely secular..”
That is a very misleading use of the word “progressed” in the context of progressive Christianity. Progressive Christianity is not about moving from one stage of belief to further and further unbelief. We would argue that more than a progression, it is a recovery of orthodox Christianity.
Next, she writes:
“…progressive Christians tend to reject the historic biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality, and generally deny or redefine doctrines such as the atonement and biblical authority.”
Here she misrepresents what progressives deny or redefine and all by way of begging the question. Whether progressive understandings are “biblical” or “historic” and whether or not they are being denied or redefined are the very questions in dispute. Progressives would argue that many historical understandings of the Bible were derived more from culture than the Bible and that rather than denying or redefining doctrines, they are correcting bad or false theological understandings.
She then notes the many stories, not of progressives becoming atheists, but of fundamentalists/evangelicals becoming atheists, but then realizing there is way to be a Christian that operates outside the fundamentalism/evangelical paradigm. In fact, they learn what the great majority of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, and many progressive forms of Protestantism already knew. They learn they were practicing a very small, Western, Americanized, and modern form of Christianity when compared with the rest of the world and the church through history. Maybe this is what should concern the writer (and TGC) more than where progressive Christianity might lead people.
Let us now consider her suggestion that there are, “…three atheistic ideas that some progressive Christians espouse…[that] may lead them into full-blown atheism.”
The first: “They May Adopt a Belief That the Bible Is Unreliable”
First of all, reliability is hardly what concerns most atheists when it comes to the Bible. If we were to ask an atheist if they thought the Bible reliable, their first question would be: Reliable in what way? As history? As science? As a blue print for living? As the final word in ethics, philosophy, and metaphysics? What? More importantly, if asked if they thought it had been inspired by God, they would of course say, no. Asserting this to be an atheistic idea is nonsensical, or moot at best.
Second, none of the progressive Christians the writer quotes tell us the Bible is unreliable. What bothers the writer is that they disagree with her as to how the Bible should be interpreted, used, and understood.
Thus, there is no connection here between the fact that progressive Christians interpret and understand the Bible differently than she does, and the fact that atheists do not believe the Bible to be reliable. That is something they would obviously not believe given they don’t believe in God. These are two entirely different issues.The second: “They May Have an Unresolved Answer to the Problem of Evil”
Wait, does the writer presume to tell us she has resolved the problem of evil? Wow. Well, please do tell. I mean, only the best and brightest theologians, philosophers and scholars have been wrestling with this question and problem for centuries. If our writer and the other Gospel Coalition people have resolved this problem, then please enlighten the rest of us.
In the meantime (while we wait for that essay), has the problem of evil caused some to become atheists? Probably. Does that have anything to do with progressive Christianity? Nope. In fact, it is entirely possible more atheists are created by the easy and shallow answers given by fundamentalists/evangelicals regarding the problem of evil, than anything proposed by progressives.
The third: “They May Affirm a Culture-Adapting Morality”
Here, like with number one, the writer again begs the question. The very question in dispute for progressives is does the Bible teach what fundamentalist/evangelicals think it does when it comes to morality and ethics? In the years leading up to the Civil War, Christians in the South believed the Bible supported slavery. Now, looking back, even the writer would agree they were simply affirming a culture-adapted morality, which they then used the Bible to support. How does the writer know whether or not her views of marriage, sexuality, and morality in general are not replicating the same phenomenon?
Again, her true concern here, is that progressives interpret and understand the Bible differently than she does when it comes to morality and ethics. Instead of addressing the true issue, the issue of hermeneutics and epistemology, she just begs the question as to what the Bible teaches (meaning, what we understand it to be teaching) regarding morality/ethics in general.
The writer ends with many other misunderstandings, but a true gem is: “The teachings of the Bible aren’t progressive—they’re eternal.”
I’m confused. Does she mean progressives interpret and understand the Bible incorrectly? Thus, the Bible doesn’t teach what they think it does? Or, does she mean the teachings of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, have never changed or been understood differently over time? Does she mean Moses and Paul believed the same things about heaven, hell, grace, circumcision, and how Gentiles are saved, etc.? Does she mean that when Jesus said, “you have heard it said…but I tell you…” there was nothing, “progressive” about that for the hearers?
Is she confusing progressive revelation with progressive Christianity, two entirely different things? Who knows? If she is using the word “progressive” to designate what are considered the understandings and interpretations held by the community of progressive Christians, then she simply begs the question again. Whether or not the teachings of the Bible are progressive (in the sense of progressive Christianity), is the very thing disputed.
If she is speaking of progressive revelation, even though off topic, we might respond: The truths of the Bible, especially those that pertain to God’s person and being, are indeed eternal, but that doesn’t mean we don’t, from our finite and limited perspective, understand them progressively over time. Again, consider the issue of slavery, or women viewed as property. Here, history itself refutes the writer. Either way, however she is using the word “progressive,” her point fails.
So, to conclude, rather than stoop to the level of equating what the writer is telling us with the voice of Satan, let’s just go with the truth: The writer’s essay is a series of misunderstandings in general, confusion over the use and meaning of the word “progressive,” and question-begging assertions.
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