I was once told that “a liberal theologian is just an atheist dressed-up for church.” A liberal Christian denied the basic ideas of Christian doctrine and the authority and infallibility of Holy Scripture. Liberal Christians simply could not be real Christians without those values. Liberal Christians made accommodations to secular society. They used a questionable translation of Scripture (the Revised Standard Version). The liberal theologians relied on secular ideas instead of historic Christianity. And perhaps the most damning of all assertions was “liberal theologians are killing Christianity.”
What was the objection to the Revised Standard Version? It denied the “virgin birth” of Christ. How? The word for virgin in Isaiah 7:14 was translated as “young woman.” The Liberal Christians were always making arguments about the historical accuracy of the Bible, questioned the Exodus, asked questions about Scriptural inconsistencies, and wondered aloud if the ancient categories by which the Trinity was defined were usable by the modern era.
Did the miracles of Jesus take place as described? Did Joshua make the sun stop in the sky? Was Noah’s ark or Jonah legends or historic events? These questions took a lot of time in my early Christian education. Our teachers devoted a lot of time to telling, retelling, and making sure we believed Noah built and ark, the population of the earth was destroyed in a great flood, and the languages of the world began to be spoken after the Tower of Babel.
The Liberals did not believe any of those things. To question any of these stories was to place one’s own and everyone else’s salvation in jeopardy. The Liberal mainline denominations were the enemies of all true Christians.
We Real Christians
We the faithful bible-believing people of God were true to “the faith once delivered for the saints.” Contradictions within the Bible were ascribed to the errors of copyists, or translation, or misinterpretation. It was imperative the Bible be revered as though God wrote it. Unfortunately, these beliefs did not answer the most pressing questions.
Real Christians faced some struggles with the texts. Is a child born “out of wedlock” capable of being saved? Was Israel’s separation from other nations the justification for the continued separation of the races? Could a wife escaping an abusive husband be required to remain single or would she be an adulteress if she remarried? The “plain language of Scripture” appeared to require positive responses. But those responses did not feel right.Could a child be damned for the faults of the parents? Did the Bible mean for racism to be practiced the way we had done so? Why couldn’t a spouse’s safety be as important as the sexual indiscretion of their partner?
Now To The Progressives
We dismissed the liberals. And in our suspicion, we could not accept that “those people” had struggled with and answered these questions. The answers came in ways that made us “real Christians” more uncomfortable.
Progressive Christians wrestle with the same questions that plagued ancient believers. The moral questions over which the evangelical/fundamentalists argue are theological questions about the nature of God. Is God really the kind that commanded genocide of the Canaanites? Or were the Canaanites so evil that they needed killing? Was it truly divine justice at work? Did God intend for the abused person to simply take the abuse and wait for a better excuse before leaving? (I saw it happen)
Liberal or Progressive theological schools do not “place the Bible in the back seat of the car.” Doing so would be a mistake. Thomas Paine (American and French revolutionary) once observed that “a cruel god makes a cruel man.” Any theology that makes the divine one immoral and cruel is beneath the best values of human beings.
I have heard preachers ask the big question. “If all we ever talk about is love, when will we get to doctrine and church discipline?” Good question. I ask it too. Only I ask it this way, “what demonstrates that this particular doctrine or discipline is based in love?” Doctrine and practices are very important to the life of the community. But only if they manifest love as opposed to a rule-keeping ideology that is unequal in its measures.
It does not take long for a cruel theology to make people cruel. Such theologies are at the root of secular condemnation of religion. Progressive Christianity does not give comfort to those who merely condemn Christian religion. We oppose the evil we see. And then turn to our secularist neighbors and ask, what do you condemn in us? If we see they have a point we work to address it. In other words, we repent and believe the gospel of forgiveness and love. We are really Christian in this Biblical sense.