This is a hard question to answer, because honestly, even Progressive Christians don’t totally agree on what qualifies as Progressive Theology.
For example, I co-host a long-running and fairly popular podcast called The Heretic Happy Hour. For the last 5 years, we’ve championed the fact that each host is free to share their own unique theological views without feeling the need to agree with any of our other co-hosts. Our goal has been to model what it looks like for people of faith to disagree in love without arguing or insisting on proving who is right or wrong.
In other words, even though our podcast would most certainly be labeled as “Progressive” by most Conservative Evangelical Christians, we don’t even agree with each other when it comes to our theology.
So, defining Progressive Christian Theology might depend, in large part, on who you ask – and when you ask them. Because, in my own experience, theological views and ideas tend to fluctuate over time.
And maybe that’s the answer to the question: Progressive Christian Theology is distinguished by its flexibility and openness to new theological ideas, beliefs and concepts.
On the other end of the spectrum, Conservative Christian Theology is characterized by more dogmatic, inflexible beliefs that must remain rigid and unchanged – and therefore aggressively defended – against any ideas that challenge the unshakeable “rightness” of those beliefs.
So, it’s much easier to say what Progressive Christian Theology is not than to say what it is. It is not monolithic. It is not inflexible. It is not absolute or dogmatic.
For example, Conservative Evangelical gatekeepers like Mike Winger, Sean McDowell and Alisa Childers have often criticized and warned other Conservative Christians about the “dangers of Progressive Theology” by pointing out exactly what I’ve said here.
As Alisa Childers points out in the introduction to her video 8 Points of Progressive Christianity, “In Progressive Christianity if you express certainty on a certain Theological point or doctrine, you’re kind of viewed as [someone who] is just not as enlightened yet. You haven’t gotten there yet. If you express something like “I don’t know” or “I’m still trying to figure it out,” then you’re sort of praised as being more enlightened.”
Understand, for someone like Childers or McDowell or Winger, certainty about Theology is one of the most important things for every Christian to have about their faith. There is no wiggle room for anything that smells like mystery.
Why? Because, for them, to get your Theology wrong has horrific eternal consequences. The stakes are as high as they come: Eternal Torment and separation from God forever.
Of course, once you realize that this doctrine of Eternal Torment was the minority theological view of the Church for the first 400 years, and that the Old Testament never once mentioned it, and that it crept into the Judaism only after the closing of the Hebrew Canon, [and then only from pagan sources], and that the majority view among early Church Fathers was Patristic Universalism, well…the stakes aren’t quite so high anymore and you’re free to relax and embrace a bit more theological mystery. [For more on this topic, please read my book, Jesus Undefeated: Condemning The False Doctrine Of Eternal Torment.]
I know all about the Conservative obsession with being right and fearing the eternal flames of hell because, once upon a time, I was just like them. I was licensed and ordained about 35 years ago in the Southern Baptist Church back in Texas. This is where I was taught to “give every man an answer for the hope that lies within” [loosely appropriated from an obscure verse in 1 Peter 3:15], even if no one was actually asking me any questions about my faith. The answers were everything because the Gospel was seen as having all the right answers about God.
For Progressive Christians, it’s not about having the right information about God as much as it’s about experiencing a genuine transformation of heart and mind as one becomes immersed in the practice of faith in the imitation of Christ. [At least, that’s what it has become for me over the last few years].
I should also point out that the video mentioned above – 8 Points of Progressive Christianity – that Alisa Childers critiques is taken from a list at ProgressiveChristianity.org, and while I don’t strongly disagree with that list, it should be pointed out – because Childers does not – that this website is hosted by John Shelby Spong, a Progressive Christian pastor and author, and as I said above, not every Progressive Christian agrees entirely with every other Progressive Christian.
The Progressive faith movement is marked by a generous tolerance for a variety of doctrinal and theological views.
So, that means we’re not militant about whether or not Jesus rose bodily from the grave or if the resurrection was more of a spiritual or metaphorical one. What matters is what it means, not whether it’s true.
We’re not hung up on whether everything in the Bible is allegorical, or literal, or historic, or metaphorical either. What matters is how your understanding of that scripture impacts the way you love others and how you model the character of Christ here and now.
We don’t care if the Second Coming of Jesus is spiritual or physical. As long as your understanding of his return is something that you incarnate in your actual life today, who cares if it’s literal or not? Has it become actualized in your bones? Has it made a difference to you?
We aren’t so concerned about what God might have been saying to people 4,000 years ago, or 2,000 years ago. We tend to care more about what God and Christ are doing in the neighborhood you live in today.
Are you experiencing this living Christ right now? If not, what good is the “rightness” of your theology?
Still, there have to be some basic or essential beliefs that classify this theology as “Christian” even if we have difficulty defining what makes it necessarily “Progressive.”
In my experience, Progressive Christian Theology tends to hold loosely to these basic tenets:
- The Bible is taken seriously, but not literally.
- Jesus is the best picture of who God is and what God is like.
- Jesus provides the blueprint for what humanity should aspire to: Love, Forgiveness, Mercy, Compassion, Service, Nonviolence, and Graciousness.
- Christians should be followers of Jesus – his teachings and his actions – more so than members of a certain denomination or church.
- Love for God and love for others are both intertwined concepts and practices that should always be understood symbiotically.
- God is primarily understood as the expression and source of perfect Love.
Of course, as I’ve already said more than a few times here, not every Progressive Christian would necessarily agree with every single idea here. Some would disagree. Some would add beliefs that I have not mentioned, and others would rephrase or perhaps even delete entirely one or more of these statements.
And that’s totally fine.
See, Progressive Christians don’t seek to separate ourselves from one another over agreement on doctrines or theology. I have several close friends who would self-identify as “Progressive Christians” but do not agree with me, or with one another, on several points of doctrine. Yet, we still see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
What’s more, most of us also consider those Conservative Evangelical Christians to be our brothers and sisters in Christ as well. We don’t agree with a lot of what they believe, but we don’t actively seek to correct them, or to separate ourselves from them, or to post videos or write blog posts that accuse them of being another religion, or try to prove that we are the “real” Christians while they are not.
Sure, once in a while we might take exception to something on the Evangelical Conservative side and try to point out where some sermon, or statement, or behavior might not line up with the person and character of Jesus.
But we routinely do this for one another, too, mostly, out of a sense of love for those who take the name “Christian” [which for most of us means “Christ-like”], and from a desire to encourage everyone to follow Christ more faithfully; representing Christ to our communities as if Christ were living in us and through us here and now.
Simply put, Progressive Christians see their unity as coming from their shared love for Christ, not from a shared set of doctrinal statements or shared theological certainties.
Progressive Christian Theology is accepting of those outside of its theological boundaries.
Progressive Christian Theology is not dogmatic.
Progressive Christian Theology is about the practice of faith [Orthopraxy] more so than about having the right beliefs [Orthodoxy].
Progressive Christian Theology seeks to love others more than to correct others.
Progressive Christian Theology is more concerned with healing and serving people than with indoctrinated them.
Progressive Christian Theology strives to behave more like Jesus did than to define who Jesus was.
Progressive Christian Theology is open to mystery and celebrates uncertainty.
Progressive Christian Theology celebrates the unanswered questions of faith without insisting that everyone arrive at the same answers.
I hope this is helpful.
If I’ve left anything off the list, please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you have to say.
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Keith Giles is the author of the hot new bestseller, SOLA MYSTERIUM: Celebrating the Beautiful Uncertainty of Everything, available now on Amazon. Keith is also the host of Second Cup with Keith [a new solo podcast available now on the Ethos Radio App, for Apple and Android and on Spotify.