I would not call myself a liberal Christian. I self-identify as a progressive evangelical, which is to say that I fall on the progressive end of a narrower spectrum whose boundaries I take seriously even if I dispute where they ought to be drawn. Many United Methodists share my origin as a progressive evangelical refugee from toxic culture war Christianity. Since too many conservative United Methodists project a caricature of theological liberalism onto progressive evangelical refugees like me, I thought I would respond to James Heidinger’s Seedbed post “Five Marks of Theological Liberalism.” I have also ordered his book and intend to blog my way through it to improve understanding for those who actually want to understand.
1. Liberalism views God’s character as one of pure benevolence and thus without wrath
God is good all the time. That should be a non-controversial statement for conservative evangelicals. But what does it mean? To me, it means that yes, God is purely benevolent. That is to say God wants the best for everyone and everything God decrees is directed toward the benefit of his creation. God does not command anything that is arbitrary for the sake of his authority alone. Some conservatives get nervous about this claim that God’s commandments are purely benevolent because they are deontological ethicists who need God to give them arbitrary commandments to follow so they can prove their loyalty to God. Regarding God’s wrath, it is a necessary component of God’s love, but it is defined by God’s love. God’s wrath against our sin is his solidarity with the victims of our sin. God’s wrath is the other side of his merciful protection of his people against their oppressors. It is not his egotistical demand for obedience in the abstract as it’s often presented in conservative evangelicalism. (You can find Biblical corroboration for this understanding in any of the Old Testament prophets and any of Jesus’ wrathful pronouncements against the religious conservatives who crucified him.)
2. Liberalism believes there is a divine spark in every man and woman
Several evangelical books recently written by NT Wright, Andy Crouch, and others have pointed out that a basic flaw of conservative evangelical theology is that it starts with Genesis 3 rather than Genesis 1. God continues to create people good and we continue to fall into corruption, but God did not stop creating people good after Adam and Eve left Eden. Heidinger claims that progressive Christianity denies original sin, but it’s more complicated than that. While conservative evangelicalism defines original sin ahistorically as a universal total depravity connected to an ancient story about a talking snake, progressive Christianity defines original sin historically as being born into the sinful legacy of a particular people. For instance, having been born into whiteness, I am born racist because of the legacy I inherited in 20th century America. Many conservatives who supposedly believe in original sin immediately reject it the minute it is historicized like that. The problem with an ahistorical understanding of total depravity is that it too quickly becomes the total depravity of everyone else. When your theology tells you that other human beings are nihilistically corrupt until they get “saved” and join your ideological tribe, then the possibility of civil conversation and compromise disappears as we’ve seen in the past four decades of culture war. This is what has paved the way for the rise of Donald Trump, a moral nihilist whose entire platform is to scratch the itching ears of those who love to cluck about the total depravity of the other side, a strategy for which he was rewarded with a higher percentage of the conservative evangelical vote than Ronald Reagan himself.
3. Liberalism views Jesus Christ as a savior only in the sense that he was our perfect teacher and example.
There are certainly liberal Christians who believe this. I consider the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection to be non-negotiable truths of the faith. Once all miracles have been banished on the basis of “science,” then science is your actual religion rather than Christianity. But what James Heidinger is really poking at with this point is the question of atonement. In recent years, the conservative evangelical understanding of penal substitutionary atonement has been challenged vigorously both within and outside evangelicalism. As a Wesleyan, I believe that Jesus’ sacrifice provides the justification that wipes away my sin and provides the basis for my spiritual transformation. But it’s extraordinarily unhelpful to present Jesus’ cross as a tool for God’s anger management. God does not need Jesus’ blood in order to change his mind about our eternal destiny. We need to see Jesus’ blood in order to accept God’s unconditional grace and let go of our toxic self-justification. Jesus’ cross saves us from the need to be right, which makes us unteachable and resistant to the Holy Spirit’s sanctification. Many conservative evangelicals remain imprisoned by self-justification due to having received bad atonement theology.
It is true that Christianity has become indistinct from other religions in our age of toxic culture war. What would make Christianity distinct from other religions is the humility and compassion that marks people who know that they are redeemed sinners dependent entirely upon the grace of God. There are definitely churches where this distinction is embodied. But much more prominently, our age has broadcast a Christianity of competitively self-reliant individualists who justify themselves on the basis of their doctrinal severity and moral puritanism, so basically a Wahhabism built around the figurehead of Jesus rather than Mohammed. Right now, what American conservative evangelicals are most known for is electing a moral charlatan for president because he would give them political power. You don’t get to lecture about evangelism when your people have sacrificed evangelism for the sake of conquest. It is true that the toxicity of our culture war has dramatically altered my understanding to evangelism as it has all conscientious evangelicals of my generation. I have been taught by missional evangelicals like the folks of Missio Alliance to understand evangelism as an act of shared reflection on what God is already doing in other peoples’ lives rather than a conquest in which I try to convert other people into clones of myself. In spite of the wicked apostasy of evangelical culture warriors, I stubbornly believe that Christianity could make people compassionate and humble in a way that no other religion could if it were ever actually attempted.
5. Liberalism affirms that the Bible is human rather than divine
The most important book I read in seminary is Peter Enns’ Incarnation and Inspiration. In this book, which Enns was fired from the conservative evangelical Westminster seminary for writing, he argues that the Bible is a mixture of human and divine just like Jesus was. God revealed to his people what they were able to receive in a form that they could receive. He didn’t teach them astrophysics in order to explain the creation of the universe. So the Bible is God-breathed even though it recycles ancient near eastern mythology in Genesis, even though genetic science precludes the possibility of a historical Adam, even though archaeological records establish there was no fortified Jericho in the time that the Israelites would have entered Canaan, even though Kings and Chronicles disagree on whether God or Satan told David to take a census, and a host of other historical “problems.” I believe that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, which is the extent of what it claims about itself. The problem is that conservative evangelicalism goes looking for litmus tests to prove that they accept the Bible’s authority over against worldly secular values. But when you make legitimate interpretive debates like the homosexuality debate into authority litmus tests, then you make yourself incapable of honest, open exegesis (which would risk jeopardizing the litmus test of your identity). The Bible is no longer authoritative when it’s weaponized; it is simply the prop of the authoritative interpreter.
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