Why I Am a Progressive Christian

Why I Am a Progressive Christian April 3, 2013

Patheos is doing a series asking us to explain “Why I am a…” in 200 words or less.

I just wasted some of my word limit telling you that, so I'll get on with it.

Before I was a progressive Christian I was a conservative Evangelical Christian, and before I was a conservative Evangelical Christian I was a fairly nominal Catholic. So the answer is multifaceted.

I am a Christian partly because I was raised in a particular Christian context, and a broader one in which various forms of Christianity predominate.

I am a Christian today primarily because I had a life-changing born again experience in a Pentecostal Christian context.

I am a progressive Christian because my born-again fervor led me to study the Bible, theology, and related topics at university. Study led me to change my views. I am a progressive Christian because my study of the Bible, theology, and history, my use of reason, and the powerful religious experience I had, have led me here.

I must also add that I am an American Baptist for a number of reasons, one of which is that I can be all of the above quite naturally in that context.


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  • Burzin M Wallace

    I didn’t know you had Catholicism in your background too, James. Did you go to Catholic school, ever?

    • I attended religious education classes in the evenings prior to my confirmation, but I didn’t go to a Catholic school for the rest of my education.

  • disillusioned

    This hasn’t answered the question as to what makes you a progressive Christian. Whatever that means…..

    • If you want other information, I will gladly provide it. The question was “Why are you a…?” and not “What is a…?” The latter has been addressed on this blog even more often and in more detail than the former, but if you have a specific question I’m happy to answer it here.

  • …And you’ve authored and published some excellent books! Take that Patheos!

  • Here are two links for those interested in more details:

    An older post on why I am a Christian, without a word limit!

    Another recent post on progressive and liberal Christianity:

  • Dr McGrath, I think another kind of explanation is that our epistemology has led us here. Epistemology determines whether we trust in the dogmas formulated by putative Christians, or whether we believe in truly knowing/understanding God for ourselves (Jer 9:23-24).

    • Joe Das

      I think all Christians should follow that premise to a point. But there is more to life than the individual and his perceptions.

      1. Progressive theological scholarship has produced a lot of valuable insights and tools for students of the Bible, but it has also produced a lot of nonsense. In General, while people are recognized as fallible as opposed to God, the hermeneutic of suspicion has gone to far, to the point of being unchristian: It turns the self into God and questions the role of the community in unhealthy way. Indeed the community needs to be watched and recognized as vulnerable to being misled and abused, but that is not the basic attitude that the early Christian community as recorded in the Bible considers ideal.

      The struggle against authority which marks the modern (and postmodern) era in Western Civilization has skewed the way we think so badly, that it impairs our ability to deal with what has been handed down to us for what it is.

      The progressive theological scholars are no less guilty of going up with faulty premises than those who have gone on before them. This should allow us to accept their flawed but nevertheless valuable contributions with humility and perspective just as we would with scholars of earlier eras who had different tools to work with. Chronological snobbery is fatal here, since we greatly underestimate what people of earlier eras knew in all areas of human inquiry. Just because one person or group were ignorant of something does not mean that the rest of the community thought the same way, or that the full picture of thought on any given subject is given to us in a particular source that we happen to like or have in our possession.

      2. We need to keep the role and limitations of reason in perspective and not turn it into a god either. Thinking clearly and cogently is of course necessary, but ultimately this is about more than intellectual grasp of data. It is the response of the “heart”, the “mouth” and the hands and feet that God is looking for. But God’s overriding purpose of using a book at all to do His work is in the light he brings into the darkness.

      3. If we do not accept the Scriptures as the standard by which we measure our message, what else is there? If we are going to root everything in rationalistic presuppositions, or other sources which are not recognized as divinely inspired, then, when we use the Bible, we are doing so as syncretists at best, and apostates at worst. There are standards, after all. Otherwise anybody can call themselves anything they want.

      • Thank you for your comment. It seems as though you are trying to make the Scriptures a standard by which we can measure ourselves and our beliefs independently of our own perspectives on those Scriptures. But I would hope that you would acknowledge that groups with radically different views all claim to not merely view the Scriptures as authoritative, but even as inerrant.

        This is a rather modernistic approach to the Bible anyway, one that tries to relieve us of the challenges to decide and determine that we read about the apostles and everyone else facing and wrestling with. Collecting their writings together doesn’t accomplish that, and it is only modernists seeking a shortcut to certainty that have suggested that it could.

        I wonder whether, on your earlier point, you may not have misunderstood how scholarship works. Scholars put forward new ideas and interpretations, but that is only one pole in the process. The other is the evaluation of those proposals by the scholarly community. We are required as part of our jobs to explore new ways of thinking about things, but anyone who thinks that they ought to embrace every proposal in every new monograph has completely misunderstood how the process of scholarship works.

        • Joe Das

          Ok, now that I’m back I can do this… I agree that modernism gets tangled up with scripture reading, but saying “the scripture cannot be broken” is not merely modernistic. There would be a lot to say about what motivates talking like that in the case of the New Testament, and I will need to find my old notes on that one.

          Regarding “inerrancy”, my particular background with that is with churches from the Missouri Synod, which has a peculiar history that straddles the ways and thinking of the old and the new world. The Missouri Synod had a crisis regarding the use of Scripture in the 60s and 70s, and some scholars, especially Robert Preus, wrote in depth about inerrancy – what it means and what is does not mean – and there was a movement within the Missouri Synod to go back to premodern sources and roots for reflection which continues to have a profound effect on some, but not all, pastors in that synod. Unfortunately not everything that is called scholarship is scholarship, but rather just the voices of leaders intended to control a crowd inside an institution. Unfortunately, I don’t think academic institutions fare much better, at least not from my experience, until you really get to do research at the front line in quiet places.

          So, regarding what you say about scholarship is clear enough to me. Unfortunately, what you are describing is the “perscriptive” of scholarship – what it “should be”. In practice, scholarship, and also dumb activism and “crowd control” which is pawned off as scholarship so as to impress the common man, does not really allow for unrestricted debate and dialogue except in the inner circles.

          The filter of undergraduate and graduate study prevents many otherwise intelligent, but reluctant students or workers to continue on a career/trajectory in the academy. I’m not talking about the “expelled” type of argument which is that creationists are squeezed out of the sciences, but rather that it is hard for people who adhere to a historic Christian faith to continue with work in mainstream postsecondary institutions because of the lonliness and the frustration level. It appears to me that first of all high school teachers and then undergrad instructors play a major role in ridiculing Christians without really understanding the fire they are playing with.

          Now real scientists deal with limited questions and objectives in the course of their hard and underpaid work, but some who are really activists go on to make metaphysical statements that cause trouble. This is not new. When Copernicus wrote about his alternative to the then widely but not universally accepted heliocentric system, he also made theological statements, which turned out to be spurious to those with training in theology. This is why Dr. Martin Luther called him a “fool and a heretic” and not necessarily because he thought his science was bad.

          Many foot soldiers are left alone in programs where questions of origins do not come up, but those who go into the life sciences have it particularly hard. I’m thinking of a few specific people I had the privilege to meet in chance encounters that lamented to me about the frustrations they endured. I’m thinking of one example of a fellow I met about 20 years ago who had 2 doctorates from the University of Toronto, who shared with me his lament, and another of a young scientist who got out because of what she percieved was an oppressive opposition to her creationist faith, even though she was well-versed in evolutionary biology and that notwithstanding made good progress in her research with more design-oriented assumptions. Personally I was disappointed of her decision and wish that she would have continued, because I suspect that she could have gone on to become like a 21st century Louis Pasteur, who, in spite of his conservative Roman Catholic Faith, produced astonishing work in Biology, even to the point of making important pioneering contributions in biochemistry.

          On the other hand, I knew a devout man who was an expert gastrointerologist who came up from Oklahoma to help with research at our Hospital for Sick Children who fully embraced mainstream views of evolutionary biology, and who yet had a profound sense of his sin and his need for a savior, so I try to keep an open mind about these things. What I mean is, this is much bigger than me or the church I belong to, but I don’t want people to use this stuff in order to undermine contrition, repentance and most of all, faith. Having said that, if we could only show it, I suspect that once we get past the once we get past the unconscious mutation, duplication, selection paradigm, we will make breakthroughs in things like understanding what is going on with genetic drift and with taxonomy. But the climate for those kinds of conversations is hugely hostile because it seems nobody will permit biblical ideas to be allowed to play in contemporary research, they’re probably even being inconsistent at that, but I don’t know enough to tell.

          This is a snippet of my experience with this. Before I became a pastor, I was an electronics design engineer who wound up doing lots of firmware and software as well. I was not in a raw science program myself, but I have had some dealings with friends and acquaintances who were.

          • I don’t see why being a conservative Catholic is something that one would do pioneering work in biology “in spite of.” The historic position of the Catholic church would be encouraging towards rather than opposed to that.

          • Joe Das

            Well, not at that time. During the late 19th century, the Roman Catholic church was at war with modernism.

            In some ways and in some places it still is. It really depends on which schools you are following, and of course the boundary of what the Roman Catholic church will insist on something is its catechism, so these days it gives freedom beyond that. But this was not always the case.

      • @facebook-688092868:disqus , generally speaking, I can agree with you on most points.

        A guiding principle comes from 1 Cor 3:

        “Each person needs to pay attention to the way they build on it. No one can lay any other foundation besides the one that is already laid, which is Jesus Christ. So, whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, each one’s work will be clearly shown.” (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20cor%203&version=NRSV;CEB;NET;YLT;KJV)

        In other words, I have carefully examined the dogmas, and realised that most of them are like wood/grass/hay, i.e. worthless. Mine is a conscious, well-informed rejection of false dogmas, rather than a deliberate ignorant departure from established tradition. It takes much effort to be a lone “progressive Christian” amidst a Christian community steeped in false tradition.

        • Joe Das

          Thank you both for your thoughtful responses. Some of what are saying obviously could bear some fleshing out, or perhaps clarifications, but I’m glad to see us have enough common ground to stand on. Please forgive me for my slow replies. I would like to comment on what both of you have said, but that will have to wait a bit.

        • Joe Das

          And I am sure you have rightly detected a lot of “heresy” and have rejected it. I would love to hear about specifics so I can address them, not necessarily because I want to prove to you that the “Lutheran Way” is the best, but because I would like to know what your concerns are.

          We Lutherans refer to formal and material principles which we use in order to understand what drives people’s systems and ideologies. for example, when you really use sola scriptura, you need to know when and when not to tell Aristotle (no, not Jackie’s other husband) when to piss off.

          And I heartily agree with you that much tradition is possibly garbage, possibly pure poison. But It would be interesting to go on a tour through the rummaging room to pick and sort.

          • Yes, that sounds really interesting. (I especially love Aristotle’s “four causes”.) Not sure if this is the best place to do this, but just to throw stuff out, the dogmas that upset me most are Trinity, and double-imputation of passive and active obedience of Christ. The passive aspect is penal substitution. Right now, my position is very similar to James D. G. Dunn. The monotheistic God has always been, and should forever be YHWH alone. Jesus is not YHWH, and the Spirit is not properly YHWH.

  • Claude

    Catholic > Pentecostal moment > Conservative Evangelical > Progressive American Baptist

    I could be wrong, but that seems like an unusual trajectory!

    • I suspect that it is, but would be interested to hear from others if there are similar trajectories out there! 🙂

      • LorenHaas

        Born into Anabaptist family > attended Conservative Baptist churches in youth > agnosticism > born again experience in charismatic church > conservative evangelical Calvary Chapel > American Baptist (with Anabaptist leanings)
        I feel “born again” again in the freedon of my American Baptist church. Our congregation includes the whole spectrum from conservative to liberal in theology and we learn from each other. In example, we just completed two small group teachings from Beth Moore’s Esther series and from Peter Enn’s “Genesis for Normal People”.
        It just works!

        • veryrarelystable

          Roman Catholic > Anglo-Catholic > Evangelical Fundamentalist > Roman Catholic (again) > Liberal Anglican > Atheist.

  • Scott

    Can you please elaborate on how you can be an American Baptist comfortably and still hold those views? Perhaps “American Baptist” is a denomination that I’m not familiar with, and it is vastly different from Southern Baptist?

    • Yes, vastly different. The American Baptists are the denomination that the Southern Baptists broke away from over the issue of slavery, and while it may be unfair to keep harping on about that, it does give a good sense of the very different outlooks of the two denominations and what their historical roots are.

  • Mark Matson

    I am interested in the contrast between “conservative evangelical” and “progressive American Baptist.”

    Is “conservative” the opposite of “progressive”?

    Is “evangelical” opposed to “American Baptist?

    I ask because the labels are difficult.

    As a member of a church often deemed “conservative” because of its biblical focus (Christian church / church of Christ), I find that the very biblical focus actually demands a progressive view. (progressive here in terms of social justice, concern for environment, acceptance of the “other”.)

    And, it is that very interest in core biblical integrity that leads me to resist identification with “evangelical” (that is, evangelical tends to focus on individual salvation, not the role of the community of saints, overfocuses on atonement theories, etc).
    I kind of like “free church catholic”. Is American Baptist similar (like the old-view of baptists, not the current variety often found in Southern Baptists)?

    • The American Baptists run the whole spectrum from very conservative to very liberal. There is a lot of emphasis on soul freedom and thus the liberty of believers and of congregations to follow their own consciences and understandings of Scripture. There is a strong Evangelical component in the American Baptist denomination, and strong conservative and progressive contingents.

      As I said, becoming more progressive was not something that I experienced as a departure from my faith or the Bible, but as a result of exploring and deepening and maturing in precisely those areas.

      But as your comment hints, all of this terminology can be problematic! 🙂

  • Chris Code

    I experienced the same journey from an evangelical “born again” Christian to a more progressive type of Christian. Eventually, I came to realize that Christianity is not theologically sound, so now I am a theistic agnostic.

  • Stephen J. Bedard

    Could help me understand what you mean by progressive Christianity? I would label myself as a progressive evangelical. However, when I talk to people who label themselves as progressives, I get accused of being intolerant and ignorant. Of course my conservative friends consider me a raving liberal and so I can’t win. So my question is: what would be the general characteristics of a progressive Christian (understanding that there would be flexibility within that label)?

  • Guest

    You wrote “I am a Christian partly because I was raised in a particular Christian context, …

    That’s a fallacy if ever one was spoken.

    Charles Darwin was raised in a Christian context, yet was not Christian.
    Christopher Hitchens was raised in a Christian context, along with his brother. Christopher was not Christian. His brother remains one.
    George Orwell was raised in a Christian context, yet was not one.

    St. Augustine of Hippo was raised in an Manichaean context yet became a Christian.

    St. Paul (of Tarsus) was raised in a Jewish context, yet became a Christian.

    .. and so on.

    To be a Christian or not to be a Christian is a choice you make, and has nothing to do with how you were raise. Despite St. Paul having been raised in a Jewish context for example, he clearly came to accept the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Similarly, Christopher Hitchens, though raised a Christian, came to reject them.

    Sorry, but if the context in which you were raised is the basis of your claim to be a Christian – here’s some news for you – You are not a Christian!

    • It really does help if you read the whole post. You apparently stopped reading before you got to my choice made as a teenager and the life-changing born again experience I had when I made it. I wonder why you chose to stop reading when you did.

    • newenglandsun

      Their maternal grandmother was a convert to Judaism but both Hitchens brothers started out as atheists. Peter Hitchens actually is a convert to Anglicanism from atheism.

  • Stevie Ray Vai

    Hi there. I stumbled upon this blog. You didn’t define what a progressive Christian is too you. For me it is embracing “These things YOU shall do and MORE” that it is my task to do my best to be unconditionally Loving with all things as best I can and see the GOoD in everything!