What I Mean by “Moderate” or “Progressive” Evangelical
I often identify myself as an evangelical Christian, but especially these days—since at least 2016—I have to modify “evangelical” because so many Americans misidentify the label and the category. I have explained here many times before why I will not simply give up the label. Historically-theologically, even in contemporary culture and religion, there is no better label to describe my particular brand of Christianity. Yes, I use other labels such as “Arminian” and “Baptist,” but they cannot substitute for “evangelical.” For me, “evangelical” rises above all other labels except “Christian.” (Yes, in some contexts I do feel it important to also say that I am a Protestant, but rarely does anyone think otherwise as I move almost exclusively in Protestant circles. And if I say that I am an evangelical Christian very few people think I am Catholic as “evangelical” is not a common label used by Catholics.)
I have found no good substitute for “evangelical;” all other candidates have just as many and as troubling misconceptions attached to them.
For me, in the circles in which I move (write, speak, etc.), I cannot avoid identifying my theological-spiritual “flavor” of Christianity. And the institution where I have worked for twenty-one years advertises itself as “evangelical,” “orthodox,” and “in the Baptist tradition.” So I often am asked what I mean by “evangelical.” I am always happy to explain that by it I do not mean anything political; the evangelical brand or flavor of Christianity does not (historically) indicate a political view.
To those of you who question that, may I respectfully point out that “evangelicalism” is a world wide phenomenon; it is not “American” per se. There are evangelical Christians all over the world. So far as I know it is only in America in the recent past that “evangelical” has come to be identified with a particular political stance.
I approach all labels and categories in religion historically and refuse to tie them exclusively with a passing fad or fashion. To me, “evangelical Christianity” arose in the “evangelical awakenings” in Europe and America in the eighteenth century. I often mention two major prototypes of evangelical Christianity in the English speaking world while acknowledging that evangelical Christianity has holder roots and precursors in many countries (especially in northern Europe). The two are Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley—both born in 1703. Both, along with many other leaders of the evangelical awakenings, believed in and taught the necessity of a born again experience for authentic Christian identity (being “saved”).
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Why do I add “moderate” and/or “progressive” to “evangelical” when I identify myself as evangelical? Simply to distinguish my brand of evangelicalism from fundamentalism. Most fundamentalist Christians in America especially also now identify as “evangelical.” I won’t say they aren’t. But I do not want to be lumped in with them by people who have come to think of evangelical Christianity as fundamentalist Christianity.
My series here about theological questions is my attempt to explain “moderate-to-progressive evangelical Christianity.” Another label might simply be “non-fundamentalist evangelical Christianity,” but I prefer to identify my own spiritual-theological identity positively rather than negatively (by what it is not).
For me, a major issue in pushing me to identify as moderate-to-progressive (or one of those adjectives) is biblical inerrancy. I could embrace the concept when and if it only meant/means “perfection with respect to purpose,” but I believe the word itself implies something that is not compatible with any close study of the Bible itself. Almost every lay Christian I know (and also many pastors) think “biblical inerrancy” requires a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis and of most of the book of Revelation. Also, most lay Christians I know (and many pastors) think “biblical inerrancy” requires a forced harmonizing of passages in the Bible that seem to refer to the same event.Also, as a moderate-to-progressive evangelical I am open to “new light” emerging out of faithful and fresh interpretations of the Bible. Two examples are open theism and N. T. Wright’s (and others’) new interpretation of Paul on the subject of justification. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals (and it’s often difficult to tell the difference) are usually closed-minded toward any reconstruction of traditional Protestant doctrines. They tend to elevate something like nineteenth century theologian Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology to the status of the “last word” in constructive Christian theology. They tend to treat Hodge or someone like Hodge as virtually equal with Scripture itself in terms of a system of biblical doctrine. Ironically, they might disagree with his ecclesiology and his eschatology, but in other areas of doctrine he (or someone like him) becomes a kind of magisterium for modern evangelical thought.
My point is that conservative evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, become extremely nervous and react in knee-jerk fashion against any new interpretation of Scripture. As one said publicly (I was there) “If it’s new, it can’t be true and if it’s true it can’t be new.” And the context of his saying made abundantly clear that he was talking about interpretations of the Bible.
I used to describe myself as a “postconservative evangelical” but that was so widely misunderstood, in spite of all my attempts to explain it, that I had to give it up. I was, for example, confronted about it by my former colleague Millard Erickson who simply could not accept that it doesn’t mean “liberal.” I had other, similar encounters where no matter how much I explained the adjective people simply could not accept that it didn’t mean “theologically liberal.” My own opinion is that many such people cannot accept that there are more than two options in theology. For them a theologian is either liberal or conservative. But that was at a time when “conservative” was being identified, in my opinion, with a new kind of fundamentalism.
Being moderately evangelical, progressively evangelical, postconservatively evangelical does not mean being open to anything and everything new and it does not mean allowing culture to determine doctrine or ethics—for Christians. It means being open to new insight, new light, new interpretations of the Bible and of traditional Christianity insofar as they are they are either required by fresh and faithful interpretation of the Bible itself or can make a strong case for that.
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