What Is “Progressive Christianity?”

What Is “Progressive Christianity?” November 10, 2021

What Is “Progressive Christianity?”

I keep hearing this label “progressive Christian.” What does it mean? I answer as a theologian and scholar of American Christian varieties—ecclesiological and theological.

The trouble is that there is no historical tradition of “progressive Christianity.” There are no prototypes to point back to or to now. This is in contrast to, for example, “liberal Christianity” which is a historical-theological tradition well documented and described by theologian Gary Dorrien in his three volume history of the subject. Unfortunately, he uses “progressive religion” as virtually synonymous with “liberal Christianity” in America.

Most people who call themselves progressive Christians do not fit the liberal profile from the father of liberal Christianity Friedrich Schleiermacher up through his contemporary successor and interpreter Douglas Ottati. Some do; some don’t.

Unfortunately, “progressive Christian” is like Luther’s “wax nose” that can be twisted to suit anyone’s countenance. The label only has meaning within some particular context. Perhaps it only means something like “more open to change than what was before in a particular context.”

Let’s take an example. A few years ago two Dallas Theological Seminary professors promoted something called “progressive dispensationalism.” They published a book about it. It was still dispensationalism but with a couple of new interpretations. It was just a new style of old dispensationalism.

Some years ago some of us were calling ourselves “progressive evangelicals.” Our heroes were (among others) evangelical theologians and writers Bernard Ramm, Donald G. Bloesch, Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz, Tony Campolo and Ronald Sider. The “progressive” label meant something different in each case except for one thing—all were evangelicals breaking away from fundamentalism.

*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.*

In the past decade, “progressive Christian” (here in the U.S.) seems to be a label preferred by real liberal Christians (whose Christianity seems dubious to me) but also by non-liberal Christians who are “open” to new ideas such as gay marriage, LGBTQ rights within society and the churches, passionate social justice activism, egalitarianism, etc.

When I hear someone labeled “progressive Christian” by themself or others I do not know what is meant—other than open to new ways of thinking and “doing” Christianity within a certain context. However, in my experience, the label is increasingly being “owned” by formerly conservative Christians who are moving toward liberal Christianity but hesitating to go all the way there.

In 2022 Zondervan will publish my 22nd book entitled Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity. It is scholarly but completely accessible to anyone with a high school education. I use no “big theological words” without explaining them carefully.

The purpose of the book is to explain what “liberal theology” really is, as opposed to how many people wrongly use the label, and to warn progressive Christians against the cliff at the end of the slippering slope of contemporary “progressive Christianity.” That cliff being full-blown liberal theology which is theology centered around symbolic realism—Christianity mostly cut off from history except for transforming symbols such as the cross and resurrection and Parousia. These are treated by liberal theologians as symbols (although most would say the cross event actually happened but was a tragic martyrdom God used to expose the evil powers of this world).

The one thing I am seeing in common, shared by so-called (contemporary) progressive Christians and liberal Christians is a distaste for doctrines except as relics of Christianity’s history. For both, Christianity is largely reduced to spiritual formation and social transformation. Belief in doctrines such as the Trinity (to choose just one example) is largely considered optional for contemporary Christians.

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