What Is “Progressive Christianity?”
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Today, in 2022, in America, most liberal Christians, Christians who believe in liberal theology, which I explain in great detail in my forthcoming book “Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity” (Zondervan, June 7), call themselves “progressive Christians.” The label “liberal” has largely fallen away even though there are mostly mainline Protestant theologians who still admit to being liberal in their theological views. One very good example is Presbyterian theologian Douglas Ottati whose theology I discuss in my book as the best contemporary example of true liberal theology.
However, this post is not about liberal theology per se; it is about the label “progressive Christian.” Many people who are not really liberal in the sense of belonging to the liberal tradition and embracing it or promoting it nevertheless also call themselves “progressive Christians.”
A problem with knowing what that means is that there is no historical-theological tradition of “progressive Christianity” as there is of “liberal Christianity.” Liberal Christianity has been studied and written about much including by liberal theologian Gary Dorrien whose three volume history of liberal religion in America is exhaustive and magisterial. Others besides Dorrien and earlier have written histories of liberal-modernist theology including Kenneth Cauthen and William Hutchison. There are many monographs of liberal (mostly Protestant) Christian theology and I quote from them in “Against Liberal Theology.” The historical-theological prototypes of the tradition-movement are German theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl. Of course Ritschl’s disciples Adolf Harnack was a major figure in the tradition-movement’s development. In America, most early liberal theologians who were not Unitarians like Theodore Parker were Washington Gladden, Henry Churchill King, Borden Parker Bowne and the popularizer of liberal theology whose influence cannot be over emphasized Harry Emerson Fosdick.
For more about liberal theology, a concept and category with real meaning, read my book which will become available June 7.
The subtitle of my book is “Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity” because I have known and I now know many especially young Christians who also call themselves “progressive” but are not yet full-blown liberal Christians. I see many of them moving in the direction of full-blown liberal theology which concerns me greatly. I want to warn them against going over that “cliff” insofar as their “progressive path” leads in that direction.
I want to make clear that not all who call themselves progressive Christians are on that path, but increasingly many are.
So what do I mean by “progressive Christianity?” Well, that’s difficult to say because there is no historical tradition of progressive Christianity. It is a very flexible term and category. In fact, I don’t see it as a category at all. If someone tells me he or she is a liberal Christian I have some idea what that means or at least ought to mean. It means he or she believes in theology from below, from human experience, more than from above, from supernatural revelation. It means he or she believes in what I call “symbolic realism,” that biblical stories and images such as the incarnation and resurrection and return of Christ are symbols with power to transform but did not actually happen in history. It means he or she believes there are no dogmas, essential doctrines, of Christianity and that Christianity is a matter of spiritual formation and ethical conduct and activism. I explain all this using many examples in the book.
But if someone tells me he or she is a “progressive Christian” I really do not know what they mean. I have to ask some questions to discover that. It often turns out that he or she is really a true, “blue” liberal Christian who believes the Bible, for example, consists of “our sacred stories” but is not in any sense the Word of God written. He or she, as a liberal Christian, believes the Bible is different from other great religious texts only in degree, not in kind. He or she, as a liberal Christian, believes Jesus Christ is different from other great religious revealers, prophets only in degree, not in kind.
Of course, there are people who don’t know what “liberal Christianity” really is and may mistakenly call themselves liberal Christians but aren’t. That’s why a conversation must be had before I know what a self-identified “liberal Christian” ought to mean by that label. However, especially if he or she is educated in theology I can safely assume something such as I just described in the preceding paragraph and in my book.
However, back to “progressive Christianity.” There is no well-known (by scholars, especially) tradition of progressive Christianity. “Progressive” is a purely indexical adjective; it depends entirely on a context. However, during my forty years of teaching theology both on the undergraduate and graduate levels, I have observed the label “progressive Christian” taking on a more common meaning. Especially among theologically educated Christians who are pastors, educators, writers, etc., I find most who call themselves “progressive Christians” are somewhat safely predictable in terms of what they believe and don’t believe. Still, and nevertheless, I have to ask “What does that mean?”
Here is the common (not universal) profile or posture of “progressive Christianity” that is not full-blown liberal Christianity—in America today (2022).
Most educated progressive Christians think the Bible is intrinsically, endemically, patriarchal and that cannot be interpreted away; it has to be deconstructed. In other words, attempts to say that the Bible is not sexist (such as that by evangelical theologian Donald G. Bloesch in “Is the Bible Sexist?”) are useless at best and dangerous at worst. We just have to accept that the biblical writers, Paul the Apostle, for example, were misogynists and expose that attitude embedded in their texts and deconstruct it. Many progressive Christians of today say, at least privately, if not publicly, “I don’t care what Paul said; I follow Jesus.” I have heard that from them many, many times. They know that saying it publicly will probably keep them from getting hired to teach in any even relatively conservative Christian school, so they don’t yet say it publicly. And they know it will probably keep them from being offered the pulpit of any even relatively conservative Protestant church, so they don’t yet say it publicly. But in one-on-one conversations and sometimes in classes they will say it without blushing. I have heard it.
Yet, these progressive Christians are not yet liberal theologically because they will confess belief that the Bible is different in kind, not only different in degree, from other religious, sacred texts. They try to hold onto belief in the Bible’s unique inspiration. I worry that they will not be able to if they stay on the path of brushing off Paul’s epistles as hopelessly patriarchal and Paul himself as a misogynist.
This is just one warning sign that some progressive Christians who function among relatively conservative, even evangelical Christians in churches and schools are leaning into liberal theology. They need to put on the brakes so that they do not go over the cliff into liberal theology itself which is not even truly Christian (a major point of my book!).
To them I strongly recommend Bloesch’s book “Is the Bible Sexist?” They can get used copies from used book sellers or find it in most theological libraries.
What I describe above is just one common features of educated progressive Christians today. Not all progressive Christians will go that far, but increasingly they do. I recently heard from a seminary student that a woman pastor spoke to his seminary class (and she spoke in other classes) about the intrinsic patriarchy of the Bible and how she does not agree with attempts to interpret the New Testament, especially, as not really patriarchal or misogynist. It is what it is, was her basic message, and it is intrinsically, essentially patriarchal in its message about and to women. That defect is not just an accommodation to ancient cultures; it is part of the biblical message and must be deconstructed.
To me, anyway, that can only be said by someone who is on the path toward the “cliff” of liberal theology. She may not be there yet, but if she follows that logic about the Bible, that view of the Bible, she will eventually have to embrace liberal Christianity. I suspect she already does, at least in part, but wants to function within a relatively conservative Christian milieu and therefore hides, perhaps even to herself, her true liberal theological beliefs.
My forthcoming book is a blast against true liberal Christian theology, an updating of J. Gresham Machen’s 1923 book “Christianity and Liberalism.” There the Presbyterian theologian argued that the liberal Christianity of his day was not even authentic Christianity but a different religion. What propelled the book to fame was secular commentator Walter Lippmann’s public agreement with Machen.
My question to you is how you understand “progressive Christianity?” What does it mean to you? Please be brief.