I know this might be rushing things in our relationship. But if it’s going to last I want you to know up front. Day three on the Patheos Progressive channel and I already have to complicate things.
The long and the short of it is this: when backed into a corner, sometimes I own up to the label of evangelical. I think I would describe myself as a progressive evangelical.
Why on earth would I claim a label whose only remaining purpose seems to be rounding up people on the butt end of disparaging comments about all that’s wrong with religion in North America? And what’s the point of embracing a paradoxical title like “progressive evangelical”? And why, as a friend asked me on Twitter this week (along with the Slactivist and Zach Hoag), am I on Patheos Progressive instead of Patheos Evangelical?
There is one core posture that makes me feel at one with the Evangelicalism that has been the incubator for my faith: I always feel the need to deal with the Bible. It looms over my theological proclamations. It stands by as judge over the theological proclamations I hear from others.
I have a good friend who is always saying, “God has to be as nice as Jesus,” to which I always respond, “Where on earth are you getting your nice Jesus? Have you read the Gospels lately?”
I love his instinct. I actually love his theological conclusion. But it’s haunted by the Jesus who confronts us in some of the more severe pages of the story, a Jesus whose demand for justice, a Jesus who gives no quarter to the religious hypocrisy that sucks life from the souls of others.
The Bible’s Jesus stands in the background, always, saying, “What about me?” when the theological Jesus starts to take shape. I always feel the need to deal with the Bible. It’s my native posture. That’s the core of what it means to be an Evangelical. It bears an authority I can’t shake.
A Jesus Story
How much more traditionalist, evangelical, can we get than to say that the Bible is, at core, a Jesus story? That’s what I was taught at the Reformed seminary I attended. And I still believe it.
But here’s where the waters start to muddy.
Once you’ve said (with the vast majority of the Christian tradition across all times) that this story is ultimately about Jesus, then you have committed yourself to reading the Bible in a certain way.
It comes down to this: if you read the Bible “straight,” or what folks sometimes call “literally,” and you read it starting with Genesis and working your way forward, there is precious little that will prepare you for the Jesus who shows up claiming to be what the whole story was all about all along.
It is only after the crucified and risen Christ sits down to read scripture with his followers that they are able to read the Bible “rightly,” which is to say, to read the Bible as a witness to Jesus.
It simultaneously claims (a) the scriptures of Israel are this consistent, persistent witness to Jesus, and (b) you can only know this if you read them with the right answer already in mind.
In other words, scripture is insufficient. Scripture is not ultimate. To read scripture rightly we have to bring a hermeneutic along with us, and we have to read it in just the right way. Jesus, not scripture, is our starting point and ending point. Dare we say alpha and omega?
Scripture itself unsettles simplistic reading strategies: “I just read the Bible and do what it says!” (No, actually, none of us do that.) “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” (No, actually, it doesn’t.)
I suppose that for many people the long and the short of why I would be called “progressive” has to do with positions I’ve embraced (my God is one who is limited by ties to a story, inerrancy is not true, I am a rabid advocate for women in all church ministries, I’m affirming of gay relationships in the church and civil equality outside of it).
But I have adopted the label “progressive” because of a posture, not a conclusion. That posture is this: I believe that our calling as the people of God is to continue doing what the apostles and prophets and Jesus before them did in the first century; namely, rereading our collective story again and again in light of the Jesus story, and saying afresh what we have to say based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
This is actually a way that I am deeply committed to the Bible.
This I learned in my inerrantist, Reformed seminary: the fact that the New Testament writers reinterpreted scripture in light of what they know to be true of Jesus is something that not only they but also we must do.
What I realized, eventually, was that this was not just for the Old Testament but for the New as well. The job of reinterpreting scripture in light of Jesus is the ongoing task of the church.
Paul shows us what it looks like to treat women as equal partners in gospel ministry (Rom 16). And 1 Timothy backtracks. So we reread 1 Timothy in light of what we know to be true of our sisters in Christ.
Paul tells us that we stand equal in Christ whether slave or free. And so we reread the passages that command subservient slavery as unbecoming the gospel of Christ.
In the end, I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative articulation of the word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken, that the final, liberating action of God has yet been taken.
So a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible means that I must continue to enact the progressive ministry of Jesus and those who followed him.