Progressive Evangelical

Progressive Evangelical January 16, 2016

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?

Evangelical Because…

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.

It’s haunted by a Jesus who isn’t always nice. 22511119366_0800fe5bcd_z

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.

This is the thin end of the wedge.

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.)

Progressive Because…

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.

 

Image: Jake Stimson Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Thank you for this post! I have struggled to articulate how I view the Bible, inerrancy teachings, and Jesus. It’s always felt like a paradox inside me–loving the Bible and it’s teachings, loving Jesus and his teachings more … believing that Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible; yet, the Bible revealing Jesus. Misting up to know that I’m not alone in being an ‘evangelical progressive.’

  • Okay Dr. Kirk,

    Here’s my question for you, then: who is your authority when Jesus is wrong about something? I mean, you wrote pretty clearly couple of months ago that you think Jesus as testified in the Gospels (the only Jesus we have epistemic access to) got some things wrong about marriage. In that case, who is your authority? Not the Bible, nor apparently Jesus himself given in his own words. So…what? Are we appealing to some sort of Jesus-trajectory over and against the actual witness of Jesus that we have? How is that not simply a version of the old Liberal scholar looking down the well of history and seeing his own reflection?

    Not meaning to be adversarial, but I’m trying to get clear on this. A more classic Red Letters v. Black Letters approach, I kind of get. But this would seem to be pitting the Red Letters against the Red Letters, or maybe the “Spirit of the Red Letters” which are different than some of the real Red letters.

    Thanks for your time.

    • It’s a good question. In light of your blog post, it probably needs a longer answer than I’m going to give.

      First, you need to get rid of the “red letters” v. “black letters” thing if you want to understand how the Jesus story works for me. I talk about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and its (ideal) effects as the measures of the story.

      Yes, that will include Jesus’ words, but they are not the lone guide. In fact, I am much more likely to look to his actions as descriptions of what the Kingdom of God is like. And, I take it that Paul is entirely correct when he tries to get the community to live into the self-giving love of Jesus. Cruciformity is one of the most important markers of the church.

      God has shown us what God is like, most centrally, as the son-giving Father does not spare his son, and as the self-giving Son does not spare himself.

      The resurrection of Jesus shows us that God’s program is one of holistic salvation for humans: body and soul, to live in a new creation which is a renewal of the old.

      The church, and its identity as those who are in Christ in which there is no Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, is to live into a new creation identity.

      Those are some of the major markers on the narrative arc that I see at play in Jesus. Kingdom of God and New Creation are being lived out by Jesus and the church, along the way of the cross.

      That’s the Jesus story that stands as judge over my reading of scripture. It’s how I’m trying to work out a Luther-like conviction that we search the scriptures for “what drives Christ.”

      • Hey, sorry, I just saw this.

        I’m happy you’re a fan of the black letters too! Here’s my thing, though, all throughout Scripture God’s words and deeds are mutually-interpreting. God’s acts situate his speech, giving us their proper interpretive context, but also and equally, speech disambiguates activity. The same is true of Jesus. Jesus’ words and deeds are mutually-interpreting. We know that Jesus’ death was self-giving precisely because he told us so and we see what the self-giving looked like by looking at his death, and so forth. They are a unity. Indeed, if we take speech-act philosophy into account, Jesus acts are a form of speech and his speech is one of his chief acts.

        With that in mind, I still think the problem still stands.

        • jekylldoc

          Derek –
          What I don’t understand is the centrality of authority in your question. Is it your view that bringing “life, more abundantly” happens through submission to authority? Obviously I have doubts about that.

  • Arlene Adamo

    I enjoyed reading this article. It seems that what turns you off of some Progressive Christianity is the docile disney-like figure sometimes made of Jesus. I would agree with this. Jesus definitely unnerved the people of his time, so any genuine reflection upon Him should still be a little unnerving today.

  • John Pike

    I think I would describe myself as a progressive evangelical as well. I loved your article, Daniel.

  • David Marshall

    I describe myself as a regressive evangelical, because the only good things in human experience that I know of are all in the past, and because I think the proper price for living in a lovely city like Seattle (or San Francisco) is to remain out of sync with its silly fads.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    I think there is a lot that points to Messiah in the Tanakh/OT, after all Jesus said it points to him. I arrive at many of the same conclusions, but I do not think the NT is best read in opposition to the OT, I think it is more integrated than that. Given that Jesus is God, Jesus was there during the inspiration of the OT texts by God.

  • This piece says of “evangelical” many of the things we meant by it when we called our new church the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And profoundly few, possibly none, of the things that “Evangelical” as a name for post-Fundamentalist, politically conservative, anti-critical Christian groups mean by it.

    • Truth. Maybe one reason I keep using the word is in defiance of its common deployment.

  • lowtechcyclist

    When Fred Clark recommended that we stop by here, that was definitely a recommendation worth thanking him for. I’m enjoying this conversation greatly already. This is making me ask good questions of myself, about why I am the way I am, how did I get to this place anyway, and does it make as much sense as I’ve assumed it does?

    I’m not an evangelical. While I’ve rubbed shoulders a fair amount with evangelicals along the way (even taught for a few years at an evangelical college in the Reformed tradition), my relationship with the Lord didn’t develop in a single kind of faith community, but a mix of several.

    And I am just not suited by temperament to be an evangelical. Being an evangelical is kinda like being told you can dance to the music, but you’ve got to do it completely inside a cylinder whose diameter is just an inch or two wider than your shoulders: you’re always bumping against the damn walls.

    What I mean by this is that evangelicals seem very rule-based. For instance, my experience with evangelicals is that once they hit the ‘damn’ in the previous paragraph, that outweighs anything I have to say. You can’t just live a natural life as an evangelical (unless you grew up in it and are conditioned to it, I guess) because you’re always bumping into the rules. Can’t drink beer or wine, let alone mixed drinks. Can’t say s*** even if you just tripped and fell in a cow pasture. Have a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with a non-Christian? Horrors!! (At my college fellowship, that was at best considered ‘missionary dating’ but even that was frowned upon. The notion that you might be involved with a non-Christian simply because that was the person you were supposed to be involved with at that time was just unthinkable.) And so forth.

    I can’t live like that. I don’t believe God wants us to live like that. I believe he wants us to live, make mistakes, learn from them, and sort it out along the way.

    Hence, not an evangelical.

    • lowtechcyclist

      Other things: I regard the whole notion of biblical inerrancy as a crock. First of all, it’s just the wrong way to look at Scripture. It’s mostly stories about what God is like. (Like you said a couple of posts previous, “here’s my root conviction: the story that unfolds across the Old and New Testaments shows us what God is like.”)

      And even if that was in some way the ‘right’ way to regard Scripture, it doesn’t work. There are too many places where the plain meaning of one verse or passage contradicts the plain meaning of another. And of course any way of resolving the contradiction is a human construct and not a Biblical one. So humans have to decide which meaning is the inerrant one, and which one gets the “what this passage really means…” treatment.

      And that’s without even getting into the host of things we bring with us when we interpret anything we read – our background and experiences, our unstated assumptions, and all that. Talking about that is a bit out of my ken, but just want to say that I know it’s there.

      Going back to ‘what God is like,’ I can’t say this is universal to evangelicals, but I have certainly got far more pushback that I would have ever expected when I’ve brought up the notion around evangelicals that we know something about what God is like.

      A similar thing has been my experience when I’ve said that I personally view all Scripture through the lens of the Gospels. Oh no, I inevitably hear, all 31,000+ verses of Scripture are of equal importance; none can be put above another.

      This atomized view of Scripture negates the whole notion of the Bible as story, and of course once that goes, so does the notion of developing any sense of who God is, and what he is like. So really these are different facets of the same phenomenon.

      And the whole ‘rules’ orientation of evangelicalism seems to squeeze out any place for a living relationship with God. Being saved, being born again, seems to have been reduced to an initiation rite in evangelicalism. You’ve been saved, that’s great, now just follow the rules.

      And I have a deep-seated problem with that. The presence of God in my life is what it’s all about. It’s the miracle that still leaves me awestruck after 45 years of it. Scripture was there before he was in my life, but Scripture wasn’t alive until he was there to make it come alive. He witnessed to it, not the other way around. This business of living in the Lord is real, and it is powerful. He’s not a tame lion. A faith tradition that has little to no place for the untamed power of that fire…well, what would be the point, exactly? Why spend money and get what is not bread? But that has been my experience of what evangelicalism demands.

    • I think that what you’re reflecting here is, among other things, witness to how the word “evangelical” has been coopted by fundamentalists. As a beer brewer with a potty-mouth, I guess I’m out to reclaim “evangelical” as a term for a much larger tent.

  • “I’m affirming of gay relationships in the church and civil equality outside of it”

    So you disagree with Jesus, love the world and can’t get the simplest thing right about Christianity. In other words, a non-Christian.

    Note how Jesus defeats Darwinian evolution, oxymoronic “same-sex marriage,” same-sex parenting and transgenderism arguments in one simple passage. No true follower of him should disagree on any of those topics.

    Matthew 19:4–5 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?”

    Jesus is still asking them that question today, and the answer from the “Christian” Left is, “No, we haven’t read that” — or, rather, “We read that but didn’t like it so we ‘know’ you didn’t really say that.”

    http://1eternitymatters.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/problems-with-pro-gay-theology-2/ The Bible couldn’t be more clear. Bible-believing Christians and even two out of the three types of pro-gay people* (religious or not) can see these truths:

    – 100% of the verses addressing homosexual behavior describe it as sin in the clearest and strongest possible terms.

    – 100% of the verses referring to God’s ideal for marriage involve one man and one woman.

    – 100% of the verses referencing parenting involve moms and dads with unique roles (or at least a set of male and female parents guiding the children).

    – 0% of 31,173 Bible verses refer to homosexual behavior in a positive or even benign way or even hint at the acceptability of homosexual unions of any kind. There are no exceptions for “committed” relationships.

    – 0% of 31,173 Bible verses refer to LGBT couples parenting children.

    Having said that, I believe that Christians should support and encourage those who are fighting same-sex attraction. And no one needs to grandstand on the issue before getting to the Good News of the cross: http://1eternitymatters.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/evangelism-experiences-1/ .

    * The three general types of pro-gay theology people:

    1. “The Bible says homosexuality is wrong but it isn’t the word of God.” (Obviously non-Christians)

    2. “The Bible says it is wrong but God changed his mind and is only telling the theological Left.” (Only about 10 things wrong with that.)

    3. “The Bible is the word of God but you are just misunderstanding it” (Uh, no, not really.)

    • Meredith Indermaur

      “So you disagree with Jesus, love the world and can’t get the simplest thing right about Christianity. In other words, a non-Christian.”
      There’s an amazing amount of hubris in your comment. Funny how, in the verse you quoted (Matt. 19:4-5), you seem to forget that Jesus was expounding on why divorce is wrong and was not addressing same-sex relationships, or evolution, or transgenderism. Funny how people will whip out a verse like that – out of context – to “prove” something that Jesus wasn’t even trying to prove. What isn’t funny, however, is how the actual subject which Jesus *was* addressing (divorce) is glossed over by so many in the Christian community. Scripture says that God hates divorce; His ideal for marriage is for the couple to stay married. Are those who divorce unable to “get the simplest thing right about Christianity … in other words, non-Christians?” I think you need a better argument.

      • Yes, I understand the context, and I also understand that Jesus — God in flesh! — was referring to his UNIVERSAL ideal for marriage: One man, one woman for life.

        And yes, God hates divorce. Funny how you can understand that verse but not passages like Romans 1, what Jesus said about real marriage, etc.

        And as you know but pretended to ignore, I offered plenty of other arguments, like the following — though I didn’t need them. Jesus couldn’t have been more clear.

        http://1eternitymatters.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/problems-with-pro-gay-theology-2/ Bible-believing Christians and even two out of the three types of pro-gay people* (religious or not) can see these truths:

        – 100% of the verses addressing homosexual behavior describe it as sin in the clearest and strongest possible terms.
        – 100% of the verses referring to God’s ideal for marriage involve one man and one woman.
        – 100% of the verses referencing parenting involve moms and dads with unique roles (or at least a set of male and female parents guiding the children).
        – 0% of 31,173 Bible verses refer to homosexual behavior in a positive or even benign way or even hint at the acceptability of homosexual unions of any kind. There are no exceptions for “committed” relationships.
        – 0% of 31,173 Bible verses refer to LGBT couples parenting children.

        Having said that, I believe that Christians should support and encourage those who are fighting same-sex attraction. And no one needs to grandstand on the issue before getting to the Good News of the cross: http://1eternitymatters.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/evangelism-experiences-1/ .

        * The three general types of pro-gay theology people:

        1. “The Bible says homosexuality is wrong but it isn’t the word of God.” (Obviously non-Christians)
        2. “The Bible says it is wrong but God changed his mind and is only telling the theological Left.” (Only about 10 things wrong with that.)
        3. “The Bible is the word of God but you are just misunderstanding it” (Uh, no, not really.)

        • Meredith Indermaur

          Honestly, there’s not much of what you’ve expressed that is going to fall on listening ears, because you began your comment by calling Dr. Kirk a “non-Christian.” You disagree with him and his exegesis, and yet how many hours have you spent reading and in prayer over this issue? Sort of slams the door shut, doesn’t it?

        • caming

          Everything you’ve written is rife with logical fallacies, including ad hominem (referring to Daniel as a “non-Christian.”), and casually leaving context at the front door. Instead of embarrassing you by deconstructing … well … everything you’ve written, I implore you instead to run to Barnes & Noble and buy How to Read the Bible (Cox) or Stephen Harris’ The New Testament. You will find a bevy of information, among it, the fact most of what you think you know is little more than silly, anecdotal ideas promulgated by shallow, equally uneducated Bible literalists.

          It’s fine to have faith in Jesus Christ. It isn’t fine to misuse scripture to condemn others. That was never your job.

          • LOL. You need to study up on logical fallacies. Calling someone a non-Christian who states the opposite of the Bible is precision, not ad hominem.

            “silly, anecdotal ideas promulgated by shallow, equally uneducated Bible literalists.”

            Haha . . . yeah, about those ad hominem charges . . .

      • jekylldoc

        His ideal for the couple may be that they stay married, given that a few other requirements are met, such as no physical violence against each other, no manipulative psychological violence, no cheating on the marriage, etc., etc. I believe most of us are meant to find fulfillment in one life-long relationship with one person. For the majority, that person will be of the opposite sex, but not necessarily for all. But the fulfillment is as important as the “meant to” in that statement.

  • $136305622

    Interesting piece. One part confuses me. You say that Jesus is the ultimate authority not the bible. But there is no Jesus without the bible. So that is contradictory. How can one call oneself progressive and be evangelical at the same time? (I may not understand evangelical- per my evangelical friends it means being born again, accepting Jesus as the personal lord and savior (anyone tired of that phrase yet?!?!), and believing Jesus is the only way to salvation.) if that is evangelical then I can’t see a way one can be progressive in the sense of accepting others for who they are and realizing their beliefs are equally valid.

  • caming

    Nice work, Daniel, and welcome to Patheos! I hope you work closely with my homeboy, Benjamin Corey. Quick thought: Though I like the idea, do you think you do “evangelical” a bit of disservice by qualifying it as “progressive”? Rob Bell has a recent video about taking back the term altogether, which really, has been hijacked by the right since the late 40’s. If we’re to remain authentic to the term, isn’t the “Good News” available to all, and thus by definition, progressive in nature?

    Looking forward to reading more!

  • Urthman

    I’m curious how one submits to the authority of “Jesus, not the Bible.” What is it that you know about Jesus you didn’t get from the Bible?

    • jekylldoc

      Urthman –

      Funny, but Paul claims to have had all sorts of things revealed to him by Christ, whom he never met. Now, one possibility is that he received some special supernatural attention which we cannot get, but another is that one can spend time in the company of the Spirit of Christ just as one can spend time in the company of the Spirit of God. And aren’t they the same, after all?

      What is it Paul received from Christ that was not in the Bible? A question worth thinking about. What would you say to a guy who accepted to be crucified by the Romans in faith that this act would usher in the Kingdom of God? What questions would you have? What answers do you think you would receive?

      • Urthman

        I think I would have to have some really blatant encounter with Jesus, the likes of which I’ve never yet had, in order to feel any confidence that any such personal ideas I had about Jesus were some sort of authoritative word I could submit myself to (as opposed to merely following my conscience as best as I can).

        • jekylldoc

          Urthman,
          Yes, what you say makes sense. But we are interpreting matters through a lens which includes more than a century of Christians killing other Christians in the name of Christ, and other tragedies of theological hubris.
          I was trying to provide a sense of what I think it means to submit to the authority of Jesus, not the Bible. The Bible includes confusing passages, blatantly awful passages (including in the NT), and contradictory passages. People who rely on the Bible alone for authority could use some of the humility that you show with regard to the results of contemplation.

          • Urthman

            Fine, but surely what you’re talking about would be better described as submitting our interpretation of the Bible to reason, experience, and the Church’s ongoing dialogue with its own tradition (all of which we hope are guided by the Holy Spirit) rather than pretending that you’re having some sort of one-on-one chats with Jesus that give you greater insight about his agenda than the Gospel writers had.

            When you say you’re accountable to Jesus rather than the Bible, you’re basically saying, “I’m accountable to my interpretation of the Bible rather than my interpretation of the Bible.”

          • jekylldoc

            How about, “I’m accountable to what the Bible leads me to believe were Jesus’ priorities and insights, rather than to every single line in the Bible as its own independent authority”? Would that capture the idea well enough for you?

            I also like the idea of submitting my interpretation to reason, experience and dialogue with the tradition of the body of Christ.

          • Urthman

            I guess that still seems to me like you’re “submitting” to your own interpretation of the Bible in a sense that is methodologically indistinguishable from what fundamentalists do (not what they claim to do) when they “submit to the Bible.”

          • jekylldoc

            Urthman, there have been some good blogs on Patheos recently that could be summed up with one bloggers comment that everybody uses a hermeneutic, whether they recognise it or not. I am not sure if you are bothered by my use of a “system” to interpret Biblical resources, or even whether you are bothered at all by what you see me doing. I only meant to explain how I would make sense of the idea of putting the authority of Jesus above that of the Bible, particularly in light of your observation that almost everything we know, or think we know, about Jesus comes from the Bible.

            Maybe you are bothered by the whole idea of Biblical authority? Well, I would snip some parts out if I were making the canon, if that is any comfort to you. I don’t actually give the Bible as much authority as I probably should, since it is all too convenient to hang onto my money and otherwise do what is my own unspiritual impulse. I do give a lot of emphasis to the Holy Spirit guiding the process of encounter, and I think without it the whole business of Scriptural Authority easily becomes an exercise in self-righteous Pharisaism.

            Or maybe you just want more emphasis on exegesis rather than eisegesis. That is fair comment, except that for me Scripture is a resource, not a privileged authority which may not be questioned or re-interpreted or, in some cases, just ignored. The word of God is always a welcoming, caring, encouraging, empowering word, even when it has to include some tough love to those who do not realize they are hurting others.