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Pulse
17 October 2022

At the beginning of this millennium, a number of evangelical Christian leaders experimented with adapting Christianity to the ever-pervasive postmodern culture and the sensibilities and ethos it engendered.

These leaders have become increasingly dissatisfied with historic Christianity – as they understood it – especially the way in which it has allegedly accommodated itself to Greco-Roman philosophy. Consequently, they sought to revolutionise Christianity and the church by jettisoning some of the most central themes and tenets of the Christian faith.

The first instantiation of this revisionist version of Christianity, which is the result of radical deconstructions and (equally radical) reconstructions of the original, is found in the Emergent Church, a Protestant movement that crosses theological and denominational boundaries.

In his book entitled A New Kind of Christianity (2011), Brian McLaren, arguably one of the emergent church’s most eloquent spokesmen, advocates that Christians should distance themselves from a creedal Christianity.

‘God’s unfolding drama’, he writes provocatively, ‘is not a narrative shaped by the six lines in the Greco-Roman scheme of perfection, fall, condemnation, salvation, and heavenly perfection or eternal perdition.’ The Greco-Roman God which most Christians believe in, he adds, is a ‘damnable idol … defended by many a well-meaning but misguided scholar and fire-breathing preacher.’

In one fell swoop, McLaren has pulled the rug from under the feet of historic Christianity, making way for his ‘new kind of Christianity’, shaped by the postmodern ethos.

According to his earlier book, Generous Orthodoxy (2009) McLaren’s project is to imagine ‘what a post-liberal, post-conservative, post-sectarian and postmodern approach to Christian faith might look and feel like.’

The emergent movement soon appeared to have lost its initial attractiveness. But it re-emerged (pun intended) as ‘Progressive Christianity’. This broad and elastic term includes under its canopy believing Christians who simply wish to express a more questioning faith as well as those who still call themselves Christians but who have rejected most if not all the fundamental tenets of Christianity.

Progressive Christianity has gained some traction among Christians and Christian groups in the United States and Canada. There is a group of Christians in Singapore that is promoting a version of progressive Christianity.

This brief article takes a look at the claims of progressive Christians who are located at the more extreme end of the spectrum, such a Brian McLaren and Gretta Vosper.

WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?

In his famous work Dogmatics in Outline, the great Swiss-German theologian of the last century Karl Barth famously wrote: ‘Tell me how it stands with your Christology, and I shall tell you who you are.’ In heeding these wise words, we begin our summary of the claims of Progressive Christianity by examining what its spokespersons have to say about Christ.

In her provocative book With or Without God (2014), Gretta Vosper writes: ‘When we reconsider the concept of god and work our way toward exploring it differently than we have in the past, the whole idea of Jesus being the Son of God no longer makes much sense.’

Vosper, who is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ of Canada, is an atheist who believes that the God that Christians worship is merely a human construct. Once the concept of God is reduced to nothing more than a human idea, it follows that Jesus Christ can no longer be understood as his incarnate Son.

Vosper puts the blame for the belief of Jesus as the Son of God at the door of the Church, which she believed has ‘stretched, pulled and reconfigured the story of Jesus to give us that Son of God it said we had to have.’

Thankfully, we have in our day objective and attentive scholars to disabuse us of this incredulous idea which aims to ‘set before us a very human Jesus, a man of emotions, wisdom, and desires. But we do not have the Son of God.’

The errant scholars in question are those who are associated with the Jesus Seminar, which was initiated by New Testament scholar Robert Funk in the 1970s. These liberal scholars examined the biblical gospels and early Christian writings to re-discover the historical Jesus.

They came to the conclusion that Jesus was just a human being, and not the Son of God. Vosper writes:

As they have sifted through the evangelists’ words and discovered the real blood-and-gristle Jesus who walked the Galilean shore and spoke to anyone who would listen, they have found themselves essentially aligned with the perspective of Schweitzer had presented a hundred years ago.

Having stripped Jesus Christ of his deity, the progressives further argue that his moral teaching was not really all that remarkable. ‘It would have blended in with that of countless other spiritual leaders,’ Vosper writes, ‘who actually did more to put their words into action.’

Yet, the figure of Jesus is somehow still important for progressives, because his life story has the ability to challenge and inspire people across the ages and across cultures.

What about the death of Christ on the cross? What is its significance for progressives?

According to Alissa Childers, who has written a critique of progressive Christianity entitled Another Gospel, for progressive Christians ‘Jesus didn’t die to pay the penalty for our sin. He was crucified by an angry mob for speaking truth to power, and his love and forgiveness toward those who killed him is the example we all should follow.’

Progressives roundly reject the idea that Jesus, in obedience to the will of God, died on the cross to atone the sins of humanity. In fact, they reject the idea of penal substitution as cosmic child abuse.

Progressive British minister Steve Chalke writes:

Penal substitution is tantamount to ‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’ Though the sheer bluntness of this imagery (not original to me, of course) might shock some, in truth, it is only a stark ‘unmasking’ of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such theology.

In 2009, progressive author Robin R. Meyers wrote a book whose subtitle reads: ‘How to stop worshipping Christ and start following Jesus.’ This statement succinctly summarises the Christology of Progressive Christianity which sees Jesus as merely a human being.

WHAT ABOUT THE BIBLE?

What about the numerous passages in the New Testament that speak of the deity of Christ (Colossians 2:9; John 1:1, 14; John 20:28; Titus 2:13; Philippians 2:6; Romans 9:5; Revelation 1:8, etc)? How do progressive Christians interpret these texts? What is their view of the Bible?

We again rely on Gretta Vosper to give us a clear and direct answer to this question on behalf of progressive Christians. The Bible is not the authoritative Word of God inspired by his Spirit. It is merely a human document.

Vosper delineates the logical implications of this assertion thus:

Recognising the very human construction of the Bible means that we don’t have to (a) find The Meaning in its stories or histories or (b) worry if we’ve got The Meaning right or (c) believe it all happened the way it’s written. Those kinds of questions just don’t matter.

At best, progressives see the Bible as an ancient library of books that we could examine like other ancient texts. Childers summarises the progressives’ view and approach of the Bible well when she writes:

In their view, the Bible is our spiritual ancestor’s best attempts to understand God in their own cultures, using whatever knowledge they had at the time. Because humans now have a higher and wiser view of God, progressives believe we can now read the Bible the way it was meant to be read – not as the authoritative word of God, but as our predecessor’s spiritual travel journal.

This is merely a lame rehash of the older liberalism’s view of the Bible as the record of the religious experiences of Israel and the early Christians that are arbitrarily assembled together.

How, then, should Christians read the Bible, according to the progressives? They should read it critically, deconstructing or even ignoring those bits that do not fit snugly into their own postmodern and allegedly more enlightened view of reality.

After all, there is no unified message in the Bible, no theological framework that holds the disparate texts that spans centuries together, according to the progressives. Thus, progressive Christians would agree fully with the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr when he writes:

The Jewish Scriptures, which are full of anecdotes of destiny, failure, sin, and grace, offer almost no self-evident philosophical or theological conclusions that are always true … We even have four, often conflicting versions of the life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There is not one clear theology of God, Jesus, or history presented, despite our attempt to pretend there is.

A similar sentiment is expressed – albeit in an uncouth manner – by the progressive Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber:

The Bible’s not clear about s***! The Bible is a library. Let’s say you have this huge library in your house and ask ‘What’s the clear message my library has to say about “Gender”?’ The poetry is going to say one thing, history says another, prose says something, science fiction says something else.

Progressive Christians have downgraded the Bible to a mere human document that is so archaic and diffused in its substance that it is almost useless for the postmodern Christian.

SALVATION

What, then, do progressives have to say about salvation in Jesus Christ? If, according to the progressives, Jesus is not the incarnate Son of God who died on the cross for the sins of the world and promises salvation to those who put their faith in him, then he is merely an example for us to follow, and nothing more.

But progressives also reject the idea of original sin and the primordial fall of humankind. Like McLaren, who rejected the narrative of historic Christianity about sin and salvation, Vosper also finds it preposterous. She explains:

Pondering the précis discloses an incredibly capricious and masochistic God in whom I can’t imagine anyone actually wanting to believe. And if our rational minds, as a result of our study and reflection, have rejected the concept that we are inherently sinful and then its corollary – that we need and can receive redemption from some outside source – the doctrine of original sin and its counterpart salvation, whether by faith or works, becomes nonsense.

Thus, in denying the Fall and original sin, progressives such as Vosper have made the very concept of salvation superfluous.

The progressives who do take sin seriously are mostly universalists who believe that in the end every human being will be saved. This is because they find the traditional doctrine of the two eternal destinies – heaven for those who believe in God, and hell for those who reject him – to be repulsive.

Rob Bell, whose 2011 book Love Wins had created quite a controversy in evangelical circles, articulates this sentiment well:

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.

Richard Rohr maintains that the God who relegates people to eternal torment in hell is not deserving of our worship.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but this ‘cultural’ god sure doesn’t. Jesus tells us to forgive ‘seventy times seven’ times, but this god doesn’t. Instead, this god burns people for all eternity … Most humans are more loving and forgiving than such a god. We’ve developed an unworkable and toxic image of God that a healthy person would never trust … Why would you want to spend even an hour in silence, solitude, or intimacy with such a god?

Thus, some progressive Christians have eliminated the need to even talk about salvation because they reject the idea that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Others have rejected the traditional doctrine of hell, with some claiming that Jesus never taught or promoted the idea, despite Scriptural evidence that he did (Luke 16:19-31; Mark 9:43; Mark 9:48; Matthew 25:30).

Both groups have rejected the biblical teaching concerning human sin and salvation.

INCLUSIVITY AND JUSTICE

Finally, progressive Christians emphasise the importance of right action (orthopraxy), and even argue that this is far more important than right beliefs (orthodoxy).

As Michael Kruger puts it in his book, The Ten Commandments of Progressive Christianity (2019):

… progressive Christianity is largely defined by its focus on morality and its downplaying of doctrine. What truly matters, we are told, is not what we believe but how we behave.

One important attitude that progressives promote is that of inclusivism which stresses that no one should suffer discrimination because of their beliefs or lifestyles. This is seen especially in the religious pluralism of the progressives, their belief that no one religion is in possession of the ultimate truth (if there was such a thing), and that all roads lead to God (if he in fact exists).

The inclusivism of the progressives extends to issues of gender and sexuality. Progressives almost universally accept same-sex relationships and marriage. They support the transgender agenda and reject the so-called cisgender norms that conservatives promote.

Brian McLaren even coined a neologism to refer to those who hold that heterosexuality and the binary nature of gender are the norm: fundasexuality. This term, he explains, ‘describes a reactive, combative brand of religious fundamentalism that preoccupies itself with sexuality.

McLaren continues:

Fundasexuality, is rooted not in faith, but in an orientation of fear – fear of new ideas, fear of people who are different, fear of criticism or rejection from its own community, or fear of God’s violent wrath on them if they don’t fully conform to and enforce the teachings and interpretations of their popular teachers or other authority figures.

The progressives’ emphasis on right actions means that for them respect, justice and tolerance are virtues that must be upheld. They stress that although these virtues are central to Christianity, they are also found in other religions and in secularism.

In his article entitled ‘The Path of Faith to the Global Future,’, New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering views secular society positively as the outcome of a Christianity that is distilled from its religious trappings.

Progressives like Gretta Vosper seem to suggest that it is secularism that would provide the platform for these values to be harnessed towards building a better future. She writes:

Secular society finds itself well equipped to begin the process of building a table at which all religious and philosophical ideologies might rightly be seated. It is at such a table that the work of developing the agreements and commitments that might bring about a sustainable future may evolve.

Historic Christianity is also concerned about welcoming people from different backgrounds in Christ (Galatians 3:28). But it does not condone certain behaviours and lifestyles (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) because they are antithetical to God’s order and will.

In a similar vein, traditional Christianity is also concerned for justice (Isaiah 1:17; Psalm 82:3). But its understanding of justice is shaped by the holiness and righteousness of God, and not on prevailing secular theories.

CONCLUSION

Progressive Christianity – in its more extreme form that we have examined in this article – cannot be said to be in continuum with historical Christianity. The distortions and reductionisms it introduced through its radical deconstruction of the faith of the Church, ‘the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints,’ have seriously defaced Christianity.

As Alissa Childers has rightly concluded, this radical version of Progressive Christianity is ‘not simply a response to doubt, legalism, abuse, or hypocrisy. It’s an entirely different religion – with another Jesus – and another gospel.’


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.