I am a husband (to Linda, since 1973). A father. A father-in-law. A grandfather! A pastor (since 1970). A professor (taught at several seminaries around the world; taught philosophy at Monroe County Community College for 18 years). A philosopher, and a theologian. (PhD, Northwestern University, in Philosophical Theology, 1986).
I have studied people, and biblical and theological issues, and culture, for over fifty years. I am a constant reader and observer.
I present to you a series of posts I am calling "Deconstructing 'Progressive Christianity.'" Here are reasons why I could not be a "progressive Christian." The first two posts are especially about this, using semantics and some deconstruction thrown in. (See here.) Post #1 was: "'Progressive' is not a word that fits into a Christian eschatological worldview." Post #2 was "The term "progressive Christianity" is too vague to be useful." Post #3 is - "Progressive Christianity Wrongly Diminishes Confidence in the Bible." In the third post I will critique progressive Christianity's approach to the Scriptures. I am still putting together Post #4, and maybe a fifth post.
A final note before I begin this first post. I have read, as a theologian myself, several of the theologians who are usually associated with progressive Christianity. (Postmodernism, deconstruction, critical theory, linguistic semantics and philosophy of language (my dissertation was in this area), and, yes, political progressivism.) Some of them have written books and articles that I have benefitted from. But then, along the way, some of them turned away from some core beliefs that I see as important to our faith. Some of them were "deconverted" from evangelical Christianity. That has saddened me.
I want you to know that there are many theologians and biblical scholars, such as myself, who have not departed from what we see as essential. This is not out of ignorance. We are quite familiar with, and have wrestled with, all the questions progressivists raise. And wow! We see things differently. Which means: we disagree with each other. Which means: we think each other is wrong about some things. (For example, see Brian McLaren's vicious disagreement with The Nashville Statement, where he even brings in the KKK, implicating the 24,000+ theologians and biblical scholars, and even Francis Chan, J. I. Packer, and people like me, who agree with the Statement.)
I hope you gain from these posts. I will do my best to revolve around one main point per post. I'll do my best to make it accessible.
I have already given two reasons why I could never call myself a "progressive Christian." The first reason was that the word 'progressive' does not work as a modifier to 'Christianity', because 'progressive' does not fit into a Christian eschatology. I added that the biblical view of sin mitigates against any idea that, over time, humanity has made and is making and will make moral and spiritual "progress." Indeed, there are many secularists who consider "progressivism" to be rooted in the mythical idol of Progress. (See, e.g., John Gray, Straw Dogs; and Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.)
The second reason I could not self-identify as a "progressive Christian" is because I find that the term 'progressive Christian' is unacceptably vague, and therefore not useful. Basically, my point is simply this: I am unable to identify with a group if the meaning of the group is vague and amorphous.
In this post I present a third reason why I could never self-identity as "progressive Christian." It's this. Progressive Christianity diminishes the authority of the Bible. It undermines faith, especially the faith of young believers.
Greg Boyd, in his recent book defending the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, says the same. Boyd defines PC this way:
"Progressive evangelicals: A very diverse group of people who continue to embrace many of the distinctives of evangelicalism, including the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus, but who tend to emphasize the social justice aspect of the Gospel while embracing at least aspects of the historical-critical approach to Scripture." (P. 177)
Progressive Christians, if they are academics, utilize what has been called the historical-critical method to interpret the Bible. What is the historical-critical approach to the Bible? Boyd writes:
“Historical-Critical Approach to Scripture: A method of studying Scripture that treats it no differently than it would treat any other ancient collection of writings. Among other things, historical-critical scholars try to discern the various possible sources that may have been combined in the construction of a biblical narrative. And they try to determine the historical veracity of these sources, though they often vary widely in their determinations.”
This concerns Boyd, because use of the historical-critical method tends to undermine faith and confidence in the Scriptures. He writes:
“The church has traditionally considered the entire Bible to be God-breathed… This conviction has been foundational to the life and faith of the church throughout history. Every reforming and reviving movement in church history was based on this foundation. Conversely, history has demonstrated that groups that abandon the church’s traditional understanding of Scripture tend to drift outside the bounds of historic orthodox Christianity…
If we imagine the church as a ship on a tumultuous sea, the Bible has always served as the rudder that keeps her on course. In our postmodern, post-Christendom, and (some are claiming) post-truth world, the sea in the Western world is as tumultuous as it has ever been. Which means, the Western church arguably has never needed its rudder more than it does right now.”
A year ago I was talking with a young adult who reads my blog. They told me they had become a "progressive Christian." Another "progressive Christian" had placed doubts in them, about the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Without researching this, they no longer believed in the stories of the Old Testament, and "only believed in Jesus." (Even though Jesus viewed the Old [First] Testament as inspired and authoritative!) This, to them, was "progress." Yet, as expected, they knew nothing of the historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture. All this, to me, was unthinking regressivism.
I suggested the following.
First, abandon the amorphous title "progressive Christian." I prefer calling myself "follower of Jesus." And, "Christian" (using no modifiers).
Second, go slow, when it comes to understanding Scripture. Here's part of my story.
I attended theological seminary in the 1970s. There, I was escpially interested in hermeneutical theories. This included Rudolph Bultmann's method of "demythologizing" biblical texts. Bultmann removed the supernatural from the Bible stories, denoting it as mythical.
As I studied Bultmann, I also read New Testament theologians who critiqued him. There were many! But note this. When I read Bultmannian scholars who told me the resurrection of Jesus was a myth, I did not jump on it and deny the historical resurrection. I was going slow. Plus, I was not an anti-supernaturalist. (As I read scholars who self-refer as "progressive Christian," I find many of them to be antisupernaturalists or, at least, to avoid the subject. See footnote 1 below.)
Third, study biblical interpretation. One of my doctoral qualifying exams was in new hermeneutical theories. I actually taught a course on this in Garrett-Theological Seminary's M. Div. program. Begin with this book, by New Testament scholar Gordon Fee - How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
Fourth, ask questions, then research the questions. Is it OK to ask questions about the Bible? Of course! I have found this to be true: the deeper you go into understanding something, the more, and different, questions you will have.
When I have a question about a biblical text or story that captivates me, I study. Some of my studies have lasted for decades. For example, in the 1980s I began studying the historicity of the biblical Exodus. These studies continue to this day. Some of the texts I have read include this, and this, and this, and this, and this. I subscribe to this. I use this Bible. And, I read biblical commentaries on the book of Exodus.
The young "progressive Christian" who still, somehow, "believed in Jesus," cannot be faulted for lack of study. This young person was disconnected from the arena of academic biblical, textual studies. But progressive Christians who are academics create for me the kind of concerns Greg Boyd mentions above.
If you are someone who is asking questions about the veracity of the biblical texts, here are two resources I suggest you become familiar with.
Craig Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible?
Darrell Bock, James Hoffmeier, et. al., Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?
Footnote 1 - "When naturalistic assumptions serve to control “real history,” we should not be surprised to see the proponents of historical criticism either struggle to maintain belief in the historical reliability of the biblical accounts or give up on that reliability entirely (or, in some cases, almost entirely). But the claims of metaphysical naturalism should have no hold on historians who are Christian believers (or other theists). Moreover, as Plantinga’s famous “evolutionary argument against naturalism” shows, metaphysical naturalism itself is not without without some stiff challenges (some of which are epistemological in nature)."
Thomas H. McCall, "Religious Epistemology, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Critical Biblical Scholarship: A Theologian's Perspective," in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? (p. 45)