Evangelical, Liberal and Progressive Christianity – three diverging paths

There’s a lot of new, and sometimes scary, ideas flying around the christian scene these days. What are we to make of them??

Where is Protestant christianity heading?

If you have doubts and questions about your form of christian belief, perhaps another form has something to offer. Check out a few ideas here.

Christian disunity

Christian belief seems to have the unfortunate characteristic of continually dividing into different factions, despite Jesus’ prayer that we would remain one (John 17) and Paul’s criticism of divisions (1 Corinthians 1-3).

It is human nature to disagree, and so differences of opinion among christians are, I guess, inevitable, as Paul himself recognised (1 Corinthians 11:19). But differences leading to separation, division and exclusion have been with us from the beginning, with the famous church councils of the fourth century and later called to define right and heretical viewpoints on doctrinal matters.

With the passage of time, the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) church divided, and later still came the Protestant Reformation.

Protestantism has been characterised by the proliferation of denominations, often (though not always) the result of doctrinal divisions. Behind these denominations are theological, cultural and philosophical attitudes that vary from conservative to liberal.

And so we come to the present day where there seems to be a growing third force in Protestant christianity.

Three basic approaches to truth

Evangelicalism

The Reformation addressed excesses in the Catholic Church such as corruption and indulgences, but also brought a number of fundamental emphases into the church – the Reformers would say “back into the church”:

  1. An emphasis on the Bible as the sole source of reliable and necessary knowledge about God.
  2. The way to gain right relation ship with God was solely by God’s unmerited grace, through faith in Jesus, the only mediator between God and people.
  3. The sovereignty of God in salvation and the glory of God as the only true aim in life for a christian.
  4. The priesthood of all believers, meaning church services, sacraments and Scripture became more accessible to lay people.

These Reformation teachings, plus an emphasis on evangelism and personal piety, have formed the basis of evangelical Protestantism for centuries. But while these and other emphases have been life-giving to millions of believers (including me) they have been developed over the centuries into doctrines, practices and tendencies that sometimes have awkward consequences:

  • The emphasis on the Bible has led many to a dogmatic view of Biblical inerrancy, despite the Bible containing no such claims, and its contents appearing to contradict this belief. This has led to a suspicion or even rejection of new discoveries in science (notably evolution) and modern Biblical scholarship. Sometimes, to support this doctrine, evangelical christians take on positions that are difficult to defend.
  • The doctrines of grace (salvation by grace through faith and the sovereignty of God) have led some christians into extreme views about God’s sovereignty and human inability to choose God.
  • In some evangelical churches, evangelism, atonement theory and the wrath of God have become almost the only teaching.
  • The emphasis on faith alone has often led to devaluing the doing of good works to love our neighbour as ourselves, and the consequent narrowing of morality to personal sexual ethics, ignoring concern for the poor and suffering that is so much part of the teaching of Jesus and the prophets.
  • The emphasis on doctrine, and on these doctrines in particular, sometimes means that Jesus’ life, teaching and announcement of the kingdom of God become forgotten, and he is presented almost totally as a virgin-born sin offering who God raised from the dead. An over-emphasis on strict doctrine and neglect of ethical and altruistic behaviour have led some churches to become legalistic, exclusive, petty and judgmental.
  • The freedom we believers all have in Jesus has sometimes become rampart individualism and an unwillingness to accept authority, leading to crazy sects and doctrines, money-hungry televangelists, and new independent churches with no external controls on the leader.
  • In the US at least, and occasionally elsewhere, evangelical christianity has become allied with conservative values and politics in ways that seem to be far from the values taught and embodied by Jesus.

So evangelical christianity has become very diverse, with wonderfully creative and humbly serving churches and christians living side-by-side with churches that many christians who love and follow Jesus feel alienated from. And it has become somewhat dogmatic, often holding tightly to doctrines that are not well supported by modern culture or scholarship …. or the Bible.

Pentecostalism

If I was writing this a few decades ago, I would have included Pentecostalism as a separate approach, because of its strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit and its great enthusiasm. But it seems to me that Pentecostalism has moderated in the last few decades and is now much closer to evangelicalism in most of the points I have made here.

Liberal christianity

Liberal christianity takes many forms, but its core values come from the Enlightenment, a period in the 17th and 18th centuries sometimes known as the Age of Reason, and characterised by reason, scientific knowledge and democracy.

Liberalism is much more influenced by modern scholarship and culture than other forms of christianity – at its extreme it is hard to distinguish from secular humanism. It tends to:

  • give greater authority to human reason than revelation;
  • be suspicious of supernatural claims – many liberal christians would disbelieve in a literal bodily resurrection for examnple;
  • interpret the Bible from the perspective of secular scholarship and modern culture, seeing it more as a document of its times than an inspired revelation, and thus they are often willing to jettison traditional doctrines;
  • see the gospel more in terms of social justice and social welfare than personal salvation;
  • see Jesus more as an examplar than as a saviour;
  • more likely to support modern social change agendas such as gay marriage, pacifism, gender equality, etc;
  • often hold on to older forms of ritual even while rejecting the doctrines these rituals were based on.

Some liberal theologians and clergymen held high hopes that the more rational approach of liberalism would halt the 20th century slide in church attendance and interest in christian faith. However it appears that the opposite has happened – liberal churches seem to be the ones declining fastest (if there is little to distinguish from secular humanism, why bother with the religious stuff?), while more conservative, even fundamentalist, churches are either growing or declining more slowly.

One of the difficulties in describing liberal christianity is that it takes many forms, and some denominations can contain elements of both evangelical and liberal theology. It seems sometimes that liberal ministers often use language that obscures meaning and distinctions between different views, and can thus be interpreted in either a more literal (evangelical) or a more symbolic (liberal) manner.

So it seems to me that the christian church as a whole has been slightly influenced by liberal theology, but ultimately has found it ineffective, unfaithful and untrue.

Progressive christianity

Progressive christianity is based on the idea that while liberal christianity correctly identified some problems with traditional Protestant (evangelical) theology and practice, it went too far in jettisoning the supernatural and treating the Bible as a totally human book.

There is a wide range of views within “progressive christianity”, with some proponents close to liberal christianity and others better described as “progressive evangelicals”. But I think there is a significant difference in what I would call the mainstream of progressive christianity and both evangelical and liberal faith.

Evangelical christians, pointing to such progressive luminaries as Rob Bell, Michael & Lisa Gungor and “Science Mike” McHargue, often describe progressive christianity as “liberal”. If these were the mainstream of progressive christianity, they might have a point, but other influential figures such as Peter Enns, Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker and Richard Rohr show the differences between liberalism and progressive christianity:

  • progressive christians don’t generally question the supernatural;
  • they see the Bible as inspired revelation, just as evangelicals do, but they don’t think that implies inerrancy, and they can accept the insights of modern Biblical scholarship;
  • they generally have no problems believing in the divinity of Jesus and the truth of the resurrection;
  • their faith is well and truly based on Jesus’ teachings;
  • they are likely to believe in evangelism, but of a more sensitive nature, and to be more tolerant of other religions and other religious traditions, believing God’s love and grace will extend far further than evangelical christians generally think;
  • some evangelicals say progressive christianity, like liberal christianity, is simply a phase on the way to atheism, but many progressives say it that evangelicalism was driving them towards atheism and it was only progressive christianity that stopped the slide.

But the differences between evangelical and progressive christianity are also clear:

  • progressives see Jesus’ ministry more as presented in the gospels – the inauguration of the kingdom of God on earth – in opposition to the common evangelical truncation of Jesus’ message and life to little more than atonement;
  • they question the common evangelical insistence on penal substitutionary atonement and often reject evangelical understandings that focus on God’s wrath, preferring to see atonement as multi-faceted and God as loving;
  • they question the evangelical doctrine of hell (endless conscious torment), and are more likely to believe the Bible teaches conditional immortality or universalism;
  • they are likely to hold more tolerant views on social ethics relating to LGBTQI acceptance, the role of women in the church and marriage, and even abortion;
  • They are also more inclined to hold left or progressive political views, especially on care for the poor, action on climate change, humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, non violence (including pacifism) and justice for indigenous people.

Progressive christianity is thus more open to modern scholarship and culture than evangelicalism, while, unlike liberalism, holding to the core of supernatural christian faith. One of progressive christianity’s strengths is being open to new ideas, and not finding it necessary to try to defend aspects of Biblical inerrancy that seem indefensible, for example:

  • the early chapters and books of the Old Testament can be seen as legendary or poetic (or partly so) rather than fully historic;
  • instead of trying to justify the Canaanite genocide, progressive christians are likely to say that it wasn’t commanded by God and it didn’t happen;
  • thus the Bible is seen as a record of an unfolding revelation of God to originally pagan people, becoming more historical from about the time of King David;
  • rejecting portrayals of God as angry, commanding genocide, condemning people to hell as being early stages in God’s revelation that was only fully realised in Jesus.

In summary, progressive christianity holds to the basic truths of evangelical christianity while rejecting some traditional attitudes and doctrines which it sees as being based on a wrong understanding of God, the Bible and the world. Progressive christians generally hold together both the evangelical emphasis on evangelism and salvation and the liberal emphasis on social justice and welfare, without prioritising one over the other.

I see myself somewhere in the middle of progressive christianity. Like many others, I have come from an evangelical background and still hold to the core truths of evangelical christianity, but have rejected many of the dogmatic statements about the Bible and non-core doctrines. I believe this is the way the Holy Spirit is leading the church to understand the truth of the kingdom of God and the mission of Jesus.

Why am I saying all this?

1. Deconstruction and reconstruction

In my 55+ years as a christian, I don’t think I have seen so many christians re-examining their faith as I am seeing now. Some deliberately set out as young adults to review the faith they were raised in. Others find themselves driven by truth into a scary process of deconstruction, as they are forced to jettison beliefs they no longer find credible

For some, the deconstruction leads to “deconversion” and a rejection of christian belief. For others, the deconstruction is followed by reconstruction, and they end up in a completely different christian belief system than they started – mostly evangelicals or Catholics become more progressive.

This is clearly a significant movement in western christianity. The onslaught of the atheist critique of religious belief, and the response of many christians to retreat behind dogmatic walls, has left a large middle ground of progressive christianity which many thoughtful reconstructing christians are now exploring.

I will be developing a new section on this website to explore deconstruction and reconstruction, which I hope will provide some useful insights to fellow explorers.

2. A parting of the ways?

I can’t help feeling that a chasm is developing between evangelical and progressive christianity. Each makes different assumptions, and each builds logically on those assumptions, so it is becoming more and more difficult to bridge the gap.

Assume the Bible is inerrant and you are forced to reject much modern science and culture. Your belief system will be consistent, but will likely be unattractive and even incomprehensible to postmodern western young adults, who will mostly reject or disregard your evangelistic efforts and misunderstand your conservative social ethics. You will be unwilling to change your belief system or its evangelistic methods, so you will likely end up reassuring yourself either that this rejection is a result of their rebellion against God, or that God is sovereign and it mustn’t be his will to save those people at this time. You will focus on evangelism and think caring for people and the world is secondary. You will see any departure from the theological system you have built as being apostasy.

But start with the view that the Bible should be taken on face value, and you will accept it as a revelation from God, not inerrant and often containing more than one story and more than one viewpoint. You will be able to accept or reject modern culture, science and scholarship, on their merits (or otherwise). You will likely frame your mission in life in terms of the kingdom of God, and thus see evangelism, social justice, caring for people and the earth as all important parts of that mission. You will try to relate to non-believers in constructive ways that that build relationships and cooperation on common causes, and thus commend our belief to them in a sensitive manner. You will likely be less dogmatic about all but core beliefs and behaviours.

Nothing like this is ever black and white, but I can’t help thinking these two viewpoints will diverge further, one thinking the other has abandoned core components of historic christian belief, the other thinking the first has its head in the sand and has lost touch with both the Holy Spirit and postmodern culture.

Time will tell.

But keep your eye out for more on faith deconstruction and reconstruction on this website.

References

Photo: Pexels

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