Can An Evangelical Christian Be Progressive?
This is Part 4 of What is a Liberal Christian?
by R.E. Slater
February 18, 2013
In Part 1 Roger Olson stated "Why I Am Not A Liberal Christian." To that Scott McKnight asked "What is a Liberal Anyway?" Than Bo Sanders asked "What is a Progressive?" To that I would like to ask, "Can An Evangelical Be Progressive?"
What if an evangelical were to call themselves a progressive evangelical? Are we to then infer that that person is a liberal, or more rather, a progressive liberal?
Or, is the usage of the term progressive a descriptively different term than its noun-form?
But rather than imply that a progressive Evangelical is liberal it might simply imply that that evangelical wishes to move to the left of the conservative elements within his or her's religious affiliation.... By embracing social issues; by questioning existing religious structures, conventions and practices; by mitigating harsher words of judgmental Christianity for kindlier words of grace and peace; or for any number of other reasons.
An evangelical may thus wish to move left of a perceived hardline mentality fraught within their own form of evangelicalism. And so, we might describe an evangelical as one who might be conservative, moderate, progressive, or even leftist. But still, its description hangs upon how an evangelical interacts with his/her own evangelicalism.
So too may a liberal be conservative, moderate, progressive, or leftist, in relationship to their liberalism. Hence, to use the adverbial form of the term "progressive" is meaningless without its context.
Ironically, this same situation had also occurred within Fundamentalist Christianity birthing its more progressive twin - that of Evangelicalism. But one would not consider Evangelicalism as liberal, much less than one would consider Fundamentalism as being non-Christian. Even though each Christian group has their own distinctives, creeds, religious formulas, practices, and ministerial themes.
So then, to use the term liberal, or progressive, must be to use the terms intelligently, or coherently, within their greater context of literary meaning, and not as simply pejorative labels.
To be a progressive evangelical then is unlike being a progressive liberal. They are two different belief structures (or, world-and-life philosophies). The former holds to some form of Roger Olson's 6-point outline (see a summary of the list at the end of this article), the latter to some form of its opposite. They are unlike each other even though each uses the same label of progressive.
Furthermore, an Emergent Christian is one that has moved to the left of Evangelicalism, for the same reasons that an Evangelical had moved to the left of Fundamentalism - they each were dissatisfied with their current fellowship's Christian message. Moreover, an Emergent Christian may be the same sort of creature as that of a progressive Evangelical - though it is hoped that the term "Evangelical" is dropped for the more positive description that Emergent (or Emerging) Christianity brings with it.
And into the term progressive one might apply other terms such as moderate, or postconservative, which in my mind, are more-or-less the same, and utilized to soften, or harden, the label's description pertaining to the context and target audiences involved. For instance, an evangelical professor may wish to distinguish his form of evangelicalism by applying one of those descriptors to describe his approach to theology - and the Christian faith - as one that may be progressive, moderate, or postconservative, depending upon its meaning to the institution and its constituents, and what he wishes to accomplish by using it.
As example, both Roger Olson and Scott McKnight would describe themselves as postconservative Evangelicals (which means that they are some form of progressive, or moderate, Evangelicals as I understand it). A confounding term to say the least. But, based upon their careers, and school affiliations, wisely used in these times of career firings and public slanderings.
Bo Sanders, on the other hand is an Emergent Christian, as am I. We each seem to have been birthed out of the evangelical movement (well, actually, I began Christianity first as a Fundamentalist before transitioning to an Evangelical faith by transfer of marriage and time). Bo, on the other hand, being more widely read and professional trained in philosophy (and philosophical theology) is right at home in a larger framework (even as I attempt to do the same). Whereas my own background derives from a more conservative, evangelical institution that was formerly fundamental. So as I listen to Bo, even as I listen to Roger and Scott (who is a past college classmate of mine, I might add, but one year ahead), I try to understand the context from which they are speaking.
So that from each, has found me working through what it means to be a progressive evangelic. One whose name I prefer to uncomplicate by using the term emergent (or emerging) Christian. Allowing it to breathe in the fresher airs of postmodernism, as versus the enlightened, secular, modernism that Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism had grown up within over the past 200 years.
For the emergent / emerging Christian the question isn't one of either secular modernism or atheistic liberalism (as exampled by Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism's faith adaptations to their eras of Enlightenment and Modernism), but how a postmodern Christian might respond to the various forms of postconservatism on the one hand, and postliberalism on the other. Each, in their own right, was a moving target, even as Emerging Christianity was when it began 15 years ago as one thing, but has since evolved into something else from it's earlier self 15 years later as postconservatives and postliberals have interacted with contemporary society.
So then, just what is an Emergent / Emerging Christian? It is the one we have been writing about for these past two years here at Relevancy22. And just what is an Emergent / Emerging Theology? It too is in various stages of development and expression and can likewise be found at Relevancy22. Overall, Jesus is its center, the Word of God its foundation, and faith's practice its multiplier. The boundary sets are broader, if existent at all, since Emerging Christianity is center-set, and not boundary-based. Moreover, it is a contemporary expression of Christianity - dealing with issues of globalism, pluralism, multi-ethnicity, communication, language (symbols, meaning, and idiomatic expressions), collaboration, societal expression, epistemology, metaphysics, science, justice, equality, and God Himself, to name a few.
In terms of Christian labeling, an Emerging Christian is one who may have left Evangelicalism or, moved to the right of Mainline Denominationalism's progressive expression of a Christ-less liberalism. However, an Emergent may also be a former traditional Catholic wishing to contemporize their Catholic faith by following the reforms of Vatican II that have become stillborn by its more conservative Catholic constituents and theologs. Or, perhaps an Emergent is one that was either liberal, or without any religious affiliation, wishing to re-express their atheism, hedonism, natural theology, and so on, to that of a biblical theology that is both postmodern and contemporary.
But to any Christian wishing to remain Christian, or biblically theological, Roger's 6-points are a good beginning point for any Christian faith expression wishing to be orthodox - regardless of its religious expression down through the ages of the church. Whether it was that of an early Jewish Christian, or that of one bearing an Hellenistic extract, or pre-Medieval, Medieval, Reformational, Enlightened, Modern, or Postmodern. Even the term "orthodoxy" is as lucid a term as any other Christian label - requiring its re-expression with every passing age of man (cf., The Church's Struggle Today, Not Unlike Paul's Struggle Then, with Inflexible, Dying Traditionalism). Thus Emergent Christianity's task today is one of redefining a Christian Orthodoxy that is postmodern, and progressing towards societal forms of participation and authenticity, one that is narrative and poststructural, decentralized and process-oriented.
Regardless, a Christianity that is orthodox may be postmodern and can indeed observe all 6 points - to which I'm sure we could add a few more.... Throughout all, God will be God. A God who has not left us to our own selves, our designs, nor to our ideological devices. Who actively pursues us in all our endeavors despite sin, this lost world, or our lost souls. Who wishes to redeem us and bring us into active fellowship with Himself. And to His will, as His redemption expands outwards (and inwards) into all of creation, as a greater spiritual ethic and rule, that is unstoppable and unrelenting.
This is God's Kingdom. God's habitat. God's rule of fellowship. One to which humanity is invited to participate actively within. This is how I would understand a progressive Christianity that remains descriptively Orthodox but epistemologically malleable through every age of mankind.
- R.E. Slater
Christian Orthodoxy's 6-Point Manifesto:
- A God who is Creator-Redeemer
- A Special Revelation that is supernatural in origin
- A Christology that is Incarnational and Trinitarian
- Scriptures that are Inspirational and Authoritative
- A lost humanity requiring God's salvation
- A future that looks to Jesus Christ's return and rule