It’s no secret that Reformed Christians have built their own wing of the internet where they spend their time chatting among themselves. They police certain key boundaries and dissent from some of these can (rightly or wrongly) bring about serious criticism. While there is more diversity among the Reformed than critics usually want to recognize, there can also be a heavy pressure to conform to the ‘standard’. Given the more consciously confessional (and I do use the term somewhat broadly) ethos among the Reformed, it’s rather unsurprising that this should be the case.
The progressive Evangelicals now have their own wing, though, ostensibly with an emphasis on diversity and a marked aversion to foreclosing conversations or policing boundaries. The idea that there is a strict standard, a party line you have to toe in order to be a part of the club, is supposed to be foreign to the Progressive internet’s ethos. That’s for the heresy-hunting, conservative builders of Evangelical empire, after all, rather than the “radically inclusive” prophets of a more Christ-like faith. Unlike their conservative counterparts, Progressives follow a Jesus who came to tear down the walls that divide, not put new doctrinal ones back up.
Those are the stereotypes, at least. But it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this picture if we take a look at the actual situation on the ground.
There may not be a Progressive Gospel(s) Federation with explicit standards we can look to, but there are certain tenets that are increasingly defining what I’ve dubbed the “Progressive Evangelical Package.” The theological scene is beginning to mirror the political two-party system such that if you hold one or two of these positions, or want to have a voice in the Progressive conversation, it’s likely there is heavy pressure on you to begin affirming all or most of them.
These tenets do not mark out a monolith. There are undoubtedly figures who don’t fit the description, just like there are figures who spend lots of time in the Reformed world who don’t fit the characterization above, either. I maintain that they signal a trend, though.
Nor are these tenets necessarily inherently ‘progressive.’ Though one or two of them might be, many non-progressives hold some of them within a more classically Evangelical framework as well. Still, when they come in the broader bundle they take on a different flavor.
I offer, then, seven basic, hot-button theological markers, in no particular order.
Pacifism – Pacifism/non-violence is growing as the default stance of many progressive Christians. Historically, pacifism has not always been linked with progressivism, but there’s a definite presumption against the just-war tradition in progressive circles. This is less likely, though, among those who have a more radical, liberationist streak in them.
Egalitarianism – For most progressive Christians, a complementarian view of marriage or ministry at its best is just patriarchy-lite and contrary to the gospel of equality in Christ. Again, there are exegetical egalitarians who are generally theological conservative, but it’s very rare to find a non-egalitarian progressive, unless they’re Catholic.
Arminian/Open Theism/Revised Theisms – Well, I mean, Calvinists are the worst. But really, Reformed or more classic-style doctrines of providence and sovereignty are very much theologia non grata in progressive wings. They are at odds with the kenotic, self-emptying, freedom-gifting God most progressives know. If you cop to any form of it at all, there has to be a huge amount of bending over backwards to downplay, sideline, or distinguish yourself from those Calvinists. In fact, much theological reflection in the camp works by way of contradiction.
Anti-Inerrancy– The rejection of inerrancy is as much a boundary issue for many progressives as the affirmation is for many conservatives. On their view, we don’t need an inerrant Bible. In fact, for many it’s an idolatrous position that gives us a flat text, open to the many anti-science, anti-gay, anti-intellectual approaches to Christian faith we’re struggling against that have killed the faith of a new generation.
Interpretive Pluralism – Connected to the defeat of inerrancy is a heavy emphasis on interpretive pluralism when it comes to the text of Scripture. I’m not sure which is greeted with more sneers: the doctrine of inerrancy, or the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (which is usually quite poorly defined.)
Anti-Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) – A non-violent, or peace-loving God would not ‘murder his Son’ or buy into the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ or engage in ‘divine child abuse.’ God is like Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount, on a certain interpretation), so he doesn’t kill. Usually PSA is pitted against a Christus Victor model, though some sort of modified Girardianism seems to be the atonement theology du jour.
Marriage Revisionism – Finally, while most may not yet have accepted the revisionist take on same-sex relationships, struggling with the issue or defaulting to silence is the norm. The Progressive Gospel is radically inclusive, and generally so hyper-egalitarian to the point that an appeal to sexual difference as revealed in creation and clarified in Scripture is increasingly difficult and almost incoherent to make.
Of course there are undoubtedly more, but these are the ones that have stuck out to me.
The Package Under the Package
It’s important to note that many people hold these positions all separately for different reasons. What’s more, I’m not looking to settle whether or not any of these positions are true or false. I haven’t offered anything close to an argument on any of these points. The interesting question to ask is why these positions seem to be on the rise? And what seems to be uniting them all into this party-line? Besides the biblical arguments many put forward, or the political dynamics at work in the clumping that pop up on the Right as well, what’s the root package under the package? What makes these positions more attractive now than they were before?
Beneath the marks themselves lie three separate themes which hold them together and form a distinctly ‘progressive’ ethos.
The first is generally what Alastair Roberts has dubbed an ethic of empathy: At the heart of this ethic is a concern for the feelings and sensitivities of persons and an acute attention to the internal character of people’s experience. The currency for this ethic is the personal narrative and the sharing of feelings. Truth emerges from the empathetic encounter, as people ‘bravely’ and ‘authentically’ articulate their stories, in a manner ‘true to themselves’. These stories and the feelings that they express should be honoured as sacred and we should be careful not to invalidate or judge either.
Please note that pointing this out isn’t to demean or deny the value of empathy in moral reasoning. I certainly think it has a place. Still, our elevation of it into its own, comprehensive ethic has shaped our current willingness to revise our positions on a number of issues including sexuality, authority, or Scripture.
People’s negative experiences with abuses of Scripture or traditional moral positions weighs heavily in our moral reflection on an issue. If a position has ever been even associated with the emotional or physical harm of an individual, or a group, it is immediately suspect. As one friend put it “my judgment about what is compassionate towards others is sacrosanct.” It’s easy to see where this goes on the sexuality question. Yet from another angle, such an atmosphere inherently privilege pacifistic theologies. When the harm principle is absolutized, force for the sake of justice borders on the oxymoronic. Divine justice that is not only restoration, but includes retribution falls under this as well. Justice that isn’t immediately identifiable as therapeutic or ‘compassionate’ is seen as the result of an unbending, arbitrary abstraction.
Connected to the triumph of empathy is a deep skepticism about authority structures and the idea of power in general. Suspicion can manifest itself in a hostility toward church authorities, or as an intellectual skepticism about the theological tradition that we inherit. Often skepticism is reinforced by the empathetic focus on the primacy of personal narratives: for many, it’s difficult to accept the Scriptures or the tradition as something that could come alongside and correct and reinterpret our narratives for us.
Beyond that, we can see it play itself out at the theological level in the issues of egalitarianism and divine sovereignty. Even the mildest form of complementarianism becomes unthinkable because any and all relationships that could possibly imply hierarchy, or sexually-ordered division of labor are inherently oppressive. Strong doctrines of providence, especially when held or propounded in the sort of unsophisticated, either-God-has-control-or-I-do fashion it often-times is, is simply tyranny by another name. As Fred Sanders put it, this type of God doesn’t seem to make people ‘FLIRSH‘ per the requirements of modern theology, so it must go.
Finally, the progressive ethos privileges the autonomous self. There is a greater focus on the experience, feelings, thoughts, and judgments of the individual. Of course, this will mean difficulty with constraints from tradition, traditional sexual morality which goes beyond (and includes) consent, or any kind of theological position that emphasizes the gap between Creator and creature in terms of our moral understanding or grasp of providence. It’s increasingly improbable that God would say, do, command, or be in a way that isn’t immediately recognizable from within the parameters of our own privileged experience.
What’s the Point?
I could simply reverse-engineer this analysis and write a dopple-ganger account for the conservative package. So what does the above prove? Well, in one sense, nothing much. Certainly nothing in terms of the correctness of the various positions or trends involved. Addressing the deficiencies or merits of its various components needs to be undertaken elsewhere according to Scripture, reason, and in ways that acknowledge progressives own arguments.
It is, instead, an exercise in clarification rather than one of refutation.
Many of us labor under the illusion that the progressive package, the party line, doesn’t exist. Some of those within the camp take its putative diversity and ideological inclusiveness as a point of pride. I suppose for them my aim is to pop their balloon. For others floating within progressivism’s orbit but not yet diving in head-first, I’m hoping to provide some smelling salts. Those looking in with interest would do well to consider the real intellectual and communal pressure there is to conform to the package and examine whether they find the underlying premises convincing and consistent with the gospel.
And that’s the point we must all consider. Theological development—like all intellectual development—happens within communities, traditions, and cultures whose shifting plausibility structures are often invisible to us as we participate in them. I’ve noticed how the reigning plausibility structures or the ethos of groups I’ve associated myself has affected my own theological trajectory. Often it is only in the criticisms and analysis of those outside my own camp that I begin to recognize them for what they with enough clarity to question them and test them against God’s revelation. I must say I’m not always comfortable with the results.
Whatever “camp”, or tradition we happen to be drawn towards, we need to become self-conscious about our ethical and ideological instincts, trace them back to their sources, and learn to keep them open to critique. Only in this way will we be assuming a posture suited for pilgrims who travel on the way—in via as the old theologians used to say—knowing that our humble theologies must always be fall short of the glory of God in all of his majesty.
Derek Rishmawy is the RUF campus minister at the University of California-Irvine, and is a systematic theology PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He contributes to Christ and Pop Culture, Christianity Today, and writes at his own blog, Reformedish. He also co-hosts Mere Fidelity. You can follow him on Twitter @dzrishmawy.