Spending time at a theologically liberal Christian University with many progressive Christians was immensely helpful in my understanding “the other side” of the theological spectrum. In today’s social media age, it is far too easy to miss the humanity of the person on the other end of the keyboard. Being face to face with people of different perspectives allows you to see things that heated internet exchanges inevitably miss.
What I discovered primarily when interacting with progressives was their compassion. It is easy to paint a picture in your mind of godless compromisers who detest the orthodox teachings of sacred Scripture, and those people are certainly out there, but they are not the majority. Most of the progressives I met were genuinely compassionate people who love Jesus (or at least their idea of him) and the Bible.
Before I lay out where they go wrong, I believe it is important to give credit where it is due on where I think they have the right mindset. Their compassion for the poor, sick, and marginalized of the world is what struck me the most and made it no longer possible for the liberal caricature to hold weight for every progressive.
Now there are legitimate criticisms of the progressive ideas of social activism and the social gospel as being the primary gospel among these circles at the expense of the biblical gospel and the doctrines of sin and repentance. However, it is also possible to go too far to the other extreme and neglect Jesus’ teachings on taking care of the poor and marginalized, and progressives do take these matters seriously. But it is not where progressives agree with Jesus that I object to; it is where they divert from his teachings.
And this is why I entered the University as a theologically conservative Christian and will leave the University with the same commitments.
Here are some theological issues with progressive Christians.
Progressive Christians Don’t Share Jesus’ View of Scripture
On my first day of an introductory course to New Testament Exegesis, the professor did a survey to see examine how each student in the class viewed the Scriptures and their divine inspiration. I will never forget being the only one of about fifteen students who held the position that the Scriptures are inerrant and infallible.That was a bit of a wake-up call to me as I knew the university I was going to was liberal, but I did not honestly expect it to be that liberal.
Over the course of my time in college, I became used to the frameworks and how my professors and classmates viewed the Scriptures. The concept of an inerrant Scripture that was actually theopnuestos or “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) was completely foreign to them and almost a sort of novelty that they viewed as being held by only the most fundamentalist of Christian sects. There was no idea of Scripture being a coherent metanarrative of redemption. Instead, it was a multivocal collection of competing and mutually exclusive theological views.
The answers to questions were framed like this: “Well, in Pauline theology this view is prevalent but the Markan Jesus views the issue this way.” One can almost immediately see the theological and logistical problems with this view of Scripture. Without a consistent and coherent voice on an issue, it is inevitable that people can ultimately create a theological system in their own image.
“My view is supported heavily in Luke, but there is of course tension with the Johannine view.” Without a view of Scripture that presents it as authoritative and consistent with itself, we are left with a build-a-bear workshop of doctrines that we can accept or reject as simply a view that “this particular author had.”
Now of course progressive Christians are not a monolith and there are many who would reject my criticism as not being that simple, but logistical issues aside, the primary problem with these views of Scripture is that it is far removed from how the Old and New Testament authors viewed the authority of Scripture, and it is most demonstrably different from how Jesus viewed them.
Jesus viewed the Scriptures as clear and authoritative. When he answered theological controversies, he did not answer by saying, “Well you are correct in how Isaiah viewed the issue but actually it is Moses who had the right idea.” No, Jesus answered by saying. “Have you not read what God spoke to you?” (Matt. 22:31) Jesus viewed the Scriptures as the very words of God. Repeatedly he goes to Scripture as the authoritative voice: “You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Jesus viewed Scripture as unbreakable (John 10:35). He viewed them as a coherent metanarrative: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39).
Jesus viewed the Scriptures as the final deciding voice on a matter, repeatedly answering the Pharisees and even Satan himself with the words, “It is written.” Jesus had the absolute highest view of the authority and clarity of the Holy Scriptures and his view cannot be reconciled with progressive views of tension and mutually exclusive views among the writers. Most progressives I know do not deny this; they simply believe Jesus had a wrong view of Scripture that was current for an Israelite in his time. They respond that in his humanity, Jesus erred. But Jesus claimed that everything he taught was from the Father.
In short, progressive Christians do not share Jesus’ views of the Scriptures. This is ultimately the fatal flaw of progressive Christianity and the fountainhead from which all other flaws derive.
Progressive Christians Don’t Share Jesus’ Views of Sin and Hell
The Jesus who cares for the poor cannot be separated from the Jesus who drove out sinners with whips and the Jesus who will ultimately come again to crush his enemies and those who break God’s law under his feet (2 Thess. 1:7-8) The servant Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples is the same Jesus who spoke more about hell than any other person in the Bible. The same Jesus who said “judge not” is the same one who said he did not come on earth to bring peace but the sword and to divide families over the truth of his message (Matt. 10:34-35).
During my time with progressive Christians, it was inescapable to see that the Jesus they professed to love was not the fullness of the person of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible.
Many of them had a view of Jesus as a loving savior, but one who is completely disconnected from the law of God as revealed in the Old Testament. This again is tied to a deficient view of inspiration; the same God who was incarnate and proclaimed a message of love is the same God who is the author of the law as revealed in Exodus and Leviticus.
Progressive Christians Don’t Share Jesus’ View of Salvation
But while progressives focus on the horizontal nature of justice to neighbor, they miss the vertical justice due to God. One of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith is that we are saved by God from God. God cannot allow sin to go unpunished; to do so would be to act against his nature which is both holy and just. With the doctrines of original sin and the total depravity of man completely excised from modern progressive theology, they cannot see exactly how far east of Eden we are in our current state.
The problems progressives wrestle with are questions like “How can a loving God send someone to Hell?” or “How could God order the execution of the Canaanites?” These are not the questions the biblical authors wrestled with. To them, one of the biggest questions was, “How can God be both just and the justifier of the ungodly?” (Rom. 3:26).
If a progressive still accepts the doctrine of hell, they do not believe most people will go there; it is only a place for “the really bad people.” But this is not how Jesus viewed the issue. He said the gate is narrow that leads to salvation and that few will find it. Jesus said many will come to him at the judgement claiming to be his followers, but he will not know them and will cast them out (Matt. 7:21-23).
One of the most egregious errors in the progressive mindset is how little attention they give the depravity of sin and how low they view the holiness of God.
Engaging Progressive Christians with the Gospel
R.C. Sproul says, “A God who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol.” Too often in theological disputes in general, we seem to debate the symptoms of problematic views instead of the root of the issues. Long ago I realized there was little use in debating a progressive on something like the death penalty or just war theory when we had completely different starting points when it came to the nature of Scripture and God’s law.
The heart of the matter must be addressed before we can meaningfully discuss the symptoms. That is why the biblical Jesus must be the center of the discussions with progressives. They must see him for who he really is. A pragmatic objection to this is that by pointing out the more severe aspects of Jesus, we could end up driving progressives further away from embracing orthodox Christianity and may lead them to take the increasingly popular route of deconstructivism and apostasy. To truly follow Jesus, they must know Jesus, because the Jesus they profess to know does not exist.