May 1 2016

The Progressive Problem

“… progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” ~C.S. Lewis

I tend to relate to a lot of people who fall under the “progressive” Christian category, probably moreso that most other categories in current use.  I’m definitely not a fundamentalist, and am not a good fit in the contemporary evangelical category either (something which will be the subject of another post).  I’m too conservative to be liberal, and too liberal to be conservative.   And “moderate” is just too lukewarm-ish.   Like I said, I tend to relate the most to people who fall into the progressive category, but unfortunately I don’t belong there either.

The term “progressive” obviously comes from the root “progress,” and I guess that’s my issue.  I simply reject the enlightenment notion of progress.  A wise man once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I tend to believe that assessment. While progressives may be moving on from the status quo (which is usually the remnants of the last progressive movement), I don’t believe they are actually “progressing.”  Moving is not necessarily going forward, and not all evolution is a step forward.

Progressing implies improvement, or leveling-up, if you will.  Each generations progressive movement has moved away from the status quo of its day, but it’s debatable whether any such movement has actually moved forward, or if Christianity has actually gotten any better because of it. Luther’s Evangelical movement (which I do identify with) did not claim to be progressing, but the goal was to actually regress (i.e. reform) to the gospel evident in the New Testament that had been lost in years of Western nonsense. As the Lewis quote above indicates, moving backwards can be progress from a certain point of view. But, nothing that Luther taught was new, at least intentionally.  If a movement does, in fact, come up with something new and different, I would argue that it’s not progressive, it’s just possibly heretical.

There are some contemporary progressives which I think may be borderline heretics, having thrown out too many things with the bath water.  Perhaps more importantly, I think there are more than a few non-progressive evangelicals who are possible heretics as well–at the very least, they are terribly mistaken about a number of things.  Conservatives, for the most part, are those who hold on to yesterday’s progressivism. The thing I like the most about those under the current progressive banner is that they are willing to toss out the heresies of the status quo evangelicals, and in the process discover some of the attitudes and truths that were expressed by Jesus and the early church. But as far as becoming “a new kind of Christian,” that simply isn’t happening.

Jesus, and Paul, perhaps, were the only true progressives in that the revelation of Jesus was a new understanding of something old.  The Gospels, especially, are very progressive books, from Jesus’ interpretations of the Old Testament to how he viewed people.  Referring to the Law of Moses as “you have heard it said?” Refusing to judge sinners? Forgive, turn the other cheek? A Samaritan is your neighbor?   Then, of course, there’s Paul, breaking down racial, cultural and sexual barriers even further, and declaring the Law, for all practical purposes, dead.  I suppose, in that sense, anyone who follows this radical gospel of grace and reconciliation is a progressive, in that Christianity is itself the only true progressive movement. Humanity has always been going to hell in a hand basket, and we’re not any better or worse than at any prior age. However the New Covenant is the progression from the old, and sets the only way of true progress: redemption of creation and the full revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the only way of true progress. Apart from this, mankind has not progressed at all, in spite of science, technology and knowledge.

I really dislike labels, but understand why they are necessary, or at least convenient. “Postmodern” was a very unfortunate term, and “emerging” was even more so. Postmodernism was post-nothing, and you can only be emerging for a moment before you become the past. As hard as people try, we can’t escape the past, or we risk following the flight path of Icarus. “Progressive” is somewhat unfortunate as it is a relative term; the challenge, it seems, is not defining “progressive,” but rather to define what it is you’re progressing from, and what you think you are progressing to.

I can’t claim to be a progressive, because I am not sure that I am in fact progressing. I’ve thought I was many times in my past, and I’ve spent a great deal of time doubling-back to venture out in a new direction, hopefully just a tad bit wiser. But, the only thing I can be really sure of is that I’m probably wrong about a great many things.

 

 


Aug 16 2015

A Look at the Progressive Nature of Western Christianity

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of Progressive Christianity; not necessarily about any current person or group using the designation, but just about the concept. There are some Christians who proudly refer to themselves as Progressives, to distinguish themselves from the staid, Evangelical Status Quo. There are others, such as the aforementioned evangelical Status Quo, who use the word perjoratively in reference to the liberals who would destroy the SQ (Status Quo) and Christianity As We Know It.  

The truth of the matter is, western Christianity is progressive. Evangelicals, today’s SQ,  were once the progressives. Today’s progressives may be tomorrow’s SQ.  The fundamentalists, believe it or not, were once the progressives. Calvinists were progressives, Lutherans were progressives, and Roman Catholics were once progressives.

What this means is that Christianity As We Know It in the West includes many beliefs that are later inventions. I think it safe to say that the New Testament Christians would not recognize today’s church or it’s teachings. And, ironically, many contemporary progressives are merely rejecting many of these relatively late-breaking beliefs which were at one time rejected by the existing church. 

Here are a few examples of commonly-held beliefs which are later inventions & additions, which much of the contemporary evangelical church accepts as “orthodox”:

  1. Dispensationalism and the Rapture
  2. Biblical Innerancy
  3. Literal readings of Genesis, Revelation, and other passages
  4. Rejection of infant baptism
  5. Predestination
  6. Original sin & total depravity
  7. Penal Substitution theory of atonement
  8. Accepting Jesus as your personal savior

There are more, but as you can see, these represent many of the key tenets of contemporary Evangelicalism.  And yes, they can all be traced to a specific point in church history, although attempts are made to support some of these from snippets of writngs from the church fathers.  

Original sin, for example, was a concept developed by Augustine, who also laid the foundation for total depravity and predestination.  Augustine’s teachings were not accepted by the majority of the church at that time, and he is only considered to be a “saint” by the Roman Catholic church (which split from the Eastern church in 1054).  The Eastern church doesn’t consider him a heretic, but many of his new ideas were rejected.

Penal Substitution was developed by Anselm (11th Century).  John Calvin further developed Augustine’s ideas of total depravity and predestination, and also affirmed Anselm’s penal substitution theory.  Doctrines such as Dispensationalism and the Rapture originated sometime in the mid-1800’s and were popularized by Scofield who included the teaching in notes in his study Bible. (The concept that Revelation was about the future was first taught by a Jesuit priest in the 16th Century.) Biblical inerrancy and literalism are also later developments, being positions adopted by fundamentalists and evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries.

With Christianity (especially Protestant Christianity) being progressive in nature, it’s interesting to note the various time periods where certain groups have stopped progressing and become vaious “status quos.” My wife uses the phrase “leaving the conversation.”  The Amish, for example, left the conversation at some point in the 1800’s, both culturally and theologically.  There are some Lutheran groups who left the conversation theologically at the creation of the Book of Concord, the collection of early Lutheran works that establish Lutheran doctrine. 

Some fundamentalist groups and Pentecostal groups left the conversation theologically in the early 1900’s, and culturally about 1946.  And, contemporary Evangelical churches that I’ve been visiting seem to have left the conversation in the 1980’s, and culturally and musically in the 90’s.

Many contemporary “progressives” may only be progressive in that they are casting off dead conversations, rediscovering things like the christus victor concept of atonement, creedal statements, and reading the Bible like the 1st Century Jews read the Old Testament. The voices of the past – the “great cloud of witnesses” – are still a part of the conversation.  

When you look at how Christianity has evolved over the years (to me, a more accurate word than “progressed,” which implies getting better), you have to ask yourself who the real progressives are.  Perhaps the progressives are really the ones who simply refuse to leave the conversation.


Feb 4 2014

More about worship

Go here for part 1.

If the main purpose of Lutheran worship is to receive God’s gifts, then it follows that Lutheran worship is Christ-centered. Just take a look at the liturgical orders of service in either of our two hymnals. Everything said and done is filled with His Word. Why? Because our focus is on Christ and His work, that’s why. The focus of Lutheran worship is on Christ, not man. Therefore, Lutheran worship is always Christocentric-Christ-centered-and never anthropocentric-man-centered.  ~A.L. Barry, as quoted by Matt Richard in part 2 of his series on Lutheran worship

The heart of worship

In my opinion, the greatest statement on worship (as well as on faith) is Peter’s statement as recorded in John 6:68:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69, ESV)

“Where would we go? Only you have the words of life.”

Our word “worship” means to give something or someone great value or worth. Peter’s statement is really the ultimate worship statement, as he is not just saying that Jesus’ words are better than the Rabbis down the road. Peter goes so far as to say, “only you.” There are simply no other options. There’s life here, and anywhere else is death. This attitude, I think, is the true heart of worship.

Note that Peter doesn’t say anything about himself.  He doesn’t talk about what he has to offer, and he doesn’t say anything about how being with Jesus makes him feel. In fact, given Jesus’ recent teaching topics, Peter may have even been somewhat perturbed with Jesus due to the loss of followers. This is, rather, a clear-cut statement that Peter acknowledged that only Jesus had what Peter needs to survive. As someone once put it, Peter’s statement was one of “enlightened self-interest.”

Christ-centered worship

Mr. Barry goes on to say

… Lutheran worship takes our eyes and sets them firmly on the cross of Jesus Christ, for there the Lord of the Universe suffered and died for the sins of the world. Lutheran worship points us to the Resurrected Lord who lives and reigns to all eternity, and promises us everlasting life. Christ-centered Lutheran worship lifts our hearts and minds to the things of God and helps us to understand our place in Christ’s kingdom better as His redeemed people. Yes, Lutheran worship must always be Christ-centered.

When we say Lutheran worship is Christ-centered, this is not to say that those who gather for worship are mere blocks of stone. Our worship focuses on Christ, who is present for us and with us in His Word and Sacraments. He is truly among us. We are not contemplating a far-off Christ, or meditating on abstract ideas. Lutheran worship is not like going to a self-help group or a therapy session. It is God who gathers us for worship around the gifts He gives to us through Word and Sacrament. We are worshipping the One who is very near, as close as the preaching of the Word. We are worshipping the One who is actually present under the bread and wine of Holy Communion. He promised, “I will be with you always.” In our worship service He fulfills that wonderful promise. He is living and active among us, right here, right now, where He has promised to be-in His Word and Sacraments. Therefore, it is important to say that while our focus is on Christ, His focus is always on us! Thanks be to God that this is true!

Now, I don’t mean to say that only Lutherans worship correctly, or that all Lutherans necessarily worship correctly.  I think the principles here transcend Lutheranism, although Lutheran incarnational theology is very intertwined with Lutheran thoughts on worship, and contemporary evangelicalism tends to downplay concepts such as Christ’s real presence.

One of these things is not like the other

My point, rather than to necessarily champion Lutheran worship, is to point out the differences between this philosophy of worship and other worship philosophies which are to varying degrees influenced by Calvinism and Arminianism, both of which can have a very man- and works-centered focus.

I am also not emphasizing one style over another (although I have thoughts there, too). It is entirely possibly to be involved in a very emotionally-oriented style of worship and still be aware that the whole point is to receive from Christ.

This, by the way, is what the Lutherans mean by “Christ-centered,” which is also a term used by everyone else; no one would say that their worship is not “Christ-centered.” The difference is whether or not we are looking solely to Christ as our source for righteousness and holiness as we worship.

 

 

 


Feb 1 2014

On Creeds

James McGrath has an interesting post today, “I Believe in I Believe in God,” in which he writes

Last Sunday in my Sunday school class, the topic that came up here on the blog recently also came up there: the difference between trusting in divine grace, and trusting in one’s understanding of divine grace.

One can apply the same point to the creeds. There is a difference between believing in God, and believing a creed, even if the creed begins with “I believe in God.”

Hence the title of the post. For some, it is not enough to believe in God. One must believe in “I believe in God…”

The lack of creedalism

Now, McGrath represents the more progressive side of Christian theology, and would perhaps have a different perspective of creeds than the typical “evangelical” (in the contemporary sense, not the Lutheran sense). For that matter, I would not be surprised if many of today’s evangelical Christians know that the creeds exist or what they say. Evangelicalism, in part due to a disregard for the historic creeds, has drifted in myriad directions, and has become quite subjective. From this standpoint, many “conservative” evangelicals are, in fact, “progressive,” when it comes to historic, confessional Christianity.  Far more often than not, what you hear on any given Sunday morning is not historic Christianity or theology, but the pastor’s perspective, salted with verses pulled out of context to support the topic du jour.

This is not to say that these evangelicals have drifted from the essence of the creedal statements, at least as far as their church statements of faith go. In fact, many have actually added requirements for being members of that church. However, it’s my experience that many evangelical Christians have never been taught basic theology, and are in fact heterodox with respect to the creeds.

There is a difference

There is, indeed, a difference between believing in God, and believing in a creed. But I think it is important to understand the origins and contexts of creeds.  Without going into great detail, creeds were mainly developed in response to various heresies that threatened to divide the church. They were developed to reflect what was felt as the absolute bottom-line with respect to what one had to believe in order to be a Christian.  Believing in God is one thing; believing in accordance with Scripture as reflected by the creeds is another.

The Nicene Creed, for example, was developed in the 4th Century as the standard for orthodox Christianity. You could believe otherwise, but you’d be a heretic – outside the faith.  The same would seem to be true today – the creeds haven’t changed.  You can disagree with the creeds, but then, you disagree with conventional, orthodox Christianity as understood for 2000 years.

There are a couple of issues with respect to the Nicene creed that conventional churches disagree about. One is whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or both the Father and the Son. This is not an issue I tend to worry about, although I tend to go East (from the Father only). The other issue is the phrase “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church” (“catholic” meaning “universal”), which would be disputed by some, and which is interpreted differently by others.  Thus, some fundamentalist churches (who are very anti-Catholic and anti-Eastern Orthodox), would reject the Nicene Creed, again, making them progressives…

So…

What do you think? Is it enough to believe in God, or does one have to believe in one or more of the creedal statements?