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.

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3 Responses to A Look at the Progressive Nature of Western Christianity

  1. So, to unpack your list a little: 1. Bretherenism, Hal Lindsey and co clearly have a lot to answer for here. It would be interesting to identify markers of other views (i.e. Preterism) in the ECF’s and see what bearing they have on us today. 2. This had to come along later (when the canon became canon), so what matters here, I suspect, is that the ECF’s see scripture alone as definitive when it comes to any matter of Christian teaching (theology) and faith. 3. ‘Literal’ readings of material which states “I saw an image (vision) that was like” is asking for trouble (Daniel’s visions do little more than terrify him until they are explained), but the approach of the ECF’s to Genesis is important – they consider it history (though, room is clearly left for what is unknown here, especially regarding the opening verses of the book, for example, when married to other passages like those contained in Job). 4. Another modern wrinkle which leaves behind all early church thinking (and you have to ask why, and why we so miss out on the use of the sacraments generally). 5. The prudent Reformers understood that this becomes a nightmare once you divorce the doctrine from Christ (hence, double predestination). 6. Theories, theories… Perhaps it’s best for us to simply go back to the cardinal passages on this (Isaiah 53, Romans 4) and, looking at the early materials, grapple and unpack with what is said. 5. Ah, Finney-ism (and it’s accompanying Pelagian attire) – certainly a non-starter when you really look at what counts (God saving us). I wonder if that’s reasonable in terms of what the early Christians believed?

  2. me says:

    Yes; not all progressivisms are equal. I think it’s always important to include the historic church in the conversation.

    Many of these newer additions were not vetted by the church as a whole, they were added by personalities and pseudo-authorities, and adopted by popular opinion. All of Christianity in the US has been infected with Calvinism because the early settlers were hyper-Calvinists, and subsequent “revivals” perpetuated various odd doctrines. Even non-Calvinists have inherited false views of God and man as a result (and the Eastern Church does consider Calvinism to be a heresy).

  3. Interesting issue, Alden.
    The question then, is if these are ‘new’ beliefs, many of which came centuries after Christianity itself, why should they be held to, and, perhaps, even more important, what was believed by Christians on such issues before these teachings became commonplace? It’s certainly the case that certain things became more clearly defined (i.e. the nature of Christ and The Trinity) because of the rise of ‘alternative’ teachings in the early centuries, but some aspects of doctrine (i.e. the importance of Justification by Grace) were at the core of the faith very early on ( there’s early church materials that show this). There’s clearly a need, I’d suggest, for us to re-visit these early materials and unpack them for our own benefit, so we can bring out treasures old and new.

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