THE FOCUS (2/21/2021)
The characteristics of progressive Christianity and how it distorts the gospel
The 2020 presidential election was not just a political battle. In fact, the underlying fight was a raging spiritual war between Christianity and modern progressive or liberal Christianity. Politically, the former finds its home in the Republican Party, while the latter in the Democratic Party. Naturally, one would question whether Christianity is actually different from progressive Christianity. And if they are different, in what respect?
The answer to the first question is, they are different. Christianity’s central focus is on God the Father and Christ, God’s only begotten Son, as well as on the salvation granted by God the Father, through His Son, to human beings. For them, God is the Giver of all life and as such, He alone is the ultimate arbiter of life and death decisions. On the other hand, liberalism’s central focus is on men (people) and men have their full rights to determine their own in life. For them, some system of governing power and man-made rules are the ultimate arbiter and criteria of life and death decisions.
While liberal Christianity is a creation of the Christian religion, and continues to proclaim that its values are universal even though, it essentially has has rejected the faith that inspired them. Why?
“I think that one of the paradoxically Christian expressions of de-Christianisation is in the anxiety that people who’ve been raised in Christian civilization feel about the authority and the harmony of Christianity itself, to the degree that they want to turn their back on it. That’s the Christian notion that the first will be last and the last will be first absolutely cannibalizing itself: that Christianity’s become so hegemonic you’ve got to repudiate it.
“I think that’s the most Christian expression of liberals today — when they say: ‘I’m happy to consider myself a Buddhist or Hindu or something, but I don’t want to be a Christian.’ It’s a rejection of Christianity for deeply Christian reasons.”
“Ultimately,” he says, “the basis of almost everything that we think, at its core, is theological. I think you see this very clearly in the issue of humanism: the idea that humans have a particular value is founded on a theological idea.
“Attempts to sustain that idea without the theology that historically has underpinned it seem to be wholly bogus and doomed to fail. One of the interesting ways in which we can see where this might lead is in the wild fringes of the environmental movement at the moment, which is saying: ‘Actually, well, humans aren’t special. Not only are they not special, but they’re a plague, and there are too many humans. There are too many of us. We are a kind of biological asteroid that is causing a great extinction on the level of the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.’ There’s a reason why, on the darkest fringes of environmentalism, it shades into Nazism.”
Writing a review of the book in New Statesmen in 2019, John Gray echoed Holland:
Secular liberals dismiss Christianity as a fairy tale, but their values and their view of history remain essentially Christian. The Christian story tells of the son of God being put to death on a cross. In the Roman world, this was the fate of criminals and those who challenged imperial power. Christianity brought with it a moral revolution. The powerless came to be seen as God’s children, and therefore deserving of respect as much as the highest in society. History was a drama of sin and redemption in which God – acting through his son – was on the side of the weak.
Modern progressive movements have renewed this sacred history, though it is no longer God but “humanity” – or its self-appointed representatives – that speaks for the powerless. In many ways, the West today is more fiercely self-righteous than it was when it was professedly Christian. The social justice warriors who denounce Western civilization and demand that its sins be confessed and repented would not exist without the moral inheritance of Christianity. As Tom Holland writes, “Had it been otherwise, then no one would ever have got woke.”
About a hundred years ago, in 1923, Professor of J. Gresham Machen wrote a book on this issue. He provides some contrast between Christianity and liberalism on six key point differences: (1) Doctrine, (2) God and Man, (3) The Bible, (4) Christ, (5) Salvation, and (6) The Church. The book can be downloaded here.
On Christ for instance, Professor Machen wrote:
“The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but One who was regarded, and regarded Himself, as the Savior whom men could trust.” (page 83)
“But by modern liberalism He is regarded in a totally different way. Christians stand in a religious relation to Jesus; liberals do not stand in a religious relation to Jesus-- what difference could be more profound than that? The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus. But he does not stand in a religious relation to Jesus. Jesus for him is an example for faith, not the object of faith. The modern liberal tries to have faith in God like the faith which he supposes Jesus had in God; but he does not have faith in Jesus. According to modern liberalism, in other words, Jesus was the Founder of Christianity because He was the first Christian, and Christianity consists in maintenance of the religious life which Jesus instituted.
According to modern liberalism, in other words, Jesus was the Founder of Christianity because He was the first Christian, and Christianity consists in maintenance of the religious life which Jesus instituted. (page 84).
Fast forward to 2020, Professor Michael Krueger from Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, succinctly provided the contrast between Christianity and progressive Christianity. Although he only compares them in three aspects (Christ, Salvation, and the Sin), it can give perspective that the two are not really compatible. We provide his short writing here.
What is progressive Christianity?
A number of years ago, J. Gresham Machen at Westminster Theological Seminary wrote a very well-known book which has become famous over the years called Christianity and Liberalism. That really is a book that needs to be read more and more today because what Machen argued in his book is that in his time period, there was a version of Christianity, a type of Christianity that was presenting itself as a real option for what to believe. But when you really looked down at the core beliefs within it, it wasn’t really Christianity at all. In fact, it was just a different version of the faith altogether. In fact, Machen wrote this whole book to try to warn people against that version of the faith.
In the modern day, there’s something very similar still happening, and we may not call it liberal Christianity today, although there’s a sense in which that’s true, but really the term now is progressive Christianity. It’s a version of Christianity that sells itself as a valid option for Christians that on the surface looks a lot like the Christian worldview and may seem in the eyes of many people to be more acceptable, more likable, a really more palatable version of the faith. But again, like in Machen’s day, when you really bore down into it, you realize there are some really serious problems there. So one of the common questions is: how do I spot that progressive Christianity when it looks so much like true Christianity? Well, just a few tidbits for you.
1. Progressive Christianity Has a Low View of Christ
One of the hallmarks of progressive Christianity is the way they view Jesus. The orthodox view of Jesus, of course, is that he’s the divine Son of God and worthy of our worship and worthy of our adoration and to be praised as God. But, of course, that’s not what progressive Christians believe. They believe that Jesus isn’t so much the divine Son of God, but rather just a moral example for us to follow. Jesus is more of a big brother that sets a pattern that we walk in his footsteps. That’s partly true, of course, we do follow Jesus’s example, but progressive Christians make that the main thing. Jesus is just a picture of what we can be and what we can do and his main point is just to set an example for us. The lowering of Jesus is the first mark of progressive Christianity.
2. Progressive Christianity Is Focused on Moralism, Not Salvation
Tightly tied to that, as I’ve already suggested, is a second mark, which is this big focus on moralism. If you don’t have any sort of sense of Jesus as someone to be worshiped, then he’s just someone to be emulated, so the highest goal of the Christian life for progressive Christianity is that you just have to be a good person. You should just follow certain rules. You should be kind to your neighbor. You’re not really left with the gospel of salvation; you’re left with a moral code, and it really reduces it to sort of this moralistic religion.
3. Progressive Christianity Downplays Our Fallenness
The third mark is tightly close to that, too, which is if you think you can be a good person, you must have a very low view of sin, which is another thing that progressive Christianity has. It’s this idea that people aren’t really that fallen and they’re not really that bad, there’s not really anything marring us, that we’re all good people at the core and therefore really do have an opportunity to be even better. You’ll find that in progressive Christian circles, there’s a downplaying of the word sin; there’s certainly no interest in talking about the wrath of God on sin. God is not portrayed as at all disturbed by or upset with sin. These are sort of the classic hallmarks of progressive Christianity.
Now, when you wrap all that up, you’re left with something that’s not really Christianity at all at the end. If you don’t have a divine Jesus and if you reduce it all to moralism and there’s no real fall or sin then the cross isn’t really anything that saves you. When you look at the cross, it’s just a good example of a good person. It’s not really good news. That’s what’s really sad about progressive Christianity. At the end of the day, it’s really not good news at all. It’s really that it’s all up to you. If it’s all up to us, that’s bad news. But of course, the real gospel is good news that it’s all done and completed in the great and finished work of Christ.
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