Saturday, May 25, 2013

Progressive Christianity and the Anglican Church



JOURNEY TO A NEW PAGANISM:
The Folly of ‘Progressive Christianity’ (Part 3)
A Review of David M. Felten and Jeff Proctor-Murphy, “Living The Questions”.
Ralph G. Bowles
In my previous two parts of this review of “Living The Questions”, I have considered two aspects of “Progressive Christianity”: its treatment of the Biblical and theological bases of historic Christianity, and its replacement of the Christian theistic notion of God with an essentially pantheistic religious view. Briefly, LTQ and the Progressive Christianity movement that it expresses rejects basically the whole Biblical and theological fabric of Christianity and places a different religion in its place.
So how then can ‘Progressive Christianity” still be regarded as “Christian” in any meaningful sense? More to the point, why do they want to hold onto a Christian identity?
In one sense this issue will prove irrelevant in the long run, because the essentially non-Christian world-view and revisionism about the Bible will lead “Progressives” progressively out of the Christian Church. Having embraced universalism and syncretism, they will find themselves increasingly unable to attract people to any kind of “Christian” identity. I believe that this kind of religion will have a limited, boutique appeal; it will not grow churches. We could watch it wither and die due to its own sterile pagan nature.
 In the short term, however, it will undermine the faith and witness of existing Anglicans, and render those who buy into it unable to grow healthy Christian congregations. Working from within existing Christian churches and denominational systems, such a religion will damage and confuse.
So in this article, I want to examine the claim that ‘Progressive Christianity’ has a valid place in Anglicanism. Can LTQ be taught in our Diocese as part of a genuine tolerance of different understandings and in the quest for truth? Why should we accept Progressive Anglicans as part of the broad river of Anglicanism?
Let me give five reasons why Progressive Christianity is problematic for our Church.
1. Acceptance of the Progressive teaching falls outside the definitional boundaries of the Catholic faith held by our Church.
Is the doctrinal position of LTQ (Progressive Christianity) consistent with the doctrines of the Anglican Church of Australia? There is a prima facie case for incompatibility. It is not easy to see how “Progressive Christianity” can be said to fit into the Catholic tradition in the broadest sense. LTQ denies not just secondary doctrines or disputes some time-honoured Biblical interpretations; it also explicitly rejects the major tenets of the Nicene Creed on the main doctrines of the Tri-unity of God, the Divinity and Incarnation of the Son of God, the atoning death of Jesus and the nature of justification. The meaning of Baptism and the Eucharist are effectively denied, on any sacramental theology of Anglican tradition.
I fully accept that the Anglican Church has always had a range of traditions within it. The genius - or curse - of Anglicanism has been its breadth, depending on your point of view. I am not arguing for a strict and narrow definition of doctrine. Doctrinal developments and refinements are often good and appropriate. Whether we are evangelical, charismatic, Anglo-Catholic or liberal, we still belong to a church that holds to the classic Creeds of the Church, in the Western, Nicene tradition.
I know it is common to regard the Creeds, Articles of Religion and other classic doctrinal formulations as quaint and old-fashioned relics of a former church age, rather like the cannons and monuments you find in public parks that are impressive, historic reminders of our past heritage. They are not regarded as currently useful or binding, but are lovely relics of the past, of sentimental value.
It may be also that Anglicans who hold to ‘Progressive Christianity’ are quite comfortable with these old formularies, since for them ultimate truth is beyond words and ideas, and these doctrinal statements are read by them as metaphors. Remember the LTQ view of reality as beyond truth and words: “The truly holy is not something grasped in the intellectual realm, but firmly rooted in the experiential” (LTQ).  They must wish that others with a more literal mind-set would join them in moving to a new understanding of God. They apparently don’t see a problem in affirming in words what they no longer believe to be true, since for them, these words are simply words, metaphors, symbols of a truth that is beyond, undefinable, still in process.
This is not surprising, since the Progressive Christian views all religions and sacred texts as relative and partial human attempts to grasp at an undefinable and inexpressible reality that cannot be categories. There is a God behind God, in their view. Each religion is but a fallible mythical way of grasping the elusive reality that escapes definition. They are essentially Gnostics.  If this is the Progressive’s view of the Bible, it is likely to be the same view of the Church’s doctrinal formularies.
However, there is a problem with this situation, since the plain meaning of the faith formularies indicates that they were intended to be definitional for our Church.
Individual members of our Church are free to believe what they like, but they cannot change the teachings and doctrines of our Church. That is a decision that belongs to the whole Anglican Church of Australia. The Ordination vows are contradicted by the promotion of this teaching by priests or bishops in our church, who have promised to uphold the doctrines of Christ “as this church has received them.” The Anglican Church of Australia has not received ‘Progressive Christianity’ as a legitimate variant of Anglican doctrine. No priest has a private right to unilaterally depart from the Catholic tradition. We are not at liberty to dispense with the article of the Trinity in our Creeds.
A priest who comes to believe in ‘Progressive Christianity’ has every right of conscience to stand by his or her convictions, but integrity and respect for the ordination vows should require such a priest to resign from the ministry of the Anglican Church of Australia. Other priests and bishops also have avowed obligations to warn about such departures and not to be silent. It is fulfilment of my ordination vow that I have written this critique.
2. Accepting the Progressive and the Nicene theologies means having two clashing views of the doctrines of our church.
To accept incompatible teachings in our identity leads to confusion and incoherence. We must have some doctrinal boundaries or the Ordination vows are meaningless. The Book of Common Prayer is still the doctrinal standard for the Anglican Church of Australia. A church or any organisation that has no boundaries of belief or vision at all, embracing contradictory positions that negate each other, is incoherent
Orthodox Anglicans do not view the doctrines as provisional, optional, historic relics from the past which can be used as myths and metaphors of new journeys beyond them. Progressives do not agree with historic Christianity and want to change our doctrines, not by official review but by facts on the ground in preaching and teaching. A house divided against itself will fall (Lk. 11:17).
3.  I believe that the promotion of ‘Progressive Christianity’ will harm the mission and growth of our Church.
Incoherence and mutually opposite views of mission will hinder our attempts at church renewal. These two theologies hold different messages and missions.
LTQ seems to be aware of the failure of mainstream liberal denominations to attract people. It claims that people are leaving mainline denominations because clergy lack the courage to teach the new views about God and the Bible, while conservative churches grow by promoting the comfort of rigid rules and beliefs. The decline of mainline churches is attributed to a failure to fully teach progressive truth, which the success of conservative churches is put down to narrow-minded emphases. This sounds very much like a rationalization to me.
 I am also frankly sceptical about the impact of this kind of substitute religion. I see no track record of stimulating church growth through this radical abandonment of the gospel in those churches and in parts of the Christian world in which it has been used. I think it has a minimal appeal to the outsider and will not have the blessing of God. This progressive theology has been around for a long time (at least since the 1960s) and quite influential in western seminaries and denominations. If it was going to turn around the churches, we should see evidence already.
If ‘Progressive Christianity’ is successful at attracting people to ministries and churches promoting this teaching, it will only induct them to a false form of Christianity, not the gospel of the New Testament or the doctrines of the Anglican Church. It is more like to confuse existing church people about the Bible and the faith of our Church.
It is not surprising that atheists have often welcomed this kind of religion as a step towards their position. It will have an appeal to some people. I understand how sublime and thrilling this kind of pantheistic, mystical paganism can look to people. Pantheism is a very attractive, persuasive, congenial and traditional religious mindset, rooted in natural religion and well-known to the ancient theologians who wrestled it out of our faith confessions in those early centuries. Using the words and images of the Bible and Christian theology, while emptying them of their Scriptural and original theological meaning, will simply lead to the promotion of a false gospel which will destroy the Church from within.
4. ‘Progressive Christianity’ espouses a spirituality that is incompatible with historic Christianity and the New Testament gospel.
Devotion to Jesus Christ as Lord is the mark of the earliest Christian faith (Phil. 2:11). It is the earliest Creed and remains the majority mark of historic Christianity. Progressives deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ. A progressive spirituality, however much it finds value in the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth, will not make him the centre of worship and discipleship.
There is no expectation of relationship or fellowship with God in P.C. When LTQ says that “Christianity is about a relationship with the Divine,  and with one another”, the Divine that is in view is not personal or distinct. We too are part of the ‘Divine’ manifesting in the world: “The incarnation is finally not just about Jesus alone, but about us” (LTQ). Its monist theology renders relationship meaningless and impossible. To be a person in relation means that the other (God) is objectively distinct from us, but if incarnation is creation and we are part of the God process unfolding in creation and history, then relationship with God makes no sense.
Prayer as cooperating with God in relationship for actions and changes that are real in history likewise vanishes. Our Anglican liturgies and the life of intercessory prayer become unreal.
There is no salvation since sin is gone and Jesus is not our saviour. The Christian life is essentially a life of striving for justice in imitation of Jesus and other exemplars. “We are to live a life of integrity” (LTQ).This is essentially Pelagianism.
The hope of the resurrection is also revisioned. A cardinal doctrine that unites our earthly existence and the eternal is dismissed.
5. These two theologies are not compatible for teamwork and training.
There is virtually no common ground or vision between Progressive and Orthodox on the most important things for our ministry. Clergy and lay leaders from the two positions will not help each other by trying to work together. The incompatibility in mission is manifest.
These facts lead to a final observation.
6. The nurture of Progressive Christianity within the Anglican Church which holds to orthodox Christianity is sowing the seeds for schism.
In the end the two theologies will break apart on some issue, if they have to try and be in one Church together.
I have written this critique in fulfilment of my ordination vow as a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia. On St Thomas's Day 1980 the Bishop asked me: "Will you be ready to drive away all false and strange doctrines that are contrary to God's Word . . .?" To which I promised: "I will, God being my helper."
Living The Questions is a course that raises serious questions for our Church, our gospel and our fellowship. I believe that this new teaching outlined in LTQ is actually very old teaching, albeit spruced up with new scholarly finishing. If you take away the New Testament gospel, this is what you can end up with in its place. Progressive Christianity has all the hall-marks of paganism – paganism with a Christian dress. As P.T. Forsyth put it: “To look for God’s revelation in the realm of nature is the very genius of Paganism”.

Rev. Ralph G. Bowles,
May  2013.

Review of "Living The Questions" (Progressive Christianity) - Part 2



JOURNEY TO A NEW PAGANISM:
The Folly of ‘Progressive Christianity’ (Part 2)
A Review of David M. Felten and Jeff Proctor-Murphy, “Living The Questions”.
Ralph G. Bowles
“Living The Questions” is a presentation of ‘Progressive Christianity’, which presents itself as a revised form of Christianity that is more honest and up-to-date. In the first part of my review, I raised my concerns with the one-sided and caricatured treatment of traditional orthodoxy found in the LTQ treatment of Biblical and theological material.
The real question is the theological bottom-line of this revisionism of Biblical foundations. Where does it lead theologically? My main issue with ‘Progressive Christianity’ can be identified in the logical conclusion of their Biblical arguments. It is their view of God and how to know God that reveals the gulf between ‘Progressive Christianity’ and historic Nicene Anglicanism.
The View of the Divine
LTQ correctly states that “our understanding of prayer reflects our view of the Divine.” To be consistent with the Progressive Christian view of the Divine, prayer as a real means of supernatural Divine action disappears, to be replaced by meditation or contemplation. Let’s apply this same test to the central question at issue: what is the ‘Progressive Christian’ view of the Divine, and how does it compare with historic Christian orthodoxy?
LTQ does not hide its rejection of all the major doctrinal formulations of classic Christianity. The veil of private abandonment of Anglican doctrines is thrown off deliberately and provocatively. One after another of the Creed’s affirmations is rejected; out go all the cardinal doctrines of the Creeds. LTQ does not believe in the Divine-human nature of Jesus Christ as taught in the Bible, in the Creeds, Articles of Religion and our Prayer Books. Jesus was a man in whom the earliest disciples “experienced the Spirit of Life . . . in a way that made his presence so transformational for people that the only way they felt they could describe their experience was by attributing it to the Divine.”(LTQ) Jesus does not have a unique Divine identity: "To do so would limit the Divine to one place or one time or one culture-bound expression.” Jesus was filled with God in a very special way, but not in the way that the Creeds suggest.
For the ‘Progressive Christian’, Christ is not the unique God-Man but the most or very greatly, divinized human being. It is important to be clear on this revised concept of the ‘Sonship’ of Jesus.
This LTQ view of Jesus’ “divine” nature departs from the New Testament’s teaching and from the classic Creedal formulations. In Biblical terms, Jesus shares the identity of God in a way unique to him and different – in being and essence – from us and from every other being. He is the Son (Heb. 1:1-14). This view of Jesus as Deity in a unique sonship sense is found throughout the NT writings, including those dated earliest even by ‘Progressive Christian’ scholars. Texts like Mark 1:2-3 ascribe not just the functions of deity to Jesus Christ but also the name of YHWH. This application of the LORD of Isa. 40:3 to Jesus in Mk. 1:3 can be understood only as an ascription of Deity to Jesus. In scores of texts in the NT, Jesus has texts about YHWH ascribed to him (in Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, Paul, Hebrews, Revelation and elsewhere).[1] In 1 Cor. 8:5-6 (an undisputed Pauline letter from the mid-late 50’s CE), the apostle re-writes the Shema to include both God and Jesus in the identity of God. This is why Richard Bauckham can state that “the highest Christology – the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity – was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the NT writings were written, since it occurs in all of them.”[2] A recent commentator on John’s Gospel notes that “there is little evidence for any strand of early Christianity that did not recognize Jesus as deity.”[3]
A recent treatment of Christology in the Synoptic Gospels, by Sigurd Grindheim summarizes this very high early view of Christ’s Divine sonship:
Despite all their differences, there are some striking similarities in the portraits of Jesus presented in the Synoptic Gospels. They have all given considerable attention to the theme of Jesus acting in God’s place. For Mark, this means that Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies regarding the new exodus, and he is the divine warrior who defeats Satan and his army of evil spirits. Jesus’s miracles show that the new creation is already a reality. For Matthew, Jesus’ equality with God means that Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us. He is personally eternally present with his disciples and his presence is the presence of God. The proper response is therefore to worship him. For Luke, Jesus’s equality with God means that the earthly Jesus is also the heavenly Lord. He is present in the heavenly council while he is also present with his disciples on earth.
Even though Jesus takes the place of God, none of the Gospels leave any room for the possibility that Jesus is God the Father. . .  There is a certain tension in all of the Synoptic portraits of Jesus. Jesus is equal to God, and yet he is God’s servant. The Son of God metaphor and the application of wisdom language to Jesus go some way towards resolving this tension. John’s Gospel goes further, by painting Jesus as the divine Word that became a human being. (S.  Grindheim, Christology in the Synoptic Gospels, p. 148-149).
We can say with strong confidence that the earliest Christian ‘creed’ or belief, deriving from documentary evidence within 20 years of the resurrection, is that Jesus Christ is LORD (Phil. 2:1-11; 1 Cor. 8:5-6; 16:22). Devotion to Jesus – worship of Jesus as the exalted Divine Lord, one with the Father – is a defining feature of New Testament Christianity. As N.T. Wright puts it, the Gospels tell the Story of Jesus as the Story of Israel’s God.[4]
The ‘Progressive Christians’ Replacement Deity
The view of Jesus presented in LTQ/Progressive Christianity sounds very positive and exalted, but it is vastly and qualitatively different from historic Christianity. In the Progressive view, the very being of God is not found in Jesus of Nazareth. The first of the 8 Points of Progressive Christianity parts company with the teachings of the New Testament, the Creeds, the Articles of Religion, our Anglican Prayer books, the Catechism and the consensus of the world-wide and historic Christian Church.
LTQ builds its case as it goes, undermining confidence in the Bible’s teachings and in historic formulations. What will be put in the place of Christian theism? Where does the ‘Progressive Christian’ look for the Divine? I was waiting for the inevitable, logical alternative answer to be unveiled, and it finally came into the open in chapter 17, “The Incarnation”. Here is the answer - the LTQ view of the Divine:
“The true ‘essence’ of incarnation is God’s indwelling in all of creation, from the smallest yet-to-be-identified particle to the furthest reaches of the cosmos.”
This is Pantheism, a very old religion indeed; there is nothing new, progressive or 21st century about it.  God is the life power itself, the power of love itself, the Ground of Being, ”which is always emerging in you and me and which emerged in Jesus of Nazareth in some remarkable kind of way that opens new doorways into the Holy for us.” God is in everything and in us.
Now the ‘Progressive Christian’ gains a thrilling pay-off from this pantheism:
 “The incarnation is finally not just about Jesus alone but about us. . . Wherever we find ourselves, the mystery of life dwells within us, not limited to a time or place, but manifest in every aspect of our lives.”(LTQ)
This pantheistic reconstruction of Christianity sounds close to the Biblical truths of God working in us by the Spirit, of how God’s love works within us, so that the unwary may mistake it for true Christianity. Historic Biblical Christianity has the unique presence of God in Jesus and through the Spirit God dwells in us and works through us. The progressive believer can use the same words as the orthodox, such as ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ while meaning something completely different. In Biblical and orthodox theology,  we are not part of the incarnation of the Divine. The metaphysic and outcomes of ‘Progressive Christianity’ could not be more different to Biblical and historic Christianity.
 ‘Progressive Christianity’ is close to a monistic identification of God and nature, as the chapter on Honoring Creation shows. While LTQ disavows the label of pantheism (God is everything), and asserts that it is advocating “panentheism”, its statements indicate that this is in effect espousing a monistic Pantheism, since  it defines panentheism as “God in everything”. . . In fact, ‘panentheism’ strictly means that “everything is in God” – a quite different idea to “God in everything”. [5] LTQ states:
“Embracing a consciousness of the Divine in everything and everything being enveloped by the Divine counters the dualistic idea of God being somewhere ‘out there’ with a profound immediate awareness of the divine presence here and now.”
This very issue – finding the Divine inside us and in nature, instead of in Christ and in the gospel – is precisely what the ancient Councils were seeking to keep out of the Church. The ancient Christological controversies that issued in our Creeds were dealing with variants of this same issue of finding God apart from the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel. The Arian and the Docetic theologies both had an aversion to God becoming specific or distinct in Christ.  Arianism was essentially about the claim that one could know God without God becoming incarnate. Robert Sanders explains how the relationship of the Father and the Son in Trinitarian thought (in Athanasius) protects from pantheism:
“Since the Son who became incarnate in Jesus was God and since Jesus was fully human, Jesus Christ was fully human and fully God.  . . . Since the man Jesus was the one born of the Virgin Mary, the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate, God the Word became incarnate in a specific person. This implies that the incarnation is not a symbol for God being incarnated in everything, but God was incarnate in a particular man Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the incarnate presence of God in Jesus Christ is different from the presence of God in creation or in other great figures. In creation, we can see that God is powerful and orderly, but in Jesus Christ, God reveals himself as a person who saves from sin and death. Athanasius considered the belief that creation or other great figures could reveal the saving nature of God to be idolatry.”[6]
What is expressly and specifically denied in these heresies is that there is a unique knowledge of God in Jesus Christ, since the Trinitarian view of the Father and the Son has been abandoned. In the place of Christ as the mediator of God's presence, nature and human experiences of the holy take centre stage. The monistic stance (all being is ultimately One) leads to a view of the world as God's body, and human development as the journey to a fuller realisation of the Ground of Being is us. The abandonment of the Doctrine of the Trinity leads ‘Progressive Christianity’ inevitably into pantheism.
Without historic Christian orthodoxy, there is a mysterious transcendent reality that cannot really be known objectively, except in the ways in which “the Divine” manifests in nature and in people. You end up with a kind of mystical paganism, seeking union with the mysterious Divine as it appears in nature, experiences, in wise figures like Christ and in our selves. "The image of God as a person has to give way to the image of God as a presence.”(LTQ)  LTQ thus ends with a quest for mystery, in which glimpses of the divine are to be found here and there.
The most serious implication of this monism is the loss of a personal God. The loss of an objective God with a reliable revelation and the Son of God who became flesh for us in his life, death and resurrection entails a new replacement religion, where we have no personal God with whom to relate or know, person to person. The monistic theology of ‘Progressive Christianity’ affords no basis for a personal relationship with God. It is hard to have a relationship with an undifferentiated, mute Ground of Being.
Here is the difference between LTQ and Anglican orthodoxy in practical spirituality. In Christian theology a person has both “being” (human nature) and an “hypostasis” (a specific individuality as a being). Without having an hypostatic personhood – a concrete personhood - God becomes impersonal Being.  It is the doctrine of the Trinity that preserves the relational personhood of God and lays the foundation for the Christian’s life of fellowship with God. In his incarnation the Lord Jesus Christ assumed humanity into himself as a man - an individual man. The same applies to the Triune Godhead, who has a specific Divine nature.
‘Progressive Christianity’ is promoted as radical and new (‘what is next for Christianity’), but its view of God and reality is very old. C.S. Lewis describes the old, familiar pull of Pantheism:
“Pantheism is congenial to our minds not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is almost as old as we are.  It may even be the most primitive of all religions . . . It is immemorial in India. The Greeks rose above it only at their peak, in the thought of Plato and Aristotle; their successors relapsed into the great Pantheistic system of the Stoics. Modern Europe escaped it only while she remained predominantly Christian; with Giordano Bruno and Spinoza it returned. With Hegel it became almost the agreed philosophy of highly educated people, while the more popular Pantheism of Wordsworth, Carlyle and Emerson conveyed the same doctrine to those on a slightly lower cultural level. So far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, under the influence of priestcraft and superstition, but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long. Platonism and Judaism, and Christianity (which has incorporated both) have proved the only things capable of resisting it. It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself. No wonder we find it congenial. If ‘religion’ means simply what man says about God, and not what God says about man, then Pantheism almost is religion. And ‘religion’ in that sense has, in the long run, only one really formidable opponent – namely Christianity.”[7]
Without traditional orthodoxy, we will have Pantheism, the god in nature and in us. This leads to the god within, and we become part of the incarnation of the divine. To have a personal God there must be a world separate from Himself.
 I conclude that LTQ propounds a different concept of God from the classic Nicene orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, the church of which the Anglican Church is an historic part. The LTQ course does not teach the ‘Catholic Faith’ (Athanasian Creed). ‘Progressive Christianity’ represents a new articulation of belief that falls outside even the liberal tradition. It is post-liberal and indeed post-Christian in the historic sense.  I understand that there is a case for reasonable differences in Biblical interpretation and doctrinal expressions, but Progressive Christianity is way off the scale in its denial of cardinal tenets of historic orthodoxy and even Christian theism.
In short, if the ‘Progressive Christian’ theology is adopted, you end up with a different religion. That raises the question about the place of this theology in the Anglican Church.
This will be the topic for my final part of this critique of “Living the Questions’, and the religion it outlines, ‘Progressive Christianity’.


[1] See the list in Richard Baukham, Jesus and the God of Israel, pp. 186-190, for Pauline texts applying YHWH references to Jesus.
[2] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 20.
[3] Craig Keener, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, p. 235 (2013). See also Sigurd Grindheim, Christology in the Synoptic Gospels, 2012).
[4] N.T. Wright, How God Became King, (2012), chapter 5.
[5] Panentheism’ is a species of Pantheism, proposing that "the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part exists in him, but His Being is more than, and not exhausted by, the universe." See John Cooper, Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers, (Baker, 2006), p.27. LTQ shows the monistic tendencies of pantheism that are  usually found in the varieties of Panentheism. LTQ promotes the view that God is in everything, in ways not clearly defined.
[7] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (NY; Macmillan, 1947), 84-85.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Review of "Living the Questions"



JOURNEY TO A NEW PAGANISM:
The Folly of ‘Progressive Christianity’
A Review of David M. Felten and Jeff Proctor-Murphy, “Living The Questions”.

There is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9
Here is the first installment of a three part review of this introduction to "Progressive Christianity".

In recent years, a study and discussion course called Living The Questions has been conducted in some Brisbane Anglican parishes and advertised in Diocesan publications. The book Living The Questions, and the DVD course that accompanies it, are products of a movement or network which styles itself as “Progressive Christianity”.[1] The Living the Questions Course,[2] is aimed to be a liberal alternative to the Alpha Course. It seeks to expose lay people to “the best of contemporary theological thought as it presents ‘progressive Christianity’ ”.
“Progressive Christianity” is being promoted as a theology that is a legitimate variety of Anglican identity. There are self-identified ‘Progressive Anglican Christians’. My purpose in this paper is to see how the “Progressive Christianity” presented in Living The Questions compares to historic Christian tradition and the doctrinal identity of the Anglican Church of Australia. Does Progressive Christianity fall within the range of Anglican traditions and Anglican doctrinal boundaries?
The dominant theme of the LTQ book and course is the motif of journeying towards truth, of asking questions. As the epigraph states: “The beginning of true wisdom is asking questions for which there are no answers”. The book claims to represent those who are unsatisfied with old and failed dogmas, whose questions must be asked, even if final resolution or certainty is impossible to reach.
LTQ claims to be asking the hard questions.  The book plays a running contrast between negatively-depicted traditionalists versus open, creative, non-dogmatic progressives, between doctrines and dogmas contrasted with  “something deeper spiritually or thought-provoking theologically”.
Section one is titled “The Journey”. Let me say that I found material in LTQ with which I agreed fully. Observations in the chapter on “Compassion” were excellent and the treatment in “Creative Transformation” was valid and relevant. The observations about justice in the chapter on the Prophetic Jesus were apposite and timely. I am in full agreement with most of the book’s criticisms of fundamentalist doctrines. Many issues treated critically in LTQ are also of concern to theologians of orthodox historic Christian traditions, although this is not acknowledged in LTQ. LTQ takes issue with some doctrines on valid grounds, but does not acknowledge that there has been development and debate within orthodox traditions about these matters. There are a range of views historically, for example, about God’s omnipotence.
Nevertheless, this posture of LTQ – contrasting open-minded questioning with dogmatic traditionalism - strikes me as a pose adopted for rhetorical effect. It is ironic that the whole thrust of this book is dogmatic in assertion and dismissive of traditional formulations. For a treatment that claims to be asking questions, the treatment of contrary views is one-sided, with opposing views subjected to crude caricature. You would never guess from LTQ that there were scholarly, rational and credible explanations of the positions under challenge by the progressives. Not even in the footnotes or bibliography are references given to assist in a quest for truth from sources other than the LTQ-approved authorities.
LTQ is a course that presents one particular interpretation of Christianity – just like the Alpha Course or other materials condemned for being defensive or insecure. I don’t blame a course for promoting a particular line of teaching, but to claim openness and balance without presenting the contrary view fails its own standard.
Biblical and Theological Issues
LTQ is not a theological course or an apologetics seminar. Like other courses it is presents a message for belief. The argument of LTQ is comprised of a familiar list of liberal positions on Biblical, historical and theological issues.  On issue after issue I found myself in disagreement with positions about which there are contrary strong scholarly arguments.
To respond to the list of Biblical and theological issues would require more work than is possible in this paper and more knowledge than I possess. However, a few comments on some Biblical issues will illustrate my problems with the way LTQ handles the biblical-theological materials.
My problem with this retailing of this well-worn revisionism about the Bible and orthodoxy [3] is that they are asserted as if they are incontrovertible. The aim is to remove confidence in the traditional understanding of the Bible and the historic Christian faith, clearing the ground for its replacement by a new, ‘’progressive" version of Christianity.
Thus, LTQ surveys a large number of Biblical and doctrinal matters, pronouncing on them without arguing the case or evaluating alternatives. It may be asking too much of this book to want to see the ‘progressive’ interpretations demonstrated, rather than affirmed.  I found myself constantly irritated that a position was being simplistically stated as obvious and unchallengeable, as if there is no credible answer or alternative view in traditional terms. Unless a person is able to answer these viewpoints, confidence in historic orthodoxy will be undermined, which is the aim of the course, I presume.  Presenting a credible orthodox alternative explanation at each point would complicate the agenda of LTQ.
I also observe that the Biblical scholars upon whom LTQ draws its foundation are clearly not in the mainstream of Biblical scholarship on many issues; they represent a sceptical and radical fringe in the academic scholarly guild. Thus Marcus Borg pronounces that “we don’t have a lot of information about him” (i.e. Jesus), when we actually have the largest amount of ancient biographical material close in time than we have for any other ancient personage.
A third issue concerns the way that diversity and issues are explained. Difficulties in Biblical material have long been noted, and there are ways of understanding how they can be resolved or understood, without abandoning all confidence in their historical reliability. LTQ chooses to ignore any views other than those that rob the Biblical documents of historical grounding. Thus, Luke-Acts is held to tell us nothing about the real Paul, although a strong case exists for the traditional view that Luke was a colleague and acquaintance of Paul – a first-hand witness and contact. The chapter on Paul asserts that he introduced the idea of Jesus as divine saviour from sin, despite the evidence of the undisputed Pauline letters that he received his teaching from others (1 Cor. 15:1-7; 16:22).
The treatment of traditional Biblical and theological issues is black and white. The traditional views are presented in caricature or in gross simplification and then dismissed. In the treatment of the Atonement, we have certain traditional views crudely caricatured, (as they are often crudely taught), but without any presentation of carefully nuanced atonement theology, as say in P.T. Forsyth or T. Torrance. A false dichotomy is presented between crude caricature of Atonement theology (in fundamentalism or orthodoxy), versus no atonement at all (LTQ).
I wonder whether LTQ/’Progressive’ Christianity represents a reaction to a rigid and narrow fundamentalist version of Protestantism that has been rigidly and unlovingly applied without space for reflection and exploration. This movement seems to be reacting to a narrow view of atonement theology restricted to penal substitution as the reason for the Incarnation of the Son of God. In reaction to this reduction, it seems more spiritual to talk about the universal incarnation of the divine spirit. But ‘progressive’ Christians are missing the union of created being with God not just through the incarnation of the Son by also through a complete inter-communication (perichoresis) of the divine and human ‘energies’ without confusion of essence. The Transfiguration and Ascension of Christ are missing in this revisionism. If they were embraced, a richer connect ion of the transcendence and immanence embodied in the Incarnate Son would be seen. E.L. Mascall sums up this deep union of the Divine and the human in and through the Son:
“The truth is not merely that in Christ the new creation was effected on our behalf, but that through our union with him it is to be brought about in each one of us. Becoming a Christian means being re-created by being incorporated into the glorifies manhood of the ascended Christ, so that, in the words of the Epistle to the Ephesians, we are raised up with him and made to sit with him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus.”
It is also regrettable to see how Biblical teachings and doctrinal formulations are misconstrued and misrepresented. The repeated miscalling of resurrection as “resuscitation” was tendentious and incorrect in terms of St Paul. It employs a ‘straw man’ type of argument.
The authors seem to work on a number of operating principles. For example they use a principle of “contradictions from silence” (i.e. a writer who doesn’t mention a doctrine or matter must not have known about it), when it is quite conceivable that there were other legitimate reasons for omission. The simple reality of Biblical study is that there are multiple possible explanations for many issues. The scholars on which LTQ is based operated from a critical hermeneutic of suspicion, with a tendency to favour theories that negate historical reliability, early dating and theological compatibility among the documents. Other scholars come to different conclusions on reasoned grounds with sound arguments. With a range of views, what approach should be used? Will the operating bias move towards sceptical or naturalistic explanations, or will the texts be given the benefit of the doubt? I was reminded of Pascal’s observation that there is light (evidence) enough for those who wish to believe (the Bible) and sufficient darkness (i.e. uncertainty) for those of an opposite disposition.
The undermining of the historical reliability and doctrinal authority of the Bible by LTQ is the foundation for its revised canon, clearing the way for a new theology to be raised in place of orthodoxy. For this reason, the Biblical issues cannot be ignored in any reasoned response to ‘Progressive Christianity’.
The real question is the theological bottom-line of this revisionism of Biblical foundations. Where does it lead theologically? My main issue with ‘Progressive Christianity’ can be identified in the logical conclusion of their Biblical arguments. It is their view of God and how to know God that reveals the gulf between ‘Progressive Christianity’ and historic Nicene Anglicanism.


[1] “Progressive Christianity” denotes both a movement and a network of people who identify with a cluster of convictions about what Christianity means to them. The Center for Progressive Christianity has set forth ‘The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity’ (see http://www.tpc.org/about/8points) . There are other similar statements in related “Progressive” religious networks. LTQ cites The 8 Points in its references, so I will take LTQ to be an adequate expression of “Progressive Christianity”, as it claims in its subtitle – ‘The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity’.
[2] Henceforth,  referred to as LTQ. I am not able to give page references since I used the digital version of LTQ.
[3] Here is the familiar list of revisionist tenets presented in LTQ: The Bible is a chaotic set of human  writings, not an inspired book; there is little reliable history in the Bible, including the Gospels; Paul brought unhelpful ideas into the church; there were other “Gospels” rejected by the church in the later centuries to “spin the story of Jesus” the way the Church wanted; the Virgin birth of Jesus was a legendary accretion; Jesus was not the divine Son of God but a man in whom the Divine lived in real strength; Jesus didn’t die for our sins; his resurrection was really a kind of visionary experience by his friends. In short, all the historical doctrines and Biblical teachings of the Church are rejected.