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,