Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Why Progressive Theology Is Important? (Bruce Epperly)

For the past couple of months, Bruce Epperly has been introducing readers to aspects of Progressive Theology.  Although in some ways I may be more conservative than Bruce, I have enjoyed his gentle presentation of an alternative view point.  In today's offering, Bruce reminds us that there is a need for contrasting voices.  If you go to Larry King or some other talking head or media outlet you are likely to be introduced to Pat Robertson or Al Mohler or someone like them, and they become for many the spokesperson for Christianity.  Of course, they have no qualms about being so identified, and folks like Richard Dawkins are in agreement with them, but there are other ways of looking at the faith that are faithful to the Christian tradition.  So, the question is:  why is important to have these voices and who might these voices be?  Bruce is, obviously, one of those voices.  Philip Clayton, John Cobb, Gary Dorrien, and Walter Brueggemann are others.  So, I invite you to read, respond, and make some suggestions as to why, how, and who (and maybe even where). 

**********************************************

Why Progressive Theology is Important?

Bruce G. Epperly


In my theology classes, I often begin with the question, “What would you think of Christianity if the only theological statements you heard were those of Pat Robertson and other preachers, who assert that the earthquake in Haiti, the 9/11 attacks, and Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans reflect divine punishment for America’s immorality?” Most of my students note that it would be difficult for them to be Christians if that was the only message they heard. Then, I surprise them by saying, “For most people, Robertson and others are the only Christian voices they hear – on Fox, CNN, Larry King, and network television.” Progressive voices tend to be neglected by the leading media outlets that prefer to focus on more controversial and immoderate Christian voices or new age/new spiritual movements leaders. While many people find solace in a God who punishes evil-doers without mercy (Pat Robertson) and who determines all the important events of our lives without our input (Rick Warren), others are in search of God who hears their cries, listens to their questions, and loves and accepts them in their imperfections.

Now, progressive Christians don’t have all the answers. In fact, God and the world are too large to be contained or fully described by any one theological viewpoint. One of the things that makes progressive theology so important for people today is its basic theological humility. While progressives are affirmative of their beliefs, they recognize that diversity is built into the religious life in the same way that diversity is built into the evolutionary process. More than that, some progressives, like myself, believe that a living and creative God is the source of both diversity and new forms of spiritual experience. This is a far cry from the strident, exclusivist voices we hear in the religious public square today.

Nevertheless, progressive voices need to be heard as a clear alternative to traditional understandings of God, the world, salvation, and the nature of human existence. Many persons are in search of a living theology that welcomes religious, ethnic, and sexual diversity; affirms the insights of science, medicine, and the humanities; and invites doubts and questions as part of the spiritual journey. Many persons are waiting to hear the voices of a “Christianity worth believing” (Doug Pagitt) that will provide a vision of reality, a commitment to social justice, and spiritual practices that will enable us to experience God’s presence in our lives.

I believe progressive Christianity preaches, teaches, and transforms. Where there is no one progressive theology, there are a number of progressive theological distinctives that speak to the needs of a diverse, interconnected, dynamic, and uncertain world. These are not creeds to be accepted without question or doctrines that require assent in order to escape divine punishment, but pathways to deepening our encounter with God and one another.

  • God is lively, active, relational, and loving.
  • God seeks wholeness and healing for all creation.
  • God welcomes diversity in its many forms, including ethnic, spiritual, sexual, and theological diversity.
  •  Other faiths reveal God’s presence; and can illuminate our experience as Christians.
  • The gospel of Jesus transforms our lives by revealing new possibilities for faithfulness and giving us the energy to change the world.
  • Our calling is follow the pathway of Jesus in its focus on healing and wholeness, justice, personal transformation, and Shalom.
  • Wherever truth and healing are present, God is its source, regardless of its origins; medicine, science, and other religious traditions reveal divine insight.
  • God calls us to freedom and creativity in the context of an open-ended universe.
  •  The future is open and we have a role in shaping it.
  • We are God’s partners in healing the world.
  • God’s salvation embraces all creation; everlasting life is God’s gift to all humanity.

I believe that progressive Christianity provides alternative visions of salvation, evangelism, religious diversity, and human liberation that speak to seekers and pilgrims in our time. Our task is to be bold in sharing our open-ended and open-spirited affirmations, to develop practices of healing and spiritual formation, and to connect contemplation with social action in the transformation of this good earth. Progressive Christianity has a vocation to be a factor in shaping the spiritual landscape in North America and throughout the world. With a humble spirit, then let us who call ourselves progressive let our light shine.


Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.

31 comments:

Doug Sloan said...

My posting of "GOD IS..." is too big to copy to here, so instead you get the link.

http://dmergent.org/2010/07/02/god-is-3/

Please read at your leisure and choice. As you feel comfortable, join the conversation by leaving a comment.

Gary said...

Progressive Christianity is not Christianity, it is heresy.

RLI said...

Gary-- I find it interesting that you use the word "heresy" as if you know what it means. To make a charge of heresy against a specific theological perspective without providing at least one relevant example of a departure from orthodoxy that would place those who accept that perspective as being in a state of anathema, and therefore, excommunication, mostly is evidence that you don't understand, in this case, progressive theology. So, if you would be so kind as to define heresy and provide an example from Dr. Epperly's post that fits that definition, then we can have a meaningful discussion.

John said...

Gary,

What is heresy? Let me add that from my reading of Acts and the Epistles, it seems that the overriding concern of the earliest church was with practice and not with specific tenets of belief. "So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Acts 2:41-42. "Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those. Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood." Acts 15:19-20.

After this time depicted in early Acts, Paul begins to sketch out what he believes to be the contours of a more genuine Christian faith. Those Christians who came before Paul were no less Christians for not sharing Paul's theological ideas. While Paul walked and wrote his letters, those who disagreed with Paul were not anathematized. It is my understanding that the desire for more narrow agreement on the core tenets of Christian belief was an aspect of the early Roman Catholic Church arising out of the perceived need to resolve theological wars between individual bishops, and as best depicted in it's creation of the early credal statements.

If you are going to begin throwing around the charge of heresy, then I suppose you are going to have to claim solidarity with Rome - because ultimately all disagreement with the Roman and/or Orthodox Churches is susceptible to the the charge of heresy.

I am not claiming that Rome is the sole repository for truth, only that the term heresy makes little sense as between Protestants. In truth as between Protestants, orthodoxy is a matter of whose beliefs and practices come closest to those of the pre-credal church. If you are claiming orthodoxy has to do with adherence to the creeds then, as they are product of the Roman Church, I think you must look to the Roman Church for interpretation. If as a Protestant you seek to restore the pre-credal church, then the label of heresy becomes more problematic as the pre-credal church appears to have been very pluralistic and very heterodox with regard to the authentic core tenets of Christian faith.

In fact reliance on the letters of Paul in the New Testament as a benchmark for orthodoxy itself becomes problematic as the declaration of the canonicity of each of those letters was also the work of the Roman Church.

What then is heresy, and who is a proper judge of culpability? It seems to me arrogant, if not foolish for one Protestant to charge another Protestant with heresy. In separating from Rome one has already acknowledged that disagreement without the greater church is permissible without jeopardizing one's salvation and that an individual or a small community of believers sharing a common set of tenets in disagreement with the greater church can still faithfully claim the label of faithful Christians.

Are we not all heretics, or are you claiming that only those who disagree with you are heretics?

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

As Bruce contemplates the importance of progressive theology, I'd like to push on my question of whom you would consider leading progressive theological figures and why you believe this to be true.

Gary said...

The Bible is the standard for determining heresy. Epperly's beliefs contradict the Bible on several points, two of which are sexual diversity and salvation.

God made male and female and instituted heterosexual marrage. That means that transexuals and homosexuals are out of the boundaries God has set, as is adultery and incest.

Epperly believes in universal salvation. The Bible teaches salvation for those to whom God has given faith, and damnation for everyone else.

Those are but two examples, but they illustrate the charge of heresy.

Doug Sloan said...

Gary, for the purposes of discussion, let's say that your contention that "The Bible is the standard for determining heresy" is correct.

What is your authority for your interpretation?

John said...

Gary,

In relying on the Bible as your benchmark, you ignore the fact that Christians existed before there was a Bible as well as the fact that the Roman Church created the Bible.

Doesn't that make you at least a little nervous? Perhaps Rome is properly the controlling voice in questions of Interpretation and doctrine? Is disagreement with Rome not heresy? And because there was no bible in those early centuries, how was orthodoxy established and policed?

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Doug asks a good question -- if you make the Bible the norm, which incidently I would as well, then what is the foundation for your interpretation. This is where the rubber meets the road and where the controversies have arisen over time. Beginning at least in the 2nd century there was considerable use of allegory. The Alexandrian school was much more committed to its use than the Antiochene church, which is why the Alexandrians tended toward one set of extremes and the Antiochenes another.

On the determiners of the canon -- the canon predates the Roman Church. The first published canon that matches the current NT was offered in the 4th century by Athanasius (of Alexandria).

John said...

Bob,

I don't want to assume the role of Catholic apologist here, but...

The canon predates the Roman Church?

And when would you say that the Catholic Church (inclusive of what would later be the Roman and Orthodox branches) came into being as an identifiable body? Surely before the Fourth Century.

That Bishop Athanasius personally discerned a list of books (which included the Apocrypha) before the any Catholic Council adopted his list (and rejected lists proposed by others) does not mean that THE CANON existed before the it was embraced by a Church Council.

And even if his identification of the list were sufficient to render the list Canon, the list he proposed was not proposed by him as a simple lay believer but by him as a Bishop and primate of the Catholic Church.

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

One really can't speak of a "Roman Church" until the medieval period. Until the 11th century the church recognized five patriarchates, with Constantinople and Rome being first among equals. Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria, and thus one of those Patriarchs.

John said...

Bob,

You are getting into semantics here. The five Patriarchates were not separate churches but, given the fact that they met in ubited councils, they were in a very real sense an integral whole - the catholic Church.

I'm guessing here, but I think the Biblical Canon was adopted at a catholic Council in 476, in which all the Patriarchates participated.

As for the status of the current Roman Catholic Church, it, together with the Orthodox churches, is the modern manifestation of that catholic church. That doesn't mean the Roman Catholic Church is always in the right on matters of faith, morals and doctrine, or that we should all become Roman Catholics, I am just saying that it has an authentic connection to the historic church.

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

You are right, Western Christians trace their descent to the earliest church through the church in Rome. But the witness to the canon is the broader "catholic" church, which is larger than Roman. I guess my discomfort is with the use of the descriptor Roman to describe something that goes back prior to the break. That's not to say that the Roman bishop didn't try to demand primacy early on!

Gary said...

Doug,

I'm not sure I understand your question. But I think I would say that the Holy Ghost is my authority. And, I compare Scripture with Scripture to try to make sure I'm interpreting correctly.

Doug Sloan said...

Gary,

When reading the Bible, how do you determine which text is to be read literally or metaphorically or as parable?

Gary said...

Doug,

Read it all literally, unless there is good reason not to. You have to consider the context. You have to consider the rest of the Bible. And you have to rely on God to help you.

The Bible is not fiction, so we already know that most of it is to be understood literally.

Doug Sloan said...

Since before Jesus, the story of Job has been understoon to be a parable. Is that sufficient reason to not take it literally?

The Psalms are poetry. By construction, they are to be taken metaphorically. Is that sufficient reason to not take them literally?

Gary said...

Doug,

I don't know anyone who thinks the book of Job is parable. I've always understood it to be historical. I can't think of anyone who is actually named in the Bible who is fictional.

David Mc said...

"The Bible teaches salvation for those to whom God has given faith, and damnation for everyone else."

This is the most absurd thing I've heard here, other than one wishing to see another dead. It sure lets a lot of people off the hook. If we don't have faith, it's because God withheld himself from them. God dooms all those he hasn't given faith to. Interesting.

We learn faith by loving example. The more universal, the better.

Oh, Heresy is hearsay and claiming it as personal faith.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Dave,

For me the Bible is God's self-revelation. It is not a manifesto intended to define the eternally saved nor to help the faithful few identify the eternally damned.

Instead, it describes a growing and ever-expanding community of faithful sinners, centered on the hopes and expectations of the Creator and drawn together by a shared experience of sinfulness, both as perpetrators and as victims, and a shared covenant of compassion, a covenant shared with the Creator and with each other.

Scripture is so committed to the shared covenantal duty of compassion that even God is occasionally rebuked for falling short. What's more, God is so committed to compassion that he forgave those who brought about his death. I highly doubt that falling on the wring side of a theological position arises to the same level of offense as causing the Lord's death. What is justice at all if God would forgive unrepentant God-killers and yet condemn to eternal damnation earnest and God loving heretics.

John

Gary said...

John,

Where do you get your theology? Certainly not from the Bible.

John said...

Gary,

I confess, my theology comes to me through the work of the Holy Spirit on my heart.

John

Doug Sloan said...

Gary,

Is your faith focused on how we live here and now or is your faith focused on what happens after you die?

Is your faith conditional or does your faith have no conditions?

John said...

Doug,

If one's faith,as opposed to one's response to one's own faith, is focused on how we live now, do we not risk a works (merit) based theology - that we earn our way into heaven?

Also, since as Christians we believe that we have absolutely no control over what happens when and after we die, what point is there to allowing what we imagine happens after we die affect our faith life?

We are promised ultimate forgiveness and consolation. And yet there is a threat of damnation, but since we are told that we cannot by our own efforts merit forgiveness, there seems little to be done in this regard but to trust in the Lord for deliverance.

By the way, what do you man by a 'conditional' faith?

John

Gary said...

Doug,

This life is important, but not nearly as important as eternity. Life is short, and eternity long.

Does God condition the gift of faith on something I do? Is that what you mean?

John said...

Gary,

Why is any part of our lives, the here and now or the hereafter, any more important than any other part?

If I read Scripture correctly what we do in the hereafter will be conditioned by a greater fullness of knowledge, as well as a greater sense of God's presence. In some sense there is a need for less trust on our part. But what we do now we do in total trust on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The time components of our lives may exist under different conditions, but but no each component is no less important than the other.

Just asking.

John

David Mc said...

I have no grasp at all of the hereafter, except that my actions and thoughts will follow me wherever my identity goes.

I actually have respect for many heretics through history and today. My definition was a play on words. Insincere testimony makes me uneasy.

Doug Sloan said...

Gary,

"Does God condition the gift of faith on something I do?"

Yes, that is what I am getting at. Is God's response to you or what God makes available to you in any way based upon what you do or think?

Julia said...

Painful to read such facile rebuking .... The curse of Adam as revealed in the internet?

Personally I agree with many tenets of progressive Christianity as described by Bruce but there is a rhetorical problem, and it's an important one.

Progressives assert their conclusions about God when they should be asserting how they learn this, and it always, for a candid journey, starts with the commitment to truth. It always starts in the Bible but not in the text alone. The Bible is interpreted in the churches and in the world, which God made. The heresy is to choose text alone when the whole world bespeaks God's reality; or to choose the world alone, when the text speaks God's reality too.

To choose part of the truth is a failing, but to assert the more progressive conclusions as if they were the primary substance of the faith is unnecessarily confusing to people who aren't at the same place yet. And they would not be so perturbed if you explained that you started in the Bible as they did, and then encountered reality (the world) and learned new things too. And if your language daily confirmed that you never lost your way, either, in the thrilling realm of openness, which like everything else contains its own distinctive temptations to sin. Some progressive Christians get positively giddy with their openness and I don't think that's quite right ...

Eric A. Crawford said...

Thanks for the thoughts. I liked your term "theological humility." Keep the conversaton going.

Eric

http://www.eacology.com