The Spirit of the Red Letters and “Progressive Evangelicalism”

Daniel Kirk has moved to the Progressive Channel at Patheos. And that’s great for him. Really, I’m happy. It seems like it will be a good fit for him.

That said, without wanting to pick on him, I had a quibble about his recent post on why he’s a “Progressive Evangelical.” You can read the whole thing, but here’s the conclusion that sums it up:

In the end, I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative articulation of the word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken, that the final, liberating action of God has yet been taken.

So a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible means that I must continue to enact the progressive ministry of Jesus and those who followed him.

Okay. At first this sounds like an old-school, Red-Letter Jesus approach to things that pits the Red Letters of Christ over and against the Black letters of the average apostles and certainly the Old Testament. We follow Jesus, the true Word, who has the authority to interpret, fulfill, and even correct Scripture, moving us along in God’s plans and so forth. I think it’s wrong, but it makes a certain sense.

jesusbuddyjesusExcept there’s a quirk with Kirk’s position. He’s already on record saying that the Jesus of the Gospels got some things wrong. And not insignificant things, either. The meaning and nature of marriage is at the heart of the moral order of the universe.* And yet Kirk says we need to move past Jesus at this point.

In which case, it seems like reading the Bible in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is more than having Jesus as your authority over the Bible.

It’s not just the Red Letters v. the Black Letters. At this point, it appears we’ve got a Red Letters v. Red Letters situation. Or rather, a Red Letters v. “Spirit of the Red Letters as Read By Progressives At the Beginning of the 21st Century” situation.

Here I’m reminded of the quote often attributed to Albert Schweitzer, but which was apparently actually coined by George Tyrell, speaking of liberal theologian and church historian Adolf Von Harnack:

The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.

Conservatives have most certainly been guilty at times of recreating Jesus in their own image. (My buddy Dan Darling has a great little book chronicling a number of the ways we do that, by the way.)  So it’s not that this is only a danger with progressive theology. Far from it.

The problem is that Kirk’s approach virtually guarantees it.

When a conservative runs up against Scriptures that press on their economic preferences, or sexual hang-ups, or what-have-you, they at least have to go through the gymnastics of trying to explain them differently. The Jesus of the text is someone determinate to be wrestled with. His words and deeds must be reckoned with.

But once you decide that even they can be corrected, then what does it actually mean that Jesus is your authority, let alone the Bible which testifies him? Which Jesus is this? How can your admittedly fallible Jesus allow you to correct your fallible Bible? Which bits of Jesus’ teaching and life do you appeal to against the parts you’re suspicious about? I mean, what if it turns out you should be using the exact opposite parts of Jesus’ teachings and work to correct the parts you like, the way someone using the same method on a different continent might?

In other words, “Progressive Evangelicals” using Kirk’s same theological principles in Latin America, Africa, or Asia might correct the Bible in light of Jesus far differently than a White Westerner steeped in identity-politics. And at that point, how do you adjudicate in a way that isn’t just a blatant appeal to cultural prejudice? Or variable human reason? Or different human experiences?

To put it bluntly, the only real Jesus we have intellectual access to is the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible. Kirk’s model functionally ends up coming to something like, “God is still speaking, through people like me, who are inspired by our take on Jesus but not limited by the actual teaching of the actual Jesus.”

For that reason, I’m skeptical about the possibility of a progressive Evangelicalism with “a commitment to the Jesus I meet on the pages of the Bible” when both the pages of the Bible and the Jesus you meet there are subject to your judgment.

Again, I say this with no spite or hostility. I really just want us to deeply consider what we’re signing on for when we adopt these positions. Their consequences are deep and far-reaching, and I think in the long-term, they’re inevitably corrosive to the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us. Jesus says there is blessing for those who hear his words and keep them (Matthew 7:24). That’s pretty hard to do when you’re deciding which ones actually count.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Eyebrows have been raised about this phrase. Suffice it to say that from Genesis 1-2, onwards, the nature of male and female, marriage, and family are central to the biblical account of anthropology, society, and politics. Marriage is a main (though not sole) metaphor for the covenant relationship between God and his people (both OT & NT), and caught up in the warp and woof of biblical theology. So, if “heart” of the moral universe is a bit much, it’s certainly central and not merely tangential. For Jesus to get this subject wrong, then, is not a minor point.