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.

18 thoughts on “The Spirit of the Red Letters and “Progressive Evangelicalism”

  1. Saying that one rejects any portion of Holy Scripture (red or black letter) due to a greater duty owed to Jesus has always struck me as an inherently odd and impossible position. Jesus Christ is a person. If you don’t think He is speaking through a specific passage in Scripture, then where is He speaking, in what form, and to whom? This position contains a claim of personal revelation that most believers should be more afraid of making, tacitly or outright.

  2. When I read things like this about self-labeled “progressive Evangelicals” it really makes me doubt the meaningfulness of the label “evangelical” for anything other than sociological purposes. When right-wing mainline folks like John Webster, Katherine Sonderegger, Christopher Seitz, Richard Hays, and Robert Gagnon are so far right of progressive evangelicals like Daniel Kirk and Pete Enns is the evangelical/mainline distinction still useful? Does the term “evangelical” really communicate anything not communicated by the term “Protestant” in terms of doctrine?

  3. In engineering school, I wrestled with Reformed theology and theological liberalism and ultimately wound up in the Reformed camp. This quote from Gary Dorien’s _The Making of American Liberal Theology_ is ultimately what steered me away from theological liberalism:

    “Fundamentally it [theological liberalism] is the idea of a genuine Christianity not based on external authority. Liberal theology seeks to reinterpret the symbols of traditional Christianity…liberal theology is defined by…its commitment to the *authority* of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people” (p. xxiii, emphasis mine).

    I think it can be argued (without any spite of course) that Kirk, though he speaks of the authority of Christ, by sitting in judgment over Christ, has actually established Self as his authority.

  4. “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.”
    To add to your concern Derek, you can see from his own confession that he has no faith. God has already spoken his liberating word. “THE RIGHTEOUS SHALL LIVE BY FAITH” and “IF THE SON HAS SET YOU FREE THEN YOU ARE FREE INDEED.” So we know that we cannot listen to that man’s words. He does not know that God has finished his works since the beginning of creation (Heb. 4:3). So he is waiting on something to happen that will not happen. He needs to believe God.

  5. The skepticism expressed above has a logical problem: it is based on an example. It is based on the example of Daniel Kirk and his explanation and example of ‘Progressive Evangelism.’ But what about those who are evangelical theologically speaking but progressive or, even “worse” yet, leftist in their politics? Do we call them Progressive Evangelicals?

    Sometimes labels get us into trouble by using one to create or join a cult/religion or by moving us to pigeonhole others.

      • Derek,
        First, thank you for your response. Second, I am leery of people who separate what Jesus said from the rest of the NT. After all, not only did Jesus authorize the Apostles to represent him with their words, it was the Apostles who interpreted what Jesus said and did.

  6. At the core of this argument with progressive/liberal theology in general is indeed the problem of authority. Either you accept the authority of God through the Bible at some form of face value (as imperfect as we may be in the interpretation), or other factors are brought in (critical readings) that move the authority away from Jesus with every strike through . If the latter is chosen, then by definition the chooser is the authority because he or she makes the decisions on what to exclude on what basis. I’m reminded by commentary I’ve heard time and again from key generally conservative scholars: “When I read the Bible, the Bible judges me.”

    Although the reasoning may be couched by much smarter people than I, this argument is just another instance of where the person effectively says: “I believe the Bible is authoritative, except where it isn’t…” I think you’re on about the old red letters comparison. It just seems to make God rather helpless and even feckless in his language, and I don’t think need even be Reformed with the traditional high position of God’s knowledge to see that.

  7. I’m new to reformed theology so the ‘Red letter’ references are unknown to me. That being said this whole discussion might be boiled down to the question of ultimate truth. Either the bible is our standard of theology/living, or man’s reasoning/experience is… “If any of us lacks wisdom, let him as of God…and it will be given.” James 1:5

  8. Great insight here. Although, are any of us truly limited to Jesus’ statements? Let’s take Mark 13:31-32 for example: “He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds..”

    When Jesus states that a mustard seed “is the smallest of all seeds”, do we not have to move past/correct that statement? I’m sure many people took that as literal truth, and some still do, who don’t any better, right?

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  12. This is an idea stolen from Shaefer, but I think in cases like this “Jesus” almost becomes a word without true semantic content. It is the connotations of the word that the progressive theologian is drawing on, and if you pressed him to actually define it and give it meaning it would not stand to any rigorous examination. By saying words like “Jesus” and “God” he can get the connotations and associative meanings communicated even as he denies their true semantic meaning in the next breath.

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  14. Evangelicals indeed!
    Their point of view is not different from that of Muslims because these too “believe in Jesus” except that He is not the Son of God but a messenger like mohammed and the rest.
    I am sure they have never read this verse below.
    “For[i] I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add[j] to him the plagues that are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away[k] his part from the Book[l] of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
    I Am Coming Quickly
    (Rev 22;18-19)

  15. The bible has a fatal flaw in that it is missing essential information. How do we know this? We read in the gospels that Jesus invited 12 people to follow and be trained by Him. We also read that Jesus informed these 12 that they had more to learn and another comforter (a.k.a. Holy Spirit or Spirit of Truth) would come and reveal it to them. We do not see scriptures from the 12 giving this advanced revelation in the bible. The book of Genesis gives the context for the law of sin & death but not the Gift of Grace. Consider that these two things are mutually exclusive and contradictory and the people who selected the books of the bible preferred Paul’s attempt to combine them. The inspired texts revealing the true context for the Gift of Grace were declared heretical and banished. The Gift of Grace is about recovering our purpose and requires no death or blood atonement.

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