Following the Progressive Jesus


The PCUSA still formally believes in following the Jesus revealed in the Bible to be the Lord of Creation and sole Savior of the human race.  These two titles, Lord and Savior, are to be used in vows of membership and ordination taken within our church.  Our Form of Government states: “After new members are examined, affirming their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and are received by the session,… they shall be presented to and welcomed by the congregation during a service of worship where they shall make a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as do confirmands” (G-5.0200).  Likewise, the first ordination question to be answered by those called as deacons, ruling elders or teaching elders asks this: “Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” 

Unfortunately, this basic Christian affirmation does not sit well with the progressive movement, at least as defined by The Center for Progressive Christianity.  The first of their eight declarations concerning what progressive Christians believe states that progressives “…have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.”  This sounds harmless, perhaps even orthodox to the naive, until one reads the fuller explication offered underneath this point.  As the site itself notes, what is “most unique” about this first point is what is left out rather than what it contains.  “What is not included in this statement is the doctrinal “savior” language codified in the fourth century creeds.”  This is not accidental, obviously.  Of course, in the spirit of inclusiveness one is free to still use “savior language” of Jesus, but the more enlightened will redefine this language to a much more generalized meaning, as in “My special friend ‘saved’ me from spiralling into depression,” or some such view.  Many people or spirits can serve as saviors in this sense.  Hardly what the apostle Peter meant when he declared of Jesus in Acts 4:12 “For there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  Progressive Christians apparently don’t want to be boxed in to believing that Jesus is humankind’s only hope, only Savior.  What they mean by savior, if they use the term at all “…This is quite different, however, from assuming that to be a Christian one must believe that God made an intentional sacrifice of God’s only begotten son as a cosmic saving act for all humanity. And it is different from assuming that it is only through one’s belief in the “truth” of this sacrifice that one can call oneself a Christian.”

I’m not making this stuff up.

Now to be fair, the first progressive point does say that they are committed to following the example of Jesus’ life and teaching. Well, apparently any actions or teachings that do not demonstrate Jesus’ nature as Savior or Lord.  What do they do with declarations like, “The Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Or, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father.  He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”  These are just two out of scores and scores of passages highlighting Jesus’ salvific and dominical  roles.  How folks can claim to follow Jesus’ life and teachings while denying the climax of his atoning work on the cross and his authority which transcends all competitors is beyond me.  Yet these progressives (the ones for whom The Center speaks, that is) see in this first point a way to follow Jesus and connect with God that undercuts the central doctrines of Christian orthodoxy: the Lordship of Christ and his full divinity, the atoning work of the cross; the fallenness of human nature; the exclusivity of salvation through Christ and the cross alone.  But allow me to let them say this in their own words:

“Rather than assuming that Jesus is a sacrificial savior, or “The Savior,” this first statement suggests that one can be a Christian by considering oneself a follower of Jesus’ teachings and using his life, as we know it, as a model. It can also be implied that for those Christians Jesus and Jesus’ teaching provide a way to experience, relate to or approach that Energy, that Force or that Presence we choose to call God.”

This shift of understanding also entails jettisoning from Jesus the title “Lord of the world.”  He would rather be called “Master, or Rabbi, or Teacher,” we are told.  But how do we deal with passages such as Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God!” which Jesus receives with no qualms or alarm, but as rightly spoken?  Or his own teaching in Mt. 7:22, “On that day (of judgment) many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord…, and then I will declare to them…”?  Such an exalted status for Jesus does not fit the progressive agenda, which seems to be to lift the stature of humanity by degrading that of Jesus.  Again in their own words,

“Rather than treating Jesus as the unreachable perfect God that is so hard to relate to for most people, we can think of Jesus as the enlightened teacher who asks only to be followed. By taking his teachings seriously we are given the opportunity to change and see and hear what we did not see before. This form of Christianity does not assume an ontological “fallen nature” of humanity, as Paul did out of his own life experience. Quite to the contrary it assumes that by taking responsibility for our thoughts, our action and our motives, by learning and changing our actions when they have caused harm to others or to ourselves, we humans can grow, evolve and transform.”

Progressive Christianity is in the end a pull yourself up by the bootstraps enlightened humanism, where Jesus works as our Olympic coach to help us get the very best we can out of ourselves.  No nasty fallen nature, no dark enemy preventing us from advancing (except perhaps orthodox Christianity, which argues that we are dead in our sins and trespasses), no brutal cross or bloodied savior, no holy God too righteous to look upon sin. 

Now I realize that not all who call themselves progressive Christians would want to go as far as TCPC website does, but this is the logical endpoint of progressive premises.  Do our progressive Presbyterian leaders believe these insanities?  If not, I’d like to know from them what they believe and what they don’t.  If they no longer accept the clear teachings of the Scriptures and the central Reformed doctrines of our Confessions, let them say so with their heads held high.  We’ll be glad to send them out of the PCUSA with our blessings so they can start a progressive church with their own gospel, their own Jesus and their own agenda, hand in hand with the rest of the world.  Just don’t try to take our church down that path.  We know where it leads.

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10 Responses to Following the Progressive Jesus

  1. Timothy F. Simpson says:

    I don’t get what the problem. The Bible has numerous metaphors for describing Jesus and his role. Even the various gospel writers themselves did not use all of them. You make a big deal about “Savior” but are the gospels which don’t use Savior-language the way Luke does any less Christian in your eyes? The language of kingship and sacrifice is not helpful in some modern contexts. I met students all the time at my local university who are repulsed by such notions. What difference does it make if some of us use the other helpful metaphors given to us in scripture to draw people towards the good news? Isn’t that why there are multiple gospels and not just one, so that the faith could be construed as sufficiently elastic to allow people to latch onto it where they were rather than having to follow a one-size-fits-all approach? And since it is obvious that most modern people other than anthropologists don’t know the first thing about the thought-world of cultures that value redemptive sacrifice, what possibly would be the point in forcing people to use a metaphor they don’t comprehend? To me this is the genius of the canon in giving us multiple portraits of Jesus and the reason why two billion people find a home under this biggest of tents.

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    • The different “portraits,” aside from bolstering the historical credibility of the Gospel narratives, are united nonetheless in their central proclamation of Jesus as God (Son, Word, Lord). By appealing to the variations around the periphery, you seem to create a license for casting doubt on the core contingency of the gospel–that WHO HE IS is more important that what he taught or how he behaved. Any proclamation that minimizes Jesus’ identity qua God is a distortion. Compared to this the variety of descriptive imagery is negligible.

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      • Timothy F Simpson says:

        I don’t think that the gospels are very historically reliable so obviously I would attribute the multi- faceted portraits of Jesus to other reasons than to write history.

        My biggest problem is still that you are creating a straw man. First of all, the progressive Christian site to which you refer is not Presbyterian. So it isn’t fair to judge progressive Presbyterians by something we have not necessarily endorsed.

        More to the point, you far overstate your case. Just because some biblical metaphors are less felicitous than others at particular periods or with particular people, does not mean that people who choose not to use those metaphors are trying to “minimize Jesus identity qua God.”. Precisely whom are saying believes this? And if you know such persons, in the PCUSA why is it that you are blogging about them rather than filing an ecclesiastical charge against them, which under the Book of Order it is your duty to do?

        It is not helpful to cast aspersions on nameless individuals who self identify as progressive, which can mean many things, in an attempt to stir up animus againt them.

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    • mateenelass says:

      Timothy,
      I was gobsmacked (to use one of my favorite English phrases) by your first line. The fact that you don’t get what the problem is reveals the problem. You believe in a mythical Jesus who can be shaped any way you want him to fit what you think are the perceived needs of listenters. I find your thoughts in this comment very undisciplined so that it is hard to respond with one unified thought, so let me address a number of your statements. It is true that the Bible has numerous metaphors for Jesus (Bread of life, Light of the World, Door of the Sheepfold, True Vine, etc.). It also has a number of ascriptions. The two are not the same. Metaphors are comparisons of different objects so as to elicit richer and deeper understandings of a subject. If a metaphor is apt (which I’m assuming you’d agree would be true of all the metaphors of Jesus in the Bible), you don’t toss them aside as if they no longer have meaning because people might find them hard to believe or swallow today. Rather you ask the question, “Why are these metaphors difficult to believe for people today?” And then you help people understand how such metaphors play an important role in the world view of the gospel. John 6 is a case in point, when Jesus, using the metaphor of being the Bread speaks of the eating of his body and blood. The people recoil at the imagery of the metaphor. Should Jesus have said, “Oops, my bad. Forget that metaphor; I’ll go with another”? In fact, he didn’t, even though many turned away from following him at that point. My guess is that you would have counseled Jesus to take a different tack than he did. I prefer to believe that Jesus knew what he was doing.

      Ascriptions, unlike metaphors, are titles which describe one’s real roles and identity in life. Savior, Lord, Son of God, Messiah, and so on, are ascriptions. They can be ignored by people who don’t want to acknowledge them, but they can’t be morphed into “unhelpful metaphors for people today of different cultures” (my words, not yours). Suppose the King of Saudi Arabia were to show up in Florida and you met him at an academic function. Would your response to him be, “The metaphor of kingship is so outdated today and frankly repugnant to many of our students. I’ll speak about him as a dignitary, maybe a leader, but I’ll drop the metaphor of king because it’s not helpful”? If so, you’d be doing an injustice to the king and to your students, and leading them into untruth, because in fact he really is a king, whether you like it or not.

      Jesus really is the savior of humanity, whether you or anyone else likes it or not. He really is Lord of all. He really is Israel’s awaited Messiah. He really is God in human flesh. These are not suggested metaphors; they are ascriptions of reality.

      On the fact that there are four gospels rather than just one, I would argue that they help us see in stereo the living person of Jesus, the way different eye witnesses paint a clearer picture of a scene. But the scene is still the reality. It can’t be modified by those who have no experience of the scene. Following the logic of your approach, I would ask for your reason why the church stopped with the four canonical gospels. We know there are many more apocryphal ones. Do you study them and preach and teach from them to your students/churches? If not, why not? Wouldn’t they increase even more the “elasticity” of the faith to allow even more people to “latch on” to whatever interests them? If you set a limit at the canonical gospels, you must believe that there is a limit to who the real Jesus is, mustn’t you? And if there is, then you can’t pick and choose to create a Jesus of your own pleasure or liking.

      Lastly, one big difference between us apparent in your comments is that I believe in a Jesus who is living and active today because of his real, historical resurrection from the grave. My goal is to introduce people to him so that they will gratefully receive his salvation and dedicate their lives to his lordship, following him moment by moment as the expression of their faithful worship. For you, it seems to me (please correct me if I’m wrong), Jesus is an attractive concept filled with wonderful practical ideals for how people should live and better themselves by example. Ideas unhelpful to present listeners can be jettisoned, and more palatable ideas substituted. In the end, I believe in a real and living Jesus able to transform human beings and the created order by his presence and will; you believe in a Jesus of the thought world, a series of connected ideas and urgings which can inspire human beings to change themselves. I think that summarizes one major difference between evangelicals and progressives. Does that apply to progressive Presbyterians as well, or is it at least accurate in your case?

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      • Timothy F. Simpson says:

        Matteen–I think that you misunderstand how myths function just like you misunderstand progressives. Just because something is mythical doesn’t mean it can be said to mean anything one wants. Relativism is not nihilism. Just because something can mean more than one thing doesn’t mean it can mean anything. I don’t know any scholarly approach to the use of myths among traditional peoples who would agree with your characterization of myth and certainly don’t know a single Presbyterian minister whose usage of myth fits what you just described. Again, this is a straw man.

        Moreover, even if one thought the gospels were history writing that still would not obviate the need for interpretation as to what they mean, any more than if one reads them as myth. When and where they were written, the communities behind their authors, the underlying worldview of the times–all these and a hundred other topics and subtopics make for a thousand different understandings of the text’s meaning. I realize that this bothers conservatives who want there to be one and only TRUE meaning, but I don’t think that is possible and five minutes at any SBL meeting will bear this out! OT scholar Gillian Anderson wrote a book a few years ago in which she took a number of prominent OT texts and plotted the various historical interpretations that contemporary scholarship has given to those texts. The results were amazing. Psalm 23, for example, had a sitz im leben of everywhere from the 10th century to the Maccabees. Now I don’t ever hear conservatives saying that, because we can’t get a handle on all the historical issues about which we have questions that because historians give their best estimates of the answers–which are subjective and thus widely variable–that they are trying to make the text mean whatever they want it to mean. In truth, as many prominent historically-oriented biblical scholars have noted in recent years, the work of interpretation whether one looks at the material from a literary or a historical perspective, is a work of imagination.

        As to your point regarding the percentage of material that focuses on Jesus last week, for me, this has always been about his behavior, his submission to the call of God on his life even when abandoned by everyone else, even in the face of death. I understand you read this differently but there isn’t some kind of scriptural umpire to tell us which one is right. In my world, we both can be. In your world, the zero-sum game of biblical interpretation, one of us has to be wrong.

        Finally, no one is “casting aside” any of the Bible, much less that which pertains to Jesus. This is a gross overstatement. I never said anything of the sort, nor do I think you can demonstrate that any other PCUSA clergy has said anything like that. The Bible has hundreds of chapters and thousands of verses and no one ever uses them all simultaneously. Progressives are just clearer and more open about this than conservatives, who ride their hobby horses just like everyone else but who act as if they have no favorite texts. I don’t think this is a bad thing. It takes all kinds of people to share the gospel with a big world. They had differences of opinion even in the book of Acts and I don’t see this as any different. You minister to a certain type of people who want things in black and white terms. You seem like a J on the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, so you are poerfect for that kind of ministry. I am a P and I live in a world where things are very gray, with people who have more questions than answers. Your kind of ministry would go over in my world about as well as my kind of ministry would in your world. But together, we can become all things to to all people so that we might save some. Why can’t we agree on that?

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      • mateenelass says:

        Timothy, you have raised so many thoughts that I don’t think I’ll be able to do justice to your questions in a limited comment. I notice in all your arguments that you have not responded to my central questions of you. I hope you will go back and read my earlier comments and interact with my questions.

        As for your most recent comment, I’m afraid you jumped on a word I used, supplying your own meaning rather than the one I intended. Apparently you are thinking academically of the word “myth” and seeing it through literary eyes. I used the word “myth” in its metaphysical sense — a story of fantasy as opposed to one of historical reality. I believe the Gospels and NT documents are historically reliable. I don’t know where you stand, but from what I can discern many progressives (whether Presbyterian or not) don’t seem to hold its historicity in high regard (the Jesus Seminar is only the most famous among this group of “scholars”). Subsequently they feel free to pick and choose what they wish to construct the Jesus they think most likely to have existed. Unfortunately, though you don’t accept this, many progressives are indeed casting aside biblical teachings on many subjects, but in particular with regard to Jesus the central NT teachings on his nature and roles as Lord and Savior. That’s what my blog was all about, based on their own words!

        It’s true that the academic guild of theologians comes up with all sorts of interpretations of biblical texts. Part of this, of course, is due to the fact that we don’t have all the historical data to understand the sitz im leben of every piece of writing. But much of it is due to the hubris of the guild itself, where individuals are in competition with one another to come up with a perspective which will turn heads or bring him/her a measure of glory. The very requirement for a doctorate that candidates must add something “new” to their field leads to all sorts of unique and increasingly strange interpretations so as to justify their contributions. Nevertheless, the goal of most OT and NT theologians is to come closer to the original meaning of the text. That would indicate the belief there is one original meaning, even if we haven’t perfectly uncovered it.

        This was my approach, and that of all those students in NT studies at the University of Durham when I was working on my PhD under James D. G. Dunn. I don’t put much stock in scholars who argue that a written text can mean whatever the reader thinks it means, or even that it is capable of widely varying interpretations. Certainly widely varying applications, but not interpretations. Otherwise, your and my back and forth is meaningless, because you can believe that I mean what you want me to mean, and I can believe the same of your words. But I’ve already told you that you misunderstood me (misinterpreted my words), where I had a very specific meaning. My job in writing is to try to make my meaning as clear as possible (I obviously failed), and your job in reading is to try to find my specific meaning through appropriate interpretive principles. What is true of this communication is true of biblical communication as well.

        Lastly, I agree with you that relativism is not nihilism, unless relativism stands up against true absolutes. Then it functions in exactly the same way as nihilism. The orthodox Christian faith has always asserted certain truths as absolute. When someone denies any of these by claiming that there are other contrasting or contrary beliefs which are equally valid, or by simply denying that these absolutes are indeed true, their views lead to nihilism (at least an anti-Christian nihilism). So I ask you, where are the boundaries of truth? Where do I go to find out what progressive Presbyterians believe, if they want to divorce themselves from progressive Christianity in general?

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  3. Wesley Fryer says:

    I agree this question is vital: Who do we each believe and say Jesus is? Interpretations which deny Jesus as Lord and Savior, as Mateen explains, ARE a big deal because they fundamentally redefine him with a postmodern lens. This is not a minor issue, it is huge. That is why the words “Lord” and “Savior” have such an important place in the ordination vows. Timothy, the fact that you do not see a problem with people interpreting Jesus as someone other than Lord and Savior reveals your own progressive views. Many hold those views with you, of course. I think what Mateen is pointing out is those views cannot fit inside the “tent” of reformed faith. That is definitionally a “progressive” faith interpretation, rather than a “reformed” interpretation. That view requires one to cherry pick from the gospels, rather than understand who Jesus says He is and others say he is throughout the Bible.

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  4. Timothy F Simpson says:

    Wesley–I have made those ordination vows several times and will be happy to reaffirm them again any time anyone needs to hear me say them again. That’s why this is so much a non-issue. Who are the people who are refusing to take these vows that are so dangerous? The fact is that there isn’t anybody, that it is a set of zero.

    The fact is hay everybody cherry- picks. I have been ordained 26 years and have never preached from Obadiah, for example. I have never heard a single Presbyterian minister preach from thst book nor have I heard one from Nahum I have colleagues who shy away from Revelation. Everyone operates with a conon within a canon. In privileging who Jesus is above how he lives, conservatives are doing the same thing, because there is no biblical text that baldly ranks those two potential emphases. It is a natter of opinion.

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    • mateenelass says:

      Timothy, the goal of proclaiming Jesus is not to privilege his being over his doing, or vice versa. It is to present the whole witness of the Gospels. What Jesus does is inextricably linked with who he is. Why do you think the Gospel writers give 40% or more (in the case of Mark) of the space in their documents to the last week of Jesus’ life? Why not an apocryphal Gospel like Thomas, which is simply a collection of aphorisms and simple parables? Why did they not devote themselves simply to his three years of ministry. According to John, there were reams and reams of stories about other things Jesus said and did, which were not included. The fact is, Jesus’ willingness to serve as sacrifice, his actual death and resurrection, are central, even fundamental to the reason for his coming. To ignore or downplay these actions of Jesus and their implications and consequences is unconscionable for a minister of Word and Sacrament. This is not a matter of opinion, if one wishes to remain in the stream of the apostolic, orthodox faith.

      As for vows, I’m not concerned that people are refusing to take the vows of ordination. I’m concerned that thay are taking them with little regard for what they mean and little intention to live them out accordingly. That group, I’m afraid, is hardly a “set of zero,” though it should be.

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