JOURNEY TO A NEW PAGANISM:
The Folly of ‘Progressive Christianity’ (Part 2)
A Review of David M. Felten and Jeff Proctor-Murphy, “Living The Questions”.
Ralph G. Bowles
“Living The Questions” is a presentation of ‘Progressive Christianity’, which presents itself as a revised form of Christianity that is more honest and up-to-date. In the first part of my review, I raised my concerns with the one-sided and caricatured treatment of traditional orthodoxy found in the LTQ treatment of Biblical and theological material.
The real question is the theological bottom-line of this revisionism of Biblical foundations. Where does it lead theologically? My main issue with ‘Progressive Christianity’ can be identified in the logical conclusion of their Biblical arguments. It is their view of God and how to know God that reveals the gulf between ‘Progressive Christianity’ and historic Nicene Anglicanism.
The View of the Divine
LTQ correctly states that “our understanding of prayer reflects our view of the Divine.” To be consistent with the Progressive Christian view of the Divine, prayer as a real means of supernatural Divine action disappears, to be replaced by meditation or contemplation. Let’s apply this same test to the central question at issue: what is the ‘Progressive Christian’ view of the Divine, and how does it compare with historic Christian orthodoxy?
LTQ does not hide its rejection of all the major doctrinal formulations of classic Christianity. The veil of private abandonment of Anglican doctrines is thrown off deliberately and provocatively. One after another of the Creed’s affirmations is rejected; out go all the cardinal doctrines of the Creeds. LTQ does not believe in the Divine-human nature of Jesus Christ as taught in the Bible, in the Creeds, Articles of Religion and our Prayer Books. Jesus was a man in whom the earliest disciples “experienced the Spirit of Life . . . in a way that made his presence so transformational for people that the only way they felt they could describe their experience was by attributing it to the Divine.”(LTQ) Jesus does not have a unique Divine identity: "To do so would limit the Divine to one place or one time or one culture-bound expression.” Jesus was filled with God in a very special way, but not in the way that the Creeds suggest.
For the ‘Progressive Christian’, Christ is not the unique God-Man but the most or very greatly, divinized human being. It is important to be clear on this revised concept of the ‘Sonship’ of Jesus.
This LTQ view of Jesus’ “divine” nature departs from the New Testament’s teaching and from the classic Creedal formulations. In Biblical terms, Jesus shares the identity of God in a way unique to him and different – in being and essence – from us and from every other being. He is the Son (Heb. 1:1-14). This view of Jesus as Deity in a unique sonship sense is found throughout the NT writings, including those dated earliest even by ‘Progressive Christian’ scholars. Texts like Mark 1:2-3 ascribe not just the functions of deity to Jesus Christ but also the name of YHWH. This application of the LORD of Isa. 40:3 to Jesus in Mk. 1:3 can be understood only as an ascription of Deity to Jesus. In scores of texts in the NT, Jesus has texts about YHWH ascribed to him (in Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, Paul, Hebrews, Revelation and elsewhere). In 1 Cor. 8:5-6 (an undisputed Pauline letter from the mid-late 50’s CE), the apostle re-writes the Shema to include both God and Jesus in the identity of God. This is why Richard Bauckham can state that “the highest Christology – the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity – was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the NT writings were written, since it occurs in all of them.” A recent commentator on John’s Gospel notes that “there is little evidence for any strand of early Christianity that did not recognize Jesus as deity.”
A recent treatment of Christology in the Synoptic Gospels, by Sigurd Grindheim summarizes this very high early view of Christ’s Divine sonship:
Despite all their differences, there are some striking similarities in the portraits of Jesus presented in the Synoptic Gospels. They have all given considerable attention to the theme of Jesus acting in God’s place. For Mark, this means that Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies regarding the new exodus, and he is the divine warrior who defeats Satan and his army of evil spirits. Jesus’s miracles show that the new creation is already a reality. For Matthew, Jesus’ equality with God means that Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us. He is personally eternally present with his disciples and his presence is the presence of God. The proper response is therefore to worship him. For Luke, Jesus’s equality with God means that the earthly Jesus is also the heavenly Lord. He is present in the heavenly council while he is also present with his disciples on earth.
Even though Jesus takes the place of God, none of the Gospels leave any room for the possibility that Jesus is God the Father. . . There is a certain tension in all of the Synoptic portraits of Jesus. Jesus is equal to God, and yet he is God’s servant. The Son of God metaphor and the application of wisdom language to Jesus go some way towards resolving this tension. John’s Gospel goes further, by painting Jesus as the divine Word that became a human being. (S. Grindheim, Christology in the Synoptic Gospels, p. 148-149).
We can say with strong confidence that the earliest Christian ‘creed’ or belief, deriving from documentary evidence within 20 years of the resurrection, is that Jesus Christ is LORD (Phil. 2:1-11; 1 Cor. 8:5-6; 16:22). Devotion to Jesus – worship of Jesus as the exalted Divine Lord, one with the Father – is a defining feature of New Testament Christianity. As N.T. Wright puts it, the Gospels tell the Story of Jesus as the Story of Israel’s God.
The ‘Progressive Christians’ Replacement Deity
The view of Jesus presented in LTQ/Progressive Christianity sounds very positive and exalted, but it is vastly and qualitatively different from historic Christianity. In the Progressive view, the very being of God is not found in Jesus of Nazareth. The first of the 8 Points of Progressive Christianity parts company with the teachings of the New Testament, the Creeds, the Articles of Religion, our Anglican Prayer books, the Catechism and the consensus of the world-wide and historic Christian Church.
LTQ builds its case as it goes, undermining confidence in the Bible’s teachings and in historic formulations. What will be put in the place of Christian theism? Where does the ‘Progressive Christian’ look for the Divine? I was waiting for the inevitable, logical alternative answer to be unveiled, and it finally came into the open in chapter 17, “The Incarnation”. Here is the answer - the LTQ view of the Divine:
“The true ‘essence’ of incarnation is God’s indwelling in all of creation, from the smallest yet-to-be-identified particle to the furthest reaches of the cosmos.”
This is Pantheism, a very old religion indeed; there is nothing new, progressive or 21st century about it. God is the life power itself, the power of love itself, the Ground of Being, ”which is always emerging in you and me and which emerged in Jesus of Nazareth in some remarkable kind of way that opens new doorways into the Holy for us.” God is in everything and in us.
Now the ‘Progressive Christian’ gains a thrilling pay-off from this pantheism:
“The incarnation is finally not just about Jesus alone but about us. . . Wherever we find ourselves, the mystery of life dwells within us, not limited to a time or place, but manifest in every aspect of our lives.”(LTQ)
This pantheistic reconstruction of Christianity sounds close to the Biblical truths of God working in us by the Spirit, of how God’s love works within us, so that the unwary may mistake it for true Christianity. Historic Biblical Christianity has the unique presence of God in Jesus and through the Spirit God dwells in us and works through us. The progressive believer can use the same words as the orthodox, such as ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ while meaning something completely different. In Biblical and orthodox theology, we are not part of the incarnation of the Divine. The metaphysic and outcomes of ‘Progressive Christianity’ could not be more different to Biblical and historic Christianity.
‘Progressive Christianity’ is close to a monistic identification of God and nature, as the chapter on Honoring Creation shows. While LTQ disavows the label of pantheism (God is everything), and asserts that it is advocating “panentheism”, its statements indicate that this is in effect espousing a monistic Pantheism, since it defines panentheism as “God in everything”. . . In fact, ‘panentheism’ strictly means that “everything is in God” – a quite different idea to “God in everything”.  LTQ states:
“Embracing a consciousness of the Divine in everything and everything being enveloped by the Divine counters the dualistic idea of God being somewhere ‘out there’ with a profound immediate awareness of the divine presence here and now.”
This very issue – finding the Divine inside us and in nature, instead of in Christ and in the gospel – is precisely what the ancient Councils were seeking to keep out of the Church. The ancient Christological controversies that issued in our Creeds were dealing with variants of this same issue of finding God apart from the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel. The Arian and the Docetic theologies both had an aversion to God becoming specific or distinct in Christ. Arianism was essentially about the claim that one could know God without God becoming incarnate. Robert Sanders explains how the relationship of the Father and the Son in Trinitarian thought (in Athanasius) protects from pantheism:
“Since the Son who became incarnate in Jesus was God and since Jesus was fully human, Jesus Christ was fully human and fully God. . . . Since the man Jesus was the one born of the Virgin Mary, the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate, God the Word became incarnate in a specific person. This implies that the incarnation is not a symbol for God being incarnated in everything, but God was incarnate in a particular man Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the incarnate presence of God in Jesus Christ is different from the presence of God in creation or in other great figures. In creation, we can see that God is powerful and orderly, but in Jesus Christ, God reveals himself as a person who saves from sin and death. Athanasius considered the belief that creation or other great figures could reveal the saving nature of God to be idolatry.”
What is expressly and specifically denied in these heresies is that there is a unique knowledge of God in Jesus Christ, since the Trinitarian view of the Father and the Son has been abandoned. In the place of Christ as the mediator of God's presence, nature and human experiences of the holy take centre stage. The monistic stance (all being is ultimately One) leads to a view of the world as God's body, and human development as the journey to a fuller realisation of the Ground of Being is us. The abandonment of the Doctrine of the Trinity leads ‘Progressive Christianity’ inevitably into pantheism.
Without historic Christian orthodoxy, there is a mysterious transcendent reality that cannot really be known objectively, except in the ways in which “the Divine” manifests in nature and in people. You end up with a kind of mystical paganism, seeking union with the mysterious Divine as it appears in nature, experiences, in wise figures like Christ and in our selves. "The image of God as a person has to give way to the image of God as a presence.”(LTQ) LTQ thus ends with a quest for mystery, in which glimpses of the divine are to be found here and there.
The most serious implication of this monism is the loss of a personal God. The loss of an objective God with a reliable revelation and the Son of God who became flesh for us in his life, death and resurrection entails a new replacement religion, where we have no personal God with whom to relate or know, person to person. The monistic theology of ‘Progressive Christianity’ affords no basis for a personal relationship with God. It is hard to have a relationship with an undifferentiated, mute Ground of Being.
Here is the difference between LTQ and Anglican orthodoxy in practical spirituality. In Christian theology a person has both “being” (human nature) and an “hypostasis” (a specific individuality as a being). Without having an hypostatic personhood – a concrete personhood - God becomes impersonal Being. It is the doctrine of the Trinity that preserves the relational personhood of God and lays the foundation for the Christian’s life of fellowship with God. In his incarnation the Lord Jesus Christ assumed humanity into himself as a man - an individual man. The same applies to the Triune Godhead, who has a specific Divine nature.
‘Progressive Christianity’ is promoted as radical and new (‘what is next for Christianity’), but its view of God and reality is very old. C.S. Lewis describes the old, familiar pull of Pantheism:
“Pantheism is congenial to our minds not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is almost as old as we are. It may even be the most primitive of all religions . . . It is immemorial in India. The Greeks rose above it only at their peak, in the thought of Plato and Aristotle; their successors relapsed into the great Pantheistic system of the Stoics. Modern Europe escaped it only while she remained predominantly Christian; with Giordano Bruno and Spinoza it returned. With Hegel it became almost the agreed philosophy of highly educated people, while the more popular Pantheism of Wordsworth, Carlyle and Emerson conveyed the same doctrine to those on a slightly lower cultural level. So far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, under the influence of priestcraft and superstition, but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long. Platonism and Judaism, and Christianity (which has incorporated both) have proved the only things capable of resisting it. It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself. No wonder we find it congenial. If ‘religion’ means simply what man says about God, and not what God says about man, then Pantheism almost is religion. And ‘religion’ in that sense has, in the long run, only one really formidable opponent – namely Christianity.”
Without traditional orthodoxy, we will have Pantheism, the god in nature and in us. This leads to the god within, and we become part of the incarnation of the divine. To have a personal God there must be a world separate from Himself.
I conclude that LTQ propounds a different concept of God from the classic Nicene orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, the church of which the Anglican Church is an historic part. The LTQ course does not teach the ‘Catholic Faith’ (Athanasian Creed). ‘Progressive Christianity’ represents a new articulation of belief that falls outside even the liberal tradition. It is post-liberal and indeed post-Christian in the historic sense. I understand that there is a case for reasonable differences in Biblical interpretation and doctrinal expressions, but Progressive Christianity is way off the scale in its denial of cardinal tenets of historic orthodoxy and even Christian theism.
In short, if the ‘Progressive Christian’ theology is adopted, you end up with a different religion. That raises the question about the place of this theology in the Anglican Church.
This will be the topic for my final part of this critique of “Living the Questions’, and the religion it outlines, ‘Progressive Christianity’.
 See the list in Richard Baukham, Jesus and the God of Israel, pp. 186-190, for Pauline texts applying YHWH references to Jesus.
 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 20.
 Craig Keener, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, p. 235 (2013). See also Sigurd Grindheim, Christology in the Synoptic Gospels, 2012).
 N.T. Wright, How God Became King, (2012), chapter 5.
 ‘Panentheism’ is a species of Pantheism, proposing that "the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part exists in him, but His Being is more than, and not exhausted by, the universe." See John Cooper, Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers, (Baker, 2006), p.27. LTQ shows the monistic tendencies of pantheism that are usually found in the varieties of Panentheism. LTQ promotes the view that God is in everything, in ways not clearly defined.
 C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (NY; Macmillan, 1947), 84-85.