- Colton Hinson
Which Progressives? (A response to Randal Rauser’s book Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too.)
Back in 2020, popular evangelical and former member of “ Zoe Girl” Alisa Childers published a book entitled Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity. In it, Childers recounts her run in with a Progressive church and pastor which served as a turning point for her own search for enduring truth and Christian orthodoxy. Throughout the book she contrasts many points of Progressive Christian theology with Scripture and evangelical doctrine.
Systematic theologian and popular apologist Randal Rauser has openly criticized Childers’ book as dangerous, misleading, and ultimately harmful to the church. These issues culminated in his recent publication of Progressive Christians Love Jesus too. In his book, Rauser argues that Progressive Christianity is not “another gospel” but instead a faithful and biblical modern expression of orthodox Christianity. In the following response, my aim is not to defend every claim in Childers’ book as I think she makes many blanket statements and overwrought comparisons. But instead it is to respond to several points made in Rauser’s response that I think need to be addressed. Ultimately, both Childers and Rauser believe that clear lines should be drawn around Orthodox Christian belief and which doctrines should be considered unacceptable. Rauser’s complaint can be simplified in that he thinks Childers’ lines are too close to the evangelical right, therefore excluding many faithful progressives. In my response, I hope to show that Rauser’s lines are too far left and that his standard for “mere Christianity” can be just as dangerous, if not more, than Childers’. But to be clear, the issue is not that lines of orthodoxy and heresy should not be drawn, but where they should be drawn.
Wolves vs. Sincere Truth Seekers.
In chapter one of Rauser’s book, he discusses Childers’ account of her encounter with a progressive pastor who invited her to challenge many of the assumptions she was raised with. These challenges included questioning evangelicalism on doctrines such as the virgin birth, inerrancy, the resurrection, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement. In Childers’ perspective, this pastor was a false teacher and wolf in sheep’s clothing. On page 21 Rauser gives us his take on Childers’ accusations.
“While that may sound dramatic, that really is how Childers appears to view things. This pastor and others like him are tools of the devil aiming to destroy the church. As she puts it, “progressive Christianity is a movement not satisfied to sit in the margins. It is directly aimed at infiltrating the evangelical church from within. This movement gives old theology a fresh face and a new name, and it is hell-bent on reforming the church according to its postmodern dogma.” The reference to a “hell-bent” reformation is very intentional: Childers believes these are evil people intent on sowing fatal doctrinal errors into the church.” (Rauser, p21)
Rauser believes there is another way to view people who question these doctrines and invite others to deconstruct them as well. He believes these are Christians who are wrestling with theology and trying to appropriate the ancient faith into their time and context. These are not wolves, but sincere truth seekers. In chapter 2 Rauser describes the problem with the evangelical “binary mindset” which draws clear lines between the “us” and “them”- the sheep and the wolves. He argues that this binary mindset doesn’t account for all of the shades of gray that we will inevitably experience. And to an extent Rauser is right. Clear lines of heresy and orthodoxy are bound to get muddied when dealing with on the ground particulars and living people. But unfortunately, Rauser, when contrasting wolves with sincere questioners, has created another binary, considering the two categories are not mutually exclusive.
Unfortunately wolves never believe they are wolves. It’s human nature to believe you are the good guy. Every heretic in church history did not believe they were really heretics or wolves trying to devour the church. They were sincere in their beliefs and in their questioning of orthodoxy. History rarely gives us white and black hats and the villains are usually much more relatable than we would like to think. Sincerity is not the test of what makes one a wolf or not-, faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ is. Therefore, when Childers presents the progressive pastor as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and Rauser counters that he is a sincere seeker of truth trying to help her grow, I see no reason to think he could not comfortably fit into both categories.
Compromise and heresy are not predicated on whether they are intentional. Years ago, I was a theistic evolutionist. During this time, my group of friends would get angry and mock popular YEC advocate Ken Ham for his insistence that old earth creationists are compromisers with the world. However, I knew at the time that Ken Ham was simply being consistent. If Young Earth Creationism was true, then we were compromisers. That doesn’t mean it was intentional or that we weren’t sincere in our beliefs that we were faithful to both science and Scripture. No one ever believes they are a compromiser; everyone thinks they are correct and that their position is the ultimate synthesis of faith and reason. Nevertheless, if our position is not in line with what Scripture rightly teaches, then we are compromisers no matter how sincere or well argued. As Charles Spurgeon once said;
“If you sincerely drink poison, it will kill you: if you sincerely cut your throat, you will die. If you sincerely believe a lie, you will suffer the consequences. You must not only be sincere, but you must be right."
The Apostles’ Creed as Final Standard for Orthodoxy?
I love the ecumenical creeds. Part of the reason is because I was raised in the Campbellite tradition where I was taught to distrust the creeds and church history as simply “Catholic.” Regularly now in family worship, my wife and I will recite the Apostles’s Creed with our children. I do this in part because I want my children to have a connection to history and historic orthodoxy. I regularly stress to them that while we have our reformed Baptist distinctives, Christianity did not begin with the first Baptists or the Protestant reformation. There have been myriads of Christians before that going back into the Patristic and Apostolic eras of the church. Therefore, my critique of Rauser’s book and attitude towards ecumenism is not aimed at his reverence for the creeds, but at his misuse of the creeds as the final standard of orthodoxy.
Throughout the book and interviews concerning the book, Rauser rightly points to the ecumenical creeds as the starting point of orthodoxy. I agree that these are good places to start. If someone cannot affirm the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, then they are not orthodox Christians by any meaningful or historical standard. However, while Rauser on one hand claims they are a starting point, his arguments seem to indicate that they are the final point on the essentials as well.
When discussing annihilationism and universalism, he defends their orthodoxy by pointing out that these eschatological issues are not mentioned in the creeds. On page 163 Rauser writes the following:
“Just as the major Christian creeds do not endorse a specific theory of atonement, so they do not endorse specific theories of posthumous punishment. The Apostles’ Creed confesses only this about the afterlife: “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Similarly, the Nicene Creed confesses only this: “We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come.” (Rauser, pg. 163).
Rauser has made similar statements on Twitter over the years arguing that since issues such as abortion and Hell are not listed in the creed, then they are not required for orthodox Christianity.
This line of argumentation shows that Rauser does not consider the creeds as merely “a starting point” but the last word. If it isn’t in the creed, then it isn’t required for Christianity. As I have said before, the creeds are an excellent starting place for orthodoxy, but to use them to address every modern issue is anachronistic and not what the creeds were intended to do.
The ecumenical creeds were meant to address theological issues in the first few centuries of the church, namely Christological and Trinitarian issues. They are products of their cultural situation that were meant to address issues within that context. They were not meant to address ethical controversies in the church thousands of years later. Speaking of which, if you want the early church’s stance on abortion you can find information in the Didache and The Letter of Barnabas.
There have always been heresies the creeds did not address and were not meant to address. For example Pelagianism, or the denial of original sin, has been considered heresy in the Western church since the days of Augustine. However, the Nicene Creed does not include a clause about original sin that must be affirmed.
In short, Rauser’s misuse of the Apostles’ Creed anachronistically isolates the controversies of the Patristic era and makes the creed the final authority in new eras with new issues that the creed could not have foreseen and was not intended to address.
Selective Epistemic Humility
Throughout Rauser’s book, he defends Progressive Christianity from the claim that they do not hold to objective truth but instead have humility regarding our ability to have certainty about truth. In other words, Progressive Christians are not moral relativists but have epistemic humility. On page 73 Rauser writes,
“Time and again, I find a common error among many conservative Christians: they confuse a healthy awareness of our own fallibility in knowledge with relativism about truth. For example, they encounter statements like “All our truth claims are subject to error” and they conclude from this that the individual who made the statement doesn’t care about truth or that they adopt relativism about truth. But that doesn’t follow at all. Such statements simply constitute a perfectly defensible recognition of epistemic humility that acknowledges our weaknesses and limitations in grasping truth.”
On the question of relativism Rauser is absolutely correct. I’ve interacted with many progressive Christians over the years and very few of them are actual relativists, especially moral relativists. Truthfully most progressives make very objective and unfortunately very wrong and wicked moral and ethical claims. On issues from abortion to LGBT issues, progressives are on the opposite side of Historic Christian ethics, and more importantly, the ethic of Christ. The problem is not epistemic humility (which can indeed be a healthy antidote to tradition based and unfounded dogma) but instead a selective humility that mainly doubts traditional orthodoxy in favor of positions that the current culture finds favorable, and unfortunately Rauser himself offers a perfect example of this selective humility.
Throughout his book (and on Twitter), Rauser routinely takes exception to evangelicals describing progressive positions as “anti Christian”. In his view, they are evaluating the Christian faith with intellectual humility and coming to different conclusions. That doesn’t make their positions anti Christian; it makes them part of the conversation within Christianity. However, does Rauser offer the same courtesy to conservative Christians? A quick perusal of his Twitter account shows that he views quite a few conservative positions as “Anti Christian.” These include Christians who vote for Trump as well as gun enthusiasts.
My point is not that there aren’t elements in the far right side of conservative evangelicalism that are “unchristian”, but rather why aren’t these positions just another example of Christians having intellectual humility? Why can these positions not just be other valid parts of the conversation within wider Christendom? As Rauser knows, just because a position is present within the visible church does not mean it is not decidedly Anti Christian. And this goes for many progressive positions as well such as their views on abortion or transgender ideology.
In college I had a very Progressive Hebrew professor who regularly stated that “The Bible doesn’t say anything. Instead it offers multiple perspectives on the divine from various flawed authors.” Rauser makes similar claims in his book Jesus Loves Canaanites and elsewhere where he critiques the author of Proverbs views on “beating children.” That it isn’t necessarily the Biblical view, but the author of Proverbs’ view and we do not have to accept it. Ironically, my Hebrew professor would then make a statement that a certain conservative position on immigration or gun control was “anti Christ.” “Wait a minute,” I thought, “Is it truly anti Christ or are you depending on say the Markan or Lukan depiction of Christ who are just two of the voices present?” This is not epistemic humility; this is selective humility about what the Bible and Christianity claims ethically.
Reading Rauser’s book did challenge me to rethink how I view modern progressive Christianity. It was helpful for distinguishing what I like to call “progressivism on the ground” versus our abstract idea of what a progressive Christian looks like. Truthfully most progressives are not like Nadia Bolz-Weber or the many wild eyed progressives that go viral on Tictok. And this is crucial to the debate on whether progressive Christianity is “another gospel.”
If Randal Rauser and I were to have a discussion on progressive Christianity, and in his mind is an egalitarian, old earth creationist who has questions on innerancy, and the progressive Christian in my mind believes that Jesus is a transgender and that all paths to Heaven are equally valid, then we would both be correct in our evaluation of whether it constitutes a false gospel, but we would have very different progressives in mind.
I said at the beginning that my dividing line would be to the right of Rauser’s. Part of the reason for this is the nature of progressive Christianity today. Today’s progressive Christianity is a much different animal than the Liberal Christianity of the early to mid twentieth century. Many progressives today do not deny the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds. They do not deny the miraculous claims of Scripture. Today’s progressive Christianity is primarily a revolution aimed towards historical Christian ethics. This makes it a more difficult problem to address and not the normal sort of controversy that the church’s councils and confessions have addressed historically. This does not mean there are doctrinal issues and heresies to discuss such as Universalism, but these are not the foremost issues that are being raised.
Rauser believes that positions such as being pro abortion are not dividing lines within Christianity since they are not mentioned in the creeds. I have discussed why this is wrong headed. But my question to Rauser would be what ethical positions would cross the line? A modern progressive Christian and an Evangelical can disagree on virtually every contentious ethical controversy of the day. At what point does that require looking at them as two distinct religions? If the Progressive God is fine with abortion, transgender mutilation, euthanasia, and demands pacifism, how does that not constitute a fundamentally different God than the one worshipped by evangelicals whose moral character is very different? What honest progressive will look me in the eye and tell me his or her religion is the same as mine when we disagree on everything outside of a creed addressing first century Trinitarian and Christological issues? I think that answer becomes clear when we look at their own words. Many progressives have loudly stated that they would never worship a God who tortures the damned in Hell for eternity or “hates gay people and women.” While I disagree with their understanding of the Biblical God, I am not sure why they or Rauser would deny the conclusion that we indeed worship different gods.