7 Good Questions

questionsAlastair Roberts has a very good post about progressive evangelicals. I’ll address his initial arguments in a second post, but I think his best contribution to the ongoing dialogue about the church can be found in the comments section. In response to a reader of his blog, Roberts offers seven questions for progressive evangelicals to answer, and I think they warrant serious consideration:

1. Are you a member of a church?

I’ll start off by saying that I may not be the best representative of progressive evangelicalism (readers of my blog know that I loathe the word “progressive,” but I’ll roll with it here for clarity’s sake.)

I have not fully embraced progressive theology, although I identify with the movement. My answer would be: technically I still am a member of an evangelical church. I have told the leadership of my church that I would go back in a heartbeat if the church reset its priorities, and I have asked them to keep me on their membership roles because I have not given up  on the possibility of returning. However, I am currently not attending a church because the transformations that have troubled me are not exclusive to my church.

That said, I agree with his underlying assumption: Christians should worship together within a church context. Despite arguments that the Bible never says anything about establishing the modern church as we know it, there is no better model for congregating together and worshipping together.

2. Do you identify with the teaching position of your church?

Yes and no. Whenever I look at an evangelical church’s faith statement (which can be found on most church websites), I find myself agreeing with all of their points except for two. While I agree with the evangelical position that the Bible is divinely inspired, I know from experience that most evangelicals equate divine inspiration with creationism, patriarchy, and so on.

In a sense it’s like reading the Constitution. Both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg read the Constitution and agree with it, but they interpret its meaning in radically different ways.

The second issue I disagree with is eschatology. To be fair, many evangelical churches leave eschatology (i.e. how they interpret the book of Revelation and End Times theology) out of their faith statements, and many more consider it a minor point. That’s a big reason why I have no problem with churches who subscribe to premillennialism, provided their position doesn’t spill over into political nonsense like trying to guess who the Antichrist is or using the End Times as an argument against global warming.

3. Has the vast majority of your spiritual formation occurred within this movement?

I assume that Roberts is asking whether my spiritual formation took place within traditional evangelicalism.  And the bottom line is yes, almost all of my formation took place within an evangelical context. As my ongoing autobiographical series illustrates, even when I attended  mainline churches, my spiritual formation took place through conservative evangelical organizations. But I’ve never experienced the before-and-after transformation that most progressive evangelicals experience. I never left conservative evangelicalism behind because I’ve always been a progressive evangelical.

4. Who are the leading figures in your movement and where did their primary spiritual formation occur?

That’s difficult to answer, and I think this illustrates Roberts’ strongest point in his original post. Progressive evangelicalism lacks leaders, and the nature of American progressivism in general is that it loathes leaders. (The Occupy Wall Street movement is classic example of a progressive movement that failed because it took pains not to establish structure or leadership.)

My list of leading figures are a hodgepodge of authors and theologians: Augustine, Luther, John Wesley, Reinhold Neibuhr, Dallas Willard,  John Stott, Karen Armstrong, Peter Enns, and Elaine Pagels. Obviously many of these people espouse theologies that are diametrically opposed to one other, and this illustrates my own theological quirks.

5. Did you move to your current church context or community from a different theological context?

No. My flirtations with the Methodist and Episcopalian churches were made within an evangelical context.

6. Do most of your peers in your context share your theological persuasions?

No, and that’s my eternal predicament. I can find enough common ground with evangelicals of any persuasion that I can comfortably converse and worship with them, and if we never diverge from our common ground, people can and do assume I am “one of them.” But the areas I disagree on are drastic. I’ve often thought that I was born a hundred years too late. Back in the early 1900’s  there was a large socialist and civil rights movement within the evangelical church, and had I lived at that time I would likely have found many more kindred spirits.

7. To what extent does your experience mirror that of your peers who share your position?

My biography has very little in common with the progressives I’ve encountered online. I’m on their side regarding the changes they want to see take place within the church as well as their political positions, but I’ve lived my whole life knowing that I would have to suppress a large number of my core beliefs no matter what church I choose to worship with. Liberal churches loathe exclusivism and my passion for the great Commission, while conservatives loathe feminism, evolution, and a historical reading of scripture.

A Divinely Inspired Mess

the_holy_bibleI believe that the Bible was divinely inspired. I also believe that it is full of errors and contradictions.

Normally questions of the Bible’s reliability as the Word of God rest on two assumptions: all scripture is God-breathed, and therefore because God is Truth, scripture contains no errors. Odds are you either give an emphatic “Yes!” to that statement, or you roll your eyes at it and chalk it up as a misguided assumption that a little bit of education can cure. But I believe that both positions can be true.

Andrew Wilson has a post over at The Gospel Coalition about inerrancy. I posted a few of my thoughts over there and decided to expand upon them here. To briefly summarize, Wilson takes the classic inerrancy position: the Bible is inerrant, and arguments against inerrancy make incorrect assumptions or interpretations about the text.

I began my response by pointing out that the Bible itself cannot be a proof of the Bible’s trustworthiness. That’s a circular argument. But I also took pains to say that, in spite of the holes one can poke into the inerrancy argument,  when the chips are down, in spirit I still side with it.  I recognize that inerrancy is an inherently illogical position. But I believe that the extra baggage that comes with inerrancy – especially the assumption that sinful humans managed to compose documents completely free of errors or incorrect beliefs- are inconsistent with our understanding of man’s nature.

The foundation of Christianity assumes that mankind is sinful, hence the need for Christ’s sacrifice. I embrace that assumption. But the traditional position has been that God guided sinners like Moses or the Apostles to create inerrant scripture. To me this violates the doctrine of sin.

For example, I have no problem believing that some missionary friends of mine are doing God’s work. They say that God called them to Montreal or Tanzania, and I trust them at their word. But that doesn’t mean that everything they do as missionaries is part of the divine message God wants them to deliver. They, like all of us, are full of  the same sins you and I have, and those sins can gum up the message, so that message can be tainted by ego or just plain incorrect teachings.

I see scripture in the same light.  I don’t think that Paul was any less prone to error than my missionary friends are. He even called himself the worst of sinners. So I think it’s quite possible that some of Paul’s teachings are flawed, and yet I also believe that God called on him to write his epistles, and for us to treasure them. Therefore, while at their core most of Paul’s epistles are inerrant Truth, I have no doubt that he let some of his shortcomings as a human being slip in, and therein lies the errors. So in spite of their imperfect condition, I believe that Paul’s teachings exist as God intended, and therefore we should treat them in much the same way as Wilson does, with the one important caveat: we can acknowledge that Paul may have gotten some things wrong.

For now, I’m not going to speculate on what those errors might be. I have  my own suspicions of course, but I don’t wish to detract from my larger point. I believe in what I would call “limited inerrancy:” while the Bible exists as God intended it, its writers probably made a few doctrinal and factual errors along the way, mostly because it was composed by an ancient culture with a limited understanding of the world. In addition, throughout scripture its writers repeatedly confess God’s incomprehensible perfection. If you appoint imperfect sinners to make a valiant attempt at describing an incomprehensibly perfect Creator, then you’re going to fall short of perfection.

Let’s use the documentary hypothesis as an example. The documentary hypothesis claims that the first five books of the Bible were compiled from the writings of four radically different authors, some of whom possessed a polytheistic worldview. I believe that the documentary hypothesis is the most persuasive explanation as to how these books came to be. The traditional teaching that Moses was the sole author of the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books) doesn’t hold up to modern scholarship.

For Christians who subscribe to inerrancy, this would be a deal breaker. If the documentary hypothesis were true, they say, then the reliability of the whole Bible collapses, making it little more than the ravings of an ancient people. But if God could inspire Moses to write divine scripture, then surely he could have inspired four anonymous authors to do the same, each without knowing how the end result would look.

In other words, each author captured important truths about God’s relationship to mankind, so God deemed each worthy of inclusion. The fact that some authors may have written under a mistaken belief in polytheism does not matter – what they wrote was divinely inspired and spoke truth about God.

Take the creation story as an example. The documentary hypothesis teaches us that there are actually two creation stories, the second one beginning at Genesis 2:4. Both were included because they spoke truth about God. The specific details – which are irreconcilable  if one insists that they depict literal events – are less important than what they teach us about God’s nature and our relationship to God. These allegories do not need to be literally true to convey the spiritual lessons contained within them.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all ancient Hebrews understood them to be allegories, and it’s only the foolish fundamentalists who boxed them in and claimed them to be science lessons. I have no doubt that a majority of ancient Hebrews took them literally. They were, after all, a nomadic culture composed of illiterate craftsmen and sheep herders. But what mattered was that the common sheep herders arrived at the same place of understanding as the Rabbi who interpreted them allegorically. So the messy parts aren’t a bug; they’re a feature.