Progressive Christianity and the narrative-historical method

I noticed recently that in response to the question “What are your favorite progressive Christian resources on the Book of Revelation?” on Twitter, a friend recommended my book The Coming of the Son of Man or “Really anything by Andrew Perriman.” Thank you, friend! His tweet got two likes, one of them by me. But I have often wondered about the appeal—or not—of my quite rigorously historical method to Progressive types.

I don’t know if there’s an agreed definition of “Progressive Christianity.” I tend to think of it as a post-evangelical liberalism. The diagram makes the point that the narrative-historical hermeneutic has its origins in a different post-enlightenment development—the critical reconstruction of the origins of Christianity. But it is an attempt to supersede the modern division between conservative and liberal/progressive theologies, and I don’t really expect Progressives to agree with me any more than conservatives.

The Wikipedia entry for “Progressive Christianity” offers as a “working definition” a paragraph from Roger Wolsey’s book Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity. The title rather gives the game away. Progressive Christianity, Wolsey says, is an approach to Christian faith influenced by post-liberalism and post-modernism that does a number of things, on which I’ll share some thoughts.

1. Progressive Christianity proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as Christ, Savior, and Lord

That he was Jesus from Nazareth puts the opening emphasis firmly on the first century Jewish humanity of the one who has become for us—by a remarkable historical process—Saviour and Lord.

It reminds us that his father was a tradesman of some description (Matt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3). It distances him from Jerusalem and the ruling elites, but Nazareth appears to have been a conservative Jewish town that didn’t quite know what to make of its maverick rabbi (cf. Lk. 4:20-30). As a matter of christology, Nazareth was where Jesus came from (Matt. 2:23; 4:13; 21:11; 26:71; Mk. 1:9, 24; Lk. 18:37; 24:19; Jn. 1:45-46). According to John he was executed under the titulus “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (Jn. 19:19).

In Acts Jesus of Nazareth is the one who was anointed by the Spirit, who was sent to Israel to do “mighty works and wonders,” who prophesied the destruction of the temple, who was delivered up by the Jews, executed by the Gentiles, who was raised from the dead, who took the persecution of his disciples personally, and in whose name alone (more on this later) Israel would be saved from annihilation (Acts 2:22; 4:10; 6:14; 10:38; 22:8; 26:9).

That is a good story to tell, but I doubt that it is what Progressives have in mind when they express an interest in Jesus of Nazareth.

2. It emphasizes the Way and teachings of Jesus, not merely His person

This clearly targets conservative modes of Christian faith in which Jesus is the eternal Son who dropped out of the blue to save us all from our sins. The Progressive emphasis is on the radical, counter-cultural pattern of the life and teaching of Jesus, which more often than not was at odds with the conservative religious ethos of his day.

Progressives are right to illuminate the whole story of Jesus of Nazareth but are likely to be mistaken in their interpretation of it. The meaning of his lifestyle and teaching cannot be detached from the prophetic-apocalyptic vision of the catastrophe that would come upon his people within a generation.

He was not a social reformer or a nature mystic. He was an intensely focused prophet of judgment in the mould of Jeremiah, who understood that his rejection by the leadership in Jerusalem would be the decisive factor in the overhaul of the management of the vineyard of Israel. Everything that he did and said—from speaking the beatitudes to the violent action in the temple in anticipation of a violent act of God—was determined by this mission.

3. It emphasizes God’s immanence not merely God’s transcendence

The Progressive emphasis on the immanence of God is a reaction against both post-enlightenment Deism and the rationalism of much conservative or Reformed theology, while avoiding as far as possible the shallow, self-absorbed emotionalism of the Charismatic Movement. The Progressive argument, therefore, belongs to, and perpetuates, an essentially modern debate, which makes it a poor guide to biblical meaning.

In New Testament terms the immanence of God must be understood, I think, quite narrowly as a continuation of the experience of Old Testament Israel. On the one hand, the transcendent creator God could be expected to intervene dynamically to judge his own people and defeat their enemies. On the other, the Spirit of this dynamic God of history is given—first to Jesus, then to his followers—to inspire their prophetic activity and renew their covenant life.

In that respect, it was the imminence rather than the immanence of God that got people excited. If Jesus was “God with us” (Matt. 1:21-23; cf. Is. 7:14; 8:8), it was not in any mystical or panentheistic sense. It was because his birth signalled the fact that YHWH would be present in the coming crisis to judge and deliver his people.

4. It leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism

This also looks like an adaptation to modernity. The problem that the church has today is finding something in which to ground its belief system. We have tried grounding it in a high view of scripture, in signs and wonders, in the intense emotional experience of the presence of God, in the recovery of pre-modern traditions, in social action, and so on.

Given our concerns about ecological degradation and a looming climate catastrophe, it is understandable that we might also lean towards encounter with God in the natural world. Wolsey says: “The role of panentheism in Progressive Christianity shifts the emphasis from belief to contemplative practice and experiential faith.”

The narrative-historical argument, however, is that neither “panentheism” nor “supernatural theism” gives an adequate account of how the biblical community experienced YHWH as the living creator God who was not like the gods of the nations. Paul thought that the Greeks might have discerned the nature of God in the face of the natural world, but his point is precisely that the creator should not be confused with the creature (Rom. 1:19-25).

The God of the Bible is the God who made the heavens and the earth, who chose a people for his own possession, and who dynamically managed the existence of that people in history, not least in their conflict with the pagan nations, to the end that he would be acknowledged as unique and supreme across the world as seen from Jerusalem. This is a political narrative; it moves towards kingdom.

But of course, if we have now moved beyond the kingdom narrative, if the kingdom of God came and went in the form of Western Christendom, as I would argue, then certainly a different prophetic discourse is needed, one that speaks convincingly of the presence of the living God in the midst of a global ecological crisis. Perhaps Progressives are on to something here.

5. It emphasizes salvation here and now instead of primarily in heaven later

I agree with this, though biblically speaking it’s a matter, first, of salvation there and then. Jesus did not die for my sins—if you’ll pardon the heresy. He died for the sins of Israel, believing that only the narrow and difficult path of suffering would lead to the life of the age that would come after the calamity of the war against Rome.

To the surprise of his followers, Gentiles also came to believe, in growing numbers, that this salvation was the work of the one God of the Jews. Therefore, they were forgiven the backlog of their pagan sins; they were no longer liable to the wrath of the living God against the Greeks; they received the same Spirit of prophecy and of life; and on that basis they were included in the saved remnant of Israel.

Jesus did not have the Gentiles in mind when he went to his death, but his death, nevertheless, changed the rules of inclusion in the covenant people. The Gentiles were saved by the salvation of Israel.

Our “salvation” here and now and participation in the priestly-prophetic community of the living God presupposes this whole story. We are saved on much the same terms as the first century Gentiles. We believe in Israel’s messiah, though that part is all rather remote from us; we are forgiven the backlog of our peculiarly modern sins; we receive the same Spirit, we serve the same Lord. But we are saved into a much later chapter in the story.

6. It emphasizes being saved for robust, abundant/eternal life over being saved from hell

We are certainly not saved from “hell”—an entirely unbiblical notion. But I think it is important to stress that we are saved into, or baptised into, a profoundly different phase in the story of the people of God. To speak simply of “abundant life” is too abstract. We are saved for life under the prevailing historical conditions.

The first Jewish believers in Jesus were saved to bear witness to, and eventually to enjoy, the life of God’s people in the age after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

As the church spread into the wider Greek-Roman world, Jews and Gentiles were saved to bear witness to, and eventually to enjoy, the life of the post-pagan world that would emerge after the overthrow of Babylon the great.

I think we should at least try to make that formula work in our own context. We are saved to bear witness to and eventually to experience life in the presence of the living God in the midst of, and in the aftermath of, massive environmental and social disruption.

7. It emphasizes the social/communal aspects of salvation instead of merely the personal

Very good! The danger, I suppose, is that the Progressive movement only substitutes a self-indulgent communal programme for a self-indulgent personal programme. At the heart of the biblical narrative, after all, is not the sinful individual but the sinful community.

The family of Abraham was saved from bondage in Egypt in order that it might at last become the new creation in microcosm, in the land, that God had promised. But along the way a deal was struck: God would prosper and safeguard their new creation life in the land, and they would serve him, in the midst of the peoples of the Ancient Near East, as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6).

That gives us the basic missional paradigm.1 The rest of the Bible is about how difficult it was to maintain that arrangement, mostly because of communal sin. In the end, Jesus’ death saved the community from a final annihilation—and saved the paradigm.

So even though as a community we continue to sin, sometimes quite outrageously, we know that the living God, who made the heavens and the earth, will always preserve for himself a new creation people to bear witness to him—as priesthood and prophethood—in the midst of the peoples and cultures of the earth.

What’s my point? Perhaps this is less of a problem for Progressives than for other community oriented expressions of Christian faith because of the focus on social justice. But the church is not just community, it is missional community, it serves a purpose.

8. It stresses social justice as integral to Christian discipleship

Yes, as long as we mean by that, in the first place, that we act and speak on behalf of the just God whom we worship and serve, and who ought to get some public recognition—what the Bible would call “glory.”

Currently, we tend to take our cue from prevailing ethical trends—with a noticeable time lag—and rework our theology and practice accordingly. We appropriate the wider progressive social agenda, sacralise it, and call it the missio Dei. It’s that need to ground ourselves in something that has purchase in the modern world because the meaningfulness of the Christianity that we like or don’t like can no longer be taken for granted.

Inevitably, historical experience is complex and ambiguous, but I think that when we give account of ourselves to the world, as we continue to tell our story, priority needs to be given to God and to the call of God.

9. It takes the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally, embracing a more interpretive, metaphorical understanding

Frankly, this is a very poor, outdated hermeneutic. The Bible means what it meant. We are not at liberty to deny its literary complexity. Nor are we at liberty to allegorise what we find unpalatable.

The narrative-historical hermeneutic, I argue, prioritises what happened—the experience of a people through history. In simple terms, the Bible gives us the story that this people told about itself—somewhat chaotically—over a long period of time, through to the existential crisis of the first century and the extraordinary transformation which it engendered.

Because this was an ancient story about God, it is told in ways that we sometimes find difficult to understand or believe. Two very different worldviews collide in the reading of it, and there’s a lot of juddering and noise and dust thrown up in the air. But the solution is not to subordinate our worldview to a literalistic reading of the ancient text; nor is it to bully the text into affirming the prejudices—even the enlightened prejudices—of our own age. The solution is simply to step back and bring the whole contextualised story of the historical community into view.

We allow ancient Israel and the reformist Jesus movement to tell the story as they saw fit, using the many conceptual and literary tools available to them. We allow New Testament eschatology and subsequent history to dovetail in such a way that there is no crude disjunction between the biblical witness and the continuing experience of the church. We take into account such massive intellectual transitions as the European appropriation of the Jewish source material and the rise of rational secular modernity. And we find good ways to narrate our own existence and purpose under conditions not remotely anticipated in the Bible.

10. It emphasizes orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy (right actions over right beliefs)

The problem here is the assumed antithesis between action and belief. The biblical story begins with a promise to Abraham concerning his descendants. Abraham believed the promise, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Arguably belief precedes action—or too often, inaction—all the way through the story. Moses believed, albeit with difficulty, that YHWH would lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. The people of Nineveh believed Jonah and changed their behaviour. The exiles in Babylon came to believe the prophecy of Jeremiah that they would be there for a long time; so they built houses, planted gardens, and raised children, because it was their descendants who would return (Jer. 29:4-9). The whole Jesus movement was a call to repentance and a change of behaviour in light of the belief that the kingdom of God, as judgment and rescue, was at hand: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15).

The real issue, to my mind, is not right actions instead of right beliefs but good right beliefs instead of bad right beliefs. Good right beliefs emerge from a story that is still being told. Bad right beliefs are like the disassembled parts of a car that is no longer going anywhere.

11. It embraces reason as well as paradox and mystery—instead of blind allegiance to rigid doctrines and dogmas

We have to embrace reason, it’s part of our story. Paradox and mystery are inevitably part of our religious experience, perhaps part of all human experience. And to oppose blind allegiance to rigid doctrines and dogmas is clearly a good thing—unless it is no more than a blind repudiation of ideas and beliefs that don’t sit comfortably with the Progressive outlook.

12. It does not consider homosexuality to be sinful

See my book End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission.

13. It does not claim that Christianity is the only valid or viable way to connect to God (is non-exclusive)

This is another one of those controversies that is fundamentally misconceived. If we take it that the basic missional paradigm in scripture is the presence of a priestly-prophetic, new creation people in the midst of the nations, certain corollaries ensue.

  1. The people is not, in the first place saved but chosen, in the way that priests or prophets were chosen and set apart for God’s purpose.
  2. Biblically speaking, this is an exclusive arrangement. Inclusion is dependent on a serious belief in the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of God. The gift of the Spirit who empowers the work of the priestly-prophetic community is contingent upon that belief.
  3. The realities of historical human existence mean that this people has needed to be “saved” from time to time if it is to fulfil its priestly-prophetic purpose.
  4. Because Israel experienced God as a God of history, there is invariably a future dimension to salvation to be reckoned with. To be saved, therefore, also means to have an “inheritance” in the future of this priestly-prophetic people.
  5. Those believers who died for the sake of Christ in the period of eschatological transition envisaged in the New Testament would be raised to reign with Christ in heaven throughout the coming ages of human history.
  6. That more or less accounts for biblical soteriology. It does not mean that people outside the covenant community cannot worship or connect to the God who made the heavens and the earth. It does not mean that people outside the covenant community cannot be reckoned as righteous—indeed, I think that it is precisely Paul’s point in Romans 2 that diaspora Jews will be put to shame by righteous (non-Christian) Gentiles when God judges the ancient world.
  7. Part of the task of the church as a priestly-prophetic community is to help people, within the many diverse cultures and faiths of the world, to find the living God and lead a good and just life. Anyone who comes to believe along the way that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead and seated him at his right hand may repent of his or her engagement in the sins of modernity, confess Jesus as Lord, receive the Spirit, and take on the rigours of priestly-prophetic discipleship for the sake of the reputation of the God whom we serve. Amen.
If you enjoyed reading this post, why not share it with associates, friends, and loved ones?

Liked.  Also, heresy: pardoned.

I appreciated this article.  Trying to adopt a more narrative-historical way of reading the Bible has certainly made me more sympathetic to progressive Christian criticisms of vanilla evangelicalism and concerns they’d like to advance for the Church’s activity, but there is often a tendency to create a Jesus and a messaging around contemporary socio-moral concerns and/or a theology that sidesteps the pitfalls of secular critique.

Kamil M. | Sat, 01/09/2021 - 12:59 | Permalink

This analysis is very interesting, but going back to the original linking of your work with Progressive Christianity, it seems to me that it refers rather to the popular understanding of it, which may be simply formulated against the Conservative background. E.g. progressive Christians seem to relativize certain traditional conceptions of Jesus and the Gospel, there is a strong revisionist strand there and this is surely something shared with the results of your work. The grounding of Christianity in continuous historical narrative also reminds both your project and the progressive emphasis on this-worldly action in consequence of the Jesus’ teaching and life. Conservatives share this quite modern emphasis on history, but only to the point of the coming of Christ in the first century. So I can see why you can be categorised as progressive.

On the other hand, coming from Catholic background, I have always found your work strangely close to the Catholic vision of history, which has both (forcing a little the, rather typically Western, terms on it) progressive and conservative elements in it. I’ve always thought that your analysis makes e.g. perfect sense of the rise of the cult of the martyrs in the early Church, or of the characteristically Christian turn in the attention paid to social justice in late Antiquity. Perhaps the philosophical conceptualization of the Gospel in the dogmatic tradition of the Church is not very much in line with your vision, but sometimes reading the Church Fathers (or commentaries on them ) I wonder whether it’s not a bit later imposition on their thought. Anyway, I wonder how you’re managing to stay on track of your project when these dichotomies are so ingrained in our intellectual reflexes. I would certainly love to read a post on the similarities of your work with certain conservative emphases. 

Thank you, 

Kamil 

Many thanks for this, Kamil.

there is a strong revisionist strand there and this is surely something shared with the results of your work.

Yes, there is a shared revisionism and a shared opposition to certain traditional conceptions of Jesus, and the result in part is a shared focus on “this worldly action in consequence of the Jesus’ teaching and life.”

But between the rejection of the reduced Jesus of much conservative theology and the emphasis on action or activism today there is considerable disagreement, I think, about Jesus’ life and mission.

Progressives want Jesus to be a role model for progressive action today, and obviously if we take his compassion for the marginalised and hostility towards the political-religious establishment out of context, he can be made to serve that purpose. But I doubt that the modern progressive Christian would want to be taken out of his or her context, so I don’t see why we should do it to Jesus.

Progressives might be willing to take the whole Jesus-as-apocalyptic-prophet-in-content paradigm and pattern life and mission accordingly—I think that would be an excellent thing to do. But it would probably disrupt a good part of the Progressive value system.

your analysis makes e.g. perfect sense of the rise of the cult of the martyrs in the early Church, or of the characteristically Christian turn in the attention paid to social justice in late Antiquity.

I’m not a church historian, so I can’t say much here, but I think that this is an excellent observation. A major benefit of my reading of New Testament eschatology, I think, is that it lines up what was expected to happen within a foreseeable historical future with what actually happened.

The main point here is that the God of Israel was indeed worshipped and served by the nations of the Greek-Roman world because of his Son. But there are no doubt other aspects to this alignment—the cult of the martyrs evolving into a cult of the saints seems a good example.

I would certainly love to read a post on the similarities of your work with certain conservative emphases.

I would be happy to follow up on this, but I’m not clear exactly what you’re getting at. Traditional Catholic emphases? Or the sort of conservative Protestant/evangelical emphases that Progressive Christianity is mostly averse to?

Thank you for your response to my comment.

Speaking of “conservative emphases” I meant Protestant/evangelical sphere, as you mentioned that you hope the narrative-historical reading might supersede both progressive and conservative strands of the post-Enlightenment divide. I wonder: if there are certain commonalities with progressive vision, then what would you identify as somehow relatable to the conservative side?

For many people, Progressive Christianity is a place to camp out for a while before moving on to Deism or Atheism. Because it argues more from feelings than facts, it cannot satisfy those who require a grounded faith. 

This was very helpful to me as someone who often feels stuck between the conservative evangelicalism of my upbringing and progressive Christianity.

I continue to think, however, that the focus on an ecological crises is a wrong turn. The threat in the West is not primarily ecological but spiritual. The threat is consumerism, decadence and lack of meaning. What is filling in for the abandoned Christendom is a mix of paganism and secularism. A large swath of environmentalism reflects this paganism as a replacement for Christian faith. 

What if we sought to be a priestly people testifying to the one true creator God pointing to the emptiness of this new paganism and the corrosiveness of consumerism? What if we called people to faithfulness and charity, rather than self-actualization, wealth accumulation and culture wars?

it strikes me that the church in the West is not all that differently situated than Paul’s churches. Do we believe God will rescue his people? Is there a future for us or do we just wait for Armageddon? Caring for creation and building sustainable communities only happens when there is a future to live into. 

Caring for creation and building sustainable communities only happens when there is a future to live into.

But that is sort of my point. Faith now is conditioned to a large extent by what we believe about the future. Paul’s churches chose to live the way they did in the present—disengaging from a morally and spiritually vacuous paganism, observing a strict code of sexual ethics, etc.—because they believed that the future would be dramatically different.

In immediate terms the threat to the West may be spiritual in the way that you describe, but I don’t see how we can talk about that present reality without asking about the potentially very severe long term consequences—social, economic, political, environmental. I then think that scripture obliges us to address the situation prophetically.