May 13, 2019

The Weakness and Predictability of Progressive or Liberal Theology

Gary Thomas — 

Many of you know my mentor in seminary was Dr. J.I. Packer, author of the classic “Knowing God” and a man of great devotion and intellect.

In one of his lesser known books, A Passion for Faithfulness, Packer exposes the danger of liberal theology when he writes that “the taproot of modernist liberalism is the idea, issuing from the so-called Enlightenment, that the world has the wisdom, so that the Christian way must always be to absorb and adjust to what the world happens to be saying at the moment about human life.” That’s “progressive theology” in a nutshell, isn’t it? The teachers and writers of this persuasion build great affinity for themselves by going along with popular groupthink, but correspondingly generate very little fear of God among their followers.

Packer continues: “It is no wonder, then, that liberalism typically produces, not martyrs, nor challengers of the secular status quo, but…people who are always finding reasons for going along with the cultural consensus of the moment, whether on abortion, sexual permissiveness, the basic identity of all religions, the impropriety of evangelism and missionary work, or anything else.”

You know where progressive thinkers are usually going to end up: exactly where those who don’t fear God end up. The only difference is that they try to make the case that God Today is also against God Yesterday, that he was muddled in his revelation and so, surprise, surprise, if we will all agree with those who have opposed God all along, we’ll actually be serving and representing Jesus rather than opposing Him.

I don’t attack individuals and I don’t publish attack book reviews so I’m not calling out any one individual; like Packer, I’m addressing a movement. If you think the “progressive” label applies to you (I’m not, not not talking about politics), please ask yourself how it feels to so frequently side with those who admit they don’t believe in God, are hostile to God, and/or believe that faith in God is the problem with the world, not the answer. Shouldn’t that fact alone at least give us pause about what’s shaping our beliefs and convictions? Am I missing something?

For my part, as a writer and speaker, this challenges me to evaluate my work on this basis: if my writing and speaking leads others to think more highly of me but not to grow in their fear of God (speaking of fear as reverence, submission and surrender), then my ministry has utterly and truly failed.

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35 responses to The Weakness and Predictability of Progressive or Liberal Theology

  1. Gary,

    Please allow me to voice my concerns and to invite you into a larger conversation. First let me say with all sincerity I do really appreciate your courage to tackle a subject you are clearly passionate about. And I can only imagine how difficult it is to voice your opinion to a notoriously fickle public.

    I am a huge fan and have been for a very long time. Married 32+ years and yours was one of the many voices that helped me examine and reevaluate my core beliefs about the very purpose of marriage (along with 3 years of very expensive counseling). I have recommended your books and blog to countless pastors and couples and of course I will continue to do so. I was a consultant then and was so impacted by our own story of redemption that I’ve been a Licensed Clinical Pastoral Counselor and an ordained Minister of Pastoral Counseling for nearly 10 years with a thriving practice focusing primarily on marriage enrichment and co-dependency but also leadership development in the church. Today I am PhD – ABD.

    This is a conversation I’ve been in for a long time and I believe I am uniquely qualified to understand both sides. My disappointment with this post is that I think it violates many of your own process principles and what I can only assume to be principles you would teach couples. Since you have such a gift of understanding and a platform for communication I hope you will consider doing much more to reconcile this conversation in the future. I mean no offense but your post suggests little to no understanding of the people or positions you critique. And I assure you many of them are in your audience.

    For example, in my experience the people you refer to as progressive/liberal don’t hold to a set of beliefs you can hang on them. They are not comfortable with a label you would assign to them. They view labels as reductive. They don’t use words like “apostate” or “heretic” and they do not think you are going to Hell. Honestly for the most part they don’t think much about this conversation or your salvation. Again in my experience I find this conversation most alive in our conservative circles and the statistics show an overwhelming exodus. I see no harm in being slow to judge on this topic.

    Also a question of motive comes to mind. For example, if progressives are willing to leave conservatives free to interpret anything, any way they want; what concerns conservatives so much about how progressives interpret doctrine, scriptures, atonement theories, etc.? It would seem some grand fear persists that the “left wing of the party will sink us”. It seems the worst case scenario if conservative theology prevails is that Progressives will suffer from “getting it wrong” which is a risk they are obviously willing to take. I’d say conservatives would do well to give more credence to Mt. 7:21-23 and at least consider the possibility it includes them/us. Progressives (again I speak very generally – perhaps too much so) believe in a God who cannot be thwarted by the imperfect actions of men.

    I would encourage you to think about this conversation as a relationship with a real person. I assume you would discourage sweeping generalizations and assumptions, absolute statements, etc. I know from your work that you would teach someone like me to examine my core beliefs and be open to let the other be my teacher. What would you say to parents of an adult child who came out as gay, or divorced, or was living with their boyfriend/girlfriend? Or a spouse who leaves the faith (becoming much more common)? I would hope you would teach them to love first, to cherish, to find common ground, to bring grace and to leave the judgment to the Lord who tells us he is infinitely capable.

    Here is a quote which I use regularly in my practice and I basically stole (or at least attribute to) from you. “The single greatest problem in any relationship is that we justify or tolerate a lack of love from ….. ourselves”. I realize you would not see your position as unloving or you would not hold it. But you are far too educated and experienced to be unaware that certainty is not nearly the same as accuracy. I believe that (while not always accurate) hearing how our behavior makes those we love feel, is a good barometer for whether we in fact … love … in the extraordinary way Jesus invites.

    I wish i could remember where i stole this summary of active listening but I swore it was a guest blog you posted. My summary was three parts: 1) know myself 2) ask curious (non-agenda/safe) questions 3) listen with a third ear. We’re all capable of being blind but Jesus came to restore sight and set captives free. I believe that is a painfully slow and lifelong process known as sanctification (or perfection of love).

    Reflection is the noblest method to learn wisdom. I wonder if we could do this with each other and hopefully advance this conversation. I am in the early stages of planting a church intended to create a space where people can have this conversation and attempt to bridge these kinds of gaps. My email is below. I’d love to set a time to talk further.

    If you think of me at all please wish me well.

    • Robert, thanks for such a thoughtful, well-reasoned reply.

      When you ask, “if progressives are willing to leave conservatives free to interpret anything, any way they want; what concerns conservatives so much about how progressives interpret doctrine, scriptures, atonement theories, etc.?” I think that’s the crux of the issue. Conservatives AREN’T free to interpret anything any way they want. Nor are progressives.

      What I believe Packer would say, and certainly where I would agree, is that truth matters and that truth can be discerned. Some points of doctrine–such as infant vs. adult baptism; ecclesiology; and virtually all theories of eschatology–are open to debate. But many bedrock definitions of faith and practice are explicit in Scripture, solid historically, and these very truths are being challenged by many who still want to say they follow Jesus while denying what He and his revelation (through his word) teaches.

      Packer hits on a point that I think is most troublesome for those who deny historic understandings of the faith: when one movement consistently arrives at positions that align with those who oppose or deny God, it should be a cause for concern. Of course, many times those causes will align. As those who believe in God the Creator, we can and should embrace the call toward creation care. Both N.T. Wright and John Stott, “conservative” in matters of theology and sexual ethics, have stressed the need for creation care. It was one of Stott’s main points in his final book and Wright mentions it all the time.

      But when relatively younger writers who don’t have the academic credentials of a Wright, Stott, or Packer are leading so many young people astray, it’s quite alarming to me. They bend history and twist exegesis and word origin in knots to make the Bible seem unreliable and non-explicit. Again, you know I don’t fight over peripheral matters of doctrine because I quote Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox adherents, Reformers, Anabaptists, etc. But I’m talking about some moral issues that Scripture says truly matters. When Paul tells Timothy “Watch your life and doctrine closely” he stresses that both beliefs and ethical practice matter. Paul warns that some practices put people’s very salvation in question (1 Cor. 6:9-11). As you say, some progressives may not care about their salvation. As their pastor, it’s my job to care about their salvation and so to speak truth in a loving, grace-based way.

      I’ll be honest though. More than I wrote this to convince a single “progressive” (being on staff of a SBC probably limits a lot of “progressive” people giving me serious or any consideration) I wrote it to encourage those who want to follow the historic truth laid down to not grow weary or ashamed. It was a great encouragement to me as a young seminarian to see the Packers and Stotts contend intelligently and courageously for the truth. Packer is now in his nineties; I don’t know that many young seminarians read him anymore, so I wanted to bring his words to them via another vehicle.

      In the end, I think God’s doctrine and ethics revealed in Scripture and confirmed throughout history are beautiful, true, and life-giving. They don’t result in burdens, hate or obligation, but freedom, joy and peace. I have seen a lack of courage among those who would call themselves conservatives because, frankly, the tide has turned and conservatives get hated on all the time–all the while being accused of spreading the hate. There are a few fringe movements that justly bear the “hate” label, but any honest evaluation would tell you that the major evangelical churches and movements most people are aware of are kind and thoughtful and not hate spewing at all. I’ve preached in over 500 pulpits. I don’t see the Bible used as a weapon but as a call to new life and love. I see “progressives” usually attack with much more vitriol than vice versa. That’s not to say ANY vitriol is acceptable; it’s not. The people of God should be known by compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Col. 3:12).

      My weakness may have been using labels in this post–they’re not helpful. But I didn’t know any other way to get Packer’s point across. Maybe I should have waited and tried harder.

      Let me close with this: to lead people away from truth, even with good intentions, is evil. To make people feel they are okay with God when they are not is demonic. To say that good is evil and evil is good is to serve Satan, not God.

      I don’t present myself as a theologian; I work in what I would call “applied spirituality.” You don’t see me doing academic papers on complimentarianism vs. egalitarianism, views of the atonement, etc., because I don’t have the academic chops to advance the debate on that end. All I’m saying is this: truth matters. And when someone accepts a “truth” that leads them, at least more often than not, to agree with the world that opposes and/or ignores God than be a part of passing on a precious faith, revealed in Scriptures and hammered out through 2,000 years of church history, I think that person should seriously evaluate what’s driving them.

      Every teaching should drive all of us toward one thing: the fear of God (submission, service, reverence). Life isn’t about my pleasures, my actualization, my success, or my reputation. That’s wasted time. The focus of my ministry–of everyone’s ministry–should be to urge people to fear God, which is the beginning of wisdom. Packer did (and does) that for me, and I hope to use his words to do that for others.

      • What a pleasure to read your reply. You are gracious to take the time. I love that the church is large enough that we can all live out our calling according to our uniqueness. We (not surprisingly) agree on much and in any event this is no forum for disagreement. Where we disagree it is clear we can do even that in love and for that I’m grateful.

        A point of clarification, I did not say progressives may not care about “their” (own) salvation. I said “yours” (at least that’s what I meant to say). It would have been more helpful to say they don’t “over-care” which means of course they care about all fellow men (or at least aspire to) in all things including salvation. My point was that for the most part they’ve chosen to minimize and maybe even de-prioritize debating on atonement theories in favor of practical love (the great commandment). Also when i say “free to choose” I mean in the sense of the free will God gives us all which of course does apply to conservatives as well who are indeed free to chose the doctrine to which they ascribe. My point is that they are quite sober minded about the implications of their faith journey. And your point I think is well taken that so should we all. Although in all fairness it sounds like we know different progressives at least we’re describing different ones. Much I suspect like the three blind men who describe an elephant. I don’t doubt at all that we can find vitriol on both sides of the aisle and one of my main passions is to stamp it out wherever we find it.

        Let me single out two other comments of yours for strong agreement. “They don’t result in burdens, hate or obligation, but freedom, joy and peace.” I so agree that orthodoxy can be measured only by the observable orthopraxy. And “I think that person should seriously evaluate what’s driving them.” Agreed. I would just add that this is good advice in all things including how we think of and speak to those we love and beyond.

        For future reference it was this comment I found most troublesome and unhelpful. It was perhaps even inciteful and if it was meant to incite I think it was a tactical miss for the moderate audience. “You know where progressive thinkers are going to end up: exactly where those who don’t fear God always end up.” This sounds a lot like code language for Hell, the invocation of which can only at best open a can of worms on this topic and at worst fire your ardent supporters in the wrong way. More than that though, when push comes to shove we really don’t “know” much. Again at risk of belaboring the point. The progressives I know are so far from “don’t fear God” in the theological sense.

        No qualms at all with the solid theological perspectives you share by Packer et. al. On the contrary I really appreciated both in the post and your reply. Very solid. My critique is whenever we jump the shark into sweeping generalizations about what the straw man thinks. A technique of which I’m sure I’m quite equally guilty. And again so much grace for this. I know how complicated it can be to sort through our shibboleths, litmus tests, and jargon inherent to any one of the sub-cultures we’re steeped in. But often it is those phrases which we carelessly take for granted that impede the spread of the good news.

        Pax.

        • Thanks, Robert.

          One quick clarification. When you quote me and conclude, ““You know where progressive thinkers are going to end up: exactly where those who don’t fear God always end up.” This sounds a lot like code language for Hell, the invocation of which can only at best open a can of worms on this topic and at worst fire your ardent supporters in the wrong way.”

          I wasn’t thinking AT ALL about hell. It’s so helpful for me to see how this sentence could be taken. I was thinking that their CONCLUSIONS to moral decisions would be identical to those who don’t recognize the authority of Christ; i.e., where they end up INTELLECTUALLY, not in eternity!

          And for the record, since this post came out I changed two words to remove the absolutes (always replaced with usually and then with “so frequently”).

  2. Vicki P Reynolds May 14, 2019 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you for that particular subject. I believe that it was needed at such a time as this. We are living in confused and frustrated times which is why we must remain focused on the true Word of
    God. He and only He will let us know in no uncertain terms what we need to do and when we need to do it. Keep your eyes on Jesus through reading the scriptures and praying daily then your confusion and frustration will vanish. It takes courage to be a believer at this moment in time. Look up and hang on to the Master’s hand!!

  3. “please ask yourself how it feels to always side with those who admit they don’t believe in God, are hostile to God, and/or believe that faith in God is the problem with the world, not the answer.”

    Gary, I’d admire your thoughts on marriage and appreciate your ministry. Here’s the problem with your post, and specifically your above post. I have watched the evangelical culture that raised me and continues to believe “good theology” cover up and condone the sexual abuse of the powerless and lust after political power. For all their “sound theology” in many corners of evangelicalism I see very little of Jesus’s kingdom as revealed in the Sermon on the Mount.

    The hostility to the belief that, as you say, that there is “wisdom in the world,” has led churches to believe they are the unassailable keepers of holiness, and ignore truth. Especially as things stand right now in evangelicalism, I would encourage you to spend less time attacking the progressives and more time cleaning your own house.

    Again, I do truly appreciate your marriage ministry and hope you continue it.

    • Josh Pease,

      Thanks for your response and your service to God’s church.

      The church as it exists is broken by the fall. I see some ambitious leaders. I see some men and even a few women trying to use Jesus to make a name for themselves and make themselves important. But overall, I see many, many more evangelical churches sacrificially speaking God’s truth and spreading God’s love with good, God-honoring intentions.

      What I also see are the few exceptions to this being used to undercut the movement as a whole. That, I think, is demonically clever. Opponents to God’s truth find a few charlatans and ambitious people who claim to live by the truth but whose lives deny it. That doesn’t undercut the truth; it just tells us that some people don’t live up to what they proclaim. It’s fair to call people to account; it’s not fair to use fallen people to sow doubt about revealed truth.

      Most of the people who have publically fallen were warned and confronted by others but failed to repent. Those stories of confrontation aren’t public, but I “know people” and happen to know that in many cases, loving entreaties were met by hard hearts. The problem wasn’t the church’s truth; the problem was arrogant hearts who started serving themselves more than Jesus.

      As I said in another response, I’ve been privileged to speak in over 500 pulpits, and I’ve seen inspiring examples of faith. I’ve seen a LOT of Jesus’s kingdom as revealed in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m so sorry you haven’t.

      I believe if we spent more time actually meeting people (as I have because of my calling) serving in churches rather than reading headlines ABOUT people, we’d have a whole different view of the church in general and the truth it seeks to proclaim.

      Covering up sexual abuse and lusting after political power, as you put it, are evil and I wouldn’t try to defend that. I’m sure it happens. But the sins of a few don’t condone the sins of many who twist God’s truth and lead people astray.

      Also, please read my response to Robert. I don’t believe that there is no general wisdom in the world; of course, at times our beliefs can align (such as creation care). I should have been more measured in how I put that.

      I won’t repeat to you what I said to Robert, but much of what I said to him would be similar to what I would write here. Thanks for engaging with this post.

      • I understand that, but as both a byproduct of evangelicalism and someone who has written extensively about sexual abuse in evangelicalism on a national scale, I’m afraid it’s NOT a small percentage. It is pandemic. And just as there are plenty of good evangelical churches, there are plenty of good progressive ones.

        My point isn’t to say all evangelicals are bad or all progressives are good. My point is to say it’s easy to create straw men out of those who disagree with us and be blinded to the serious sins in our own house.

        Attacking progressives isn’t helpful, when what evangelicals need are not an “other” to see as the bad guys, but to deal with their own systemic sin.

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