The God of Christianity is a Spirit who works in history. These interventions include Moses bringing the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and Jesus bringing salvation to the world. God spoke through the prophets, apostles and the Church and also through us (Luke 12:11-12).
Spirit intervenes in the world through human beings. While there is terrible evil in the world, when we examine history closely we can see Spirit’s handiwork. While God works through all people of all faiths, the story of Western Christianity is the story of Christianity’s impact on the Western world.
Paul’s conception of radical equality before Christ changed the world. The recognition of the equality of individual souls endowed people with moral agency and awakened a vision of society as an association of individuals rather than of families, tribes, and castes. The individual would become one’s primary social role which would eventually lead to the recognition of human and civil rights, the separation of church and state, the establishment of democracy, and the rise of liberalism.
Larry Siedentop, in his book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, describes liberalism as the child of Christianity. Ancient people assumed that inequality was a natural part of the world. One’s social role determined one’s identity and rights. Paul’s revolutionary idea of equality before Christ would eventually lead to the development of civil and political liberty and equal rights.
There are some two thousand verses on justice and poverty in the Bible. Justice and care for the poor and oppressed can be found throughout scripture in every part of the Bible from the law and the prophets to the Gospels and Epistles all the way to Revelation. God lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful, and feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53).
The stories about rich men and how difficult it is for them to enter the kingdom of God pepper the Gospels (Matthew 19:16-30). The Story of the Good Samaritan, of loving our neighbors and welcoming foreigners, is at the center of progressive Christian ethics (Leviticus 19:33-34; Luke 10:25-37). Justice and care for the needy are major themes in scripture.
Christianity became less about the teachings of Jesus and more about the person of Christ. Teachings about justice were neglected and corruption slowly engulfed the Church.
By now you may be thinking “how could there be anything else but progressive Christianity?” Well, as we all know, things didn’t happen that way. In order to accommodate the emperors of Rome and for a variety of often political reasons, Christianity became less about the teachings of Jesus and more about the person of Christ. Teachings about justice were neglected and corruption slowly engulfed the Church.
The Church kept scripture from lay people all the way up to the Reformation. The invention of the printing press made the Bible widely available, but many still couldn’t read or afford a book. Progress was slow after hundreds of years of overemphasizing doctrine and neglecting justice.
There were radical reformers more radical than Luther and Calvin who eschewed state power, but Luther and Calvin still held authoritarian views. When German peasants revolted against their feudal lords, Luther sided with the nobles and called for the peasants to be put down like mad dogs. Three centuries of religious war followed the Reformation.
Then came the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) brought us idealism. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) brought us the promise of progress through his dialectical process whereby a thesis is countered by an antithesis resulting in a synthesis of ideas over time. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1763-1834) brought us liberal theology and the critical study of scripture.
Along with the discovery of science came a new skepticism toward miracles and a critical reading of scripture. In an attempt to get to original sources, scholars engaged in multiple quests for the historical Jesus. Modern scholars expected belief in the supernatural to decline over time and sought to find out more about the human Jesus.
By the early 20th century, Christians focused more on ethics and social justice and less on miracles and conformity to doctrine. The Social Gospel put into action God’s mission to bring salvation to the ends of the earth by addressing the problems of poverty and injustice. The Catholic Worker Movement sought to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ.” Deitrich Bonhoeffer, in his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” warned us against what he called “easy believe-ism” and “cheap grace” to describe those who think that being a Christian means believing doctrines rather than doing justice.
Fundamentalists revolted. Unwilling to do God’s work and aghast over the decline of dogma they deemed fundamental, fundamentalists of the late 19th and early 20th century rejected the Social Gospel and reacted negatively toward the growing influence of science and philosophy. They opposed the teaching of evolution in public schools.
By the 1930s, modernists had won the debate and fundamentalist withdrew from mainstream Christianity. Liberal Christians developed alternative theologies that didn’t require one to believe in miracles. More of a movement among scholars and clergy, none of these liberal theologies ever took root among the laity.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) applied existentialism to Christianity. Paul Tillich (1886-1965) brought us a God of “ultimate concerns” and “the ground of our being.” Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) applied Heidegger’s philosophy to Christian life and encouraged us to demythologize the text.
Liberation theology refocused the church on the major biblical themes of justice and charity. Theologians like James H Cone (1938 – 2018) and Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1928) saw in the Exodus narrative, the Gospels, and the focus on justice for the poor in scripture a God who prefers the poor and marginalized. While Liberation theology grounded us in the Bible, it also led many to socialism.
Socialism became popular among liberals and progressive scholars and clergy, but it and many of the new theologies never gained favor among lay people. Many churches never changed their liturgies and continued to recite ancient creeds. For a variety of reasons, the Church failed to challenge the orthodox reading of scripture.
While the Social Gospel had won the early battle, fundamentalism won the war. Evangelicalism would return in the 1950s through the Billy Graham crusades and the Christian Right would emerge in the 1970s and all but overtake the Republican party. At the same time, membership in liberal mainline churches declined precipitously.
Christianity is in decline in America. Those who believe in the supernatural either turned to Evangelicalism or to the New Age movement while those who no longer believe in miracles adopted humanism, socialism and other ideologies. Progressive Christianity arises out of this context.
Progressive Christianity stands upon the long liberal tradition of the Church from ancient Judaism through the Enlightenment and into the present. It focuses on the biblical themes of liberation and justice. Progressive Christianity is in some ways a response to conservative Christian neglect of biblical social ethics.
Progressive Christians seek to reintegrate the major biblical themes of social justice back into Christian belief and practice. Fundamentalists neglected the basic biblical mandate to live justly. They have blamed the poor, turned the foreigner and the refugee away, squashed the lowly and gave tax cuts to the rich. Many Evangelicals have, in Jesus’ words become children of the devil (Matthew 25:15).
What we need is a reunification of the Church around the central biblical themes of justice and charity. While some Progressive Christians are orthodox theologically but liberal politically, others entertain radical theologies. The most important thing is that we focus on doing God’s work in the world.
- John R. Donahue, Seek Justice that You may LIve: Reflections and Resources on the Bible and Social Justice (2014).
- Kirk R. Macgregor, Contemporary Theology: An Introduction (2019).
- Enrique Nardoni, Rise Up, O Judge: A Study of Justice in the Biblical World (2004).
- Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014)