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Published on 05/27/2024
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How Progressive Christianity Misses Out on the Real God

In this excerpt from our Reality Student Apologetics Conference, Alisa Childers challenges us to ask whether we agree with Jesus or instead choose to make ourselves our own authority.


In the realm of biblical authority, “authoritative” means that we’re compelled as Christians to obey the Bible. We live our life by this book, but in Progressive Christianity, key pieces of the Bible are questioned and essentially rejected.

We’ll go back to one of the founders of the Emergent movement, Brian McLaren, to a statement he made about the Bible in his book A New Kind of Christianity. Here’s what he says: “Human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment.”

Let’s unpack what he’s saying here. When you and I read the Old Testament—Christians historically have always read the Old Testament, and a prophet is speaking for God. We believe what the Word says, that he’s actually speaking for God. So, when God tells Israel to bring animals for the sacrificial system, we believe that God really said that because that’s what the text says he said. But in Progressive Christianity, they’re going to say, “No, no, no, no, no. That was just their best attempt to understand God. They didn’t necessarily get God right. They might have gotten that wrong, so, we don’t really have to live our lives by that, or we don’t have to think that God would really do that.”

In Progressive Christianity, they’re going to look at Scriptures more like fossils. You can dust the fossil off. You can analyze what that person believed. But that doesn’t really have a meaningful application to your own life as far as that actually being something that God said.

We’ll go to Richard Rohr, now. Richard Rohr is a really influential person in the progressive movement. Now, he’s a bit unique in that he’s actually a Catholic Franciscan friar, and he has some very interesting views of the Bible that, honestly, most Catholics would reject. And he’s not in good standing with most orthodox Catholics. So, he says this about the Bible: “The Jewish Scriptures”—meaning the Old Testament—”which are full of anecdotes of destiny, failure, sin, and grace offer almost no self-evident philosophical or theological conclusions that are always true. We even have four, often conflicting versions of the life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is no one, clear theology of God, Jesus, or history presented, despite our attempt to pretend that there is.”

Take a note of what he’s actually saying here. He’s saying the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is not telling the same story. It doesn’t agree with itself. It’s not internally coherent as Christians have historically believed. There are contradictions all over the place. This leads him to what he calls his Jesus hermeneutic. He says, you know what? You can reject the Scriptures. You can deny the Scriptures. You can ignore the Scriptures whenever they come off as punitive. Meaning, if there’s a version of God that’s going to punish sin or do anything that has punishment, you can just throw that out because Richard Rohr doesn’t think God would be that way. If you look at the way they look at the Bible, he has permission to do that.

In Rachel Held Evans’s book Inspired, she wrote this about the Bible: “What business do I have describing as ‘inerrant’“—meaning without error and infallible, meaning it will never fail you—”a text that presumes a flat and stationary earth, takes slavery for granted, and presupposes patriarchal norms like polygamy.”

Now, let’s camp here for a second, because I’m an apologist, so I want to go at this so bad. I just want to spend an hour going after everything she’s saying here, but I just want you to look at the big picture of what she’s doing here. She’s presupposing or just assuming some things about the Bible as if the Bible presumes a flat and stationary earth. So, in other words, she’s saying the Bible gets science wrong. It promotes slavery, which, again, as an apologist, I would absolutely reject. The Bible does not promote slavery. In fact, it was the Bible that some of the abolitionists used to justify their position to try to get slavery abolished in England. This was William Wilberforce’s main impetus behind fighting so hard to end slavery in the UK. And I think he’s right. I think the Bible opposes the kind of slavery that we understand slavery to be. And then Evans says the Bible presupposes patriarchal norms like polygamy. Well, it actually doesn’t do that. The Bible records a lot of history, and it records the good, the bad, and the ugly. It doesn’t promote everything it records. So, we do have examples of people engaging in polygamy, but then you can look at what happens, and their lives fall apart.

So, the Bible doesn’t do those things, but Evans says that it does, as if everybody knows this, and so, therefore, what business do I have thinking that the Bible is without error? That it’s inspired by God or that it’s his Word?

Evans’s mentor is a scholar named Pete Enns, and he wrote it possibly the most succinctly in his book The Bible Tells Me So. He wrote, “The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.” He’s kind of summing up this progressive view that God isn’t violent. He would never do something that would punish anyone for anything. That’s just what they thought he was, but it’s not how he really is. But I want you guys to think about something. How does Pete Enns know what God’s really like? Where would he be getting his information to say the Bible got it wrong, but I know how God is? It’s just something to think about. Where is he getting his information for that? Well, obviously, if you don’t think the Bible is God’s word—if you don’t think God inspired these people to write Scripture, you’re certainly not going to think that it’s authoritative for your life now.

We’ll go back to Rachel Held Evans for this. In her book Inspired, she talked about origin stories. So, there’s a chapter in her book called “Origin Stories,” and she talks about this person. All of the experiences they had shaped them and formed them into the person that they are, and we all have an origin story. Then Evans brings the context into the biblical origin story in Genesis about creation and Adam and Eve and the Fall, and all of that’s wrapped up in that story. She says this spiritual maturation—meaning becoming spiritually mature—”requires untangling these stories, sorting fact from fiction (or, more precisely, truth from untruth), and embracing those stories that move us toward wholeness while rejecting or reinterpreting those that do harm.”

I want to camp here for a second. So, she’s saying, in order for you to be spiritually mature, you have to be able to read the Bible and figure out what parts are true, what parts are false, what parts are fact, what parts are just myth or fiction, and then, she says, embrace the stories that move you toward wholeness and reject or reinterpret those that do harm.

I want you guys to think about something. I have little kids, and my son has a bit of a learning delay, so it’s hard for him to understand certain concepts, but he got a cavity in his back molar, and as his mom, I knew that I had to take him to the dentist. It’s probably going to cause some moments of pain and discomfort, but as his mom, I know so much more than he does, and he may not understand, sitting in that chair, why he’s being harmed. I’m sure, in the moment, he didn’t really think that experience was moving him toward wholeness, but I’m his mom, and I know that it’s necessary—that a few moments of pain are necessary to avoid a much deeper and much greater problem that would cause him so much more suffering and so much more pain as that cavity could decay into the bone, causing all manner of physical health problems. But he doesn’t know that, because he doesn’t have all the information, and that’s kind of how it is in the Bible. There are things about God that you’re going to struggle with when you read. There are going to be things about the way he does things that you’re, maybe, going to just, kind of, wince at and go, “I don’t know if I agree with that.” Well, good. If you have a God that agrees with everything you would do, you’re just worshiping yourself. God is going to contradict you at times, but guess what? He’s like that parent. He knows a lot more than we know. So, if we do what Evans is suggesting, and we reinterpret stories that we think are doing us harm or aren’t really giving us our best life now, we’re going to miss out on the real God.

Now, I just want to ask you guys, as we’re talking about biblical authority and you’ve kind of heard from some of these progressive writers and particularly this quote from Rachel Held Evans, if the Bible is not her authority for what’s good and true and fact and fiction and all that, what has she made her authority? Yeah. Herself. Bingo. Gold star. Good job. That’s right. She’s made her own thoughts and feelings and preferences her authority for what is good and true and real. The problem with that, though, is that the Bible tells us that our hearts are deceitfully wicked. We have this fallen nature that doesn’t always tell us the truth about who we are or who God is. In the progressive church, you’ll hear this a lot—this reference to personal conscience. In fact, it’s even in some of their belief statements, like, “We want to respect your personal conscience of what you think is right and wrong and good and bad.”

When it comes to the Bible, here’s the main point I want you guys to take away today. With all of three of these things—with the Bible, the cross, and the gospel—so, we’re Jesus followers, right? If you’re going to call yourself a Jesus follower, what you think about the Bible should probably agree with what Jesus thought about the Bible. Would you agree? Now, if you’re going to say, “I don’t think that’s right,” then I think you need to be intellectually honest and say, “I disagree with Jesus, so, I’m not going to call myself a Christian.” And you know what? You have every right to do that. Every person, every one of you guys, should be thinking this stuff through for yourself and decide: Do you agree with Jesus or do you not? And that’s what I want to challenge you to do today.

Let’s look to Jesus. What did Jesus think the Bible? Well, I’m going to argue and hope to convince you that Jesus believed the Bible is God’s Word, that it’s inspired by God, and that it’s authoritative for our lives. Now, Jesus was referring to the Old Testament, of course. The New Testament hadn’t been written yet when he walked on earth, but just so you know, the Old Testament he had is the exact same thing we have today. The Jewish Scriptures were in a bit of a different order, but it’s all the same books and all the same words. So, there was a scene where Jesus referenced three different Old Testament books. He talked about a couple of commands that we find in Exodus, we find them in Leviticus, and we find them in Deuteronomy. And guess how he presented these commands that we find? He didn’t say, “Moses said,” or, “Your holy scribe said.” He said, “For God said.” He quotes three Old Testament books, and he says, “For God said to you.” In Matthew 22:31, he quotes Exodus, and what does he say again? He doesn’t just say, “Well, Moses said....” “Some guy who was trying to figure God out said....” He said, “Have you not read what God said to you?” So, it’s very clear that Jesus, when he referred to the Old Testament, he called it the Word of God over and over and over again. It’s clear to me that Jesus believed that those Old Testament prophets, when they said, “God said,” they meant God said.

Many of you would be familiar with the scene in Matthew 4 when Jesus is famously being tempted in the wilderness. It’s a famous story. The devil comes to him and tries to tempt Jesus to sin, and guess what? How does Jesus fight temptation? “It is written.” Jesus appeals to the authority of the Scriptures to fight the temptation the devil is bringing him in the wilderness. Think about that, you guys. Jesus is God incarnate. He is God. He could have called down a legion of angels and sent the devil flying across the desert in a big dramatic scene. He could have, but he didn’t do that. He appealed to the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. In fact, all three times that the devil came to tempt him, he said, “It is written.” “It is written.” “It is written.” Want to know an interesting little fact about that? The devil quotes Scripture back to Jesus, and he actually quotes it correctly, but he takes it out of context, and he twists the interpretation, and Jesus didn’t get into a lengthy debate about interpretations. He came back with, “It is also written,” and he uses Scripture to fight temptation.