This has been an exciting couple of weeks for evangelicals. Well, at least the term evangelical. Kurt Willems started it all with a post about being an evangelical “reject” and a guest posted about C.S. Lewis being one.
I responded by putting forward a progressive re-interpretation of the classical definition with my Nine Nations formulation.
Then, this week Roger Olson (from Podcast episode 96) had a guest post-er Brandon who was a little confused about his experience at the Wild Goose Festival. He asked some questions about the Emerging Church that Tony Jones responded to … which led to Dr. Jones (Podcast episode 105 ) to suggest that we abandon the term ‘evangelical’ to the conservatives and go a different direction.
The hitch seems to be that both Brandon and Tony (as well as Roger) have real concern / apprehension about the distinction between Liberal and Progressive.
The problem seems to come when people fail to make a distinction between Progressive and Liberal – even equating them.
Dr. Jones says :
The problem with both “liberal” and “progressive” is that they are not inherently theological categories. They are sociological and political. “Evangelical,” on the other hand, is inherently theological.
As odd as this seems – I actually disagree with Jones on all three points. Liberal and Progressive are both thoroughly theological terms and everyone from Carol Howard-Merritt to Austin Roberts has been trying to tell me that Evangelical is a sociological distinction and not inherently theological. ( I still hold out hope)
In Podcast episode 101 John Cobb makes an important distinction by explaining it this way:
- Liberal simply means that one recognizes human experience as valid location for the theological process.
- Progressive means that one takes seriously the critique provided by feminist, liberation, and post-colonial criticisms.
I know that when many people think of Liberals they think of a caricature of Marcus Borg and have him saying something about the laws of nature and how no one can walk on water or be conceived in a Virgin so we know those are literary devices that need not be defended literally. It is someone stuck in the Enlightenment who puts more faith in physics than in the Bible.
Similarly, I often hear a flippant dismissal by those who don’t get the Progressive concern so resort to the cliche that “progressive is just a word non-conservative evangelicals who don’t like the word ‘liberal’ hide behind as camouflage.”
Both are woefully cartoonish.
Tony Jones, on the other hand is addressing a real concern. So if he wants to say “Those of us who are not conservative need a new label.” That is fine and I would probably even join team TJ – whatever it says on our uniform.
Just don’t say that Liberal and Progressive are not theological. They are inherently so and the distinction between the two is worth the effort. They, along with the term ‘Evangelical”, come with a historical framework, a theological tradition and a social application. They are not interchangeable nor are they disposable. They come from some where and the represent a group of some ones.
I think that they are worth clarifying, understanding, and maybe even fighting for – and over. They matter.