"I've got bad news and good news."
I'll never forget sitting in the dentist's office awaiting "the news." For the record, I am an utter wimp when it comes to my teeth. Sure, I gave birth to two babies with nothing more than a stick to bite on, but threaten me with a dental drill and I'm out the door faster than you can say, "laughing gas"— if I don't pass out first. Just hearing the phrase "dental pulp" makes me want to crawl under a rock the size of Wisconsin.
"The bad news? You need a root canal. The good news? We can sedate you so you won't feel a thing. "
Sedation. The good news—the transcendent glory of this invention of modern medicine would be lost on me if I didn't first understand the bad news—that I needed a root canal. But once I knew "dental pulp" would be involved, sedation suddenly became the best. News. Ever.
It's the same with the gospel, isn't it? It's a case of bad news and good news. In fact, the word gospel literally means “good news.” But if we don't understand what’s wrong with the world (the bad news), we won’t understand the beauty of how things will be made right again (the good news).
Greg Koukl describes four things every worldview must explain: Creation (How things got started), Fall (How things got broken), Redemption (How things will get fixed), and Restoration (How things will look once they are fixed.) In my last post, I explained that many Progressives disagree with the historic Christian answers to these questions and have an entirely different understanding of the gospel.
In this post, we’ll zoom in for a closer look at how progressive Christianity differs from historic Christianity when it comes to Creation and Fall. In my next post, we’ll talk about Redemption and Restoration.
God created the world and called it "good." This is something most historic and progressive Christians can agree on. High five. But before we get too excited, we must realize this is about all we have in common. (Cue Debbie Downer.)
Historically, Christians have believed that God created the universe out of nothing (ex-nihilo). This means He is entirely distinct from and independent of His creation. The Bible teaches that God is also omnipresent—everywhere at the same time. He is present everywhere because He isn't contained by any particular object or location. In other words, He is not a part of this fallen world, but remains active and present in it.
Many Progressives adopt a view of creation called panentheism. This is not to be confused with a more prominent belief in Eastern religions and the New Age called pantheism.
Pantheism teaches that God is all. (Think Mother Earth, the Force in Star Wars, and the movie Avatar.)
Panentheism teaches that God is in all and all is in God—but that God also goes beyond the universe. According to this view, God inhabits the universe much like a soul indwells a body. Panentheism denies that God created the universe ex-nihilo and sees the world as part of God that is constantly in process and changing. Philosophers Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli noted that in panentheism, God “cannot concretely exist except as vitalizing the world, nor can the world exist except as vitalized by God. Each needs the other.” (1)
Progressive leaders like Rob Bell hint at this by comparing the Spirit of God to a "life force," and "creative energy," and "unending divine vitality." (2) Franciscan Friar and Progressive favorite Richard Rohr affirms it openly. He teaches that we should recognize Jesus' presence in all things, including in other people and the elements of the earth. He refers to the universe as the "body of God." He writes:
Not only does Rohr candidly admit his panentheism, but he rightly points out that it was never seriously taught in the Western church.
In their comprehensive survey of Progressive Christianity, Progressive authors David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy esteem panentheism as a good and "sacramental embrace of creation." (3)
Clearing the mud
Some see panentheism as an attempt to find middle ground between the classic view of God and pantheism. But is it biblical?
The Bible teaches that God created the world out of nothing, is distinct from it, and unchanging. Panentheism sees (at least a part of) God as being in a process of change and not entirely distinct from His creation. It denies that God created the universe out of nothing, which makes Him, essentially, interdependent with it.
Panentheism also finds parallels in an ancient heresy called gnosticism. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying:
Bottom line: What the Bible teaches about God's interaction with creation is totally unique among other religions. We can all agree that God made the world and called it good, but Progressive Christians tend to view creation through the lens of panentheism which contradicts historic Christianity.
After God created the world and called it good, something went terribly wrong. This next part is all about the bad news.
Sin entered the world when Adam and Eve made that fateful choice to disobey God in Eden. As our first parents, they passed that inclination to sin on to us. You and me? We’re sinners by nature. If you don't believe me, just observe any two-year-old for more than five minutes.
Have you ever wondered why you have to teach kids to tell the truth, but they seem to be experts at lying from the second they can talk? How you have to constantly nag them to share their toys, but somehow they pop out of the womb ready to give a master class in manipulation? In theological circles, this is called the doctrine of Original Sin.
Typically, Progressive Christians reject the doctrine of Original Sin. In his book, A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren concludes that whenever we talk about "the Fall," and "Original Sin," we're smuggling foreign ideas and philosophies into the biblical narrative. (4) He views this as part of the "Greco Roman six-line narrative" I wrote about in my last post.
McLaren questions whether doctrines like Original Sin lead us to "a higher vision of God, a deeper engagement with Christ, a more profound experience of the Holy Spirit." (5)
Progressive authors David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy acknowledge human brokenness. But they reject the doctrine of Original Sin in favor of an idea called Original Blessing. They write:
Clearing the mud
We don't even need to open a Bible to know this isn't true, do we? Is humanity moving along a moral arc to greater perfection, maturity, and responsibility? Watch the news or check your Twitter feed and decide for yourself. No, this answer is not sufficient. It doesn't give a satisfying explanation of why the world is so messed up.
Original Sin is taught in Scripture, and Christians have agreed on it for the bulk of church history. The Eastern and Western churches have slight differences in how they explain it, but they both believe that everyone is a sinner and has a sin nature. This is essential to Christianity.
Bottom line: Original Sin explains what's broken. Progressive Christianity rejects this understanding but offers no satisfying explanation of its own.
Now that we've looked at the historic vs. progressive views of how things got started and how they got broken, we'll tackle how things will get fixed and how they'll look once they are fixed. Redemption and Restoration coming up in my next post...
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(1) Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, (Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2013) p. 106
(2) David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, (Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2012) Kindle location: 2232
(3) Brian McLaren, A new Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That are Transforming the Faith, (Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2010) p. 43
(4) Ibid., p. 35
(5) David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, (Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2012) Kindle location: 1839-1840