Progressive Christianity in the Early Church and the Problem With ‘Creedal Orthodoxy’

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of ‘Progressive’ Christianity – in particular whether anything comparable to it (or to any of its tenets) can be found in the early Church. Before I consider the answer to this question, I think it would be worth briefly outlining some of the basic principles that underpin Progressive Christianity (I have used this term instead of ‘Liberal’ as, although the two are often synonymous, there can be and are aspects of orthodox teaching which are themselves inherently liberal – in the original sense of having a broad, inclusive vision and emphasising generosity of spirit – and so overlap with some of the professed concerns of Liberal Christians; the obvious example being a concern for the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged).

The particular interests, agendas and concerns of Progressive Christianity are many and subject to continual alteration from within, so it seems best to speak here of some fundamental tenets – principles which form the basis of the ‘Progressive’ ethos and which can thereby be compared to any currents of thought or activity within the early centuries of Christian history. Such principles are as follows:

  1. A prioritisation of human experience, often over and against doctrines previously held to be normative, coupled with a willingness to question and/or re-shape fundamental beliefs in the light of new experiences. In other words, a rejection of any ‘external’ forms of authority in the understanding and articulation of Christian thought and life.
  2. Similarly, a willingness to constantly examine and adjust basic standards of Christian morality according to new-found patterns of behaviour in contemporary society.
  3. More generally, a setting up of concepts previously held together in a complex but mutually enriching unity over and against one another, in the desire to give priority to immediate action and relevance (e.g.; truth vs. love; diversity vs. unity; social justice vs. dogma and doctrine).
  4. An affirmation of the good things available in other faiths sometimes to the point of undermining the distinctiveness of Christian teaching.

Whilst self-professed Progressive Christians may find fault with the way I have phrased the above principles (the particular emphases and examples given will no doubt have been shaped by my own prejudices), I hope that in essence I have done justice to what it is that characterises the movement, and that the list above will provide a fair and useful guide for sounding out whether or not something similar existed in the early Church. It is probably also worth noting here, before I do attempt any sort of assessment, that it is not likely to bother Progressive Christians much what my findings are, as it is of the very nature of this particular school of thought that Christianity must progress, and so leave a lot of things we had previously thought worthwhile behind.

Anyway, I have done a little bit of hunting around, and found that there were indeed some movements within the early Church that bear similarity to what I have outlined above. The problem is that all these movements were recognised by the Church at the time to be divergences from the ways of thinking about God and living out one’s faith in the world that were consonant with those truths revealed in Christ and that the Church was further guided into in her discernments (and arguments) by the Holy Spirit – that is, all the things I could find in the early Church that were similar to Progressive Christianity were heresies.

Now, as I said before, this will probably not bother Progressive Christians themselves as, according to their principles, what is yesterday’s heresy could well be today’s life-changing affirmation or means of engaging with the world. However, it is surely important to clear the ground a little and show the movement for what it is – that is, something which can only be said to have roots in orthodox Christianity to the extent that it shows what orthodoxy is not and why certain things (authority, doctrine, truth, consistency) have long been held to be, and still are, important for the Church.

As to the heresies in question, I came across quite a few that seemed significant, and shall try to describe them, with their parallels, as succinctly as possible. Firstly, we have Pelagianism – the idea that human nature remains essentially good and we are capable (though this doesn’t represent Pelagius’ own teaching wholly accurately) capable of gaining moral perfection through our own efforts – which is mirrored in the endemic utopianism one meets in the Progressive movement, as well as the affirmation that we are basically all ‘good people’. Sitting uneasily next to these ‘progressive’ ideas is the also commonly-held view that the freedom we have in Christ should be set against law – we should not only be freed from ‘outdated’ moral concepts, but an essential part of the Gospel is that all such restrictions should be put aside.

This is of course simply a newly minted version of Antinomianism, which itself has its early roots in the heresy of Nicolaitanism (c.f.; Revelation 2:6,15; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; Romans 6) – a heresy which, whilst it was perhaps not a concrete movement as such, described a tendency to see freedom from moral strictures (particularly sexual ones) as being a Christian imperative. Connected to this are the various heresies grouped together under the umbrella of Gnosticism, which also encouraged a libertine approach to morals, and which all had in common a worldview which rejected biblical models of creation and redemption, as well as apostolically rooted models of Church authority. The tendency of Progressive Christianity, in its desire to be inclusive, to absorb various New Age teaching into its folds, and its rejection of external authority, correlate well with Gnostic sympathies.

Also, one of the early Gnostics – Marcion – was known for promoting a dualism which set the God revealed in Christ against the God of the Old Testament, because he believed it impossible for God to be just and merciful, and saw the Old Testament images of God as too wrathful to be reconcilable with the compassionate God of Jesus Christ. This led to Marcion rejecting the Old Testament (and some parts of the New) as Scripture, effectively setting himself up as judge of what should be admitted into the canon, and is comparable with the Progressive rejection of biblical authority (based on certain passages that don’t fit their expectations and preconceptions of God) as well as their propensity for separating and opposing the divine attributes (justice vs. mercy, etc).

One also finds within the Progressive movement a wide variety of opinions as to who Jesus actually was and is, with Arianism and Adoptionism heresies that resurface with particular frequency – the common factor though, is a rejection of classical doctrinal formulations about the Incarnation which do justice to the subtle complexities of the data we have in the New Testament and Church Tradition. Such rejections are almost inevitably due to either an unwillingness to accept standard teaching, as it might not fit with contemporary thought and experiences, or a desire to reduce barriers to ecumenical dialogue with other religions. Again though, the only touchstones one finds for such moves within the early Church are amongst the heretics.

I stated earlier that many Progressive Christians will not really be that bothered by my conclusions (if, that is, they agree with them at all), but this will not always be the case. There are also a good many Christians who are committed to the principles I outlined at the outset, yet are also keen to affirm their commitment to some foundational tenets of orthodoxy – in particular, the creeds. However, this dedication to ‘creedal orthodoxy’, whilst admirable in that it shows a desire to maintain roots in Christianity’s heritage, has some problems of its own. As a recent Patheos article by David Mills states, apart from still allowing a great amount of leeway in moral matters, mere profession of belief in the ancient creeds actually guarantees very little:

Men (and women) who were essentially Arian or Adoptionist in their understanding of Jesus would call themselves “creedally orthodox” because it meant only believing that Jesus is central to the faith, even if they thought of him more as an example than as a living authority. They would say the Creed on Sundays because it is part of their church’s tradition and they read it as an old way, phrased in the theology of the time which we can now treat as metaphors, of saying “Jesus is really important.”

In fact, as far as I can tell from observation, the phrase “creedal orthodoxy” was invented or at least brought to prominence as a way of defending or rationalising a minimalist understanding of Christianity. It was used by people who thought all the moral teaching could be changed without problem as long as the person or body changing it was “creedally orthodox.” I heard it used this way not only about the approval of homosexuality but the approval of abortion. There were the core beliefs, given in the Creed, not to be doubted, and then everything else.

As Mills points out, the people who came up with or promoted the idea of ‘creedal orthodoxy’ were probably people who believed in the core beliefs laid out in the creeds. But as time went on, this minimalist vision could not hold water – a door had been opened which allowed for basic Christian teachings (moral ones in this case) to be questioned, and once the external authority in question had been subverted, the door remained open for other things to be questioned too. Making a formal subscription to the creeds thus just becomes a way for Progressive Christians to pay lip service to Tradition whilst not allowing its content to be normative or authoritative for them in any real way – they can be ‘creedally orthodox’ by saying the Creed on Sunday, even if they (as the saying goes) cross their fingers whilst saying it.

Basically, the whole of Progressive Christianity presents us with a formalised, corporate example of the slippery slope in action. By rejecting the established organs of authority in Christianity (be that Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium, or all three), prizing relevance and adaptability over and against continuity, integrity and love for the Truth, and by forsaking the difficult task of maintaining the various aspects of Christian teaching in creative tension with one another, the Progressive movement has not only made itself increasingly irrelevant (both to Christianity at large, and to the wider world, who sees it only as a slightly odd, ‘spiritualised’ version of itself) but has rendered itself less and less recognisable as being Christian at all.

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