A New Christianity? A Post-Evangelical Progressive Vision (Part 1)

In the previous two posts I reviewed a book by a far-left representative of progressive Christianity, namely David A. Kaden, Christianity in Blue. Today I will begin a review of David P. Gushee, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2020; pp. 225). A Baptist, a “self-identified progressive evangelical” (p. 5) and a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University (Macon, Georgia), Gushee advocates a position much closer to traditional and biblical Christianity than does Kaden. As the book’s title proclaims, Gushee rejects evangelicalism and proposes a “New Christianity,” which he calls “post-evangelicalism.” This “new Christianity” is animated by a spirit of “Christian humanism.”

The book divides into three parts and nine chapters. Part one deals with the question of the sources of authority for theology and ethics. Part two deals with three central theological topics, God, Jesus, and the church. Part three explores the topic of ethics. I will briefly summarize each chapter and for the most part save my critical assessment until we have the entire argument before us.

Part One: Authorities: Listening and Learning

1. Evangelicalism: Cutting Loose from an Invented Community

According to Gushee, modern evangelicalism “was invented through a historical retrieval and rebranding move undertaken by an ambitious group of reformers within the US Protestant fundamentalist community of the 1940s” (p. 15). Evangelicalism, according to Gushee, “was never more than fundamentalism with lipstick on” (p. 27). From the beginning, the evangelical movement set its sights on recapturing American culture from political and theological progressives. By the 1970s, an “identity fusion” (p. 24) between white evangelicals and the Republican Party had been accomplished. However for a minority of moderate to left-leaning evangelicals, the overwhelming support of evangelicals (81%) for Donald Trump in the 2016 election “became a bridge too far” (p. 25). The evangelicalism of today is white, Republican, fundamentalist, sexist, homophobic, and racist. Evangelicalism revealed its true colors in 2016 and thus provoked a “massive exodus” (p. 28) that continues today.

2. Scripture: From Inerrancy to the Church’s Book

According to Gushee, evangelicalism’s union with right-wing politics is not the only thing driving the mass exodus. Its fundamentalist view of the Bible as “inerrant” creates huge intellectual, theological, and ethical problems for many people. Leaving aside the history and detailed description of the doctrine of inerrancy, the bottom line is that evangelicals accept the Bible as the Word of God, true in everything it asserts in matters of faith and morality. Gushee raises six objections to the evangelical/fundamentalist view of the Bible. (1) The Bible is obviously a human product, and “any human product is subject to human limits and various kinds of error” (p. 31). But Gushee does not for this reason reject the Bible as of no use to the church. In place of the doctrine of inerrancy, he proposes a theory of “limited inspiration” wherein “some scriptural texts consistently demonstrate that they are inspired by God because they prove so useful in Christian experience for drawing people to Jesus and his way” (p. 32; emphasis original). These “inspired” texts serve as a “canon within a canon” (p. 33). Jesus’s teaching that we are to love God and our neighbor serves as the criterion for what is canonical. (2) The Bible is a collection of ancient documents, written in three different languages and set in cultures vastly different from ours. Our attempts to interpret the Bible are beset by many exegetical obscurities and translation problems. Understanding the Bible is not as simple as “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” (p. 35). (3) The “Bible does not interpret itself” (p. 35). Human beings do the interpreting. Because human interpreters are “flawed, limited, and self-interested,” a post-evangelical approach “will emphasize a communal process of interpreting Scripture, which occurs in an ongoing conversation between individual Christians, clergy, scholars, and the historic church, with the help of God’s Spirit” (pp. 36-37).

(4) The Bible is the church’s book. These texts became “sacred” to the church “because they were believed to bear witness to Jesus and to help people find salvation through him” (p. 37; emphasis original). Gushee proposes an alternative way to understand the Bible as sacred Scripture to replace inerrancy: “That way is to recognize that the Bible is and always has been the church’s book” (p. 38). What does it mean to read the Bible as “the church’s book”? The next point sheds some light on this question. (5) According to Gushee, Christians can learn much from the Jewish way of reading the Bible. At least some Jews read the Hebrew Bible as “a dialogue between God and God’s people” (p. 39) rather than a one-way communication. Christians have a responsibility, claims Gushee, “to read texts in ways that bless rather than harm human beings” (p. 40). Gushee quotes Elie Wiesel with approval: “If even the most authoritative teaching, the most sacred text, leads to dehumanization, to humiliation, to harm, then we must reject it” (p. 40).

(6) Finally, the doctrines of the inerrancy and all-sufficiency of Scripture distracts us from seeking God’s voice in other places: “These include tradition, science, reason, experience, intuition, community, and relationships” (p. 41). Gushee continues: “The power of a narrow evangelical biblicism must be broken, but you can’t replace something with nothing. We need to open ourselves to other ways of discerning truth” (p. 41).

3. Resources: Hearing God’s Voice Beyond Scripture

It seems to be a defining characteristic of “progressive” Christianity of whatever stripe that it seeks insight into God’s character and will from sources in addition to Scripture. Moreover, progressives are willing to judge and correct Scripture’s teachings about God and morality in view of these other sources. In this chapter Gushee outlines “a new approach to listening for God’s voice and discerning God’s will” in sources other than the Bible (p. 45). He proposes three sources in addition to Scripture to which we should listen for guidance. (1) The first is internal to the church, its tradition, and communal life. Gushee does not advocate treating tradition as an authority to which we must submit our own judgment. He recommends that post-evangelicals “not bow before tradition, or dismiss it with a sneer, but to understand its shaping role in creating Christianity as we know it” (p. 50). That is to say, post-evangelicals need to develop a historical awareness of the forces determining their doctrinal and moral biases and the biases of others. Only then will they be able to listen seriously to the second and third sources. (2) The second set of supplementary sources for discerning God’s will are “reason, experience, intuition, relationships, and community” (p. 51), all of which are located and grounded in natural human capacities. Reason detects and rejects logical and factual contradictions even if those contradictions are found in the Bible. Gushee gives as an example the contradiction between the biblical assertions that God is love and the biblical command to the invading Israelites to wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan. Experience also teaches what is good and bad, healthy and harmful, humanizing and dehumanizing, and what God’s will is and what is not. According to Gushee, the experience of LGBTQ+ people is a source of knowledge of God’s will and must not be denied on the basis of Bible texts and their traditional interpretation. (3) The arts and sciences can also serve as sources for hearing God’s voice. Post-evangelicals must take the conclusions of the sciences with respect to climate change, homosexuality, and other areas of scientific discovery seriously.

The Progressive View of Authority: A Preliminary Assessment

As will become even more obvious in the next chapters, the views that set progressive Christianity apart from traditional/biblical Christianity cannot be derived from the Bible. From where, then, do they come? In part one, Gushee makes it clear that progressive Christianity looks to reason and experience to justify its proposed changes to biblical/traditional Christianity. Hence the church’s traditional teaching that the Bible alone is the ultimate norm of Christian faith and morals must be rejected. To defend their progressive views, progressives reinterpret,* correct, reject, or even condemn the teaching of Scripture. God’s “voice” in personal experience, political movements, culture, and psychology in certain cases trumps Scripture. Apparently the “progress” of progressive Christianity depends on a constant flow of new divine revelations. It should not escape notice that these new revelations track almost perfectly, albeit a few months behind, with advances in secular culture and politics.

*To interpret means to explain an obscure text in other words and concepts clearer to the listener. The goal of interpretation is to unite the mind of the listener with the original meaning of the text along with its full implications and applications. To reinterpret usually means not merely to challenge older, established interpretations but to read an alien meaning into the text with as much plausibility as one can create. It is to hijack the accrued authority of a text and place it in service of a meaning more acceptable to the interpreter. Many reinterpretations involve distortion, deception, and downright lies.

Next Time: We will examine part two, “Theology: Believing and Belonging” wherein Gushee proposes progressive views of Jesus, God, and the Church.

4 thoughts on “A New Christianity? A Post-Evangelical Progressive Vision (Part 1)

  1. Charles A Hanson

    I see no Holy Spirit in the writing no revelation in reading it. If there is no Spirit, I find no life. Progressive Christianity is one who follows the Anointed One. The Anointed One is the Holy Spirit living in your heart when baptized.


  2. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Ron
    Thank you for your precis and comments so far upon Dr DP Gushee’s very different book.
    I’d like to return to your closing comments, of your immediately previous essay now that you are with this book.
    Having said “no orthodoxy…in such bloodless and adaptable religion” must have truck a chord with one or two, surely?! It did with me…
    The problem is that the very orthodoxies of the four ‘branches’ of christianity don’t in anyways agree; they can’t ALL be right? Can they? Eastern Orthodox (Russian various), Protestant (Anglican various), Roman Catholic ( Holy, various), and Western Orthodox (US various).
    In fact, without going into some detail ( which i am prepared to do viz: Trinity, Jesus, HS, God, creeds, sacraments, baptism, soteriology, epistemology, ontology, power base, herecies etc), the only thing that they all have in common, is that their brand is only right and correct, and that their church’s power base is unquestionable. Exclusive, club-like.
    If the needfulness of “developing a historical awareness” is significant, as we both say, then this history of orthodoxy itself is both pivotal and ancient. This enormous history can be very confusing.
    But if we’re going to split meanings between “interpretation and reinterpretation” ( but rightly so in my view too), then let us be absolutely clear– “distortion, deception and lies” belong in the top-down power bases of these different orthodoxies and their dissemblances. As they each seek to control their following; most have also seen to it, than when public opinion wains and their churches are empty, that they have their own holy core of devout monasteries to insure their existence; certain politicians use exactly the same brainwashing techniques with their minions.
    It’s right to look at one example. The NT mentions Jesus as our “great high priest” modestly of course, and Paul tries to explain that Jesus is himself the metaphysical church in body and mind, and that we unite in adoption into Christ. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to continue His work on earth etc etc.
    Well, there is one church listed above whose “Power Based” church finds it necessary to appoint it’s own supreme leader, a pontifex maximus and to have it’s own unique control over the exclusive work of the holy spirit on earth? Go figure.
    No wonder studying various orthodoxies is a painful process. I’m not going to mention the Anglican Church again and it’s control of ‘language’ – it is by no means alone in it’s historical attrocities in the name of God.
    If we look at orthodoxy, and reinterpretation then we are “not far from the Kingdom of Heaven” as Jesus himself says; but as is implied, and often unknown to students, this biblical text means ‘you can be standing next to your answer, and yet be a million miles from understanding it’.
    We have to understand, that although our beloved bible is a Holy Text. The selection of the OT septuagint is exactly that; a selecton of jewish texts. The NT is our new covenant, it is this text, in the mind of Christ Jesus that we aspire to ” Set as a seal, upon our Heart”. For a more through explanation…. see Old Testament…. { chuckle }.
    Thank you for your brilliant commentary so far Ron. And i look forward to your appraisal of popular opinion, that as this author may or may not show ” we must follow Jesus out of evangelical christianity”.


  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    There is indeed plenty of room to criticize the historical forms of the church. In this essay I am for the most part criticizing progressive Christianity for departing from the apostolic teaching as it is set out in the New Testament. Gushee can point out many genuine problems with traditional Christianity and raise many difficulties in interpreting Scripture…but in my understanding these legitimate questions do not justify replacing the apostolic tradition with modern social/political progressive views. I refuse to get lost in a forest of questions and miss what is right in front of my eyes. That orthodoxy has its problems does not imply that progressive Christianity’s problems should be overlooked.


  4. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    My point entirely. Ron.
    Are they one and the same for progressivism, or mutually exclusive, as we are endoctrinated to believe?
    The jews were noted to have said, when faced with Jesus’ preaching, ” What are we to believe? Doubting the pharisees.”



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