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.