In my recent studies of progressive Christian thinkers, many of which I have published on this blog, I keep running into a paradox in their ethical reasoning, specifically in their arguments for full acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities and lifestyles and their justifications of abortion and sexual activity outside of marriage. On the one hand, they argue like strict legalists, focusing on the precise meanings of words and sentences, and on the other hand they dismiss or reinterpret the Bible’s moral commands by means of general principles.
As examples of the legalist mentality, we saw the Dean of Yale Divinity School argue in effect that because the Bible does not say in many words, “You shall not kill your unborn baby,” we can assume that we are permitted to do so. See my July 7, 2022 essay “A Wizard Ought to Know Better.”
Also, Karen Keen*, Robert K. Gnuse*, David Caden*, and David P. Gushee* argue that the Bible permits loving, non-coercive, same-sex sexual relationships among equals.** A significant component of their argument contends that since the Bible never specifically condemns such relationships, the texts that mention same-sex sexual activity (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, and others) should not be used in moral arguments to condemn loving gay relationships. Freed from scriptural condemnations, we can look for other ways to justify same-sex sexual relationships as good and right—gathered from science, psychology, sociology, or evolutionary biology.
Progressive theologians fuss over words like clever lawyers looking for loopholes they can exploit. In my reading of their works, I do not get the impression that their fussiness about the letter of the law arises from a desire to obey God’s commands to the letter. Some other desire seems to be at work.
On the other hand, when explicit biblical instructions and the consensus of the 2000-year Christian tradition stands irrefutably against them, they abandon the “letter” for the “spirit” of the law. They appeal to general principles to overturn the specific moral teaching of the Bible and tradition. We should, they say, always do the loving thing, the just, merciful, compassionate thing. We should not cause harm. And if following the Bible’s and the tradition’s moral teaching does not seem loving and compassionate, we must reinterpret or reject it. In this way, progressive Christians set aside explicit biblical teaching and the consensus of the ecumenical church when it does not seem to them loving, just, merciful, compassionate…or progressive.
General Principles Are Not Enough
But a moment’s thought reveals that general principles alone cannot guide us in specific situations. How do the principles of justice, peace, mercy, and love, apart from specific commands and a tradition of examples, doctrine, and narratives, give us concrete guidance in particular situations? They cannot do so. What is justice? What does it mean to cause harm to someone? Is making them feel uncomfortable causing harm? How do I love my neighbor? What are compassion and mercy?
Every observer of modern culture knows that many of our contemporaries, having cut themselves loose from the biblical and ecclesiastical tradition, use these words as empty vessels into which to pour their own wishes, desires, and preferences. Do you love someone when you validate their desires and feelings, when you care only for their subjective sense of well-being? Or, does loving someone mean to will and seek the best for them? From where, then, do we learn what is good, better, and best for human beings? Progressive Christians clearly look to progressive culture for guidance.
But progressive Christianity is not the real thing. It is a fake. Taking up the real Christian life involves learning the true nature of love, justice, mercy, compassion, and all other virtues from the Bible’s commands, narratives, doctrines, and examples. It involves listening to the wisdom of the tradition and joining with the whole church in seeking to obey God’s will. We cannot do this if we claim the right to sit in judgment over every specific command in view of empty general principles.
*To read these reviews, copy and paste these names into the search box on the top right of this page.
**Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships
Robert K. Gnuse,“Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality” (Biblical Theology Bulletin 45. 2: 68-87).
David A. Kaden, Christianity in Blue
David P. Gushee, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity