Conservatively Progressive, Radically Traditional and Liberally Creedal

The "dancing saints" icon at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is a great visual example of Creedal theology combined with a radical social vision.

This week Ross Douthat at the NY Times wrote an article asking whether Liberal Christianity can be saved. His article basically tied radical social decisions (such as ordination of transgender persons and blessings of gay and lesbian unions) to doctrinal sellout (such as liberals supposedly being syncretist at worst, and bland at best). And he then tied doctrinal sellout with numerical decline, in such a way that numerical decline is the primary indicator of whether a church body is being unfaithful to Jesus Christ by accommodating to culture (while, conversely, numerical increase is the primary indicator of faithfulness).

This is the basic thesis of his book "Nation of Heretics", which in turn is basically a simplified version of the "Radical Orthodoxy" viewpoint, described in sociological terms, for the non-theological American layperson. His primary application of this thesis is, of course, the Episcopal Church. Due to our dismal decline over the last 40 years, and especially the last decade, we are a pretty easy target for such criticism.

His Op Ed garnered lots of positive reactions of the "See! We told ya so!" variety from predictable conservative corners. From more "liberal" or "progressive" corners, he was also predictably scolded. Mark Silk pointed out that "conservative" American church bodies, such as Southern Baptists and caucasian Roman Catholics, are declining almost as spectacularly as the Episcopal Church. Diana Butler Bass piled on by noting how many progressive church bodies are showing signs of vitality in non-numeric ways (and a few even in numeric ways). And Daniel Burke simply pointed out the bad journalism in many of Douthat's exaggerated points.

Although there is a great deal of truth in Douthat's critics, there is also a some truth in Douthat's thesis as well. I think many progressive church bodies- including the TEC- have been guilty of advocating radical social stances without doing adequate theology to undergird such actions. Thus, Episcopalians find ourselves in the rather curious predicament of boldly proclaiming the radical liberation and inclusion of Jesus Christ, while being notoriously hesitant and afraid to proclaim the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Douthat was right for pointing out that Episcopal bishop Shelby Spong is great example of this travesty: A church leader who is bold to proclaim liberation even as he strips away any distinctive theological or historical claims about the Liberator.

It is axiomatic for most thoughtful Christians, including Douthat, and his supporters, and even his critics, to assume that radical social policy MUST be connected with revisionist, quasi-deist theology. Conversely, we tend to assume that conservative social policy MUST be connected with traditional, creedal theology. In fact, this correlation is often said to imply causality: Revisionist, quasi-deist theology logically causes and entails radical social commitments. Traditional, creedal theology logically causes and entails conservative social commitments.

And of course, for Douthat, his supporters, and even his critics, there is a single over-riding criteria to determine who is right and who is wrong. The "proof in the pudding", which declares truth or falsehood, faithfulness or unfaithfulness, is numerical success. Whichever side gets more butts-in-pews (or at least more people who claim on surveys that their butts are in the pews) wins. Numerical success (and along with it financial and even political success) is what ultimately declares our faithfulness and "makes our election sure". Conversely, numerical decline and failure indicates that a church body is unfaithful to Christ.

I would like to call into question both of these assumptions.

First, does radical social policy HAVE to be connected to revisionist theology? Does it have to be connected with fundamentally revisionist Biblical studies? Sure, there is a clear correlation throughout history between these two positions. Lots of people who have held one have held the other. Just look at "theologians" like Bishop Spong or Biblical scholars like John Dominic Crossan. They hold radical social positions and then consciously ground those positions in revisionist Biblical and theological positions. It seems, prima facie, an open and shut case, right?

Not so quickly. There is a major Christian tradition that predates the Liberal/Conservative divide in Protestant theology that is both socially radical as well as being traditional in theology (and by theology here I am speaking of the nature of God as Trinity, and that the second person of the Trinity was incarnate in the human life of Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again). This Christian tradition is the "Anabaptist" tradition, of which notable American heirs are the Mennonites and Amish.

This branch of Christianity has traditionally advocated social radicalism in the form of pacifism, social justice ministry, and even collective ownership of goods. These are some of the same positions advocated by postmodern "radicals" like Spong and Crossan, with the exception that Anabaptists passionately link their radicalism with very traditional Incarnational and Trinitarian theology. In fact, Anabaptists would claim that they are socially radical BECAUSE they adhere to a strict reading of Scripture and a radical commitment to DO what the Lord of the Scriptures says to do.

While I do not agree with the Anabaptist tradition on everything, notably regarding the Christian sacramental life, I think they show us that radical social policy and creedal theology can be linked together. In fact, there can be a causal relation between the two. Perhaps we may even say that Creedal, Trinitarian, Incarnational Theology can provide the best possible undergirding for radical social justice and inclusion. This undergirding can be much stronger than the support provided by revisionist, quasi-deist theology.

For instance, the Bible, when read seriously and strictly, has significant portions that advocate radical social positions such as pacifism (cf. Mat 5.39, 5.44, 26.52; Rom 12.17-21), release of debt and help for the poor (cf. Deu 15; Lev 25), common ownership of goods (cf. Acts 2, 4), abolition of slavery (cf. Philemon, 1Ti 1.10), and inclusion of all types of people, regardless of cultural background, gender, marriage, celibacy, or sexual "otherness" (cf. Isa 56; Gal 3.26-29; Mat 19; Acts 8.27-39; Rom 16). And even though there are Scriptures often used to "counter" or "negate" these positions, one could faithfully argue, on the basis of a very conservative view of the Divine inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, that there is an overall trajectory in Scripture that leads to such radical positions.

In fact it might be that this "radical" trajectory is inspired by God in such a way that it subsumes and transforms less radical Scriptures, because "less radical" Scriptures represent a divine accommodation to ancient culture, whereas the "more radical" Scriptures more fully represent God's vision. This could be argued on the basis of the Incarnation: God's word is present in a preparatory, incomplete way prior to Jesus Christ. But when Christ comes, he is the full embodiment of God's Word which the earlier words pointed to. So also, the radical trajectory of the Bible is hinted at haltingly in less radical Scriptures, but they subtlety point us to the more radical Scriptures as their fulfillment.

Or, let's take the two most definitive Christian affirmations of God's nature and activity: That God is an eternal Trinity of Persons, and that one of those Divine persons became historically incarnate in the human Jesus. The Trinity declares that God is, in essence, a loving community of three distinct Persons, in which they eternally receive each other's "otherness" in full inclusion, with full inter-sharing of all they are with one another. What could be a more full-bodied basis upon which to build a radical theology of full inclusion of human otherness? What could be a better foundation for insisting on distributive justice, in which all of God's children, made in the image of the Triune God, are provided with all they need for health and life, as we share God's creation with each other?

Likewise, in the Incarnation God took upon himself not only the consequences of human sin, but the fullness of human nature as well. God included all of human life in Godself when God became human in Jesus. And God completed this union when Jesus took human nature into the Divine life of the Trinity in his ascension. It was this God incarnate who preached such radical messages as what we read in the Sermon on the Mount. It was this God incarnate who lived out the inclusion and justice he embodied by actually sharing fellowship with saints and sinners, wives and whores, sick and healthy, poor and rich, outcasts and insiders. It was this God incarnate who proclaimed that whenever we receive and help the last, lost, and least among us, we are in fact receiving and helping him (cf. Mat 25.31-46). Thus Jesus provides the historic, temporal basis for radical inclusion and social justice, just as the Trinity provides the trans-historic, eternal basis for the same positions.

And so, assuming three very "conservative" positions - namely the Divine inspiration of Scripture, the nature of God as Trinity, and the Incarnation of God in Jesus - we find ourselves suddenly arriving at very "radical" social positions. And it is not just Anabaptists who have discovered this. Nearly all monastic orders throughout the history of the Church- notably the Franciscans, Bretheren of the Common Life, and Jesuits- have embraced the radical trajectory of Scripture while maintaining creedal theology. Roman Catholics have a long line of radical-yet-creedal theologians stretching from De Las Casas in the 1500's to Liberation theologians of the last few decades. And in the Anglican tradition, there is a long history of Anglo-Catholic radicals and "sacramental socialists", such as Conrad Noel in the early 20th century and Kenneth Leech today. The causal connection of creedal theology and radical social policy is actually well-established, although in a way that is underplayed by those who want to use Christianity to "conserve" the status quo power arrangements in society. Yet, if someone wants evidence that the proposition "Creedal theology leads to Radical social policy" can still capture the public imagination, one needs look no further than the Stephen Colbert phenomenon.

In fact, we may even question whether socially conservative Churches are THAT conservative as regards theology. While paying lip service to the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the inspiration of Scripture, could it be that they subtly undermine them in how they use these ideas? In those traditions, God seems to be often depicted as a cosmic, masculine King, that rules sovereignly over the established social order, thereby establishing the establishment. Not much effort seems to be given to explaining, much less exploring, the ramifications of God as Trinity (rather, it is often defacto ignored as a "mystery beyond our comprehension"). Now, I am not denying that God is King. But perhaps the Kingdom God rules is not the conservative establishment we have now.

And, in those "conservative" traditions the Incarnation often seems to be treated in a "Docetist" manner: Jesus appears to be fully human, but he is just hiding his super-human powers and invincibility underneath a thin veneer of flesh. Jesus never really suffers as a human, nor is tempted by his human situation. He just pretends. And thus he embodies the American conservative ideal of success: If you just think positively and believe in success, you can overcome any obstacle. Even death. Jesus is used as the template of success and prosperity: The ultimate CEO. And thus he is used to "lend" credibility to existing social structures, and "fund" our conservative politics.

In these conservative churches, almost nothing is said of Jesus' weakness, his hunger, his thirst, his doubts in the garden of Gethsemane, his cry of dereliction on the cross, or his failure in loosing his entire "fan base" at the end. And if something is said, it is quickly explained away by the resurrection and victory of Christ. The idea of "no cross, no crown; no death, no resurrection" is almost entirely lost. All is brightness and light, with no "dark night of the soul" to speak of.

But even if they subtly deny the meaning of the Trinity and the Incarnation, they are at least more "Biblical" right? They stay more "true" to the teachings of the Bible, right?

Actually, they do the same thing they accuse liberals and radicals of doing: They establish a "canon within a canon" of essential texts and ideas, and then construct a trajectory argument of how to interpret other texts to be in line with their "canonical" texts and ideas. So, in this debate they choose "conservative" Biblical texts that condone warfare in God's Name, and exclusion of "others", and patriarchy, and hierarchy, and the "right" of private property, and self-interested "wealth creation", and "prosperity theology". Then they say that these "conservative" positions represent the ultimate trajectory of Scripture. Then they harmonize or explain away the more radical Scriptures in light of their "canon".

So, both sides are being equally "Biblical" in the sense of paying lip-service to Scriptural inspiration, and referring to Scriptural materials to back up their social claims. It's just that one claims that validating the "conservative" status quo is the ultimate goal of Scripture, while the other side says that Scripture envisions a rather more "radical" conclusion. The question is: Which one is right? Which one is justified? Which one shows God's approval?

This is where I take issue with the other assumption of Douthat and most others in this discussion: Namely that numerical success is a reliable indicator of which churches are more faithful to God's call.

Yes, one can excerpt a great deal of material from the book of Acts that "church growth" coincides with faithfulness to the Gospel. Except when it doesn't. Let us not forget that Jesus himself was spectacularly successful in NOT being successful. Despite drawing crowds of thousands, several of his discourses scared away scads of followers (cf. John 6.66). And let us not forget that he was almost completely abandoned on the day of his death. If numerical success is an indicator of faithfulness, how do we make sense of this?

Likewise, several of the epistles in the New Testament show a concern that large numbers of followers have been (or will be) distracted from Christ's path by false teaching (cf. Acts 20.29; Gal 1.6; 2Tim. 4.3). Indeed, Jesus himself seems to predict it (cf. Mat 7.13-27). In fact, from Isaiah onwards there is a strong theme of "remnant" theology, in which only a faithful remnant of God's people will remain through the trials of history. If numerical success is an indicator of faithfulness, how do we make sense of this?

And then there are historic cases where society has suddenly taken a very anti-Christian turn, which has led to the persecution of churches, and a long term diminishment of the Christian population despite their best efforts to persevere. This has happened in ancient Japan and China, under Muslim rule, under Communist rule, and even where certain types of Christians have persecuted other Christians. Does this just mean that "might makes right", and Christians should go on a jihad to propagate the faith against their enemies? Surely that would bring in big numbers, and quickly! Yet, even the most belligerent Christian societies have insisted that violence and coercion should not be the "norm" for bringing about conversion. And many more Christians across history have said that violence and coercion are flatly UNFAITHFUL to the Gospel.

And then, of course, we could point out scads of examples of faithful Christian groups that have grown quickly due the vibrance of their faith and the boldness of their proclamation. The Wesleys of the 1700's and the Pentecostals of the 1900's come to mind. And conversely, we could talk about the immense numeric success of brands of Christianity that are considered "heretical", as well as the growth of non-Christian religions.

When looked at in totality, it must be said that numerical success has almost NO correlation with faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Some faithful Christians have grown numerically, while others with the same beliefs and practices have shrunk or even disappeared over time.

And so, I reject Douthat's thesis on two points: First, creedal theology is not causally connected with conservative social policy, and likewise revisionist theology is not causally connected with radical social policy. If one looks deeper, the "logical" correlation may actually be reversed. I think a rampant consumerism operating in a conservative, class-based, socially-segregated framework works much better with a revisionist Deism or Pantheism, rather than trying to "shoehorn" a domesticated Incarnational and Trinitarian theology into it. If one wants to be truly radical, perhaps they need to be radically Biblical, Trinitarian, and Incarnational.

Second, numerical growth or decline is no indicator of faithfulness to Christ. We may do what Jesus Christ desires of us in pursuing radical inclusion and social justice and STILL shrink numerically because the dominant culture wants something different, something more "conservative".

To my fellow laborers in the Episcopal Church who want to see radical changes in society, but are revisionist in their theology or view of the Bible, I would beg them to reconsider. I would ask them to dig deep into the well of the Creedal and Biblical inheritance of the Church. Perhaps they will find an even better basis for social justice and radical inclusion than holding to a more watered-down, revisionist vision of God and Christ.

Perhaps they might just find that it is possible to become "Conservatively Progressive" (in the sense of conserving the progressive trajectory of Scripture and Christian History), "Radically Traditional" (in the sense of holding fast to the radical tradition embodied in Christ), and "Liberally Creedal" (in the sense that if we follow the Trinitarian God proclaimed in the Creed, we will liberally seek to include all in the joy of our fellowship with God and each other).

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This is a bunch of incoherent babble to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against God, and God's incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2023 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, please cite me. You can contact me at natebostian [at] gmail [dot] com