Franklin Graham and Progressive Christianity
Franklin Graham, son of famous Evangelist and Christian speaker, Billy Graham, recently penned an article for Decision Magazine entitled, The Eternal Peril of Progressive Christianity. In it, he writes:
It has cropped up in the halls of seminaries, infiltrated the pulpits of thousands of churches and been propagated by a godless liberal media. It is bent on casting doubt and undermining the foundational principles of God’s Word.
Using a rebuke from the Apostle Paul as his opening, Graham goes on to suggest that progressive Christianity denies the basic tenets of the Christian faith in favor of an individualistic and contextual reading of the Bible and its teachings.
For him, progressive Christians are particularly dangerous because, in his view, they align themselves more with contemporary politics than with Christ.
Not only is Graham’s argument sloppy – he does not back up his assertions with any real-life examples of lectures, sermons, or speeches delivered by progressive Christians. He is also wrong, about virtually everything.
What Graham Gets Wrong About Progressive Christianity
In the next several paragraphs, I will dispute the major arguments of his article.
As a note, I am an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church who will be ordained as a priest this fall. While I attend a multi-denominational seminary, much of my specific doctrinal knowledge will come from my own tradition. I grew up in a conservative Evangelical household, so I will also speak from my knowledge of Evangelical teaching.
The First Lie: “Progressive Christianity denies the divinely inspired, authoritative truth of the Bible…”
Progressive Christianity, like most Christian categories, includes a wide range of personal beliefs regarding the Scriptures.
However, the most prominent theologians in progressive Christian circles – along with most of its clergy – will tell you that the Bible is divinely inspired and authoritative. Just not in the way conservative Evangelicals of the religious right believe it is.
The Evangelical Frame
When Evangelicals say that the Bible is divinely inspired and authoritative, what they often mean is that every single word of the Bible is self-evidently instructive. They mean that every story and moral instruction in the Bible is both historically factual and timeless. It needs no further investigation or contextualization.
This way of reading the Bible is called Biblical literalism. Literalism emerged with modernity. Prior to the Reformation, dominant readings of the Bible were allegorical, meaning that many passages were read as metaphorical and symbolic. In some cases, they were rich with multiple meanings.
As it had been for all of human history, the majority of society could not read, and most people did not have access to a written Bible. The invention of the printing press in 1450, as well as movements to print the Bible in colloquial languages, made it increasingly possible for laypeople to access the Bible for themselves (I will note here that the first Church of England archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, was a huge proponent of personal Bible study.)
Enlightenment scholars were taken by a new philosophy called “scholastic humanism.” They were drawn to more concrete and “rational” discoveries than the previous generation. And they believed that God had created the human mind to be capable of uncovering life’s mysteries. This belief eventually ushered in modern science and industrialization.
It also ushered in Biblical literalism. For example, prominent Evangelical beliefs about the Biblical creation story as a literal account only emerged in the nineteenth century.
So, when Graham suggests that his Christianity is more “orthodox” than progressive Christianity, he denies that his own tradition’s orientation to the Bible is distinctly modern.
The Progressive View
Progressive Christians are, by and large, not Biblical literalists. They do not take the view that the Bible was written in a trance state, with the author or authors directly channeling God as they wrote down each letter and word. Instead, most seminaries will teach the Bible using the historical-critical method.
This way of reading the Bible pays attention to the original historical setting, the likely authorship of a given book or books, and the genre of each writing to sensitively interact with the text.
The historical-critical method is simply an approach to Biblical scholarship. It does not negate a perspective that the Bible was inspired by God’s relationship to humanity. It simply accounts for the fact that human beings were partnered with God in writing the Bible. It celebrates the living people who were so changed by God that they had to write it down!
What’s more, Episcopalians say the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed at each and every service. Both creeds are ancient belief statements. In fact, the Nicene Creed was adopted by the early church in 325 CE, and was constructed by early Christians as de facto orthodox Christianity. Read the full text of the Nicene Creed here.
Secondly, progressive Christians do find the Bible authoritative. There would be no sense in calling ourselves Christians if the Bible held no authoritative meaning for us.
The Episcopal Church’s primary liturgical text, The Book of Common Prayer, includes doctrinal statements. Article VI of the “Articles of Religion” states that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.” The authority of the Scriptures “was never any doubt in the Church.”
But, because we pay attention to things like genre, history, and cultural context, we will not always interpret the Scriptures the same way. Unlike what Graham suggests – that we are merely following “degrading cultural influences” – we arrive at our perspectives on issues like gay marriage out of a thorough and nuanced reading of the Bible.
We don’t see the Bible as a dead thing, but as a living document. It is imbued with the profound and troubling Gospel of Christ, who had dinner with tax collectors and befriended sex workers, celebrated ethnic outsiders and challenged dominant religious beliefs.
We act from the position that our God-incarnate DIED because he protested against the status quo. To live as he lived is to act on faith that our desire to welcome the ostracized is in line with his desires for us.
The Second Lie: “Progressive Christianity…neglects the far more fundamental issue of God’s justice—how a holy and just God deals with sinful and wicked men.”
Graham argues that progressive Christians are too concerned with “social and racial justice” rather than “God’s justice.” This is a false dichotomy.
In advocating for social and racial justice, progressive Christians understand themselves to be living out our call to “care for the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). What’s more, many progressive Christians are literally fighting for their own safety and survival. This call is not separate from God’s eternal story and present action.
But maybe Graham is right: maybe progressive Christians should spend more time arguing that those who enact brutality against marginalized communities will be divinely punished. Maybe it’s time to call the individual actors within our unjust social and political systems to account.
Progressive Christians believe that it is sinful and wicked to watch our fellow humans suffer and die, either through intentional violence or generational neglect. As participants in such a wicked system, we should all be more wary of God’s wrath.
The Third Lie: “…progressive Christianity most frequently fails to see the ruinous consequences of mankind’s depraved, sinful state.”
Progressive Christians engaged in political activism are acutely aware of “mankind’s depraved, sinful state.”
We understand that climate change is a result of human greed. We understand that racist redlining policies were intended to uphold a white supremacist state. We understand that poverty has been articulated as a personal failing so that we don’t have to do anything to help. We understand that our own participation in these systems condemns us, too.
We see the ruin all around us! And we are doing the work – albeit clumsily – in our churches and communities to repent.
What’s more, we understand that accountability requires the love of community. We cannot better ourselves by ourselves. And so, instead of simply calling people out, we aim to hold people in the arms of the Body of Christ. We know that God will deal with us, but it is our job to love each other as best we can.
The Fourth Lie: “…progressive Christianity can send a person to hell.”
Orthodox Christian teaching on Hell, even within the Episcopal Church, is that there is one and people can go there. That being said, many progressive Christians (including myself) are Christian universalists.
Christian universalism is “the view that all human beings will ultimately be saved and restored to a right relationship with God.”
This is not a new belief. Early church theologians like Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the 4th century CE, believed that people would enter a purgatorial state after death in order to repent and change their ways before entering into Heaven.
And, while most Christian universalists today are associated with Mainline churches, some Pentecostals have also adopted the belief.
Most significantly, C.S. Lewis – who is popular in both Evangelical and progressive circles – believed in a kind of Christian universalism. In his book, The Great Divorce, he argues that only those who, upon meeting God, desire to be separate from God will spend eternity in separation.
At least since the late nineteenth century, progressive Christians tend to understand the Kingdom of God as present and active in the world. We can follow Christ’s call to build the kingdom by rejecting individualism and working to build Beloved community.
Or we can make the world a living Hell, in which the powerful continue to manipulate others for their personal gain and the marginalized cry out without recourse at the city gate.
Of course, what Graham means by this argument is that progressive Christians don’t value “being saved.” For many Evangelicals, the point of conversion occurs when a person says “the sinner’s prayer.” This prayer is supposed to bring the person into a state of salvation, which will keep them from going to Hell.
But, just as in the case of Biblical literalism, the idea of the sinner’s prayer came about in modernity. It was actually popularized by Billy Graham in the mid-twentieth century!
Episcopalians follow a sacramental practice of repentance and participation in the church that includes intensive spiritual study (Confirmation) and a public confession of faith (Baptism). We pray for God’s forgiveness of our sins during nearly every prayer service (see the prayer here).
I am a Bible-believing, Trinitarian, Christ-following, saved-by-grace, baptized Christian. I am also a progressive Christian.
The two are not mutually exclusive, and to suggest otherwise is to resort to fear-mongering in service of consolidating conservative political power. Progressive Christians are gaining traction, and that scares people like Graham, who have become more obsessed with worldly gain than with the Kingdom of Christ.
I’ll end here with Graham’s own call-to-action:
…proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound teaching, but, having their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, be sober in everything, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.2 Timothy 4:2-5
In making the above claims about progressive Christianity, I do not mean to suggest that progressive Christians are always right. We are just as subject to selfishness, political manipulation, and echo chambers as anyone else.
Whether conservative or progressive, we would all do well to take account of ourselves, to pay attention to the way national and local politics obscure the Gospel, to seek to understand, to preach boldly, and to live according to our Christian convictions.
It is time to stop pandering to simplistic and dichotomous narratives, and to seek to be transformed by Jesus.