I don’t think being “progressive” is a good thing, unless it means we are making progress toward a better understanding and application of the original meaning and intent of Scripture. That is the only kind of progress that God encourages and commends in the Bible itself. Progress beyond what the Bible meant and intended when it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, as if it needs to be updated or improved based on modern thought, is consistently warned against in Scripture. In fact, the repeated message from God throughout biblical history is that God’s people should return to the Scriptures and recover their original meaning and application, not update or improve upon it. Let’s walk through a survey of what God says about this “from beginning to end,” starting with the beginning of the Bible, then the end, then everything else in between (and especially Jesus)…
NOTE: In this article I’m referring to progressive Christianity (see a definition here), not progressive politics, though there are some parallels between the two—like the issue of how the Constitution is understood and applied. The difference is that the Constitution can be wrong and in need of correction—and even for that I suggest that the standard should be the timeless truth of God rather than current theories, trends, and preferences that so often change with the wind. It’s also interesting to note that the word “liberal” has been used for both theological and political beliefs, and that those who are “liberal” or “progressive” in the one often are in the other as well—with a few notable exceptions like Andrew Klavan. So it would seem that there is an inevitable connection, to some degree at least, between what we believe about God and what we believe about politics. (See here for an interesting article about that.)
The Beginning of the Bible
In Genesis 1 God speaks everything into existence, and then in Genesis 2, as soon as He creates humans, He speaks a command to them (not to eat of that one tree in the Garden). In Genesis 3 Satan casts doubt on the Word of God by tempting the woman with “Did God really say?” The devil also gives a “nuanced” new interpretation of what God said that changes only a few words but ends up promoting the opposite of what God intended. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the very first (and most tragic) story about our sin shows God’s enemy doing basically the same thing that progressive or liberal Christians do when they cause people to doubt the Scriptures rather than encouraging trust in them. God knew that Satan would do this all throughout history in one way or another, and He wants us to ask the question, “Does the way I talk about the Bible cause people to question its truthfulness, authority, and relevancy?” If so, we are being more like Satan than Jesus Christ (more on His perspective later).
God then reveals His written law through Moses as a standard that He will constantly call people to return to rather than advance upon. On the eve of their entrance to the Promised Land, for example, both Moses and Joshua make this point clearly:
Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you…. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…. You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, His testimonies, and His statutes which He has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 6:1-17)
[The Lord said to Joshua,] “Be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
The End of the Bible
It is also no coincidence that the Bible ends with this warning: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.... For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:14-19).
In the second-to-last book of the Bible, God says, “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4).
And the fourth-to-last book of the Bible says, “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments.... For many deceivers have gone out into the world.... Whoever transgresses [literally, “goes beyond,” a synonym for "progresses"] and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.”
Just like He did when He delivered the first part of His revelation (the Mosaic law) 1500 years before, God is saying, “I’ve given you a written Word that is what I want to say to you for all time. Don’t add to it or try to improve it; rather always come back to it as the standard for truth, trying to understand it better and apply it with wisdom to whatever situation you might face. Satan and his servants will always be the ones who want to make you question whether it’s all true or whether it really applies to you.”
Someone might say at this point, “But you believe that parts of Scripture don’t apply to us today, like the sacrificial laws in Leviticus or the tongues instructions in 1 Corinthians.” No, I actually do believe that even historically-bound texts apply to us, though I would say they apply to us in a different way than they did to the original recipients, because of the changes in the way God has worked in the world in different ages. And—this is key—I believe God told us in the Word that these changes would occur. The cessation of animal sacrifices is attested by so many passages (like Hebrews) that it’s a consensus among Christians, though the tongues issue rests largely on our interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:8 and the nature of the gift in Acts. But wherever we land on issues like that, we “conservatives” believe the text of Scripture was true and sufficient when delivered—it’s just a matter of interpreting and applying it correctly. Progressivism, on the other hand, says that the original meaning of the text was in error and needs to be corrected in light of modern “knowledge,” or that it simply isn’t enough to understand and solve modern problems. That kind of “progress,” as you can see from the passages in this article, is never predicted or approved of in the Bible like the historical stages are (e.g. the “better” covenant in Hebrews and the “fuller” knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13).
Everything in Between (and especially Jesus)
The prophets, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature of the Old Testament are filled to overflowing with references to the timeless truth of the written Word of God and calls to return to it rather than improve or re-interpret it according to the spirit of the age. (And keep in mind that a lot of development in human culture took place over the 1500 years following the writings of Moses.) Here are some examples:
[5th Century BC, 1000 years after Moses:] And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose…. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1-8)
[7th Century BC, during the reign of Josiah] Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan who read it…. And Shaphan read it in the presence of the king. When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded Hilkiah the priest…“Go, inquire of the Lord for me and the people and all Judah concerning the words of this book that has been found, for great is the wrath of the Lord that burns against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us”…. Then the king sent, and they gathered to him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. The king went up to the house of the Lord and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests and the prophets and all the people, both small and great; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book.
Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens…. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts…. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:89, 98-100, 105)
The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
Even when the Old Testament prophets predict a new covenant (in the future kingdom of the Messiah), they don’t say the existing Scriptures will be proven wrong or somehow improved—they say the Scriptures will be “fulfilled” in various ways that actually honor rather than denigrate or cause them to be questioned. Notice what Jeremiah 31:31-33 says, for example: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.’” Similarly, Ezekiel 36:26-27 says, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”
The future age of the New Covenant will not be better because antiquated, inaccurate ideas in the Old Testament will be corrected and improved—no, it will be better because people will actually understand and obey those Scriptures more than they did before.
Jesus Himself echoed that truth over and over again in his interactions with the Jews, as He doggedly refused to give any ground to the “progressive” or “liberal” sects like the Sadducees (who, interestingly, denied the Resurrection, among other parallels with modern thinkers). And He never condemned the Pharisees for believing in the truthfulness (and even “inerrancy”) of the Old Testament—rather He rebuked them for not truly understanding and obeying it. Here are some examples:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life…. Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words? (John 5:39-47)
Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:34-36)
The apostles, whom Jesus chose to deliver the final parts of His “once-for-all” revelation, could not have been more clear that our goal as Christians should be to trust and apply the written Word as it was originally given and intended. Referring primarily to the Old Testament (and only by extension to their own writings), Paul and Peter say this:
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:19-21)
One-and-a-half millennia after the first books of the Bible were written and hundreds of years after the rise of Greek philosophy, Alexander’s world empire, and the Pax Romana, these men said that even the ancient Old Testament books were completely true and applicable to their age and the ages to come. God had told them that their writings would have the same character (1 Corinthians 14:36-38, 2 Peter 3:16), so no doubt today’s “progressives” would have them rolling over in their graves (if there were no Resurrection, as many believe).
That half-joke leads me to my conclusion, which is to highlight the extreme danger of the progressive or liberal views of Scripture by saying that they are indeed a slippery slope. (Just because that’s the name of a logical fallacy in argumentation doesn’t mean it’s not a real dynamic in many people’s experience.) Why should we believe in the Resurrection of Christ if other accounts in Scripture are merely mythological, and then how could we have a confident expectation of our own resurrection through a union with Him (Romans 6:8)? Speaking of logic, I think we can safely add a preface to Paul’s “syllogism” in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:
[If the Scriptures contain myths and you can’t know whether its stories are true, then you can’t be confident that Christ has been raised (because that’s a whopper of a tale).] If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
On the other hand, if Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead and is still alive 2000 years later, than it’s possible and even very likely that all the other fantastical stories are true, and that we do have a confident hope for the future.
POSTSCRIPT: Here’s another “syllogism” to summarize my main point in this article:
Progressive Christians say they believe God speaks through the Bible (to some degree at least). The Bible itself warns against progressing beyond the original intent and meaning of the text by adding to or modifying the original intent and meaning, to which the Bible repeatedly calls us back. So progressive Christians should hear this message from God and seek to modify their beliefs and lives to be more consistent with it. Otherwise their Christianity makes no sense, because the book that is foundational to their Christianity (in any scheme) weighs in against the kind of house they’re building upon it.