What is the mark of a truly progressive theology?

Is it a commitment to social justice, to the inclusion of gays in the ministry, advocacy of refugees and ‘illegal’ immigrants, or perhaps the ideal of poverty in a world where the ostentatious display of wealth is deemed desirable? Possibly, but I suggest that the signal of a properly progressive theology may be found in the doctrine of salvation.

It all hangs on the relation between those mythical first human beings, Adam and Eve, and Christ. Or rather, it depends on the way one reads the narrative of salvation that emerges from the texts: from prelapsarian paradise, through disobedience and the ‘Fall’ into sin, to the role of Christ in redeeming us from that sin. In order to distinguish between reactionary and revolutionary readings of that narrative, I would like to deploy Ernst Bloch’s distinction between two types of utopia. A conservative utopia is backward looking, seeking to restore a mythical Golden Age that is a construction of that conservatism. The evils of the present age will be overcome by returning to a world that was once upon a time much more ideal. By contrast, a radical utopia is forward looking. The function of the myth of paradise is not to look backwards but forwards, for it projects an image of what might be but has not as yet been achieved. It offers hope rather than despair, anticipation rather than nostalgia.

How does this work with the doctrine of salvation? A backward looking doctrine sees Christ as the second or ‘last’ Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), who restores our prelapsarian state so that once again we commune with God. Christ thereby repairs the damage done by Adam and Eve. Irenaeus (second century) might have kicked off this theological tradition with his explicit mention of the ‘second Adam’ who restores humanity to the image of God, but it was the story the grew up around the tree of Good and Evil in the garden that gave full expression to this conservative understanding. That tree, after many trials, became the cross of Calvary, as Piero della Francesca’s (d. 1492) fresco depicts so well. In ‘The Story of the True Cross’ Calvary becomes the point at which the fateful events at the tree of the garden are overcome. In other depictions we find Adam buried under the cross, perhaps holding a chalice to catch the first drops of Christ’s blood. And of course John Donne and John Milton made much of the connection. For Donne, ‘Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place’, while in Milton’s Paradise Regained the whole story is structured around the restoration of paradise.

The problem with these approaches is that they rely on the ‘Fall’ to get salvation moving. Without that baleful moment, Christ would not have had to save us at all (forget that a Bible full of the frolicking of Adam and Eve in the garden would have been a boring text indeed). Two theological traditions of which I am aware negate the centrality of the negative moment and the consequent reactionary version of salvation. One is Eastern Orthodoxy, for which the Fall is not an exclusive prerequisite for salvation. How so? After St. Maximus, it offers a reading of Genesis 1:26 that distinguishes between the image and likeness of God: ‘Let us make humankind in our image [tselem], according to our likeness [demuth]’. Adam and Eve may have been created in the image of God, which was thereby fractured and blurred with the first sin, resulting in the unnaturalness of death. However, the likeness was entirely missing. Christ’s task in salvation is then not a simple reactionary process of restoring our prelapsarian state, our image of God, but a new state that Adam and Eve did not possess. In salvation one becomes not merely the image of God, but also the likeness. This is theosis, or deification, which designates a closer fellowship with God than even the first human beings experienced. Christ may be the second Adam, but he is also much more. All of which means that the Fall is not a necessary requirement for salvation, for Christ would have had to be incarnated for the sake of enabling us to achieve the likeness of God.

The other tradition is Calvinism and its doctrine of double predestination. Rather than rely on an act of fragile human beings, or for that matter the devil, to get the narrative of salvation moving, Calvin held that the eternal divine plan has already designated those who are saved and those who are not:

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death. (Institutes 3.21.5)

Much castigated, this doctrine actually has a radical core. It relegates the Fall to one moment in a much longer narrative, one that extends before the village idiocy of the garden and beyond the moment of salvation in Christ. It is none other than the grandest narrative of all, for it concerns eternity. Of course, it is a stark doctrine, challenging our pride in our abilities and in freewill, full of divine ‘history on our side’, but it also a source of immense hope and confidence – precisely those features of a progressive theology of salvation I noted earlier. No matter how tough it gets, no matter how hopeless the situation may seem, it will indeed work out. Plus, it ensures that you aren’t riddled with guilt.

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20 thoughts on “What is the mark of a truly progressive theology?

  1. Adam, and Eve had a rob of light as a garment in the beginning. We will get that garment of light back. Our goal is to be like Jesus is being innocent like the nude Adam, and eve in a world of death. That prepares people to live peaceably with whoever, and the life that is around us when God makes all things new.

      1. Nah – this is tendentiousness built upon tendentiousness. It is tendentiousness on stilts.

        The first tendentiousness occurs at the historical moment when the Son of Man divine redeemer became essentialised as an eternal part of the Godhead. Then the Fall-narrative became insufficient.as an explanation of the necessity for incarnation (for the Son was always a necessary part of God, whether or not sin occurred). Hence the apologetic reinterpretation of the reason for the incarnation – as a fulfilment of the imago dei in a manner which only began in Paradise. This was necessitated, apologetically speaking, by the shift in emphasis from the economic to the ontological.

        Saying that, even tendentious ideas can become useful models for revolution, so we might “redeem” the Christian doctrine of salvation with recourse to theosis – and you make a fine stab at it. But then comes the second tendentiousness. Is there really any fundamental distinction between the imagined Paradise of the past and the Paradise-to-come? Sure, a theoretical distinction might be made, a la Bloch, but I always get the feeling that it is only via denying that our imagination (of idealised past or absolute future) is constrained and determined by the ideas (and ultimately, in “the final instance” which never comes, in the material-economic-social matrix) of today. So it amounts to little more than saying “my ideas are revolutionary; yours are reactionary” – which is fine if you accept this is ungrounded. But the detour via theology is little more than obfuscatory gobbledegook – and the semblance of a rational reason for a stance without foundation (for it is truly radical).

      2. As long as you stay with these types of crude dismissals – ‘semblance of a rational reason for a stance without foundation’ – you’re simply in the same camp as those unthinking idealists like Dawkins and Hitchens.

      3. Because people frequently speak of a god as a god of war in the old testament we end up having people believe the religious myth of an ever burning never ending torturous hell. The militarily army is one manifestation of that. Jehad is another another form of war. Had hell be taught properly as spoken in above comment with people connecting Jesus with God properly, war, jails, and Jehad with calls for death would have been unknown.

      4. … erm, that wasn’t a crude dismissal of theology, but an affirmation that real change cannot be founded in past structures – that it requires a leap of faith. I was speaking theologically there. It’s just that I don’t see the point of utilising complex analogies from historical dogmatic theology. I mean, you could, if you want, study the economy using concepts drawn from alchemy, say. But seriously, why go to all the bother?

        More realism is the answer, despite the idealism inherent in any knowledge.

      5. The problem is with the use of ill-fitting and more obfuscatory than illuminating analogies. When Peacocke or Polkinghorne seek to explain the incarnation in terms of modern physics, it is no less convoluted (theology=modern science).

      6. Translatability is a better term here. But Deane, your hostility to the subtlety of theology does blind you in many ways. Is there perhaps an unresolved theological trauma, to which you keep returning in a futile effort to overcome it? Do confess.

  2. Roland, what are your thoughts on Apocatastasis? I am an atheist who was raised in the Orthodox Church, and I can still recall my excitement at learning that some contemporary Orthodox theologians still advocate this doctrine, which was emphatically dismissed as heresy by the “conservative” priests of my youth whenever I (repeatedly) brought it up. The concept of eternal damnation just seemed like such childish stupidity to me – even as a child!

    1. Robert : eternal damnation is not childish. Eternal damnation is contrived lie in the mind of an adult spoken willing from their mouths while at the same time holding a book that has the truth in it.
      Gods light seen to the human that kills or hates not being like Jesus seeing God glory as if it was fire = hell. KJV 1 John 1;5, God is light. Heb; 12:29; a consuming fire. James 1:17, Father of lights, Hell is the glorified face of God Moses could not look at or become ashes. That light makes the earth to have no more sea making elements melt, and consumes the wicked around the city of God rev, 20. Hell is not a place. No lost no lake of fire. Gods light is good to those that love to do good.

  3. Robert : eternal damnation is not childish. Eternal damnation is contrived lie in the mind of an adult spoken willingly from their mouths while at the same time holding a book that has the truth in it.
    Gods light seen to the human that kills or hates not being like Jesus seeing God glory as if it was fire = hell. KJV 1 John 1;5, God is light. Heb; 12:29; a consuming fire. James 1:17, Father of lights, Hell is the glorified face of God Moses could not look at or become ashes. That light makes the earth to have no more sea making elements melt, and consumes the wicked around the city of God rev, 20. Hell is not a place. No lost no lake of fire. Gods light is good to those that love to do good.

  4. I’m sorry Rolad, I will never again come to see the doctrine of predestination as it stands now as revolutionary, in fact, it remains the opposite, for counter-revolutionaries. Irenaeus had the right idea about Adam and Eve, they were children, and hey, Clement believed that too. Something more subversive in that reading.

    1. Hi Rod, yes, it’s a tough doctrine and Calvin was a little uncomfortable with it himself. In Political Grace I argue that it is analogous with political proposals: from the democracy of depravity to the aristocracy of salvation. But here I was looking for a different angle and it seems to come through in putting the Fall in its place as one incident and not crucial to the narrative of salvation. On that matter at least, predestination comes through. At another level, though, the whole notion of production/construction of our selves, modes of life and thought, from our socio-economic context finds its analogy precisely in predestination.

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