The End of Progressive Christianity?

Essay by Fred Plumer on 3 August 2017 2 Comments

As the President of, and as an occasional writer for this publication, I receive a lot of email from readers. Most of it is helpful. Some of it I admit is not fun to read. Two weeks ago I received a rather rude note from someone who was clearly not a fan of mine or of progressive Christianity. His email had an attachment. The attachment was an article written for Patheos by a Catholic Priest, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, "Twelve Reasons Why Progressive Christians Will Die Out". If you look this up you will discover that this article was written and published back in January 2016. I presume that this man’s intention was not to necessarily share an “informative” article with me but was rather to make the point that our organization is fighting an “impossible mission.”

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I have friends who seem to think believing that Jesus died for them is all they need to do. Some of them even treat other people badly and when I say something to them about being more Christian they just quote John 3:16 to me. What are your thoughts?


Dear Kay,

Most of us could probably quote at least one verse of the Bible and most likely that verse would be John 3:16. It has been called the greatest love story ever told. Martin Luther, (the early church reformer) called that verse “the Gospel in a nutshell.” Someone else once said that “if the Bible was destroyed and only John 3:16 remained, that would be enough information of God’s love to change the human heart”.

It is also, by far, the most popular verse for cardboard signs at sporting events as well as for wooden roadside reminders.

Personally though, I sort of disagree with Martin Luther and others who hold this verse in such high regard. If anything, taken by itself, I find it to be symbolic of contemporary theological perspectives that find their way into books like the Prayer of Jabez and The Left Behind Series. They are overly simplified and promote a bumper sticker kind of theology that says, “Jesus did it, so come and get it.”

When we let John 3:16 stop at an understanding of “Jesus did it, come and get it,” we are only telling half the story. The remainder of the story is up to us. You see for me John 3:16, is incomplete without 1 John 3:16 – or at least the meaning behind 1st John 3:16. Let me read them to you together. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

I'm much less concerned about what the theological question of atonement would encourage us to do and more concerned about what the life and teachings that lead to the cross would encourage us to do.

In my way of reading these verses, in John 3:16 we learn how far Jesus was willing to go to show us how much we are loved, then in 1st John 3:16 we learn how far we should be willing to go in response to that love to show others how much they are loved.

Far too often, those of us who consider ourselves or call ourselves, “Christian,” forget to practice our faith as if these two verses go together. Somehow, we don't realize that on its own John 3:16 is only half the story. When we think it is the whole story, it is just a little bit too easy to feel slightly privileged, it is just a little bit too easy to measure the rest of the world by your own standards, judging whether people measure up rather than just loving them.

The truth is we all need to be a little bit better about turning our faith outward. You see as John 3:16 says, the ultimate sacrifice was made for us, but it's not some sort of soul saving buffet - “Jesus did it, come and get it.” It comes with requirements, some assembly required, the work is not yet done. When we act like the work has already been done FOR US, so there's nothing left to do, we lose sight of the call to respond to that love and share it. We become judgmental, less accepting of those who are different from us, and we start to slowly slip into a life motivated not by love, but by hate.

Dr. Martin Luther King puts it this way, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

~ Rev. Mark Sandlin


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

"The Passion of the Christ" Mel Gibson's Film and Biblical Scholarship – Part IV


Last week I examined the connection between Psalm 22 and the earlier gospel accounts of Jesus' crucifixion. This week I turn to Isaiah 40-55, which was the other primary source from the Hebrew Scriptures that was so obviously woven into the story of the final events in Jesus' life. The author of these chapters is called II Isaiah because his 6th century writings were attached to the scroll of Isaiah. Yet because George F. Handel used his words in the Oratorio entitled "The Messiah," he is probably better known by most people than the original Isaiah. Who is not familiar with the words: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God," or "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord," or "Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together (Is. 40:1-5)?"

It was with these words, that this unknown prophet introduced into his narrative a mythological figure, called 'the servant,' who first appears when God is heard to say: "Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him (42:1)." II Isaiah then sketches out the role of 'the servant,' who is surely a synonym for the Jewish nation, and in the process charts a new vocation for the Jewish people. They are no longer called to status and power. Their role is rather to be sacrificial and self-giving, to absorb the abuse of the world, to bear the sufferings of the nations and through this means, to restore wholeness to life. In II Isaiah's words, 'the servant' is to be "despised, rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Is. 53: 3)." First century Christians clearly found in this portrait an image by which they could explain the suffering of Jesus and so 'the servant' in Isaiah began to shape the Church's memory of Jesus. This connection became so intense that Christians even began to say that II Isaiah 'predicted' the things that Jesus would actually do.

The facts, however, are exactly the opposite. The historical details of Jesus' death were simply unknown when the gospels were written. Jesus died alone, with no witnesses to record the events of his trial, torture and crucifixion, because at his arrest "all the disciples forsook him and fled (Mk. 14:50.)" The first Christians knew only that he had been crucified. Years later when the Christians needed to write an account of Jesus death to guide them in their worship, they drew their images from what they called 'prophecies' in II Isaiah and Psalm 22.

II Isaiah said, "the servant stood silent before his accusers (53:7)," so Mark portrayed Jesus as silent before Pilate and the chief priests (14:60, 15:5). II Isaiah said 'the servant' was "numbered with the transgressors (53:12)," creating the narratives of thieves crucified with Jesus. The thieves are barely mentioned in Mark but the connection with Isaiah is clear. Mark writes: "And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which says, 'he was numbered with the transgressors' (15:27,28)." Matthew develops this story by noting that both thieves added to the verbal abuse Jesus received (27: 44). Luke expanded it further, suggesting that one of the thieves became penitent, asking to be remembered when Jesus came to his kingdom (23:39-43).

Isaiah II said of 'the servant' that he would make his tomb with the rich, (53:9). This reference led to the introduction of Joseph of Arimathea into the passion narrative. Mark emphasizes his wealth by having him wrap Jesus 'in fine linen' and place him in a newly hewn rock sepulcher (15:43-46). Matthew follows II Isaiah even more specifically by calling him a 'rich man.' By the time of John, Joseph has evolved into being 'a secret disciple,' who provides a tomb in a beautiful garden and burial with 'a hundred pound of myrrh and aloes (19:38-42).

The idea that a convicted felon, like Jesus, would be given a burial attended by such splendor is obviously not history. Paul, who died before the first gospel was written, certainly knew nothing about the burial tradition or the women coming on the first day of the week. All Paul says is, "He was buried (I Cor. 15:4)." The probable fate of the crucified Jesus was to be thrown with other victims into a common, unmarked grave. The general consensus of New Testament scholars is that whatever the Easter experience was, it dawned first in the minds of the disciples who had fled to Galilee for safety, driving us to the conclusion that the burial story in the gospels is both legendary and was developed directly from the words of II Isaiah.

'The servant' of Isaiah II "made intercession for the transgressors (53:12)." This detail was generally ignored until Luke added it to his expanding portrait, having Jesus intercede for the soldiers by praying "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (23:34)" and giving assurance to the penitent thief, "today you will be with me in paradise (vs. 43)."

The final step needed to complete the passion story came when II Isaiah's 'servant' was merged with other symbols drawn from the worship life of the synagogue. Paul called Jesus the new paschal lamb (I Cor. 5:7), whose shed blood, like that of the original Passover lamb, had broken the power of death. It was an image that blended easily into the role of 'the servant.'

Next imagery drawn from the Day of Atonement was applied to Jesus. He became both the sacrificial lamb of Yom Kippur whose blood washed away the sins of the people, and the scapegoat who made the people clean by bearing all their sins away. These images also fitted II Isaiah's portrait, since, like 'the servant,' they too absorbed the pain of human evil and made the people at one with God. That is how the passion narrative, written to recreate liturgically the death of Jesus and to interpret how it brought salvation, came into being.

For anyone to suggest that these accounts are history is to demonstrate biblical ignorance. For the Pope to view this film and announce, "It is as it was," is an action that confuses piety with a lack of scholarship. For Christian leaders not to face what the last 150 years of biblical scholarship has made obvious about the passion narrative is to misread the Bible totally.

The tragedy of Gibson's film is that it presumes that the gospel accounts of the crucifixion tell us what actually happened. They do not. What they do tell us is what second generation Christians understood the death of Jesus to mean in the plan of salvation and to issue an invitation to believers not only to "watch with him," but also to enter the Christ experience. The interpretive process had by now wrapped around Jesus the role of "the servant" of II Isaiah, the Passover lamb and the sacrificial animals of Yom Kippur. These were the images that gave content to Paul's earlier claim that Jesus had died "in accordance with the scriptures."

Next these Jewish themes were combined with the wrenching events that occurred just before the gospels were written (70-100 C.E.). A war had been fought between the Jews and the Romans, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. As is common in warfare, this war had loosed the hostility of the conquering Romans into that area's bloodstream. That hostility victimized all Jews, but its primary targets were the Temple priesthood, the Sadducees and the Orthodox party of Judaism, all of which were assumed to have been guilty of plunging the nation into that war. It took, therefore, the inevitable form of a violent anti-Semitism.

Even though the early Christians were themselves primarily Jews, they also shared a great hostility toward the Orthodox party that viewed them as revisionists, who did not hold the "true faith." These Christians defended themselves by joining with the Romans in the abuse of the Temple priesthood and the Orthodox party. "We were not the Jews who brought this destruction on our nation," they asserted. "Indeed, those Jews who brought this disaster on us are the same ones who conspired with the Romans to put to death the Jesus we follow." These thoughts were then written into the story about the crucifixion with Pilate portrayed with compassion and the Jews portrayed as culprits and villains. I will go into this period of history more fully in next week's column. It is the substance of my book: Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes.

The original writers of the Passion story were well aware that the details of the crucifixion had been created for liturgical purposes. They knew, for example, that the idea that the Jews would execute a teacher because he interpreted the law, the Torah, from a new perspective, was unheard of in Jewish history. They knew that the Sanhedrin would never meet to judge Jesus in the middle of the night since that was in direct violation of the Torah, which forbids judgment save in the light of day. But these details mattered little when Judaism was prostrate before Roman authority.

That is, however, something that Mel Gibson should have understood. So should both his religious devotees and his religious critics. None of them seems to embrace the fact that to be accurate in telling the crucifixion story is to produce an anti-Semitic film, for anti-Semitism was already overtly present in the biblical account itself. All this film will do ultimately is to justify the continuation of that prejudice. That is its shame and its embarrassment.

Next week I will examine how the story of Jesus' passion became for the Jews the primary source of prejudice, pain and death throughout western history. It is not a pretty story and it still remains the dark underside of the Christian Faith.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published March 17, 2004




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