This Study Guide has been re-edited and re-printed.
This edition is the second printing.
This Study Guide is for the third edition (2011) of the “8 Points” that have both identified and guided ProgressiveChristianity.org (formerly The Center for Progressive Christianity) since the organization’s founding in 1994. We have been asked numerous times why we find it necessary to change or update the “8 Points.” There are three primary answers to that question. First, we change the wording because we often get comments and suggestions from our readers and supporters that make sense to us. Some of these are theological comments and some are simply seeking greater clarity demonstrating that we were not as clear as we should have been. We try and take those comments into consideration every time we make a change.
Secondly, as people with open minds and soft hearts, we continue to evolve and change. That is what “progressive” is all about. New scholarship, conversations and even detractors challenge us to rethink what we have been positing, and at some point, after much discussion and conversation with our advisors, we may decide that we should change the way that we have written that last edition or emphasize new points. This seems to happen, although not by design, about every five years or so.
Thirdly, we never want the “8 Points” document to become something sacred in itself, beyond testing and questioning. In another words, we are not trying to challenge creedal thinking and outdated dogma with a new creed.
These are fascinating times for people of faith and for Christians. More than one scholar has compared these times to the chaotic years of the late first and second century church. According to some scholars, people in the streets were literally fighting over who and what Jesus was and what he was teaching. At the same time, the vast majority of the Roman population could have cared less about Christianity and often saw the minority of Christian advocates as trouble makers and fools.
Aside from the 1800 years of history, today we have a lot more data and information about the times of Jesus than was available to those early Roman citizens or anytime in modern history. Over the last fifty years, there has been a virtual explosion of information, not only about the historical Jesus but about the times in which he lived and died, that was not available to early Christians. This information has changed the perspective of many thinking people.
It is impossible to pinpoint the actual beginning of Progressive Christianity as we describe it today. There have always been those brave enough to challenge the prominent views of the official church, going back to Origen in the third century. As a modern movement, we can certainly give credit to a group of clergy and scholars like Lyman Abbot, William Jewett Tucker, Horace Bushnell, George Gordon, Walter Rauschenbusch and Henry Emerson Fosdick who mounted a powerful attempt to change the way we view Christianity in the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. This courageous group of scholars, clergy, and administrators went against the grain in their belief that doing anything else would doom the future of Christianity. They used terms like Progressive Theology, Progressive Orthodoxy, Modern Theology and something called New Theology.
In 1892 Lyman Abbot suggested that it was time to “Put the new wine into new bottles, that both may be preserved. Spiritual experience is always new. It must therefore find a new expression in each age.” Walter Rauschenbusch warned in 1917 that by striving vainly “to keep Christian doctrine unchanged, we shall ensure its abandonment.”
Scholar, Richard M. Gamble writes on this era in his book, The War for Righteousness, “Progressive Christianity…was to be intellectually respectable, credible, relevant and liberating.” Unfortunately these scholars and well known clergy confronted a fire storm from what came to be called the fundamentalist movement.
Some would argue that because of their support and alignment with progressive politics and President Wilson’s dream of a League of Nations, this brave and inspired group of religious leaders lost credibility. I would suggest that their lack of success only demonstrates the fact that religious convictions change very, very slowly. It is possible that the eminent theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch, was right nearly one hundred years ago when he wrote “to keep Christian doctrine unchanged, we shall ensure its abandonment.”
And that is why many of us work so tirelessly to foster a new Christianity.
The background material and the questions of this Study Guide were designed to stimulate conversation and to raise issues that might not otherwise come up. None of these materials are intended to make a final theological, Christological, or canonical argument. The last thing we would want to do is to tell anyone how he or she should believe or approach their faith. Most of these materials and study questions are drawn from real, ongoing discussions in churches, seminaries and universities. They are also drawn from the input we had from church groups that wrestled with the earlier versions of the “8 Points” in their own settings. We look forward to this continued input and dialogue.
~Fred C. Plumer