On Spiritual Progressivism

The Burnside Writers Collective is a Portland-based online magazine with articles that are written from a Christian progressive perspective -- that is, evangelicals who are left-leaning in politics. Don Miller is one of the founders of this group. Their current issue has an excellent article -- not serious journalism but rather a passionate wake-up call -- on a group of Christians called "The Network of Spiritual Progressives." I wholly support their efforts as my recent post on the evangelical heresy made clear. I just hope more Christians in the U.S. will realize the truth about our society and do something about it.

A few caveats: We must be careful not to mirror the Religious Right by becoming the Religious Left, and thus identifying the gospel with a political platform. While I think it is rather self-evident that the gospel and the story of the early church promotes a far left, even socialist, political model, we must never confuse or conflate the gospel with that model. Furthermore, we must be aware that the anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism, anti-militarism that flows out of the gospel is intended to be embodied within the church. If we are able to influence society to become more just, equitable, and peaceful, then praise be to God. But we must never devolve into a new christendom.


Kevin said…
Dave, I agree. We don’t need a religious left. Many people like to label guys like Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis as the “religious left.” I’m not sure that is a title they desire to embrace.
Even Wallis in his book God’s Politics talked about the idea of Prophet Politics. To paraphrase this idea it would involve the prophecy of moral truth telling, or practicing a “consistent ethic of life.” Being pro-life would no longer be limited to outlawing abortion, but being anti-capital punishment, anti-poverty, and anti-nuclear weapon. Homosexuals will no longer be used as scapegoats to scare Christians away from voting for Democrats, but would be valued as God’s creation even when their lifestyles are out of sync with the Christian life.
Creating another polar sub-group called the religious left would not be helpful. Even though it is very tempting to me. I tend to get into antagonistic arguments with the right wing folks.
David Wilkerson said…
Amen on the church angle. I did a 16 week study of God's Politics in a Methodist Sunday School. Wallis' ecclesiology was thin (to be kind). Although he denies it, he does seem to just want to make every Christian into something like a Democrat or left-wing evangelical.

The social gospelers (all quite liberal Democrats) in my church just ran with it. It was all I could do to make Republicans feel welcome by continually re-working Wallis' argument into a church centered examination of Our Politics. It was only occasionally successful.
bcongdon said...

You cherry-pick what you consider correct doctrine and correct practice by sometimes appealing to the original gospel and sometimes appealing to centuries of tradition, as suits you. It's only when you dogmatically assert your cherry-picks are correct that it sounds silly.

For example, you said, "we must be aware that the anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism, anti-militarism that flows out of the gospel is intended to be embodied within the church."

And later, "we cannot baptize adults just because we see that as the example in Scripture" because "As the church developed over time, so too do our sacraments and practices which necessarily reflect the development in tradition."

So... getting back to a supposed first-century communism is good; getting back to a first-century baptism is bad. Got it.


June 28, 2006 4:14 PM

D.W. Congdon said...
Brad, I know you're a smart man, so I assume you are able to see why that deceptive logic falls apart. Let's be clear about what you are saying:

(1) On one hand, we have the communitarian example of the early church that was in opposition to the state, while

(2) on the other hand, we have the practice of adult baptism in the early church.

You claim that we either need to hold on to both, or neither, but we cannot pick and choose our positions.

Even a cursory glance at church history and Scripture should show the clear difference between (1) and (2). The former position -- communitarian, nonviolent, non-materialistic -- is prescribed by Scripture. That is, Jesus and the early apostles proclaimed and lived out these ideals as the proper way to conform to the gospel account. In other words, you cannot justify capitalism, materialism, and militarism from Scripture. It just doesn't work.

However, the practice of adult baptism is never prescribed but only described. The NT texts record this as the norm in the early church, but by nowhere is there a clear argument for why the church must follow this practice. In other words, we can justify both adult and infant baptism from Scripture. One popular and appropriate way is to view baptism as the Christian counterpart to Jewish circumcision -- which it is. Baptism then takes on the character, as it should, of establishing from the start of one's life what one's identity is and will be. This also reflects an important development between the male-only practice of circumcision and the egalitarian practice of baptism, in which all are one in Christ Jesus. A more theological justification can be found in the identity of Jesus as the mediator not only of the objective side of salvation but also the mediator of our subjective life of response (both of which are part of the atonement). For more on that, read T. F. Torrance's great little book, The Mediation of Christ. Only $12 on Amazon and worth $120.

(Furthermore, we have no way of knowing that the early church did not baptize infants as well as adults, and since they baptized whole families, it seems logical than infants were part of this process of familial conversion. I think we would do well to remember that the emphasis on adult baptism among the Anabaptists corresponded with their high emphasis on the individual before God over against anyone and everyone else. The individual had priority, rather than the family or the community. That has become far more pronounced today such that there is no compelling reason why American evangelicals don't just baptize themselves. I think there are reasons why adult baptism is still a good idea, but we've lost the theological underpinings for this practice in the Protestant West. Karl Barth offers the only really compelling arguments for believer's baptism today, but many scholars of Barth rightly criticize him on this point because he comes into contradiction with some of his other held positions -- e.g., election and Jesus Christ's mediating role, his doctrine of creation, etc.)

Now, if you do not buy the Scriptural argument -- and it would clearly be problematic if you did not -- I can give you the historical argument. The church departed from (1) for worldly reasons that were not in conformity with Scripture. In other words, the church for obvious reasons did not want to face persecution any longer; they wanted to spread the gospel throughout the world in peace. This proper concern resulted in a very improper marriage of nation-state and a church that was supposed to embody servanthood, slavery to Christ, the suffering of the cross, and death for the sake of life. The Constantinian captivity of the church was a departure from the gospel, not an outworking of it. A glance at Scripture again would make this case rather clear.

However, the development of (2) came about as part of the church's attempt to adapt the practices of the church to a new cultural situation. The church has always had to deal with the reality of change in society, and infant baptism came about for precisely this reason. In those days, persecution and disease and war were realities that meant very few lived beyond one's early years. Baptism was viewed by the early church as more than a sign; it was indeed the event of salvation itself. Contemporary evangelicals have forgotten this, and emphasized the liberal "conversion experience" instead. But for the early church, baptism was where the change occurred, and that being the case, it was their duty to make sure their children would be fit for eternal life with God should they die young. Baptism was thus carried out shortly after birth.

Theologically, we may find these reasons suspect, but the intentions behind them were quite proper. And the Scriptures did not invalidate this as a sacramental practice. We should be clear that infant baptism at that time was comprised of two events: (1) baptism, and (2) confirmation. They took place at the same time. The former could be done by any clergy, but the latter required a bishop. The two events were unfortunately separated when the church was in need of many more bishops. This separation is still in effect today.

Here we can insert a proper criticism of the Catholic Church: their high valuation of tradition -- which is a very good thing, I must add -- was too high, in that they were prevented from thinking self-critically about the decisions made in the past. The church has always (though slowly) adapted to the changing culture around them, but it has not been able to "adapt back," so to speak, because these changes become sacred rather than being contingent.

This does not mean that we can revert to adult baptism and reject tradition altogether, but it means we need to be self-critical about both the infant baptism tradition and the adult baptism tradition, in its modern Anabaptist form.

But to compare adult baptism with the communitarian ideals of the early church simply does not work. The logic is deceptive, but erroneous.

June 29, 2006 10:42 AM
Halden said…
David, I think I have more anabaptist sympathies than you do in regards to both baptism and their understanding of tradition. On this point, Yoder's chapter, "The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood" in The Priestly Kingdom is particularly helpful.

However, my question is how you would respond to Barth's theology of baptism in CD IV/Fragment. Obviously you don't have to agree with everything Barth says, but since you are pretty Barthian, I'd be curious how you'd interact with his rejection of infant baptism. I think there are some pretty problematic aspects of Barth's theology of baptism, but I do think he was right in what he rejected.

I share some of the Anabaptist sympathies which people like Yoder and Hauerwas present in their writings, but primarily in their total rejection of christendom. The baptism tradition is much less acceptable to me, since historically they said, "We don't see infants baptized, therefore we reject that practice." That's just not a very good hermeneutic.

Now Barth is another matter. I am not qualified as of yet to comment thoroughly on his position, since I have not done all the reading. I hope to by the end of the summer. Travis (wtm) is the one to write on this subject, since he hopes to do a thesis this next year on Barth, Calvin, and baptism. And he too rejects Barth's position, as does Hunsinger (and many others).

I will try to start a post on that topic if there is enough support for such a discussion.
timcoe said…
Anyone who receives SoJo Mail knows that Sojourners has become a lefty mirror to Focus on the Family.

But David, I think it's dangerous to think of the community of the early church as a model for how one should view American national politics. A church's communism makes a lot more sense than a nation's communism, etc.
I agree with you, Tim. And I don't want to suggest that we should conflate the two so easily. But I do think that if the socio-politico-ethical realm of the church is truly aimed at embodying a just and holy community, this should overflow into our responsibility for the rest of society. For example, I really do not believe one can justify taking a stance against capital punishment unless you are part of a faith community (Christianity, primarily) that embodies the belief system necessary for practicing such an ethic. But that does not mean I would support capital punishment in society at large. No, the reality of God encompasses all facets of my life, and thus I pursue justice and righteousness in the world at large, and not just in the church.

To be sure, the early church is NOT communist. We should rather say that communism was an attempt to practice the ethics of the early church in the absence of faith in God. That's impossible.
Halden said…
David I don't know if your reading of Anabaptist baptism is quite on. Obviously 16th century anabaptism is a highly varigated phenonenon, but reasoning for rejecting infant baptism was not based primarily on the fact that there is no explicit evidence of that practice occuring in Scripture. And indeed it had everything to do with their rejection of Christendom.

Some of this is detailed in Thomas Finger's A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, which is a very thorough and balanced historical and theological study of anabaptism. Also Lee Camp's account of baptism in Mere Discipleship shows the logic of anabaptist baptism. IT was because of the conflation of baptism and citizenship under Christendom that the anabaptists insisted on viewing baptism as an initatory act, entered into in faith whereby one's allegiance is given to God and derivatively the church over against other social formations. The practice of infant baptism essentially inscribed all persons at birth into the church by virtue of the fact that they were part of the nation with which the church was conflated. That is why the anabaptists felt compelled to reject it - because of its enmeshment with the Constantinian settlement.

Now, are there ways of practicing infant baptism that are not Constantinian? I certainly think so. Nor do I dismiss the legitimacy of infant baptism out of hand. However, I think the connection between baptism and discipleship is eroded when infant baptism becomes the standard practice.

The connection between circumcision and baptism is, of course undeniable, they are both signs of being included in the covenant community. But the crucial question is how one comes to be included in the church versus how comes to be included in bibical Israel. For you this answer should be obvious. We enter into the church through God's act of justification by grace through faith. If entry into the church is based on justification faith, it seems at best theological awkward to confer baptism on infants where personal faith and discipleship cannot become a factor in their inclusion in the church (except through their parents as Luther argued, though I don't think this holds much water).

It seems to me that infant baptism can undercut the distinctiveness of the church as an alternative social reality because it renders church membership a function of a different social reality, either through the family or through the state. If one's identity as a member of a nation that names itself Christian or a family that is Christian is enough to place one inside the church, it seems to me that the distinctive nature of the church's social reality as a community created de novo by the work of the Spirit which transcends nation and family ends up getting eclipsed.

Finally, while infant baptism does have a long history in the tradition, the tradition is not unambiguous about the practice of baptism. There were standard practices of delaying baptism until death because of different medieval theologies of the impossibility of postbaptismal sin. None of this serves to refute or support infant baptism, but I do think we need to acknowledge the variety in the tradition on this topic.

And if cultural realities are factors in how we are to rightly embody our sacramental practices, the real question before us is what mode of baptism captures the essence of what is being "said" (vera visibli) in baptism? To my mind anabaptist baptism and the clear imagery contained therein of passing from one life and one social reality to another is most rightly captured.
Halden said…
Ok, I just pounded that out work and it is pretty full of typos. Good luck deciphering it.

My girlfriend will tell you what a terrible typist I am...
Your argument is persuasive, and I am definitely sympathetic. Here are some reasons why I would want to hold on to infant baptism:

(1) Discipleship should not be something that I individually chose but rather something I am born into. I am raised as a disciple of Jesus Christ and should never know myself as anything but a follower of our Lord and Savior. I do not make the choice to be a disciple; a disciple is simply who I am. I could not be otherwise.

(2) I will spend much more time on this in a future post on universalism, but faith is not what "gets me in" to the church; faith is a recognition of what is already true about me as a person, as one who was assumed in the incarnation, whose sins have been atoned for, and whose response to God in faith has already been mediated by Jesus in his perfect life of vicarious obedience to the Father.

(3) Infant baptism does not make the family unit a higher priority than the church, because one is baptized in the church by the Holy Spirit alone. The family is only involved insofar as it produces this child; but the child has already belonged to God in pre-temporal eternity, and thus the child is never any one else's possession besides God's alone. Baptism, as a sacrament of the church enabled by the Holy Spirit, effectively severs all other loyalties and shapes the identity of that child so that the child's entire life is now defined by this mysterious event.

(4) To elaborate on my last two statements, the only thing that allows me to be a part of the church -- and thus the only thing that enables baptism -- is the person of Jesus Christ. Not family, not nation, not even the church as an institution that may be here one day and gone the next. Jesus Christ alone is the basis for my identity. A child should not be baptized by virtue of their birth; a child should be baptized by virtue of Christ's life, death, and resurrection.
Halden said…
What is interesting about this it really seems to show the connection between your universalism and your theology of infant baptism. It seems like, in light of your view of election (Barth's) that since everyone is objectively in Christ because of his election and atonement, everyone should be baptized because that reality is true to what is in fact the case in Christ.

However, I still have reservations about Barth's doctrine of election, not because of the universalism, but because I don't think it is eschatological enough (in line with Gunton's remarks in The Christian Faith which was quoted on on another post here, I think).

At any rate, I think what is lost in holding infant baptism as you've advocated for it is the whole issue of distinction from the world that is born out of baptism. I think because everything is already objectively in Christ for you, you might be in danger of Christomonism here. I think we need an eschatological account that is able to say that in a very real sense the world is not yet redeemed. It will be redeemed when the work effected by Christ which reconciles all things to God is perfect and completed by the Holy Spirit eschatologically. And I don't think this can be accomodated by the subjective/objective distinction.

That is why I think we need baptism to be an act of social demarcation in the world, given the "already/not yet" nature of redemption. And I really don't see how it can be that in a way that really "says" what baptism is supposed to say if it is infant baptism.

Also I think I have to stand against the idea that we can just be born into discipleship. Discipleship is not something we are born into, but somethin that we are re-born into through the Spirit. That is something that is distinct from natural birth and involves the whole person being turned toward Christ in discipleship. It seems to me that infant baptism obscures this reality in a problematic way. Again, we may be working with different accounts of election and redemption here, yours being more Barthian.
You're right to make that observation, but these thoughts on baptism came years before I accepted universalism. Universalism was the end result of a careful period of thoughtful reflection on these matters.

Yes, election is central here. But I wish to argue that the subjective-objective distinction is sufficient. Of course the world is not yet redeemed. My account of universalism does not even negate this distinction. The church-world distinction is necessary, and I do not think the emphasis on Christ's election overrules this.

Once again, I see your point, but I want to avoid as much as possible the problems inherent in a voluntarist, individualistic, modern liberal account of baptism and discipleship which the anabaptist tradition leads towards almost inevitably. Baptism is primariliy about Jesus — with whom we are buried and raised again — and only secondarily about us.

Let me emphasize once again: baptism is not conferred based on one's natural birth; it is conferred as a mark of one's eschatological identity which is subjectively realized in faith, but which is grounded in the objective event of Jesus Christ. Baptism is not something we do to claim God; baptism is the sacrament in which God claims us as God's own children.

Also, the circumcision parallel bears repeating in another light. As you know, an Israelite was circumcised based on his birth in the elect nation. Jesus Christ does not transfer the realm of identity from national identity to the individual disciple. Jesus rather transfers the locus of identity from the nation to Himself, from one's blood relations to one's relation to Jesus Christ. As Scripture makes clear, Jesus is the representative of Israel as a whole; Jesus is the son that the Father always intended Israel to be. So the ground of our personhood moves from the elect nation to the elect God-man, Jesus. What Jesus accomplished then, is the basis for our identity; and if Jesus was the mediator between God and humanity, we have been reconciled to God.

None of this denies the subjective side of faith, and I don't want to undermine the importance of an adult confirmation of one's baptism. But I still think that infant baptism takes the issue of identity out of our individual hands and places it in the hands of our loving and gracious God — where it belongs.
Halden said…
I see your points as well, and they do make a strong case. And I'm certainly against the "voluntarist, individualistic, modern liberal account of baptism". I don't really know how I could be more communitarian if I tried. Autonomy is that last thing that should ever play into baptism.

However, I don't think that anabaptism is to blame for the modern liberal view of baptism. The anabaptist tradition is among the most communally focused and non-autonomous strands within the Christian faith. I'd lay the problem righat at the foot of pietism which is quite a different historical and theological phenomenon. That's where we get the contemporary version of baptism where it's just me declaring that I've chosen to lay hold of God, because of my inner spiritual relationship with God, which is entirely wrong as we both agree.

I agree that baptism is about God claiming us, but I don't think that infant baptism really preserves that any better than disciple baptism because the essence of baptism is that you cannot baptize yourself, it is something that is done to you by another. Interestingly, my fear of infant baptism is that it would be a coercive or possibly violent act because it renders the subjective participation of the baptized impossible. It is a forced, coerced passivity not the passivity created by the word of God which sounds us out and draws us to faith. I know that many who have been baptized as infants and have not become disciples have viewed thier baptisms as precisely that, acts of violence being coercively claimed for a God they did not follow. Certainly God possesses and is sovereign over all persons and their destiny is ultimately in him. However, is God's method of appropriation violent? The cross does allow itself to be rejected and considered as foolishness. To be sure the power of the Cross will overcome all things in the end. That is the essece of biblical universalism. But that power works non-coercively, seeking the "Yes" of Mary and not forcing itself upon those to whom the gift is given.

So while I agree that baptism is not technically about "our" commitment to God or Christ, it is as you say about Christ, about dying and being raised with him. This is of course, grounded solely in his objecive work in the cross and resurrection, however we do not die and rise with Christ apart from our subjective faith and commitment to him. Thus, I do see something constitutive about the faith of the participant in the act of baptism. It isn't about the person's individual and how they have appropriated God, but it is about how God has appropriated them and their own passive acceptence in faith of God's act. This is embodied in passively undergoing baptism at the hands of another, being baptized into one body, dying and rising with Christ. That is not autonomy or voluntarism in any way.

Again, I do see your points and consider them strong. We're probably just not going to agree on this in the end. But if it's any consolation, I certainly will never think of your children's baptism's as invalid.