The ‘Coming Out’ Party of the progressive Christians: An Historical-Sociological Sketch

I cannot but help to sense the ‘spirit’ of Friedrich Schleiermacher alive and well within my own Christian heritage in evangelicalism; but in its younger expression found in what some call progressive Christianity. It is almost as if the same record is being played again, in a way, although at a faster speed with some new notes and lyrics placed onto this old record.

Evangelicalism finds its roots, and mood, in and from within a German movement known as Pietism. Pietism was an attempt by certain Christian thinkers like Phillip Jakob Spener, Count von schleiermacherZinzendorf, et. al. to provide a counter style of Christianity to what had come to be perceived as the dry arid Christianity produced by the schoolmen known as ‘Post-Reformed-Scholastic-orthodoxy. Pietists wanted to return to a warm-hearted Christianity where an intimacy of Christian love of God cultivated by spiritual practices like devotional Bible reading was the emphasis. Note H.R. Mackintosh’s take on this:

The purpose which men like Spener and Francke had in their mind was not so much to remodel doctrine as to quicken the spiritual life. The fought the worldliness and apathy of the Church. Like the Methodists in England, they urged the necessity for a deeper devotional acquaintance with Scripture, and with this in view they encouraged the formation of private circles for Bible study, the tone of which should be devout rather than scientific. In addition, they called upon Christian people to be separate from the world and give up its ways. These principles were recommended by the establishment of noble philanthropic institutions, some of which persist to this day.

But the weaker men who followed in their train were apt to turn principle into narrow and bitter prejudice. Attendance at private Bible-circles came to be regarded as of more importance than Church fellowship. A meager and utilitarian idea of doctrine tended to become a favourite; nothing could pass muster except that which yielded immediate edification; and the rank and file soon forgot that there is such a thing as the study of Christian truth for its own sake. Again, the demand was frequently made that every believer must have undergone a certain prescribed series of conversion-experiences, in a prescribed order–so much in the way of legal terrors, so much new-found joy. Nor, as we might expect, was it long before certain representatives of the Pietistic school began to use expressions, imprudent or worse, which meant that these subjective experiences of the convert are the real ground of his acceptance with God. This was plainly the thin end of the legalistic wedge. It taught men to look inward, not upward, and threatened to silence that open declaration f the free and undeserved grace of God without which the preached Gospel has lost its savour.[1]

Without getting too deep into the history there are interesting parallels, even at a sociological level, that inhere between what is occurring today and what happened back in the day of the Pietists. Like I noted, the Pietists were reacting to the dry, arid Christianity, as they perceived that, produced as it was by the scholastic Reformed Christians. The scholastic Reformed Christians (like what we see given expression, theologically, in the Westminster Confession of Faith) were an institutionalizing group of Christian thinkers, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, who were in a ‘fight’ with Roman Catholic thought, and in this fight there was produced a body of Protestant Reformed teaching suitable for bringing up generations of Christian pastors, students of theology, and lay people who could have recourse to an identifiable and distinctly Protestant body of teaching. In this process, the schoolmen, used academic tools, inherited from their medieval forbears, and philosophical thinking such as could be found in: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Scotus, Agricola, Ramis, Ockham, et. al. They successively accomplished their task of producing an institutionalized Christianity, but for many, what they produced, again, was a dry, arid, and abstract Christianity that had no personal or intimate components that emphasized and helped to foster relationship with God in Christ; at least not at a felt level.

We can see this song being replayed in a way. At the turn of the 20th century, as a result of the Enlightenment (of the English and German sorts), ‘Liberal’ theology began to penetrate into the walls of and halls of traditionally scholastically Reformed, etc. seminaries. As a result, the ‘conservatives’ or who came to be known as the Fundamentalists reacted (like the original Pietists reacted against their perception of dry, abstract Christianity) against the intellectualist Liberalism of their day, but in the process, ironically, like the scholastic Reformed, produced a rigid form of ‘Fundamentalist’ Christianity that ended up, itself, being rigid, arid, abstract, and rationalist; it lost any type of felt Christianity wherein intimacy with God in Christ was emphasized or could be cultivated. As a result, even among the Fundamentalists, and within its ranks there was a turn, or reaction against the rigidity of rationalist Fundamentalism, without though a total abandonment of the intellectualism that was funding Fundamentalism. In other words, like the Pietists, evangelicals wanted to emphasize a warm-hearted relational Christianity that focused on personal Bible-devotion and intimate Bible-fellowship-meetings; nothing wrong with that.

But as we noted, just as the Pietists originally were reacting to the institutional Christianity they inhabited, part of that reaction involved a turn ‘inward’, a turn to the subject so to speak; a situation wherein the individual’s relationship and experience of God became the standard for Christian reality. It was within this milieu that, ironically, theological liberalism’s most prominent thinker was produced, and it his ‘spirit’ that I see living on among so named progressive Christians; not as a reaction from evangelical pietism, but as its logical extension. When the ‘subject’ becomes the norming norm for Christian doctrine and spirituality, when this is taken to its conclusion we end up with a radical form that wants to push off anything that sounds authoritarian or institutional; whether that be doctrinal, or whatever. Schleiermacher in the 18th century was Pietism’s logical extension then; progressive Christianity, in the ‘spirit’ of Schleiermacher is the logical extension of modern day evangelicalism/Pietism today. Note what Schleiermacher wrote in regard to the mood of Christianity he was attempting to promote:

You reject the dogmas and propositions of religion. Very well, reject them. They are not in any case the essence of religion itself. Religion does not need them; it is only human reflection on the content of our religious feelings or affections which requires anything of the kind, or calls it into being. Do you say that you cannot away with miracles, revelation, inspiration? You are right; we are children no longer; the time for fairy-tales is past. Only cast off as I do faith in everything of that sort, and I will show you miracles and revelations and inspirations of quite another species. To me everything that has an immediate relation to the Infinite, the Universe is a miracle; and everything finite has such a relation, in so far as I find in it a token or indication of the Infinite. What is revelation? Every new and original communication of the Universe to man; and every elemental feeling to me is inspiration. The religion to which I will lead you demands no blind faith, no negation of physics and psychology; it is wholly natural, and yet again, as the immediate product of the Universe, it is all of grace.[2]

For Schleiermacher anthropology was theology, and ‘feeling’ and/or human experience became the canon by which all Christian doctrine was developed and measured.


My little historical genealogical development, and attempt to parallel things did not correlate one-for-one throughout. But the point was simply to underscore that there are interesting patterns inherent in the history and development of ideas that provide precedence for what is happening today among former evangelical and now progressive Christians. It is a ‘spirit’, I would contend, the ‘spirit’ of Schleiermacher, and others too, that progressives (and that itself represents a continuum) imbibe and think from. What used to be sacrosanct, in regard to Christian holiness, is no longer binding because it does not meet currently with the standards of what counts as ethical and ‘holy’ in our 21st century context. Schleiermacher had a ‘coming out’ party in his day, and the progressives are having theirs today. There really isn’t a lot of difference between the two; our experience of God has become conflated with the Spirit of the Lord’s voice which allows movements in the culture to dictate new standards for what counts as ‘good’ (across all spectrums: doctrinally, ethically, etc.), and as if from God Himself.

[1] Hugh Ross Macintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 11-12.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher cited in Ibid., 43-4.