Yesterday, Capturing Christianity hosted Joshua Swamidass for a conversation in which Swamidass provided a response to my book Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too and the wider progressive/evangelical conversation. In this article, I’m going to provide a bullet-point response to aspects of the conversation. I look forward to speaking with Swamidass about this in the future either on my YouTube channel or another platform.
- Swamidass makes some very kind comments about my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor? for which I’m grateful. That book has been generally ignored by Christian apologists so when Swamidass said every Christian apologist should read it, he gladdened the heart of this author.
- I was less happy when Swamidass turned to discuss Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too. He didn’t really address the central argument of the book which is a critique of Alisa Childers’ claim that progressive Christians are not Christians at all. In my book, I provide multiple lines of evidence to demonstrate that this is a patently false thesis. I further provide multiple examples where Childers distorts and flatly misrepresents the views of progressive Christians such as with her outrageous claim that they are “relativists” about truth. Swamidass discusses none of this.
- Instead, Swamidass says that Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too is an inferior book to Is the Atheist My Neighbor? and he muses that this is because “Alisa Childers struck closer to home” given that she offered “direct criticism of him and his friends”. Note that there is no argument here: rather, Swamidass foregoes criticism of the content of the book by instead speculating on an alleged emotional investment (and, by implication, lack of objectivity or balance) that skews the analysis. But without specific examples of how the analysis has been skewed, this is nothing more than an ad hominem.
- Swamidass criticizes me for citing Bebbington’s Quadrilateral (i.e. a definition of evangelicalism in terms of four historic emphases: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism) in my appearance on Capturing Christianity. Swamidass claims the BQ is a poor definition of evangelicalism because it is consistent with Mormonism being evangelical. This is demonstrably incorrect. For example, Swamidass defines biblicism as “All essential spiritual truth can be found in its pages.” (I assume this is Swamidass’ own wording because that description is not given by Bebbington in the relevant work Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (Routledge, 1989). For Bebbington’s take see p. 4). However, Mormons explicitly deny this as they believe essential revelation has been subsequently provided in the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrines and Covenants and in the living witness of prophets since Joseph Smith. Consequently, Mormons would not qualify as evangelicals according to BQ.
- That said, I fear Swamidass is missing the larger point that a definition like BQ functions by tracking evangelicalism as a fuzzy concept, i.e. one about which the boundaries are essentially disputed or for which there is no universal agreement on the criteria of specific application. Within that context, identifying specific defeaters — e.g. claiming that Mormonism could count as evangelical — is to misread the function/application of the concept.
- Swamidass proposes that we should instead think in terms of creeds. Ironically, that is precisely what I do in Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too and in my Capturing Christianity interview: I repeatedly reference the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed as ways to track orthodoxy. In the book, I also make a point of noting that progressive Christian leaders like Enns and Zahnd (the latter who actually disavows the term ‘progressive Christian’) affirm the creeds.
- An aside: while Swamidass lists the “Athanasian Creed” as one of the creeds to affirm, that is actually a catechism (the term ‘creed’ is a misnomer in this context) which outlines Augustinian trinitarian theology and that is certainly not a basic requirement of orthodoxy.
- Swamidass argues that “Neo-Orthodoxy is a branch of progressive Christianity”. He also gives a chart that situates progressive Christainity as emerging from mainline churches. I disagree on both counts. Progressive Christianity arises out of evangelicalism. It is part of a phenomenon as Christians from conservative North American backgrounds over the last thirty years have rethought aspects of their historically conservative theological frameworks. In the 1990s the term “post-evangelical” was bandied about (see Dave Tomlinson); in the early 2000s, under McLaren’s influence some spoke of a “new kind of Christian”. At this early stage, there were dialogues with postliberals (who represented a similar disaffection with the mainline liberal movement from which they emerged), open theists, and process theists. By the mid-2000s the term “emergent” (and later “emerging”) became popular and over the last decade, “progressive Christian” has become dominant. But again, this describes a phenomenon growing out of North American evangelicalism/fundamentalism, not the mainline churches.
- Swamidass emphasizes the importance of appealing to the Lausanne Covenant as a way forward. However, the Covenant’s original intent was to define the term “evangelical” (and to do so primarily for missiological purposes). The website for the Lausanne Covenant states, “it served as a great rallying call to the evangelical Church around the world. It defined what it means to be evangelical….” (Source) However, Swamidass appears to take the Covenant as defining Christian rather than evangelical. That is a misunderstanding of the scope and intent of the document.
- Swamidass really wants to find things in Childers’ project with which he can agree. But as a result, I think he distorts her project. For example, he says that Childers “sees a lot of dangers in the mainline side of the church.” But her book isn’t about the “mainline side of the church.” It is about progressive Christians (who Childers herself insists come from evangelicalism, not mainline Protestantism). Further, for Childers, this isn’t a “side of the church” at all but rather a completely different religion. We cannot lose sight of the fact that this is her thesis, the thesis at the heart of her book, the one that calls out multiple respected Christian leaders as fake Christians and, in her language, wolves who want to eat the innocent sheep. For Childers, Rachel Held Evans wasn’t a Christian with whom she disagreed on some matters. Rather, Evans was a wolf out to devour God’s faithful sheep. You do nobody any favors when you decline to call out the outrageous thesis and incendiary rhetoric that composes Childers’ book while misrepresenting her views as simply seeing “dangers” in another “side” of the church. That’s not Childers’ view.
- Bertuzzi raises concerns about the term “progressive Christian.” I agree with his caveats, but I would point out that the same ambiguity attends to the use of other terms like “evangelical”, “fundamentalist,” and “liberal.” That’s precisely why we need to recognize that all these terms are highly contextualized and derive meaning from relative contexts. But Childers doesn’t use the term “progressive Christian” like that. Instead, she uses it as identifying a completely new religion that is opposed to Christianity. That is a false and harmful framing which is precisely the argument of Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too.
- I am glad that Swamidass calls out Childers for treating eternal conscious torment as an essential in Another Gospel? (In subsequent interviews she has allowed for annihilationism/conditional mortality as being consistent with evangelicalism. But this just says to me that she didn’t have a good grasp on the relevant theology when she wrote her book, hence the narrow and sectarian way that she presents Christianity.)
- Swamidass warns that Childers “bundles this up into one big bogeyman”. I agree. But then he says my book “doesn’t make that case as strongly as it could.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain why.
- Later, Swamidass says the way I argued my case in the book “undermined” it. Again, he never defended this assertion.
- Some guy named “Anglican Aesthetics” posted a statement commenting that I don’t affirm “Scripture is without error in all it affirms.” That is false: read my book Jesus Loves Canaanites for an explanation and defense of my views on plenary inspiration and divine authorial inerrancy.
- Swamidass stated that Childers has communicated to Bertuzzi that she is not willing to defend her views in dialogue with me. That’s unfortunate. If you’re going to write books declaring that fellow Christians are malevolent wolves from a false religion, you should be willing to defend your views in dialogue with the very Christians you are maligning.
- At the end Swamidass recommends my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor? but notably he does not recommend Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too. And yet, once again, he never explained why he disagreed with the book or why he does not recommend it beyond the above-mentioned vague ad hominem that the book is emotionally driven.
To conclude, while I am appreciative to Swamidass for aiming to carry the conversation forward, I had multiple disagreements with his analysis and am understandably unhappy that he effectively undercut Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too without providing any clear reason for doing so. In addition to the aforementioned ad hominem problem, I also believe that Swamidass runs into the golden mean fallacy by assuming without argument that he has adopted a moderating position that is “correct” and somehow avoids the errors of both Childers and myself without actually rebutting the position I defend.