When we discuss inerrancy, it’s critical that we avoid treating some very different ideas as the same. There are, in fact, very many positions within the not-inerrant camp, some of which are indeed heresy and some of which, I think, are not. But our history of debates and polemics can lead us to treat all non-inerrant viewpoints as heresy.
Let me explain.
“Liberal” vs. “progressive”
A reader emailed me asking what the difference is between “liberal” and “progressive” as I use the terms. Well, in the minds of some, nothing at all — but those who confuse the two have been badly taught on such things. As I use the two terms, they are, in fact, nearly opposites. I’m a progressive, as I use the term. I’m not a liberal. I’m actually quite conservative. On other other hand, I am — or try to be — a change agent. I push for change, but not liberalism. I push for a better kind of conservatism.
The correct use of “liberal”
In theology, “liberal” takes on several shades of meaning, but most Christians educated in such things use “liberal” to refer to those influenced by the 19th Century viewpoint of the Tübingen School and the 20th Century teachings of such scholars as Rudolf Bultmann and similar thinkers (I’m generalizing here).
In the mid-19th Century, theologians at Tübingen University in Germany began a new approach to the Bible.
Although relatively short-lived, the school with its emphasis on dialectical conflict within the early church, rejection of Pauline authorship of most of his epistles, and completely antisupernaturalistic outlook contributed significantly to the development of a historical-critical approach to the Bible that completely ignored the divine element in it.
Bultmann argued that we should demythologize the scriptures, meaning that we should, being very modern people, ignore the miracles — even the resurrection. Obviously enough, this sort of thinking is simply not Christian.
Suffice to say that the Tübingen School, the teachings of Bultmann, and similar heresies crept into mainline denominations 100 years ago, very nearly destroying them. It is also found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, that separated from the independent Christian Churches and has led to a rapid decline in their membership.
This kind of thinking has no place in Christianity, cannot unite, and cannot save. After all, if Jesus can’t be resurrected, neither can we. Obviously enough, those of this mindset deny that the Bible is inerrant. In fact, they consider it highly errant. And they don’t consider it true or trustworthy. This kind of thinking is heresy.
But not all those who question inerrancy are liberal. Many, in fact, reject the entirety of the liberal agenda.
“Conservative” in the broader theological sense means “not liberal.” But I tend to also use “conservative” to refer to those who aren’t progressive in the Churches of Christ. It pains me to do so but I’ve been unable to come up with a better term that isn’t considered insulting to those I’m describing (I’m open to suggestions!)
And so, I’m a conservative in the broader theological sense. I reject the liberalism of Bultmann etc. However, within the Churches of Christ, I’m not considered conservative — but in a very, very different sense.
The Church of Christ use of “liberal”
In the Churches of Christ, we tend to label as “liberal” those who disagree with us by allowing something we think God doesn’t allow. Hence, a church that claps will inevitably be branded “liberal” by a non-clapping church — with the accusation made that they clearly reject the inspiration of scripture or else they’d not clap, as the Bible very plainly condemns clapping. It’s not a valid argument, it’s ignorant of history, and it’s just wrong. Clapping has nothing to do with theological liberalism.
In fact, no one in the Churches of Christ is liberal in the Tübingen/Bultmann sense. And all but one of us is liberal in the Church of Christ sense, as we are all more liberal (approving something someone else doesn’t) than someone else — other than whoever is the most conservative among us.
Hence, “liberal” in the context of Churches of Christ is nearly always a slander, but usually a slander that arises from being very poorly instructed in church history and theology. Many among us have been deceived by the false teaching that all who approve something we disapprove are theologically liberal — leading to needless, anti-scriptural division.
In the context of the Churches of Christ, “progressive” is often used to refer to Christians who reject much of Church of Christ theology of the 20th Century, coming much closer to the teachings of the founders of the Restoration Movement — the Campbells and Barton W. Stone — and to current evangelical thought. I’m progressive in this sense.
There is no progressive creed and there’s considerable diversity within the progressive camp. Some are simply beginning to question the old theology. Others have a well-developed theology of grace that radically differs from 20th Century legalism.
The main difference between a Church of Christ conservative and progressive is their understanding of grace. A member of the Churches of Christ who considers such questions as instrumental music and the frequency of taking the Lord’s Supper to be salvation issues is conservative. A member who sees these as within God’s grace is progressive.