What is the mark of a truly progressive theology?


Is it a commitment to social justice, to the inclusion of gays in the ministry, advocacy of refugees and ‘illegal’ immigrants, or perhaps the ideal of poverty in a world where the ostentatious display of wealth is deemed desirable? Possibly, but I suggest that the signal of a properly progressive theology may be found in the doctrine of salvation…

Is it a commitment to social justice, to the inclusion of gays in the ministry, advocacy of refugees and ‘illegal’ immigrants, or perhaps the ideal of poverty in a world where the ostentatious display of wealth is deemed desirable? Possibly, but I suggest that the signal of a properly progressive theology may be found in the doctrine of salvation.

It all hangs on the relation between those mythical first human beings, Adam and Eve, and Christ. Or rather, it depends on the way one reads the narrative of salvation that emerges from the texts: from prelapsarian paradise, through disobedience and the ‘Fall’ into sin, to the role of Christ in redeeming us from that sin. In order to distinguish between reactionary and revolutionary readings of that narrative, I would like to deploy Ernst Bloch’s distinction between two types of utopia. A conservative utopia is backward looking, seeking to restore a mythical Golden Age that is a construction of that conservatism. The evils of the present age will be overcome by returning to a world that was once upon a time much more ideal. By contrast, a radical utopia is forward-looking. The function of the myth of paradise is not to look backwards but forwards, for it projects an image of what might be but has not as yet been achieved. It offers hope rather than despair, anticipation rather than nostalgia.

How does this work with the doctrine of salvation? A backward looking doctrine sees Christ as the second or ‘last’ Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), who restores our prelapsarian state so that once again we commune with God. Christ thereby repairs the damage done by Adam and Eve. Irenaeus (second century) might be partially responsible for kicking off this theological tradition with his explicit mention of the ‘second Adam’ who restores humanity to the image of God, but it was the story the grew up around the tree of Good and Evil in the garden that gave full expression to this conservative understanding. That tree, after many trials, became the cross of Calvary, as Piero della Francesca’s (d. 1492) fresco depicts so well. In ‘The Story of the True Cross’ Calvary becomes the point at which the fateful events at the tree of the garden are overcome. In other depictions we find Adam buried under the cross, perhaps holding a chalice to catch the first drops of Christ’s blood. And of course John Donne and John Milton made much of the connection. For Donne, ‘Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place’, while in Milton’s Paradise Regained the whole story is structured around the restoration of paradise.

The problem with these approaches is that they rely on the ‘Fall’ to get salvation moving. Without that baleful moment, Christ would not have had to save us at all (forget that a Bible full of the frolicking of Adam and Eve in the garden would have been a boring text indeed). Two theological traditions of which I am aware negate the centrality of the negative moment and the consequent reactionary version of salvation. One is Eastern Orthodoxy, for which the Fall is not an exclusive prerequisite for salvation. How so? Paradoxically, it was Irenaeus – the man responsible for elevating the idea of the Second Adam – who began this line of thought, for he also argued that the Fall was not necessary for the narrative of salvation, that Christ would have come anyway. But it really took shape after St. Maximus, for now Genesis 1:26 was read in a way that distinguishes between the image and likeness of God: ‘Let us make humankind in our image [tselem], according to our likeness [demuth]’. Adam and Eve may have been created in the image of God, which was thereby fractured and blurred with the first sin, resulting in the unnaturalness of death. However, the likeness was entirely missing. Christ’s task in salvation is then not a simple reactionary process of restoring our prelapsarian state, our image of God, but a new state that Adam and Eve did not possess. In salvation one becomes not merely the image of God, but also the likeness. This is theosis, or deification, which designates a closer fellowship with God than even the first human beings experienced. Christ may be the second Adam, but he is also much more. All of which means that the Fall is not a necessary requirement for salvation, for Christ would have had to be incarnated for the sake of enabling us to achieve the likeness of God.

The other tradition is Calvinism and its doctrine of double predestination. Rather than rely on an act of fragile human beings, or for that matter the devil, to get the narrative of salvation moving, Calvin held that the eternal divine plan has already designated those who are saved and those who are not:

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death. (Institutes 3.21.5)

Much castigated, this doctrine actually has a radical core. It relegates the Fall to one moment in a much longer narrative, one that extends before the village idiocy of the garden and beyond the moment of salvation in Christ. It is none other than the grandest narrative of all, for it concerns eternity. Of course, it is a stark doctrine, challenging our pride in our abilities and in freewill, full of divine ‘history on our side’, but it offers an alternative way of putting the Fall in its place. An act of disobedience by human beings is no longer the linchpin of salvation, for that is part of a grander story. In that respect, it is also a source of immense hope and confidence – precisely those features of a progressive theology of salvation I noted earlier. No matter how tough it gets, no matter how hopeless the situation may seem, it will indeed work out. In short, human beings are not going to ruin it at the last moment.

Roland Boer, on the road in Berlin

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