Progress: Is it Always "Progressive"?

Many Americans are fond of labeling certain political movements as “progressive,” which your mind immediately associates with something positive. The same is true in Biblical Interpretation and Christian practice. Movements of progress sound like where we want our boots to march, because that terminology polarizes opposing positions as “regressive” - a word we naturally don’t like. In a short article, I will not attempt to deal with any specific ideologies often placed under the umbrella of “progressive,” but I will say that historical Christianity has created the very terminology that has recently been divorced from the control of God.   

Let’s take a brief look at the historical narrative of the world. The pagan worldviews held by most of the world before Christ saw life and history itself as cyclical. The rise and fall of nations, the death of old and birth of new individuals, the water and wind cycles of nature, the rising and setting of the sun, the gods at odds with one another…all seemed to be evidence of our existence just going in circles. You’ll see Solomon stating and seemingly sympathizing with this cyclical view in Ecclesiastes, especially in this excerpt from the book's opening chapter (1:4-9):

A generation goes and a generation comes,
But the earth remains forever.
Also, the sun rises and the sun sets;
And hastening to its place it rises there again.
Blowing toward the south,
Then turning toward the north,
The wind continues swirling along;
And on its circular courses the wind returns.
All the rivers flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full.
To the place where the rivers flow,
There they flow again.
All things are wearisome;
Man is not able to tell it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun.

But what Jesus showed the world was that history was not just a cycle. It was headed somewhere. It was goal-oriented, to bring the earth into alignment with the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 6:10). We were not stuck in a perpetual state of “the fall.” Redemption was available. Jesus was making all things new (Revelation 21:5). Even life and death were not just an endless cycle. He was the resurrection and the life. He was here to break the seemingly endless natural cycles. There was a grand narrative with meaning to it. And we played a role in it. So the worldview of “progress” was forged from Christianity.   

But now advance down the timeline to pause after about 1700 years...and come on up to today at 2,000 years since the 1st-century Jesus movement. While the post-Enlightenment individualism of the Western World moved us toward legitimate goals of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (peace, prosperity, health, and justice in the world)…it has over time put the focus of “progress” on human achievements rather than a divine scheme. The story has cut its author and main character from its pages. And now rather than being seen as progressive, Christianity is seen by many as outdated. We’ve moved beyond it. Culturally, we now experience what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” thinking that newer is automatically better. Hence the championing of words like CONTEMPORARY, RELEVANT, NOVEL, and INNOVATIVE - none of which we should demonize but all terms that should carry some degree of caution. Most often the soundest "innovation" is through "restoration" of ancient principles that have just been neglected. Change is in most cases necessary. But the direction of change is paramount. 

But while the "new is automatically better" mindset is a dangerous fallacy, we would not be giving the complete picture if we didn't touch on its inverse - that is, when we chant the chorus of the Pharisees that “the old is good enough” (Luke 5:39). Don't think this is a THEM issue (those stubborn Pharisees) and not a danger for US. When we make the past a hero, hold to traditions simply because they are "the way we've always done things," or resist change because it's a threat to my comfortable status-quo...then we have succumbed to a chronological snobbery of a different kind that is just as wrong. We cannot assess an idea by its chronology, but only by its actual validity. 

There is no doubt that Jesus was a change agent - the greatest that ever lived. But even His teachings were not all brand new. Most were simply calling people back to live out what the ancients had always known but had selfishly skewed over time. Read The Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5-7) carefully, and see that Jesus is not using an "erase and replace" approach to the "old Scriptures." Rather, He's actually calling His disciples to live out the true heart of the teachings that they've always known. You know not to murder. Now internalize that and apply it even in your thoughts and words. You know not to commit adultery. Now apply that in your heart and with your eyes. Jesus is actually putting the "old Scriptures" into a pencil sharpener to put a finer point on them. He is accentuating and restoring. And this is usually His method of progress. The wisdom of the Scriptures is timeless. Jesus calls us back and thus moves us forward.

And so I leave you here to make application as is valid - in politics, in Christian practice, in your own life. I'm not telling you which issues are in fact progressive and which are regressive. I simply ask you to put all ideas through The Berean Test (Acts 17:11) of the Scriptures. Those Scriptures are more RELEVANT and CONTEMPORARY than what you may think. In the end, the only real progress for an individual, a church, or even a nation…is a movement toward Christ.  


To His Glory, 



Photo credit: -= Bruce Berrien =- via / CC BY