The Problem of Progressive Adventists
by Ron Corson
What does one think of when they hear or read the term Progressive Adventist? Do they think Progressive politics; gay marriage, pro choice (abortion), opens borders, socialism and social justice? Those are all political progressive ideas, however they are not part of what define Progressive Adventism. Progressive Adventism is defined by its beliefs related to the doctrinal beliefs inside the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
Ten years ago I wrote an article for Adventist Today on the differences between progressive Adventists and traditional Adventists entitled “Progressive and Traditional Adventists Examined.” (Nov.–Dec. 2002 Adventist Today PDF archive for those with subscriptions) The article on Wikipedia quotes the following on Progressive Adventism (quoted without their footnotes):
“Ron Corson identifies four common areas of progressive belief:
- Investigative judgment. A different view of the investigative judgment, or a denial of its biblical basis.
- Remnant. An inclusion of other Christians in the term remnant.
- Ellen White. A less rigid view of the Inspiration of Ellen White, from recognizing her fallibility to perhaps even denying her prophetic gift.
- Sabbath. An emphasis on the benefits of the Sabbath, but a denial that it is the ‘seal of God’ or that Sunday keeping will ever become the mark of the beast.
Progressives are inclusive of other types of Adventists, and believe different beliefs and types should be welcomed as part of the community. An example is Alden Thompson’s 2009 book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other.
Besides the definitions of Progressive Adventism in the article I have long used the quote from C.S. Lewis I felt expressed the reason behind progressive Adventism. The quote is as follows:
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man…There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake.” C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), Book I, Chap. 5, p. 22.
While I still hold to the definitions, in the Adventist Today article times have changed and the term ‘Progressive’ has gained resurgence in use during the last ten years. Those on the political left have begun referring to themselves as Progressive once again. As they attempt to move away from the term liberal, sort of the reverse of the early years of the 20th century when the Progressives changed their name to liberals after the excesses of Progressive Era.
We still however have the problem of what is a Progressive? If you are a political Progressive your definition will sound quite enticing and benign. Such as this quote from John Halpin in his article Progressivism in 2004: Transcending the Liberal-Conservative Divide
“At its core, progressivism is a non-ideological, pragmatic system of thought grounded in solving problems and maintaining strong values within society. The original progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century sought to improve American life by encouraging personal and moral responsibility among citizens; by providing the carrots and sticks to promote efficient and ethical business behavior; and by reforming government to provide a level playing field for all citizens and groups.”
If you are a conservative you will define Progressive more like this from The Heritage Foundation, The First Conservatives: The Constitutional Challenge to Progressivism:
“Progressivism was an intellectual and political reform movement that aimed to alter the American constitutional system. At the deepest level, as expressed especially in the thought of Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly, Progressives aimed to refound America based on the managerial – administrative political philosophy of the European state. Consequently, Progressives typically rejected the foundational American principles of natural rights and limited government for their own understanding of ‘progress,’ defined as governmental experts management of social change toward an ever more just and essentially socialist future.”
What is in a name is not so much found in the word but the action of those who hold to particular ideas. A proponent of something can usually make their position seem righteous; a critic can make the other seem bad. Perhaps simplistically, a progressive is for change and a conservative is for keeping everything as it has always been. But not every change is good and not all things that have been should be changed. It is the details that matter not the grand rhetoric. In politics I am a conservative, I want to maintain the founding principles and the American Constitution. But in Adventism I am Progressive and want to change some of the traditions of Adventism and some of the traditions of Christianity as well. But it is the details that matter, the rhetoric of change merely serves to label me as one thing or the other, a shortcut when communicating with people but what the label means is subjective, colored by the expectations and prejudices of the reader/listener.
Progressive Adventism has meaning in the details. There may be some Progressive Adventists who are politically progressive and there may be some who are politically conservative or libertarian. The mistaken linkage of Progressive Adventism as political progressive must be rejected or there will cease to be a Progressive Adventist movement as the group becomes divided along political lines instead of united on theology and ecclesiology.
As often happens, once politics is mentioned it will consume all other things; even when the equally controversial subjects of religion and politics meet. If Progressive Adventism ever seeks to reform the Adventist church it must stand united on the details that define it inside the denomination. One of those details is that of inclusiveness, which includes the often derided term pluralism. If it were true that we as a denomination had all the truth then pluralism could be justifiably considered a dirty word as some on the traditional Adventist side appear to believe. But as long as we don’t have all the truth we need the consideration of a multiple ideas, letting the marketplace of ideas winnow out what can and cannot stand the test of truth.
Progressive Adventism stands for the freedom to think outside of a prescribed frame of reference.
- To be open to a wide variety of interpretative techniques and acknowledge the breadth of Biblical literature forms.
- To accept the natural world does not say what our religion may have previously claimed.
- To express the idea that science and religion can work together; that one does not have to be right and the other wrong, but to seek a unified theory.
- To recognize inspiration is not as simple as, “God said it and I believe it”.
- That salvation is in the hands of God and not found in what we think we know.
What do those who hear the term Progressive Adventists think when they hear the label? It most certainly stands in contradistinction from traditional Adventism. It points out the fictional standard of traditional Adventism since the history of the Adventist church has always been about moving forward and being willing to change their views, whether it was about Sabbath worship or their understanding of the Godhead or emphasis on health reform or the benefits of advanced education. The definition however, should be considered in the context of Adventist doctrines rather than political progressive themes.