The existence of liberal Christians is an important piece of evidence in the neopagan-neoreactionary indictment of Christianity, but such people are in the obviously anomalous situation of rejecting their own tradition to follow novel doctrines invented by explicitly anti-Christian groups. What are we to make of them? Our own JMSmith, among others, identifies them with Puritanism, whose essence he identifies with “sanctimonious browbeating“, the ideological justification for the Puritan’s self-righteousness being accidental. We’re all familiar with this phenomenon, but I’d like to fill out the picture. Since nobody calls himself a “Puritan”, that word’s use is mainly polemical rather than neutrally descriptive, or at least that’s how someone using it will be understood. I like to let people define and label their own beliefs. What do liberal Christians call their program? “Prophetic“, of course!
In my years as an Episcopal activist, I duly read all the “progressive” magazines and newsletters and press releases and sat through dozens of “progressive” sermons, lectures, press conferences, and literally weeks of General Convention meetings, covering the debates both of the house of bishops and the house of deputies (which included clerics and laymen both). I was surprised, after a while, to notice not only how often the progressives used the word “prophetic,” but how un-ironically they used it.
“Inclusive” language liturgy was Prophetic! and “gay marriage” was Prophetic! and support for illegal immigrants was Prophetic! and legalized abortion was prophetic and so was that and that and that! Nothing they said or did was non-prophetic. Nothing, or almost nothing, was just a good idea or the right thing to do or simply useful or helpful.
Conservative Christians will have reason to dispute liberals’ claim to the prophetic role. Prophets are supposed to bring God’s radical demands to the unbelieving world, while we accuse them of bringing the unbelieving world’s radical demands to God. However, the Bible itself warns us of the coming of false prophets. Even false prophets are prophets in a sociological and literary sense. They adopt the prophetic role and engage in the prophetic style of discourse. In this theologically neutral sense, “false prophet” doesn’t mean “not really a prophet”; it means “the false type of prophet” or “prophet of falsehood”.
It’s pretty obvious why liberal Christians would like to think of themselves as prophets. Consider the following from Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI.
In this respect, the body of law in question is also historically conditioned and entirely open to criticism, often–at least from our ethical perspective–actually in need of it…As Olivier Artus and others have shown, there is a sense in which the prophetic critique of Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah is also aimed at casuistic law that, although it is contained in the Torah, has in practice become a form of injustice. This happens when, in view of Israel’s particular economic situation, the law no longer serves to protect the poor, widows, and orphans, though the Prophets would see such protection as the highest intention of the legislation given by God…
Within the Torah itself, then, there are quite different levels of authority. As Artus puts it, the Torah contains an ongoing dialogue between historically conditioned norms and metanorms [i.e. general principles]. The latter express the perennial requirements of the Covenant.
In other words, prophets are the ones who get to contradict Moses. I quote the above not because there’s anything distinct about it, but just to show such commonplace observations coming from such a source. If I simply stated that the Old Testament has contradictions, readers would accuse me of blasphemy or at least not reading carefully. But in fact everybody says that the Old Testament has contradictions, but they’re not bothered by it because they have a rule for resolving them: prophets trump Moses.
I do have a problem with this, not least because Benedict’s rationalizations for Isaiah et al are so close to those used by sodomy advocates in the Church today. Aren’t they taking general metanorms gleamed from the Gospel, importing an alien anthropology to give them substance (something that will inevitably happen if one doesn’t allow one’s understanding of the metanorms to be guided by casuistic law), and using them to dismiss divinely revealed law? It’s odd that Benedict should be so ready to invoke “historical conditioning” to relativize the Pentateuch, since as a theologian he showed himself quite aware of the idea of God revealing Himself through history. What isn’t “historically conditioned”? What does this not leave open to question? The whole point of having a Chosen People, presumably, is to create the right cultural context for the revelation. Anyway, Moses was supposed to be the greatest prophet, the one with whom God conversed “face to face” as He did with none of Moses’ successors.
Christians believe that the Old Testament points toward Jesus Christ as its fulfilment. On a very standard (unself-consciously progressive) reading, there is a progression within the Old Testament to higher and higher spiritual levels. Moses’ five books, with their rules and rituals, occupy the bottom. Then come the prophets, who “spiritualized” Judaism with their explicit monotheism, concern for social justice, and contempt for ritual correctness. Finally the New Testament stands at the top, with Jesus carrying the prophet’s work further in the same direction.
In some ways the Prophets do anticipate Jesus, but in others the path to Christ is quicker directly through Moses. A big message of the prophet Ezekiel is personal responsibility–God doesn’t punish people for their ancestors’ sins, and he doesn’t impute anybody’s righteousness to anybody else. But the point of Christianity is that mankind is punished for the sin of our first parents, and our redemption comes not from our own righteousness but from Jesus Christ’s imputed to us. To understand this, one is better off starting from Exodus’ punishment of children “to the third and fourth generation”; Ezekiel is something one must get over. Similarly, everybody likes to admire Isaiah for the scorn he pours out on sacrifice-offering Israelites, saying that God wants justice and good works instead. How spiritual! How enlightened! But the point of Christianity is that we’re not saved by good works, but by a substitutionary sacrifice, and to understand the economy of sacrifice, one is better off reading Leviticus.
More could be said to question this idea of progression in the Old Testament. It seems clear to me that the Mosaic books have a better sense of symbolism, of spiritual realities apprehended in images rather than intellectual abstractions. Compare the rich symbolism of the first chapter of Genesis to Ezekiel making a spectacle of himself swinging his sword at his beard clippings. In the latter case, the image’s message can be (and in fact is) expressed in words and is therefore superfluous. In fact, this is probably the underlying reason for the appearance of the prophets. Because the symbols had become opaque to them, people had lost the ability to see a transcendent God made present by a small beleaguered kingdom and its now-meaningless rituals. Many turned to the worship of visible idols. Prophets like Isaiah had life-altering visions of God’s transcendence, so they saw the wickedness of idolatry, but unable to see the true God present in the Mosaic-Davidic system, they transferred their hope for a community of active divine presence to a future Messianic kingdom.
I prefer a horizontal view of the Old Testament. Both law and prophets point to the New Testament, both from a roughly equal distance. Both can be read as addressed to Christians, but indirectly, in that it is the record of God talking to the Hebrews that is spoken directly to us. Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets but could also be said to overcome them, both to an equal degree. Observance of the Law and prophetic alienation are both obsolete in the New Covenant. One might say that the Law and prophets form a thesis and antithesis, with Christianity as the synthesis that harmonizes them and supplies what is missing from both. Particularity and Transcendence are reconciled by Incarnation.
I thank readers for their patience. I am now ready to explain my own beliefs on the relationship between universalism and Christianity vs. other monotheisms.