Do Progressives and Biblical Christians agree on 90% of Doctrines?

Professor Dorothy Lee of the Trinity Divinity College, the University of Melbourne, told the Anglican General Synod that all the members of the Synod agreed on 90% of doctrines.   She elaborated on this to John Sandeman in a fascinating article published in Eternity –

Professor Lee gave a list of ten points which at first glance most Christians would hold to. She thinks that her ten points are enough to unite us.   But if we examine them a little more closely, and more importantly look at the actions of the ‘progressives’, we realise that there is little meaningful basis for unity.  I note in passing that Lee set up two groups within the Anglican church: Catholic and evangelical. It would be truer to reality to describe the two groups as bible believing Christians, and progressives. Official Catholic doctrine on social issues such as SSM and abortion is much more aligned with evangelicalism that it is with liberal ‘progressive’ Christianity. 

In order to advance this ‘unity’, Professor Lee and Bishop Matt Brain from Bendigo moved this following motion at the Synod.

“That this General Synod

  1. acknowledging that there are several theological and spiritual cultures within The Anglican Church of Australia,
  2. recognising that the persons within each culture adhere to it for reasons of belief conscientiously held in adherence to Holy Scripture as well as social identity, and
  3. welcoming the strengths that our diverse unity brings, therefore calls on all Anglicans regardless of their cultural identity to:
  4. respect one another’s cultures,
  5. build on what we hold in common,
  6. affirm that the separation of any one of us diminishes us all, and
  7. where we differ seek, ‘in the spirit of Philippians 3:13, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead”, to discover each other’s faith as it is today and to appeal to history only for enlightenment, not as a way of perpetuating past controversy’  so that the gospel we proclaim may be attractive to the widest range of Australians to whom we seek to minister.”

In response Mark Thomson, Principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney, moved this amendment.

“This General Synod:

a. Rejoices in the Christian faith professed by the Church of Christ from the time of the New Testament, and in particular set forth in the Creeds;
b. Joyfully recommits to respectful and reverent reading, teaching and preaching of the canonical Scriptures as our ultimate rule and standard of faith, inspired by God and containing all things necessary for salvation;
c. and humbly re-expresses its determination to obey the commands of Christ and teach his doctrine as these are given to us in Scripture.”

This passed by 119 to 113.  To my mind it is incredible that any professing Christian leader would vote against such a motion – but 113 did.    But then the progressives withdrew their motion.  Why?   How did it contradict what went before?  

I’m sure there were some theologically naïve people who genuinely do think that we are agreed on 90% of doctrines and that somehow unity could be maintained.  But I suspect the real reason for this motion was the internal politics of the General Synod.  The progressives, despite getting the bishops to prevent the Synod from upholding the biblical teaching on marriage, and so enabling them to continue to practise their anti-Christian doctrines, were acutely aware that the mood within Australian Anglicanism has shifted away from them.   The house of laity and the house of clergy were largely against them.  Most of the committees are now run by evangelicals.  When they are in a minority the progressives suddenly become remarkably ‘tolerant, diverse and loving’.   But in reality they despise, and do not respect, the theology of biblical Christians.   In the Church of Scotland, the progressives used similar language to Dr Lee – until they got into positions of power.  What was ‘descriptive’ and permitted – soon became prescriptive and mandatory.  

The progressives want to be able to carry on with their attacks on Anglican and more importantly biblical teachings, without having action taken against them.   They know that they cannot win any theological discussion, but they think they can appeal to the soft centre, argue for unity and confuse the issue.  That is why Archbishop Phillip Aspinall put out a pastoral letter which shows their true colours.

He rejoiced that 40% of the Synod voted in favour of same sex partnerships, accused the General Synod of not being open to different perspectives, complained that with one exception every person elected to committees was evangelical, and argued that modern knowledge negates the biblical teaching about sexuality and gender.   

Others such as the Bishop of Newcastle and the Bishop of Gippsland in Victoria have argued that there is ‘no obstacle’ to blessing same sex marriages in the Australian Anglican church.   Whilst calling for ‘respect’ they will continue to undermine the teaching of the Anglican church – and more importantly the teaching of Scripture.  By their fruits you shall know them!

Let’s return to this question of whether Professor Lee is correct in saying that we agree on 90% of doctrine.  I was particularly interested in this because Dorothy Lee was brought up in a conservative Presbyterian manse in Scotland.   Her father was one of my predecessors in St Peter’s Free Church of Scotland, Dundee.  Both she and I now serve in the Anglican church in Australia. But there the similarities end.  Professor Lee has a progressive, modernist view of Christianity.  I am the opposite.  I have seen what such a view has done in my own native country – and in others throughout the world.   Liberal theology is the poison that kills the Church. Imagine there are two glasses of water in front of you – one is 100% water; the other is 90% water and 10% cyanide. Which one would you drink?  Would the 10% make any difference?!   Paul puts it this way when talking about how the Galatians were turning away from the Gospel: “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Galatians 5:9).

Speaking of Galatians – if you think that what I have written above is a bit harsh and unloving, just read what Paul says to those who turn away from the Gospel!  It’s worth quoting in full.  

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.  8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people?If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ  (Galatians 1:6-10).

The progressives seem much more concerned about whether the church wins the approval of human beings, especially those who are the cultural gatekeepers in our society.   They argue that we need to accommodate the Gospel so that it appeals to them. But Paul argues that to do such is to turn it into a different gospel.   He is passionate about it because he is passionate about Christ – not because he likes theological fights or is playing church politics!

Professor Lee is an intelligent woman – she must know that the differences in doctrine are far deeper than her motion and her comment in the Eternity article suggest.    We don’t agree on God, Jesus, the Bible, the Cross, the Church, salvation, heaven and hell and ethical teachings.  This is a different gospel.

Rather than ‘forgetting what is past’, we should learn from history – or we will be doomed to repeat it.   For example, take the case of Gresham Machen, Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary between 1906 and 1929, who left Princeton to found Westminster Theological Seminary and then left the Northern Presbyterians to form the Orthodox Presbyterian church.  He wrote a prophetic book, Christianity and Liberalism, which should be required reading for all Australian Anglicans and Presbyterians who want to avoid the fate that is currently happening to mainline Protestant denominations in the UK and UK.

 “A terrible crisis unquestionably has arisen in the Church. In the ministry of evangelical churches are to be found hosts of those who reject the gospel of Christ. By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith.”

“It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist.”

“Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”

The progressives, with their moralistic doctrines, and their bowing to the idols of contemporary culture, are arguing for a policy of ‘live and let live’.  If ‘moderate’ evangelicals listen to their plea they will soon find it is ‘live and let die’.  There has never been a church which has prospered by following the spirit of the age.    As Dean inge put it: he who marries the spirit of this age, will be a widower in the next! 

Another  example is the collapse of the Church of Scotland.   I am currently doing some research and writing on the last heresy case to be held in Australia – that of Dr Peter Cameron of the Presbyterian Church in Australia – who was disciplined by the Presbyterian Church for espousing the same theology as the progressives in the Anglican church today.  At the time the press and media lauded him as the future of the Church.  Yet four decades later he is long gone and largely forgotten – and the Church he originally came from is on the brink of extinction.  Progressive theology kills.

So, what should the evangelicals do?  We must not accept the poisoned chalice held out to us by the progressives.  There is no way that we should drink the liberal Kool Aid! 

Instead we should seek real biblical unity with other like-minded biblical Christians especially in the face of a militant progressive secularism which is seeking to cancel us!  But we need to remember the words of Thomas Manton, spoken to the English Parliament in 1647: “Unity consists in an agreement in the truth, not in a coagulation of errors”. We should work as far as possible with those with whom we have a disagreement on secondary matters. But we can never work with those who would deny Christ, the Scriptures and the very heart of the Gospel.

Instead of accepting meaningless cliches about us all being one in Christ (impossible when we do not agree which Christ!), we should challenge and debate the false theologies, exposing them for the vacuous and dangerous myths they are (see for example this debate with Rev. Dr Scott McKenna –   And we should put into practice the words of Mark Thomson’s amendment to the Synod.  Let us joyfully obey, worship and proclaim Christ, as he is given to us in the Scriptures!

David Robertson