Progressivism and the Re-Defining of the Church (with special emphasis on Presbyterianism)


“Progressivism” is a term with a fairly broad range of usage.  There have been at least three different Progressivist parties in the United States, for instance; but the term is also used for broader political and intellectual activity, typically beginning in the late-nineteenth and running into the twentieth century. I attempt no comprehensive definition or description here, but suggest instead that, at a minimum, Progressivism is characterized by two particular aspects that have had profound influence on both the culture and the church. Progressivism has an anthropological aspect and an institutional aspect, and we will look briefly at each.

Anthropological:  Human Nature or Human Condition?

Prior to progressivism, many, if not most, anthropologists articulated opinions about human nature. These opinions about human nature showed some variety, of course; and there were more positive views of human nature and less positive views of human nature. But people thought about humanity as having a given nature. When the Founding Fathers spoke of “inalienable rights,” for instance, they were speaking as those who shared a given view of human nature, a view that considered life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as essential to (not merely incidental to) human nature. With Progressivism, this changes, and the implied anthropology is one of the human condition, not human nature. Progressivism views humanity as sociologically, historically, and culturally constructed. “Humanity,” for Progressivism, is a constructed condition, not an essential nature.

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