The progressive gospel proclaims that even though all history is in shambles, even though all history has been enslaved to enslavement and oppression and violence, we can move beyond. The progressive gospel involves a certain story about history which is a history of violence; we cannot proclaim that history has been really good without also (inadvertently) condoning the injustices we have now overcome, like patriarchy or slavery. Historical heroes are acceptable, abstracted from those moments of overcoming injustice, but history itself is a dangerous source (except for critique). Drawing positively from history reeks of a certain conservatism, a certain reformism, a protection of the status quo, when what we really need is revolution. For it is obvious to us now that the violence comes fundamentally from the system, which has persisted from the very beginning but which we might finally undermine.
A Christian historiography confesses that the Spirit has been at work in the world since the beginning, bringing the body of Christ to perfect discipleship. Where a progressivist history of Christianity knows only several moments—crusades, Inquisition, witch burnings—the church would rightly remember all those hundreds of years between these aberrant disasters. We remember the martyr church of the early centuries, the early fathers attempting to bring an empire (shockingly) claiming to confess Christ into line, the monastic movements being born in the fourth and fifth centuries, the mystical exemplars of the late millennium, the Franciscan and Dominican mendicant movements of protest against an emerging pre-industrialist economy… we can go on and on. Sinlessness the church does not claim for herself—but she is a body marked by gratitude and praise and so marked by a surprising and resourceful moral creativity. The church readily and with much thanksgiving roots herself in her own history, because we believe that this is the cloud of witnesses that will point us towards the crucified Lord of history. What progressives know as the ever-violent system, the church proclaims is the old age of death and violence, and that Jesus has begun a new age of life in his resurrection over death. Here is the real hero of overcoming injustice.
This was, in part, the Anabaptist contribution to Christian historiography. Though they were breaking with the Roman Church, condemning as apostate perhaps more than we would allow now, they nonetheless believed that a story could be told of the faithful church throughout the centuries. No persecution could destroy the body of Christ, they believed. Rather, there is a faithful history of martyrs and disciples that no violence can overcome, a history which witnesses to the truth of Jesus’ lordship.
We would do well, I suggest, to leave behind caricatures of Christian history that obstruct our ability to draw from our faithful past. This is not to ignore our egregious sins; confession is also a mark of the Christian church, which must involve close examination and rigorous repentance. But it is to pray, with the liturgy, ‘Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live for ever and ever.’