Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr. is the founder and president of the Healing of the Nations Foundation and the senior minister emeritus of the famous Riverside Church in New York City. He was also a professor at Union Theological Seminary and has hosted The Time Is Now on Air America Radio. Forbes is a social and political liberal who preaches faith in Jesus with great passion. I have never heard him speak in person but I have heard CDs of his preaching. I can testify to his incredible story-telling ability. I happen to like Forbes and would happily sit down with him for a cup of coffee or a meal. We would have some interesting disagreements but on much we would find common ground. Newsweek calls Forbes “one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.”
James Forbes has long been a strong voice for civil rights. He even gave a stirring address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He served as pastor of the well-known Riverside Church for eighteen years. His insights about pastoral ministry, teaching and mentoring are often brilliant and his judgment is seasoned and prudent. But Forbes is an honest-to-goodness liberal Christian and makes no effort to defend the kind of conservatism that many readers of this blog embrace. So why do I tell you this about James A. Forbes, Jr.?
Browsing in my public library a few weeks ago I came across Forbes’ newest book: Whose Gospel? A Concise Guide to Progressive Protestantism (New York: The New Press, 2010). I read the book with real interest and found much to like about it. I also found a great deal to disagree with for reasons rooted in how I read Scripture and the Christian tradition, both of which are at the core of my mission.
First, the parts of Forbes’ book that I do not like. Forbes allows Scripture to have a clear role in shaping both faith and moral response. But he allows cultural controversies and social opinions to hold an even greater role in his ultimate conclusions about what the Scripture says regarding controversial moral debates; e.g. sexuality, war, ecology and economics. His views on these issues sound more like the views of the Democratic Party than anything one could get from careful exegetical biblical study. In fact, careful exegesis is not the strong and clear basis for much of what Forbes concludes regarding the gospel of progressive Christianity. This, it seems to me, is the real underlying problem in progressive/liberal Christianity. The debate has always been, and still remains, about Scripture and what constitutes normative confessional tradition. Is the Bible simply an ancient book that gives us stories that we are fairly free to change (reinterpret) regarding doctrinal/moral conclusions? As we “progress” into new discoveries in science, sociology and sexuality can we use these discoveries to change revealed moral norms?
Forbes takes a clear stand on homosexuality that will please those who sincerely believe the Scripture has not definitively spoken on this point. Like all who take a progressive view here Forbes believes the church changed its view of women and slavery thus really important “rights” issue today should bring about more changes in the Christian response to this ongoing modern debate. He is partly right. Christians who believe that Scripture does speak clearly about sexual morality (adultery, fornication, homosexual practice, etc.) could learn something important from hearing what he says here but in the end they will not be unlikely to reach the same conclusion.
Second, there are parts of Forbes’ stance that I do like very much. He takes a dim view of most wars and presents some rather compelling arguments for how he reached his conclusion. He argues that we should always cultivate “prophetic patriotism” if we are Christians. I have come to love that phrase and will use it. I want to be a “prophetic patriot.” He tells how The Riverside Church has handled the issue of peace while they have also faithfully served military personnel over the years. The balance here is intriguing and one that I think useful to both sides in this debate. The Riverside Church has taught pacifism but nurtured the life of soldiers with dignity and grace. Forbes carried on this tradition.
Forbes frames his own pastoral ministry in terms of healing. He writes about his relationship with charismatic healers, naming Katherine Kuhlman as “a woman with extraordinary spiritual gifts” whom he met and prayed with personally. When she prayed over him he experienced power that he believes came from God. During one of Forbes’ sermons, in this same time period, God touched a man by granting him his hearing. Forbes wrestled with this demonstration of power but in time concluded that his own call to healing had more to do with relationships than physical miracles. Again, this is one of the most appealing parts of his story. It transcends liberal and conservative debates because it is so obviously central to the core teaching of the New Testament.
Here are a few vintage Forbes quotes:
Jesus was progressive. He was open to having his understanding of both truth and love broadened. In Luke 2:52, we read, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Much later, we find Jesus’ own well-formulated religious viewpoint changed by a Syropheonician woman who challenged Him after he first refused to help her daughter (Mark 7:24-30).
We all need healing and wholeness. We need to progress as individuals and as communities out of the brokenness, fragmentation, destruction, and disease in our lives and in our world. We are not on this journey alone (2-3).
Forbes doesn’t want us to think that his progressive views regarding the application of the faith mean that he believes Jesus is one with his complete understanding of all these various issues. Yet his progressive Jesus is treated as the real Jesus that we encounter in Scripture. I find this claim slightly disingenuous. My problem is simple: Jesus was not a liberal, a progressive, a conservative or a libertarian. He was/is Lord of heaven and earth. These terms that we use to address difficult modern (political and social) issues just do not fit the New Testament that easily. I think Forbes would have to agree if we were drinking our coffee together and not defending our stance on a particular issue.
This leads to the most positive chapter in the book, which ironically is also the most negative one at the same time. I refer to the chapter on sexuality. It is filled with great insights, wisdom and grace. Most conservative Christians would learn a lot about how their understanding of sexuality is defective by reading a book like this one. Forbes argues for a mature, humane understanding of the power and place of human sexuality. But, and this is extremely important, he fails to define or defend anything remotely like a moral law in terms of the right and wrong context for God-honoring sexual expression. Unsurprisingly his moral understanding is thus powerfully shaped by the present-day debates, not by the Bible or the Christian tradition.
Here is one illustration of my point. When Forbes deals with war he uses the Ten Commandments as the grid to explain why each commandment is actually broken by war. (I do not agree with his progressive pacifism but I do think far too many Christians see war as a solution without admitting that it always contains consequences, unintended and otherwise, that break down society in numerous ways.) The point here is that Forbes appeals to the Ten Commandments as abiding moral law rooted in God’s revealed character. But when he comes to sexual practice the law is seen as irrelevant to his stance. It seems obvious that you can’t have your cake and ice cream in this case. The law does apply to moral reasoning and decision making or it does not. Forbes conclusions about sexual practice are thus unreasonable and lack careful biblical nuance regarding the text.
So what do I do with a book like this one? I read it in order listen and learn. I read it to hear a great preacher speak out of his lifelong experience and his treatment of modern concerns. I read it knowing the author as one who has shown real love for Christ and people. But I read it impressed that the gospel can never be limited to the ideology of the left or the right. Forbes disappoints me, in the end, as much as many on the right disappoint me. They describe the elephant as if they were wearing a blindfold and had felt a few parts and thus understood the whole. But then conservatives often do the same thing. Maybe reading Forbes reminded me of the very blind spot that I have. I hope so.
Finally, here are a few final observations from Forbes that I found immensely insightful:
At the heart of our faith is “radical relationality” (150). Such people have a rectifying and reconciling spirit (150). Our advanced technology brings with it an increased responsibility to study as best we can the effects of the actions we take and the innovations that we call progress.
We need a paradigm shift from adversarial and exploitative relationships with our environment to a respectful and mutually regarding care for one another. “Learning to love our neighbors in the whole ecosystem is the order of the day” (151).
Some years ago I walked into the office of a well-known evangelical pastor/author who was reading a book that frankly shocked me. I asked him why he was reading this book when I knew he would clearly disagree with it. His answer has influenced me for more than thirty-five years. “Why should I read a book that I already know I agree with when I can learn from someone I am quite sure will say things very differently?”