I am going to make a very general division between traditional and progressive Christians, which is no doubt painting with broad brushes but I do think there some truth to the designation. Traditional Christianity tends to be a more theological Christianity, with emphasis on doctrine, whereas Progressive Christianity tends to be a more prophetic Christian, with an emphasis on calling out moral injustices. This distinction isn’t absolute, as there was many, many progressives who have a love for theology and I am aware of traditional Christians who have a flair for the prophetic. Nevertheless, I would suggest the broad religious trends of traditional and progressive Christianity are related to how central they take the theological and the prophetic tasks.
I would suggest it is important to make a distinction between theology and prophecy. They are very different forms of discourse, with different purposes and tasks. Theology, on the one hand, is about the dissemination of a certain way of thinking and reasoning. Doctrines such as the Holy Trinity, atonement, etc. are propagated so that people can develop a certain way of thinking and acting, and sometimes even feeling. Hence, theology tends to be general and abstract in terms of communicative content. On the other hand, prophecy is about the targeted challenge to action within a specific social context and circumstances. Prophecy calls down the injustices of powers against the helpless and calls people forward to a new destination. Given the circumstantial nature of prophecy, the content of its communication is more specific and particular.
As a consequence of the different purposes and types of content theological and prophetic discourse have, they are not immediately “translatable” to each other. Biblical prophecy isn’t about handing down some knowledge about God but more so about pointing the directions one should or should not go; the discourse is largely contextualized to the circumstances in which prophecy is uttered. By contrast, Biblical doctrine speaks more about what is true in more a universal or general sense, such as the universal reality that Jesus is Lord of all creation or the general reality that the Spirit convicts and guides people. Prophetic and theological discourse at their core are making very different types of truth claims.
For instance, compare the prophetic utterance of Micah 6:8 with the Apostle’s Paul theological emphasis on faith. Do we come to God in faith as Paul suggests or do we come to God with our moral/ethical way of life? Micah 6:8 is a popular verse used to encourage people to a certain moral/ethical way of life that is popular in more prophetic/progressive expressions, whereas the Pauline justification by faith is routinely emphasized in more traditional Protestant expressions. There seems to be a tension between these two discourses.
However, I would suggest the tension is more a problem of how the prophetic discourse gets translated into a universal or general claim. Micah’s statement is said in the context of Israel that had a) largely forgotten the justice that was to given to the people but b) maintained the religious traditions including the sacrificial system with the presumption of God’s continued favor. In this context, Micah 6:6-8 is spoken as a way of calling people to, essentially, get their priorities straight, paying attention to how they lived among each other with and in their own attitudes in relation to God in humilty rather then presumption, rather than their focusing on the sacrificial system. Micah was speaking something that was targeted to the specific realities of the southern kingdom of Judah. While there may be other situations that such a type of discourse may be suitable, Micah is speaking in a targeted, specific fashion. He is not propounded a general theological, or even ethical theory, but he is provided a specific Divinely inspired called to action for this specific nation.
Is there much to learn from this? Yup. However, can we do theology from Micah? Only carefully, with a theological system already in place to integrate the insights. The prophets did not speak from a vacuum, but they addressed the religious practices that had their own theological traditions. The prophetic utterance was not so much a new teaching that was previously unknown, but a call to renewal what is claimed to be God’s original purposes and plans. This is why Micah says: “He had told you, O mortal, what is good.” This was the knowledge that the kingdom of Judah had already had, but they overlooked and lost it along the way. This knowledge was put into the context of its larger theological traditions.
My point is this: prophecy, on its own, makes poor theology. It is this that stands at the heart of much of my criticism of progressive theology. Much of what they say is needed to be heard to heed the people that have been forgotten and that teachings that have been overlooked and rationalized away. But Biblical prophecy doesn’t reject its traditions but renews and revitalizes them, calling to memory and bringing more attention to what is there and then to call others to act accordingly. Prophecy serves and renews theology rather than establishes it. When the prophetic becomes disengaged from the theological traditions, it becomes a ship without an anchor or rudder that gets pushed around by whatever societal wave and wind, but not necessarily the Divine wind of the Spirit.
I would not turn the statement around though. Theology doesn’t necessarily make poor prophecy. Certainly, true prophetic inspiration is from God, so in a sense, theological doctrine does not itself directly create such inspiration. But firstly, the prophetic inspiration uses the theological resources at hand; take a look at Revelation and its innumerable allusions to the Old Testament Scriptures and the religious theological traditions of 1st-century Jewish apocalypticism. Secondly, good theology finds a place prophetic discourse, such as the Apostle Paul engaging in a prophetic discourse against rampant, hypocritical judgmentalism in Romans 1:18-2:16 that sets ups his theological discourse on the nature of redemption in Christ and through the Spirit.
What can happen, however, is that theology loses its place for the prophetic, that it treats the only legitimate truth claims as being in the general, theological mold and due its generality, becomes distracted from all the specifics of the theological traditions and how they are to be rightly employed. But this isn’t the problem of theology, per se, but of the ever-present human tendencies to habituation that distracts our attention and focus on the legitimation of what is, blinding us to see the flaws with how things are. We might say the human reality of the flesh leads us to de-propheticize, or even more severely de-Spiritualize, our theology, but that is not the problem of theological discourse and knowledge itself. But the same theological traditions can be revitalized and made new.
The same is not true of prophetic discourse. Prophetic discourse is not itself to be revitalized. It may be recalled as an example, much as Martin Luther King Jr. found inspiration from the Biblical prophets for his own fight for racial justice. But the prophetic utterances themselves are not capable of providing a real, theological foundation; they are calls back to the foundations instead. The prophetic utterances without the theological foundations will be re-contexutalized to whatever concerns are in the present circumstance. Without careful awareness and consciousness of this, this process of recontextualization may overlook the premise that what God would speak to this different circumstances may be dramatically different from the previous circumstances. Even if things on the surface look similar in the presence of idolatry and/or injustice, the hearts of people in different circumstances may be dramatically different, even if they share in common some very broad sense of idolatry and injustice. God who sees the hearts of people will speak as He will for the purposes He has for those people, and this may be dramatically different for what may seem to be similar situations on the surface. Prophetic discourse is thus not something we as humans should readily generalize in an authoritative, overarching manner; nor does it provide a direct legitimation for our own prophetic action. Rather, it is something that can instruct us as it is integrated within a larger theological framework and tradition.
Prophetic discourse is deeply specific to the circumstances that present a need for a challenge and call. This is important, but for this very reason, prophecy makes poor theology. Similarily, this is why I would say much of the spirit the motivates, inspires, and directs progressive Christianity runs into deep problems: strident calls for justice and progress are needed, but they do not really provide a clear, coherent, reliable foundations for what should be; when they try to provide such theological framework, it ends up looking very different from the historic Christian faith, leading me to ask the question “Was the Church basically treading on the edge of apostasy the whole time due to their great ignorance about the truth of God? Or is it those who would act in a prophetic manner that have forgotten their role and purpose?”