Progressivism is a multi-faceted philosophy advocating progress and change (as opposed to maintaining things as they are). Progressives work toward what they hope will be better conditions, implement what they consider more enlightened ideas, and try new or experimental methods to facilitate change. In politics and religion, progressivism is often called “liberalism.”
Progressivism originated in Western Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. People believed that progress in science, economics, and technology would result in the improvement of the human condition. Gaining empirical knowledge was thought to be foundational to a progressive society. Sociology defines five main ideas, or values, that contributed to progressivism in Western Europe: valuing the past, considering the nobleness of Western thought and civilization, the value of economic and technological growth, the intrinsic value of life on earth, and the use of reason and scholarly/scientific knowledge.
Much of the motive behind progressivism is a desire for social justice and equality, which progressives equate with a departure from barbarism. Progressivism can be used for good or ill. The end of child labor, the rise of free education, and prison reform were all aided by progressivism. But so also were modernism, radical feminism, abortion-on-demand, and the gay-rights movement. Change is not always a change for the better, and what’s called “progress” may in fact be a regress.
Inherent in the philosophy of progressivism is the idea that mankind is naturally progressive; that is, he longs to advance and learn and improve himself and that, when unfettered by oppressive systems, he will continue to improve and grow and become better.
The Bible supports the idea that man is a naturally progressive creature, and that he was indeed created to thirst for knowledge and to expand his own understanding and improve himself. Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden is the first proof. Satan told Eve that if she ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil she would become like God, with her eyes opened to knowledge. Satan placed God in the role of “oppressor” holding man back from his full potential (Genesis 3:1–5). This temptation would not have worked if man had not been a progressive creature. Eve’s failure was that she tried to advance herself through disobedience to God’s command.
Another example of mankind’s tendency toward progressivism is found in the story of the Tower of Babel. After the flood, mankind tried to build a tower to heaven, and God said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:5). Again, mankind was seeking progress through disobedience to God’s command, and again we see that progressivism, unheedful of God’s law, leads in the wrong direction. God confused human language to put a stop to man’s proud endeavor, and their monument to “social progress” was halted (Genesis 11:7).
Because mankind is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), he has the desire and the capacity to create what is progressively good and helpful. But, because of our fallen, sinful nature, we also have the tendency to create what is progressively evil and harmful (see Genesis 6:5). We have an insatiable appetite for more knowledge as a result of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that is our lasting legacy.
Throughout history, God has been mercifully keeping us from fully realizing that legacy. He has worked in many unseen ways and in a few that we can see: by confusing man’s language at the Tower of Babel, by providing the Law for a definition of sin and an understanding of punishment (Exodus 20), and by providing the Holy Spirit as a guide, dwelling in those who have faith in Christ (John 14:26).
Political progressives push for socio-political change, and their interpretation of the Constitution is broad and loose. In the same way, modern religious progressives push for change within the church, and their interpretation of Scripture is just as broad and loose. Many ignore large portions of the Bible in favor of a “social gospel,” a “historical Jesus,” or “gay churches.” The problem with religious progressivism is that God’s Word does not change: “Your word, LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89).
Progress can be good or bad, depending on the direction it’s headed. Becoming progressively godly is good: “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18). Becoming progressively ungodly is bad: “Evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). Left to himself, man’s tendency is to slip further downhill; thankfully, the Holy Spirit slows down that negative progressivism: “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way” (2 Thessalonians 2:7). When the Antichrist is revealed, “he will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and,” quite progressively, “try to change the set times and the laws” (Daniel 7:25).