An Open Letter with Eight Hard Questions for Progressive Christian Apologist Randal Rauser

Dear Mr. Rauser,

You and I have been trading videos, articles, and tweets over the past several weeks. The latest round, other than tweets I’ve sent, and which you haven’t answered, was your video criticizing my Stream article about you. I wrote an answer to your criticism, but when I finished I realized it was missing the point, the “central issue” — not the “central issue” you’ve chided me for “avoiding,” but one that’s even more central than that.

So I’m not posting that response. I could, but this comes first. I have some questions for you.

It starts with the overarching question, what is the real central issue?

What Is the Real Central Issue?

You have said repeatedly that I’ve missed it. You’ve said the central issue is Sean McDowell’s claim that progressive Christianity isn’t real Christianity. The problem is, I don’t think that’s central enough.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Sean actually committed that error. There is no eternal principle that says, “Thou shalt not mischaracterize progressive Christianity.” If what he did was wrong (again, or the sake of argument), it must have been wrong for violating some deeper, broader, more enduring ethical principle or principles.

Those principles might include bearing false witness. If Sean is misrepresenting progressive Christianity (or historic Christianity, for that matter), he’s not speaking from ignorance, so knows enough about these things to bear responsibility for the error. He’s violating one of the Ten Commandments. That would constitute a definite violation of a very old, enduring principle.

Christian leaders should not mistreat other Christians in any way at all. They should not misrepresent them, not mock or scorn them, not falsely call them false believers, not act with hubris or pride toward them. They should love instead.

As I hear your responses, though, from the hurt you’ve expressed over the way your friend Pete Enns has been treated, to your complaint about my being condescending toward you, I hear an even more general issue reverberating through it all, one that would include misrepresenting progressive Christians, and yet more than that. What I hear you saying is, “Thou shalt not mistreat fellow believers.”

That, I believe, is the real central issue: How we — especially we who are Christian leaders — treat other believers. Thus, if you are right to identify Sean McDowell’s behavior toward progressive Christians as a problem, he’s still just one person. He would be be an example or instance of a larger problem in that case, but one person’s behavior could never be important enough to be the central issue.

Opportunity Offered, Opportunity Declined

That’s my opinion, at any rate. I have wondered whether you would agree with that, and I wanted to hear you weigh in on it. On April 14 I asked you via Twitter whether “you think it would be fair to say the actual central issue of importance is more general than [McDowell’s statements]: Christians’ treatment of other Christians. Or maybe Christian leaders’ treatment of others.”

It could be, for example, that you think the “central issue” is any Christian leader’s mischaracterization of progressive Christianity. I would say that’s still not central enough. At any rate, I gave you opportunity to answer. You didn’t take it up, either when I first asked it or when I repeated it the next day.

Therefore, not having heard from you, but with reasons stated here to support it, I am going to proceed with this as a statement I think we should be able to agree on. If you think there’s something wrong with this I’d certainly want to know why.

The true core issue at stake is this: Christian leaders should not mistreat other Christians in any way at all. They should not misrepresent them, not mock or scorn them, not falsely call them false believers, not act with hubris or pride toward them. They should love instead.

Again, if you disagree, I’d be glad to hear your reasons. (I suggest you take a look at question 5 below before you answer.)

Right Actions in Relation to Right Beliefs

One further important point came up more recently. You’ve made it clear that you prioritize actions over beliefs; that you consider it more important to love your neighbor than to have the right doctrine. We ran into disagreements on that, too. I have a follow-up article ready to post in which I believe I can explain how you may have misunderstood my Stream article. I’m letting that pass for now, though. This matter of the central issue is far more important than defending that article.

So in that vein I have eight questions for you here. I’ll start with four representative tweets that I’ve already asked you about on Twitter. Please note that I have no interest whatsoever in your answering these to my satisfaction. I’m more concerned that you answer them to your own satisfaction. I’m not sure that will be very easy.

You’ll find this to be a list of observations about your written or video content, followed by questions for you to consider. Nothing here amounts to a judgment regarding your character. That’s a matter for God and you, not for me. But I would urge you to ask these questions of yourself. You might start with this one, borrowing from a thought experiment of your own. You’ll need to read the eight questions below to understand the entire context in which I ask it. I’m starting with it only because it should look rather familiar to you:

Imagine having this choice on Judgment Day: You could be a person with what you’d consider proper progressive beliefs, yet who treated other Christians the way you see outlined below. Or you could be an out-and-out fundamentalist who treated others consistently in kindness and love, including those he thought were wrong. Which of the two would you choose to be, standing before the throne of judgment on that day?

Misrepresenting, Mocking,  Condescending? Four Twitter-Based Questions

The following tweets are all yours. (I say that in case someone’s browser doesn’t display them fully.)

1. Misrepresenting?

“In 1483, English religious minorities could be imprisoned, Jews were subject to special taxes, prisoners were tortured, women couldn’t sign contracts or borrow money, mental disabilities were viewed as divine punishments … but they had ornate church ceilings so they had God?!

In answer to that, I raised this question for you: “That’s not even close to what they were saying. Are you shooting straight by implying that it was?” (The term “straight shooter” comes out of your own definition of a good apologist, as I’m sure you recall.)

2. Mocking?

“I can’t help but wince when well-meaning Christians cite the opinions of 18th century thinkers to justify their view of origins. You don’t cite their views on the treatment of cancer or the nature of volcanoes so why here? Science has moved on over the last three centuries.”

I observed and then asked in reply, “I just wince when you react to an article you obviously haven’t read. It’s not about justifying their view of origins. Your tweet is about mocking fellow Christians. Do you find that satisfying, I wonder?”

3. Condescending?

“I agree with @newvangelicals. This kind of ad hoc expansion of basic confessions based on the hot cultural potatoes of the day is nothing more than Protestant fundamentalism run amok.”

My answer was: “Yes, I agree, for the sake of creedal unity and balance we should stay close to the early creeds and church council agreements. Like, for example, the genuinely revolutionary, unifying statement made in Acts 15. Which includes verses 19 and 29, by the way. NOT ad hoc.”

My further question now is whether you would consider your tweet to be fair treatment in light of that? Is it not condescending, at least?

4. More Mocking Misrepresentation?

“Fundamentalism cannot tell the difference between ‘a donkey spoke’ and ‘Jesus resurrected from the grave.'”

I tweeted in reply, “Randal, read what you wrote in this tweet. Not what you quotes [sic. on myself there. Oops!] the other guy saying but what you said. Do you actually believe it? You’re all about how Christians should behave, but you mock and scorn and scoff and deride, and you know what you’re saying isn’t even true.”

I could present many, many more examples from your Twitter feed, but these should be enough.

Please realize that none of the above is about me. Your answers don’t affect me in any way, so whether you answer or not is of no direct concern to me — except, in love for a brother in Christ, I think you should be concerned about these things.

The next four questions do relate to some interchanges you and I have had directly.

Two Questions Related to the “Central Issue”

5. You have repeatedly castigated me for not addressing “the central issue,” Sean McDowell’s treatment of progressive Christians. That is your central issue. You seem to think, however, that it is the central issue.

You have often explained why you consider it to be an issue of great importance, but I have never heard why you think it is the central issue, to the exclusion of, for instance, other issues that I have previously brought up. You’ve said, or at least strongly implied, that it’s wrong for me not to address it. Now, if you’ve given reasons why that should be so, I’m afraid I’ve missed them. Would you then kindly explain why your central issue is necessarily the central issue, so much so that it’s wrong for me to aim my focus on another issue of high importance instead?

6. When I came to you with another important central issue, the manner in which you treated McDowell, you dismissed it as containing “not very much of substance.”

I can’t help wondering how it is that you are not concerned about evidence-based, substantiated questions regarding your own honesty and integrity. It baffles me. I would never ignore such a thing, especially if it was presented with supporting evidence.

That’s me, though. You need not answer this question. I intend it for your own reflection. If you do want to answer, please explain this as well. I considered your treatment of McDowell an issue of high importance. You continued to declare his treatment of progressive Christians the only matter needing discussion. I wouldn’t call it the central issue, but if questions regarding treatment of progressive Christians comes near to the core of it, then I would think substantiated, evidence-based questions regarding your treatment of Sean McDowell come equally near. You waved it aside as “nothing of substance,” though. Have you then taken it as your prerogative to declare what does and doesn’t count as a central issue? If so, how?

(Note again: I have stated what I think is the core issue. I gave you opportunity to weigh in on it. I am still offering you opportunity to explain, if you think it is wrong. So please do not suggest that I have likewise taken it as my prerogative to declare a different central issue.)

Two Questions on Treatment Toward Fellow Christians

7. That article included seven evidence-base points at which I showed, with full substantiation, that you had misrepresented Sean McDowell. You called it “nothing of substance.”

Would you kindly explain how substantial evidence of your own false representations of a fellow believer could seem so trivial in your eyes?


8. If you are right, and (still for the sake of argument) if every negative thing Sean McDowell has ever said about progressive Christianity is wrong:

Does your disagreement with him justify your harsh misrepresentations, as identified here? If he is as wrong as you say he is, does that justify making false statements about him? Do you consider such misrepresentations to be consistent with an attitude of love?

From where I sit, it’s hard not to wonder whether you think the differences in your beliefs (matters of orthodoxy) outweigh your call in Christ to act in love (orthopraxy).

So you can count me confused on that. I’m just not sure how you can consider these actions of yours consistent with your own stated values.

I’m Open to Listening If You Are

Be assured that I am open to learning. In your most recent video on me, you said I had misunderstood and misrepresented you. I hope not, but if I did, I will certainly retract and/or clarify it, whichever is honest and appropriate. First I’d want you to see what I’ve written (but not published so far) about how you’d misunderstood me yourself. I’m not sure you got everything right. But that’s a matter of conversation, and I am willing to have that discussion alongside this one.

That’s assuming you don’t dismiss this one as not worth responding to, of course. In that case, I’ll just keep asking you questions like this on Twitter. Just questions, based on observations, nothing that should annoy you enough to block you there, unless there’s some reasons you don’t like basic observations followed up with questions. It’s still up to you whether they’re important to pay attention to.

Anyway, s far as I’m concerned, Randal, it’s not about me at this point. It’s about you. Of course if you can offer something for me to learn by, I’m all ears. I just hope your ears will be open, too.

Grace and peace to you,

Tom Gilson

P.S. If you respond to this on video, feel free to call my blog “moribund” again, if it feels good somehow to call it that. Feel free as well to look here first, though.

Image Credit(s): Unsplash/Ana Municio.

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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5 Responses

  1. Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Right. So, OK—these remarks are for both Mr. Gilson and Mr. Rauser. I have read before about apologists. Whether there are or are not Christian apologists seems inconsequential to me. Further, it seems unnecessary for there to be Christian thinkers and or writers who see it incumbent upon themselves to critique apologists. Philosophers like to debate and argue philosophy. It is part of the grounding of their craft. Since beginning to read on the present platform, I have noticed much discussion of religious faith-based material, positions, ideas and interpretation. I do not see the benefit.
    Davidson said belief(s) is/are propositional. Alright and ergo, politics is propositional, as well. If religion, as belief, is in the same neighborhood as say, philosophy OR even politics, what is a. The big fuss, and, b. Who is expected to gain anything tangible from argument and or critique?

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    Thank you for your comment, Mr. Van Pelt.

    The “big fuss,” as you call it, is not merely “religion” it is the reality of the truths of God in Jesus Christ, the holy and loving creator and God of the universe, and humans’ relationship with him.

    Whether anyone gains from this discussion depends on whether they (and especially Mr. Rauser) take these points to heart and learns from them and/or returns a message that I can learn from.

  3. Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Thanks for your rejoinder. Pretty much what I expected, based on our differences. I respect those.

  4. mark says:

    hi tom, i think up until this point things have been civil and I think there is a big difference with an argument and just having a conversation. Now it seems more like an argument from him but before that when having a conversation (not fighting or attacking) always a great opportunity for insight but also personal growth. Its a shame that things have evolved into attacks and condensation but would be good if things would go back to the ‘conversation’ level where you can both explore your ideas and your differences together.

  1. April 21, 2023

    […] the way they try correcting us. Do it with a sense of care for them as persons. I’ve tried to model that here with my latest response to Rauser. It’s not easy. Maybe he’ll think I did it well, maybe he’ll say it botched it […]