The bounds of orthodoxy: a conversation with a Progressive Christian, John Squires

It began with a Facebook conversation on a public thread. Person 1 asked whether believing Jesus was God was necessary to call themselves a Christian.

Person 2 agreed it was not necessary and commented that the bounds of orthodoxy was broader than before.

“Yes; there are many of us today, and I suspect there have been millions upon millions of such people over the past two millennia,” said person number three, who happens to be owner of the Facebook profile. So I started a conversation with person three, John Squires, former UCA theological college lecturer. I will leave the other two anonymous for now because it was John I responded to as it was his thread.

I was a little shocked. For me, the Nicene Creed has been a useful summary of Christian belief. It says of Jesus

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God, begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made…

We’ll return to the question of creeds later.

Or from a recent article by Matthew Cartwright on the Gospel Coalition Australia website “In Romans chapter 10 verse 13, Paul quotes from Joel chapter 2 verse 32: ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ Behind the word ‘Lord’ in Joel 2:32 is God’s covenant name, YHWH. You can see that in most English translations of the Old Testament, Lord is printed in small caps to indicate it is translating the covenant name. Remarkably, Paul takes this verse and applies it to Jesus. We can know that Paul is identifying Jesus as the Lord of Joel 2:32 because Paul refers to Jesus by that title in the immediate context: ‘if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord … you will be saved’ (Rom 10:9). Paul applies his quotation from Joel in verse 14: ‘How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?’ The ‘him’ here also refers to Jesus. Thus, for Paul, to call upon Jesus is equivalent to calling upon the name of YHWH.”

I asked John Squires if he could address the question of whether Jesus is God, assuring him I would use his own words.

John Squires: “’Jesus is God’, ‘Jesus is human’, ‘Jesus is both human and divine’”’ are statements that have occasioned much debate over the centuries. Pinning down a precise statement about Jesus and the Trinity is a notoriously difficult enterprise. Many who have tried have produced statements that leads other to accuse them of being ‘heretics’.

“My own approach is to give prime significance to the biblical texts, which I see as not making statements which ‘prove’ later doctrinal assertions, from Nicaea and Chalcedon, through to the Fundamentals movement and contemporary expressions. Those biblical texts invite us to explore, ponder, and interrogate our received understandings. Making up one’s own mind, with guidance and direction provided by the biblical texts, the interpretation of these texts over the centuries, theological writings, and the formulations of doctrine, is paramount.

“So I never adjudge another person, as to whether they are ‘orthodox’ or ‘heretical’. Rather, I encourage conversation, discussion, and debate. Doing this in a group—be it small or medium, an online forum or a sermon or discussion in the setting of a whole congregation—is important. Listening as well as speaking is necessary! I try to have a practice of no judgement and no exclusion of people from the communal process of discussion and discernment. So for me, there is not a line beyond which people are ‘heretical’, within which people are ‘orthodox’. In fact, I see those terms as very unhelpful categories.

“My own studies in biblical criticism have taught me that the application of these categories really gets in the way of understanding biblical texts. These texts reflect an ongoing set of discussions, inspired by the Spirit and guided by many teachers, about how God can be known and where in the world God can be experienced. Today, we are taking part in that same process of discussion and discernment. So what a person ‘believes’ about one specific ‘doctrine’ is not a measure as to whether they are ‘orthodox’ or ‘heretical’. And for my part, I wouldn’t want to close the door on the process of ongoing discovery and learning, in which a person decides for themselves what they ‘believe’. There are further questions about who formed any particular doctrine, whose voices were excluded, what life experiences fed into that and what we ignored, how the power to determine was exercised and how exclusion was implemented—gender issues, socio-political issues, cultural issues, etc.”

I responded, “John, that clearly addresses a humility in discernment but fails to say where you sit. Would you be comfortable going a little further? But if you’d rather not, that’s fine.

John Squires: “So, from a sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday in the last congregation where I was in placement (Queanbeyan UCA, 16 June 2019) Three persons, consubstantial, of the same nature, co-eternal, co-inheriting, all makes sense in terms of the philosophical context of the day. That was how they thought and wrote, so analysing and describing God in terms of ‘persons’, ‘substance’ and ‘essence’, was utilising the tools of the time.

“The Trinity is an excellent example of the church’s contextual theology and missional engagement with the wider community, in the fourth to sixth centuries of the Common Era. What better way to articulate the Gospel in that time, than to locate it within the intellectual context of the late Roman Empire, when Greek philosophical thinking was in a resurgence and neoPlatonic concepts provided the dominant framework for rigorous thinking?

“Viewed contextually, then, in their own time within history, the affirmations about God as “triune” make good sense. I value the concept of the Trinity as a fine example of good, honest, contextual theology. So that leads to a further affirmation: Trinity Sunday provides us with a new missional opportunity. The missional task that we face as we reflect on the Trinity, is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of of doctrine by the church fathers.

“So, this Trinity Sunday, I would hope we might be inspired to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening. If we want to talk about the divine delight in deep relationships and God’s desire to relate fully to our world, then concepts of incarnation, God coming “down” to earth from his heavenly home far away, hypostatic equality, co-inherence and perichoresis, just won’t cut through in the contemporary era. We need to move beyond this way of understanding God, from so many centuries ago, and begin to create our own language and our own ideas for bearing witness to what we know in God. All of those terms made sense, way back in the past. They don’t speak in the same way to people today. Merely repeating ancient speculation and debate will not suffice.

“The Gospel is surely that God’s generous self-outpouring is evident in a range of actions which foster justice and in a variety of deeds which demonstrate compassion; in loving relationships and in living the values of the kingdom. We need to express this in a diversity of ways. For that, we can be thankful, and affirm, that this is the God in whom we place our trust.”

I suggested “To me the essential point people make about Trinity today is that Jesus is God.”

John Squires: “So, having just read a really interesting patristic exploration online today, I am wondering what the impact of that word “is” might be in what you have said? Or, how are Jesus and God united into one entity?”

“Words are tricky”

We detoured, (my fault) through Bill Clintons answer about the word “is” …. and after recounting the conversation above I asked directly “So are you a person who doesn’t believe Jesus was God?”

John Suuires: “I agree with para 3 of the Basis of Union”

The Basis of Union is the founding document of the Uniting Church. John’s quote from the third paragraph reads: “Jesus of Nazareth announced the sovereign grace of God whereby the poor in spirit could receive God’s love. Jesus himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain. In raising him to live and reign, God confirmed and completed the witness which Jesus bore to God on earth, reasserted claim over the whole of creation, pardoned sinners, and made in Jesus a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. To God in Christ all people are called to respond in faith. To this end God has sent forth the Spirit that people may trust God as their Father, and acknowledge Jesus as Lord. The whole work of salvation is effected by the sovereign grace of God alone.”

Unlike the Nicene Creed, it seems to me the Basis of Union does not define Jesus as God. So we talked about the way the Basis of Union treats the creeds. I said “ISTM they are treated in the same way some Anglicans treat the 39 articles, as authoritative in their day.

“Yep” John Squires replied. “Which informs how we speak today in ways relevant to the context. ‘Interpreting their teaching in a later age,’ (i.e. today)”

I raised person three’s comment about orthodoxy being broadened.

“In which case, then, as meaning evolves and as messages are contextualised, the scope of orthodoxy does appear to be shifting, broadening to encompass new understandings fitting for new context.”

I asked: “Which raises the issue of whether this stream has banks or boundaries.”

John Squires: “Just try telling the water of the river, once it rises to the top of the bank, that it has no business flowing over that boundary onto the surrounding land!!!”

This conversation raises good questions. Is there a new broader orthodoxy, broadened by God flooding us with water as John Squires would have it? Or do the historic creeds, and more importantly, Scripture define what we need to believe, that Jesus, eternally God, assumed human form but remained God, dying to save us? Here at The Other Cheek, we must differ from John Squires, but hopefully in a respectful and gentle way. Our differences are so great.

A profile of John Squires in the UCA Insights magazine is here. He blogs at An Informed Faith It is fair to say that John Squires was not speaking as an official spokesperson for the UCA, although he is a respected former academic in UCA theological education. The image is of John from his website.


  1. “My own approach is to give prime significance to the biblical texts, which I see as not making statements which ‘prove’ later doctrinal assertions, from Nicaea and Chalcedon”.
    I found that statement perplexing. Most progressives I have read who do not accept that Jesus was God seem to dispense with the Biblical texts rather than give them “prime significance”. Given the overwhelming support in both OT and NT documents for the belief that Jesus was and is God, I cannot understand John Squires’ argument. I would have thought that giving prominence to the Biblical texts would be antithetical to people to “deciding for themselves what they ‘believe”.

  2. It is not just “decide for ourselves”. It is more a matter of reading scripture in the light of our context—entering into “the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries”, the UCA Basis of Union states, and giving thanks “for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith”, as it continues. I think that is what’s sets us apart—not adherence to scripture, but reflective awareness of how we approach, hear, understand, and interpret scripture, so that it is not just “repeating the formula” but rather integrating it into the lived experience of people today.
    I hope that contrast sheds more light into this discussion.

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