Progressive Christianity and the Bible
Editor's Note: This article is part of the symposium, "What Is Progressive Christianity?" presented by the newly launched Patheos Progressive Christian Portal and in partnership with the Wild Goose Festival (June 23-26). Like us on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christianity.
Progressive Christianity might be said to be the opposite of Conservative Christianity. And in the same way that what is traditional for a particular group affects what it means to be conservative and thus to "conserve" key aspects of past beliefs, practices, and emphases, so too being "progressive" means being willing to change, to "progress" beyond those traditions, but what that might look like in practice can include a wide array of possibilities.
Thus there is no single thing as "Progressive Christianity" any more than there is any one "Conservative Christianity." And so what I will offer here is simply the viewpoint of this particular progressive Christian.
For Protestants in particular, the Bible and "being biblical" is what Christianity is all about, or at least a central component. The Protestant Reformation emphasized the principle of sola scriptura, the idea that Scripture and Scripture alone takes priority over any other authority.
What Martin Luther knew full well, but many Protestants today sometimes forget, is that the whole notion of "Scripture" is something that cannot simply be taken for granted without discussion. Those who talk about "the Bible" only too rarely ask whether their Bible is identical in its contents to all Bibles everywhere. The answer would be no. Likewise it is far too infrequently that readers of the Bible ask where the table of contents came from. It isn't, after all, included in any of the books that are part of the Bible. And so the irony is that the contents of Scripture are technically not part of Scripture. If a list of contents is to be defined, it requires the involvement of some sort of authority or decision-making body outside of the Bible.
And so a progressive Christian might emphasize that, if the Bible has in one sense made the churches, before that the churches made the Bible. This is true both in the sense we have already mentioned, namely that the church decided what the Bible would include, but also in the sense that a variety of Christian authors wrote things which, at the time that they wrote them, were not Scripture.
Remembering this last point is another key component in my own progressive Christian viewpoint. When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, it didn't have the authority that comes with inclusion in a group's canon of Scripture. It had to either persuade its recipients, or not, on its own merits. In the New Testament we get hints of the disagreements that existed between the earliest Christians. The idea that Christianity has all along been a monolithic, unified group is simply wrong. And that leads to yet another important point: progressive Christianity is not new.
Dr. James F. McGrath is Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis. His research and teaching interests include Biblical studies, the historical figure of Jesus, and religion and science fiction. He blogs at Exploring Our Matrix.