Progressive Christians and the Bible

Progressive Christians and the Bible June 18, 2014

I’m delighted to be a participant in a multi-blog conversation on Patheos, about progressive Christians and Scripture. Let me start by giving readers the prompt for what I and others have written:

Progressive Christianity is moving into the 21st century with a freedom to challenge and question tradition and scripture in ways that simultaneously respect the past and look for fresh ways to live into the future. Traditional Christian interpretations of scriptures on a wide variety of issues — hell, gender, sexuality, marriage, community, atonement, social justice, and leadership — are giving way to more nuanced understandings of authorial intent, deeper explorations of the linguistic and cultural realities of the biblical world, and broader definitions of Christian identity. What is the role of Scripture for progressives? How do we define its authority? To what extent is it prescriptive for 21st-century Christians?

Progressive Christians hold a range of views, and so I won’t presume to speak for other Christians. And so what I give here is my own viewpoint, which I know many but not all progressive Christians share (you can read the views of other bloggers on the hub page for this discussion).

I’d like to begin by challenging the notion that progressive Christians’ approach to and understanding of the Bible deserves to be contrasted with “traditional” interpretations. Progressive Christianity is itself a tradition, and one with deep roots. It is a more postmodern manifestation of something that could be found in earlier liberal Protestantism, which drew on Martin Luther’s challenges to church authority, which stemmed at least in part from his discovery that what were proffered as “traditional” interpretations in his own time were in fact subsequent developments. We find elements of continuity between modern progressive Christianity and the ancient Christian thinkers who interacted and drew upon other philosophies, and acknowledged that Scripture is full of things which cannot be understood literally.

I emphasize this because conservative Christians have long been engaged in a remarkably successful PR exercise to give the impression that they are the ones who are faithful to the Bible and historic Christianity. But in fact, what they conserve is an older but non-original form of Christianity as it came to be expressed in a particular historical and cultural context, which they have mistaken for (or deliberately misrepresent as) unchanging truth.

This is important, because as atheist P. Z. Myers said to Ken Ham (a representative of the sort of view I just mentioned) in a recent blog post:

Please, please, please keep it up — these Bible literalists do so much to help the cause of atheism. When you insist that a short page of fuzzy poetry must supplant all of biology and mustbe regarded as absolutely, literally true in every word, rational people are given cause to doubt…and once they begin to doubt the first page of your sacred holy book, they begin to question page 2, and page 3, and page whatever, and quite soon the dedicated priests of your cult are wondering why there is a sudden, catastrophic loss of believers.

I myself also recently pointed out this self-fulfilling prophecy of so-called Biblical literalists. Fundamentalists offer the false antithesis that you must either accept everything the Bible says (“even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff,” as Ned Flanders once put it), or throw it away. It is no surprise that some people do as they have been instructed, when they discover that it is in fact impossible to accept everything the Bible says, since the Bible does not say only one thing. But ancient readers were often much more capable of appreciating diversity and contradictions, myth and poetry, than modern fundamentalists are.

Progressive Christianity’s approach to the Bible is one that doesn’t offer this sort of false advertising. We recognize that the Bible bears witness not to divinely-revealed timeless truths but to an ongoing human conversation, and it invites us to join in that conversation. When we disagree with something that Biblical authors say, that is itself “Biblical” because Biblical authors did that too, and despite what fundamentalists may tell you, when someone like Paul or Luke wrote, their writings were not yet Scripture. And so the fundamentalist approach ignores what these authors’ words indicated when they were written: a willingness to rethink things, to challenge, to change, and in so doing seeking to preserve core principles and give faithful expression to core convictions.

And so if there is one key point that I think it is important to make about how progressive Christians approach the Bible, it is this. Progressive Christians reject the false antithesis that fundamentalists offer between being faithful to our Christian heritage and being willing to change our minds, and believe and do things differently than other Christians did in the past. Doing things differently is precisely how Christians in the past were faithful – by relativizing the importance of ritual in relation to concern for others, by pushing the boundaries of categories like “neighbor” and “children of Abraham” to welcome those previously excluded.

There have always been voices that sought to pull in boundaries, to exclude, to pride themselves on accepting beliefs or accomplishing ritual as the things that matter most, rather than caring for others. And there have always been those who claimed to be believing and doing everything the Bible said – even though it has never been true. And so progressive Christianity’s stance on the Bible is not the historic Christian stance. But it is a historic Christian stance, and one that is faithful to the approach Jesus himself took to Scripture, such as when he elevated making people well over rules that forbid touching them.


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