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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  • jwb1410

    Very well said, James. I would also add that the Progressive Christians I have come to know tend to not spend a lot of time debating scripture, or even quoting it. Not because we don’t value it, but because it is more important for us to follow Jesus than to debate what was written about him. We want to be the Heart of Christ, reaching out to a hurting world and offer the unconditional love and positive regard that echoes through the stories of the early Church; the Church that existed before the Theological arguments took over.

  • Andrew Dowling

    The Bible has tremendous insights . . .many I would say are “divinely inspired” but as a divine “rulebook”/edict for life it also fails tremendously; since the Bible reflects different values from different authors in different time periods. It can and has been used to bolster the righteous struggle for peace and justice and also to justify horrible bloodshed and suffering. History does not lie. Respecting God is treating the text as an errant document.

    • Tim

      Thanks for that, Andrew. A friend of mine once pointed out that as soon as we make a rule out of something scripture says, we can be sure we’ve missed the point of what it was saying.

  • Tim

    Great post, James.

  • Ryan Shaffer

    I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing or un-Progressive to accept the Bible as timeless truth. For me, being progressive is about new interpretations.

  • Brian P.

    This is one of the better pieces you’ve ever written IMO.

  • Crash Connell

    Any mistakes in the Bible are our mistakes. ~ Ray Comfort

  • PenZidean MotZart

    ” 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. ”
    Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Matthew 17:13-14

    “Progressive Christianity is itself a tradition, and one with deep roots. It is a more POSTMODERN MANIFESTATION ….”
    Ex. of POSTMODERNISM:
    Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. Genesis 3:1-5

    “We recognize that the Bible bears witness not to divinely-revealed timeless truths…”

    Ex. of a divinely-revealed timeless truth:
    ‘A new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed. ” Carl Sagan Astrophysicist

    Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. Matthew 12:25

    TRUTH is people want a distorted gospel to fit the mold of the world but in all actuality people should seek righteousness, salvation, and try and mold themselves to the gospel and not the world. Otherwise you are just the blind leading the blind into perdition. This world is gonna perish and be destroyed why lead people astray?

    For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.Galatians 1:10

    A Warning :But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. Galations 1:8

    With all sincerity,
    God Bless

    • OK, so I get that you don’t understand what postmodernism means. But do you really think it makes sense to cite Paul, who is famous for making the case to broaden the boundary of God’s people to include Gentiles, in a comment that argues against any and all forms of broadening?

      • PenZidean MotZart

        1: Postmodernism is a form of relativism. It also allows for words to be abstracted to take on different meanings or definitions. A view of broad skepticism. Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? Ye shall not surely die.

        EX: “Do you really think it makes sense to cite Paul, who is famous for making the case to broaden the boundary of God’s people to include Gentiles, in a comment that argues against any and all forms of broadening?” is postmodern.

        2. Paul didn’t broaden the way of the Gospel and its teachings and message. Paul and other disciples didn’t post-modernize it making it watered down and lukewarm.

        • As I said, you don’t know what postmodernism is.

          Who said that broadening the boundaries of the people of God was a watering down of the message? Perhaps Paul’s opponents did – are you aware that you sound a lot like they must have in your objections?

          • PenZidean MotZart

            Jesus said that broad road leads to destruction. Do not confuse the sound of my ink for the sound of your think….

            “Post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” ~ Encyclopedia Britannica

            “That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” ~ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

            Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. Colossians 2:8

            When the time comes for judgment. God knows you can’t say I never warned you. Until then I digress….

          • So you think that an understanding of a major current in human thought involves reading a summary of it in an encyclopedia? That explains a lot. You seem not even to be aware of why it is called post-MODERNISM and how it relates to the phenomenon of modernity.

            I am trying to warn you that, although you are selectively quoting bits of the Bible, as Satan also is capable of doing, you seem not to care what it says in detail about matters like humility and the need not to turn the work of human hands (which is what the Bible is) into an idol.

          • PenZidean MotZart

            “So you think that an understanding of a major current in human thought involves reading a summary of it in an encyclopedia? That explains a lot. You seem not even to be aware of why it is called post-MODERNISM and how it relates to the phenomenon of modernity.”

            I know clearly how it is called post-modernism and how it relates to the phenomenon of modernity all to well. Gods word is, was. and will be. Its not meant to fit into the modern concepts of a mainstream PoP CULTuer to be stretched to fit this world changing in mindsets pleasurable to how you want to interpret them.

            There are souls on the line here and if you choose to mislead them that’s on your hands.

            When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. Ezekiel 3:18

          • You seem to think that simply quoting what ancient humans wrote in English translation settles things. It doesn’t. If you are ready to have a conversation, we can try it, but thus far you seem to merely have strong opinions but little relevant knowledge on the basis of which to discuss things. Inserting lots of quotes that you have copied and pasted does not make that any less obvious.

        • James Walker

          using the example of the serpent in the Garden of Eden story as a “warning” against asking the question “What does the Bible actually say on this topic?” is a dodge I’ve seen over and over from people who just don’t want to challenge the “traditional” interpretations they were taught because they can’t accept the possibility those who instructed them may have gotten something wrong.

          • PenZidean MotZart

            There is nothing wrong with questioning what people have taught you. There is something wrong with twisting the words of the bible to fit what you want to see and hear,about “hell, gender, sexuality, marriage, community, atonement, social justice, and leadership” just because you don’t like it.

            For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 2 Timothy 4:3

            For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. Galatians 5:17

            Here is another divinely-revealed timeless truth..

            There will be no peace in this world. Because Jesus was sent to divide this world because it is ruled by the devil and a kingdom divided cannot stand.

            Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: Luke 12:51

          • I don’t see anyone here twisting the words of the Bible to say what they want to hear. I disagree with the Bible in places, just as the Biblical authors disagree with one another in places. And so picking and choosing some verses which you think ends debate is just more of the dishonest conservative advertising that is so prevalent today. It might be a good idea for you to read some more of the Bible, in order to grasp that you are turning the words of these ancient human beings into an idol, and that you are ignoring some of its core teachings, such as judging others without realizing the condemnation that you thereby heap upon yourself.

          • James Walker

            well, I see someone twisting the words of the Bible to say what they want, but it isn’t you and isn’t me.

          • PenZidean MotZart

            It doesn’t matter if you disagree with Gods word. Its not left up to you for your private interpretation.

            Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 2 Peter 1:20

            “I don’t see anyone here twisting the words of the Bible to say what they want to hear”

            What do you call this?

            “Do you really think it makes sense to cite Paul, who is famous for making the case to broaden the boundary of God’s people to include Gentiles, in a comment that argues against any and all forms of broadening?”

            You twist the context of the word broadening from scripture in the form of question to generate skepticism?

            Do progressives have such lil faith in the God they profess to follow that they can’t believe that his word in left intact and full? Do progressives have such lil faith in the God who created the whole universe and their life that they can’t believe his word is not corrupted?

            For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Matthew 24:35

            Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. Matthew 24:35

            SIN is SIN. And to manipulate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to your liking is not going to save souls.

            “Judging others without realizing the condemnation that you thereby heap upon yourself.”

            I realize it loud and clear and I have had to pull planks out of my eyes brother to pull take the specks out of others, and that’s why I preach the Gospel and speak the truth out of love not hate so people can reach salvation. Because I care about your soul and not what sounds nice to the world.

          • How is quoting a late pseudepigraphal writing by a human being supposed to settle things? You are treating it as though it were something that God wrote. Perhaps you need to take a closer look at the texts you are trying to make into an idol?

          • PenZidean MotZart

            What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 1 Corinthians 5:12

            Open rebuke is better than secret love. Proverbs 27:5

            Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. 1 Timothy 5:20

            Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. 2 Timothy 4:2

            Jesus: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

            John 10:27-28….
            I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.John 17:9

            If you are a true follower and brother in Jesus Christ carrying the Holy Spirit within you. You know what is TRUTH and what is ERROR and deceit, with discernment.

            With all humbleness and meekness I speak with you in boldness. Do not mistake the sound of this ink for the sound of your think.

            With all sincerity,
            May you find the TRUTH of the Lord with all your heart and soul and not lead others down a path of destruction.

            God Bless.

          • xnlover

            You appear to question everything except your own certainty. Perhaps you are the one who has eaten of the forbidden fruit, and you now think that you have the infallible capacity to be able accurately to identify good and evil. How sad, that you think the limited human mind could comprehend the fullness of the Truth of God!

            “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
            For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
            so are my ways higher than your ways
            and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55.8-9)

  • ChuckQueen101

    Great point (and development of it) on how ancient people were more accepting of diversity and contradiction than modern folks are. While we would normally expect diversity and some contradiction between the different kinds of early Christianty (Pauline and Johannine for example) I find it fascinating how biblical writers allow for diversity and contradiction in their own tradition. I suspect that these different emphases and perspectives were present in their faith communities and the writers gave some voice to that diversity. Instead of trying to harmonize the differences or omit the contradictions, they let them stand in the tradition. Amazing really.

    I get your point about progressive Christianity not really being a new thing, but given the dominance of what we have come to call “traditional” Christianity, don’t you think that for clarification sake we need some label to describe this current challenge to the traditional model, which has become something of a movement I think.

    Excellent article.

  • BrotherRog

    This is a wonderful piece that is o. so. needed.
    Our conservative friends do not have a monopoly on the Bible nor on taking it seriously. Here’s my attempt at sharing “16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible”: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2014/01/16-ways-progressive-christians-interpret-the-bible/

    Roger Wolsey, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianitiy

  • David

    It sounds like progressive Christians have gone full circle and approich the Bible like Catholics which means they DO represent the historical tradition. It’s an extremely misleading title for this idealogy.