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.

If I may use the example of Paul's letter to the Galatians again, when he wrote it, it certainly reflected a progressive stance on at least one issue: inclusion of those previously excluded. In Genesis 17, the covenant with Abraham is said to be symbolized by circumcision, and it is emphasized that even those who are not Abraham's descendants must be circumcised in order to be part of Abraham's household, or otherwise they will be cut off as covenant-breakers.

The conservatives of Paul's time felt that the teaching of Scripture was plain. And it was. Paul, however, engaged in a combination of argument from experience, and creative, subversive biblical interpretation, to argue against the plain sense of Scripture and for the inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles in God's people.

On the one hand, Paul emphasized to the Galatians that they had received the Spirit and experienced the benefits of being a Christian while still uncircumcised (Gal. 3:2-3). On the other hand, Paul found a way of making the case, through creative reinterpretation of Abraham's own story, that it is those who share Abraham's faith—his attitude toward God—that are Abraham's true descendants.

Today, similar arguments can be and are used to argue for the inclusion of gays and lesbians, or others previously excluded. And so progressive Christians stand in the same tradition as the apostle Paul. We just focus more on Paul's approach than on merely repeating Paul's own words or stance on specific issues in his time.

6/15/2011 4:00:00 AM
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