Friday, January 31, 2014

The Bible--Well... It's Complicated

There are many people who don’t identify as progressive and who don’t read the Bible like “fundamentalists.” (Actually, fundamentalism as a movement has to do with a lot more than a way of reading the Bible, but that’s neither here nor there. If you want to learn more about this matter, though, check out this article.)

Ok. I’m glad that’s out of the way now.

So… there are, within the blogosphere, a couple of recent of posts on how to read the Bible, one from a progressive perspective, and one from a more evangelical or conservative perspective. Gentle reader, I implore you: do not be drawn into the polarity expressed in these two articles. (But thanks, John Meunier, for pointing these out).

Let’s take the first post, “16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible,” by Roger Wolsey. Many of these sixteen characteristics would also describe the way many more conservative Christians read the Bible. In my own tradition of United Methodism, there are many people who would self-identify as evangelical who do not affirm total biblical infallibility, read the Bible using the tools of critical scholarship, give ample consideration to historical and literary contexts, read prayerfully, make use of their knowledge of biblical languages, and read in community.

The points in Rev. Wolsey’s essay that are the most significant are numbers 11, 12, and 13. These refer to ways in which the theological and ethical convictions of readers inform their judgment about how best to interpret a particular passage of Scripture. Whether we admit it or not, we bring certain value systems to the text, value systems that in many cases are formed by our faith communities. These values, rather than a particular scriptural hermeneutic, tend to determine which of the “camps” we most identify with. The relationship between the Bible and our communities of interpretation is dialectical. Our values are formed by the Bible, while they also come to bear on the ways in which we understand the Bible.

As for the second post, "Stop Taking the Bible 'Seriously,'" Rev. Chad Holtz argues that the issue is that Christians must approach the Bible with a posture of submission, and the position represented in Rev. Wolsey’s post is not properly submissive. Were I Rev. Wolsey, my response would be, “I submit to the Bible, but I have a different idea than you do about the Bible’s ethical imperatives.” Rev. Holtz says that we should not pick and choose which passages of the Bible to honor. Nevertheless, all Christians do this. We do it all the time. Simply saying we don’t doesn’t make it true. Conservatives do it. Progressives do it. Evangelicals do it. Orthodox do it. Roman Catholics do it. Fundamentalists do it.  It is unavoidable. The only real question is on what basis we “pick and choose.”

As should be clear by now, I found the analysis in neither post persuasive. Our doctrine of scripture involves a particular religious epistemology. In other words, it involves a certain account of how we can acquire religious knowledge. Our faith claims as Christians are not necessarily dependent upon our religious epistemology. In other words, we could have two Christians with very similar beliefs about God, Christology, resurrection, and the Christian life, who have different understandings of the nature and function of scripture.

As United Methodists, we really need to get more clarity on the nature and function of scripture. I think even Wesley himself had some considerable confusion about this matter. The way he talked about the Bible and the way in which he used the Bible were not always consistent. (I wrote an article in which I discuss this. If you’re interested, see “Scripture as Canon” in Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture, eds. Joel B. Green and David F. Watson, Baylor, 2012). Getting clearer on scripture, of course, won’t solve all of our problems, but it will help us to avoid some arguments that we really don’t need to have.


  1. Lately I've been reading Luther, and it's surprising how open he is about his canon within the canon. John, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter and 1 John are all you need, he says. Plus Psalms. And when you read only those books you do get a classic Protestant Christianity. Classic Wesleyan too. Thanks for this post. It was very helpful.

  2. Glad it was helpful! Yes, at least Luther is clear and open about what he's doing. Wesley was not as clear about this, but I think in a lot of ways he followed suit. 1 John was very important for Wesley.

  3. Thanks. I didn't find either of those articles especially persuasive, either.