16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible
by Reverend Roger Wolsey
All Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible literally,
progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern.
That observation has resonated with many people – including many fundamentalists who are honest with themselves and who rightly contend that they don’t read “all of the Bible literally.” Some of these more self-reflective fundamentalists have asked me, “So, how do you progressives “discern” and interpret the Bible? Seems like you just read into it what you want it to say; twist it; and don’t take it seriously.” I generally respond by reminding them that – that which we criticize most in others, is often that which we struggle with most ourselves.
While no doubt true, and I fully stand by holding that mirror up to them, they deserve an actual response.
I can’t speak for all progressive Christians, but here’s how many progressive Christians approach, discern, and interpret the Bible:
1. We embrace the many variations of the view expressed by many great Christian thinkers that “We take the Bible too seriously, to read it all literally.”
2. We don’t think that God wrote the Bible. We think it was written by fallible human beings who were inspired by (not dictated to by) the Holy Spirit. Hence, we don’t consider it to be infallible or inerrant.
3. While we’re aware of the many inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible; and while we’re abhorred by, and reject, the various instances of horrible theology that appear here and there within the texts (e.g., passages that posit God as wrathful, vindictive, and condoning of slavery, and even “ordering” rape and genocide, etc.), they don’t cause us to reject the Bible, rather, they endear us to the Bible. Not because we agree with those passages, but because we recognize that they are fully human - they’re authentic, they’re down to earth, and they flat out convey the desperate and very real frustration, lament, and anger that are part of the human condition. The fact that such passages were allowed to be written into our holy scriptures are evidence of a mature people who realize that it’s best not to hide our dirty laundry or to deny our very real human feelings and passions.
If the Bible were all about PR propaganda, they would have edited out those
passages. We view those passages as exceptions to the over-arching message
of the Bible of promoting unconditional love and the full inclusion and
acceptance of all of God’s children. Indeed, while we wish those passages
weren’t there, they actually help us to grant authority to the Bible in that
we can see that was written by fellow humans who are struggling with real
life and death matters of injustice, oppression. And since they make space
for our need to vent and rage – we honor the Bible all the more for it
honors our shadow sides – and that honoring is what allows for the
possibility of our shadows being transformed and integrated in healthy ways.
4. We read the Bible prayerfully. We agree with our conservative brothers and sisters that the Holy Spirit helps us to interpret what we need to read as we read.
5. We seek to apply full attention to Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience (and that includes the insights of contemporary science).
6. We realize that there is no “objective, one, right way” to interpret a passage – and we recognize that there is no reading of any text – including the Bible – that doesn’t involve interpretation. We also realize that each person interprets the text via their own personal experiences, education, upbringing, socio-political context, and more.
7. We do our best to read the biblical texts in their original languages (Hebrew and koine Greek) – and consult scholars of others to assist us. We also tend to look at several English translations – and by no means limiting ourselves to the King James version – which, while the best English version in conveying the beautiful poetry of the original languages, is based upon inferior manuscripts.
8. We consider the best available Biblical scholarship from those who study it academically and professionally (and they’re generally fellow Christians and/or Jews).
9. We seek to read passages in context – within their chapter, within their book, within their genre, and within the over-arching thrust of the Bible.
10. We seek to read the passages with consideration of the historical socio-political contexts, frequently of oppression, which they were written in.
11. We employ a hermeneutic of compassion, love, and justice. (Which Jesus utilized). A hermeneutic is “an interpretive lens” and intentional filter. The hermeneutic of love seeks to see the forest for the trees and that allows the spirit of the law to trump the letter of the law (which Jesus modeled).
12. We also tend to employ a “canon within the canon” lens whereby we give greater weight and priority to certain texts over others. A canon is an officially established collection of books that are revered by a given community – for Protestants, that refers to the 66 books of the Bible. In my case, I give greatest weight to Mark, Luke, Matthew, John (in that order), certain letters that Paul actually wrote (as opposed to the Pastoral Epistles which he didn’t), the Prophets, and the Psalms. I interpret the other books of the Bible according to how they jibe and are in sync with these primary texts. Many progressive Christians refer to themselves as “Matthew 25 Christians” (referring to the test for who Jesus says is in or isn’t in the Kingdom by what they do or don’t do), “Sermon on the Mount Christians” (stressing their seeking to prioritize those teachings as central); or as “Red Letter Christians” (indicating that they give greatest weight to the words attributed to Jesus).
13. We also seek to allow “scripture to interpret scripture.” Here’s an example regarding how to interpret “the sin of Sodom”:
The Bible interprets itself regarding the story of Sodom in Ezekiel 16:49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. And Jesus himself supports the view that the sin of Sodom was their lack of hospitality and hesed (loving-kindness) in Matthew 10:9 “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
14. We follow Jesus’ example in being willing to reject certain passages & theologies in the Bible and to affirm other ones. (He did it a lot)
15. We do as much of the above as we can with fellow Christians in community with others. We avoid doing it solely as a solo endeavor. (We also tend to be open to doing this in community with Jews and Muslims, as fellow “people of the Book” whose insights are often invaluable)
We pray about it some more.
16. We repeat these steps frequently as new information and scholarship comes in. Knowing that we will always find something that we hadn’t noticed before each time that we do this.
So, to our fundamentalist friends, does this seem like we “don’t take the Bible seriously?”
P.S. Employing this approach leaves me with no question in my mind that homosexuality between consenting adults in a committed, monogamous relationship is not sinful.
Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who directs the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is author of Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who don’t like Christianity.